A fuel-cell car is an electric car. Hydrogen gas from the car’s fuel tank and oxygen in the air pass through membranes in the fuel cell, resulting in an electrochemical reaction that generates electricity to run the motor and produces water vapor as exhaust. A backup battery pack helps when more power is needed than the fuel cell is producing.
Test Drive has paid plenty of attention to Clarity. A final engineering-analysis vehicle was reviewed Nov. 23, 2007. Honda said at the time it was a production model but later acknowledged, Not quite.
A well-before-production concept was evaluated May 18, 2007.
Honda swears that this test Clarity is identical to those it began handing over to customers July 25, except for improved compressor parts that Honda promises will cut the whine. About 200 go to consumers in the next three years. Most will be leased for $600 a month to Southern Californians who have other cars and live near one of three 24-hour public hydrogen stations.
Clarity’s worth the scrutiny because it’s the only vehicle designed from scratch to be a hydrogen fuel-cell car for personal use. It’s not a modified anything. It is a peek at a low-pollution, no-petroleum transportation future.
Each Clarity costs Honda some $200,000 — Honda won’t specify — to manufacture.
The Clarity is a mix of fancy and not. You get heated and cooled seats, a voice-control navigation system, satellite radio, one-touch operation on all four windows, high-intensity headlights, and a system that warns if a collision is likely and hits the brakes if you don’t. But no leather, sunroof, power seats or automatic on-off headlights.
Some of the no-shows would add weight or use more electricity, so they were dropped for efficiency. The car also was limited to four seats to avoid the heavier suspension and other hardware five people and their luggage could require. Honda favors its recyclable bio-fabric upholstery as the greenest cloth.
Clarity is easy and fun to drive, but not perfect, even forgiving the electric-drive noises. Irritations:
Doors often had to be closed twice to latch.
Steering felt unnatural and won’t win the feel of the road crowd.
The gearshift — a tab poking from the dashboard — was clumsy to use. Pull toward you and down for drive, up for reverse. Not intuitive or smooth.
High-intensity headlights didn’t throw low-beam light far enough to illuminate stray pedestrians.
The fuel cell took as long as five seconds to crank up, though usually was ready immediately.
On the other hand, Clarity:
• Looks terrific. The styling attracted crowds; the exotic power was a bonus feature.
• Is clever. Example: Instead of hard-to-decipher energy-use gauges found in gasoline-electric hybrids, Clarity has a dashboard dot. It changes size and color to guide your driving habits.
• Runs great. As with all electric motors, it delivers full torque immediately, allowing slingshot takeoffs from stoplights and stress-free merging.
• Handles well. Agile; little body lean.
• Cossets. Almost limousine-like. Deluxe width for each rider. Legroom front and rear for tall adults.
• Sips and saves. The test car’s 61 miles per kilogram of hydrogen in suburban use equated to 62 miles per gallon of gasoline. Washington, D.C.’s only public hydrogen pump, a Shell station, charged $8.18 per kg.
So, $8.18 for 61 miles in Clarity, vs. about $9.35 in a 24-mpg, four-cylinder Accord.
Honda’s developing a home-fill unit. It would hook to a residential natural gas line and produce hydrogen for your fuel-cell car, heat for your home’s water and electricity for your house. Honda won’t predict timing or price.
Hydrogen fuel has reassuring safety features. Station pumps won’t start without an airtight link to the car’s filler. If hydrogen does leak, it dissipates rapidly. Spilled gasoline pools dangerously.
Clarity doesn’t pollute, but making hydrogen can: 95% is made from natural gas, which has a carbon footprint, though smaller than oil’s. Hydrogen also can be extracted from water, but that process requires lots of electricity.
Plenty of work remains, but Clarity’s satisfying to drive and previews a delightful hydrogen future.
Honda FCX Clarity
• What? Limited-production, midsize, front-wheel-drive, four-door, four-passenger sedan powered by electricity from a hydrogen fuel cell backed up by lithium-ion battery pack.
• When? First was delivered July 25 in Southern California, where public hydrogen filling stations make a hydrogen car feasible.
• Where? Built at Tochigi, Japan.
• Why? To field-test production hydrogen cars in customers’ hands.
• How much? Leased for $600 a month for three years.
• How many? About 200 the next three years, most in the U.S. a few in Japan.
• How potent? Electric motor is rated 134 horsepower, 189 pounds-feet of torque. Lithium-ion battery pack is rated 288 volts.
• What’s missing? Power seats, sunroof, leather, auto on/off headlights. Otherwise loaded.
• How big? Four inches shorter than Honda Accord, about 200 lbs. heavier, otherwise similar. Clarity is 190.3 inches long, 72.7 in. wide, 57.8 in. tall on a 110.2-in. wheelbase. Weighs 3,582 lbs.
Passenger volume is listed as 100.8 cubic feet.
Trunk: 13.1 cubic feet including under-floor storage well. Carries up to 700 pounds of people, cargo.
• How thirsty? Rated 77 miles per kilogram of hydrogen in town, 67 on the highway, 72 in combined driving.
That equates to 79/68/74 mpg of gasoline, according to Honda.
Regular-production test car’s trip computer showed 61 mpkg in suburban driving.
Tank holds 4.1 kg hydrogen compressed at 5,000 lbs. per square inch.
• Overall: System whines annoyingly (much like an auto journalist), but mainly the car’s a peach.
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