Fuel cell smackdown: Round 2 – Honda FCX Clarity

No automaker has pursued the development of fuel cell vehicles more aggressively than Honda (HMC) – or with greater imagination (See “Round 1 – Chevrolet Equinox“). Not content with merely demonstrating a hydrogen-powered car, it has also taken on the challenge of refueling the car as well.  It has developed a commercial hydrogen station powered by solar energy, as well as a home energy station that generates hydrogen from natural gas. That’s called covering all your bases.

When Honda offered me an opportunity to drive its latest fuel cell model, I grabbed it.

The eggplant-colored FCX Clarity stopped traffic when it pulled up to my West 86th St. apartment house one Friday evening. No wonder. Advances in fuel cell packaging allowed Honda to lower the floor of the vehicle, extend the cabin length, and shorten the front overhang. The Clarity has the profile of a Lamborghini but with the interior comfort of an Accord.

Getting settled behind the wheel takes a little doing. The instrument panel is a dazzling array of lights and gauges that graphically display the car’s range in miles, as well as the state of charge in the lithium-ion battery that provides accessory power. As in a German luxury car, the lever for the shift-by-wire transmission is housed on the dashboard. Since the car is driven by an electric motor, there is essentially only one forward speed: D.

Turn the key, push the start button, and you are underway in the nicest Honda you’ve ever driven. Honda has solved many of the packaging issues that arise when fuel cell machinery is stuffed into a passenger car body. It has shrunk the fuel cell stack so that it can reside in the center tunnel where the driveshaft for a conventional automobile might be. Meanwhile, the single hydrogen storage tank is placed above the rear axle, though it steals a bit of trunk space.

Some lucky individuals will be able to lease a Clarity from Honda for $600 a month. As long as they don’t drive farther than 270 miles between hydrogen fill-ups, they should enjoy the experience. Judged by sophistication and execution, the Clarity is a far more refined product than the Chevy Equinox I also drove recently, though the Equinox scored points for comfort and quietness.

Some of the difference between the two vehicles may be explained by the different emphasis placed on fuel cells by their respective manufacturers. Fuel cells and their electricity-generating technologies are a core technology at Honda, while at GM (GM), they seem to have been eclipsed by the range-extended electric vehicle device in the Chevy Volt. In any event, reaching mass production for either of these vehicles – and creating the nationwide hydrogen refueling infrastructure required – will be an enormous task in a credit-starved world. Environmental nirvana remains a long way off.

See a video of the Honda FCX Clarity.

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