Test Drive: Honda FCX Clarity

By Guy Bird for Sunday Express, Oct 2009

The most well-resolved hydrogen power car in the world... and one you can actually buy now

Glimpses of the future rarely look as convincing or well resolved as the Honda FCX Clarity. The car may be powered by a hydrogen fuel cell but it’s no work-in-progress technology awkwardly shoehorned into an existing model or some early rattling prototype driven only by white-coated boffins. Rather, the Clarity is a smartly styled large executive, four-seat, four-door car designed from the outset as a hydrogen fuel cell car – which is basically an electric car, but instead of carrying stored power in a battery, creates its electricity on board by combining hydrogen with oxygen within a mini-power station-like fuel cell stack.

Glimpses of the future rarely look as convincing as the Honda FCX Clarity. The car may be powered by a hydrogen fuel cell but it’s no work-in-progress technology

In size terms, the Clarity sits between the Honda Accord and the range-topping Legend with excellent rear leg and headroom due to a long wheelbase and taller roof. It also has a bespoke production-quality interior including satnav, proper seats and a good-sized 370-litre boot that suffers no encroachment from its hydrogen fuel tank. In fact it has all the luxury and safety fixtures and fittings you’d expect of a normal car. It drives in a similar way too, with a 100mph top speed and a reasonable 270-mile range before needing to refill. Indeed, it’s only different in a few crucial respects: there’s no internal combustion engine and due to its high-tech fuel cell technology, it can record the equivalent of just over 100mpg and produces no harmful emissions from its exhaust pipe – beyond water vapour.

Honda is so convinced the FCX Clarity represents the future of mobility as oil resources dwindle and the world seeks to drastically reduce climate changing CO2 emissions, it’s put its money where its mouth is and has starting making them. Some two-dozen are already in everyday use in the USA and Japan – including one with Hollywood actress Jamie Lee Curtis – and up to 200 in total are planned over the next two years. Two examples have now been exported to Europe in an effort to promote their real-world driving ability to a wider audience.

So what is this slice of the future like to drive? Getting behind the wheel is little different from a conventionally powered car with an automatic gearbox. There is an ‘on-off’ starter button, a simple lever integrated into the edge of the driver’s dial cover to select ‘drive’ or ‘reverse’ driving modes, plus a button marked ‘P’ in between for the parking brake. Firing up the machine is silent but once the accelerator pedal is depressed firmly, the 134bhp available from the electric motor translates into rapid and linear acceleration confirmed by a sound akin to the not unpleasant muffled whistle of a dentist’s drill.

The Clarity will power on to a 100mph top speed with ease – something that was possible to verify on German roads – but once there, its momentum seems to continue long after the driver’s foot leaves the pedal, which is a strange feeling. Stopping that built-up power also feels disconcerting; the brakes are snatchy and abrupt unless great care is taken to depress the pedal more smoothly.

However, the steering, ride and handling are all pretty good for such a large car, if driven sensibly. Which is fair enough given that ‘smooth and sensible’ is the way to maximise the potential of this eco-focused vehicle. To assist the driver to improve fuel economy the 3D single driver’s dial display features an orb at its centre that monitors hydrogen consumption. Work the accelerator hard and the orb enlarges and turns amber, but reduce your hydrogen consumption and the ball will shrink and turn yellow – or even blue if you become really light-footed. 

So what’s stopping Honda making many more than a few hundred of these well-resolved futuristic green vehicles?

So what’s stopping Honda making many more than a few hundred of these well-resolved futuristic green vehicles? Honda says the Clarity’s fuel efficiency rating is about 60 per cent – roughly three times that of a petrol-engined car and twice that of a hybrid. It’s also much quicker to refuel (a few minutes as opposed to eight hours in some cases) and has a better driving range than current all-electric vehicles that require plugging in at the mains (270 miles vs. about 100). But – and the ‘but’ is a big but – while the Clarity is clearly technically feasible it is still not commercially or practically viable. Existing users only pay a massively subsidised £380 a month for their motoring. Buying such a car outright today would cost many hundreds of thousands of pounds rather than the tens of thousands for a similarly upmarket diesel or petrol car, due in part to the expensive raw materials like platinum needed for the fuel cells and also the high development costs.

The other big issue is re-fuelling. There are only two hydrogen filling stations in the UK and only a dozen or so in Germany, currently Europe’s most advanced hydrogen market. Neither equates to any kind of meaningful network, but then with almost no hydrogen fuel vehicles on their roads it’s not surprising – there’s no market for the fuel yet.

But recent developments could lay the groundwork to eventually surmount these issues. Honda says technological advances have already seen the FCX Clarity improve its fuel cell efficiency by 30 per cent compared to the 2005 FCX concept, by getting more power from lighter and smaller fuel cells which need less platinum and so cost less too. Greater production volumes of 100,000 sales per annum minimum and their associated economies of scale is another factor that will help the car reach a competitive market price. And in a recent ‘letter of understanding’ Honda has signed with major rivals Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Hyundai and Renault/Nissan, to state their collective aim to make 200,000 or so fuel cell vehicles commercially viable by 2015 to send out a clear signal to government bodies and potential fuel suppliers and producers that the next five years are a crucial period in which to incentivise and build-up a sustainable hydrogen infrastructure.

The zero-emission electric dream may still be some way off but Honda is adamant fuel cells have a major role to play in longer range driving if the world is to meet its ambitious CO2 reduction targets, as it boldly predicts: “Two thirds of all vehicle sales will need to be hybrid, fuel cell or plug-in electric by 2050”. With the production fuel cell FCX Clarity, Honda can lay claim to an important ‘first’ in the process. Its efforts should be lauded.

 

Logbook lowdown 

 

  • Model: Honda FCX Clarity
  • On sale: Now (USA and Japan only)
  • Price range: £380 per month lease
  • Engine: 134bhp AC synchronous electric motor
  • Power: 0 to 60mph in 9.5 seconds (est.), 100mph top speed
  • Average fuel economy: 100.9mpg
  • CO2 emissions: 0g/km
  • Range: 270 miles
  • Rivals: None
  • Stars: *****

 


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