The Hydrogen Powered Honda FCX Clarity at a Glance

  It’s not every day that you get to kick the wheels on the car of tomorrow. After all, the question of what will power future automobiles is a guessing game, with candidates ranging from electricity and compressed natural gas to hydrogen fuel cells.

Honda made an expensive bet in that guessing game by designing the hydrogen-powered FCX Clarity. It’s costly (perhaps $500,000 each to produce), yet the sedan emits only water.

Both Honda and Chevy are testing fuel-cell vehicles by making them available for lease by select customers. Hydrogen’s big upside is its cleanliness and ability to be produced from many sources, even water and human waste.

Fuel-cell stacks are akin to mini power stations in which the chemical energy of hydrogen and oxygen is converted into electricity, which then powers an electric motor. Since hydrogen is a gas, it’s stored under pressure in reinforced tanks.

There are big hurdles to clear because the technology is expensive and an entire hydrogen refueling infrastructure will need to be created. (Honda’s previous FCX, first delivered in 2002, cost about $1 million each to produce. Executives are coy but say the Clarity costs about half that.)

I pick up the Clarity in Manhattan with the intent of driving it dry, as I’m curious about the refueling process itself. Is it complicated?

I turn the key, push the start button and the center gauges soon turn blue, indicating it’s ready to drive. Like a hybrid or electric car, there’s no start-up noise.

I motor into traffic, trying not to ignore the fact that while the Clarity is as exotic and expensive as an Italian supercar, nobody else — including errant yellow taxis — knows this. Best to avoid fender benders.

Refueling Station

I’m on my way to Allentown, Pennsylvania, about 90 miles away. There I will find Air Products & Chemicals Inc. and its hydrogen refilling station. The Clarity has a range of 190 miles of highway driving, 280 of combined city/freeway. (Like hybrids, fuel-cell vehicles get better mileage in town, at slow speeds with less wind resistance.) A full tank is just enough for one back-and-forth trip.

In the Clarity’s case, hydrogen is delivered as pressurized gas, and one kilogram is roughly equivalent to one gallon of gas. Over 200 miles in the day, I average 55 miles per “gallon.” Yet the tank only holds about four kilograms of hydrogen, and if you run out, a flatbed truck is in your immediate future.

Only in California

The Clarity has its own production line, which over the next three years will put out some 200 cars. Only Southern California customers are currently getting them since the state has the most hydrogen stations. Customers are pre-vetted, and leases cost $600 a month for three years, including maintenance and insurance. (So far, only a few have been delivered.) Honda is obviously not making money on the project, but it does suggest a certain seriousness.

New York won’t see the Clarity soon. General Motors Corp., though, is offering its fuel-cell Chevy Equinox SUV at no cost to some 100 drivers in New York, Southern California and Washington, D.C. New York drivers can use a Shell station in White Plains.

The Clarity was expressly designed as a fuel-cell vehicle, and the result is an elegant and handsome four-door sedan. With no big engine in the front, the hood and overhang are quite short and offset by a raked windshield. The Clarity is basically one long swoop, with a high back trunk to minimize air drag. Futuristic, though not aggressively so.

Easy Handling

I’m surprised to find that it drives just about like any other Honda. It’s easy to negotiate in traffic, handles nicely and doesn’t feel especially sluggish. Nor did I have any problem keeping up with fast traffic on the highway.

It looks like a real car, too. The test version has a metallic burgundy paint job, attractive wheel rims and an interior that would make an Acura proud, with GPS navigation, cooled and heated seats and tons of room.

Electronic gauges monitor gas mileage, hydrogen levels and range, and how much power is recaptured while braking (a technology shared with hybrids). A small circle at the center expands and contracts depending on how much power is being used — an intuitive way of gauging how efficiently you’re driving.

My range is dwindling as I near Allentown, and I’m glad to find Air Products, which has some 85 hydrogen stations in 15 countries. They’re expecting me, and representatives explain the simple refueling process.

I insert a narrow hose onto a nozzle inside the car’s gas latch and then turn a locking lever. It’s a “closed system,” so the hydrogen neither leaks nor releases fumes. The pump performs a check of the pressure inside the car’s hydrogen chamber, then begins fueling.

Minutes later, I’m back on the road to New York.

No doubt hydrogen technology has a long way to go to become practical, yet if the Clarity is any indication, the actual process of driving and refueling could be a painless one.

The Honda FCX Clarity at a Glance

Engine: Fuel-cell stack and electric drive motor, with 134 horsepower and 189 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: One-speed direct drive.

Speed: 0 to 60 miles per hour in about 10 seconds.

Gas mileage per kilogram: 77 city; 67 highway.

Best features: Emits only water but drives like a gas-fueled car.

Worst feature: The fear of running out of hydrogen and being stranded.

Target buyer: The true environmental front runner (who also lives in Southern California).

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