For a moment, after pressing the little red "Start" button, it seems like nothing has happened. Suddenly, a kaleidoscope of colors erupts from the multi-level instrument panel, followed by the soft whine of a compressor. Honda's new FCX fuel-cell vehicle has come to life.
As regular readers of TheCarConnection.com are well aware, virtually every automaker is tinkering with hydrogen technology, and for good reason. Whether you burn the lightweight gas in an internal combustion engine or feed it into a fuel cell stack, what you get on the "dirty side" is effectively no more than water vapor. In a world worrying about smog and global warming, hydrogen is seen, by many, as the ultimate clean fuel.
In recent months, we've had the opportunity to test a variety of hydrogen-powered prototypes, such as the Chevrolet Equinox fuel-cell vehicle and BMW's Hydrogen-7, which goes the internal combustion route. But Honda's FCX takes the technology to an entirely new level.
First seen at the 2005 Tokyo Motor Show, Honda plans to begin leasing the FCX for $600 a month, and not just to carefully selected corporate fleets, but to everyday consumers. The costly experiment is also a risky one, exposing the Clarity to all the daily challenges faced by your typical motorist, from bad weather to fussy infants.
"The FCX Clarity is a shining symbol of the progress we've made with fuel cell vehicles and of our belief in the promise of this technology," proclaims American Honda president and CEO Tetsuo Iwamura. "Step by step, with continuous effort, commitment and focus, we are working to overcome obstacles to the mass-market potential of zero-emissions hydrogen fuel-cell automobiles."
While the first retail customers will still have to wait a few months, we were given the chance to take the FCX for a spin around Los Angeles, starting out in Santa Monica, then heading up the coast to fire-ravaged Malibu . During our time behind the wheel, we had the chance to put the fuel-cell vehicle through a variety of different situations, from city streets to open highways, charging up steep inclines and around twisty canyon roads. And our overall impression? Well, we'll get to that, in a moment.
A hydrogen-powered jellybean
Honda has actually applied the FCX badge to several vehicles. The outgoing model is a chunky-looking Japanese hatchback. The new edition is decidedly more stylish - and roomy. Honda has learned a valuable lesson from its Japanese rival, Toyota , whose Prius is a distinctive visual standout. You won't miss the Clarity, either, and during our drive, it seemed like everyone wanted a closer look.
The FCX is a futuristic jellybean, first impressions suggesting a cross between the new Honda Accord and the Prius. Toss in a dash of the Honda CR-Z concept vehicle that debuted in Tokyo, last month - at least the show car's split rear glass, which folds over into the tailgate. If we had any complaint, surprisingly, it was rear visibility, despite the sedan's expanse of glass.
Inside, the compact FCX would likely qualify as a full-size four-door; even with the driver's seat set to handle my 6'2" frame, there was plenty of legroom in the back. The sedan's instrument panel vaguely resembles that of the new Accord, with its stairstep layout. There's a huge, high-res LCD for the built-in navigation system, or to display the complex power system at work underneath. The instrument panel centers around a flashing, multi-color cluster that looks a lot like Tokyo at night, and can be nearly as distracting, as you struggle to understand what the various fluorescent readouts signify.
Our test car had a surprising number of little fit-and-finish problems, but we're willing to give Honda a pass, considering this is a prototype of an extremely low-volume, largely hand-built car. Nonetheless, we're hoping for typically Honda-level refinement when the first cars actually reach customers.
The FCX is extremely well-equipped, overall, with niceties such as dual-zone digital climate control, adaptive (radar) cruise control, voice-activated navigation, and a sweet AM/FM/CD/XM audio system with a jack for your iPod or MP3 player.
Oddly, while the doors and windows are power-operated, the seats are manual. Then again, maybe not, as weight clearly matters when you're going for maximum mileage.
In terms of safety, the FCX Clarity is equally well-equipped, with six airbags, anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control, active headrests, and a radar-guided collision mitigation system.
Though it's extremely aerodynamic, the FCX uses a conventional steel body, with a steel chassis and aluminum subframe, rather than the costly, ultralight materials that could have been used. Even so, the numbers are impressive. The FCX delivers an estimated range of 270 miles on a tank full of hydrogen. Since it holds four kilograms of the stuff, that works out to an equated 68 miles per gallon. (The EPA considers a kilogram of hydrogen to equal a gallon of gas.)
A bit of a primer is called for here. A fuel cell "stack" consists of a series of permeable membranes coated with noble metals, including platinum, rhodium and palladium. The hydrogen passes through the membrane, in the process shedding an electron, the basic stuff of the electricity that runs a fuel-cell vehicle's electric motor. When the hydrogen combines with air, it forms water, which you can spot coming out of the FCX tailpipe as either steam or a spray of liquid.
The latest-generation Honda stack, along with the rest of the fuel-cell system, is about 400 pounds lighter than in the earlier FCX, the stack itself now about a fifth the size of early stacks. The overall drive system, company officials note, is roughly the same size as a comparable gasoline-electric drivetrain. It's also able to handle the worst heat a driver might experience in Southern California, as well as a low of -30 degrees Celsius (about -22 F).
Honda notably chose to go with a "low-pressure" fuel tank, storing those 4 kg of hydrogen at 350 bar, or 5000 psi. General Motors, with its new Equinox FCV, is opting for higher 700 bar/10,000 psi pressures, but that raises storage costs significantly, requires tremendous energy to compress the gas, and doesn't quite double the amount of hydrogen you can store in a given space. The industry is likely to keep the storage debate going for a number of years.
Firing up the Clarity is simple: just press the start button. It takes a few seconds for the system to come alive, but once it does, you simply shift into gear, with an IP-mounted contraption that vaguely resembles a BMW 7-Series shifter.
Step on the throttle and you're likely to be surprised by the Clarity's aggressive launch. The system produces 100 kilowatts of power, with a modest additional assist from the onboard batteries, which operate much like those in today's gas-electric hybrids. That works out to a seemingly modest 134 horsepower, but the numbers underrate the actual kick of an electric drive system, where you get maximum torque the moment the motor starts to turn.
From 0 to 30 mph, the FCX delivers some serious acceleration. It slacks off as you approach highway speed, but that doesn't mean it's a slouch. We were able to easily merge onto the congested I-10, in Santa Monica , and quickly soared to near 90 mph. Certainly, around town, the FCX Clarity will keep up with traffic.
Later, as we headed up the busy Pacific Coast Highway toward Malibu , we were impressed with the agility of the sedan, which smoothly zipped from lane-to-lane. As we turned off onto Malibu Canyon Road , the fuel-cell vehicle shot up the steep incline without any hesitation, weaving and bobbing through the fire-ravaged canyon about as nimbly as the new Accord. Credit the Clarity's double-wishbone suspension - and Honda engineers who were able to package the hefty fuel cell components as low as possible. The stack, for example, is actually mounted below the sedan's center console.
One of the most striking features of any fuel-cell vehicle is the distinct lack of traditional powertrain noises. Instead, you suddenly discover all sorts of sounds normally muffled beneath, like controls and pumps - especially the compressor driving air into the fuel-cell stack.
The somewhat high-pitched noise, along with the sound of the drive's electric motor, takes some time getting used to, though in the FCX, it's a significant amount quieter than the screeching of earlier fuel-cell vehicles.
How many customers Honda hopes to attract when it starts leasing the FCX next year, it isn't saying. The company is "waiting to gauge the market's reaction," insists U.S. marketing chief Will Walton. Several factors suggest the initial reaction is likely to be quite positive. GM was besieged by thousands of potential users of the fuel-cell Equinox, which is will loan out for three-month stints starting in early 2008. And the special Honda FCX Web site has crashed several times from all the demand, since the automaker announced the lease program at the L.A. Auto Show last week.
Though final details haven't been released, the basics are simple: customers will pay $600 a month, over the course of three-year leases, a figure including both maintenance and insurance.
All well and good, but what about the hydrogen? Under pressure from the state, the auto industry has been flooding the California market with hydrogen prototypes, and that's encouraging the development of a real service-station infrastructure. It also helps that there's a ready supply of the gas, which is produced for the various refineries that dot the Southern California coast.
Honda officials expect as many as 30 hydrogen pumps to be available next year. The fuel should cost about $5 a kilogram, meanwhile, so on a per-mile basis, the FCX will actually prove more affordable than comparably-sized sedans (except, perhaps, the Prius). Refueling times, of about five minutes are similar to what it takes to fill up an empty gasoline tank.
While the first Clarity sedans will be leased in the L.A. area, Honda officials would like to extend the experiment to other parts of the country. While they declined to discuss firm plans, we would expect to see the lease program expand to Washington, D.C., and even the New York City area, if things go well. That would certainly give a better sense for how the FCX would operate in winter weather.
Would we drive an FCX? Absolutely. In fact, if we can convince Honda to deliver one to Detroit , we hope to offer an even more in-depth review, sometime in the near future. The Clarity may not be the future, but it's certainly pointing in that direction.
2009 Honda FCX Clarity
Base price: Three-year lease, $600/month
Engine: Fuel cell and 288-volt lithium battery, 134 hp/189 lb-ft
Transmission: Direct-drive electric motor, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 190.3 x 72.7 x 57.8 in
Wheelbase: 110.2 in
Curb weight: 3582 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 68 mpg combined EPA cycle (est.)
Major standard features: Power windows/locks/mirrors; AM/FM/CD/XM/MP3 audio system with iPod input and steering wheel-mounted audio controls; dual-zone climate control; remote keyless entry; tilt/telescope steering wheel; alloy wheels; voice-operated navigation; active (radar-guided) cruise control
Safety features: Anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control; dual front, side and curtain airbags; tire pressure monitors
Warranty: All maintenance provided during three-year lease