First Drive: Honda Clarity Fuel Cell Makes Hydrogen Power Feel Normal

Cars, Honda Clarity  /   /  By Bradley Berman

For all the advances in fuel-cell technology in the past decade, hydrogen-powered cars are still viewed as exotic. That’s what makes the new Honda Clarity Fuel Cell so remarkable—because it checks every box you would expect from a spacious everyday commuter sedan, regardless of powertrain. Last week, we drove the Clarity around Santa Barbara, Calif. for a day, revealing how the Honda fuel-cell vehicle, the newest entrant to the hydrogen car market, eliminates the misgivings shoppers might have. Its comfort, spaciousness and capable road manners give no indication that it’s a zero-emissions vehicle.

What has plagued so many fuel-efficient vehicles—especially ones with an electric drive—is a cramped backseat. Several key models, such as the new plug-in Prius prime, offers seating for only four passengers. But the Clarity is legitimately comfortable five-passenger cruiser, even with six-footers sliding the front seat all the way back.

Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

It’s only when you step heartily on the accelerator pedal that you get a sense of the Clarity’s normality. While not a performance vehicle by any stretch of the imagination, there’s nothing lacking in its 174-horsepower motor. The ride could be considered quasi-luxurious for its smoothness and the way it remains firmly planted when taking corners at speed. (That can’t be said for small competitive models in both the fuel-cell and battery-electric space.)

Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

Honda also managed to eliminate any compressor whine making the Clarity as quiet as any car on the road. Besides refinement to the stack and noise-reduction technology, the reduction in aided by Honda engineers’ decision to move the fuel-cell system under the hood. The deeper reason for the move is to set up vehicles across the Honda line-up to eventually adopt a hydrogen-powered system under the hood. Once again: making a fuel-cell car normal is the name of the game.

Just a few miles into our day of driving, we topped off the Clarity’s two fuel tanks at the True Zero station in Santa Barbara. It’s one of about 26 public fueling stations in California. There will be 20 more added in the state by the end of the year, en route to the goal of 100 hydrogen fuel locations by 2020. Besides the snug fit of the dispenser to the tank intake, the experience was identical to filling up a gasoline-powered vehicle: swipe a card, connect the dispenser, start the flow, and three minutes later you have enough fuel for about 366 miles of range.

Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

Most American drivers use the same neighborhood gas station for refueling every few days or weeks, depending on commute patterns and your car’s fuel efficiency. Thoughts about driving range don’t cross your mind until you see the indicator move towards E. That’s exactly how the large populations in Southern and Northern California—the markets where the Clarity is offered and where hydrogen stations are situated—should look at fueling issues for the Clarity.

While the cost of hydrogen from that Santa Barbara hydrogen station is currently high at the equivalent of about $8 a gallon, Honda eliminates fuel-price concerns by bundling a three-year Clarity lease with $15,000 of fuel—a figure that’s calculated to cover close to 15,000 miles of yearly driving. In the next three years, as the market reach and scale for hydrogen cars continue to grow, the cost of gaseous hydrogen fuel is predicted to come way down. That’s evidenced by some stations already reducing the price to about $10 per kilogram, which is the equivalent of about $5 a gallon.

Back on the road after refueling, it was once again the normal-ness of the Clarity that was so striking. Visibility is excellent in most directions, perhaps with some compromise directly to the back. The side mirrors provide exceptionally good views, even if they seem slightly oversized. The seats, while reasonably comfortable, are not plush. But all the creature comforts feel premium, certainly more expensive than you would imagine from a car that leasing for $369 a month, including fuel. That’s mainstream pricing.

Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

The Clarity will be offered as a fuel-cell vehicle, an EV, and a plug-in hybrid. In other words, the Clarity is now Honda’s play for the full range of electrified powertrains. Accommodating those different systems and granting so much room for the passengers apparently comes at the expense of a big trunk or a hatchback configuration. The workaround is to use the roomy backseat as part-time storage for trips to Costco.

Honda is successful with its push to make the Clarity as normal as an Accord—except for a couple of design notes. The Clarity’s interior designers introduced eco materials, taking the form of faux wood and suede, but will they hold up over time? The innovative aerodynamic air intakes near the A-pillar and in the back seats add elements to an already busy exterior design, though the overall shape remains striking.

Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

These are minor peeves that should not distract from the breakthrough that Honda has made in hydrogen car accessibility. The Clarity is a serious contender: It hugs the road, moves fast, fuels up faster, and goes 366 miles after three to five minutes at a pump—all at an affordable price. Makers of fuel-cell vehicles can now officially abandon any notion that hydrogen vehicles need to look like science experiments, drive like appliances, pack in passengers like sardines, or leave owners in the dark about range or fuel.

There are far-reaching positive ramifications from powering a car from the most abundant element in the universe. But you would never know it from the oh-so-normal and capable Honda Clarity.

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