SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA—The 2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell is not just a vehicle to meet California regulations—it’s part of the company’s big plan to make electrified cars (batteries, fuel cells, hybrids) two-thirds of its global sales by 2030. That’s a big target, but Honda is definitely gearing up—with the environment a prime consideration. According to Jim Burrell, a Honda assistant vice president, “Society’s need for dramatic carbon dioxide reductions are real and immediate.”
This Clarity is one of three that will bear the name—the other two, which will debut at the New York Auto Show in April, are a plug-in hybrid (with 40 miles of electric range, it’s expected to be the volume leader) and a battery electric (with only 80 miles of range, but an affordable price). For now, the fuel-cell Clarity will have limited availability, but that could change soon as the Northeast gears up for hydrogen-powered cars.
The fuel-cell car rolled out to customers in Southern California on December 19, and so far more than 80 have found homes. The deal is a three-year $369-per-month lease, with $15,000 in free hydrogen included over the lease period. California buyers can claim a $5,000 cash rebate (plus the $7,500 federal income tax credit), and use the single-occupant HOV lanes.
There’s also 21 days of free luxury car rental for long trips. That’s thrown in not because the Clarity is range challenged—it isn’t, there’s 366 miles between fill-ups (and a 68 . Instead, there’s the big issue with fuel-cell cars—a shortage of available stations. California has 25 now, and funding for 100 by 2020 (aided by $13.8 million from Honda). The Northeast has 12 stations under construction.
Burrell acknowledged that the fuel-cell car’s biggest challenge is the lack of infrastructure. It’s really the only significant challenge, since the car’s perform exceptionally well, fuel in three to five minutes and are absent the range problems of battery electrics. With low gas prices, an Air Products reduction in hydrogen costs (to $10 a kilogram) will certainly help.
The Clarity itself is impressive on every level. It’s a sleekly modern design (that will be adopted for the two other cars), with a nicely outfitted cabin (using green materials) that emphasizes rear-seat legroom and every modern infotainment and safety system as standard. An air-quality management system keeps occupants breathing freely. HondaLink means owners can monitor their hydrogen level from their cell phones, and pre-condition the interior.
There are two hydrogen tanks, one under the back seat and the other in the trunk. Front and rear air curtains reduce turbulence around the wheel openings. McPherson struts anchor the front suspension, and there are cast aluminum multi-links in the rear. The electric drive produces 174 horsepower, with 221 pound-feet maximum torque, and an EPA rating of 68 MPGe combined.
The Clarity succeeds the FCX Clarity, which was also leased to some customers, and it’s a big improvement. According to Stephen Ellis, Honda’s fuel cell marketing manager, motor height was reduced 34 percent by rotating the drive unit forward 90 degrees, and the stack itself was turned on its side. The cells (20 percent thinner than before) generate 50 percent more performance, and their number was reduced by 30 percent. The resulting power unit is no larger than Honda’s existing 3.5-liter V-6.
In January, Honda and General Motors partnered in the Fuel Cell Systems Manufacturing joint venture, which will produce fuel cells in a Brownstown, Michigan plant starting in 2020. That means that GM will almost certainly announce a production hydrogen car of its own to complement the military Colorado truck it’s already shown. This development means that both companies will benefit from vastly more efficient and downsized power plants.
Don’t expect to see a lot of Claritys on the road yet—there’s still only a few, but the waiting lines are growing. If a hydrogen infrastructure spreads from California to the Northeast and other population centers, they’ll become the mass-market cars their quality deserves.