True Believers: Three Drivers Swear By—Not At—Their Fuel-Cell Cars

Featured, Owners  /   /  By Jim Motavalli

Once you’ve had a fuel-cell car, you don’t go back to internal combustion. That’s the message from three California early adopters, two in the Honda FCX Clarity and one in the Toyota Mirai.

Karen Thorp

Karen Thorp and Jackie Keller have been fortunate enough to lease Honda FCX Claritys for the past several years. Now they’re waiting for the new production Clarity, and they’re done with gasoline.

Thorp is a senior prosecutor in the district attorney’s office in Los Angeles, with a history of taking on sexually violent predators, juvenile crimes, and more. Her commute is from South Orange County to Los Angeles County, and in that time she put on more miles than any other Clarity driver. Living and working where she does, fueling has been easy. “The stations are fairly convenient for me,” she said. “I fuel up every two to four days.”

The cars have been totally reliable. “I’ve had no maintenance issues, none,” Thorp said. “The cars have been excellent.” Her only issues: wishing there was a leather seat option, and low clearance that meant taking extra care in parking.

The new Clarity will be the third fuel-cell car to hit the U.S. market, after the Hyundai Tucson and the Toyota Mirai. Thorp can’t wait. “I’m pleased that the range will be increased, because that means fueling less often,” she said. “And they’ve made it a five-seater.

Thorp says, “I’ve always been environmentally conscious. Living in California, I’m aware of the science behind global warming, and my father was good friends with the scientist Frank Sherwood Rowland, who did groundbreaking work on the chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere.”

Incidentally, Thorp’s husband, a judge, drives a Ford Crown Victoria—with natural gas power. Both cars are eligible for the HOV lanes on California highways.

Jackie Keller

Jackie Keller is co-founder of Nutrifit, which delivers healthy meals around Los Angeles. She lives five miles from one station, and works five miles from another one. Like Thorp, she’s waiting for her Clarity, and currently drives a Honda natural gas loaner.

Keller had a long wait—more than a year—to find out she’d been selected as a fuel-cell driver by Honda, but it was worth it. “When I got the first Clarity, in 2010, I thought I’d won the lottery,” she said. “I was like a little kid, I was so excited. I’m not a lease person, but I was willing to lease this one because I’m convinced by the technology.”

“I think I put 40,000 miles on my two Claritys, and had not one problem,” Keller said. “I would never go back to a gasoline car, never. I have a problem using fossil fuels for propelling automobiles when there are other options. And I firmly believe that hydrogen is the next step in powering cars.”

People stop Keller all the time and ask, “What kind of car is that?” She’s happy to be an ambassador for hydrogen. “I like spreading the good word and clearing up misconceptions,” she said.

John Stewart, editorial director for the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) News, drives his Toyota Mirai daily from his home in Pasadena to work in Diamond Bar—a short distance from a refueling station.

“I wanted to get a Mirai since taking a test drive at the Los Angeles Auto Show,” Stewart said. “That experience was good enough to convince me to become a handraiser. I got one of the early cars, and I’ve now put 2,500 miles on it. It’s really nice to drive, with the look and feel of Lexus.”

Stewart, who also has a plug-in Prius, says the Mirai has the edge in handling. “It has a low center of gravity,” he said,” and really corners well. That’s quite useful for my commute. I’m an empty nester, so I haven’t used the back seat, but the people who’ve ridden back there say it’s comfortable. The car looks relatively small, but it’s actually larger than a Camry in terms of interior space.”

The car has so far been trouble-free. The maintenance schedule “is a bit different,” he said, and includes regular coolant checks and tire rotation.

Stewart says he gets a lot of comments about the Mirai. “One guy said to me, ‘Every car has a face, and this one reminds me of a man with a Fu Manchu mustache.’ The way I see it, Toyota built the car to stand out on the road, and that it certainly does.”

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