Early on an unseasonably warm morning this past weekend I was already getting some good seat time behind the wheel of a hydrogen-fueled 2009 Honda FCX Clarity. By the way, just remembering that there are only three of these fuel-cell sedans in existence, other than the seven that have already been delivered to lessees, is a cause for perspiration.
Luckily, there were cooled, ventilated seats and strong A/C in the FCX Clarity, and it’s a real, finished vehicle that goes down the road with polish and poise; it weighs less than 3,600 pounds, so it doesn’t clunk and crash like some other fuel-cell vehicles that have been adapted to an existing platform or vehicle. Ride quality is good, the FCX stays quite flat when cornering, with the steering on the light side but somehow fitting the car’s techy but not overly sporty character.
The powertrain in the 2009 Honda FCX Clarity is a gem; it’s a simple direct-drive electric-motor setup, making 134 horsepower and 189 pound-feet of torque, fed by the combination of a 100-kW fuel-cell stack (developed in-house by Honda) and a 288-volt lithium-ion battery that’s kept in charge by regenerative braking and the fuel cell. A high-pressure tank holds 171 liters of compressed hydrogen at 35 MPa (that’s around 5,000 psi).
At any moment, depending on what the control unit decides is most efficient, power can be provided by any combination the fuel cell and the battery. A bright display uses blue (hydrogen) and green (battery) to distinguish the two while also showing total power, in the place of a normal tachometer.
As with most electric cars, the torque available from a standing start is impressive; although the kick fades a bit above 40 mph, it still feels very responsive at Interstate speeds. With the rarity of the Clarity always on my mind, I still managed to let loose a little bit and get it up to an 80-mph cruise for a short time, and test its full-throttle passing power. At 80, the Clarity feels confident and relaxed.
Since we last truly drove the FCX, in concept form, Honda has made some necessary concessions to the production FCX Clarity but also given it a wealth of high-tech luxury and comfort features. Gone are the space-age carbon-fibers and composites of the concept, replaced with a high-strength steel body that works just as well. The revised interior design gets a center stack that reminds us of those on Acuras, with a two-tiered dash that follows the design of recent Hondas. It’s both straightforward and sophisticated, with automatic climate control and a full-featured sound system (which we didn’t try). But lots of surprising tech features, including collision mitigation, a smart cruise-control system, and those heated and cooled seats.
The one thing Honda still hasn’t done much with in the Clarity is the constant buzz—or shall we say whine—of the compressor that keeps the fuel-cell stack fed with hydrogen; it’s an ever-present reminder of the fuel cells, yet you won’t notice it as much when you’re up to speed.
The FCX Clarity is a roomy sedan, with a real back seat and a surprising amount of back-seat space; a small hump at the fore end of the trunk is the only obvious concession for the fuel cell. Honda Bio-Fabric, a new eco-friendly upholstery made of made of fermented corn, looks and feels great.
On the outside, finned, forged-aluminum five-spoke wheels, the small window to help visibility in back, and the matte-aluminum look to the door handles and trim, all add to a luxurious but futuristic look.
The FCX Clarity can go an EPA-certified 240 miles per tank of hydrogen, though Honda engineers say that normal expected range will be a bit under that with the type of driving we were doing or a bit higher with slow, smooth driving. I was encouraged to take advantage of the powertrain, and after 86 miles of fast driving, mostly on the Interstate, we arrived to our destination with an indicated 94 miles of range remaining.
The 2009 Honda FCX Clarity is being delivered now through specially approved California Honda dealerships as part of a special lease arrangement. Honda announced last year that it would deliver 200 of them to U.S. customers within three years.