2003 Honda Clarity Review

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High Gear Media Staff High Gear Media Staff  
June 22, 2003
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Listen to enthusiasts for hydrogen fuel cells and you’d think all the technical problems will be easily overcome, that cheap cold fusion will come soon after, and that will be followed in quick succession by first contact with the Vulcans, formation of the Federation, the birth of James T. Kirk and construction of a fleet of faster-than-light starships.

Listen to the detractors and it’s obvious that fuel cells are ludicrously impractical and we may as well prepare for a future where roving biker gangs fight each other with chains, sawed-off shotguns and razor-sharp Mohawk haircuts over the remaining precious drops of gas.

Driving the hydrogen-fueled Honda FCX fuel-cell vehicle indicates that reality is ambiguous. Yes the FCX runs well and drives like a real car, but it’s also incredibly complex and hideously expensive. Of course there’s huge potential in fuel cells and hydrogen, but breakthroughs are needed to exploit that potential and breakthroughs tend to come in their own sweet time — and sometimes they don’t come at all.

But if any company can put innovation on a schedule, it’s probably Honda.

Familiar yet different

Of course the FCX isn’t a regular production vehicle, but it’s not quite correct to say it’s not in production either. One FCX has already been leased to the city of Los Angeles (for just $500 per month — including service and fuel) and maybe 40 more will wind up with other governmental bodies as a demonstration of the concept. So Honda is making the FCX — painstakingly and by hand — but not a lot of them.

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Based on its own chassis and covered by the body stampings developed for Honda’s previous EV-Plus electric vehicle, the FCX is a small but densely packed piece of technology.

At just 164.0 inches long overall, the FCX is a full 10.7 inches shorter than a Civic coupe and rides on a relatively long 99.3-inch long wheelbase. However, it’s both 2.6 inches wider and a lofty 9.7 inches taller than that same Civic. Those bizarre dimensions leave the FCX looking gawky from every angle except maybe straight down. But the FCX’s relatively small footprint leaves a deep imprint.

At 3713 pounds, the FCX weighs in a massive 1309 pounds more than that Civic Coupe and a full 353 pounds more than a fully loaded Accord EX V-6 sedan. In fact the only heavier Honda products are the much larger Acura MDX and Honda Pilot SUVs, the Odyssey minivan and the Acura RL luxury sedan. And the FCX is only 180 pounds lighter than the 32-inch longer RL.

Most of the FCX’s weight is in its drivetrain and fuel-cell system that stretches almost the entire length of the car. The nose contains a large radiator in the center for the fuel-cell system and another, smaller radiator for the electric motor that actually propels the car. That DC motor sits right behind the radiators, above its simple two-stage reduction transmission, and under a computerized power control unit that controls everything electrical going on aboard the FCX. Under the cockpit is a thick, flat compartment containing the Ballard fuel cell stack itself, a large cooling pump, a humidifier, and a system computer. Between the rear wheels there are two big hydrogen tanks made from a sandwich of aluminum, carbon fiber and fiberglass that store the gaseous element at a bracing 5000 psi. Finally just above those tanks, and just behind the rear seats is an “ultra-capacitor” which supplements the fuel cell’s output when more juice is needed to power up a hill or accelerate across an intersection. The ultra-capacitor scavenges power during braking and deceleration and stores it for later use.

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Holding everything up is a suspension system consisting of struts up front and a five-link system in the back similar, but not identical, to that in the Accord. The brakes are four-wheel discs with power assist from an electric vacuum pump, ABS, and electronic brake distribution. The rack-and-pinion steering is electrically assisted.

Drives like a car

For a car that’s not in regular production, the FCX sure feels like a production car. The plastic inside is well grained, the seats are upholstered like regular seats, there are airbags, the radio works like a radio should, you press the pedal on the right to go faster and the pedal on the left to slow down, and moving the steering wheel directs the car in whatever direction the driver would like to go. There’s nothing haphazard or cobbled together about the FCX’s interior (or its exterior for that matter), and nothing so eccentric that any driver wouldn’t intuitively be at home. But that ultra-capacitor sucks up virtually all the usable cargo space.

The dash has a large conventional speedometer at its center framed by an energy management display to the left and a hydrogen fuel gauge to the right. Put the transmission in “D,” hit the accelerator, and the FCX moves with some initial oomph. That’s mostly due to the instantaneous torque available from an electric engine and as speed builds the limitations of only having 80 horsepower on board and nearly two-tons to move become obvious. The constant 201 pound-feet of torque output does give the FCX a 93-mph top speed however — no matter how long it takes to achieve it.

In regular driving the FCX feels stable and corners with some grace. With most of the weight so low in the chassis, it’s not surprising that this car doesn’t want to tip over. But it’s not thrilling to drive either; the steering is numb, the chassis’ grip is modest, and there’s no feeling of eagerness from any part of the car. It is however very quiet, with virtually no engine noise and the thick powertrain components muffling out any wayward tire noise.

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That the electricity is being generated by an electrochemical reaction across a polymer electrolyte fuel cell instead of being drained from batteries means that the FCX can be driven without worrying about making it back to the barn. It’s the trepidation about battery-fueled electrics’ range that screws with the driver’s peace-of-mind most of all (driving a GM EV1 like a regular car could suck its batteries dry in under 50 miles), and that it’s ameliorated with the FCX is the car’s greatest achievement.

However, the FCX’s 170-or-so mile range is still only about half that of a regular car’s (one of Honda’s goals for the FCX is to double its range). Fortunately filling the car with hydrogen only takes a few minutes (if there’s a source for hydrogen around) instead of an overnight charge and except for having to ground the FCX first and a more complex fitting to connect the fill hose to the car, the fueling process is straightforward.

Not yet there, but getting there

Honda’s solar-powered fueling station for the FCX takes up a big chunk of real estate behind their R&D building in Southern California and produces enough hydrogen from water to fuel one FCX per day. While that ensures the FCX’s emissions are absolutely zero (well, there is some water vapor), it also indicates that developing an infrastructure to support hydrogen fuel systems will be a mighty challenge.

Still that infrastructure is a piece of cake compared to bringing down the price of this technology. Each FCX costs about $2 million to build right now, which is the equivalent of about 100 Accords. In regular production that cost may drop down radically to, say, $100,000. But that’s a lot to ask for a car whose utility can’t match a Civic’s. When Honda can build an FCX for the price of a Civic however, it’ll be a whole new Universe — even if those damn Klingons are trying to ruin it for us.

2003 Honda FCX
Base Price: $2,000,000 (est.), $500/month lease to municipalities
Engine: 80-hp, brushless DC electric motor
Transmission: Gear-reduction, single-speed
Length x width x height: 164.0 x 69.3 x 64.8 in
Wheelbase: 99.3 in
Curb weight: 3713 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 51/48 mpg
Safety equipment: Front airbags, anti-lock brakes
Major standard equipment: A/C, power windows
Warranty:Full service support for experimental use with municipalities

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