2005 Honda Clarity Review

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Even before I walked out to the driveway, a small contingent of neighbors had already gathered outside the house trying to figure out what to make of the curious little vehicle sitting in my driveway.

There’s no question the Honda FCX is an odd looking duck, the sort of tall and quirky hatchback you’ll find in the Japanese domestic market. It looks like a couple feet of sheetmetal have been sawed off the back, but that wasn’t the reason folks had come to check it out. The real draw? The words stenciled all over the little three-door: hydrogen power. The FCX makes claim to being the first “production” fuel-cell vehicle.

FCVs are frequently in the news these days, but it’s not often you find one parked in little Pleasant Ridge, Michigan. Actually, you’re likely to find only a few dozen fuel-cell vehicles anywhere in the U.S., most in California, where they’re participating in a pilot program to test out what many believe will be the technology of tomorrow.

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In an unexpected and pleasant surprise, TheCarConnection.com was given the opportunity to test out Honda’s FCX, and not for an hour or so on a carefully chosen test track, but for a full three days — or until the hydrogen storage tanks ran out, whichever came first. There’s no hydrogen pump up the street at our corner Sunoco station. Run dry, I was firmly advised, and I’d be sitting on the site of the road until I could arrange for a flatbed.

Keying up the future?

With that in mind, I slipped the key in the ignition, then stuck my fingers in my ears. Over the last five years, I’ve gotten behind the wheel of more than a dozen prototype FCVs, and almost without exception, the most notable first impression was the whine of the air pumps used to feed the fuel-cell stack. Imagine standing about five feet away from an air-raid siren and you’ll get the idea.

2005 Honda Clarity

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This time, the most notable sound was silence. Not even a little peep. Just a pause after turning the key, while the FCX’s electronic control system went through self-check mode. Several seconds later, a digital read-out in the instrument cluster told us I was ready to go. I backed out of the driveway and slipped it into gear.

Actually, that choice is easy. Electric motors can operate in a much wider rev range than internal-combustion engines, so the FCX’s automatic-style transmission actually engages the direct-drive powertrain. At its heart is a 107-horsepower AC motor making an impressive 201 pound-feet of torque.

Pulling out onto eight-lane Woodward Ave., I waited until the nearest car was a couple lights away and squeezed down the throttle. Based on past experience, I expected a distinct lack of acceleration, but got a quick and pleasant surprise. While the FCX won’t let you challenge the kid in the Mustang, it proved unexpectedly swift, easily merging onto the local racetrack that out-of-towners call I-696.

Capacity test

Part of the reason for that performance is the hybrid drive system mated to the Honda’s fuel-cell package. Like the automaker’s Insight, Civic Hybrid and Accord Hybrid systems, the FCV is designed to recapture energy normally lost during braking and coasting. But in this case, that energy is stored in a trick, high-tech device called an ultra-capacitor.

Capacitors have an advantage over batteries in that they can charge and discharge quite quickly. But until recently, the devices were only big enough to use on small electronic devices. Honda is betting big ultracapacitors could eventually replace, or at least supplement, conventional automotive batteries.

On the FCX they make up for the fairly limited amount of power produced by the fuel cell stack. Since we’re talking technology, a quick lesson in hydrogen power is in order. You can burn this lightweight gas in a conventional, internal combustion engine. Or, if you prefer, feed it into a fuel cell “stack,” a device that would have won you first place at the school science fair.

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Pump hydrogen in on one side of the stack and it pushes through a special membrane coated with platinum and other exotic metals before combining with oxygen on the other side of the stack to produce water vapor. Along the way, each hydrogen atom gets stripped of its single electron, and when a bunch of hydrogen atoms make this one-way journey, you’ve generated enough electricity to power your drivetrain.

Combine the energy from the fuel cell with the electricity stored in the FCX’s ultracapacitor, and the little hatchback will get you to 93 miles an hour, more than enough to commandeer a spot in the left lane.

But as with any other vehicle, that’s going to start sucking down what little hydrogen you’ve got stored in your three carbon-fiber storage tanks: barely 3.8 kilograms (or 8.4 pounds). That’s enough to drive about 190 miles — if you’re really cautious — or just over 125 miles the way we were pushing the FCX. If you’re trying to work out something akin to mileage, engineers say that each kilogram of hydrogen is the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline, so the window sticker rating would be about 50 mpg, with our three-day run averaging around 35.

The tanks on the FCX are pressurized to 5 kpsi, or 5000 pounds per square inch. The latest technology is up to 10 kpsi, which would give you a range equivalent or even better than a conventional gasoline car.

Where to refill?

But we’re back to the problem of our local Sunoco station. No hydrogen pumps. In fact, there are only a handful of places you can, quite literally, gas up anywhere in the U.S. right now. Now wait a second, you’re probably asking about now, isn’t Honda actually selling the FCV right now? Well, technically, yes, or leasing it, to be more precise.

At about $500 a month, it’s a good bargain to boot. Industry sources suggest Honda’s actual production costs to be well over a hundred thousand dollars a copy. But the FCX is available only to a select handful of fleet operators who are also willing to set up their own central hydrogen refueling stations, or who can operate nearby one. Even the biggest fuel-cell proponents expect to see no real, nationwide hydrogen production and distribution infrastructure set up for another decade or more.

To get down to it, the FCX is a prototype that gives Honda bragging rights, as well as real-world data. But after our three-day run, they deserve to brag. The FCX may not be ready for prime time, but it’s surprisingly close. Were that corner service station to start pumping hydrogen, we definitely wouldn’t mind parking one of these little hatchbacks in the driveway. Of course, we’d have to ask the neighbors to let us out once in awhile.

2005 Honda FCX
Base price:
Lease only, $500/month
Engine: AC permanent magnet, 107 hp/201 lb-ft
Fuel cell type: Proton-exchange-membrane fuel cell, 86 kW
Transmission: Auto-style direct-drive motor
Wheelbase: 99.3 in
Curb weight: 3713 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 62/51 mpg, 190-mile range
Safety equipment: Dual front and side airbags, anti-lock brakes
Standard equipment: AM/FM/CD, air conditioning, power windows, power locks, keyless entry, rear defroster
Warranty: N/A

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