Ahead Of The Curve
When it comes to alternative fuel vehicles, Honda has always taken a lead role in research and development. In the late '90s, with the introduction of the hybrid electric-powered Insight, as well as the announcement of the Civic GX natural gas vehicle making headlines, the Honda name became synonymous with creating low-to-zero-emissions vehicles. Though sporty offerings like the S2000 and Civic Si were still brought to the table, there's no denying that the automaker has its sights set on clean-burning vehicles for their loyal fan base. The FCX Clarity is in fact, a culmination of those ten years. They now hold the title of producing the world's first hydrogen-powered vehicle produced from the ground up, rather than a modified existing platform; a feat that many would consider far too risky with such and unsure future in public interest.
Back In The Day
The spirit of Honda, inspired by its founder, Soichiro Honda, has always revolved around breaking ground, going against the grain, and being first. Events that might seem trivial to some, like Mr. Honda's decision to unveil the first Honda auto, the S360, in crimson red (a color, at that time, reserved strictly for emergency vehicles) made a major statement that sent shockwaves through the automotive world during that era. More recently, in 1999, the FCX V1 and V2 natural gas vehicles were introduced as test mules, followed by V3 and V4 a few years later. With no guarantee that these vehicles would ever be certified for street use, or that commuters would even have an interest in the idea, meant that Honda was once again taking the road less traveled. With each new version of the vehicle came more range, more efficiency, and more public awareness. In 2002, the FCX became the first fuel-cell vehicle certified by the California Air Resources Board (C.A.R.B.) for commercial use. A year later, Honda is recognized as the first automaker to supply a fuel-cell vehicle to a private corporation. More certifications are received, more recognition given, until June 30th, 2005; Honda delivers their FCX fuel cell vehicle to the first individual customer in the world.
An Offer We Couldn't Refuse
I received an offer from Honda to borrow the FCX Clarity for a week, and test its efficiency for my daily commute. I live in the heart of San Diego and travel each day to my office in Anaheim. The trip is approximately 85 miles each way, but there was one major issue that had me a little nervous prior to accepting the keys. Because the technology is still under development, the only filling station between my two points of travel is located in the city of Irvine, approximately 16 miles from my office. Though the Clarity is rated at around 210 miles per fill up, I would be cutting it pretty close each day, and the plan was to fill up, drive home, drive to the office, then head back to the station for more fuel.
When I arrived at the filling station, I finally got a firsthand look at the FCX Clarity in person. The front end features Accord-like headlights, though the slope of the hood and the lower air dam reminded me of the newer-generation Si. Its profile was very sleek and the attention to aerodynamic efficiency was apparent. In the rear, a small window, reminiscent of the '88-'91 CRX is prominent and was probably the culprit that stirred up countless internet rumors about "the new four-door CRX" that plagued every Honda forum for months. As I opened the driver-side door, I was expecting ergo-friendly and economic bare-bones Civic, but instead got futuristic and swooping. Yes, swooping. It's the only word I can use to describe the gorgeous flow of the light-skinned interior that seemed to travel from the dash to the rear seats effortlessly. A nice surprise, as was the roomy rear interior that would give me a chance to pack the with a few passengers for road testing.
Class Is In Session: Hydrogen Fueling 101
Before I could hit the road, I went through a short training and safety class so that I could return for more fuel. Pulling up to the filling station, there's a white concrete area that acts as a ground for the vehicle. You simply park, punch in your code, select the appropriate fuel, and insert the filler neck into the Clarity. A valve is locked into position, and automatically the fueling process begins. You're notified when the fueling is finished, and you're ready to roll. In case of an emergency, the station is equipped with multiple shut-down triggers at and around the fill-up area.
On The Road -Real-World Evaluation
Once the vehicle is started, the magic begins. By magic, I mean the incredible 3-D display that sits where the gas and tachometer would be. The bright green and blue graphs give you a reading of how much fuel you have available, while the digital readout at the bottom of the cluster shows you how much range you have left based on how heavy your right foot is. A sphere in the middle of the graph will glow blue if you're driving conservatively, yellow/amber if you're blowing the doors off Toyota Prius'. Though the car is an automatic, there's no bulky shift "T" in the middle of the console, no stalk protruding from the steering wheel, but rather a small lever just behind the steering wheel. Pull it gently toward you and downward, and the car is in gear, ready to drive. The light sound emitted from the Clarity can't really be compared to anything. It's a faint hum that increases as the pedal is pushed down further. With a curb weight slightly heavier than an Accord, I was expecting quite a bit of lag time upon entering the freeway. My short sprint from the filling station to the I-405 quickly dispelled any preconceived notions of "dogging it" through traffic. The torque is produced immediately and feels much more linear in comparison to a regular car. That is, it comes on evenly, without any sudden jump or dive while getting up to speed. Braking was a bit awkward at first, as the pedal's stopping point is much higher than a regular vehicle. With carpool access stickers plastered on the body, I was whisked home in record time via the diamond lane on the first day. Throughout the rest of the week, I would travel outside the comfort of the carpool lane in order to monitor the car's performance in and around traffic. Because of the available power, the Clarity had no issues with accelerating around those loveable fast lane drivers that set their cruise control for a lofty 55 miles per hour. The electric steering is precise and controlled, the seats are extremely comfortable, and the technology package spoiled me for the week-long loan.
As each day passed, I quickly became accustomed to the fuel-to-mileage equation and my reserve fuel increased each day. So much so that I had enough spare fuel to take a few friends with me for a quick grocery store visit. One of the best ways to prove a car's real-world power value is to add passengers. You can stand on a soapbox and brag about the peak torque that your car makes on the dyno, but that doesn't always translate to real-world ability. With three passengers loaded, two females, and one six-foot male, we were on our way. The Clarity carried the additional weight, including the groceries we added, with ease. The torque was still far more than enough to get us around traffic and up hills without breaking a sweat. And yes, I did say groceries. You see the Clarity has enough room in the trunk to fit $86 worth of food and my gym bag.
There's no question that Honda has once again led the way toward something revolutionary. With over ten years of development, the FCX Clarity is a glimpse at what the future could be; zero-emissions vehicles that offer performance on par with the gas-powered cars we've always known. Obviously the hydrogen movement is still in its infancy in the big scheme of things, with only a few filling stations littered throughout So Cal. Hopefully the technology is here to stay, and that would seem to be the case judging by the massive sign at the filling station stamped with Nissan, BMW, and Toyota logos next to Honda's. No one likes performance Honda building more than we do, but we need to be realistic; the air we breathe, especially in California, isn't getting any cleaner. Instead of turning their back on the situation, Honda has clearly defined themselves as one of the few companies willing to do something about it.
You might not be thinking about alternative fuel cars now, but as you get older, there's no doubt this option will present itself; especially when you have children. Driving the Clarity to and from work, then jumping into my project car to drive around town was like a dream come true, even if only for a week...
|Required fuel||:||Compressed hydrogen gas|
|AC synchronous permanent-magnet electric motor||:||Standard|
|Horsepower (SAE net)||:||134|
|Torque (lb-ft @ RPM)||:||189 @ 0-3,056|
|Miles per kilogram (City/Highway/Combined)||:||60/60/60|
|Fuel capacity/tank pressure||:||3.92 kg @ 5000psi|