To most people, hydrogen-powered cars are nothing more than an interesting concept.
It’s why Toyota paid for an ad spot for its hydrogen-powered Mirai during the Super Bowl for viewers in San Francisco and Los Angeles. These vehicles have already left the garage, but there’s quite a lot of legwork that needs to be done to launch them on a mass scale, including just making the public aware of their existence.
But that’s far from the only challenge. Honda acknowledges that for any kind of mass adoption to occur, the hydrogen station infrastructure needs to expand drastically.
“Without the fuelling, we can’t support the cars. It’s a little bit of a seesaw,” Steven Center, Honda’s vice president of its environmental business development office, told journalists at a roundtable event before the New York Auto Show.
There are only 34 hydrogen re-fuelling stations in the United States, and 18 of them are in California, according to the US Department of Energy.
Despite that obvious challenge, Honda is still betting big on hydrogen. Center said hydrogen fuel cells are the “ultimate technology for the long term” because the cars boast faster re-fill times, perform better in colder weather, and offer longer ranges than electric vehicles.
We got a chance to get behind the wheel of the Honda’s hydrogen-powered Clarity to get a real sense of the cars’ potential. Here’s what it was like:
During the 20 minutes or so I spent photographing it, two people commented on how nice they thought the car was. Granted, we were near Central Park with a camera, so onlookers already had the mindset that it must be nice. But the car has a very distinctive and captivating look.
Honda's Clarity exudes power. It has built-in air curtains, which you can see below the headlights, to make it more aerodynamic, Honda says. But they also make give the car a very sporty look.
You can see that aesthetic continue in the back as well, with another set of air curtains, a decklid spoiler, and large LED tail lights. Put simply, this car looks like it's meant for real driving. It's powerful and sporty but still has these beautiful fluid lines, which is further enhanced by how light the vehicle feels running on hydrogen (but more on that later.)
Sufficed to say, the Clarity is pleasant to look at. Honda will actually begin selling an electric and hybrid version of the car later this year, so it clearly sees a lot of potential in attaching the Clarity look to its zero-emission line-up.
But enough waxing poetic about the design. The 5-passenger sedan features Honda's new fuel cell stack that's 33% smaller than the previous generation, but has almost double the power. Decreasing the size of the fuel cell allowed Honda to increase interior space, making it roomier for passengers than earlier Clarity models.
The fuel cell generates electricity, which powers the car's motor, by fusing pressurised hydrogen that's stored in a tank with oxygen in the air. The hydrogen tank sits behind the rear seats, which limits the amount of space in the trunk. So even though the interior is fairly roomy for a sedan, the car doesn't offer a ton of cargo space.
The Honda Clarity is only available in California where it can be leased for $369 a month for 36 months. Center said Honda is leasing the car because people aren't usually apt to buy new technology outright.
The car boasts an EPA-estimated range of 366 miles -- the longest range of any zero-emission vehicle. Unlike electric vehicles that can be slow to charge, owners can refill the Clarity's hydrogen tank in 3 to 5 minutes.
Driving the Clarity is just like driving an electric car, meaning it's zippy and very quiet. Just a tap of the accelerator will make this car fly. But if you really gun the engine, you'll hear the high-pitched whine of a hydrogen car -- that's not a bad thing, it's just different if you're used to driving conventional gas-powered cars.
Switching to Sport mode will make the pedal even more responsive, but it doesn't change acceleration at all. My overarching driving impression is that the Clarity is fun and light.
I enjoyed driving it on the open West Side Highway: it's smooth, quick, and easy to control. Its size and responsiveness make weaving in and out of lanes a dream. I spent most of the time hovering my foot over the pedal -- you barely have to give this car juice, it just rolls on its own.
I want to be clear. I didn't have a whole lot of time in the Clarity -- this was tested in under an hour, rather than over the course of a weekend. But I will say it was difficult to leave the car and it was a noticeably easy ride.
My one gripe with the Clarity is its gear shift was converted into a series of buttons. Honda says it represents the move from mechanical to electronic transmission, and that getting rid of the lever frees up space and cuts unnecessary weight.
It's certainly a sleeker interface, but pressing buttons feels awkward. For safety reasons, Honda has you pull a tab down to reverse, which isn't the most intuitive and makes it difficult to change gears quickly. It's possible my apprehension was because I grew up using a manual transmission and haven't seen this layout before, but overall it felt very robotic for a car that's so fun to drive.
The instrument cluster shows your speed and also how much hydrogen you have left in the tank. That blue dot you see in the center will change size based on the amount of electricity you generate, but I didn't notice any shifts.
The Clarity is Honda's first car in the US to come with a built-in heads-up display. Unfortunately, it's hard to capture on camera, but the driver can see the speed right in his or her line of sight. It's a fun feature that isn't obstructive, but it doesn't seem entirely necessary considering it just shows speed.
You can turn off the heads-up display or change its size using a series of buttons to the left of the steering wheel. That dashboard also gives you access to a suite of Honda Sensing features, the automaker's semi-autonomous package.
The Sensing package, which comes standard with the Clarity, includes lane departure warning, lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, and pre-collision braking.
In general, I'm a big fan of the Sensing package, which I got to test more extensively on the Honda CR-V. The lane-keep assist is helpful without being jarring and its adaptive cruise control is great during a long drive. The car also comes with a back-up camera that makes reversing a breeze.
My general thought about Honda's infotainment console is that it's deeply OK. The navigation system works but the map gets cluttered with notifications about upcoming restaurants and gas stations. The touchscreen itself is generally responsive and SiriusXM is a nice feature. It does support Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Like most cars today, the Clarity comes with a key fob so you can keep it in your pocket and fire the car up with a press of the button. As long as you have it on hand, you can also unlock the car by tapping a button on the handle.
Overall, the Honda Clarity is a fun drive. Like electric cars, it's light, smooth, and zippy. However, its limited trunk space is a huge drawback. You can't buy the Clarity outright, but if you could it would be just under $60,000 MSRP. I could spend that on a crossover and get a lot more space.
I enjoyed driving the Clarity, but I would say I enjoyed it the same way I enjoyed driving the Chevy Bolt. If I'm going to buy a zero-emission vehicle, I'd rather get a compact SUV with a 236-mile range than a smaller sedan.
The market is also leaning in that direction; SUV demand is booming while passenger car sales fall. A big reason for that is that gas is cheap. But gas prices aside, even if I were in the market for a passenger car, the Clarity's trunk space is more limiting that most.
It's also hard to get a real sense of whether I'd buy a hydrogen-powered car without experiencing filling up the tank and looking for a hydrogen station.
Still, a shorter re-fill time is a huge asset. The Clarity is a pleasant drive and offers a comfortable and luxurious interior. It's also very tech savvy for its price. If you live in California and don't need a ton of space for your everyday driving needs, the Clarity is a solid, zero-emission vehicle option.
Honda says it's currently working with regulators to open up stations in the Northeast so it can introduce the Clarity in states like New York and Connecticut, but doesn't have an exact timeline for that market rollout.
The automaker has only leased 100 Clarity cars in California, but despite obvious hurdles, the automaker is betting big on the technology. Honda and General Motors are investing $US85 million in producing new fuel cell technology in 2020.
'We're all in on this,' Center said. 'We think this is a long-term solution for society.'
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