Commuting in a Honda FCX Clarity

Consumer Reports News: January 26, 2009 05:14 PM

I want to be Jamie Lee Curtis. But it’s not what you think.

Sure, she’s tall, attractive, and well-to-do. She’s a lot more talented on film than I am. And she lives in sunny Southern California. But what I want is her Honda FCX Clarity.

Curtis took delivery of the second FCX Clarity fuel-cell car. Honda’s only building 200 of them over three years. To qualify for the three-year lease, you need to live in Southern California near hydrogen refueling facilities and coincidentally, Honda’s engineering center. The lease rate? $600 a month. It’s pretty safe to say that Honda isn’t breaking even on this deal; if you build only 200 of any car over three years, the cost per unit is astronomical.

Obviously unable to buy one, Consumer Reports borrowed one from Honda for our Future of the Car event and to record this video. After the video, I couldn’t resist using the Clarity for my daily 55-mile commute. After all, it will probably be 10-20 years (if even then) when I’d get to do that with a production fuel-cell car.

In driving it, what you have to get used to is a whole different world of sounds coming from the car. Normal engine noise is gone. As someone who thinks you could sell a soundtrack of "The World’s Best Exhaust Notes," this is a bit of a disappointment. But I quickly learned to appreciate the near silence. All you hear is wind and road noise, because there is little else. The only “mechanical” sound you get is a whine from the motors. It sounds something like a set of atomic squirrels caught under the car.

I get to drive a lot of cool cars when they first come out. Tons of people looked and stared at me when I drove the first-generation Smart that we brought in from Canada, or the Hummer H3 or Pontiac Solstice we tested. Funny thing is, this car is rarer and more significant than any of those, but it hardly garnered a glance. I got one person staring at the car, a Volvo XC90 driver with a vanity plate signifying that he was a fellow engineer.

Rather than people looking at me, I wound up being more attentive than usual to my fellow drivers. Why? Honda won’t disclose the cost of each Clarity, but if you build only 200 of them, they wind up costing a whole lot of money. Like seven figures… An accident would mean that I would likely need my own federal bailout plan. (Actually, Honda covers collision for the folks leasing the Clarity. Otherwise, that would be an awkward call to your insurance agent to try and get a quote.)

As a result, driving next to a Toyota Prius in the next lane -- with the driver on her cell phone with one hand, and making a point with her other hand (remaining hands on wheel = none) -- was scarier than usual. The clapped-out Infiniti J30 tailgating me – not good. I would have thought that the “Hydrogen!” (exclamation point added for emphasis) sticker on the bumper would have warned people off a bit, but no such luck.

What is interesting is that without gears or an engine’s torque curve to complicate things, what you see on the energy meter is directly what you’re using. Even on the highway, cruising on flat roads doesn’t take much energy – about 20 kW. (That’s about 17 of the 1500-watt portable electric heaters I’m using to help stay warm here in Connecticut.) But some conditions take a lot more power. Energy use jumps up to 60 kW when you maintain speed uphill on the highway.

Max out the meter at 100 kW and you get moving very quickly. A beauty of electric motors is that the torque is instant. The FCX Clarity squirts up to 65 mph (and beyond) rather easily. Merging into traffic from a stop is effortless, resulting in some wheel spin.

But forget about all of the technology. What you’re left with then is a really pleasant car. Even though the hydrogen tank takes up some cargo space, you still have a bigger trunk than some hybrid cars. Rear seat space is limo-like for two, rivaling a Toyota Avalon. There is a great view out the front, with lots of glass and thin pillars. Visibility to the sides is affected by styling, but a clever lens and porthole to the rear improves right-behind-you vision through the high rear deck and trunk.

I guess what is most comforting in the end is that vehicle technology to combat today’s problems doesn’t require a full paradigm shift. Despite the differences, the Clarity is pleasantly normal to drive. I guess we don’t all need to drive Jetson-like bubble pods to achieve fuel independence.

Tom Mutchler

Read other posts about the FCX Clarity:
Future of the Car: Honda FCX Clarity
Behind the wheel: Honda FCX Concept
Future Honda hybrid cars take shape
Want to lease a fuel-cell car?

Learn more about driving green. And see our New Car Preview for the latest models.

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