It’s not pretty, but the Honda Clarity is a vision of the future. Its space-capsule shape serves as proof of a collective subconscious among forward-thinking car designers stretching as far back as Hudson. Like the Hudson Hornet, there’s even twin-H power under the hood, but in the case of the Clarity the twin H refers to hydrogen molecules.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but bottling H2 on planet Earth requires energy. Hydrogen can be isolated many ways, and how the hydrogen is created and distributed determines the overall environmental impact of a hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered vehicle. In the best-case scenario, the hydrogen comes from splitting a water molecule’s covalent bond using electricity from a renewable power source that is piped in or made at the filling station. In that situation, a fuel-cell car theoretically could be more efficient than a battery electric. But the reality isn’t usually that rosy. Often, hydrogen comes from the less-efficient process of separating hydrogen from natural gas, which then requires it to be trucked or piped to the station.
Fill ’Er Up
Filling the Clarity with hydrogen isn’t any more difficult that pumping gasoline into an Accord, although finding a hydrogen station may prove impossible outside of the Los Angeles basin or the San Francisco Bay Area. Like a conventional Japanese car, the Clarity’s fuel filler is under a flap on the left rear fender. Lock the nozzle over the car’s filler neck, and after a few seconds the station’s pump begins to whirr and grumble as it fills the two aluminum-lined, composite-reinforced tanks. A larger one (31 gallons) hides behind the rear seats and a smaller one (six gallons) is mounted under the rear-seat cushion. At 10,000 psi, the tanks hold 5.5 kilograms of hydrogen (roughly equal in energy to 5.5 gallons of gasoline). In our experience, that provided a range of about 300 miles. In EPA testing the Clarity did better, posting a 366-mile range. Similarly, the EPA quotes a 68 MPGe combined number. We didn’t match the EPA figure—we almost never do—recording 57 MPGe.
After five minutes or less at the station, you’re back on the road. Pumping hydrogen is really the only odd part of the Clarity experience. A 1.7-kWh battery pack mounted below the front seats acts as a buffer for the fuel cell and provides added juice when accelerating hard. It’s not a large battery, so you could consider the Clarity a hybrid in the sense that it draws from two distinct sources of power and has regenerative braking, even though it is always motivated by its electric motor. When driving the Clarity, there’s no discernable difference whether the motor is getting its electrons from the battery or the fuel cell. Depleting the small battery doesn’t take long, but it’s quickly and quietly recharged by the fuel cell.
If you’ve driven a modern electric car like the Nissan Leaf or Volkswagen e-Golf, the Clarity holds few surprises. A 174-hp motor turns the front wheels and has 221 lb-ft of torque, providing the nice snap of initial acceleration response we’ve come to associate with electrics. A zero-to-60-mph time of 8.1 seconds won’t have anyone thinking sports sedan, but it’s quicker than its lone rival, the Toyota Mirai, which is 0.8 second slower to 60.
The Clarity is also a lot nicer inside than the Mirai. It seats five comfortably to the Mirai’s four. Most controls and the touchscreen will be familiar to Honda owners, but the décor is attractive and rich enough to pull Acura duty—which isn’t much of a stretch considering the Clarity costs $59,365 before government incentives. And the refinement goes beyond the interior. A solid structure and supple suspension give the Clarity a luxury-car feel that the Mirai can’t touch. Driving the Clarity after the Mirai is like getting into a Lexus ES350 after a Toyota Corolla.
Light and quick steering gives the illusion that the Clarity is smaller and more animated than its 4148 pounds suggest. While it’s never as lively or fun as the similarly sized but much lighter Accord, the Clarity is composed and secure when you start exploring its admittedly ho-hum 0.79 g of cornering grip. Stops from 70 mph, however, measured a long 194 feet. In less strenuous use the brake pedal is accurate and firm, but in hard panic stops, the pedal becomes spongy.
At the moment, Honda is offering a 36-month lease with 20,000 miles per year for $369 per month with $2499 down. That’s $20 more per month than Toyota’s current Mirai lease with the same down payment, but the Toyota lease only allows 12,000 miles per year. Both Honda and Toyota offer 21 days of luxury-car rental for when you need to venture somewhere that can’t be reached on hydrogen, the promise of a carpool-lane admission sticker, any available federal or state rebates, and most important, $15,000 worth of free fuel. During our drive, we saw a price range of $9.99 to $16.47 for a kilogram of hydrogen. Provided those prices remain the same, that’d be enough free fuel for roughly 60,000 miles—the mileage cap of the lease.
For this vision of the future to have a future, of course, would require a build out of the hydrogen infrastructure beyond its current twin nexuses of Los Angeles and San Francisco—a prospect that is far from certain. The Clarity, for its part, seems ready now.
VEHICLE TYPE: front-motor, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
MOTOR TYPE: permanent-magnet synchronous AC, 174 hp, 221 lb-ft; 1.7-kWh lithium-ion battery pack
FUEL-CELL TYPE: solid-polymer-electrolyte proton-exchange membrane, 103 kW
TRANSMISSION: 1-speed direct drive
Wheelbase: 108.3 in
Length: 192.7 in
Width: 73.9 in Height: 58.2 in
Passenger volume: 102 cu ft
Trunk volume: 12 cu ft
Curb weight: 4148 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS:
Zero to 60 mph: 8.1 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 26.7 sec
Rolling start, 5–60 mph: 8.3 sec
Top gear, 30–50 mph: 3.8 sec
Top gear, 50–70 mph: 5.7 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 16.4 sec @ 85 mph
Top speed (governor limited): 105 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 194 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.79 g
EPA combined/city/highway driving: 68/69/67 MPGe
C/D observed: 57 MPGe