Clarity reserved for Hollywood, ready for mainstream

The red carpet crowd loves it, but how does this hydrogen Honda work for the average Bostonian? Bill Griffith takes a spin

The FCX Clarity was 'just another car' parked along the waterfront in South Boston until one driver -- in a Honda Civic -- stopped and asked, 'Is it a new hybrid?' The FCX Clarity was "just another car" parked along the waterfront in South Boston until one driver -- in a Honda Civic -- stopped and asked, "Is it a new hybrid?" (Bill Griffith/ Correspondent)
By Bill Griffith Correspondent / October 15, 2008
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I'm driving around Boston on a gorgeous October Thursday afternoon. Traffic is light by Boston standards. The temperature is in the low 70s. All in all, it's a sensational fall day, made more memorable by the vehicle I'm in -- the fuel cell-powered Honda FCX Clarity.

Outwardly the Clarity looks like a sleek sedan with unmistakably Honda styling.

It's the drivetrain that's unique: a 134 horsepower electric motor, 148 pound fuel cell, and the equivalent of a 40-gallon tank of gasoline that holds four kilograms of pressurized hydrogen.

Along for the ride are Honda engineers Ryan Harty and David Cun. As we swing by the Public Garden and Boston Common, a driver next to us is all but hanging out the window trying to figure out what kind of Honda is sitting next to him in traffic.

Going forward, we swing back around Charles Street to Beacon and back onto Storrow Drive and then through The Big Dig -- a must-see for out-of-town visitors -- and out to Castle Island in South Boston.

It's there that the driver of a Honda Civic pulls alongside and asks, "Is that a hybrid?"

Harty, in town to address MIT symposiums on energy and alternate fuels, rewards the driver with a brochure on the Clarity.

Rather than trot out a "People's Car,'' Honda has taken the fuel cell technology into the luxury segment. Over the next decade, Honda's goal is to make the car affordable as a national refueling infrastructure is developed.

Honda already has delivered two Claritys to drivers in Southern California.

That's two small steps for mankind in the battle for energy independence and to "get off the (electrical) grid," said Harty.

Car number three is due to be delivered soon. All are part of three-year leases at $600 per month. And the price isn't bad for a car that's more spacious than the new Honda Accord and approaching the luxury quotient of the Acura RL.

The first was delivered this year to film producer Ron Yerxa in Santa Monica, Calif., on July 25. The second went to Jamie Lee Curtis on July 31.

Noted auto aficionado Jay Leno turned down a Clarity lease offer; he wanted to buy one outright for his world-class collection.

The one we're driving, according to Honda's Harty, is serial number "Minus 1," a prototype for exhibitions and testing.

Around Boston, despite long periods of idling, the Clarity averaged the equivalent of 65 miles per gallon on the on-board computer. That's with only some slightly warm air coming out of the tailpipe. It's EPA rated at 79 miles per gallon city, 68 highway, and 74 combined. In other words, about three times the fuel efficiency of a normal sedan and almost twice that of hybrids like the Honda Civic.

The Clarity's 134 horsepower electric motor delivers 189 ft.-lbs. of torque, which is available as soon as you touch the "we-can't-call-it-a-gas-pedal-anymore" accelerator.

Honda has cut the weight of the fuel cell "stack" from 445 pounds (in the 1999 FCX-V2 prototype) to 212 pounds (in the production 2005 FCX) to 148 pounds in 2008. It's now to the point where the fuel cell isn't a major design consideration.

The storage problem is the bulk of the hydrogen tank. Our Clarity has the equivalent of a 40-gallon gasoline tank, which holds the hydrogen equivalent of four gallons. That's enough for a 280-mile cruising range.

Looking under the hood, there's an air intake, air filter, and air pump to push the air through the fuel cell. Underneath that is the electric motor, which ties directly to the front (drive) wheels. There's no transmission -- one of the most expensive components of a conventional vehicle.

The only sounds while driving are the air pump and whine of the electric motor, tones that vary on acceleration or (regenerative) braking, a process that reclaims energy.

From the driver's seat, the instrument panel looks like something from George Jetson's space vehicle. There are lights for the fuel supply, that show whether energy is being expended or recaptured through braking, and a 3-D ball in the center that shows blue (great economy), green (nice driving style), orange (you're pushing it) and red (lead foot).

The only control that's not intuitive is the gear selector. It's all electric and takes some getting used to if you're switching from reverse to drive to back into a parking space. There's a normal ignition key that must be turned on before anything happens and separate buttons for starting the system or putting the Clarity in "park."

Normally, you'd expect a leather interior in such a luxury vehicle. Instead, Honda is using "Bio-Fabric," a ventilated polyester-like material developed from fermenting corn. It works well with the heated and cooled seats.

A button on the Clarity's navigation system shows the location of the nearest hydrogen refueling station. These days, it's 144 miles away in Albany, N.Y.

Honda is collaborating on a Home Energy Station system, designed to generate hydrogen from natural gas. That will fuel the vehicle and also provide extra heat and electricity for the home.

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