Futility never looked so good

Though brilliant, Honda's FCX Clarity hampered by the limits of fuel-cell technology

Obscured by questions of practicality and cost is the fact that the FCX Clarity is the most beautiful car ever to wear the big H on the nose. Obscured by questions of practicality and cost is the fact that the FCX Clarity is the most beautiful car ever to wear the big H on the nose. (Dan Neil/Los Angeles Times)
By Dan Neil
Los Angeles Times / February 22, 2009
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I've driven lots of cars. I've wallowed like a Russian oligarch pig in the gorgeous mud of a $1.6 million Bugatti Veyron. I've spit tailpipe fire across the midnight Mojave at the wheel of a Lamborghini. I've brushed gape-mouthed peasants aside with the chrome cowcatcher grille of a Rolls Royce Phantom.

Yet I have never driven a car half as advanced, as futuristic, as blind-with-science as the Honda FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle.

Nor one so expensive. More on that in a moment.

But first, let's get this out of the way: Hydrogen fuel-cell technology won't work in cars. It's a tragic cul-de-sac in the search for sustainable mobility and is a lousy way to move cars.

Face it: Fuel-cell technology has been eclipsed by vastly cheaper, here-now advances in batteries and plug-in electric vehicles. To knit together even the barest network of H2 refueling stations would cost billions. And, in any case, the fuel itself - whether produced by cracking natural gas or hydrolyzing water - represents a horrible energy return on investment.

Some illustrative math: It takes about 60 kilowatt-hours of electricity to gin a kilogram of hydrogen from water. The FCX Clarity's tank holds about 4 kilograms of H2, and that gives it a range of about 270 miles on 240 kWhs.

The all-electric Tesla Roadster has a 53-kWh lithi um-ion battery and a range of 220 miles. So the Tesla's per-mile costs in electricity are roughly one-quarter what they are in the FCX Clarity.

If any other company but Honda trotted this thing out, I would barf with skepticism. But Honda is dead earnest about hydrogen, and it is only its relentless, year-after-year improvement in this technology, and the extraordinary treasure Honda throws at it, that makes me think the company knows something I don't - well, that and the army of PhDs at its command.

Yet as I see it, there are only two reasons to build the car. First, major manufacturers must begin complying with California's mandate that each sell 7,500 zero-emission vehicles between 2012 and 2014. Fuel-cell vehicles get extra points in meeting this quota.

Of the 200 FCX Claritys that Honda intends to build, it will lease almost all of them in Southern California. The carmaker won't say what the program-cost for the vehicle is, but I estimate about $400 million, which pencils out to $2 million per vehicle. That makes my four-door test car the most valuable automobile I've ever driven by a margin of about one whole Ferrari 430.

The second reason Honda might have had for building the FCX Clarity: Nothing invested in this project goes to waste. The car's state-of-the-art fuel cell can be amortized in Honda's portable power generation division (the company makes awesome generators). And since a fuel-cell vehicle is essentially an electric vehicle with a hydrogen heart, all the technology - the glossy aerodynamics; the powerful, quiet, and compact 100 kW (134 hp) electric motor; the new space-saving coaxial gearbox - can be rolled into future electric and plug-in electric projects.

Perhaps obscured by questions of practicality and cost is the fact - and it is a fact - that the FCX Clarity is the most beautiful car ever to wear the big H on the nose. It's just gorgeous, a big garnet-red teardrop falling from the cheek of the future, a sweet stanza of robot-written poetry.

The reason the FCX Clarity could take such a compelling shape is that it didn't have to be molded around the big, immovable lumps of a conventional sedan. There's no gas engine up front, so the cabin could extend dramatically forward like a midengine car. The large and steeply raked windshield falls away from the driver, and the roof-supporting A-pillars are exceptionally thin. The result is a wonderful cab-forward view, a panorama you won't see anywhere else but on the back of a motorcycle.

Likewise, with the small fuel cell stack (about the size of a desktop PC) situated between the front seats, and the lithium-ion battery and hydrogen tank stuffed over the rear axle, the car's cabin has room to stretch out. The FCX Clarity is huge on the inside, like Lincoln-Town-Car huge, and the trunk is a spacious 11 cubic feet. The whole is encapsulated in singlet of windswept modernism.

To underscore the car's eco-friendly mission, Honda uses petroleum-free resins and bio-based fabrics to construct the interior, and it really is wonderful stuff. Rich textures abound in the FCX Clarity, including a tasteful wainscoting of walnut on the dash and doors. God only knows what all this costs. When I think about all the tooling used to build a mere 200 cars, I feel faint.

How does the FCX Clarity drive? Exactly like you would expect of an electric Honda Accord: eerily smooth, flawless in operation, confident, and lively. The whack-bang of an internal-combustion engine - with the myriad second-order vibrations and gear whine - is supplanted by the ghostly murmurings of distant electrons, and so the gestalt of the car is serene, even tranquilizing.

Behold, the grand and lovely futility of the FCX Clarity. It's hard to scold something so wonderful, so I won't. Just bring me one that I can plug in.

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