Honda FCX Clarity driven
The upsides of hydrogen fuel cell technology are that the car has decent real-world performance, a 270-mile range, can be recharged in less than 10 minutes and yet emits only water vapour from its exhaust.
The downsides are that hydrogen is expensive to extract and store, its creation often has an environmental impact of its own, hydrogen fuel cells are devilishly complicated and there’s hardly anywhere in the world with a realistic recharging infrastructure.
Anyone concerned about driving round with a compressed hydrogen tank in the boot will also be reassured to know the car has had to pass standard crash tests before being allowed on public roads.
How does it work?
A hydrogen fuel cell combines atmospheric oxygen with hydrogen to generate electricity. In essence, the fuel cell is an on-board power station to run the car.
The lithium-ion battery provides extra power when starting in cold conditions (down to minus 30 degrees centigrade) and during rapid acceleration. It also stores energy created during braking.
What's it like?
No question, to drive and be in the Honda FCX Clarity is a revelation.
Its performance is the equal or better than any low-powered diesel or hybrid set up currently on sale – which is remarkable, given the FCX is a really rather large car. It is also reasonably agile, rides very well on all surfaces and supremely refined.
The only major points of difference from a standard car are a slight lag in acceleration from a standstill, the almost total lack of brake pedal feel and the near-silent progress you make. Combined, they take about five minutes to get used to.
Beyond that, the FCX is remarkable for its packaging. With just an electric motor up front there’s a remarkably short front end, which in turn means luxury car levels of interior space. It also means the car has a long wheelbase, low floor and low roofline – which gives it a near-sporty look.
The only compromises are the slightly large central tunnel, where the fuel cell is located, and the loss of boot space, to accommodate the compressed hydrogen tank.
Can I buy one?
While Honda is also busily developing electric vehicles for use by 2012, it remains committed to the potential of hydrogen fuel cells as a longer-term solution to environmental concerns.
Right now, you can't buy an FCX Clarity in the UK. In America and Japan real-world trials are underway with around 40 cars, with customers leasing them for around £380 a month, and Honda is keen to expand these tests around the world – but only when the recharging infrastructure is in place. At present, UK plans for hydrogen recharging stations are in their infancy.
However, Honda is confident that all that will change because, it believes, the benefits of hydrogen power are too strong to ignore. Trouble is, whatever the evidence, for the time being it has to accept that the momentum is with electric cars.