For more than 10 years, hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars have been about 10 years away. The bad news is, they're still around 10 years away. Although not for everyone.
Honda's FCX Clarity is the world's first production fuel cell car, available in Japan and in California. Although there are no plans to bring the car to the UK (a great shame) it does give us a glimpse into the future. Judging by our first drive, that future looks very bright.
Hydrogen-powered cars mix hydrogen and oxygen in a fuel cell to produce electricity. The electricity is then fed to a motor, which drives the car. The only by-product is water, making fuel cell cars true zero emissions vehhicles.
There's an on-board battery to help out, and that's charged using energy recovered during braking.
Man on the moon
So why can't we get fuel cell cars in the UK? The simple answer is that hydrogen isn't freely available in a form we can use. Getting hydrogen pumps onto our garage forecourts is a logistical nightmare that's akin to getting another man onto the moon, too – and strangely those two things might coincide.
Just as America might just have someone strolling across the moon's surface in 2019 to celebrate fifty years since the first landing, so Honda hopes there'll be good reason to bring a Civic-sized fuel cell car to the UK.
Hopefully, by then, fuel companies (and others) with a little gentle persuasion from governments, will have an infrastructure in place that will allow us to fill fuel cell cars.
So will it be worth it? The FCX is a remarkable car, not least in its technology, but in proving that Honda can still build exciting, high quality, eco-friendly cars – especially after the disappointment that is the Insight hybrid.
You turn the key and hit the power button in the FCX, just as you do in many normal cars. In fact, the FCX feels just that. Normal. It's more Prius than Insight in that there's no engine sound as you start up or drive away – just the gentle whirr of electric power.
100mph and 100mpg
Unlike the Prius, an engine never cuts in. Instead, there's a seamless stream of power that will keep going from zero to the 100mph maximum, accompanied by a gentle whine. It's an odd noise, not unlike a moaning child, but far less grating! It soon disappears as you reach your cruising speed.
Honda doesn't quote a zero to 60mph figure, but it feels around the 10 second mark – so reasonably quick. There's plenty of punch for overtaking, too.
Honda does quote an mpg figure, although that has to be taken in context. We have no idea how much it will cost when the fuel is freely available, especially when governments see the value of adding tax. Still, 100mpg at zero emissions is impressive.
The big advantage over plug-in electric vehicles is range – the FCX will do around 285miles on a four-kilo tank of hydrogen, which at the prices on the pumps in Germany works out at around £30 for a tankful.
What's just as impressive about the FCX is that it's still a proper car. Honda has chosen to fit only four seats - in a 'futuristic cocoon' – and there's bags of space for all. There's even enough space for four bags of golf clubs in the boot, in addition to the hydrogen fuel tank.
The ride quality is firm, but not uncomfortably so, it's refined on the move and interior quality is impressive – a world away from the flimsy, cheap interior in the Insight. Even the seat covers are made from corn-based materials.
Fuel cell cars are almost ready – major manufacturers, including Honda, have signed a letter of understanding saying they plan to have fuel cell cars available from as soon as 2015. It'll be a shame if a hydrogen infrastructure takes any longer – these are cars we can benefit from and enjoy sooner rather than later.
Our reviews are based on hard data and thorough testing in the real world.
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