Fuel-cell vehicles are still pretty foreign to most of us, especially if you live outside of California. Automakers like General Motors, Hyundai, Toyota and Honda have been working on the technology for decades, but we’ve yet to see a model that could bring the technology more mainstream. Toyota got close with the new Mirai, but Honda may be even closer to increasing the public’s acceptance of fuel-cell vehicles with their all-new 2017 Clarity.
You’ll recall that this isn’t the first time Honda has released a fuel cell vehicle for public consumption, since in 2008 the first FCX Clarity was leased to a small subset of customers in California. Now almost 10 years later, Honda has made significant improvements to make the Clarity feel even more like a conventional car than any fuel cell vehicle has been able to do before. The styling may still be a bit unconventional, but Honda learned a lot from what customers need with the first FCX Clarity.
For starters, the new Clarity is now larger with increases to its length and width, which brings its exterior more in-line with the brand’s popular Accord midsize sedan. Honda decided one of the biggest hurdles with the last generation was that its interior also had too many compromises in terms of interior volume and seating capacity. So now the Clarity can fit five passengers, compared to the last model that could only fit four. That’s also a big plus over the Toyota Mirai, which can only fit up to four.
How did Honda manage to do this? The FCX Clarity’s fuel cell stack was positioned directly in the middle of the car, which meant that there wasn’t room for a middle passenger in the rear seat. To make room for the fifth passenger in the new Clarity, Honda repositioned the fuel cell stack and powertrain underneath the hood, like a conventional car. Honda couldn’t simply just take the old system and stuff it under the new Clarity’s hood, instead it had to downsize the size of the entire system so that it is now smaller than the brand’s V6 engine. One added benefit is now that the system is so much smaller, that opens the door for more future applications.
To make more interior volume and cargo space, Honda also reconfigured the hydrogen storage system, which now consists of two tanks, one under the rear seat and one in the trunk. Having room for five passengers was one of the biggest complaints that buyers had about the last generation, but there was also one other problem – driving range.
The last FCX Clarity could only drive up to 240 miles on a tank of hydrogen fuel, but now the new two tank system can hold more hydrogen: 3.93 kg vs 5.46 kg. The nominal pressure of the tanks is also up from 35 MPa to 70 MPa. This also means that the Clarity can now travel further than before with an estimated driving range of 366 miles – which is closer to the driving range of a conventional midsize sedan. Also one of the biggest benefits of a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is that it only takes 3-5 minutes to refill its tanks compared to the many hours it takes to recharge an electric vehicle.
Now that the Clarity can fit as many passengers as a regular midsize sedan and its driving range is more realistic – there was only one other big hurdle that Honda needed to tackle if it were to achieve its goal of increasing the acceptance of fuel cell vehicles – how it drives. The Clarity’s fuel cell powertrain generates 174 horsepower (up 30%) and 221 lb-ft. of torque (up 17 percent). For comparison, the Honda Accord’s four-cylinder engine generates 185 horsepower and 181 lb-ft. of torque. The upgraded powertrain now has a quicker response and is smoother than before. A new Sport mode also makes it a bit “sportier” when you need it.
How did it drive in the real world? Honda achieved its goal of making it feel more like a regular midsize sedan. Around the back country roads of Santa Barbara, the 2017 Clarity drove just as we would expect from the Accord. It wasn’t particularly engaging, but it didn’t need to be. The updated powertrain is much quieter than before and accelerating from a stop was easy and effortless. The differences between the Normal and Sport modes is not as big as you would expect, but it does provide a bit more brake regeneration.
On the road, the 2017 Clarity feels planted, quiet and comfortable. Most passengers probably won’t even realize they are in a “non-conventional” fuel cell sedan. Which is what Honda was hoping to achieve with the Clarity. The previous compromises to interior volume, comfort and performance are all pretty much gone now.
There’s still one last hurdle to greater acceptance of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles: infrastructure. Currently the Clarity is only on sale in California and that’s because of the number of hydrogen re-fueling stations in the state. But even then there are still only 26 stations currently up and running in California. By the end of 2017 there will be another 20 coming online. Honda hopes to have at least 100 stations up by 2020. On the flip side, the automaker promises to cover the costs of the hydrogen fuel for the entire lease – for a cost of up to $15,000.
Honda won’t actually sell you a Clarity, so the only way you can get one is if you lease it for three years at $369 a month with 2,868 due at signing. If you’re still not quiet ready to make the jump to a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, there’s still good news. Honda is going to offer three versions of the Clarity: the Clarity Fuel Cell, Clarity Electric and Clarity Plug-in Hybrid. The Clarity Electric will be an affordable fully-electric version with a driving range around 80 miles, while the Clarity Plug-in Hybrid will be the volume leader with a 40 mile electric mode and a 300 mile driving range. Both the Clarity Electric and Clarity Plug-in Hybrid will arrive by the end of the year.
So there we have it, Honda’s latest attempt at making the fuel cell vehicle more mainstream is the closest one yet that we’ve seen from any automaker. We can expect others to follow suit; Hyundai is already working on its next fuel cell SUV and General Motors recently announced a partnership to work on fuel cell powertrains.
All images @ Inhabitat and Honda