Honda debuts the Clarity lineup with its most ambitious model.We'd tell you to stop us if you've heard this before, but we won't and you have. This is Clarity, Honda's new fuel cell vehicle--not to be confused with the FCX Clarity which was also Honda's new fuel cell vehicle, but isn't anymore.
The FCX Clarity may have been the first to bear the name, but it was far from Honda's first flirtation with fuel cell propulsion. That honor goes to to the V0 (Vee-Zero), which was actually a Honda Odyssey--the ideal vessel for what Honda describes as more of a "mobile chemical plant" than an actual car. The equipment in the cabin cut the seating capacity from seven to one-and-a-half--Honda's words, not ours.
The V0 was followed by the FCX-V1, -V2, -V3, -V4 and eventually the plain-Jane FCX in 2003. This was the first to be capable of starting in sub-zero temperatures, the first to be certified for U.S. operation, and (in 2005) the first to be leased to individual customers. The aforementioned FCX Clarity followed in 2008.
The 2017 Clarity FCV builds on this legacy by being positioned as Honda's first attempt at a non-experimental fuel-cell vehicle launch (hence finally dropping "X" from the name). In other words, this is a car you can go to a dealer and purchase. There's no secret handshake or password.
That's not to say there's no catch, though. We'll get to that later. First, let's introduce you to the Clarity FCV.
The long view
Think of "Clarity" as being somewhat akin to Toyota's Prius sub-brand--a lineup within a lineup, comprising Honda's near-, middle- and long-term green powertrains.
The Honda Clarity FCV represents the long-term view, for reasons which should be fairly obvious. For starters, there's the infrastructure issue. Hydrogen filling stations capable of delivering the 10,000 PSI hydrogen that powers this generation of FCVs simply don't exist outside of California. There's also cost, which in this case is mostly a function of scale; FCVs simply aren't widespread technology.
Honda's mid-term solution is a battery-electric Clarity model. Like the FCV, it will initially be sold only in California. Rounding out the trio (for now) will be a plug-in hybrid model. Both the BEV and PHEV will be shown in New York alongside the FCV (which has been in the customer pipeline since the end of 2016).
One could say the Clarity FCV's powertrain simultaneously has quite a bit and very little in common with more conventional electrified powertrains. In fact, if you look at a diagram of a typical FCV's setup, it almost resembles a hybrid's; you have a fuel source, a battery pack, some form of engine that converts fuel to electricity, and then some arbitrary (not really, but stay with us) quantity of motors powered by that electricity.
Two things really set a fuel cell vehicle apart from a hybrid. For starters, the "engine" in a fuel cell vehicle is nothing like the petroleum-burning engine you'll find in a hybrid vehicle (or range-extended BEV), either in terms of its mechanical operation or its role in the powertrain. Secondly, while a fuel cell vehicle's motors operate on electricity, the source of that juice is not the battery itself.
Instead, the electricity that powers the Clarity's motors comes directly from the output of the fuel cell stack. It's actually slightly more complicated than that, but the real take-away here is that the electricity doesn't get shunted to the battery first. The battery pack stores some power and is the beneficiary of the Clarity's regenerative systems, and it does provide supplementary power for propulsion, but it's not the primary source of electricity for the Clarity FCV's motors.
Here's the short version: Air and hydrogen get pumped into the fuel cell stack. The stack converts those ingredients to electricity and water. The electricity goes to the drive motors and the water goes out the tail pipe.
Let's pretend for a moment that the Clarity FCV is a "normal" car. That's the image Honda is trying to sell, after all, so we might as well give it a fair shake.
The 2017 Honda Clarity FCV is a front-wheel drive car that slots somewhere between a compact and a midsize sedan in terms of size and interior volume. It sports a wheelbase of just 108.3 inches (bordering on compact) but an overall length of nearly 193 (very much midsize).
The Clarity's fuel cell powertrain produces 174 horsepower and 221lb-ft of torque measured conventionally, and the EPA has rated it at 69 MPGe (Miles Per Gallon equivalent) in the city, 67 MPGe highway and 68 combined.
Despite what we'd consider to be fairly aggressive use of weight-saving materials (arguably par for the course at its price point--more below), the Clarity FCV is no featherweight. We're talking 4,134 pounds before you add any bodies to the mix.
Owing to some clever engineering updates to the powertrain components, the Clarity FCV is packaged a lot like a typical hybrid or PHEV. The fuel cell stack, power management hardware, gear set and electric motors all reside under the hood. This is where the cleverness comes in; a new, smaller, denser fuel cell stack was paired to a reconfigured PCU and drivetrain.
In fact, if you were to pop said hood, you'd find what looks to be a very conventional engine bay. Only the battery pack and hydrogen fuel tanks are found elsewhere--the former under the center of the passenger cabin and the latter, well, that's a bit more complicated.
We say that because there are actually two. The larger tank resides behind the rear seat (And yes, it intrudes significantly on the Clarity's trunk space; see the diagram in the gallery.) and the second, much smaller one is beneath the rear bench. This isn't a primary/auxiliary type setup. The two tanks act as a single hydrogen reservoir and they're load-balanced for consistent pressure output.
Step into the cabin and you're greeted by an upscale-looking interior that is essentially a showcase for sustainable materials. The "Ultrasuede" on the dash is recycled (and virtually indistinguishable from Alcantara and the like) and the "Prime Smooth" material used in the non-leather parts of the seat upholstery is plant-derived. We'd argue that leather is too, in a somewhat fundamental sense, given that cows eat plants. There are good reasons why we're not in charge of these things.
What we found most impressive given our knowledge of the layout was the ample rear passenger room offered by the Clarity FCV. Even our six-foot-plus colleagues had no trouble sitting behind other reasonably proportioned human beings.
Then there's the outside. Honestly, we don't have much to say. It's certainly different, no? The most eye-catching elements are the now-ubiquitous aerodynamic rear "hatch" design and the rather obvious rear wheel cut-outs. Nothing about either feature is particularly pretty.
There are some interesting touches, at least. Honda incorporated "air curtains" into both the front and rear wheel arches. This is the purpose of the the vents visible in the edges of the front bumper and just below the rear doors. They channel air through the bodywork and then dump it out ahead of each wheel well, forming a "curtain" that fools the air around the Clarity into avoiding the more turbulent areas near the wheels. Get used to this sort of thing; even Land Rover is doing it.
Speaking of vents, the fender vents on the Clarity are actually fully functional. They're in place to discharge hydrogen in the event of a leak (as the result of some sort of emergency) directly to the outside atmosphere, rather than allowing it to gather in pockets in the vehicle where it could become dangerous. There's a third vent located under the fuel filler cap.
Normally, we'd stick the pricing information at the bottom of the article, but the Clarity FCV is far from normal. Ostensibly, the MSRP is $58,490, but that number is entirely academic. It can only be leased, and you have to live in the more populous regions of California or there simply exists no infrastructure to sustain ownership. Los Angeles, Bay Area, or bust. For the most part, those are your options.
That said, the deal is pretty good. For $369 per month you get a three-year lease covering 20,000 miles per year. Yes, you're reading that correctly, and there's a $5,000 rebate from the State of California to boot. You also get a $15,000 fuel allowance, which looks miraculously good on paper. Keep in mind, however, that hydrogen is roughly $16 per kilogram right now, and it takes five kilos to fill the Clarity's tanks. That's $75 or so per 360-ish-mile fill-up. Run the Clarity at anything but optimal efficiency, and you'll eventually be out-of-pocket on fuel.
There's no sugar-coating it. The 2017 Honda Clarity FCV feels every bit of its 4,100-plus-pounds, sounds a lot like a muted forklift, and is about as sporty as the V0 minivan we mentioned above.
But that's OK. It's not quick, but it has enough power to get around. The handling may not be that sharp, but the ride is excellent--luxury-car excellent, even. We'd wager it's every bit as comfortable as an Acura TLX, to be perfectly honest.
What's most important about the Clarity is that it's a car. It's not an experiment whose abundant shortcomings must be tolerated for the sake of progress, but a genuine, honest-to-God car. Even filling it up is fairly conventional, though not as convenient as filling up a gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicle, we'll admit. The Clarity's navigation system comes pre-programmed with filling station addresses to ease that part of the process and, hey, it sure beats charging a BEV.
What the Clarity really represents is an opportunity for Honda to get more FCVs into the hands of everyday customers. It's a method for obtaining data--data which can be analyzed and used to further iterate this still very unconventional technology.
If fuel cells are the distant future of motor vehicle propulsion, the Clarity (like the Toyota Mirai) is a big step in that direction. That it also passes for reasonable transportation is a huge bonus.
Leftlane's bottom line
Despite what we said earlier about the change in nomenclature, the 2017 Honda Clarity FCV is still very much an experiment. If you happen to live where the infrastructure exists to support it (namely, the populated parts of California), it's a reasonable proposition for techno-weenies and other early adopters. The rest of us will have to wait another generation or two to evaluate the Clarity in the context of being a normal car.
Exterior photos by Byron Hurd. Interior photos courtesy of Honda.