Honda FCX concept fuel cell car in depth, Pt. 4 - Driving at Laguna Seca

(Editor's Note: don't miss Parts One ,Two and Three of this series)

Starting in mid-2008, retail customers in select regions of the United States will be able to go to a Honda dealer and sign a lease for a new FCX. Assuming all goes according to plan, the car will be very much like the one pictured on this page and customers will likely be very pleased by the experience. Since the cost of manufacturing this car will still be well north of what consumers will be able to afford, the cars will initially only be available to lease at a heavily subsidized price. The current FCX goes for $500 a month for a two-year lease, but a price has not yet been set for the new car.

After an introduction to the Laguna Seca race track from Skip Barber racing school instructor Randy Buck, the attendees lined up for a chance to drive the cars. Unfortunately, but understandably (given the value of the cars), the course diverted away the infamous "Corkscrew" onto some of the access roads around the track. In addition to the two new FCX concepts, Honda brought along two 2005 FCX models, and a 2007 Civic GX for comparison. The course included the front straight, an assortment of curves, some typical winding roads and an acceleration and braking area in the paddock. Both the current and new FCX models weigh in at about 3700 lbs, so weight wasn't a factor in the performance.

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I hopped into the 2005 car first to get a baseline impression and get used to the track. Compared to the Focus FCV I drove recently, the FCX felt like it had similar performance, although the car itself felt somewhat more substantial. This impression might be due to the more upright SUV-like stance compared to the Focus. Cornering was fairly flat and handling felt competent, if not exciting. The energy gauge indicates the charge state of the ultra-capacitor and it doesn't take long to deplete it. The Focus gave no indication of how much energy you were using and was generally much more like a stock Focus. Even the 2005 FCX felt more advanced, from the instruments to the navigation system. The startup was also faster at about 6-8 seconds compared to the 15 second startup of the Focus

Skip Barber instructor Randy Buck explains the track layout.

The 2005 FCX.

Next up was the 2008 concept and as you would expect from the appearance, it's a completely different animal. The startup time is even faster at about 4-5 seconds and acceleration and braking felt much stronger than the current FCX. We entered the track from the paddock just before turn 11 and headed onto the front straight. Formal timed acceleration runs were out of the question, but in each car I came out of turn 11 at 20 mph and accelerated up the front straight to crest of the hill before braking for the Andretti hairpin. The 2005 FCX made it to 62 mph, while the new car hit 75 mph at the same point, a pretty big improvement. The continuous flow of torque from the electric motor ensured that acceleration is not a problem.

Cresting the hill on the front straight.

Through the next series of corners, their was almost no noticeable body roll and the steering felt very responsive. Through some tight low-speed turns before going onto the access road the steering effort did feel rather heavy, but since the car has electric steering assist, that's easily tuned out. Visibility to the front and sides was outstanding, although rear visibility was compromised by the tall trunk and sloping back-light. Overall, the FCX concept felt tight and responsive, reacting smoothly to driver inputs without any surprises. The high/low speed steering effort gave it a slightly heavy feel at first, but as speeds picked up it felt like a very competent sports sedan. Since we were only driving on a race track in a warm weather climate it definitely wouldn't be appropriate to comment on the ride and impact absorption. Once Honda drops one of these off in my Michigan garage I'll update that part of the review.

Through the Andretti Hairpin.

The FCX concept is no M5, but given the nature of the power-train, the high level of fit and finish and the stylish interior and exterior, this is a car that could easily slot in as premium model above the Acura RL. As hydrogen availability continues to increase steadily in the coming years, cars like this - along with more mainstream fuel cell models along the lines of the Accord, Civic and Fit - will definitely prove the viability of the idea. Honda already has a fueling station at their facility in Torrance, California that generates hydrogen on-site via solar power. The current FCX became the first fully DOT and EPA certified hydrogen powered car on the market in 2003 and the new car definitely picks up the ball and runs with it. Regardless of what the hydrogen naysayers may think, this is no mere public relations exercise. Honda Motor Company truly believes in hydrogen, and is putting a huge engineering effort into making it a reality sooner rather than later.


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