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First Drive: 2009 Honda FCX Clarity on the road

It's ironic that the FCX Clarity debuted at this time in this place just weeks after much of the surrounding hillsides were engulfed in flames. Fires at this time of year are pretty typical in this region, but 2007 was especially bad after a long period of drought. Global warming probably didn't cause these fires, but the high temperatures and strong winds certainly amplified the problem. We turned off the PCH by the Pepperdine University campus and headed up Malibu Canyon Rd.

Amidst the recently scorched surroundings of the Malibu hills, the electric drive of the FCX proved once again that torque is key to driving pleasure in the real world, much more so than horsepower. The electric motor only puts out 136 hp but the 189 lb-ft torque is available instantly when you press the go pedal. When the demand for forward momentum exceeds the output of the fuel cell, a lithium ion battery mounted under the rear seat provides extra electrons to the get the motor spinning faster. The single-speed transmission mounted co-axially with the motor also means no shifts to interrupt the flow of acceleration.

Pressing the pedal on the left brings plenty of negative acceleration. The pedal feel is firm and the brakes modulate easily. The electronic braking controls seamlessly blend friction and regenerative braking. During light to moderate braking most of the kinetic energy that's dissipated gets fed back into that lithium ion battery for re-use later. Pressing the pedal harder adds in friction braking as needed. Don't bother asking who the battery supplier is or what kind of chemistry it uses. I asked several Honda reps and got nothing more than non-committal smiles.

What you don't get is noise of any significance. The muted hum of the motor is barely audible and the slick aerodynamics mean no wind noise either. It's not quite as tomb-like as a Lexus but it's quieter than an Acura RL. Through the twists of the canyon road, the Clarity always remained flat and stable. With the lightweight structure and all the hardware mounted low in the chassis, the FCX probably has a very low center of gravity which combines with the double wishbone suspension to keep everything under control. None of the surfaces we tried were quite up to the quality standard of Michigan roads I'm used to, so it's hard to really judge the ride quality but it certainly didn't feel any worse than a new Accord.

On the way back down the canyon, we stopped by the Malibu Presbyterian Church which was destroyed by the fires. One has to wonder if a world full of cars like the FCX spewing nothing but water from their exhaust might have alleviated the severity of the inferno. Perhaps, perhaps not, but either way one thing is certain. Looking at the FCX Clarity strictly as a car, ignoring the advanced power source, it comes across as an exceptionally roomy, quiet, fine handling car with decent acceleration and modern styling. Oh yeah there's no toxic emissions either. But if you skip over that last part, it's just a really good car.

Getting one will be somewhat more problematic than driving one. When they launch next summer, they will be available in Japan and in Southern California in limited numbers. To get one you'll have to live within reasonable proximity of one of the hydrogen filling stations. Honda is also looking for customers who have a reasonably high income and a multi-car household. The main reason for the latter is so that if customers need to take a longer trip they have an option. The Clarity might have a 270-mile range, but filling stations are still extremely limited. The Nav system is programmed to pull up locations of hydrogen stations and give directions if needed.

If you do qualify, the Clarity will cost you $600 a month for three years which will get you the car, maintenance and collision insurance. The insurance is because the actual cost of the cars is still high enough to be prohibitively expensive. Unlike with GM's Project Driveway, lessees will have to pony up for fuel. However, that shouldn't be too painful. The FCX averages 68 miles/kg with 1 kg of hydrogen having almost the equivalent energy content to a gallon of gasoline. A new four-cylinder Accord averages in the mid-twenties on gasoline or about one third of the FCX's mileage.

As for the cost of hydrogen, the stations that currently exist in California are selling it for about $5/kg retail. With gasoline currently running close to $4/gallon in the same area, the FCX will be a lot cheaper to operate. Assuming 25 mpg at $4, an Accord would cost $43.20 to drive 270 miles. The same distance in an FCX Clarity at $5/kg will run $19.85. That's not a bad deal for taking a huge leap into the future. When it comes to concerns about cars being taken back at the end of a lease, the rationale is that this technology is still developing.

The current price point is still well below the cost and Honda will likely reclaim these particular units at some point in the future as the vehicles evolve. Neither Honda nor anyone else is exactly sure where it's going to go although Honda seems fully committed to the program. Current Honda fuel cell vehicle lessees like the Spallino family have had their leases extended until the new cars are available. Moving forward as manufacturing costs drop and hydrogen hopefully becomes more available at retail, the program will evolve and grow. For now, Honda is the first to make dedicated fuel cell-powered car that, aside from geographical fueling restrictions, requires essentially no compromises from drivers. It's as fully functional as any mid-luxury sedan on the market today with all the expected amenities, lower-than-normal operating costs and a style doesn't look out of place in one of the most affluent areas of this country.

Autoblog accepts vehicle loans from auto manufacturers with a tank of gas and sometimes insurance for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own — we do not accept sponsored editorial.

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