FCX Clarity: Bring on the hydrogen stations

Wind-flicked waves slap the beach. Cloud-dulled sun warms the Pacific air to 69 degrees. Honda FCX Clarity fuel-cell car scampers along disturbing nothing but the air around it.

Hydrogen, not petroleum, fills its tank. Electricity, not internal combustion, slings it forward.

Only the notable whine from an air compressor disturbs the picture, changing pitch intrusively as the motor changes speed. Honda pledges to reduce that before putting Clarity sedans into users' hands in the Los Angeles area next summer. General Motors gm has done a better job quieting the compressor on its Chevrolet Equinox SUVs modified to run on fuel cells (Test Drive, Nov. 9).

That compressor whine and slightly skittish steering are the only things worth a general gripe about Clarity, the first regular-production fuel-cell car aimed at individuals. Previous FCX cars have been intended for fleet users. Only two are driven by individuals.

Honda plans to lease maybe 100 of the new cars for three years at $600 a month, including collision insurance and maintenance.

The automaker can't afford to have them become a hit just yet because it's losing a relative fortune on each one. Honda won't say, but figure at least $300,000 to build each one. Clarity is a ground-up design that could be mass-produced should the cost collapse and the number of hydrogen stations balloon. But even in lead-the-way California, only three stations are open to the public, Honda says.

Hydrogen fuel-cell cars are rare and new. How they work: A compressor pulls in air, which moves through fuel-cell membranes along with hydrogen from the car's tank. As the gasses pass through the membranes, they create an electrochemical reaction that generates electricity for the motor and water as exhaust. No petroleum use, no harmful emissions.

Examining Clarity strictly as a car, not as a harbinger of a hydrogen future, these are the impressions from a morning drive. The test car was an early-production version of the car that will be available next summer.

• Power. Sufficient, about even with a midsize sedan powered by a 2.4-liter gasoline engine.

Clarity is a tad sluggish off the line under full throttle, and it's no jet in upper speed ranges. But it's feisty, punchy in middle speeds where most people drive most of the time. Not a dog otherwise, just not as peppy as hoped.

• Interior. Premium. Looks and feels like a near-luxury car. Roomy front and back.

Honda used the vast forward reach of the dashboard to design the instrument panel and center stack of controls and features so they appear to float above the floor console, leaving room underneath for storage.

No leather, only Honda's bio-fabric, made from plants. Comfortable and carbon-correct, but it lacks the eye appeal and sensuality of dead cow.

Best gauge innovation: a dot in the center of the speedometer. The dot changes color and size to show whether you're hogging or saving energy. No distracting power-flow charts and energy-flow charts and graphs as in other alternative-power machines.

• Changes. Lithium-ion battery replaces so-called supercapacitor in the previous FCX. The battery mainly is recharged when coasting and braking.

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