Honda’s fuel cell program has gone from being little more than a science experiment to a legitimate car for everyday use in the Clarity Fuel Cell. Honda recently flew a bunch of journalist out to Santa Barbara, California, to test the Clarity out. They invited us along and we graciously accepted.

The car is the result of a project that started back in the late 1980s. It produced a modified Odyssey minivan, then evolved to the FCX-V1, V2, V3 and V4, then to the first commercially used fuel cell car, the FCX, in 2002. After that came the FCX Clarity in 2008, and now the new Clarity Fuel Cell.

Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

The point of the new Clarity is to normalize fuel cell vehicles more than ever before. Honda sees this new fuel cell vehicle as the one that could help break out the technology, allowing it to go mainstream – a valiant goal, but one that’s riddled with obstacles. We’re glad to see Honda challenging itself. The Clarity is definitely an interesting car, and we’re happy we got to drive it. Here are our impressions after spending a day behind the wheel.

It Looks a Little Funky

Honda Clarity fuel cell

The Clarity isn’t a tall drink of water. It looks a little chunky from some angles and kind of like a car that was pieced together with ideas from several other models. The front end keeps a similar hood, grille and headlight shape to most of Honda’s other sedans, but features some weirder headlights and running lights. From the tip of the car’s nose to about the B-pillar it doesn’t look all that different than any other car on the road, then you get to the back half of the car.

Clarity fuel cell

From the B-pillar back, things are a little different. Honda uses air curtain technology at the front and rear wheels to improve efficiency. While it doesn’t impact the look of the front of the car much, it adds some weird, vents and bulges in the back of the car. Also, the rear fenders hide the top portion of the rear wheels to help with airflow, which makes the rear end stand out even more.

Honda Clarity

The rear of the car is also rather high. The deck above the trunk (which is oddly shaped due to the hydrogen tank) would be so high as to obscure your view out the back of the car if it weren’t for Honda’s clever use of a split rear window. From the outside, you can see the lower window in the portion of the trunk lid, but if you weren’t really paying attention, you might mistake it for a big black piece of plastic.

Overall, the car’s not a looker. But sit it next to the Toyota Mirai, which Honda did, and you've got a real winner. Toyota’s car looks like an angry space-age vacuum cleaner, and when the Clarity is next to it, you begin to appreciate the Honda's swoopy lines, even though they aren't perfect. The Mirai is the car’s only real competition. In the looks department, the Honda wins hands down.

Honda Makes Complex Technology Appear Simple

Clarity fuel cell

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles still sound like a science experiment to a lot of people and the fuel cell technology is very complex. Many people have at least some vague idea of how an internal combustion engine works, but they have no idea how a hydrogen powered car does. This is one of the hurdles Honda will have to overcome.

The basic rundown of how the system works is you fill the car with hydrogen, it travels up to the fuel cell stack, and is converted into electrical energy which is then used to drive the car. The leftovers from converting the hydrogen to electricity trickle out the tailpipe in the form of water. That’s an extremely oversimplified explanation, but it gives you a basic rundown. If you want to get into the nitty gritty of how the system works, Honda has a page on its website that does a pretty good job.

Clarity Fuel Cell

To Honda’s credit, they’ve made the tech pretty easy to accept. All of the car’s powertrain components fit in a standard engine bay like a regular car. Pop the hood and you can tell it’s different, but the Honda PR folks made a big deal about how the powertrain is essentially the same size as a typical V6 engine. We're sure it wasn't easy, but it fits like it was. If you don’t know a four-cylinder from a V6 engine, you probably won’t be able to tell the difference between the hydrogen powertrain in the Clarity and a typical gasoline engine.

The only thing that’s really different about the Clarity Fuel Cell from every other car on the road in terms of packaging, is that Honda had to find a place to put the hydrogen tanks and battery unit. The company hid these under and behind the seats, this keeps them safe in the event of an accident and helps keep the car’s layout pretty normal in most respects.

Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

All of the company’s hard work has created a car that puts out 174 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque with a top speed of 103 mph. It gets 69 city, 67 highway and 68 combined MPGe, according to the EPA. The total range of the car 366-miles. Of course, the efficiency numbers will vary depending on how and where you drive the Clarity. 

The Toyota Mirai isn't quite as impressive when it comes to range. It manages an EPA estimated 312 miles per fill-up. The powertrain is good for 151 hp and 247 lb-ft of torque. Its powertrain layout is a little different but functions on the same principles. Honda's vehicle has a few different components that set it apart, but the essentials of both systems are the same. 

It Drives Great and Feels Like a Regular Car

Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

The Clarity drives like a really quiet Accord. It’s not quite as refined as that venerable sedan in the turns and over bumps, but it feels well-developed and smooth. The steering is reasonably precise but provides little feedback from the road and there's some understeer when you push it in the turns.

The suspension soaks up bumps with ease, and the car corners well with little body roll. The tires, while definitely created for efficiency, held up pretty good on twisty canyon roads with minimal squealing or loss of traction (something we can’t say for the Toyota Mirai). We wouldn’t say the Clarity is fun to drive, but it can definitely hold its own on a curvy road.

Honda Clarity fuel cell

Power was only adequate, and we felt it needed a little more boost both off the line and at highway speeds. It takes a little strategizing to pass someone successfully. We expected more of a jump off the line, especially because of electric cars' reputation for instant torque, but the Clarity was underwhelming even in sport mode.

Speaking of sport mode, the Clarity has one, but we noticed little change in acceleration performance. The most noticeable change was in how the car’s regeneration function worked. With sport mode engaged, there is a noticeable difference when decelerating, almost like dropping down a gear in a typical car.

The best part about driving the Clarity is that it’s so darn quiet. There’s little electric motor whine and wind and tire noise are at a minimum. You can roll along in silence or turn on the stereo system and hear nothing but the music you select.

The Interior is Top Notch

Honda Clarity fuel cell

The thing we liked most about the Clarity was its interior. There’s a lot of space inside this car, both for the front seats and rear. The Clarity is a real-deal five-passenger sedan. You could actually fit five adults in the car, which makes the Clarity a heck of a lot more appealing to the average consumer.

Aside from space, the cabin is well-appointed, with 80 percent of the surface area using recycled or plant-derived materials. There’s a lot of soft-touch materials on the doors, dash and center console. Fit and finish are good with no odd gaps or poorly assembled panels.

Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

The center stack features a large 8-inch touchscreen infotainment display (no volume knob. C’mon Honda!), climate controls, buttons for shifting gears and a shelf underneath the button layouts for stowing items and connecting smartphones and audio devices via USB and auxiliary inputs. Unlike on some other models, the shelf at the bottom is actually easy to reach and use. The armrest features a nice place to put more stuff and in front of that sits two cup holders.

heated seats

The heated perforated leather-trimmed seats offer plenty of support and adjustment as well as a fair amount of bolstering. We were in the car for the majority of the day and at no point did back pain or fatigue set in. We didn't spend too much time in the back seat, but we did sit back there for a while at the lunch stop, and noticed the rear seats offer similar levels of comfort and room as long as the front seats aren't moved too far back. 

infotainment clarity fuel cell

The infotainment system, as noted above, has no volume knob and is a bit of a fingerprint magnet. Aside from those two downsides, it’s a robust system featuring HondaLink, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Aside from those functions, the car also integrates with your smartphone to show you where the nearest hydrogen fueling station is. This should alleviate any worries about getting to a fueling station, as you can see exactly how far you can travel on what’s left in the tank and what stations fit within that range.

In addition to the features of the infotainment system, the Clarity also has an instrument cluster that looks a lot like the rest of Honda’s lineup (digital display for speed and other vehicle information), and a heads up display that integrates with the navigation system to give you step by step directions.

There’s Still Some Questions and Hurdles Concerning Hydrogen

Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

The biggest concern most people will have with the hydrogen fuel cell car is access to a filling station. While it takes only three to five minutes to fill the car up and be on your way, the issue is that there aren’t many fueling stations. More of them are being added all the time, but it will be years before there are enough to make hydrogen cars available option to the majority of people.

Another concern for most people is safety. They worry about what could happen in the event of an accident. Honda has taken steps to strengthen the frame of the car with special “straight” frames in the floor to protect important components, and the company used 980MPA-class high tensile steel (the first ever application in this way) to ensure that the vehicle would stay safe no matter what happened to it.

Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

Aside from those two issues, the biggest hurdle we can see for Honda is getting people interested on a wide scale. There’s definitely a way to do it, but in this age of cheap gas, people seem pretty happy to cling to their gasoline-powered cars. It’s going to take a lot of education and promotion before Honda achieves its goal of normalizing hydrogen fuel cell cars. The Clarity is a great place to start, and if Honda sticks to its guns, we could see them pulling it off as long as hydrogen fueling stations continue to pop up.

Only Available for Lease In California

Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

Unfortunately, if you live anywhere but California, you can’t get the fuel cell version of the Clarity, and you’ll have to settle for the fully electric car, which isn’t as interesting, or the plug-in hybrid, which we expect to be quite good. If you do live in California, you can go out and lease one of these things right now (or at least as soon as the dealers selling them have one in stock for you).

The lease agreement is a good one. For $369 per month and $2,868 dollars due at signing you get a car you can drive 20,000 miles per year, a $15,000 fuel allowance, 21 days of luxury car rentals for when you need to go somewhere the Clarity can’t take you (like out of state where there are no fueling stations), and a $5,000 California rebate. The lease lasts 36 months.

Toyota's Mirai has a similar and slightly less expensive lease deal with the same period and 3 years' worth of complimentary fuel as well as the same $5,000 California rebate. It comes down to personal preference and the Mirai feels a little too Prius-like to make us want it. We were surprised how enthusiastic some of the Honda PR folks were about the Mirai. They told us that if there were no Honda Claritys available for lease, they'd recommend the Mirai. That's how badly Honda wants to see people driving cars that run on hydrogen. 

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