GRR

Review: Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

15th May 2017
David Williams

It’s a trying time for car firms as they attempt to negotiate the political minefield surrounding inner city air pollution, diesel emissions and the electric-vehicle charging infrastructure. Further complicating the debate, the UK government has now passed the buck for tackling the toxic air crisis to local authorities. And who knows what they might do?

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They don’t have a good record. Previously, councils have acted against motorists with piecemeal and punitive ‘traffic calming’ schemes, with sky-high residents parking permits for bigger-engined cars (how polluting is a car when it’s parked?), and now parking surcharges for diesel drivers. It is the local authorities’ unpredictability, their frequent antipathy towards the internal combustion engine – and the certainty that when one authority acts, others will jump on the bandwagon – that make the stakes so high. 

All of which makes any positive contribution to the debate so welcome – especially when it arrives in the form of Honda’s handsome new Clarity Fuel Cell which runs on clean, green hydrogen, converting it via an on-board fuel cell into electricity, to propel the car. And all the while emitting only water vapour. It gets around the re-charging and emissions problems in one fell swoop. But only up to a point.

Honda started developing the fuel cell in the late 1980s, producing its first fully functioning version in 1998. This was followed by the FCX-V1 in 1999, which progressed through several iterations until the FCX of 2003, leased to customers in 2005. In 2008 Honda unveiled the sleek-looking Clarity which was also leased to individuals and businesses. Now – in 2017 – we have the most polished version yet, the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell.

It’s still being made in extremely limited numbers and still, won’t be offered for sale. But it will be leased to a half a dozen hand-picked customers in the UK – and in other parts of the world – as part of Honda’s development trials and, more importantly, points the way to the kind of market-ready fuel cell car we can expect from the firm in the mid-2020s. 

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The big breakthrough on the latest Clarity is that the fuel cell stack – which also charges a small ‘buffer’ battery, to top up supply from the stack when needed – has been redesigned. Formerly large and unwieldy, it has been reconfigured, alongside a new drivetrain, to sit neatly under the bonnet, enabling the Clarity to be shaped like a conventional – attractive – five-door saloon with a hatchback tailgate, seating for five, even a reasonably spacious 334-litre boot.

The redesigned fuel stack not only provides slightly more power – up from 100Kw to 103Kw – it also gave Honda the opportunity to design a new platform for the Clarity, which is roughly the size of a hatchback Mondeo. The hydrogen is stored in two new tanks, one carrying 117-litres under the boot, a second carrying 24-litres under the rear seat. Because it’s now stored at even higher pressure – over 10,000psi – the Clarity carries about 40 per cent more than before. 

For the driver, operating it could not be easier. It is refuelled in much the same way as a conventional diesel or petrol car, with a pump on a garage forecourt. Hydrogen is dispensed in liquid form at very low temperature, at about £85 per refill. The driver, sitting in the premium-feeling cabin, simply presses a button on the dashboard and off you glide, as the fuel cell does its thing.

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Acceleration feels brisk – Honda claims a 0-60mph time of 9.2 seconds and a top speed of 103mph. The Clarity is notably quiet and very refined. There’s little if any mechanical noise, especially at motorway cruising speeds, although there is a subdued – slightly sci-fi – ‘whoosh’, under hard acceleration.

Other than the fact that the eight-inch screen flashes up useful images of the car’s blind-spot when the indicators are engaged, it feels entirely normal, entirely market-ready. You quickly forget you’re driving cutting-edge technology at all. And who wouldn’t like the 400-mile range? 

There are hurdles. In the UK, as lease customers will discover, there are only a dozen hydrogen refilling stations, although more are promised. But for those living in cities, an on-sale version of the Clarity – and more refilling stations – can’t come soon enough. It will help us remain one step ahead of crackpot town hall policies.

  • Honda

  • Clarity

  • Fuel Cell

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