This is the new Honda FCV Clarity, the latest attempt by the Japanese manufacturer to gain the high ground on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles - and one that’s under more pressure than ever before, thanks to the recent arrival of the Toyota Mirai.
Indeed, whereas Honda’s previous fuel cell vehicles have been praised for their technical innovation, they’ve also been available to only a select few. The firm made just 72 examples of the last effort, the FCX Clarity - but it has much higher hopes for the FCV Clarity, which will be made in ‘much greater numbers’ and is seen as a stepping stone to Honda’s first mass-produced fuel cell vehicle, currently in development (some of it shared with General Motors) and due in 2020.
As with the Clarity, the FCV Clarity sits on a bespoke platform, but it gets two hydrogen tanks instead of one, with both storing the fuel at a higher pressure (700bar instead of 350). This is designed, Honda engineers say, to answer the single biggest concern that’s come across in feedback from Clarity owners: range. That car managed 240 miles in the US test cycle; Honda says the FCV Clarity can crack 300 on the same standard, and it should be north of 400 in many real-world situations.
At the heart of it all is a new fuel cell stack, a third smaller than before and, astonishingly, 90% cheaper to produce. The more compact package has allowed Honda to move it away from the transmission tunnel area, to under the bonnet. That frees up cabin space, allowing the FCV Clarity to be a five-seater.
Honda hasn't announced a European on-sale date, let alone a price - but around 200 examples will be leased in Japan next year. The nominal figure for the car is 7.66 million Yen, or around £42,000, but that will simply be divided by the length of the lease. A 48-month deal, as was common with the few FCX Clarity cars that were leased, should cost around £875 per month in Japan.
As with most fuel cell vehicles, the FCV Clarity is remarkably straightforward to use. You select Drive, then ease away in near-silence. The only noise you’re likely to hear - should you not be doing a sufficient rate of knots to create tyre roar - is what sounds like a faint gurgling from under the bonnet.
But in the most part, there’s no real mechanical noise to speak of; think of it as an EV that doesn’t need plugging in, or a Toyota Prius-like hybrid where the combustion engine simply never fires up.
Our test route was a short loop at Honda’s Tochigi research and development centre, and Honda has yet to issue any official performance figures anyway, but it’s already clear that the FCV is set up for cruising comfort instead of out-and-out performance or agility.
The cell has a nominal output of 134bhp, which is enough for brisk acceleration, even up to a motorway cruising speed. Once you’re there, you’ll just hear some wind noise from around the door mirrors, and the aforementioned rumble from the road below. It’s just like a reasonably refined executive saloon, basically - although again, we had no opportunity to throw it at anything approaching a sharp corner.
Honda is planning a series of accessories for the car, including a small hydrogen production station designed for use by a few vehicles and a neat inverter that can take electricity produced by the fuel cell and power a range of domestic devices. Honda suggests it could have uses in emergency medical situations, for example.
Honda has had to strike a balance between giving the FCV Clarity’s cabin a high-tech look and making it something that could be used every day - and the result looks a fair compromise. There’s a central infotainment screen in the centre of a neat dashboard, and the centre console extends out towards the area between the front seats, with gear selector buttons above and a storage area below. The rear cabin still isn’t the most spacious for a car of this size, but three adults could just about squeeze in together for a reasonable journey.
Honda hasn’t issued any specs on boot capacity, but there’s no denying that some space is taken up by the main aluminium and carbonfibre-wrapped hydrogen tank. Engineers say you can fit three sets of golf clubs in there - and that’s probably true. But sliding a wider, flatter suitcase over the top of the step in the boot floor could prove more of a challenge.
For just a moment, let’s merely celebrate the fact that you can. Honda is not going to hide the FCV Clarity behind the same veil of rarity that obscured the FCX Clarity for much of its life; this really is a step towards the mass production of fuel cell cars.
Pricing could be another matter, of course - even the huge saving on the cost of the fuel cell stack over the old Clarity’s is ‘nowhere near enough’, according to a senior engineer - and that’s before you get to deciding whether the fledgling infrastructure is enough to support any journey you may want to tackle.
These remain early days for fuel cell vehicles - but with the Mirai and now the FCV Clarity, it really does seem like a generational leap is being made.