You can't buy the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell, but the innovative hatchback does enough to show that hydrogen models deserve a more mainstream future

What is it?

It's unobtainable, that's the first thing you should know about this new Hydrogen-powered Honda Clarity Fuel CellThe company may have decided to show this car in Europe, and to run small fleets in interested markets, but it won't be selling it in Europe until the next-generation model arrives in five years' time. True, the car's on sale in tiny numbers in the US and Japan, for the equivalent of £40,000, but there's no such deal on this side of the pond.

Why show it all? One suspects, to show the extent of Honda's fuel cell progress so far and to prevent Toyota, whose fuel cell Toyota Mirai you can actually buy, from gathering all the glory. Honda has been working on this technology for 30 years, and considers itself the leader, even if it chooses not to sell cars here yet.

Clarity 326

At present, Honda's Clarity pilot plant in Japan can only make three cars a day, and that output is fully utilised sending cars to more promising outposts of the hydrogen-fuelled world - Germany, Denmark, California and, of course, oil-short Japan, where hydrogen fuelling stations are being built at a greater rate than our own. Besides, Honda still has to get costs down further (the Clarity would cost more than £40,000 here).

What's it like?

Here's the bottom line on the new Honda Clarity Fuel Cell saloon: it is civilised, comfortable, easy to drive and desirable to anyone who likes electrically driven cars and puts a high value on smoothness, quietness and an abiding feeling of plushness.

The new Clarity indisputably shows the potential of the design. It's a big car, a 4.9-metre-long saloon with a body made from an expensive-sounding amalgam of ultra-high tensile steel, aluminium and composite. Honda claims it as "the world's most advanced fuel cell vehicle" on the grounds that it has greatly reduced the size of every powertrain component (fuel cell stack, power electronics and electric drive motor) so that the total assembly fits under the bonnet in a space slightly smaller than the drivetrain of one of its 3.5-litre V6 models.

The Clarity has two fuel tanks - one under the rear seat, another behind it - carrying a total of 5kg of hydrogen (the same as the Mirai) and Honda claims this 1800kg car has the longest driving range of any zero-emissions vehicle so far.

Clarity 328

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The Clarity's interior is plush and quite spacious in front. Honda's claim is that this is the first five-seater fuel cell car, and it is, but we don't think the central rear-seat passenger (who must sit astride a large tunnel) would be comfortable for long. Rear seat room for the other two is quite good, without approaching the standard of the Ford Mondeo. Boot space is okay, but the floor isn't flat and the front wall is oddly shaped because of the barrel-like hydrogen tank ahead of it. 

On the road, driving is very much the experience you'd associate with any well set-up electric car - same smooth and swift departure from rest, accurate accelerator responses and strong torquey power delivery (the motor has 172bhp and 221lb ft or torque) and complete absence of gear changes. As with most electric cars, there's one gear and no clutch. 

As you drive, there's no sound build-up from the powertrain, just a steady hum from the new, smaller two-stage supercharged compressor, plus a distant whine when the car is slowing as the regenerative brake system charges the battery. You can increase the feeling of deceleration by thumbing a Sport button on the console, although it barely sharpens accelerator response.

Handling is neat for a big car, and the ride is flat, plush and quiet and, surprisingly, the steering isn't too light. With its size and long wheelbase, the Clarity certainly isn't a car for throwing about, but it does grip nicely on corners, maintains a neutral cornering attitude even in high-speed bends, and has strong, easily modulated brakes. In short, the serene driving experience will be familiar to those who know the Toyota Prius well, except that it is quieter and smoother still. You could easily imagine this powertrain in a Rolls-Royce.

Clarity 330

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Should I buy one?

You can't, as explained. For the next few years Honda will use its few European cars to promote the idea of fuel cells, and to build anticipation for the day, around 2022, when a new generation Clarity Fuel Cell model hits the market in decent numbers. But even in this iteration, the car deserves buyers - and proves that a hydrogen Honda (at a sensible price) can't come too soon.

Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

Location Copenhagen; On sale Never; Price N/A; Motor Electric, hydrogen fuel cell; Power 174bhp; Torque 221lb ft; Gearbox Direct drive; Kerb weight 1800kg; 0-62mph 9.0sec; Top speed 104mph; Range 403miles (NEDC, claimed); CO2 0g/km; Rivals Toyota Mirai, Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell

Steve Cropley

Steve Cropley Autocar
Title: Editor-in-chief

Steve Cropley is the oldest of Autocar’s editorial team, or the most experienced if you want to be polite about it. He joined over 30 years ago, and has driven many cars and interviewed many people in half a century in the business. 

Cropley, who regards himself as the magazine’s “long stop”, has seen many changes since Autocar was a print-only affair, but claims that in such a fast moving environment he has little appetite for looking back. 

He has been surprised and delighted by the generous reception afforded the My Week In Cars podcast he makes with long suffering colleague Matt Prior, and calls it the most enjoyable part of his working week.

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Benj 27 April 2017

I agree with Autocar. Fuel

I agree with Autocar. Fuel cells, in theory, represent a far better transport solution than EVs. Whether they can fulfill that potential or not remains to be seen.

However, if synfuels can be produced cheaply enough, then they will both prove to have been expensive blind alleys.

xxxx 26 April 2017

Hydrogen as a power surce, It's over

Even Honda are putting it on the back burner like BMW did 8 years ago. 28mpg in the IX35 with a Nun at the wheel and £50,000, why would anyone ever think it was a good idea. RIP
Bazzer 26 April 2017

Which is uglier?

This Honda, or a Toyota Prius? It's too close for me to call.