Revolutionary hydrogen car has the credentials to change motoring

What is it?

A revolution. The Honda FCX Clarity may look like a typical, five-door large family hatchback, but don’t be deceived: it also just happens to be the first full production fuel cell-powered car in the world.

Okay, so ‘full production’ is not of the fashion that we’d usually consider it. Honda won’t be making tens or hundreds of thousands of FCX Clarities (more like 200, in fact), but it is the real deal, the first of many. It’s estimated that, by 2050, 100 million fuel cell cars will be sold every year.

Simply put, the FCX Clarity is a five-door hatchback, with an electric motor (and control unit) under its bonnet, powering its front wheels. In its middle is a fuel cell stack, and under the boot floor is a tank that can hold several kilos of hydrogen, compressed to 5000psi. The hydrogen is released as needed to the fuel cell, which generates electricity as needed by the motor. The only byproduct is pure water vapour, which exits from the tailpipe.

Crucially, the FCX Clarity emits no greenhouse gases. And, if you cleanly generate and pressurise the hydrogen that goes into it, its overall carbon footprint is, by current standards, negligible.

It is, in short, the future.

It is also sadly, unavailable in the UK. As it stands the FCX Clarity is available to lease only, and only in Japan and California, because they’re the only places where hydrogen is widely available on tap.

In many ways the FCX is still a research project, but hand in hand with that development is Honda’s ambition to turn it into a commercially viable product.

Honda desperately wants to sell an affordable fuel cell car to the wider public, at a price that will let it compete with the biofuel and full electric-powered cars it will be up against in the coming decades.

That future may still seem a long way off, but the FCX Clarity has started making it a reality.

What’s it like?

Totally familiar yet distinctly odd, both at the same time.

The great thing about the FCX Clarity is that it’s so utterly usable and, in a lot of ways, utterly normal. You get in, insert and twist a key, and press the start button. There’s no engine noise to greet you, but you get a few muted whirring and whining noises as you might in a Toyota Prius hybrid.

The FCX’s cabin is pretty classy. Honda says it’s furnished with eco-fabrics, but you wouldn’t know. It just feels like a well-finished Japanese car. There’s plenty of space in both the front and back.

There’s a diddy toggle gearlever like a lot of autos now have, and with a press of throttle you’re away. The FCX’s low-speed ride could be a bit more supple, but it smooths out as speeds rise. The steering is light, yet consistently so, and pleasingly responsive and accurate. The turning circle’s tight. Visibility is reasonable. It is, unsurprisingly, astonishingly quiet.

And because this car looks (even if Honda says it doesn’t), like any number of other D-segment cars, you go about your daily driving barely noticed by most road users. All perfectly ordinary - except that you’re driving one of the most revolutionary cars in the world.

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And it’s that realisation that makes driving the FCX Clarity even more remarkable. Here’s a 10sec to 60mph car that’ll sit at 100mph all day, with a range of well over 200 miles, that emits nothing but pure water. It has 134bhp, similar to a lot of family cars. It has 189lb ft of torque, like a lot of family cars. It only takes a couple of minutes to fill its fuel tank, just like a family car. Yet from its tailpipe comes nothing but water .

There are some landmark cars in motoring history: stuff like the Ford Model T, the Citroen Traction Avant and the Mini. One day I think they’ll add the Honda FCX Clarity to the list.

Should I buy one?

Well, the rub is, of course, that you can’t. Not yet. Honda has no plans to bring the FCX Clarity to Europe, so until it convinces not just policymakers but, more important, European energy suppliers that hydrogen is a commercially viable proposition, the FCX will remain mostly unattainable.

There are a few other stumbling blocks too. The technology in the FCX isn’t yet proven to be durable enough to sell in large numbers, while Honda and others are also looking for more effective, cheaper ways of storing compressed hydrogen; the FCX’s tank is thick-walled and pricey.

But despite the advanced tech, the FCX already feels totally competitive against conventional family cars.

At the moment, Japanese and Californian leaseholders are paying around £280 a month to run an FCX Clarity, which is undoubtedly a vastly subsidised deal.

But say I lived in the right place, was in the market for a new car, and had the chance to make that an FCX: would I run one? In an instant.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

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supermanuel 20 October 2009

Re: Honda FCX Clarity

fuzzybear wrote:
the idea of each home making its own Hydrogen seems a good one

Absolutely. Can just imagine how the immensely powerful oil/energy corps are going to feel about this...

MrTrilby 16 October 2009

Re: Honda FCX Clarity

Another interesting report to add to the debate - the ability to charge the battery of an electric car very quickly by pumping in fluid at a 'petrol' station. [url][/url] I think both politicians and car manufacturers have consistently shown that they have a very poor grip on predicting the future of transport, and any forecast telling us what will happen in 20 years isn't worth the electronic paper it's typed on. I doubt political intervention or posturing by manufacturers will change the path of progress that much.

CapsLock 16 October 2009

Re: Honda FCX Clarity

no offence to mr. weber, but he should go talk to his acquisitions department that have just bought a 10% stake in Tesla, they have a car that does over 300 miles and I think one has a 400 miles range i.e. the S.

the Nissan Leaf can be 80% changed in 15 minutes (3 phase) and that is now, so in the next generation from Nissan i bet there engineers can get to 80% in 10 mintues (signle phase domestic) and a range of 250 miles and that would be in under three years

so an electric change in 10 minutes and/or from a garage in 3 phase in what about 5 minutes and all within three years at every service station using all the existing infrastructure; that could be achieved in THREE (3) years.

they have battery tech. now in the USA where they say they can charge an electric cars battery in I think in under a minute; lets say its two minutes. So within five years they will (WILL) have battery cars with a range of 300-400 and able to change in certainly under ten minutes and most likely 2 mintues.

you also have to understand that Mr. Weber works for MB, what cars do MB have lots of and will need lots of? that is right convensional ICE - do you honesty think that mr. weber who controls one of the biggest R&D budgets in the world likes to know he got beat by Tesla/Lotus who did the Tesla road car and the S on a fraction of the £2bn mr. weber has; I do not think he would be happy, in fact he and his team look really stupid, like really stupid.

Go on Nissan, Renault, Lotus, Frisker, Tesla and the like! Hydrogen is dead - forget it - Honda messed up and got it wrong