WASHINGTON (AP) -- For years, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have been the far-off technological bets of the auto industry -- the car that holds the promise of gasoline-free driving.
Honda Motor Co. is starting to give a small number of drivers a glimpse into the future.
The Honda FCX Clarity debuted in July, and the automaker is leasing about 200 of the cars to customers in Southern California during the next three years. Tens of thousands of car enthusiasts have applied to be among the first to lease -- and for good reason.
Stylish and smooth, the Clarity opens a window into the possible: the combination of environmental responsibility and zero emissions with a fun, hip ride. If only refueling was a matter of pulling into the nearest filling station.
The Clarity is emerging at a difficult stretch for the auto industry, a year in which sales have been choked by a battered economy and a major credit crunch. So it might be easy to shrug it off as another advanced vehicle relegated to auto shows and the garages of the super rich.
As with any hydrogen car, there are caveats galore. Finding a hydrogen fueling station can be like getting a car loan with lousy credit these days. And most hydrogen is extracted from natural gas, releasing carbon dioxide and undercutting the emissions-free argument.
Honda's marketing of the car may also draw some skepticism. The company is offering three-year leases to a select few for $600 a month, which includes maintenance and collision coverage. Actress Jamie Lee Curtis and her husband, filmmaker Christopher Guest, have one. Other Clarity pioneers include Actress Laura Harris and "Little Miss Sunshine" producer Ron Yerxa, making it easy to dismiss the car as a Hollywood publicity stunt.
But on its merits, the Clarity delivers. It offers quiet, steady acceleration, high torque and a 280-mile range, allowing the driver to enjoy the ride instead of worrying about finding the next refill.
Previous generations of Honda's fuel cell vehicles have resembled futuristic econoboxes -- small, workmanlike and unpractical. The latest version is more refined, helped by a smaller and lighter fuel cell stack that is more easily packaged into a sedan. (The Clarity is about 4 inches shorter than a Honda Accord.)
In the fuel cell, hydrogen is combined with oxygen to generate electricity that powers the vehicle's motor. The water vapor that's produced exits through the tailpipe. The Clarity has a backup 288-volt lithium-ion battery pack, recharged by the car's deceleration, to provide more power when needed.
The cockpit is fun and innovative. The start button next to the center console starts the fuel cell stack. The display in the dashboard includes a dot that changes color and size as your hydrogen consumption grows, making it easy to monitor mileage.
A meter display on the dashboard charts battery levels and motor output. The speedometer was wisely placed above the cockpit display, in your sight line, to keep your eyes on the road. The interior is covered with plant-based fabrics.
The compressor that supplies oxygen to the fuel cell makes a whining sound. While the whirls and lack of engine vibrations at stoplights may require some getting used to, the 134-horsepower electric motor, with 189 pounds per foot of torque, offered smooth acceleration in city driving. On the highway, the Clarity easily surpassed 70 miles per hour without feeling compromised.
The Clarity's tank holds 4.1 kilograms (9 pounds) of compressed hydrogen, and the car gets about 77 miles per kilogram in the city, 67 miles per kilogram on the highway and 72 miles per kilogram in combined driving. Honda says that equates to 79 miles per gallon of gasoline around town, 68 mpg on the highway and about 74 mpg overall.
Honda is leasing the Clarity to customers in the Los Angeles area because of the proximity to three 24-hours-a-day public hydrogen stations.
If I could lease a Clarity here in Washington, D.C., I would have to rely on one Shell Station, but the vehicle would offer savings compared with similar vehicles.
In Washington, hydrogen was selling for $8.18 per kilogram, meaning a driver would spend that much to travel 72 miles in the Clarity. A 4-cylinder Honda Accord with an automatic transmission gets 24 mpg combined, so a driver would use three gallons of gasoline -- spending about $3.30 a gallon, or almost $10 -- to travel the same distance.
The lack of fueling stations will limit the reach of these vehicles for many years, but Honda is working on a home-fill unit that would connect to a residential natural gas line, generating hydrogen for your vehicle and heat and electricity for your home. The automaker, like others in the industry, note that hydrogen could be produced abundantly from renewable sources like wind energy.
Beyond the refueling problems, the car has some quirks. Instead of a traditional gear selector, the car has a small electronic shifter near the steering wheel that was awkward to use. The rear window seemed to limit visibility.
As with any advanced vehicle, the car created a stir around town. Fellow drivers craned their necks to check out the car, and plenty of pedestrians furrowed their eyebrows, as if to say, "What is that?" When I turned around at a gas station in northern Virginia, where gas was selling for $3.89 a gallon at the time, a man in a Redskins jersey turned to his friends and pointed at the car, his mouth agape.
Honda has not released the cost, but the price is out of reach for typical car shoppers. With production limited to just hundreds, some analysts have estimated it would cost $200,000. (Imagine how Tom Cruise's character in "Risky Business" would have felt if his dad's hydrogen fuel cell sunk into Lake Michigan.)
The Clarity, and any hydrogen fuel cell for that matter, has plenty of question marks and hurdles. But it gives us a sense of what lies ahead.
In an age of sluggish sales and tough times for the auto industry, the art of the possible may not mean much now. But the Clarity offers evidence that the futuristic advanced vehicles of tomorrow may be closer than we think.