2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell review: The future, at what cost?Share Facebook Tweet Pinterest Email
Since no one really knows what the future holds, Honda is covering all its alt-fuel bases with one vehicle: the Clarity. The Clarity model you see here is the first of three. It’s the Clarity Fuel Cell, and it’s been in showrooms since December. By the end of the year, there will also be a Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle and a Battery Electric Vehicle Clarity. Honda is ready with a flexible manufacturing plan that will allow it to build more of the drivetrains customers -- or government officials -- decide they want.
Like all larger car manufacturers, Honda is required by the California Air Resources Board to sell zero-emission vehicles in the state. They don’t have to sell a lot of them, just enough to meet the state’s mandate. That might mean around a thousand cars, give or take a few hundred. Manufacturers don’t say how many they are required by the state to build. Cynics call cars like these “Compliance Cars” because they are built specifically to meet the state’s ZEV mandate. Carmakers will tell you that an outlook like that is too cynical -- that they believe in clean air, green fields and happiness for all puppies and kittens.
This Clarity cutaway shows the two, 10,000-psi hydrogen tanks under and behind the rear seat, as well as the compact powertrain under the hood.
All major manufacturers are faced with this, so CARB is not picking on Honda. That’s why you can get all kinds of electric cars in the state right now, including ridiculous deals like a Fiat 500e lease for $49 a month. The end result is that you, Joe and Jane Consumer, get access to all kinds of great high-tech that you wouldn’t otherwise get. And if you poke your head outside right now, you will see that the air is, in fact, cleaner than it was in 1973, so government demands have had a beneficial effect on all our lives. And even if our EPA is abolished, governments in Europe and China will likely insist on stricter emissions controls. We’ll argue about that stuff later.
For now, note that the new Honda Clarity Fuel Cell is far more efficient than even the previous model Clarity, which was pretty darn efficient itself. For a quick refresher, a fuel cell is basically a stack of membranes through which hydrogen is forced. The membranes separate electrons that go to a battery, which then powers an electric motor that turns the front wheels. The only byproduct of this process, as Honda loves to point out, is water. Glug, glug.
The fuel cell powertrain makes 174 hp and 221 lb ft of torque.
With the new Clarity, Honda made the fuel-cell stack itself 1.5 times more efficient, so they've been able to reduce the number of cells by 30 percent, making the powertrain assembly smaller than a V6 gasoline engine. It’s so much smaller that the stack, motor and controller now all fit under the hood. The previous model had the fuel-cell stack located between the front seats.
The 1.7-kWh lithium-ion battery sits under the front seats, while two hydrogen tanks sit under and behind the rear seat, tucked in between the frame rails (or something that looks like a frame rail, since this is still technically a monocoque). Pressure in the tanks goes up in the new model from 5000 to 10,000 psi, which gives you that 366-mile EPA range.
All that compact efficiency means the Clarity offers seating for five and class-leading luggage space, though the class consists of only the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Ioniq.
Styling favors efficiency over sexiness.
That efficient system produces 174 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque, up 30 percent and 17 percent, respectively, over the previous Clarity. Maximum motor speed is also up by 500 rpm, to a peak of 13,000 revs. Just tell your buddies your car redlines at 13,000 rpm. That’ll freak them out. Then change the subject.
Using a handheld iPhone on a flat road at sea level, we got a 0-60 time of 9.2 seconds. A Mirai we tried on that same stretch of road on the same day got 9.4. Those aren’t exactly scientific figures, but they’re close enough.
While it might not be the fastest car at the drags, the Clarity is certainly one of the quietest. It's a real cone of silence, thanks to everything from acoustic glass to sound insulation pretty much everywhere. We were on hand 25 or so years ago when carmakers started giving rides in early fuel cells. Those ancient mules were packed with reformers, computers and engineers telling us not to touch that wire (“No! Don’t touch!”). Those early science experiments were loud and complex. The Clarity is quiet and simple. You get in, push a button to start it, push a transmission button to select a gear and off you waft, gliding down the highway in peaceful, angelic serenity. Ahhhhh.
Hydrogen refueling stations are cooler than most gas stations.
Sadly, all this serenity is reserved for only a handful of buyers in the greater Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas and one or two guys in Sacramento, though we hear they’re having a little trouble with their hydrogen station in Sac. Even if you do live in those metropolises, you can’t buy a Clarity, you can only lease one, which was the case with the Honda Fit EV a few years ago (another “Compliance Car”). Clarity leases are $369 a month with $2,868 due at signing. But you can still get a $5,000 government rebate, and Honda gives you 20,000 miles on the lease, plus another $15,000 to pay for hydrogen.
We filled up at a hydrogen station during our drive and found the stuff costs $16.47 per kilogram. If it takes 5 kilograms to fill up, that’s $82.35 to go those 366 miles. But nobody goes the full EPA range on a tank of anything. We started out with a full tank and an indicated range of just 254 miles, which was nowhere near the EPA number of 366 miles of range. After driving 11 miles, we topped off the tanks and got an indicated 258 miles of range. We then drove 65.6 miles, having used up 64 miles of indicated range. So the upshot is that no one matches EPA numbers in any kind of vehicle, but our difference was over 100 miles of EPA versus indicated range. Crazy, man.
There are many points to argue about alternative fuels. If you look at well-to-wheel, the total efficiency of using something like hydrogen to make your car go down the road, there are plenty of points at which hydrogen falters as a fuel. Most hydrogen used in cars is reformulated from natural gas, for instance, and reformulation releases a lot of CO2. You could argue that pure electric cars, with no hydrogen fuel-cell loop, are cleaner, assuming you charge them directly from solar panels on your roof. Then you could argue… well, you could argue all day about this. Carmakers know it and are all waiting to see which alternative fuel wins out, if any. We might be driving gasoline-powered smog-blasters the rest of our lives. We don’t know. But with the Clarity line of cars, Honda is ready for whichever inevitability comes.
On Sale: Now
Base Price: $369/mo lease
As Tested Price: $369/mo lease
Drivetrain: Hydrogen fuel cell; AC synchronous electric motor; single-speed, direct-drive transmission
Output: 103 kW, 174 hp, 221 lb-ft torque
Curb Weight: 4134 pounds
0-60 MPH: 9.2 seconds (est)
Fuel Economy: 366-mile range (EPA)(EPA City/Hwy/Combined)
Observed Fuel Economy: 254-mile range
Pros: Advanced technology with zero tailpipe emissions
Cons: Getting the hydrogen creates loads of CO2, the styling's blandRead More
Leave A Comment