by Frank A. Aukofer

Blend the futuristic and familiar, and you get the concept of the 2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell sedan, forging an expanded direction for the storied Japanese automaker.

This all-new five-passenger four-door runs on compressed hydrogen, producing electricity from a fuel cell to drive a 174-horsepower electric motor that delivers 221 pound-feet of torque. Overall, the Clarity performs like a fully realized electric car except that it does not need charging.

You refuel with hydrogen, which is why the Clarity will initially be available only in California, which has a small but widespread network of 66 hydrogen refueling stations. With its two tanks filled with a bit more than 12 pounds of hydrogen, the Clarity can travel 366 miles, delivering EPA city/highway/combined equivalent fuel economy of 69/67/68 mpg.

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

That’s deceptive from a cost standpoint. Hydrogen, one of the most abundant fuels in the universe, still must be manufactured, largely from natural gas. A full fill-up of hydrogen at one of the California stations came to nearly $90. That works out to about 25 cents per mile to yield 366 miles of range.

Figuring gasoline at $3 a gallon, a roughly equivalent 15-gallon fill-up comes to $45. At 25 miles to the gallon — not unreasonable in these times — you’d get a range of 375 miles, or about 12 cents a mile.

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

But that’s not the point. This is a vision for the future. The clincher for the Clarity Fuel Cell—everywhere but especially in environmentally challenged areas like California—is that it does not pollute. The only emission is water vapor that is drinkable water when cooled. And the cost of hydrogen eventually will drop substantially.

There is nothing bizarre about the Clarity Fuel Cell. It is a fastback design with modern, sculpted styling and built in ducts that create air curtains around the wheels to reduce wind drag and improve fuel economy.

Inside, with the exception of a power gauge that replaces a tachometer, all the instruments, controls and a center touch screen will be familiar to most drivers. A pushbutton gets things started. You touch console-mounted buttons for Drive, Park and Neutral, and pull up on one for Reverse, as on other Honda and Acura vehicles.

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

If you switch off the power and inadvertently leave Drive engaged, the Clarity will automatically shift into Park; it will not roll away. With so many and sometimes confusing new shifters appearing everywhere, those that allow vehicles to roll away in Drive are receiving increasing scrutiny as safety hazards.

As with any electric motor, the Clarity’s delivers full torque, or twisting force, the instant you step on the throttle. The Clarity is quick off the line with an observed 0-60 mph acceleration time of around seven seconds. It is quiet; the only sounds intruding into the passenger pod come from the tires on the pavement.

Honda has been tinkering with Clarity fuel cell vehicles for a decade, starting with the concept FCX. Though no longer experimental, it has limited appeal because of the paucity of hydrogen fueling stations. California’s is a small but viable network. Buyers elsewhere will have to wait until their localities develop more than a few stations here and there.

But the Clarity is no longer an exotic vehicle limited to motorists willing to experiment. Though it still will play to a limited audience in the beginning, do not fear. You’ll still be able to get a Clarity.

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

The Fuel Cell model is one of a triad of new Clarity sedans that Honda will deliver this year. The others are a pure electric model with about 80 miles of range before recharging, along with a gasoline-electric plug-in hybrid that will be sold nationwide.

However, only those select few in California will be paid for the experience. The Fuel Cell models will only be leased, not sold, so Honda can keep tabs on them and see how they perform at the end of the lease period.

The lease costs $369 a month for 36 months, or $13,284. Though there will be a 20,000 mile a year limit on driving, Honda will provide $15,000 worth of hydrogen fuel, along with 21 days of luxury car rental when and if the Clarity needs service. In addition, California will provide a $5,000 rebate to owners.

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

Specifications

  • Model: 2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell four-door sedan.
  • Power Source: AC permanent-magnet synchronous electric motor; 174 hp, 221 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Single-speed with sport mode and front-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 16 feet 1 inch.
  • EPA passenger/trunk volume: 102/12 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 4,134 pounds.
  • Fuel: Compressed hydrogen with fuel cell; 103 KW power output. Capacity:46 kilograms (12.037 pounds).
  • EPA city/highway/combined equivalent fuel consumption: 69/67/68 mpg.
  • Range: 366 miles.
  • Price: Lease only, 36 months; $369 per month with $15,000 fuel allowance and 20,000-mile annual limit.

Disclaimer: This test drive was conducted at a manufacturer-sponsored press event. The manufacturer provided travel, accommodations, vehicles, meals and fuel.

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

Photos (c) Honda