2017 Honda Clarity First Drive | Edmunds

2017 Honda Clarity First Drive

The Future of Honda May Have Already Arrived

The 2017 Honda Clarity fuel cell vehicle is a zero-emission, five-passenger midsize sedan that runs on electricity generated onboard using compressed hydrogen gas. It's a twist on typical electric cars that store their power in giant battery packs. Honda isn't putting all its electrons in the fuel cell basket, however, as the Clarity will also be offered as a plug-in hybrid and a battery electric.

If you're unfamiliar with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, you're not alone. They are still only available in California since it's the only state with a hydrogen refueling station infrastructure. Like charging stations for battery electric cars, the rollout of hydrogen stations is starting slowly. In the meantime, Honda hopes that offering a much improved Clarity will give mainstream buyers a reason to consider this new kind of electric car.

2017 Honda Clarity

Fuel Cell Fueling 101

So, how does a Honda Clarity propel itself down the road anyway? First there is the hydrogen gas stored in two tanks, one below the rear seats, the other between the rear seatback and the trunk. The combined volume of these tanks is actually smaller than in the previous model, but they were designed for double the pressure (10,000 psi), so the amount of hydrogen storage has been increased by 39 percent.

When you step on the accelerator, pressurized hydrogen from the tanks combined with oxygen from the ambient air is sent to the Clarity's fuel cell stack, which is the unique piece of technology that converts hydrogen into electricity. It's more compact and powerful than before. And it's now small enough to fit in the engine bay with the electric motor and control units, rather than under the cabin floor, where it ate into the passenger space of the previous model.

The fuel cell stack consists of cells made up of a pair of electrodes and a membrane. Together they function like a battery. Hydrogen passes through the cells and is combined with oxygen to generate a chemical reaction that produces water and an electric current across the electrodes. The cumulative electricity from all the cells is used to power the Clarity's electric motor or is stored in the Clarity's lithium battery pack to power interior electrical components or provide additional acceleration assist when needed.

The resulting water from the chemical reaction drains through an exhaust pipe and gathers in a collector where it either evaporates or gets expelled under acceleration. And just as in battery electric vehicles, regenerative braking energy is also recouped and stored in the lithium battery.

2017 Honda Clarity

Economical Doesn't Mean Spartan

All 2017 Clarity sedans come fully loaded. A full suite of Honda's latest active driving aids are standard alongside a 12-speaker premium sound system. The cabin accoutrements are similar to those of an upper-trim Honda Accord, with a few extra premium design elements folded in.

The most prominent feature is probably the floating center console that bridges the space between the dash and center armrest assembly. On top is an electronic push-button gear selector, matching the one found in the Honda Pilot, except the elevated position of it in the Clarity makes it more ergonomic.

There's generous space below the floating console for personal effects such as smartphones, along with USB outlets to keep them charged and accessible through the infotainment system's Apple CarPlay and Android Auto interface. However, we're a little disappointed that the Clarity's 8-inch electrostatic screen uses a touch-sensitive slider and not a user-friendly volume control knob.

Other nice interior details include a suedelike material lining portions of the doors and stretching across the dash, accented by reasonably realistic grain wood trim. And the climate control even features Plasmacluster ion technology, which is said to reduce odors and microscopic pollutants within the cabin.

2017 Honda Clarity

What's It Like to Drive?

At over 4,100 pounds, the Clarity isn't exactly light-footed, but it wears its weight low to the ground and moves well under the electric motor's 221 pound-feet of torque. In a display of confidence, Honda even wove a few twistier roads into our test-drive route, likely to help showcase the Clarity's direct steering feel and prove that it wouldn't trip over itself if you picked up the pace a bit.

From a standstill, the Clarity doesn't feel as punchy off the line as many electric vehicles, or the Toyota Mirai for that matter, though it does outpace the Mirai to 60 mph by a few tenths. Under hard acceleration, there's a faint electronic whine mixed in with the sound of a whispering jet engine, created by the stream of compressed air traveling through the passages leading to the fuel cell stack. The sound isn't at all off-putting, especially if you've ever dreamt of being a fighter pilot.

2017 Honda Clarity

Fuel Cells vs. Battery Electric

There are numerous arguments to be made on either side of the fence when it comes to fuel cell vehicles versus battery electric vehicles (BEVs), and they both have their advantages and limitations. But in the interest of brevity, we'll stick to the main ones here.

First the benefits: Fuel cells typically have greater range than BEVs. Yes, even Tesla's $94,000 distance champion, the Model S 100D, with 335 miles of range, falls short of the Clarity, with 366 miles. And when you run out of range, fuel cells are much quicker to refill on the go. The Clarity needs only about three to five minutes to top up its tanks and restore full range. Lastly, due to the scarcity of fuel cell cars, both Honda and Toyota are offering complimentary fuel over first three years, at a maximum of $15,000 worth of hydrogen.

This segues into some of the disadvantages of fuel cell cars. Although you can only lease a 2017 Honda Clarity at the moment, if you were to purchase a fuel cell car such as a Toyota Mirai, you'd be on the hook for the hydrogen after three years. And as we found during our long-term test of the 2016 Toyota Mirai, the price of hydrogen varies widely between stations — we paid anywhere from $9.54 to $16.63 per kilogram.

Secondly, the hydrogen refueling infrastructure is still in infancy. There are currently only 25 active hydrogen stations between Northern and Southern California, with 35 more state-funded stations scheduled to come online by 2019. That still pales in comparison to the thousands of commercial charging stations all around California, not to mention the ones electric car owners have installed at their homes.

Lastly, the size of hydrogen storage tanks is still a packaging challenge. With lithium battery packs getting smaller and being more configurable, many new EVs are able to package them in a more efficient manner, which frees up more passenger space and cargo room.

2017 Honda Clarity

If I Want One, What Will It Cost?

The first run of 2017 Clarity fuel cell cars are already in customer hands. In fact, we just added one to our own long-term test fleet. The Clarity's 36-month lease will run you $369 per month with $2,868 due at signing. This deal gets a little sweeter once you factor in the California Clean Vehicle Rebate at $5,000, which covers the down payment and drops the lease total to about $310 per month.

Honda also offers 21 days of complimentary Avis luxury car rentals over the three-year lease period, for the times you want or have to drive beyond California's hydrogen refueling network. And don't forget about the $15,000 of complimentary hydrogen fuel or the Clean Air Vehicle sticker for single-occupant HOV lane access.

If you live in California and want to try an alternative fuel vehicle that doesn't cramp your lifestyle, the Clarity presents an interesting option. It's still too early to know whether the idea of fuel cell cars are here to stay, but early adopters now have another worthwhile choice to consider.

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