First Drive: Honda FCX Clarity

The Honda FCX Clarity you see here is a very special car. It’s said to be one of just seven prototypes in the world, valued in the region of £6.5 million. And Honda let us have the keys.

The multi-million price tag might put a few off, but a lucky 40 or so people in California and Japan are getting to lease these cars for around £400 a month. There is, however, a reason that the relatively conventional family car pictured above costs quite so much.

Described by Honda as an electric car, the FCX actually uses liquid hydrogen that is then converted to electricity by a suitcase sized box of wonders called a Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell.

Not that you could tell there’s anything spectacular going on from driving the car. The interior is like a more grown-up Civic, with digital displays up front and a large LCD panel on the centre console. The gear selector (this being an automatic of sorts) is located high up on the instrument binnacle where it works well, freeing up space between the seats for more storage and toys.

Similar in size to a BMW 5 series, the Clarity is spacious and light inside but the distinctive styling makes visibility in some areas a little difficult. This, however, is something Honda has addressed with extra glass squeezed in wherever possible; there’s even a rear window ‘tunnel’ that runs from the rear head restraints to the back of the car to aid rearward visibility.

When pressing the Power button, as in every other electric car, nothing really happens. The dashboard lights up, there are a few discreet whirring noises, and you’re ready to go. Push the gear selector in to D and the car starts to move forwards in near silence. The whine usually associated with electric cars sounds deeper, gruffer, in the Clarity, and that’s probably a good thing. It’s still eerily quiet, though.

On the road it’s a completely benign and inoffensive driving experience. It goes, it turns and it stops, and it does all three very smoothly. The ride is slightly firm, but never hard enough to send the finer details of any potholes through to the cabin. Being an electric car, there’s obviously the constant torque available that is associated with battery-powered cars, and there seems to be enough power to keep the thing going.

Sadly we couldn’t test the car as thoroughly as we’d like to, as there was a definite limit on mileage; this car was heading to Scotland before it would get a chance to return to Swindon to refuel, where Honda have built the UK’s only hydrogen refuelling facility. Obviously a trailer is involved.

The positives are obvious for the FCX. Hydrogen is the most abundant gas on the planet, although most of it is joined with Oxygen to create water. Once you’ve got that hydrogen out, converting it to electricity in the fuel cell produces just one harmless waste product: water. There’s also the fact that you can fill it up in a couple of minutes when you’re running low on fuel, something you can’t do with a conventional electric car.

And in that strength lies the biggest problem with the car. Or rather not with the car, but the infrastructure that should support it; it’s just not there.

Whilst others put their money behind hybrid technology or all-electric power, which require nothing more than a regular filling station or an electric socket and a spare eight hours, after 270 or miles you’ll need to top up the FCX with hydrogen. And that means you can never go more than 135 miles from Swindon.

And 135 miles from Swindon just isn’t far enough.

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Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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