Payne: Hydrogen-fuel Honda Clarity, first drive

Posted by hpayne on March 25, 2017

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I’m tooling around the hills of Santa Barbara in a 2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell. Powered by the fusion of hydrogen and oxygen, the Clarity emits only water, which could be the solution to California’s drought issues: drive to work, produce H20, water your garden when you get home.

But that’s not why the Clarity is only available out here in La La Land. Let me explain.

When my motorhead pals visit Michigan, they notice our state is a little different. They remark on the prevalence of Detroit-made cars rarely seen elsewhere — Lincolns, Cadillacs, Buicks. They get it, of course. Motown is the capital of U.S. autos even if they don’t dominate the landscape like they once did.

Visit California and it’s a lot different. Indeed, the Left Coast could be its own country.

Travel to $6-a-gallon Europe and the narrow streets are clogged with tiny tin cans rarely seen on this side of the pond: VW Polos, Mercedes B-Class, Smart ForTwos. The wocka-wocka of diesel engines is everywhere thanks to favorable tax treatment from devout green governments that believe fossil fuels a sin. So too, California.

The Green Church here worships the polar bear, so the tax credits flow — not to nitrogen oxide-heavy diesels but to electric vehicles. There are whole schools of fish rarely seen elsewhere on the continent: the Nissan Leaf, Ford C-Max, lots of Toyota Priuses and hydrogen-powered cars like my Clarity tester. Gas prices here average $3.20 a gallon, but Californians get a fat $5,000 rebate if they choose an electrified vehicle.

California’s GDP would make it the world’s sixth-richest country, and it’s America’s biggest auto market. That gives Sacramento’s green priests enormous market power. By 2025, 15 percent of automakers’ sales here must be “zero-emission vehicles” powered by batteries or fuel cells whether customers want them or not.

Thus my Clarity.

The name will be familiar to green nerds as the 2007 spawn of Honda’s hydrogen experiments. The 2017 is available not just with the moon-shot hydrogen fuel cell, but also in pure electric and plug-in versions like the compact Prius (hybrid/EV/plug-in variants) or Hyundai Ioniq (hybrid/EV/plug-in).

The plug-in Clarity, which starts in the mid-$30,000 range, will take on competitors like the Chevy Volt and Tesla Model 3 in all 50 states.

The Clarity Fuel Cell is a more exotic animal built only for California (the pure-electric will also be for that state only). Though Honda lists a sticker price of $59,365, the Clarity Fuel Cell is only available for lease at an expensive $369 per month. Which is a steal. Let me explain.

The upper-$300s sounds more like a first-class Acura than a coach-class Honda ($200 for a mid-size Accord, $170 for a Civic). But California’s $5,000 rebate reduces the Clarity’s payment by $140 a month, and Honda throws in the hydrogen fuel for free. That’s a $160-a-month fuel savings if you’re the average Accord driver.

Do the math: $369 minus $140 minus $160 equals $69 a month.

My Left Coast media peers took notice. “Are you kidding? I’ll take it for 69 bucks!” said one. “I’ve been paying California taxes through the nose subsidizing Leo DiCaprio’s Teslas and Fiskers. It’s my turn for a break!”

Wise-cracking scribes aside, Clarity suitors are likely to be green nerds. The Clarity is a natural date for the social-climbing owner of a Prius, Accord hybrid or Ford Fusion Energi.

The Clarity’s face makes a good first impression. The familiar Honda grille and jewel-eye headlamps are framed by vertical LED running lights that remind of a Cadillac CT6.

But then its wardrobe gets geeky. Hondas sit on front-wheel-drive platforms, but the Clarity’s front overhang is particularly long thanks to the drivetrain’s front packaging and fuel-efficient aero-ducts.

Green chic runs amok in the rear where the Clarity borrows a dual-window from green icons Prius and Chevy Volt. Covered aero-fenders recall Honda’s ill-fated nerd classic, the compact Insight. Think of the Clarity as a grown-up Insight.

Mature suede and leather materials distinguish the interior. The push-button shifter bridges console storage for smartphones and purses. Honda offers its first heads-up display. There’s seating for five.

But what you really want to know is whether I needed a hazmat suit to fuel this rolling Hindenburg.

The good news: Pumping hydrogen these days is as easy, safe and fast as gasoline. Pulling into a Santa Barbara Shell station, I nuzzled the Clarity up to the hydrogen pump, selected the quicker 10,000-psi setting, locked the nozzle over the Honda’s narrow filler and was done in minutes. The massive hydrogen tank eats into the Clarity’s trunk space (good luck storing big suitcases back there), but Honda assures that it’s built to withstand a punt in the rear by an SUV piloted by an oblivious texter.

The bad news? Hydrogen has serious infrastructure and environmental problems. Where filling stations and cell-tower infrastructure naturally followed the explosive growth of gas cars and portable phones, no one’s lining up to fuel scarce hydrogen cars (only Toyota and Hyundai make Clarity competitors). Which is why the government is building a 100-station infrastructure, one costly $1.5 million pump at a time. And extracting hydrogen from water burns a lot of energy. As environmentalist Joseph Romm bluntly put it: “As a CO2 reducer, hydrogen stinks.”

Back on the road, I stomp the gas — er, electrons — and the result is dynamite.

The fuel cell spins an electric motor which launches the 4,134-pound sedan like a catapult or a slower Tesla Model S. Unlike the Model S, the Clarity is a front-wheel driver, but still manages quick getaways without spasms of torque steer.

I drove the Clarity like a Motor City madman and occasionally explored its 103-mph top speed. Like an electric car, a lead foot quickly degrades the fuel cell’s range. But unlike the 240-mile Tesla and Bolt EVs, the Clarity gets a gas-like 369 miles of range. Under my whip, the digital instrument display still projected 264 miles of range until the next hydrogen station. If you can find one.

Given its limitations, Clarity should meet its modest Republic of California compliance sales goals. That is, until someone figures out how it can also water lawns.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

VEHICLE TYPE FORWARD-DRIVETRAIN, FRONT-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER SEDAN
Power plant Proton-exchange membrane fuel cell driving AC electric motor
Transmission Single-speed automatic (with Sport mode)
Weight 4,134 pounds
Price $59,365 (only available as lease for $369 a month)
Power 174 horsepower, 221 pound-feet of torque
Performance 0-60 mph, 8.5 seconds (est.)
Fuel economy EPA 68 city/66 highway/67 combined

Report card

HIGHS UPSCALE, ROOMY INTERIOR; EASY FUELING
Lows Where’s the closest pump?; hydrogen isn’t zero-emission

Overall:★★★

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