Honda’s Hydrogen-Huffing Mirai Fighter
Hydrogen has long been promised as the answer to many of our automotive and environmental problems, but it’s also always been promised as being just a few years away. With the all-new Clarity Fuel Cell Vehicle from Honda (and its chief rival, the Toyota Mirai), though, the mass-production hydrogen car may finally be here.
Japanese automakers and their domestic government believe in hydrogen as a cure-all to our environmental quandaries, and they’ve invested a lot of money in making it viable. Back in 2008, Honda put the first purpose-built hydrogen fuel cell car on the road, but in the hands of fewer than 30 people. The FCX Clarity was a big deal, though, because it wasn’t an existing car hacked up and stuffed with tanks and inverters and things. Allegedly, each car cost Honda $1 million USD when you added up all the money put into building two dozen or so cars.
Thing is, it drove like any other Honda sedan. It was built to production car standards and performed as well as any run-of-the-mill Civic. In fact, ignoring its onboard fuel cell, it was the best electrically driven car on the market by a country mile. (Remember, the Tesla Model S wouldn’t exist for several more years.) It had its compromises, though. Refueling was different and required special training and care. The fuel cell stack and hydrogen tanks took up a lot of space, leaving little room for cargo. And of course the number of hydrogen refueling stations in the country could be counted on one hand.
The Clarity Fuel Cell enters a different world, and though it looks similar, it’s a different car. Today’s world has an increasing number of hydrogen refueling stations, and not just in Southern California. Toyota has announced an initiative to help fund new station construction and is releasing its own mass-market fuel cell vehicle. It’s a nascent industry to be sure, but it’s looking far more viable than ever.
The car has changed, too. The most important work has gone on under the hood, where Honda has shrunk the fuel cell stack by a third and much of the power control hardware similarly to the point where it can all fit under the hood for the first time. The fuel cell itself features 30 percent fewer actual cells, but power density is up 50 percent. All told, the new, compact stack puts out 100-plus kilowatts at 330 volts. It now resides on top of the electric motor, where the power controller and voltage regulator used to live. The controller is smaller and incorporated in the motor housing, and the smaller regulator now sits on top of the fuel cell. Altogether, the entire setup is about the same size as a V-6 engine and transmission.
Getting the fuel cell under the hood undid some of the old FCX Clarity’s compromises. With the batteries (which store some of the fuel cell’s output to allow for pure EV driving and supplement the fuel cell under heavy load or hard acceleration) under the floor and the smaller of the hydrogen tanks under the rear seat, the Clarity Fuel Cell is a true five-seater now, with as much space in the rear seat as your average compact sedan. Although Honda could’ve used the additional space to make a big trunk, it instead increased the trunk size moderately and used the rest of the space to fit a larger hydrogen tank behind the rear seats. Doing so has increased the range from 240 miles to 300 miles and change (the 2016 Mirai is rated for 312 miles). Honda still claims to have the biggest trunk of any fuel cell vehicle on the market (a low bar), and you could probably get two large suitcases in there now as opposed to the one the FCX would hold. The cherry on top is that despite the extra range, you can still fill the tanks in about three minutes, or roughly the same amount of time it would take you to put gas in another car. Beat that, Tesla Superchargers.
It gasses up quick and goes a fairly long way on a tank, but how does it drive? Hydrogen cars are actually EVs with onboard electrical generators. Powering the Clarity Fuel Cell is a 130-kW/174-hp electric motor, a 30 percent improvement over the FCX (134 hp). Torque isn’t yet specified, but Honda claims a 17 percent improvement over the FCX’s 189 lb-ft, which would put it around 220 lb-ft. The Clarity Fuel Cell is also heavier than the FCX, though Honda won’t say how much. It’s still likely the Clarity Fuel Cell will be quicker than the FCX and its 9.3-second sprint to 60 mph.
Actually driving the car, which I unfortunately didn’t get to do for long, gives a good impression. Nail the throttle pedal, and the Clarity Fuel Cell jumps forward and accelerates surprisingly quickly, quick enough that I wouldn’t be at all concerned about merging on the freeway. I’d bet Honda’s taken at least a second off the 0-60-mph time. Like an EV, it’s very quiet business getting up to speed, but unlike in an EV, you do hear a faint noise from the fuel cell under hard acceleration. It sounds like someone slowly letting the air out of your tires.
Because my test drive was limited to a proving ground, I didn’t get much of an impression of ride quality or handling performance, but the strongest impression the car gives is that it’s surprisingly familiar. Other than the EV acceleration experience, it drives like a bigger, heavier Civic. Steering, braking, handling, and ride quality (what little I experienced) all felt like any other compact to midsize sedan. (Yes, it looks like a hatchback, but it’s not.) The average consumer will find this car surprisingly unintimidating despite its George Jetson powertrain.
It’s a nice place to take a ride into the future, too. The cabin is familiar Honda but with a simple and elegant futuristic bent. The floating infotainment screen and center console are reminiscent of certain luxury cars, as are the all-digital dashboard and head-up display. The materials are likewise luxury quality with leather seating and a suede-wrapped dashboard. The seats are comfortable, and there’s a good amount of space for all passengers (save maybe the middle seat in the rear, as expected). Outward visibility is very good, even to the rear. A tiny second window just above the middle seat headrest looks into the trunk, where there’s another tiny window in the trunklid. It seems silly, but it really does increase rearward visibility in the rearview mirror.
The Clarity Fuel Cell will also offer a unique emergency preparedness feature you won’t find anywhere else, though you might not be able to find it in the North America, either. A Honda-developed inverter called the Power Exporter 1000 plugs into the car’s charging port (you can pre-charge the battery at home to extend your pure EV range) and supplies AC power to several standard electrical outlets. In the event of a natural disaster, Honda says a Clarity Fuel Cell can power a small home or business for up to seven days. The inverter will be available in Japan after the car goes on sale. Honda’s made no commitment to exporting it yet, but I think it may consider it in a few years when enough cars have been sold. After all, the primary market (and only market at launch) will be California, which is prone to earthquakes.
The final question as the Clarity Fuel Cell approaches its on-sale date later next year will be pricing. Honda intends for it to be a mass-market car, and pricing will need to reflect that, but there’s also a great deal of technology and investment to pay for. I would venture to guess the Mirai’s pricing will be indicative; it sits at $57,500 USD before incentives, of which there are many. As such, we can expect hydrogen cars to follow roughly the same arc as their EV forbears, early adopters being well-heeled technophiles and environmentalists. If enough adopt, we can expect the price to drop as costs are amortized and scale is increased. It’ll be a slow road, no doubt, but for the first time in the history of the hydrogen car, it’s a road that actually goes somewhere.