By on March 20, 2017

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell Exterior Front 3/4, Image: © 2017 Steph Willems/The Truth About Cars

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

Polymer Electrolyte Fuel Cell (PEFC) Stack (138 hp)

AC Synchronized Electric Motor (174 hp; 221 lb-ft)

346V Lithium Ion battery

One-speed automatic, front-wheel drive

68 city / 66 highway / 67 combined (EPA Rating, mi/kg)

366 mile range

Price: $369/month, $2,868 due at signing, plus taxes and fees (lease only).

It’s never easy trying to whip up an air of exclusivity through your daily driver, and nowhere in the U.S. is this truer than in southern California. Whether it’s ultra exotics driven by the Beautiful People or rust-free rarities carefully maintained with end-of-week savings, chances are your neighbor, friend or coworker’s ride makes your commuter car — premium or not — look as banal as dry toast.

How does a car buyer turn heads, ideally while projecting an all-caps message about their chosen lifestyle, without breaking the bank or A-Teaming a tired sedan into some sort of grotesque absurdity? Honda has the answer.

For now — and Honda accountants would prefer that the “rarity” period remains a short one — driving a leased Clarity Fuel Cell sedan puts you in a very exclusive club. By month’s end, Honda expects the number of next-generation, hydrogen-powered five-seaters plying the roadways of the Golden State to top the three-figure mark. Huge numbers, for sure.

Next thing you know, the person you hired to walk your dogs might pull up in one.

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell Exterior Profile, Image: © 2017 Steph Willems/The Truth About Cars

Every revolution needs to start somewhere, Honda figures, so it hasn’t let up trying to wean drivers off gasoline through the development of vehicles fueled by the lightest and most common element in the universe. Hydrogen.

Look around, and you’ll notice there’s damn few H2 stations out there. Actually, unless you’re in California, which currently sports 26 stations scattered around the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas, you’ll see exactly zero. That’s because the world’s most plentiful fuel source remains the hardest to find. Is Honda, which launched its first fuel cell vehicle way back in 2000, worried? Not really. It’s in it for the long game, planning for a world where hydrogen replaces gasoline and diesel as the fuel du jour.

With the Clarity Fuel Cell, first delivered in the U.S. on December 19, Honda’s vision for futuristic motoring reaches a new zenith. The automaker dubs its primitive, late 1990s test vehicles “mobile chemical plants.” The FCX-V2 produced its own hydrogen on board, reforming methanol into a usable gas that could then create electricity. Maybe there’s a better way to do this, Honda engineers thought. There was. Just put a big, damn tank of the stuff on board.

Still, another problem remained. Big, round hydrogen tanks and tall fuel cell stacks don’t add up to a great-looking car.

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell Exterior Rear Fender Skirt, Image: © 2017 Steph Willems/The Truth About Cars

While the Clarity Fuel Cell bears a passing resemblance to its predecessor, the 2008–2014 FCX Clarity, refinement is the word of the day. Longer, wider, and with all of the Six Million Dollar Man attributes accounted for, the latest fuel cell vehicle from Honda functions and looks light years ahead of the tall and ungainly 2003 FCX.

This time around, every effort was made to “normalize the car,” said Stephen Ellis, Honda’s manager of fuel cell vehicle marketing. Not to say that there aren’t a few oddities worthy of mention.

Honda flew me out to Santa Barbara last week, where a stable of Clarity FCs languished in the sun-dappled shade beneath sprawling green canopies. (Full disclosure: during the trip, Honda provided a lifestyle rivaling The Weeknd’s and thrust bourbon and lamb at me with reckless abandon.)

At first glance, a casual observer might not notice anything amiss. This is a roomy midsize sedan with a tasteful, two-tone interior. Sure, the floating console is a bit Star Trek (and makes charging port access an exercise in wrist manipulation), but besides something odd happening behind the rear seats, and that mysterious slit ahead of the rear wheel wells, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was some offshoot of Honda’s stalwart Accord.

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell Exterior Rear 3/4, Image: © 2017 Steph Willems/The Truth About Cars

Of course, you’d be wrong. Honda engineers apparently took great pains hiding the Clarity’s cutting-edge technology — both its powerplant and unique drag-cheating aerodynamics. That slit in front of the rear wheels? It’s just the most obvious giveaway of the Clarity FC’s “air curtain” feature. Air flowing past the lower bodyside enters the slit and travels into the wheel well itself, reducing turbulence. Hidden in the lower front fascia are more slits connecting to the front wheel wells.

Rounding out the aerodynamic improvements are partial rear fender skirts (Honda apparently forbid its engineers from adding a full cover, hence the need for the air curtain). The automaker won’t reveal the Clarity FC’s drag coefficient, but the model’s development leader, Kiyoshi Shimizu, claims it’s the lowest of any Honda-badged vehicle.

During the FCX Clarity’s six-year run, which saw 46 U.S. vehicles leased for the sum of $600 per month, customers gave Honda an earful. A tricky bunch, those fuel cell aficionados. They’re ready and willing to serve as early adopters of a new technology, but not willing to do without some basics. For starters: four passenger seating? That’s out. The new Clarity FC’s three-person rear bench is like any other you’d find on the market. Interior room also gets a boost, thanks to less fuel tank, battery, and fuel cell intrusion into the passenger cabin.

The key was moving the fuel cell “out of the passenger space and under the hood,” said Ellis. “We want people to have everything they would expect of a sedan.”

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell Motor, Image: © 2017 Steph Willems/The Truth About Cars

Now squeezing 1.5 times the power out of each cell, the next-generation powerplant boasts 30-percent fewer cells. Each cell is also 20-percent thinner. These improvements mean a 33-percent smaller fuel cell, which, when mounted atop the drive unit (instead of beneath the floor), reduces motor height by 34 percent. Downsizing the unit to something comparable to the company’s 3.5-liter V6 means the Clarity FC’s hoodline now resembles that of a conventional sedan.

Certainly, the 30-percent boost in horsepower (to 174 hp) and 17-percent improvement in grunt (to 221 lb-ft) made for adequate but not thrilling performance on both the highway and twisty canyon roads. Acceleration is electric car-linear (there’s a one-speed transmission, natch) and builds nicely at moderate speeds, but don’t expect to peel away from a stoplight. Chalk some of the Clarity FC’s sedate nature up to its 4,136-pound curb weight.

A sport mode supposedly ramps up the drivetrain’s responsiveness, but I couldn’t notice any appreciable difference. The upside to this seemingly superfluous driving mode is a moderate regenerative braking effect that keeps downhill momentum under control — something that proved useful in the foothills of the San Rafael Mountains.

Make no mistake — while the Clarity’s nicely weighted steering remains on point and the suspension is quite adept at smoothing out imperfections, this isn’t a driver’s car. A high curb weight, coupled with front-wheel drive and 18-inch low rolling resistance rubber, is a recipe for tire scrub and slight understeer in tight corners. In these situations, more feedback and grip would be nice.

At least the car’s quiet about it. Actually, it’s very quiet overall, and the body feels reassuringly stiff.

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell Interior, Image: © 2017 Steph Willems/The Truth About Cars

A big complaint leveled at the previous Clarity was the drive unit’s incessant whine, something mostly eliminated by the new model’s electric, turbocharger-type air compressor. With windows up and stereo off, it’s faintly audible during acceleration and freewheeling. But compared to the rival Toyota Mirai (which Honda just happened to have on hand), the Clarity is a library at closing time.

This time around, Honda upped the vehicle’s content level to something befitting a premium model. At $369 a month ($2,868 due at signing), the fancy fuel cell alone isn’t enough to impress. Joining the usual niceties, which includes an 8-inch touchscreen with navigation and a limited range of driver safety features, is a lot of upscale eye candy. Faux suede dash and door inserts derived from recycled plastic mingles with a forest of dark, artificial wood, while the mainly faux leather seats contain inserts made of cows already sacrificed for their succulent meat.

Pleasing to the eye, the Clarity FC’s interior proved comfortable on our lengthy test drive. Backseat room is generous. And this is where Honda wants owners to spend more time — otherwise, what’s the point of adding a second fuel tank that boosts capacity by 39 percent? One tank sits atop the rear axle and a smaller one lurks below the rear seat. A small lithium-ion battery pack, which corrals excess electricity from regeneration and uses it for assist, sits below the front seats.

Honda didn’t want the rearmost tank to gobble up trunk space, so it engineered an unusual solution. The raised trunk is transparent. Well, sections of it are. By adding see-through panels behind the rear seat and in the trunklid itself, the rearview mirror displays the view through both the back window and the trunk. It’s a little jarring.

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell looking out rear, Image: © 2017 Steph Willems/The Truth About Cars

Also jarring, at least at first, is the refueling process. Once that ice-cold nozzle locks to the vehicle’s fueling nipple with a quick twist, it takes about five minutes for 5.46 kilograms of pressurized gas to flow into those two tanks. Hoping to sweeten the deal, Honda includes $15,000 of free hydrogen in each lease. Just don’t drive over 20,000 miles each year. You’ll get dinged.

Honda needed to ensure the lease package “breaks down barriers to ownership,” Ellis told us. Realizing that Clarity FC owners will probably need a way of getting to Thanksgiving dinner in Portland, or maybe up to the ski hills, it included 21 days of free luxury car rentals in the deal. Meanwhile, the automaker is funding the construction of eight new refueling stations and working with H2USA (a federal public-private partnership) to build even more. In total, 36 new stations should pop up in California this year and next. Some of those will be found outside of major urban centers.

Elsewhere in the country, Honda has its eye on 12 hydrogen refueling sites selected to serve the New York-Boston corridor. “We’re watching it closely as it develops,” Ellis told me. A purchase option should join the lease in the near future, he added.

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell Front, Image: © 2017 Steph Willems/The Truth About Cars

Playing the long game means making the best of the present. While Honda feels pretty confident of a hydrogen-fueled future, the Clarity Fuel Cell is just one part of the journey there. In the near- to mid-term, there’s no “silver bullet” for green driving, said Steve Center, vice president of American Honda’s Environmental Business Development Office.

The Clarity FC exists to “jump-start” the fuel cell revolution, but its impact remains tiny for now. That’s why there are three models bound for the Clarity lineup. A battery electric variant (with a paltry 80-mile range) will join a plug-in hybrid and the existing Accord Hybrid to cover all the low- and zero-emission bases.

Will Honda’s gambit pay off and make the company a green vehicle leader in the World of Tomorrow? Set your alarm for 2050. Meanwhile, no one can say Honda is resting on its technological laurels.

[Images: © 2017 Steph Willems/The Truth About Cars]

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32 Comments on “2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell First Drive Review – Breaking Dawn, Part Three...”

  • avatar

    Mini fender skirts design element.
    Can they be making a comeback?

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    “Fool cells”, indeed.

  • avatar

    Hydrogen is not a fuel source. the way we have to obtain it means it’s at best an energy storage medium.

    really, a fuel-cell vehicle is basically an EV with a rapidly rechargeable battery.

    • 0 avatar


      Until we come up with some way of producing vast amounts of nearly-free electricity, Hydrogen is a technology demo, not a viable fuel source.

      That said, solar is getting better every year. Will it ever get good enough to the point where it can make Hydrogen cost-competitive? Hard to say. Certainly electrolyzing water and then compressing the H2 is more than a bit energy-intensive (and inefficient.)

    • 0 avatar

      The pitch is that it is a more reliable medium for energy storage and distribution than a powergrid with similarly reliable peak-draw-anywhere-anytime characteristics. How confident would you really feel about the Supercharger station halfway between Kandahar and Kabul being operational when you, and a few thousand others on the way to watch the annual cannon(literally) ball game between the two cities, is to take place?

  • avatar

    This car actually looks good compared to it’s Toyota counterpart.

  • avatar

    What a quirky Citroen!

    Honestly, Japan needs to get on the battery bandwagon before they get totally left behind.

    • 0 avatar

      They’re probably further along in battery chem than anyone else. And in electric motors. And in all the complicated components required to efficiently build a reliable modern car. Given those components as inputs, slapping them together into something one can hypesell as a BEV, or at least pretend to for long enough to hustle up some fresh print from the Fed, takes about the same effort as engineering a ham sandwich. Which is why it’s such a fertile field for those with less accumulated engineering acumen.

  • avatar

    I completely do not understand the reasoning behind this car. I would please like someone to explain this to me.

    What is the purpose? This is basically an electric/hybrid vehicle fueled by an incredibly expensive, complex, inflammable, and rare power source. Yes, I know hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but anyone who had chemistry in 9th grade should know that it immediately binds up with everything around it and is expensive and vastly energy consuming to obtain in pure form.

    The total life cycle energy efficiency of this thing, from obtaining and distilling methanol- most of which I believe comes from natural gas- to reforming it into hydrogen, to transporting hydrogen and then cooling and compressing it as mentioned, to then turning it into electricity, must be atrocious.

    I cannot imagine what the costs to build a hydrogen infrastructure would be, not to mention- gas pipelines leak, corrode, and need to be replaced occasionally. Natural gas leaks are dangerous, but generally not deadly. Natural gas is flammable, but hydrogen is inflammable.

    For decades, Natural gas/propane powered vehicles nibbled at the edges of the market and were the only alternative fuel vehicles available. Those made some sense as natural gas is now cheap, readily available, domestically produced, and an infrastructure is already in place.

    I suppose Honda is (well, undoubtedly benefiting from taxpayer largesse for developing some further alternative fuel ideas, no idea can be this stupid without the government) expecting a future where solar/wind power generates cheap electricity which would be able to generate hydrogen. Bah. Consign it already to the grave dug by government funded bad ideas.

    • 0 avatar

      “Natural gas is flammable, but hydrogen is inflammable.”

      Those words mean the same thing. What were you trying to say?

    • 0 avatar

      In order for electrification to have a real impact on atmospheric carbon, fossil fuel will literally have to be left in the ground. George Clooney, Al Gore and Elon Musk prancing around all holier-than-thou in Santa Monica and San Francisco will just reduce oil demand. Making it cheaper for the Chinese and the Africans to burn it.

      If the richos above did decide to put their money where their mouth is, they could, conceptually at least, produce hydrogen from “clean” sources in such quantities that even in the middle of an Afrcan War Zone, where noone would ever attempt to keep a power grid operational, H2 to power battle tanks would be cheaper to obtain than fossil fuels.

      Most of the world’s population growth, hence driving growth, is occurring in places with, at best, spotty power grids. The Japanese pretty much already don’t need power for much more than the Asimos pushing their wheelchairs around and their pacemakers. And the West is only about a generation or two behind. “Solving” CO2 emissions problems from the vantage points only of those two, soon to be extinct, populations, no matter how virtuous doing so may make make a dying carcass feel, doesn’t fundamentally “solve” much at all.

    • 0 avatar

      Methanol can be generated from the waste CO2 and heat from fossil fuel power plants (once catalyst research finds a good, robust catalyst). The methanol can be transported to corner gas stations where an on-site methanol reformer generates the H2 for the cars.

      Flammable and inflammable mean the same thing.

      Hydrogen gas will burn or explode just like methane/ethane/propane/butane/gasoline vapors depending on the ratios of air and the gas. You can have a hydrogen gas burner just like a gas burner. You can also have a hydrogen explosion just like you can have a propane explosion.

      The danger of natural gas leaks is no greater or lesser than the danger of hydrogen gas leaks. Both will kill you if ignited at stoichiometric ratios.

  • avatar

    No, no, no, natural gas will burn, but hydrogen EXPLODES. Inflammable is a significant degree higher than flammable.

    • 0 avatar

      no it isn’t; “inflammable” tends to be Commonwealth usage, “flammable” is American usage. they mean the same thing. Two countries separated by a common language.

      if something explodes, it’s “explosive.”

      the risk with hydrogen is it’ll ignite regardless of the air:fuel ratio. hydrocarbon fuels are difficult to ignite if there’s too much or too little air.

  • avatar

    Wiki says 95% of hydrogen is made from nat gas.
    Does it make more sense to just use the nat gas directly as in a CNG Civic?

    • 0 avatar

      There are two answers to your question.

      Answer one: It doesn’t make sense.
      Not only are we converting from nat gas to another gas to provide propulsion, an unnecessary step, but getting hydrogen to a hydrogen filling station involves trucking the hydrogen in tankers, there isn’t a pipeline distribution for hydrogen like there is for natural gas. It’s dumb, costly and inefficient.

      Answer Two: It will make perfect sense. Eventually.
      If hydrogen is made at a fueling station onsite via solar or wind energy using electrolysis, then that eliminates having to use natural gas and the need to transport hydrogen in tankers.
      That still leaves the question why not simply use the solar/wind energy to recharge a battery rather than go through the extra step of hydrogen.

      If EV’s can be successfully recharged very rapidly, then the case for hydrogen goes away. Will the new 350 kWh rapid chargers that are scheduled for deployment achieve that in the eyes of the consumer? We’ll see.

      • 0 avatar
        DC Bruce

        This certainly is a “moon shot” car. I suppose the lack of a hydrogen distribution network could be remedied if natural gas could be easily and simply extracted from natural gas at the point of sale. I don’t think hydrolysis is the way to go.

        The advantage of hydrogen as a fuel would seem to be the higher energy density it affords as compared to batteries. And, it appears to be unknown what the longevity of a battery is that is subject to high amperage charges using the Tesla supercharger or similar, not to mention Tesla’s aggressive discharge profile for its batteries, compared to everyone else who uses a battery in a hybrid or PHEV. Certainly lead-acid batteries and NiCad batteries do not stand up well to that kind of use.

        The other question left unanswered, as others have noted, is what’s the total efficiency of this using an end-to-end energy calculation, starting with the original natural gas from the pipeline; and how does that compare with simply burning the natural gas in an ICE.

        The original hybrid concept is not an alternative-fuel vehicle. It is simply a way of making an ICE-powered vehicle more efficient by recapturing energy dumped into the air by engine braking and service brakes. Theoretically, once could use a spinning flywheel to do the same thing.

        The science fair projects continue.

        • 0 avatar

          In addition, if everyone on Manhattan got of work and headed to the Supercharger at the same time, what gauge power rail would you need to keep all those points hot to the trot? Gas stations rely on on-site tanks rather than a pipeline grid for for a reason. And then there’s those pesky mid pacific superchargers needed to prevent carbon emissions from ships…. Or planes…

          H2 propulsion is still in it’s absolute pre-proto-infancy. Which may, or may not, be what makes it look so pointless from the vantage point of here and now.

          But it is conceptually a pretty darned all encompassing solution to transportation, on this planet and beyond. If, as the Honda honchos claim, getting from here to practicality really is “just an engineering problem,” it is one worth pursuing for those with the resources available to do so.

          It’s a lot harder to get all that excited about hanging some controls, interior space and hype onto a 70s era RC and call it “the future of transportation from now until forever.”

          • 0 avatar

            @stuki: What happens if everyone in Manhattan gets out of work and heads to the gas stations? The lines would be mile long and they’d be pumped dry. If they all had EVs, they would be at 100% charge because they were charging all day or week and wouldn’t need to stop at a supercharger.

          • 0 avatar

            Jeez, mcs, you’d think some of these guys weren’t around for 1973.

        • 0 avatar

          @dcbruce: What about the longevity of those 10,000 psi hydrogen tanks, the connections, and the equipment you’re fueling it with?

          I have over 200 quick charges and still have full ranges on my EV. Of course, if it goes, all that happens is that my range diminishes. If those 200 quick charges were hydrogen at $82 a pop, I’d have paid more than the cost of a new battery.

  • avatar

    “included 21 days of free luxury car rentals in the deal. ”

    Rather than the expense of supplying free rentals and also inconveniencing the customer by requiring them to rent a car out of the infrastructures range, why not put that money into providing a plug (and inverter) on the car to recharge the battery?

    A plug in hybrid would be more flexible than a straight up hybrid.

    A PHEV with a hydrogen fuel cell range extender sounds fine if that’s what floats your boat.

  • avatar

    I like what they did with the Crosstour.

  • avatar

    The lack of fueling stations is an issue, but at least it has range comparable to a gasoline car. I have to say, I’m impressed with the energy-density (not volume-wise, but certainly miles per kg. of fuel is damn impressive.)

    On another note, how much of a trunk does it have? If this thing wants to pretend to be a standard sedan, it needs a trunk…

  • avatar

    Autoweek has an actual review of the Clarity. It apparently cost $82 dollars to fill the tank and they only got 258 miles range out of it. Anyway, read the article:

  • avatar

    Where do they get the materials for the fuel cell? Can they get enough raw material to make millions of fuel cells?

    • 0 avatar

      Historically, the catalyst has usually been platinum-based. If they can produce enough for the millions of catalytic converters for emissions, I’m guessing it won’t be a problem for fuel cells.

      That said, research from the last few decades have found catalysts that don’t require precious metals.

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