What a great idea: Chris Naughton of Honda called, and offered to let me drive the exclusive FCX Clarity fuel-cell car--not for five minutes, but on a four-hour round-trip excursion to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where it would be topped off at the local filling station with four kilograms of pressurized hydrogen (at 5,000 pounds per square inch).
Then I thought about it a bit and came back with a counter offer: Since that would take a huge chunk out of my day, why not instead just pick it up in Manhattan and drive it back to Connecticut, where I live? We decided he'd drop me off in Greenwich, home to many hedge fund managers who are a bit preoccupied right now.
The FCX Clarity takes Manhattan. (Jim Motavalli photo)
So I trained into Grand Central, and there was the Clarity on Lexington Avenue, resplendent in the one available color: Star Garnet Metallic. "I drew a crowd," Naughton said. "They knew it was a hydrogen car." Indeed it is, and one of only four currently on U.S. roads. The other three are in the hands of celebrities, including one whose keys went to the actress Jamie Lee Curtis and her husband, the stellar film director Christopher Guest.
Although the FCX Clarity is vaguely Accord-like, that impression vanishes quickly in the well-finished cabin, which includes a really cool futuristic display with a color-changing "energy ball" that gets bigger when more energy is being drawn. This is no half-baked concept car with dangling wires: There are seat heaters and coolers, satellite radio, voice-activated navigation (which got us to Greenwich), and even adaptive cruise control, which allows the driver to automatically keep pace with the car ahead. Get too close, and the FCX slams its electronic foot down with near-threshold braking.
The car starts with the push of the power button, and emits a trademark and not unpleasant "whoosh!" which is not the 100-kilowatt electric motor but the air compressor (which feeds oxygen to the fuel cell). The shifter is a tiny lever you pull forward and then down into drive. Everything about the car feels light and well-balanced, including the door action, the assisted steering, and the effective braking. It accelerates eagerly up to a governed top speed of 100 mph, though I never had it past 70.
We stopped on Bruckner Boulevard in the Bronx so Naughton could buy some coffee. We got some curious stares from the car wash across the street, but passersby seemed to have other things to occupy their time. At the curb with the radio on, the fuel cell was disengaged and the car was drawing power from its lithium-ion battery pack, which Naughton says has been trouble-free so far.
A kilogram of hydrogen has approximately the same energy density as a gallon of gasoline. The FCX is actually rated by the EPA for fuel economy, and it gets the equivalent of 65 mpg on the highway and 70 in town (yes, reversed from the usual numbers). The range is 280 miles on a full tank, which is getting near consumer acceptability.
After getting on I-95 and making it through the New Rochelle toll, we cruised to our destination in about 20 minutes. It was somewhat anticlimactic to hand the keys back in front of the train station in Greenwich's tony downtown. As exotic as the car is, driving it is no life-changing experience. It just performs extremely well.
If the car itself were the only factor, the FCX Clarity would be in showrooms now. But hydrogen costs approximately $10 a gallon equivalent to make, and we're nowhere near having an affordable production plan for these vehicles. Yes, I want it all to happen tomorrow, too. This is an Inherently Low Emission Vehicle (says the EPA), and that means zero emissions (water only) out of that stylish tailpipe.
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