Honda Clarity FCV review: Does it move the hydrogen-powered car forward?

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For the last ten years the most interesting and least popular way to power your car has no doubt been Hydrogen. Just over 2,300 fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) were delivered to new owners in 2018 – compared to more than 361,000 traditional electric vehicles (EVs) sold in the same year. Despite the lack of sales, Honda saw it fit to introduce the Clarity FCEV in early 2017 to bolster its Clarity lineup. The FCEV, EV, and Plug-In EV versions of the Clarity are indiscernible from each other inside and out, save for a little badge on the rump of the car. This will likely spare you from the funny looks the teardrop shaped Toyota Mirai no doubt draws. But does the Honda offer anything more than a chance to masquerade your hydrogen powered car as just another EV, or is it something better altogether?

The plan for the afternoon was to take the Clarity from Borrow’s office in West Hollywood to the nearest hydrogen fueling station in Burbank and top off the tank with the fuelcard Honda provides every Clarity FCEV buyer. Hydrogen fuel is expensive, with prices ranging anywhere from $12 to more than $16 a kilogram, but up to $15,000 of the stuff is paid for upfront by Honda.

Hop inside and the Clarity looks and feels like a bit like an Accord, only more posh. Build quality is excellent in typical Honda fashion, and all the controls are simple and easy to get used to. That said, the lack of a volume knob, even in my short time with the car, was an almost constant irritation. Honda’s infotainment setup is the least attractive part of the Clairty’s inside. It’s clunky, hard to use and the graphics are ugly. I almost immediately switched to Apple CarPlay because it’s familiar and much easier to navigate.  

Unexpected rain made the lack of a rear-windscreen wiper painfully apparent as I tried to back out of my parking space. The rake of the rear window is such that water droplets land and then happily sit there to cloud your view out of the back, but the standard backup camera provided an easy work around. Looking in the rear view mirror during normal driving shows only the rain-drenched rear window, however. If the Civic hatchback has a rear-windscreen wiper, so should the Clarity.

Setting off in the Clarity is as easy and silent as any other EV. Just release the electronic parking brake, press the button marked “D” in the center console and away you go. The Clarity is shockingly fast. You get in thinking, “How quick can a hydrogen powered car really be?” But you are forced to immediately dispel your hubris assumptions about these humble vehicles, especially in sport mode. Turn it on – mind you this is in the rain – spin the wheels from a stop, regret it and turn it back off. It has much more power than the 235 section front tires can handle, especially in the wet.

Being judicious with the “gas” pedal could be easier, however, as even the slightest twitch of the throttle results in a disproportionate jump forward. I also found the Clairty’s regenerative braking difficult to get used to. It feels like it’s over slowing the car and makes you want to get back on the throttle again, only to have the car lurch forward too quickly making you wish you hadn’t. This in combination with steering that was too light and too quick made for an altogether nauseating afternoon.

The Clarity also feels big inside, bigger than it is. At no point during the driving experience did it wrap itself around me or make me feel comfortable with its proportions. I found myself regularly gritting my teeth as I tried to squeeze between cars on a wet Santa Monica Blvd. The ride is floaty, too. You often feel like you’re sitting on that car, not in it.  The seats are positioned much too high, but the heaters worked well in the cold afternoon. Road and wind noise are well-suppressed, and it is much quieter in the Clarity then say, a Volkswagen Golf or even a Civic.

After fighting through traffic for almost an hour I arrived at the fueling station only to find that it was out of order, so I can’t tell you what filling up a hydrogen powered car is like. It does get a claimed 360 miles per tank, however, so leaving it at half full wasn’t the worst thing I could have done. I really should have checked any of iPhone applications that tell you where to find a fueling station and if they’re up and running. You can also go to this link to check which stations are operational and where they are. There aren’t that many to choose from, and most are near beach cities like Santa Monica and Lawndale.

The Clarity FCEV is a car, for sure. Its bonafides include great build quality, a quiet cabin and a gee-wiz-that’s-quick driving experience. That said, at no point in my time with it did I think “Yep, this is the future of the car.” So until hydrogen stations are easier to find, the best reason to buy a Clarity FCEV, which bases at $59,385, is the free fuel that comes with it and not really the car itself.


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