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Originally published Friday, October 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Behind the wheel of the hydrogen Honda

For years, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles have been far-off technological bets — the car that holds the promise of gasoline-free driving...

The Associated Press

Honda FCX Clarity

Wheelbase: 110.2 inches

Length: 190.3 inches

Width: 72.7 inches

Height: 57.8 inches

Occupants: 4

Fuel-economy/performance

Miles per gallon (gasoline equivalent): 79 city/68 highway/74 combined

Weight: 3,582 pounds

Acceleration (0-60 mph): not available

Maximum speed: 100 mph

Range: 280 miles

Fuel capacity: 4.1 kilograms (9 pounds)

Maximum pressure when full: 5,000 psi

Powertrain

Drive method: front-wheel drive

Motor type: AC synchronous electric motor (permanent magnet)

Horsepower: 134

Torque: 189 pound-feet, continuous

Maximum torque: 189 pound-feet

Fuel cell stack type: proton exchange membrane fuel cell

Fuel cell stack maximum output: 100 kilowatts

Lithium ion battery: 288 volts

Source: Honda

WASHINGTON — For years, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles have been far-off technological bets — the car that holds the promise of gasoline-free driving. Now, a few drivers are getting a glimpse into the future.

The Honda FCX Clarity debuted in July, and the automaker is leasing about 200 of the cars to customers in Southern California during the next three years. Tens of thousands of people applied for the cars — and for good reason.

Stylish and smooth, the Clarity opens a window into the possible: the combination of environmental responsibility and zero emissions with a fun, hip ride. If only refueling were a matter of pulling into the nearest filling station.

The Clarity is emerging at a difficult stretch for the auto industry, a year in which sales have been choked by a battered economy and a major credit crunch. So it might be easy to shrug it off as another advanced vehicle relegated to auto shows and the garages of the super rich.

As with any hydrogen car, there are caveats galore. Hydrogen fueling stations are rare. And most hydrogen is currently being extracted from natural gas, releasing carbon dioxide and undercutting the emissions-free argument.

Honda's marketing of the car may also draw some skepticism. The company is offering three-year leases to a select few for $600 a month, which includes maintenance and collision coverage. Actress Jamie Lee Curtis and her husband, filmmaker Christopher Guest, have one. Others include actress Laura Harris and "Little Miss Sunshine" producer Ron Yerxa, making it easy to dismiss the car as a Hollywood publicity stunt.

How it performs

But on its merits, the Clarity delivers. It offers quiet, steady acceleration, high torque and a 280-mile range.

Previous generations of Honda's fuel-cell vehicles have resembled econoboxes — small, workmanlike and unpractical. The latest version is more refined, helped by a smaller and lighter fuel-cell stack that is more easily packaged into a sedan. (The Clarity is about 4 inches shorter than a Honda Accord.)

In the fuel cell, hydrogen is combined with oxygen to generate electricity that powers the vehicle's motor. The water vapor that's produced exits through the tailpipe. The Clarity has a backup 288-volt lithium-ion battery pack, recharged by the car's deceleration, to provide more power when needed.

The cockpit is fun and innovative. The start button activates the fuel cell stack. The display in the dashboard includes a dot that changes color and size as your hydrogen consumption grows, making it easy to monitor mileage.

Another display charts battery levels and motor output. The speedometer was placed above the cockpit display, in your sight line, to keep your eyes on the road. The interior is covered with plant-based fabrics.

The compressor that supplies oxygen to the fuel cell makes a whining sound. While the lack of engine vibrations at stoplights may require some getting used to, the 134-horsepower electric motor, with 189 pound-feet of torque, offered smooth acceleration in city driving. On the highway, the Clarity easily surpassed 70 miles per hour without feeling compromised.

The tank holds 4.1 kilograms (9 pounds) of compressed hydrogen, and the car gets about 77 miles per kilogram in the city, 67 miles per kilogram highway and 72 miles per kilogram in combined driving. Honda says that equates to 79 miles per gallon of gasoline around town, 68 mpg highway and 74 mpg overall.

Why we can't have one yet

Honda is leasing the Clarity to customers in the Los Angeles area because of the proximity to three 24-hours-a-day public hydrogen stations.

If I could lease a Clarity in my home of Washington, D.C., I would have to rely on one Shell station. But the vehicle would offer savings, when compared with similar vehicles.

In Washington, hydrogen was selling for $8.18 per kilogram, meaning a driver would spend that much to travel 72 miles in the Clarity. A four-cylinder Honda Accord with an automatic transmission gets 24 mpg combined, so a driver would use three gallons of gasoline — spending about $3.30 a gallon, or almost $10 — to travel the same distance.

The lack of fueling stations will limit the reach of these vehicles for many years, but Honda is working on a home-fill unit that would connect to a residential natural gas line, generating hydrogen for your vehicle and heat and electricity for your home. The automaker, like others in the industry, notes that hydrogen could be produced abundantly from renewable sources like wind energy.

Beyond the refueling problems, the car has some quirks. Instead of a traditional gear selector, it has a small electronic shifter near the steering wheel that was awkward to use. The rear window limited visibility.

As with any advanced vehicle, the car created a stir around town. Fellow drivers craned their necks, and plenty of pedestrians furrowed their eyebrows, as if to say, "What is that?" One man turned to his friends and pointed at the car, his mouth agape.

Honda has not released the cost. As a test vehicle, some analysts have estimated $200,000 apiece. (Imagine how Tom Cruise's character in "Risky Business" would have felt if his dad's Clarity sank into Lake Michigan.) A mass-produced version would cost infinitely less.

The Clarity, and any hydrogen car for that matter, has plenty of question marks and hurdles. But it gives us a sense of what may lie ahead.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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