Hydrogen fuel cell cars are, like any other alternative-fuelled car, somewhat controversial. As well as their high ticket price and currently limited refuelling infrastructure, hydrogen fuel cell cars are only as clean as the energy being used to generate the hydrogen they rely on to operate.
But if we leave the politics of hydrogen fuel cell cars and where the energy comes from to power them for a moment, what are they really like to drive in the real world?
Sadly, there are very few hydrogen fuel cell cars out in the wild at the moment, and those which are tend to be part of closely-guarded corporate fleets. Today however, as part of a press event to unveil a new solar-powered hydrogen generation plant in Swindon, UK, we were given the chance to put Honda’s ageing four-door Clarity FCX hydrogen fuel cell sedan through its paces — a car built in small numbers by Honda between 2008 and 2014 to test and evaluate hydrogen fuel cell technology.
[A small editorial note: in the above video, we incorrectly identified the car as 2006 model year, which it isn’t. We apologise for the error.]
Admittedly, our trip — a ten mile jaunt up and back the A419 trunk road near Honda’s production facility in Swindon, UK — wasn’t exactly long. Nor were we able to put the car through its paces in the way we like to when fully reviewing the car. But today, we sought to answer one very simple question: what does driving a hydrogen fuel cell car feel like?
Back in 2008, when we first got behind the wheel of an early FCX Clarity on a small circular test track at a public green car event, we didn’t have much chance to push the car beyond walking speed. Even at that speed however, we noticed the interior of the car was more noisy than that of a battery-powered electric car. There were clicks, whirs and a quiet hum emanating from the car’s fuel cell stack.
Today, we expected more of the same, but were pleasantly surprised to find that the car we were driving — a visiting U.S.-spec model from Honda’s German fuel cell study — was far quieter than the one we tried back in 2008. In fact, under normal acceleration, the driving experience felt very much like any other electric car: smooth, refined and relaxing, with the same kind of road noise that you’d find in any other well-built car.
In this mode of operation, the FCX Clarity provides a competent drive, with regenerative braking operating in a similar way to regenerative braking in a battery electric vehicle. That’s because in addition to the hydrogen fuel cell stack, the FCX Clarity also has a small lithium-ion battery which operates in tandem alongside the fuel cell, storing energy recaptured during regenerative braking and also providing power during lower demand.
At 1,600 kilograms (3,528 pounds) however, the FCX Clarity started to show its weight and mediocre acceleration when pushed harder.
As well as feeling a little heavy behind the wheel, pushing the accelerator to the floor resulted in a noticeable whine emitting from the engine bay as the FCX Clarity’s various air pumps kicked in to life to deliver enough hydrogen to the fuel cell to provide the power needed to push the car forward.
Under heavy acceleration, the power gauge — located underneath a digital tachometer on Honda’s now traditional split-level digital dashboard — turned from the green of moderate power drain to blue, as the majority of the power to move the car forward was sourced from its 100 kilowatt vertical flow hydrogen fuel cell stack. Like any other electric car, we suspect someone with a heavy right foot will fare worst when it comes to range per fill, but Honda says with a careful right foot, at least 240 miles per fill are possible.
In fact, while the general driving experience of the FCX Clarity felt very much like any other electric car we’ve driven, heavy acceleration betrayed the car’s real source of power with a conspicuous lack of instantaneous power when compared with a battery electric car. As a consequence, while acceleration in the FCX Clarity felt adequate, it was certainly less than we’d expect of a similarly-sized battery electric car.
Honda says its first mass-produced hydrogen fuel cell car will hit the market some time in 2016 as a 2017 model year. Similar in size to the FCX Clarity, it will feature seating for five adults, and hopefully a more perky acceleration than the test-bed car we drove today. Like battery electric cars, it’s also worth noting that performance and efficiency should improve with every generation.
Which leaves us with a very simple answer to our initial question. Based on our quick 10-mile jaunt, the FCX Clarity drives and feels just like any electric car. It just happens to be an electric car whose motive power comes form a hydrogen fuel cell battery rather than a lithium-ion one, and one which perhaps suffers the same problems as many plug-in hybrids — namely sluggish acceleration.
As for the way the fuel is generated? That’s something for another article.
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