by Roger Biermann
As one of just three hydrogen fuel cell vehicles available in the United States, the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell fulfills a role in the midsize segment, sharing architecture, design, and much of its powertrain with the Clarity Electric and Plug-In Hybrid. Introduced in 2017, the Clarity Fuel Cell makes use of the world’s most abundant element, hydrogen, using a fuel cell to power a single 174-horsepower electric motor on the front axle. As part of Honda’s investment into the future of mobility, the Clarity Fuel Cell rivals the Toyota Mirai and the Hyundai Nexo fuel cell crossover, combining the green benefits of electric mobility with a 366-mile range and the convenience of five-minute fill-ups. But like all things that sound too good to be true, there’s a catch - the Clarity Fuel Cell is only available at limited dealers in the state of California, and on a lease-only basis, and the hydrogen charging infrastructure needed to refuel it isn’t very widespread. It begs the question, what’s the point of all that range if you can only drive it within a single state?
All Clarity models remain completely unchanged for 2018, including the Fuel Cell after having being launched in 2017. With both the Fuel Cell and Electric models limited in volume and distribution it makes sense to keep production costs down by retaining one model unchanged for several years at a time.
No changes have been made to the exterior of the Clarity Fuel Cell since its inception in 2017. It carries on with LED headlights, LED taillights, and J-shaped LED daytime running lights, while an assortment of vents and semi-covered wheel wells aid aerodynamic efficiency. Standard 18-inch alloy wheels are aero-optimized but can be upgraded to stylish accessory items of the same size.
At 108.3 inches, the midsize Clarity Fuel Cell’s wheelbase is marginally more compact than that of a Honda Accord, while it’s 0.5 inches longer overall. In all other proportions, it’s a relatively similar affair, with the Clarity measuring 58.2 inches tall and 73.9 inches wide, larger than the Accord in both metrics by a tiny margin. The track is slightly narrower at 62.2 and 62.5 inches, front and rear respectively, while all corners are equipped with 18-inch alloy wheels with 235/45 profile all-season tires. With a curb weight of 4,134 lbs, the Clarity Fuel Cell is a heavyweight, tipping the scales at 706 lbs more than the heaviest Accord variant.
The 2018 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell, like the 2017 model before it, is available in a choice of three exterior color hues at no extra cost. Crystal Black Pearl is the only color offering without a contrast roof, as both Bordeaux Red Metallic and White Orchid Pearl feature a contrasting black roof. Bordeaux Red is our pick, because if you’re going to drive something like an FCV, you may as well stand out from the crowd.
The Honda Clarity Fuel Cell is biased towards economy and efficiency rather than performance, and to that end, Honda doesn’t divulge performance claims. However, with a 174-hp, 221 lb-ft of torque electric motor and front-wheel drive, the Clarity Fuel Cell sprints from 0-60 mph in around 8.5 seconds, while the top speed is set at 105 mph. Not bad for a midsize FCV weighing more than 4,000 lbs.
The Clarity is in a class of three fuel cell vehicles available in the USA, forgoing a combustion engine in favor of a hydrogen fuel cell. The Clarity’s Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell (PEMFC) is a 33-liter fuel cell with an output of 103 kW that converts hydrogen into water and electricity - enough of the latter to power a single AC electric motor with outputs of 174 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque. Drive is sent to the front wheels through a single-speed direct drive transmission. A compact battery pack helps supply additional power to start while the fuel cell reaches maximum efficiency.
The motor’s best performance is done down low, where from a standstill the immediacy of electric propulsion sends the Clarity surging forward without interruption. The surge of torque is fantastic around town, particularly when needing to shoot into a briefly open gap, with the immediacy of response a key factor to the Clarity Fuel Cell’s performance. Above 60 mph the electric motor’s potency tapers off a little and overtaking is less proficient, but still acceptable.
At more than 4,000 lbs and with no sporting ambitions to speak of, it would be folly to think of the Clarity Fuel Cell as a nimble athlete hoping to carve through mountain passes. No, instead it’s a soft family cruiser of a sedan that understands the extra heft it’s carrying around and makes no excuses about it. Despite a lower center of gravity than an Accord Hybrid, there’s a distinct heaviness over the nose in tight corners, amplified by a suspension setup that errs on the softer side of things - that sort of weight will make any spring setup feel soft. But it rides with a decent amount of composure on most surfaces, unsettled only by rapidly undulating roads that see discord between the suspension’s pliancy and the rapidly shifting weight it’s trying to support. The steering is devoid of feedback but decently weighted and quick to respond, while the brakes are predictable and linear in their responses.
Switch things into Sport mode, accompanied by red highlighting on the gauge cluster, and throttle programming sharpens while regenerative braking levels increase - but never to the point where you can operate the Clarity with a single pedal - making it more sprightly in getting up to speed and marginally more efficient when stopping.
Acoustic glass for all the windows and a slippery aero-efficient body keep out the bulk of the wind noise, while insulation elsewhere keeps road and tire roar to a minimum. These are the sorts of things you notice in the Clarity, as the only powertrain noise you’ll hear is a muted whoosh as a compressor feeds the hydrogen fuel cell.
The Clarity Fuel Cell makes use of two hydrogen tanks housing a combined 5.46 kg of gaseous hydrogen at pressures of 10,000 psi. The hydrogen is processed through the fuel cell and supplemented by a 1.7kWh lithium-ion battery pack which enables a maximum range of 366 miles on a tank, besting the Toyota Mirai’s 312-le range, but lagging behind the 380-miles achievable by the Hyundai Nexo. In conventional terms, the EPA equates the Clarity Fuel Cell’s mileage at 69/67/68 mpg equivalent on the city/highway/combined driving cycles.
While the drivetrain may differ from the other pair of Clarity siblings, the Clarity Fuel Cell’s interior remains almost identical in every manner, with the exception being the trunk which loses out by virtue of the large hydrogen tank needing a home somewhere. The interior offers all the space we’d expect from the masters of packaging, Honda, but gains extra storage by means of a floating center console. Seating is enough for five, with the front occupants given masses of space and standard power adjustable heated seats. The rear seats are a little less commodious, the sloping roofline impeding headroom for only the tallest of occupants, while legroom is still abundant. But the rear seats lack support for taller adults and don’t split or fold, but do house two full sets of LATCH anchors. Overall, the cabin is awash with high-quality materials in appearance, finish, and in their solid build.
The interior of the Clarity Fuel Cell offers seating capacity for five people, with loads of room at the hip and shoulder points catering to adult occupants where many don’t. The front seats are power adjustable with a wide range of adjustment for comfort and a prime driving position, but taller drivers may wish for a lower base point to start with. Headroom is generous, though, as is legroom, aided by expansive footwells thanks to a floating center stack. The back seat doesn’t split or fold but does feature a fold-down armrest in the center. In contravention of Honda’s typical brilliance, the rear seat is awkwardly proportioned with a short base that lacks thigh support for taller occupants. There’s more than enough legroom, however, and headroom is decently generous, despite a sloping roofline that only hampers the tallest of adults from being completely comfortable.
While the PHEV Clarity gets a choice between cloth and leather interior trimming, the lone Clarity Fuel Cell model gets perforated leather as standard, along with a leather-wrapped steering wheel. On Clarity Fuel Cells with White Orchid and Crystal Back exteriors, the leather is Black in color with matching dash and door panels. The center console gets dark-colored open-pore imitation wood inlays, while additional trimmings are metallic in nature. The Bordeaux Red model gets a Platinum Gray leather, accompanied by gray leather undersides to the door armrests, and a gray leather main dash strip that flows into matching door panels.
While the Hyundai Nexo gets a full-size cargo area, and the Toyota Mirai an awkward one with bumps all over to accommodate its hydrogen tanks, the Clarity Fuel Cell gets a greatly diminished trunk volume with the larger of the two hydrogen tanks housed behind the rear seats. As a result, you get just 11.8 cubic feet while the Mirai offers 12.8 and the Nexo a massive 29.6. The Clarity Fuel Cell is the least spacious of the Clarity range and loses out further by virtue of a lack of split folding ability on the rear seats - the large hydrogen tank again being the culprit.
Inside the cabin, however, there’s an abundance of space for storage, like a large storage bin beneath the center front armrest, two large front cupholders, two large front door pockets, and the space under the floating center stack that can easily accommodate a large handbag. The rear door pockets are smaller but still usable, while there are two cupholders in the center armrest and both the front seats offer a seatback pocket with a dedicated smartphone pocket.
With only one trim offered, Honda has made it a jam-packed affair with an abundance of technology and features. A multi-angle rearview camera, driver’s head-up display, adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, and Honda’s LaneWatch blind spot monitor are all standard. Dual-zone climate control features cabin air quality management, there’s push-button start, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, auto up/down power windows, front and rear 12-volt power sockets, sliding sun visors, power-adjustable heated front seats, and memory function for the driver’s seat. The Honda Sensing safety suite also makes an appearance, comprising lane keep, forward collision warning, and autonomous emergency braking, while rear parking sensors are optional.
Honda has endowed the Clarity Fuel Cell with the most potent sound system of all the Clarity siblings, with a 12-speaker audio system rated at 540-watts and including a subwoofer. The main interface is an infuriatingly complex eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system with no volume knob and small touch zones that are difficult to use, but the system does boast AM/FM/SiriusXM/HD radio functionality as well as full smartphone integration via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Bluetooth hands-free and media streaming are standard, as is Pandora compatibility, and the system features dual USB ports as well as standard navigation with HD digital traffic, hydrogen refueling station locator, and voice recognition.
The Honda Clarity Fuel Cell has been subject to two recalls since it launched as a 2017 model, both of which pertain to the same problem that Honda claims may not have been resolved the first time around. It relates to a fault with the fuel cell control unit that may result in either a partial or complete loss of power. Aside from this recall, only isolated issues have been reported for one-off faults that do not appear to be a regular concern. As a lease-only model for a 36-month period, the Clarity Fuel Cell is completely covered under a range of battery, powertrain, seat belt, rust perforation, and accessory warranties for added peace of mind.
The Clarity fuel cell has neither an NHTSA safety rating or an IIHS safety rating, as neither of the two government safety agencies has tested the Clarity Fuel Cell or either of its siblings yet. This despite a wide array of safety features that would likely see the trio score highly.
While the standard grouping of ABS, stability control, etc. all apply, the Clarity Fuel Cell also features seven airbags (dual front, driver knee, side impact, side curtain), along with a reverse camera, Honda’s camera-based blind spot monitor dubbed LaneWatch, and the comprehensive Honda Sensing safety suite, composed of forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane keep assist, and road departure mitigation. Reverse park sensors are optionally available.
While the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell may be in a class of just three contenders, competition is tough. The Clarity has a lot going for it, though, like a high-quality cabin equipped with an array of convenience, comfort, driver assistance, and safety features like Honda Sensing and Lane Watch. It also grants space for five occupants with cabin dimensions rivaling those of the class-leading Accord. The hydrogen fuel-cell/electric motor powertrain is sprightly and robust, particularly around town but lacks overtaking prowess at highway speeds. The suspension has decent levels of composure on most road surfaces, but things do come undone on rougher roads where the Clarity’s substantial weight betrays it. The 366-mile range on offer is impressive, as is the notion of a five-minute refuel when you’re running low on range, but the Hyundai Nexo offers a better range with the same benefits.
The Clarity is a decent fuel cell vehicle, but it’s not the best available. Being lease-only and exclusive to California is a downside when rivals offer full purchase capability, but the biggest fault of the Clarity is the lack of cargo volume - the trunk robbed of valuable storage space by a hydrogen tank where the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo both offer usable space. The Clarity Fuel Cell isn’t the best Clarity, that honor goes to the Plug-In Hybrid, and if you’re adamant on being an early adopter of fuel cell technology, then the Hyundai Nexo is an out-and-out class leader.
Unlike the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo, the Clarity Fuel Cell isn’t for sale in the USA. However, Honda does offer the Clarity Fuel Cell in a single trim at select dealerships in California with an attractive lease deal and numerous incentives. The 36-month lease requires a $2,868 initial payment, with $369 due every month.
The incentives are impressive, however, as Honda will provide lessees with up to $15,000 worth of hydrogen fuel during the three-year lease, while the state of California allows Clarity Fuel Cell drivers to apply for an HOV sticker enabling the use of the carpool lane even when driving alone. The California Clean Vehicle Rebate Project also offers a rebate of up to $5,000 for eligible California’s residents driving a Clarity Fuel Cell, while Honda includes 21 days of luxury car rental through Avis for the duration of your lease.
Like the Clarity Electric, Honda offers the Clarity Fuel Cell in a single all-inclusive trim. It features LED exterior lighting, 18-inch alloy wheels, rain-sensing wipers, keyless entry, push-button start, a rearview camera, heated and power-adjustable front seats, leather upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control with remote preconditioning, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, adaptive cruise control, built-in navigation, and an eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system with AM/FM/SiriusXM/HD radio functionality and full Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration. Unique to the Clarity Fuel Cell is a 540-watt, 12-speaker premium sound system that no other Clarity receives.
Only available as a lease, and with the only trim already comprising a broad array of equipment, options are limited on the Clarity Fuel Cell to predominantly accessory items like the $217 body side molding, $299 decklid spoiler, $285 chrome lower door trim, or $290 door sill illumination upgrade. 18-inch accessory alloy wheels are available for $1,800 but are unnecessary as the standard aerodynamically efficient wheels are the same size and don’t look too shabby. A worthwhile option comes in the form of back-up sensors at a price of $514.
Honda makes the decision an easy one by offering just one Clarity Fuel Cell trim for lease in California. Thankfully it comes with all the luxuries, compulsory amenities, and standard safety features to ensure you’re left wanting for nothing.
Both the Fuel Cell and Plug-In Hybrid versions of the Clarity provide long-range mobility with the convenience of rapid fill-ups and the benefits of electric propulsion, but which is better? The Clarity Plug-In is the only model available nationwide, and offers greater convenience as filling up with gas is far easier than hydrogen due to the infrastructure availability, but the Plug-In only offers 340 miles of range while the Fuel Cell caters for 366-miles of travel. The Fuel Cell is less powerful but its pure-electric drivetrain works better in a broad range of driving situations. Both offer a high-quality interior, while the Fuel Cell offers higher specification levels, although the Plug-In is available in two trims to suit your budget. The Plug-In boasts a vastly larger trunk, however, as the Fuel Cell has to carry hydrogen tanks back there. Affordability is another factor to consider as the Plug-In is sold while the Fuel Cell is leased, though both come with a range of enticing incentives. If you’re an early adopter of fuel cell tech, the California-only Clarity Fuel Cell is great, but if your ambitions lie outside the state of California, the Plug-In is a no brainer.
The Most direct competitor for the Clarity Fuel Cell is the similarly sized Toyota Mirai. Toyota offers one cubic foot more cargo volume in the Mirai, but the Clarity has the more commodious cabin of the two, with materials that feel higher in quality too. Both offer comparable infotainment systems, but the Toyota’s is easier to use, even if it lacks Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality, but it makes up for it in other areas like wireless charging and a 4G Wi-Fi hotspot. Both offer a comparable drive, but the Clarity offers a greater range than the Mirai’s mere 312 miles. While the Clarity Fuel Cell is only available to lease, the Mirai can be leased or bought from Toyota, with the lease option costing you $1,089 less in the Mirai over 36 months. Neither is the best fuel cell vehicle around, but both are decent options. The choice ultimately comes down to brand preference and interior requirements.
It’s not saying much when there are only three fuel cell vehicles on the market, but the Hyundai Nexo is the best FCV money can buy or lease. Honda leases the Clarity Fuel Cell, while Hyundai allows you to buy the Nexo, offering it in two well-equipped trims, both of which beat the Clarity’s specification levels, hands down, offering amenities like a sunroof, hands-free tailgate, ventilated front seats, and a much better infotainment system. The Nexo benefits from its popular crossover shape but offers better ride comfort and handling attributes too, while its 380-mile range beats the Clarity in yet another aspect. The Nexo is the only FCV to get a full-sized cargo bay, with 29.6 cubic feet behind the back seats absolutely decimating the competition. The Nexo takes this one by a proverbial country mile.