by Aiden Eksteen
Hydrogen fuel cell technology isn't particularly new, but it's an area within the automotive sphere that still has a lot of room for innovation and one that's in dire need of some recognition from the market. Toyota paved the way for hydrogenized vehicles with the Mirai, and Honda followed suit with the Clarity Fuel Cell, offering better fuel consumption and an impressive 360-mile range on nothing but the most abundant gas in the Earth's atmosphere. The Clarity's 103 kW, 33-liter Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell (PEMFC) converts hydrogen into water and electricity to power a single electric motor with outputs of 174 horsepower and 221 lb-ft of torque.
While the Clarity Fuel Cell's most direct rivals are limited to only the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo, the abundance of plug-in hybrids and newly developed EVs flooding the market are posing a serious threat to hydrogen propulsion, and with sales of the Clarity limited to only a few hydrogen-friendly states, its days could be numbered before the technology truly gets off the ground.
For the 2019 model year, the Clarity Fuel Cell received no changes as part of Honda's cost-savings strategy for the low-volume nameplate. This year, however, Honda saw fit to better the nameplate by throwing in some minor upgrades. The vehicle now comes standard with heated side-view exterior mirrors finished in black, and with an improved audible alert system for low-speed driving. Honda says it's also improved the Clarity Fuel Cell's cold-weather startup performance. The color scheme has been revised as well, and models hued in the Platinum White Pearl exterior color will now come standard with a brown-hued interior. Finally, a new Crimson Pearl paint joins the exterior color palette, replacing the previously available Bordeaux Red.
The Clarity Fuel Cell's appearance is rather inconspicuous for a vehicle with such a clear eco-friendly ethos, and one with the super-advanced technology that makes it so. It shares the typical Honda-like sedan profile with the now-discontinued Clarity Electric and Plug-in Hybrid - a slightly sporty aesthetic embodied by its angular front grille and sleek contoured hood, rearward swooping contours, and a sloping coupe-like roofline, all rounded off by its integrated decklid spoiler. Standard exterior equipment includes sharp LED headlights, L-shaped LED daytime running lights, and 18-inch aerodynamic alloy wheels.
Though not an alternative fuel vehicle, the comparable Honda Accord does slot into the midsize sedan class. In comparison to the Honda Accord, the Clarity Fuel Cell comes out larger and a whole lot heavier because of its specialized technology. At 192.7 inches in overall length, the Clarity is 0.5 inches longer than the Accord, although its 108.3-inch wheelbase is 3.1 inches shorter. With an overall height of 58.2 inches and a width of 73.9 inches, the Clarity is both taller and wider than the Accord as well. The Clarity's fuel cell powertrain and other special components result in a hefty curb weight of 4,134 pounds, making it around 700 lbs heavier than the Accord.
Under the hood of the Clarity Fuel Cell is a visionary piece of advanced technology, a 103 kW 33-liter Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell that intelligently converts hydrogen into nothing but clean water and electricity. This is then fed to a single AC electric motor with outputs of 174 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque. A single-speed direct-drive transmission forwards outputs to the Clarity's front wheels. While the Clarity's performance is availed with peppy and instantaneous electrified torque off the line and throughout the low-speed range, the powertrain's motivation slowly starts to taper off past the 60 mph mark. Highway performance becomes very humdrum, although merging and commencing highway overtakes are still passable. However, it's the low-end city usability we like so much, combining the benefits of an electric powertrain with the cleanliness of hydrogen.
With the Clarity Fuel Cell's considerable heft, don't expect it to exhibit any level of performance and spirited handling capability; it's not a vehicle that's going to get you anywhere with a massive smile on your face. The 114-pound fuel cell and electric motor are mounted to the front axle, creating a sense of heaviness over the front end, particularly when cornering. Adding to this is the Clarity's soft suspension, which tends to do a fairly subpar job of filtering out major imperfections when cornering.
The upside to the Clarity's weight is that it ensures the FCV always feels planted, lacking the floatiness of other eco-conscious hybrids and even the Clarity PHEV. Its steering is precise and responsive and nicely weighted for comfortable driving, though completely devoid of feedback. The brakes are consistently linear and easy to modulate and deliver suitable stopping power when called upon. The Clarity's throttle responses can be sharpened by engaging the Sport drive mode, which subsequently increases the effectiveness of its regenerative braking levels, but at the end of the day, this isn't a sporty car and should be driven with a heavy helping of restraint.
The core appeal of the Clarity Fuel Cell is its eco-friendly ethos and relative efficiency, which it's able to deliver along with the benefit of conveniently quick refueling times. This is in contrast to standard EVs, which take hours to charge and often lack a truly usable range. The EPA equates the Clarity Fuel Cell's mileage at 68/67/68 MPGe city/highway/combined, which is pretty good, with the Hyundai Nexo offering only 65/58/61 MPGe on those same cycles. Along with the fuel cell, the Clarity also gets a 1.7kW lithium-ion battery, which together with its two 18.65-gallon hydrogen tanks avails the Clarity Fuel Cell with an impressive 360-mile range. The Hyundai Nexo wins here, though, offering up to 380 miles of range.
Five average-sized adults will comfortably fit into the spacious cabin of the Clarity Fuel Cell, with plenty of head- and legroom offered, and a general sensation of space throughout, thanks to a floating center console. The rearward sloping roofline only cuts into rear headroom a little, affecting ingress and egress, but posing little threat once seated. The front and rear seats offer all-day comfort and just the right amount of support, and the front seats feature eight-way power-adjustability, heating functionality, and memory settings. The cabin design is modern and the layout very intuitive and ergonomic, the overall build quality is excellent, and premium quality materials abound.
Cargo hauling practicality is usually a compromise in alternative-fuel vehicles, and the Clarity Fuel Cell is no exception to this. Trunk capacity is limited to only 11.8 cubic feet, a significant decrease from the 15.5 cubic feet in the Clarity Plug-in Hybrid - this is the result of one of the hydrogen tanks being located behind the rear seats. That should be about enough cargo room to store a half-a-dozen vegan-friendly cheese wheels to deliver to the organic food market on the weekends. Unfortunately, the rear seats don't fold down at all, so if you want to get the full dozen cheese wheels there, consider the Hyundai Nexo with its massive 29.6 cubic foot trunk.
Plenty of storage is available within the cabin though, including large front-door pockets, smaller but still functional rear-door pockets, a large center armrest cubby, two front cupholders, two seatback map pockets, and two rear-seat cupholders.
There's only a single trim of the Clarity Fuel Cell that Honda equips with an expansive selection of features. On approach, the Smart Keyless Entry System provides access, leading to the driver's cockpit where there's a head-up display, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a tilt-and-telescoping column, push-button start, an eight-way power-adjustable driver's seat with two-position memory, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. The front passenger's seat features four-way power-adjustability and both front seats feature heating. There's also dual-zone automatic climate control and a HomeLink remote system. In terms of driver-assists and safety, Honda's LaneWatch blind-spot monitoring system comes standard along with a multi-angle rearview camera, and Honda Sensing includes forward collision warning, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, collision mitigation braking, road departure mitigation, and adaptive cruise control with a low-speed follow function.
The infotainment system in the Clarity Fuel Cell could do with some improvement; the standard-fit eight-inch touchscreen is nice and displays quality visuals, but what's most flawed about the system is the infuriatingly small touch zones and the lack of a volume control knob, making it really difficult to manipulate - especially when on the go. The premium 12-speaker sound system is a highlight though; it's rated at 540 watts and includes a bass-pumping subwoofer. Standard functionality includes AM/FM/SiriusXM/HD Radio connectivity, Pandora compatibility, Bluetooth hands-free phone operation and audio streaming, and full smartphone integration via both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Honda's satellite-linked navigation system is also standard, while for device connectivity, there are two USB ports, a single auxiliary input jack, and a 12-volt power outlet in the front and rear of the cabin.
The Honda Clarity Fuel Cell hasn't been subject to a single recall since 2019, with the last recalls occurring in 2018. The first of those instances pertained to the Clarity's fuel cell control unit which would misinterpret a small cell voltage drop, causing a partial or complete loss of power to the vehicle. The second instance pertained to the Clarity's electric water pump which would corrode and subsequently fail. J.D. Power hasn't given any Clarity Fuel Cell a quality and reliability rating, although Honda offers peace of mind by covering the Clarity Fuel Cell for the full duration of the 36-month lease period, including maintenance, while the lease also covers most of your hydrogen top-ups over that period.
Because of its high starting price and low distribution figures, no model in the Clarity range has been evaluated for its crashworthiness by either the NHTSA or the IIHS. It should, however, be relatively safe considering the comprehensive consignment of driver-assist and safety features it's outfitted with as standard. These include Honda Sensing - incorporating automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, and lane departure warning - LaneWatch, and a multi-angle rearview camera.
Competition is really tough for the Clarity Fuel Cell, considering that there are only two hydrogen-powered vehicles available in the US for 2020, with Toyota skipping out on the Mirai for this year with plans for a fully redesigned version for 2021, the competition is perhaps higher now than its ever been before. There's no doubt that the Clarity Fuel Cell has a lot going for it though: its powertrain is sprightly, highly efficient, and ideal for routine urban commuting, its cabin is commodious, packed with creature comforts, and geared with all the driver-assist tech - and it can be refueled quickly too.
Unfortunately, there are many more areas where the Clarity Fuel Cell falls short, including in its infotainment system, which is infuriatingly difficult to use while driving, its limited trunk capacity, the fact that it's only available in the state of California, and the limited hydrogen fueling network. While chief rival, the Hyundai Nexo, also falls victim to the latter, it's SUV packaging makes it more practical and more appealing, and in truth, it's the better fuel cell vehicle.
Unfortunately, the Clarity Fuel Cell isn't available at a set price, but only on a monthly lease basis. At present, it's also only available at select dealerships within the state of California. Once an initial deposit of $2,878 is paid, a monthly installation of $379 is then required for a duration of 36 months. That ends up equating to a rather pricey fee, but Honda sweetens the deal with up to three years or $15,000 worth of complimentary hydrogen fuel. Moreover, as an emissions-free vehicle, the Clarity Fuel Cell is eligible for California's clean vehicle rebate of up to $5,000 and the state's HOV lane rights.
Single Speed Automatic
There's only the single trim variant of the Clarity Fuel Cell which, as a standalone model, comes packed with just about every feature the Clarity offers. Owners of the visionary eco-friendly sedan will have plenty to enjoy, from a standard-fit head-up display, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and power-adjustable heated front seats to an eight-inch infotainment touchscreen, 12-speaker sound system, and inclusive Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity. Honda didn't skimp out on driver-assist tech and safety either, with the full complement of Honda Sensing and LaneWatch tech all coming standard along with a multi-angle rearview camera with integrated grid lines. We recommend optioning in the available rear parking sensors from the options cache, however, just to round out the Clarity's already comprehensive driver-assist consignment.
Even though it's not a hydrogen-powered vehicle, the Toyota Prius Prime plug-in hybrid is still a great eco-friendly option. It's a whole lot more affordable than the Clarity Fuel Cell and is offered at a set price; it's also offered anywhere in the US and in three trim variations, which some may appreciate for the variety of specifications. Even the top-specced Prius Prime is cheaper than the Clarity Fuel Cell and comes standard with a whole lot more features including an 11.6-inch infotainment touchscreen, and although Android Auto functionality isn't included, Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa are. Some may prefer Toyota's futuristic styling, but the Clarity is certainly the more premium-looking sedan on the outside; on the inside, both offer contemporary and high-quality spaces. The Prius Prime offers exceptional gas mileage of 55/53/54 mpg or a combined MPGe equivalent of 133 on electric power alone, plus a 25-mile all-electric range and a driving range of around 640 miles on a single tank. While the Clarity Fuel Cell is way ahead of its time in some aspects, its availability is severely limited, the hydrogen fueling network is very limited, and its price a bit too high for the average consumer. Ultimately, the Prius Prime is the more viable option at the moment.
While the Clarity Fuel Cell takes a severe hit to its practicality because of its hydrogen tank in the trunk, the Hyundai Nexo strikes less of a compromise as a high-riding crossover SUV with thoughtful packaging. There's 29.6 cubes of cargo room in the Nexo's trunk, dwarfing the Clarity Fuel Cell's meager 11.8 cubes. In terms of performance, the Nexo delivers the same sedate driving experience as the Clarity, its powertrain is a little weaker and not as fuel-efficient as the Clarity's, with estimates of 65/58/61 MPGe, but with its 41.4-gallon hydrogen tank capacity, offers a slightly greater range of 380 miles. The cabin of the Nexo is host to a far more contemporary layout comprising a large 12.3-inch touchscreen with full smartphone integration. The NHTSA and IIHS agencies have actually evaluated the Nexo for its crashworthiness and determined it as one of the safest cars on the road as a 2020 Top Safety Pick +, while the Clarity hasn't ever been evaluated. Ultimately, the Nexo is a better proposition all-round, but it comes at a price. Still, if it's a fuel-cell vehicle you want, they don't get much better than the Clarity.