by Jared Rosenholtz
The Honda Clarity Fuel Cell is one of only three hydrogen-powered vehicles offered in the USA alongside the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo. Fundamentally it shares its framework, and much of its powertrain, with the Honda Clarity Electric and Plug-in Hybrid, positioning it within the alternative-fuel midsize sedan segment. The vehicle's hydrogen fuel cell powers a single 174-horsepower, 221-lb-ft of torque electric motor on the front axle via a single-speed direct-drive transmission. Unfortunately, the Fuel Cell is available only at select dealerships in California and only on a lease basis. Furthermore, the hydrogen charging infrastructure required for fueling the light-duty fuel cell vehicle is also considerably limited. Nevertheless, the Clarity Fuel Cell is a compelling machine, with its quick fueling times of five minutes, impressive 360-mile range, and in that it utilizes the world's most abundant element as its fuel. It's a promising step in the ever-expanding eco-friendly vehicle market as a 100% emissions-free alternative, pioneering the path to a low-carbon future.
The Clarity Fuel Cell is a low-volume vehicle under limited distribution. It has therefore been kept unchanged for the 2018 and 2019 model year in order to keep production costs to a minimum. This may be the case for the Clarity Fuel Cell for a number of years until popularity or practicality for the hydrogen-powered vehicle segment drastically improves. Fortunately, as a standalone model, the Fuel Cell does come comprehensively outfitted as a contemporary and premium package at the standard level.
Single Speed Automatic
The Clarity Fuel Cell shares its aesthetic with the Clarity Electric and Plug-in Hybrid; a typical Honda-like sedan profile with a sporty appeal, embodied by a unique front grille with sleek LED headlights and L-shaped daytime running lights. The side profile is characterized by sharp rearward contours and a sloping roofline, with squared rear wheel arches enclosing the Fuel Cells' 18-inch alloy wheels, which together with the standard-fit LED taillights and an integrated decklid spoiler, forge a futuristic guise.
Compared to the Honda Accord, the Clarity Fuel Cell measures 0.5 inches longer with a full body length of 192.7 inches. It does, however, have a shorter wheelbase of 108.3 inches to the Accord's 111.4 inches. At 58.2 inches in height, it's 1.1 inches taller, and at 73.9 inches in width, 0.6 inches wider. The Clarity Fuel Cell is a heavy piece of machinery, with a curb weight of 4,134 lbs it tips the scales at 706 lbs heavier than the heaviest Accord variant.
The Clarity Fuel Cell is powered by a 33-liter Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell (PEMFC) with an output of 103 kW that converts hydrogen into water and electricity to power a single AC electric motor for outputs of 174 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque. Those outputs are sent to the front-wheel-drivetrain through a single-speed direct-drive transmission. The powertrain performs ideally at the low-end of the speedometer, delivering an immediate surge of electrified torque off-the-line with instantaneous responses throughout the low-speed range. The electric motor's vigor tapers off a little above 60 mph mark, however, but getting up to speed and overtaking is still tolerable.
The Clarity Fuel Cell is categorically a soft family cruiser with absolutely no inclination toward sportiness. Its significant heft has the suspension tuning feel excessively soft and accords it with a distinct feel of heaviness over the front end, especially around tight corners. Significantly undulated and broken road surfaces do not bode well with the pliancy of the Fuel Cell's suspension. Nevertheless, it rides with a reasonable level of composure on most roads, and though the steering is devoid of any feedback, it's appropriately weighted and quickly responsive, while the brakes are linear and predictable in their responses throughout. The Fuel Cell features a Sport drive mode, which - when engaged - sharpens throttle responses and increases the regenerative braking levels - making it more energetic off-the-line and in getting up to speed, it also allows it to be slightly more efficient when braking.
Alternative fuels are a little more difficult to measure for the layman, and the EPA equates the Clarity's mileage at 68/67/68 MPGe city/highway/combined. That's about average for a hydrogenized vehicle, with the Toyota Mirai getting 67/67/67 MPGe and the Hyundai Nexo 65/58/61 MPGe on those same cycles. The PEMFC powers a single electric motor and 1.7kW battery pack to avail the Clarity with a maximum range of 360 miles on a full tank. That's a lot better than the Mirai's 312-mile range, but just short of the Nexo's 380-mile range. Two 18.65-gallon hydrogen tanks house the gaseous hydrogen fuel in the Clarity Fuel Cell, at pressures of 10,000 psi.
The Clarity Fuel Cell is equipped with adequate seating for up to five occupants, with ample overall cabin room offered throughout, even for adults. Seating for all passengers is comfortable and supportive, and with ample power-adjustability featured in the front seats, locating a comfortable and optimal driving position is effortless. While headroom upfront is generous and legroom plentiful by virtue of a floating center console, the headroom in the rear is only slightly hampered by the rearward sloping roofline.
With one of the Clarity Fuel Cell's hydrogen tanks housed behind the rear seats, its trunk volume is significantly diminished and rear seats rendered unable to split or fold. That leaves a mere 11.8 cubic feet of room available for cargo storage, which is enough room for about two weeks' worth of grocery shopping bags. The Mirai offers a little more in practicality with 12.8 cu-ft in the trunk, but the Nexo takes the win with a massive 29.6 cu-ft offered - the perks of it being a crossover with a hatchback liftgate.
There is, otherwise, an abundance of storage solutions within the cabin, including a large center armrest bin, two large front cupholders, and large front door side pockets. At the rear are seatback map pockets with dedicated smartphone pockets, two cupholders in the center armrest, and smaller but usable door side pockets.
As a standalone model, the Clarity Fuel Cell is offered as a premium and comprehensively outfitted package. Coming standard with a driver's head-up display, a multi-angle rearview camera, adaptive cruise control, and Honda's LaneWatch blind-spot assist. Honda's Sensing suite of driver assists is also standard, comprising lane-keep assist, forward collision warning, and autonomous emergency braking, while rear parking sensors are optional. On the inside, there's a leather-wrapped steering wheel with a tilt and telescoping steering column, heated front seats, with ten-way power-adjustability and memory settings for the driver's seat, the passenger's with four-way power-adjustability. There's also push-button start, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a HomeLink Remote system, and dual-zone automatic climate control with an air quality management system. The doors feature programmable auto-locking and the windows all have auto-up/down functionality.
Bedecking the center dash in the Clarity Fuel Cell is a complex eight-inch touchscreen display featuring no volume knob and infuriatingly small touch zones that are difficult to pinpoint. It is, however, tethered to a phenomenal 12-speaker audio system comprising a subwoofer, and rated at 540 watts. The system includes AM/FM/SiriusXM/HD radio connectivity as well as full smartphone integration with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality included as standard. There is also Bluetooth media streaming and hands-free phone capabilities, as well as Pandora compatibility. There are two USB ports for charging and connectivity and standard Honda navigation with HD digital traffic, hydrogen refueling station locator, and voice recognition.
The 2017 and 2018 year models of the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell were both subject to the same major recall, pertaining to a fault with the fuel cell control unit that potentially resulted in either a partial or complete loss of power. The 2019 year model remains unaffected by this fault or any other. Honda offers peace of mind by covering the Clarity Fuel Cell for the complete duration of its 36-month lease period.
The NHTSA and IIHS are yet to evaluate any model year of the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell. With its high starting price and low distribution figures, neither authority has been warranted to evaluate the hydrogenized vehicle as yet. We do, however, expect the Honda to score favorably by virtue of the vehicle's comprehensive consignment of standard safety features and driver assists. These include forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane keep assist, and road departure mitigation found in the Honda Sensing driver-assistance suite as well as Honda's LaneWatch blind-spot monitoring system, a rearview camera, and seven standard airbags including a driver's knee airbag.
With only three hydrogen-powered vehicles available in America, competition is significantly concentrated and fiercely high. Though it has a whole lot going for it, the Clarity Fuel Cell doesn't quite come out on top, with the Hyundai Nexo offering far greater capability and practicality overall, as well as a set buying option. With that, the Nexo takes the number one spot for the best hydrogen-powered vehicle, with the Clarity Fuel Cell comfortably taking second place, closely followed by the Toyota Mirai. The Clarity takes a couple of hits in that its infotainment system is frustratingly complex to use, its trunk is severely compromised by its large hydrogen tank, and by the fact that it's only available on a lease basis. Its maximum range of 360-miles is also beaten by the Nexo's 380-mile range.
With that said, the Clarity Fuel Cell is still a decent hydrogen-powered vehicle, it's equipped with a sprightly and highly efficient powertrain which makes for great city commuting, its ride is reasonably comfortable, and its cabin is high of quality and outfitted with an array of convenience, comfort, driver assistance, and safety features like Honda Sensing and Lane Watch as standard. The impressive range and benefits of an electric motor make it a best-of-both-worlds vehicle, hampered only by the limited availability and small hydrogen network.
The Honda Clarity Fuel Cell is offered as a standalone model and unlike the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo, is available only at select dealerships in the state of California, and solely on a lease basis. A deposit of $2,878 is required at the outset of the purchase, with an amount of $379 due every month for the duration of the 36-month lease. Honda offers the Clarity Fuel Cell with three years or $15,000 worth of hydrogen fuel and, it being an emissions-free vehicle, is legible for California's clean vehicle rebate of up to $5,000 and the state's HOV lane rights.
The Honda Clarity Fuel Cell is offered as a single all-inclusive trim just like the Clarity Electric and Clarity Plug-In Hybrid. Unique to the Clarity Fuel Cell, however, is the 540-watt, 12-speaker premium audio system which no other Clarity features. As an all-inclusive model, there are no specified optional packages available for it, as it comes standard with most of everything the nameplate has to offer. We suggest opting for the available back-up sensors for the added driver assistance, but that's about all that's worthwhile in the options cache. It otherwise comes standard with a leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated and power-adjustable front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, and even Honda's Honda Sensing suite of driver assists.
The Toyota Mirai only wins favor over the Clarity Fuel Cell in that it can be leased or bought at a set price of $58,500, the 36-month lease working out to around $1,089 less than the Fuel Cell. The Mirai has a less powerful and less efficient powertrain returning EPA estimates of 67 MPGe in all driving conditions, and a lower range of 312 miles on a full tank. It does offer an insignificant one cubic foot more trunk room than the Fuel Cell, but has a less impressive interior. The Fuel Cell offering the more commodious cabin of the two, with a higher-quality impression as well. Unfortunately, the Mirai lacks Android Auto and Apple CarPlay functionality, though its infotainment system is easier to use and compensates somewhat with wireless charging and 4G Wi-Fi hotspot capability. The Clarity Fuel Cell is the better hydrogen-powered vehicle, however.
The Hyundai Nexo is the class-leader of the three-vehicle hydrogen round-up, offering the utmost in performance, capability, and practicality. It is also, unlike the Clarity Fuel Cell, available to be bought or leased from Hyundai in two well-equipped trims, both of which beat the Clarity's standard specification level. The Nexo offers a significantly more comfortable ride quality and greater handling dynamics too, it offers a more capable maximum range of 380-miles on a single tank, and benefits from its popular crossover design with a full-sized cargo-bay offering an unprecedented cargo capacity of 29.6 cubic feet. Its infotainment system is much more user-friendly than that of the Clarity's, and it comes standard with features such as a power-operated sunroof, ventilated front seats, and a hands-free tailgate which the Clarity does not. The Nexo is the best FCV money can buy at the moment and is certainly the better value for money buy in this comparison.