2009 Honda FCX Clarity and 2009 Volkswagen Passat Fuel Cell

At that point, the Chinese engineer, who didn't speak much English, flicked a switch, got out of the car and indicated that it was my turn to get in. This particular prototype didn't have regenerative braking, so the brakes would feel like a normal car's and not like a hybrid's. Otherwise, he explained, the driving experience should feel quite normal.

Actually, he wasn't lying - other than the ultra-cool, jet-airplane soundtrack, the Passat drove just as you'd imagine an electric-powered vehicle would. It has no transmission - the motor drives the front wheels directly, so there's no shifting. The noises you hear coming from the stack aren't related to speed, they're from several compressors that are used to feed air into and pull moisture out of the fuel stack - so they're related to the electrical load, but on kind of a delay cycle. The Passat is also equipped with an 8Ah lithium-ion battery pack, and with a full tank of hydrogen, it has a range of about 145 miles.

I was asked not to give full throttle, but that was a tall order given the quoted 15-second 0-to-60 mph capability. Ultimately, I couldn't resist, and when I floored it, the ammeter never showed more than 30kW of output from the fuel cell, even though the electric motor is rated at 88kW, or 118 hp. Oh, and the car started flashing its check-engine light at me after a few seconds of full throttle. Whoops.

Honda FCX Clarity
The Honda FCX Clarity isn't a prototype - it's sold (or rather, leased) to the public, but its super-low volume makes it just as special as a prototype. You wouldn't know from its appearance, though, as everything in this car feels as high-quality and well-thought out as any regular production Honda.

The instrument cluster is a marvel of efficiency, cramming loads of information into a small space. At once, you can see speed, fuel range, the charge state of the Lithium-Ion battery, the amount of hydrogen in the tank, and most importantly, the total power the system is producing, broken down between the battery and the fuel stack. Its genius isn't just how much information is included but how neatly it's presented. If you don't care about the specifics, you won't be distracted from the information you need, like speed and fuel level. The Clarity's interior is similarly efficient. In fact, it's enormous - the small fuel cell and compact electric motor allowed Honda to maximize interior space.

The Clarity uses a 100-kW fuel cell matched to a 100kW motor, for a total output of, you guessed it, 100kW, or 134 hp. Its 189 lb-ft of torque are available from a standing start, so it'll actually squeal its front tires slightly if you mash the pedal off the line - and burning rubber while simultaneously saving the planet? That's really cool.

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