News flash from the green frontier: The car of the future - or at least one vision of the future-drives a lot like the car of the present.
This summer, Honda plans to start leasing its FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle to a limited number of scrupulously vetted Southern Californians. The car embodies scads of leading-edge technology and countless billions in R&D yen. Yet the most striking aspect of the car is how, well, normal it feels - a conventional four-door sedan with zoomy styling, interior fabrics made from plants, and the spiffiest instrument panel this side of an F-22. Or Reventón.
The heart of the Clarity is a 148-pound fuel-cell stack powering the electric motor that drives the car. When necessary, additional power is provided by lithium-ion batteries. By shrinking these components, Honda was able to maintain the sleek shape of the concept car shown at the Tokyo Motor Show in 2005 - a vast improvement over the dumpier first-generation FCX introduced in 2002. Power delivery is turbine-like and full-throttle acceleration is brisk, although the effect is undermined by compressor whine more reminiscent of Disneyland than Daytona.
The FCX handles like a well-composed family car. But easily distracted drivers might be mesmerized by the multi-color power meter gauge in the center of the dashboard, especially a ball that grows alarmingly and changes color as fuel mileage dwindles. (Note to self: See if mashing the throttle down long enough will cause the ball - and the car - to self-destruct to prevent further environmental irresponsibility.) Driven properly, the FCX is expected to deliver the equivalent of 68 mpg and zero tailpipe emissions.
Three-year leases are being priced at $600 a month. Honda won't say how many cars it plans to build. Not many, probably; range is a marginal 270 miles, and there are only five hydrogen stations accessible to consumers in the Los Angeles area. Still, if its fuel stack turns out to be durable enough for real-world use, the FCX could make a case for developing the hydrogen infrastructure required to make fuel cells an integral piece of the cars of the future.