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Driving a car fueled by hydrogen is futuristic yet reassuringly familiar. It makes you feel as if you're part of the leading-edge, yet one who's carefully weighed the options of alternative-fuel cars and come to the conclusion that yes, this can be more practical than an electric vehicle. And so it goes with the 2017 Honda Clarity, the automaker's all-new hydrogen-powered car.

Before we get to a primer on how these things propel themselves and whether one should be propelling you, a quick recap. Honda, as with other automakers like GM and Toyota, has been working on fuel-cell vehicles for decades. This is technically Honda's third-generation fuel-cell vehicle available to consumers, but it wasn't until the last model—the FCX Clarity, available starting in 2008—that Honda's fuel-cell car became anything more than a blip on the radar of all but the most extreme of alt-fuel proponents. 

Also: Kelley Blue Book Best Buy Awards of 2017

Lease only

Like the last model, the all-new Clarity is only available for lease, only offered in California, and only in select regions of the state at that. Blame infrastructure and a classic chicken or egg conundrum that always seems to surface when discussing hydrogen fuel-cell cars. It goes like this: At the moment, there are just over two dozen hydrogen fueling stations in all of California. Rolling out additional fueling stations is a slow process because since there are so few hydrogen-powered cars on the road, the demand simply isn't there. But without a wide-spread hydrogen infrastructure, it's impossible to own and operate such a car. You can't have cars without the infrastructure, and there's no need for a grand infrastructure if there are only a small amount of cars to actually use it. 

And so it's gone for years. Automakers pushing fuel-cell vehicles often cite how they're the future, and that hydrogen itself is the universe's most abundant element (though isolating it and preparing it as a fuel for cars is its own difficult, energy-intensive process). But they also recognize that there isn't one "silver bullet" when it comes to powering cars of the future, and that hydrogen is just one option. With that as context, we still tip our hat to Honda for devoting so many resources and brain power to its latest fuel-cell Clarity. Because it's a good car, and for a very select group of people, it's a great deal.

Feels like an electric

As with Honda's previous-generation fuel-cell FCX Clarity, this all-new Clarity feels and drives much like a battery-powered electric vehicle. The difference is, instead of storing energy in a bunch of rechargeable batteries a la an electric vehicle or burning it like gasoline in a traditional internal combustion engine, a hydrogen-powered car such as the Clarity uses a fuel cell that creates energy on demand from pressurized hydrogen stored in a large tank in the back of the car. The energy is created via a chemical reaction that occurs when the hydrogen is combined with oxygen. When this occurs, hydrogen ions flow through a catalyst, which splits off electrons. Finally, it's these electrons that generate the electricity for the car's motor. The byproduct of this is water vapor, which makes this an emissions-free vehicle.

Thankfully, all this science occurs in the background of the 2017 Clarity fuel cell sedan. For all other intents and purposes, it operates like any other car: a pedal to stop, another to go, a steering wheel and all the other functions that you're used to in your average car. Furthermore, the Clarity drives like a Honda. If not for the silent way it whisps around—remember, there's no noise or vibration from a gasoline engine—you might think you were in an Accord. Acceleration is smooth and linear from the equivalent output of 174 horsepower/221 lb-ft of torque. In corners, it's gratifyingly dynamic and taut.

Driven back to back against the only other fuel-cell sedan on the market, the new Toyota Mirai, the Clarity felt more dynamic and more fun to drive. The interior is another big differentiator between these rivals. The Mirai only seats four, like the last-gen Honda fuel-cell, but the new Clarity has room for five. Trunk space is impeded, however, due to the large hydrogen fuel tank. 

Fill'er up

Filling that tank is also reassuringly familiar. At a hydrogen fueling station around Santa Barbara, the process only took a few minutes, and while the nozzle is slightly different and has some added safety features, it's not all that different from using a traditional gasoline pump.

On a full tank, the Clarity has an EPA range of 366 miles. It's that figure, and the quick refueling time, that distinguishes the Clarity fuel cell from a pure electric vehicle. Even Tesla's best model can't match the range or quick refueling time of the Clarity fuel cell.

The catch, and the deal 

The catch, of course, is that you have to live in a specific region to even be considered eligible to lease a Clarity. Go to Honda's website, and you'll be directed to input the ZIP code where you live or work to see if you qualify. From there, you'll visit one of a dozen California dealers to complete the transaction.

Also: 2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell Deliveries Start

That said, the Clarity fuel cell is a highly enticing deal for the lucky ones eligible to drive it. The deal goes like this: $369 a month for 36 months, with $2,499 due at signing. That makes a total of $15,783 before tax, title and other fees. Included in the deal is $15,000 worth of hydrogen fuel. And lessees are eligible for a $5,000 rebate from the state of California. On top of that, Honda grants an allowance of 20,000 miles a year, 24/7 roadside assistance, and even 21 days of luxury car rental, just in case you want to take a trip where you'll be out of reach of a hydrogen fueling station. Finally, these vehicles are eligible for the "White Sticker" that allows access to carpool lanes with a single person. 

Due to infrastructure limits alone, the Clarity fuel-cell certainly isn't for everyone. Honda knows this, and will soon debut more models in the Clarity lineup that will have broader appeal and availability, namely a plug-in battery-powered EV model, and a plug-in hybrid model. But for the select lessees to whom it's available, the 2017 Clarity fuel cell is a deal that's hard to refuse.  


 

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