Honda’s hydrogen car is smooth

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Associated Press

WASHINGTON: For years, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have been the far-off technological bets of the auto industry – the car that holds the promise of gasoline-free driving.

Honda Motor Co. is starting to give a small number of drivers a glimpse into the future.

The Honda FCX Clarity debuted in July, and the automaker is leasing about 200 of the cars to customers in Southern California during the next three years. Tens of thousands of car enthusiasts have applied to be among the first to lease – and for good reason.

Stylish and smooth, the Clarity opens a window into the possible: the combination of environmental responsibility and zero emissions with a fun, hip ride. If only refueling was a matter of pulling into the nearest filling station.

The Clarity is emerging at a difficult stretch for the auto industry, a year in which sales have been choked by a battered economy and a major credit crunch. So it might be easy to shrug it off as another advanced vehicle relegated to auto shows and the garages of the super rich.

As with any hydrogen car, there are caveats galore. Finding a hydrogen fueling station can be like getting a car loan with lousy credit these days. And most hydrogen is extracted from natural gas, releasing carbon dioxide and undercutting the emissions-free argument.

Honda’s marketing of the car may also draw some skepticism. The company is offering three-year leases to a select few for $600 a month, which includes maintenance and collision coverage. Actress Jamie Lee Curtis and her husband, filmmaker Christopher Guest, have one. Other Clarity pioneers include Actress Laura Harris and “Little Miss Sunshine” producer Ron Yerxa, making it easy to dismiss the car as a Hollywood publicity stunt.

But on its merits, the Clarity delivers. It offers quiet, steady acceleration, high torque and a 280-mile range, allowing the driver to enjoy the ride instead of worrying about finding the next refill.

Previous generations of Honda’s fuel cell vehicles have resembled futuristic econoboxes – small, workmanlike and unpractical. The latest version is more refined, helped by a smaller and lighter fuel cell stack that is more easily packaged into a sedan. (The Clarity is about 4 inches shorter than a Honda Accord.)

In the fuel cell, hydrogen is combined with oxygen to generate electricity that powers the vehicle’s motor.

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