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New Cars Quick spin: Honda’s new Clarity fuel cell actually drives like a car

What is it?

In 2002, Honda began leasing its first fuel cell vehicle, the FCX, in Japan and California. Since then, it has been honing this clean technology to make it smaller, cheaper and more efficient. At the Tokyo Motor Show this week, the latest of Honda's fuel cell vehicles, the Clarity Fuel Cell, debuted with a larger chassis, a promise of real-world utility and a range of more than 480 kilometres.

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Honda has shrunk its fuel cell by 33 per cent from the previous Clarity. Mounted on top of the single electric motor between the front wheels, and with all the accompanying electronics, the package is about the size of a normal V-6 engine. The motor puts out 174 horsepower for the Accord-sized sedan. Because the whole package is in the front, the fuel cell has been strengthened four times over the last version to help survive a crash. The batteries are now under the front seats, while a hydrogen tank is mounted under the trunk and another goes under the rear seats, which allows for a sizable cargo area and five passengers inside the cabin.

What else is new?

The car grows to a mid-sized sedan chassis from the Civic-based FCX Clarity that it replaces. Inside is a modern design with unpolished wood lining the dashboard and a suede-like material all around. The centre console has a bridge containing the transmission controls that spans a storage tray underneath. It's a creative departure from the normal car interiors that doesn't scream "concept". While the front end looks like any Honda sedan, designers opted for an Insight-like body line partially covering the rear wheel, making the rear end a little awkward. Just because it's an alternative-fueled car doesn't mean it has to look like one.

Performance

The Clarity drives like a real car. An electric car with good, smooth torque from stop and a silky quiet ride, with just tire noise and a low whine from the compressor under the hood pumping air to the fuel cell. In fact, the whole package feels like driving the Accord, which is a compliment to the Clarity's overall demeanor as a realistic, everyday car. We'll need a longer test drive to see how fast the Clarity is, how comfortable it is on the highway and how it handles the curves.

When can we buy it and for how much?

The Clarity Fuel Cell will first appear in Japan this March and California will see it later in 2016. There are no plans to introduce it to Canada. Prices have not been released, nor will Honda say if the Clarity will be only leased, as the last version was, or also sold outright.

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Cool quotient

3.5 stars (out of 5)

A fuel cell vehicle – especially one that operates like any other sedan – is exciting news in the battle against pollution, as it only emits water through the tail pipe. But with a limited number of filling stations, it won't be feasible for all but a few. Honda has invested $14 million (U.S.) with a California company to expand filling stations there, but that's a drop in the bucket of what's needed. Just 10 stations are operating in the state.

The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.

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