SANTA MONICA, CA – The Honda FCX Clarity is a vehicle that not long ago seemed like it belonged in a Hollywood movie filled with flying cars and robot maids.

While it doesn’t fly, getting behind the wheel still represents a pretty big leap for mankind: it’s a fuel-cell electric-powered car that regular folks can lease at their local Honda dealer starting next summer.

The Clarity represents a major advance for Honda, too. The auto maker is renowned for its conventional internal combustion engines but so far has flubbed most of its forays into alternative powertrains. This is Honda’s best chance yet at getting its due as a maker of environmentally friendly vehicles.

The innovative Honda Insight, introduced in 1999, was a bomb despite being the first hybrid-electric vehicle on the scene in the U.S., offering more than 60 mpg (3.9L/100 km) fuel economy. Critics drubbed it for its quirky design and cramped interior.

The performance-oriented V-6 Accord HEV never caught on with consumers and recently was discontinued. The Civic Hybrid is a modest success but has never won the kind of mainstream praise enjoyed by Toyota Motor Corp.’s Prius.

This time, though, Honda gets it right with an alternative powertrain vehicle – a hydrogen fuel-cell model to boot – that is ready for prime time and should give the auto maker the push it needs to take the “green” crown from Toyota.

Next summer, a limited number of customers who live in Torrance, Santa Monica and Irvine, CA, (a region with a growing network of hydrogen refueling stations) will be able to walk into Honda dealerships and lease an FCX Clarity for three years for $600 per month, which includes collision insurance and maintenance.

However, Honda is being cagey about details and won’t release further information on the retail program, such as how many vehicles will be offered, or terms and conditions of the lease, until closer to launch.

Even so, it’s a mind-boggling meeting of Main Street and science fiction. And while the technology under the hood may be extraordinary, the FCX Clarity is just like any other upscale family sedan: roomy, quiet with lots of features you would expect on a luxury car.

Boasting a 110.2-in. (280-cm) wheelbase, the same as the roomy new ’08 Accord sedan, although overall length is 4 ins. (10 cm) shorter, the FCX Clarity will never be mistaken for a science project.

The exterior design is striking and attractive, especially compared with the Yugo-esque current-generation FCX, which has been leased to fleet customers as well as one L.A.-area family for two years.

“We didn’t want an experimental vehicle – we wanted to do something very real,” says Masaru Hasegawa, lead exterior designer for the FCX Clarity.

The car’s profile sweeps in one continuous line from front to back, vaguely similar to an elongated Prius. Perhaps Honda figured if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

The fascia is notable for the chrome trim piece below the grille, which Hasegawa tells Ward’s was added from the concept FCX of 2005 to provide immediate on-road recognition.

Also added for the production model is a blacked-out, lower-rear window, reminiscent of the Insight. However, unlike that version, which veiled some powertrain components, this one hides personal items that might be stored in the trunk, while at the same time allowing drivers to better see the road behind.

Speaking of the trunk, it is roomy enough to fit two large suitcases, Honda says.

Unlike the Insight, this model’s high fuel economy and environmental friendliness does not cost drivers or occupants in comfort or convenience. Indeed, the FCX Clarity boasts the roominess the Insight lacked, and most drivers and passengers of any height will find all four seats comfortable.

Plus the Clarity boasts many of the amenities of a luxury car, including a navigation system that will direct lessees to the nearest hydrogen refueling station.

Honda gave a few automotive journalists the chance to drive the car here in mid-November on a 21.4-mile (34-km) loop.

Powered by Honda’s new vertical “V Flow” fuel-cell stack, which is 65% smaller than the current FCX’s, output is 100 kW (134 hp), up from 86 kW (115 hp) in the current FCX.

The stack is mated to a lithium-ion battery pack, which replaces the previous model’s bulky ultracapacitor. Honda is saying little about the new battery pack, except that it is half the size of the ultracapacitor.

“The main power source is the fuel cell, so the lithium-ion battery is only used for assisting the main power source,” FCX chief engineer Sachito Fujimoto says.

Overheating (an issue because there have been instances of li-ion powered notebook computers catching fire) is not a concern. He assures the battery pack is stable and meets safety requirements.

The hydrogen-fuel tank, aluminum wrapped with carbon fiber, stores hydrogen at 5,000 psi (345 bar), half the pressure General Motors Corp. is using for its growing fleet of fuel-cell powered vehicles.

Fujimoto, who has spent nearly 10 of his 25 years at Honda working on the FCX, says infrastructure played a role in the decision to stick with a lower storage pressure.

Most refueling stations are set up for 5,000 psi, he says. Doubling the pressure in the hydrogen fuel tanks also does not double the range, Fujimoto adds.

Engineers managed to increase the FCX Clarity’s driving range to 270 miles (435 km), up from 210 miles (338 km) in the current FCX, without raising the tank pressure.

Honda also is touting it was able to take 400 lbs. (181 kg) out of the FCX, generation-to-generation, resulting in improved fuel efficiency, now equivalent to 68 mpg (3.5 L/100 km).

Honda FCX Clarity
Vehicle type Front-wheel-drive
4-door sedan
Engine AC synchronous electric motor powered by fuel-cell stack, lithium ion battery
Power 134 hp/100 kW
Torque 189 lb.-ft. (256 Nm)
Transmission shift-by-wire
Wheelbase 110.2 ins. (280 cm)
Overall length 190.3 ins. (483 cm)
Overall width 72.7 ins. (185 cm)
Overall height 57.8 ins. (147 cm)
Vehicle weight 3,582 lbs./1,625 kg
Top speed 100 mph
Base price range $600 per month,
3-year lease
Est. EPA fuel economy (mpg) 68 mpg (3.5 L/100 km)
Pros Cons
Sexy not nerdy Only available in La-La Land
Practical with real-world feel Expensive to lease
Only emits water Methane-derived hydrogen is dirty

Driving the car isn’t complicated. Push the power button and the vehicle springs to life, letting you know it is ready to drive with colorful meters indicating hydrogen levels, battery charge and motor output.

Hydrogen consumption is indicated by an easy-to-understand ball centered in the middle of the tachometer that changes in size and color to indicate different fuel levels.

A small electronic shift lever, similar to that found on the steering columns of new BMW AG and Mercedes-Benz models, is mounted on the dashboard to the right of the steering wheel.

It takes a bit of practice to operate but isn’t complex: pulling the lever forward and down puts the vehicle into drive, forward and up is reverse and pulling it forward and letting the lever go returns it to neutral. Park is activated via a push button below the lever.

As with most fuel-cell powered electric vehicles, there is no typical powertrain noise, and the sounds that radiate from under the hood are, well, different.

The sounds are a cross between a blender and a hair dryer. That said, worse noises have emanated from beneath an internal combustion-powered car’s hood. If it is annoying to some, a quick flick of the audio system’s volume knob should drown it out.

Throttle response is quick and sporty, and the brakes are not grabby like some HEVs.

One minor complaint is not being able to lower the seat any further, or raise the seatbelt any higher, causing it to slip a bit off the shoulder.

Fit and finish is above average, with select surfaces, including seats and door panels, covered in Honda’s own bio-fabric.

The limited availability of the FCX Clarity may prevent it from gaining the kind of celebrity image the Prius enjoys, but its driving characteristics, cool technology, sexy shape and interior amenities should make it a hit with anyone lucky enough to take it for a test drive.

With a high-profile marketing campaign, including an action-packed commercial currently airing both on TV and movie theaters, the FCX Clarity may be just what Honda needs to reverse its past missteps and put its green image into high gear.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com