Promising to have fuel-cell vehicles in showrooms by 2012, General Motors Corp. Tuesday completes a historic 304-mile (489-km) test drive of its Chevrolet Sequel FCV on one tank of hydrogen.

Driving from GM’s Fuel Cell Activity Center in Honeoye Falls, NY, to Tarrytown, NY, the Sequel makes the trip carrying 18 lbs. (8 kg) of hydrogen, the equivalent of 16 gallons (61 L) of gasoline.

However, the FCV used only 15 lbs. (7 kg) of hydrogen for the test drive, a GM spokeswoman tells Ward’s, noting it could have traveled another 40-50 miles (69-80 km) on the same tank.

The Sequel’s fuel stack generates 98 hp, which provides the vehicle a top speed of 100 mph (160 km/h).

GM says the Sequel is the first vehicle in the world to successfully integrate a hydrogen fuel-cell propulsion system with a broad menu of advanced technologies, such as steer- and brake-by-wire controls, wheel hub motors, lithium-ion batteries and a lightweight aluminum structure.

“This was the first fuel-cell vehicle to drive 300 miles on one tank of hydrogen on public roads. This truly represents the new DNA of automotive technology,” Larry Burns, GM vice president of research and development, tells reporters at the event.

General Motors is proving that advanced technology can remove the automobile from the environmental debate and reduce our dependence on petroleum. (The) Chevy Sequel clearly shows that our vision for the future of the automobile is real and sustainable.”

GM announced in September plans to lease more than 100 FCVs this fall to the general public in the form of Chevrolet Equinox cross/utility vehicles.

A company spokesman says leasing will be focused on areas where there is a hydrogen infrastructure to permit convenient refueling, such as Westchester County, NY; Burbank, CA; and Washington.

The auto maker reportedly will increase its retail FCV fleet to 1,000 units between 2010-2012.

Honda Motor Co. Ltd. recently announced an expanded U.S. leasing program to general retail customers for its next-generation FCX experimental fuel-cell vehicle, as well.

At present, Honda is leasing FCVs to two private retail customers for $500 per month. A new program will provide leasing to many more retail customers next year “somewhere north of that price,” officials say.

Regardless of the increased price, it still will be substantially less than the $1 million it currently costs Honda to build a single FCX.

However, the next-generation FCX, with a roomier interior comparable with that of a midsize car, “will cost us less to produce due to various advancements that get us closer to mass production,” a Honda spokesman tells Ward’s at a recent FCX test drive in Washington.

Honda declines to reveal exactly how many FCX units it plans to lease in 2008.

Toyota Motor Corp. has leased some FCVs but declines to say what its future plans are for increased delivery of the zero-emissions vehicles.

Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler AG and BMW AG all have hydrogen-fueled test fleets operating here as well as overseas.

Members of the media were given an opportunity to drive Honda’s new-generation FCX on an improvised road course at the R.F.K. Stadium parking lot last week.

A more powerful, yet smaller fuel-cell stack than in the previous-generation FCX generates 134 hp that gives the electric motor a maximum output of 127 hp, says Ben Knight, vice president, Honda R&D Americas Inc. Maximum torque is 186 lb.-ft. (256 Nm).

The new powerplant is 396 lbs. (180 kg) lighter and about 40% smaller than in the previous generation. That is about equal to a V-6 hybrid-electric powertrain, Knight says.

The new fuel stack features a vertical-flow cell structure that permits slimmer cells and allows gravity to increase water generated through the chemical bonding of hydrogen and oxygen. Honda engineers wanted to improve water drainage capability, while reducing flow channel depth by 17%.

That is important because water can accumulate in cells with light loads on the engine and also during idle, Senior Chief Engineer Sachito Fujimoto says.

The improved water drainage also produces higher output at startup, and the stack warms up four times faster than the previous generation. Cold start is possible at temperatures down to -22° F (-30° C), Fujimoto says.

Like its predecessors, the new stack is hand-built. “Our goal is to have continuous mass production (of fuel-cell components),” Knight says.

Driving range of the new FCX is 270 miles (440 km). That’s about 30% greater than the previous model. Power is stored in a lithium-ion battery pack.

Toyota and DaimlerChrysler AG tell Ward’s they have no current plans to announce public retail-leasing programs for their FCVs. Both have test fleets in the hands of universities and private companies. DC has leased a commercial fleet to UPS.

While leasing efforts by Honda and GM are sure to increase the public’s experience with hydrogen-fueled vehicles, it represents only a small step forward.

Even if the auto makers were to retool and turn out FCVs by the millions, the current lack of infrastructure would prevent widespread distribution of the hydrogen that such vehicles require.

Despite this, Steve Ellis, Honda’s FCV marketing manager, says Honda’s effort “is not just some far out, pie-in-the-sky exercise in what may or may not come to fruition some day in the distant future.”

Perhaps Knight puts it best. Responding to a question as to how soon he could buy a Honda FCV at a dealership, he says “sometime at the end of the next decade.”