Honda FCX – Fuel Cell Vehicle: The idea was simple: Test the “car of the future” against one of today’s scariest commutes: the dreaded 91 freeway. Heading into and out of Orange County, Calif., traffic on the 91 is rated as one of the top ten worst drives by MSNBC, at an average 55 hours worth of delays per year. With so much wasted time, it seemed that having a hydrogen-powered, water-vapor emitting Honda FCX fuel cell car would make a positive difference to the environment and to our dependence on fossil fuel. If the car could survive the stop-stop-go-stop-stop-go-like-hell routine of that freeway, perhaps automakers – well, Honda anyway– was ready to move beyond internal combustion and into a bright new hydrogen future.
What it Is
The Honda FCX is unlike any car on the road today. A hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, it’s powered by an electric motor running off of a fuel cell stack that uses hydrogen as its energy source. It creates energy via two hydrogen tanks filled up to 5,000 psi, a fuel cell stack placed horizontally under the passengers, and a capacitor in the back area. What’s amazing about the FCX, however, isn’t so much the technology but its transparency. It drives much like a normal car, aside from poor handling, a heavy curb weight and a nerdy design necessitated by the size of the tanks, capacitor and fuel cell.
Why it Matters
As our reserve of fossil fuels decline – or become more problematic thanks to geopolitics – our need for alternative mobility gets top billing on consumer priority lists. Honda has been actively developing a fuel cell program since around 1989, the results of which are the Honda FCX we drove and the stylish FCX Concept first shown at the Tokyo motor show in 2005. These fuel cell vehicles are important because their energy isn’t derived from fossil fuels. It’s potentially a zero-oil use and zero-emissions solution to energy independence and global warming in terms of automotive use. Right now, the problem is in making hydrogen; the most economical way to do it involves fossil fuels, so hydrogen isn’t quite at the zero mark yet.
What’s Under the Hood
The front-wheel-drive Honda FCX is powered by a motor running on electricity that’s generated by a fuel cell stack using hydrogen as its energy source. The FCX generates 107 horsepower and 201 lb.-ft. of torque. It’s one of the only fuel cells to be certified by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for everyday commercial use. Power is routed through a single-speed transmission. According to Honda, the transmission works by transmitting power “through a two-stage reduction from main (primary) to counter (secondary) to final.” The benefit is partially in the packaging: The transmission is small and light, enabling the use of a larger radiator for more cooling.
What it Drives Like – Speed
On the road and under control, the FCX responds promptly to the throttle thanks to its 201 lb.-ft. of torque. It bogs down quickly, however, going from 0-30 mph in a blink but crawling to 70 mph and beyond. It’ll get up to 90, but you need either a tall hill to drive down or plenty of freeway in order to accomplish it. On that dreaded 91 freeway, however, 90 mph is a fantasy and all that electric motor’s low-end torque works exceedingly well.
What it Drives Like – Ride and Handling
With its 3,700-lb. curb weight and horizontal fuel cell design, the FCX is bouncy and top heavy on the road. By way of comparison, the only vehicles heavier in the Honda lineup are the Ridgeline truck, the Pilot SUV and the Odyssey minivan. Think of it as the marriage between compact car and SUV, with all the squealing tires, body lean and jouncy ride you expect from an SUV with the straight line power of a compact car. It sounds bad on paper, but it’s not so bad in real life, thanks to its Accord-esqe suspension, though that little FCX does feel like a toy boat in a bathtub when you go hard around corners.
What it Drives Like – Stopping and Going
With all the torque that’s on hand, the FCX is snappy in stop-and-go traffic. . After driving through around two hours of traffic, we can also report that the FCX causes little to no fatigue. Part of the reason must be its quiet operation. It’s eerily quiet: Step on the accelerator and you move quickly, but without the growling sound we’re all used to from an internal combustion engine. In that way, it’s more like a ride at an amusement park. Really put your foot in it and you can hear the motor buzz pretty loudly. The brakes are mushy but work quite well, and visibility – thanks to that high seating position – is good for a car of this size.
How You Fill it Up
If you were to drive an FCX you’d have to fill up around every 215 miles; not a bad range. To do so, however, you’d need to make friends with Al the Maintenance Guy at the local city yard, ‘cause that’s where most refueling centers are – and they don’t charge by the gallon. It’s a simple enough affair, with two cables – one for ground and the other for fueling – but you get this feeling that if you do it wrong, things might, er, blow up. Honda is developing a Home Energy Station that will extract hydrogen from a home’s natural gas supply. The problem is that carbon dioxide spews forth when you produce hydrogen this way, which sort of defeats the purpose.
What it Looks Like
The Honda FCX looks a lot like most commuter cars on the road, just a little taller, and wearing ugly blue paint. It’s about as long as a Civic, but with more vertical styling. This is an engineering project, remember, not a design exercise, so its traditional compact car body was tweaked and stretched in order to fit the elements inside. For example, extra vents in front help with cooling the powertrain, and the trunk is small, thanks to the capacitor. The exterior appearance is also at the mercy of safety regs that helped the FCX pass crash tests. In addition to protecting passengers, the FCX must protect the fuel cell and hydrogen tanks, and thus limiting the amount of body damage.
If you like the color blue, you’ll love the interior, from the blue upholstered seats to the blue plastic. Color aside, however, the FCX is barely more than a prototype, but you’d never know it by sitting inside the cabin. The interior is well-executed, with durable fabrics, nice plastic grains, decent seats and a typical Honda instrument panel and control layout. The speedometer is in the center of the instrument panel, to its left sits an energy management readout and a hydrogen level gauge. Safety features include airbags and seatbelts. On the downside, there’s little cargo room, virtually no trunk space – thanks to hydrogen tanks and the ultracapacitor – and limited space for things such as parking cards and cell phones.
When You Can Buy It
Got two million dollars? Then Honda has an FCX for you. Seriously, Honda currently has 15 FCX vehicles on loan with customers, mostly government types. However, one of those customers is the Spallino family, who celebrated the first anniversary of life with a fuel cell vehicle last year. The Spallinos lease their FCX from Honda and use their experience to give the company real world input that’s used to develop the future of fuel cell technology and customer expectations. Look for fuel cells to reach more families during the 2008 or 2009 model year, as Honda’s new FCX Concept rolls into some sort of production trim and availability becomes more widespread.
What We Think
It sounds like a swarm of angry bees when you stomp on the accelerator. And when you take a corner, it lollygags like a clumsy minivan. So what? After driving both the current FCX and the new FCX Concept, what excited us most was the realization that fuel cell vehicles are serious, which means that a new era of largely silent, quick and clean mobility is dawning. Just think: A world where driving to work doesn’t assist in wrecking the environment or sucking more oil out of the ground. That’s an automotive world worth dreaming about, and chances are that the car that got it rolling is the Honda FCX.
The Honda FCX is whisper close to being a good commuter car, but there’s still a tweak or two to be made before we start seeing ads in the paper for the latest fuel cell model. Hydrogen availability is the obvious one, but ride and handling and interior room are also challenges. For the most part, the Honda FCX is a perfect car for one or two people, but add another passenger and their stuff into the cabin and there are space and power issues to deal with. Right now, this is a very livable car that weighs a bit too much and is a little slow after that initial torque injection. The next version will be ever so much closer to the real thing.