Honda's Clarity Fuel Cell car goes on sale next year: We drive it in Japan

TOKYO -- Honda's been playing with fuel cells in cars for decades now, but finally it's bringing one to the mass market. In the spring of 2016, Honda will begin offering leases for its Clarity Fuel Cell, a comfortable four-door sedan that, if not for the unorthodox styling and a few odd noises, you'd never know was anything other than a normal car.

It's powered by a revised version of the powertrain found in the Japanese company's FCX Clarity, the prototype model that has been on the market since 2008. However, thanks to new learnings and optimizations, this new Clarity is more powerful: 174 horsepower, to be exact, and 221 foot-pounds of torque.

That motor has had its integrated power unit rotated forward between the front wheels, making room for a revised fuel cell stack. It's the stack that mixes the compressed hydrogen powered onboard with oxygen to create electricity -- and water. That electricity is fed into a lithium-ion battery pack (situated beneath the front seats) and, ultimately, to that electric motor spinning the front wheels.

Hydrogen in, water and electricity out. That's about as clean as driving gets these days. And, thanks to a fuel cell stack that's one-third smaller than before, all the circuitry can fit beneath the hood. That leaves more room for hydrogen tanks, two of them: a big one in the trunk, and a smaller one beneath the rear seats. Combined, they deliver 435 miles worth of range. Or, pick up Honda's new Power Exporter 9000 gadget and the car can power your house for a week.

While that 174 horsepower figure won't exactly leave you thrilled, it's delivered with that rush of electric-vehicle torque that makes it feel faster than it actually is. Interestingly, this is the first fuel cell-powered car I've driven that actually makes a distinctive sound. You can actually hear the exhaust from the fuel cell whooshing away, in addition to the whine from the direct-drive motor. It's a distinctive sound, if not quite pleasant.

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The Clarity's hydrogen tanks fit beneath and behind the rear seats.

Tim Stevens/CNET

While it was a very short drive here at the Tokyo Motor Show, the new Clarity seems to have very good road manners. It's comfortable, powerful enough, and with over 400 miles of range, it could be a capable road trip car. Range isn't any good unless you can find a place to fill the thing up, however, and as of now hydrogen stations are very few. Honda says it'll be another decade until cars like these truly have mass market appeal, but it's good to know that early adopters can get started soon if they like.

In terms of price, Honda expects the Clarity to lease for under $500 per month, which is in line with the competition. Eventually, as infrastructure and demand grow, it will be available for purchase. The automaker expects the MSRP to fall around $60,000. The first Clarity Fuel Cells should hit the road in California before the end of 2016.

Editor's Note, January 21, 2016: This story has been updated with an additional paragraph at the end, to reflect recently released pricing and availability information.

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