Honda rolls out a fun, stylish fuel-cell car

The 2017 Honda Clarity: In normal mode, steady and sedate; in Sport mode, energized and engaging.

The science experiment is over. Hydrogen-fuel cars are real.

Toyota and Hyundai proved it with their Mirai and Tucson FCVs. Now, Honda has taken the technology a step further. The 2017 Clarity is real, and it's really fun.

Honda's fuel-cell entry is a stylish four-door sedan that offers premium cabin comfort and cargo capacity for five passengers and their gear.

This is possible because Honda engineers downsized and repositioned the engine components so they fit under the hood instead of taking up space between the rear seats, or in the trunk, as they do on other fuel-cell vehicles.

With the engine under the hood, Honda could park the battery under the front seats and two hydrogen tanks under and just behind the rear seats.

Like its competitors, the Clarity is powered by a fuel stack that combines onboard compressed hydrogen with oxygen to produce electricity, which then drives an electric motor that propels the car, leaving only water vapor to emit from the tailpipe.

But Honda has taken its Clarity a step beyond the Mirai and Tucson by giving it a Sport driving mode that takes great advantage of the electric motor.

In normal mode, the Clarity is a slow, steady, sedate sedan. But in Sport mode, it's an energized, engaged driving experience.

Over two days of driving on city streets, wide-open freeways, and curving canyons, I was surprisingly entertained by the Clarity's punchy acceleration and precise handling.

It has some luxury and high-tech appointments, too: The keyless ignition unlocks the vehicle at the touch of the driver's hand. Rain-sensing wipers engage with the arrival of precipitation. A heads-up display projects vital information onto the windshield. The ultra-suede and simulated wood-grain interior and the dash elements all have a quality fit and finish.

The Clarity is connected and ready for Apple Car Play and Android Auto. The HondaLink cellphone app will allow the operator to start the car remotely and get the heater or AC going. It also will find the car electronically, and can locate the closest fueling station and provide directions for getting there.

It's an easy car to drive and, once you get used to the absence of engine sound and vibration, feels like any midrange sedan.

The adequate visibility is enhanced by a navigation screen that turns into a rearview camera not just when the car is in reverse but when the right turn indicator is engaged - giving the driver added visual assistance when backing up or making a right-hand lane change.

Silent, smooth, and responsive, the Clarity got high marks for performance. I even forgave it for the unappealing exterior design, which seems to suffer from the syndrome that struck the first generation of Porsche Panameras - with the sleek lines extending from the sporty front of the car having to expand to allow for a full-size rear seating area.

Like its rivals, the Clarity's hydrogen tank can be filled in three to five minutes from a fueling device that looks and acts a lot like a traditional gas station pump. Range between refills is 366 miles per tank, according to the Environmental Protection Agency - ahead of the Mirai's range of 312 miles and the Tucson's 265.

However, also like all hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, the Clarity's fast-fueling capacity is limited by current fuel-cell infrastructure. As of March, for example, there were only 26 fueling stations in all of California, by far the densest fuel-cell penetration.

Some drivers may experience other range issues. Although Honda is proud of its best-in-class 366 miles of EPA-approved total driving distance, my experience with the Clarity suggested otherwise.

The EPA numbers are based on a calculation of miles driven per kilogram, then translated to a miles-per-gallon equivalent and multiplied by the size of the fuel tank. The federal testers gave the Clarity a 68 mpg-equivalent rating. I got less than that.

For now, Honda isn't selling its Claritys, offering the cars in California only but with a very appealing lease deal. Wannabe leaseholders will pay $369 a month, after a down payment of $2,868, to drive one home.

Compressed hydrogen, when calculated on a per-gallon rate, costs three to five times more than gasoline, the equivalent of $9.99 per gallon at some locations, more than $15 at others. (Hydrogen-technology boosters insist that, with more widespread adoption, fuel costs will come down.)