x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Honda's new gas guzzler

Don't be put off by those dull looks, the FCX Clarity is, it turns out, the car of the future - or at least the Japanese car maker would like you to think it is.

You can fill the FCX up with hydrogen in less than five minutes.
You can fill the FCX up with hydrogen in less than five minutes.

Nowadays, emission-free motoring is the ultimate Hollywood accessory. Even hybrids, like the Toyota Prius, don't really cut it anymore. Which probably helps to explain why Arnold Schwarzenegger, the man who was once famed for his love of environmentally-unfriendly Hummers, happily champions the green cause. Indeed, the politician is now the power behind California's so-called Hydrogen Highway, the busy thoroughfare that runs between San Francisco and San Diego.

You'll find the epicentre of LA's piece of that road just off the 405 freeway, one of the world's most polluted motorways, where a Shell petrol station equipped with a hydrogen pump is the main refuelling hub for the rare Honda FCX Clarity. The Honda FCX Clarity, the world's first commercially available, zero-emission hydrogen car, is currently only available to lease in Japan and California, primarily because they're the only places where hydrogen is relatively available. The cost for a three-year lease in either market is approximately $600 (Dh2,200) per month, which includes maintenance.

Before I am let loose behind the wheel of the vehicle Honda describes as the "sedan of the future", I'm shown how to fill up the Clarity, which proves fast and simple. In fact, in less than five minutes, I have enough energy onboard for more than 320km of roaming. It cost almost $30 to fill the tank - about the same price as it would to fill the tank of a similar-sized car with petrol. This Honda is an amazing piece of wizardry. It's powered by a compact and efficient electric motor, which is fed by a fuel cell that converts hydrogen from the tank and oxygen from the air into electricity. The only byproduct of this process is water vapour, which comes out of the exhaust pipe. The hydrogen is compressed to 5,000psi and stored in a tank under the boot.

The FCX's Vertical Flow fuel cell stack has been designed to be compact, leaving more space for occupants. The car is also designed to recover energy that would otherwise be lost while braking or decelerating, which is stored as electricity in a lithium-ion battery pack found under the rear seat, allowing for more interior and boot space. The Clarity's range is fine, too, if you know you are going to be close to another filling station.

Currently, one of the biggest hurdles in selling hydrogen-powered vehicles is the lack of infrastructure to make owning one as convenient as owning a petrol-powered car. As yet, hydrogen does not give you the complete freedom of the open road. So with all that in mind, I map out our road test route. Carefully. We will head up near Burbank, then across the Santa Monica Mountains to Malibu, down the Pacific Coast Highway and through Venice. The return leg will be up the infamous 405 to Los Angeles International Airport, where the first hydrogen station opened, for a substantial but sustainable meal at the city's hippest eco eatery.

Any fool could drive the Clarity - just flick the switch into Drive with the steering column-mounted lever and the car moves off, albeit with little of the grunt you'd expect from a big petrol engine. It gets to 100kph in about 10 seconds and reaches a maximum speed of 160kph. The ride quality, though, is as good as a Rolls-Royce. For a car for the future, the Clarity is remarkably contemporary to drive. For some reason I'd expected an experience nothing like the norm but, despite the cutting-edge power source, the delivery of power is familiar.

It may be a bit breathless compared with the sprightly characteristics of most Hondas, and unnaturally quiet (something we will all have to get used to with one form of alternative power or other) but Honda has retained its company DNA for ride and handling. Sadly though, the interior is dull. I'd have liked to feel as if I was in something more space shuttle than old people's home. But the Star Trek element is at least evident in a series of gauges and indicators that pulsate in vibrant electro blue rather like a 1990s Japanese boom box. One of the key indicators shows hydrogen reserves. I thought it would be like watching sand slide through an egg timer, seeing the sole power source for the car evaporate with every twitch of the accelerator. But no, it dropped gently - until I got on the motorway. Then it started plummeting.

There's nothing like not knowing where your next filling station is coming from to focus the mind. It's great having a hydrogen car but greater still when there's enough places to refuel. Heading out into traffic, I felt like a star. Kids, truckers and even muscle car drivers flagged me down and gave me the thumbs-up. The Clarity doesn't look all that different from a normal car, but apparently people still notice it.

Sun kissed and sand fringed, Santa Monica and Venice Beach are in fact LA's green belt. Here, sustainability sells. Surfboard and skateboard makers Arbor use bamboo not only for their wave and street riders but also for clothing. It's no gimmick. Surfers might want the cleanest of water, but would never relinquish speed across the surf or pavements for sustainability. Serving in Venice today is the Green Truck to Go, a mobile kitchen powered by biofuel and solar-power, that dishes up meals of local produce from the side of the road. I grab a fantastic tortilla wrap to keep myself fuelled.

"LA is really a green place at heart. Only because we need our cars so much is that compromised," says Green Truck founder Mitchell Collier, whose regular customers include the film director Ridley Scott and the celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz. "It is becoming normal now in LA to choose the green option, given one." Our last stop is for a bite at Akasha, LA's top organic restaurant. Pierce Brosnan and Robert Redford swing by. Miley Cyrus, who was filming in studios at Culver City, also makes an appearance.

"I'd like to say we are doing something new," says Akasha Richmond. "But go back to Hollywood in the 1930s and health food and green living were all the rage then. The Germans brought their organic living with them to LA and Hollywood lapped it up. "The difference now is that so much of that has been diluted that the green movement has a greater fight to get its head above water. But the immediate influence of stars and their eco beliefs has been tremendous."

It's obvious that Californians are serious about going green, which makes it obvious why Honda chose the Golden State as its Clarity test bed. With the success of the hydrogen car here, one can only wonder how soon the Clarity will be seen in driveways in the rest of the US states - and beyond. * The National