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Honda FCX: It’s easier being green

By Ron Amadon

At days end, we had circled a neat little road course set up in the parking lot of the stadium that is home to Washington’s major league baseball team. We did it without using one drop of gasoline.

We were behind the wheel of Honda’s latest green machine, the hydrogen-electric powered FCX. All that hydrogen must be good for baseball. The Nationals, predicted to be one of the worst teams ever, racked up a winning streak right after the event. As of this writing, they had won four in a row. George Steinbrenner might soon drive an FCX around Yankee Stadium.

The hydrogen-electric powered FCX is a huge step forward … it looks and drives like a real world car.

To clarify, this is the second generation FCX. An earlier model was more of a subcompact box. This latest iteration is all space age styling inside and out — to the degree that it would catch one’s eye from thousands of feet away.

So, what is it like to drive? Sitting still, you hear literally nothing, just as you would in an electric hybrid car. Punch the accelerator and you hear the whine of an electric motor, and that’s it. We think that if the audio system were on you would not notice any motor noise at all.

Acceleration was adequate and handling very good, given the large size of this version of the FCX. “You are not to squeal the tires,” said the blue-shirted Honda official who saw us off. Maximum speed of the FCX is 100 miles per hour. We hit 67 on the backstretch of the course, with virtually no wind or road noise.

“It is now comparable to the performance of current Honda four-cylinder engines, with superior low end torque,” said Sachito Fujimoto, senior chief engineer.

Fellow auto writers at the event raved about the “real world” feel of this $1 million plus concept car. There was more than enough room for four full-sized adults front and rear. In fact, there was more rear seat room than we have seen lately in other gasoline-powered cars.

(The cost of producing the cars in such small numbers is very high, along with the high inherent costs of some of the materials used.)

While there are significant obstacles to bringing the FCX to the marketplace, Honda claims it will start leasing the cars to customers sometime in 2008. They must be near a hydrogen refueling station, and that probably means the first leases will take place in California — the current home of $4 a gallon gasoline.

The lease cost will be about $500 a month.

A zero emission vehicle
They will be clean. “A hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is a zero emission vehicle,” said Steve Ellis, manager of fuel cell marketing for American Honda.

“The only thing that comes out of the tailpipe is water … and it is so clean you can drink it,” he told us. We passed up the opportunity to try that out. “The other advantage is that we are relying on a fuel that is domestically produced and can be made in a variety of ways, so that we are not dependent on oil.”

One Honda official said an early consumer evaluator said he did not like the water drops on his garage floor. Asked why, he said, “You don’t like water on your kitchen floor, do you?”

The hydrogen fuel tank in the FCX resides between the rear wheels. Hydrogen is fed to a fuel cell stack, located between the seats. The stack makes the electricity that powers the electric motor — that moves the car forward. “We are literally reinventing the wheel here,” said Ellis.

By working to improve water drainage, the FCX will start in colder weather than earlier models — down to -22 Fahrenheit.

“A more energy efficient power plant and increased hydrogen tank capacity combine to provide the FCX with a range of some 270 miles,” Fujimoto said. That is about a 30% improvement over earlier models.

Of course, one of the main obstacles to bringing the hydrogen car to market is the availability of the gas itself. Honda officials say that is something that they are working on with some of the major oil companies, such as Shell.

Just when hydrogen will be available nationwide is not clear. Honda is also working on a system, now in its second generation, that would allow consumers to refuel the car at home.

We came away impressed with the huge move forward that Honda has made in hydrogen-electric technology. Again, this drove and looked like a real world car that you should be able to take home today — not a prototype.

Will you be able to bop into your Honda dealer and buy an eye-catching FCX one day? Well, there was an event years ago where we rode around downtown Washington in a terrible test of something called satellite radio.

It constantly lost signal, and backers of the early system were sweating and constantly fiddling with the device and probably cursing under their breath. Yet today, millions of people tune in to a bird way up in space.

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