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The Test Drive - Inside and Out

Let's get one thing out of the way first - the FCX Clarity is a real, honest to goodness automobile that requires no special skills or knowledge to drive. The hardest thing you'll ever have to do behind the wheel of an FCX Clarity is figure out which way to move the drive selector lever - and maybe find the park button. That the vehicle is so intuitive and so transparent in operation is perhaps the greatest achievement of Honda's talented engineers. Creating ground breaking technology is one thing, putting it in a slick, easy to use package that consumers will love is on a whole different plane (ref: Apple Computers vs. the rest of the world).

And the FCX Clarity is very, very slick. Honda's designers undertook to create a premium feel for new vehicle in attempt to make owners feel special and unique. This revelation was, of course, music to my ears as I've always felt that a significant part of the Toyota Prius' marketplace success was its ability to let consumers distinguish themselves from the crowd, and remind them of it every day. That premium feel starts on the outside with the Star Garnet paint. While the attractiveness of a particular color is a very subjective thing, it is the lusciousness and depth of the FCX Clarity's paint that drew my eye. I was fortunate enough to be able to see the car both under the bright lights of the Honda display at the LA Auto Show, and under overcast skies in Santa Monica and Malibu. Under bright lights, the paint is bursting with color, almost candy-like in some aspects. Reflections seem to shine back after bouncing off the surface of the car deep under layers of ruby and clear. In some ways it is a bit ostentatious. At the drive event, the Honda PR folks were almost apologetic for the overcast skies as they felt it didn't make the car's paint pop. However, I felt that the more diffuse light actually complimented the finish better. It took on a deeper, darker and richer feel. The depth of the paint now drew you in to the shape of the car rather than shoving it into your face. I wanted to run my hand along body contours and explore the finish more when I saw it outside at the drive event.

Speaking of body contours, the shape of the FCX Clarity somehow manages to convey a premium look without losing the "hey look at me" factor so essential to selling alternative fuel vehicles in today's market. One of my gripes about the Toyota Prius is that while it is recognizable, it also is recognizably cheap looking. Given that the FCX Clarity will lease for $600/month and be worth far, far more, Honda did well to move more upscale. And while I did get a bit of a Volkswagen vibe from the front end (maybe from the chrome fascia?), the rest of the car's shape is unmistakably Honda, but is also unmistakably not everyone else's Honda. The rear to me evoked particularly strong feelings of Honda heritage. The way the flanks of the car joined the rear window glass, plus the vertical rear mini-window made me think CRX and Insight - interestingly enough, Honda's two previous super-mileage, green cars. The extra width below the glass and the full width rear lighting/reflector even made me think NSX, if only for a fleeting moment. The only part of the exterior that I had real trouble with was the front to rear balance of the shape. Thanks to the tiny electric motor up front and the need to store a large hydrogen tank at the rear, the passenger compartment is pushed far forward, leaving the tail of the car to look somewhat elongated. This is good for aero, and it allows reasonable cargo space, but it is unfamiliar enough to give pause when you catch it from the wrong angle. Oh, and maybe the wheels could be a little more striking, but one can forgive small wheels in the name of efficiency.

In the end, the exterior strikes a reasonable compromise between functionality, brand identity and a unique and premium feel - not an easy task I would think. I do think last year's concept looked a bit better, but I also feel like Honda was able to remain faithful to the concept in transitioning to production. Conversations with the engineers confirmed that they were given special dispensation on the FCX Clarity to carry certain features and design elements to production that would have never normally made it due to costs or manufacturing difficulty. If the car's design is well received maybe we'll see more such leeway given on future high end Honda and Acura models (we can hope).

Whatever you think of the exterior, opening the door and sliding into the driver's seat will immediately evoke a feeling of unexpected opulence. While there is no leather, only bio-fabric, on the seats, Honda's interior designers have managed to combine wood accents, piano black, unique textures and high quality plastics into a surprisingly rich and modern interior.

The bio-fabric seat and armrest materials feel rich and yet light and comfortable to the touch. The piano black inserts on the headrests and other key places in the interior contrast nicely with the light gray fabrics. The door panels have a smooth and flowing look to them and are scalloped for more room. The striated floor mats add direction and interest to a part of the interior most people never look at, while the split center armrests front and rear evoke a mid to high end luxury car feel.

For all the rich details and textures in the interior though, the FCX Clarity still managed to feel inviting and attainable. I wasn't afraid of spilling my water bottle, nor was my engineer passenger worried (too much) about his cup of coffee that he brought along. I know that sounds a bit trite, but I've struggled for some time now to sum up how the interior made me feel. In one way, it made me reminisce about my very first Honda - my family's 1986 Accord LX-i. That was a car that, while mainstream and relatively affordable, made you feel like you got a lot more than you paid for when you sat in it and drove. The interior, for all its common man availability, felt like it belonged in a higher end car. It was tight and practical, with relatively high end materials and top notch build quality. In fact, I would say that a good number of Honda models since then have failed to match that early Accord in terms of its relative place in the automotive pantheon of goodness. Another way of expressing the ambience of the FCX Clarity's interior might be one of practical luxury and elegance. Many modern luxury cars have features because they have to have them to be considered luxury cars. The FCX Clarity's luxury seems to come more from a synergy of efficiency and innovation. Perhaps the best way to say it is that, whatever the designers' intentions, the Clarity's luxury isn't there for luxury's sake.

But enough of the touchy feely crap. Functionally, the FCX Clarity interior is top notch. Compared to my brief auto show experience with the car, I was able to adjust the interior to my liking and found that it measured up very well. I had plenty of headroom with the seat adjusted. I also had good elbow and shoulder room and plenty of leg room with more adjustment to spare. All the controls fell easily to hand and I felt comfortable right away. Even the high mounted digital speedometer reminded me of the many 8th gen Civics I've driven. I also found the cooled seats to be amazing. With the dash AC turned off and the cooled seats on high, I was sufficiently chilled on an 80F day that I needed to turn the coolers down - they work that well. Plus, they are super efficient by avoiding cooling the whole car. Oh, and I can't forget the trunk. Despite the huge hydrogen tank residing under some bulkheads back there, the trunk is surprisingly roomy, with an extra compartment hidden by a fold away panel that extends the volume by enough to allow a fold up wheelchair to fit back there. Suffice it to say it dwarfed, by what seemed to be a 2:1 margin, my G35 Coupe's trunk that I drove to the press event.

Of course, being a fuel cell car, there were a few things to get used to. First, you don't turn a key, you just press a button to power up the car. The instrument panel (IP) lights up and displays a welcome message along with a very cool graphical display. This IP is as close as I've seen any production car come to a full digital display for the driver - I'm sure some people may have issues with such a move, but I like it. Next, getting the car into drive or reverse (or neutral) was selected by a small switch just off the IP to the driver's right. It wasn't perfectly intuitive, but anyone with better than chimpanzee intelligence can figure it out in 5 seconds or less. Putting the car in park took a bit more thought at first though, as there is a separate park button below the drive selector. Nothing difficult, just not what you are used to, and it takes acclimation. By the way, should the car ever die while left in Park mode, there happens to be a small cable driven "Park Release" under the hood, but it wasn't labelled on the test car. It took us a few minutes to figure that one out, even with several Honda folks helping out. Finally, the high rear haunches would seemingly make rear visibility difficult. But Honda engineers incorporated an internal bulkhead window above the fuel tank that gives you direct line of site to the rear vertical "CRX/Insight" glass below the main window. This made visibility excellent, but if you've never owned a CRX or Insight, it would take some getting used to. Fortunately, I had many happy years with a CRX Si, so it felt like home to me.

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