Honda is ramping up for production of its FCX Clarity, the industry’s first dedicated fuel-cell vehicle for customer use. The automaker will begin assembly in May in Tochigi, Japan, and will build a small pool of vehicles available for lease in the U.S. this summer.

A still-secret number of consumers will be able to lease a Clarity fuel-cell vehicle for $600 a month for three years, which will include maintenance and insurance. The lessee must pay for the hydrogen, which costs about $5 per kilogram in compressed-gas form. The Clarity’s fuel tank will hold about five kilograms. That amount is good for a range of about 270 miles, giving the Clarity fuel economy equivalent to 68 mpg, or about two times the efficiency of a conventional gasoline engine, says Steve Ellis, manager of FCV marketing for American Honda, in an interview with Car and Driver at the National Hydrogen Association conference this week in Sacramento, California.

The fuel-cell stack in the Clarity provides 50-percent-more output from only 65 percent of the size of the unit in Honda’s current FCX, a two-door hatch that has been on the road since 2002. And although the previous FCX augmented the stack with nickel-metal hydride batteries and now has a range of 210 miles, the 2009 Clarity will have a range of 270 miles and will use lithium-ion batteries for power assist and to store energy regenerated in braking.

Strong Public Interest

Honda first showed the Clarity at the 2007 L.A. auto show last November and simultaneously set up a Web site for those interested in leasing a vehicle that operates on electricity converted from hydrogen. Ellis says Honda is now filtering through more than 20,000 e-mails to select which customers will be offered leases.

Because of the woeful lack of hydrogen stations in the U.S.—some estimate there are only about 70 stations nationwide, and not all are public—the ZIP Codes of the hand-raisers are key. They must be in California near Santa Monica, Torrance, or Irvine, because that is where the few available stations are. Winnowing that down geographically, only 500 of the 20,000 applicants are viable potential customers, Ellis says.

Honda is now in the process of contacting the geographically correct to gauge how serious and suitable each candidate is. Retail customers will be a mix of celebrities, advocates, and average Joes, says Ellis, with some fleet customers to recognize partnerships that have been in place as long as five years with the existing FCX test program. But the pendulum is swinging from the past program’s emphasis on fleet customers (there were only three retail customers) to a majority of retail customers.

The customers will be expected to provide regular formal and informal feedback on experiences with their cars, which is over and above the empirical data the cars are equipped to generate while on the road.

Honda also has not announced the dealerships that will lease and service the Clarity, but again the pool to choose from is small. The chosen dealers will need training to answer customer questions, and the service bays will be customized accordingly.

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