Fleet News

Honda FCX

Honda

Review

THE Honda FCX redefines the term ‘fleet car’. This isn’t because it is particularly suited to business use, although it could well be, but the fact that one car currently costs as much as a 100-vehicle fleet – about £1 million.

Although the FCX looks like a supermini, albeit not to everyone’s taste in terms of looks, it is the future of motoring as we know it.

It is one of the most advanced fuel cell vehicles on the road today, offering hassle-free motoring without many of the teething troubles associated with the technology.

The FCX is still at an early stage of development and is one of very few test models on the road, hence the price. But it is a very clear sign of how close manufacturers are to mass-production of emission-free fuel cell units.

The FCX is essentially an electric vehicle, with on-board power generated by a twin stack of fuel cells.

Put simply, a fuel cell generates electricity from the electro-chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. As all budding chemists in the industry will know, when you combine hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2) it creates water (H2O) and some residual oxygen (O).

So not only is the fuel cell an efficient electric engine, but it is also completely free of harmful emissions.

Hydrogen is carried on board the FCX in high-pressure storage tanks under the rear seat, carrying 156.6 litres, so there is no loss of storage space in the boot.

The fuel cell system is small enough to fit in the vehicle floor, mainly underneath the front seat passengers. Power is transmitted through to the front wheels either straight from the fuel cell itself, or from an ‘ultra-capacitor’ – a really powerful battery to you and me – when under hard acceleration.

When the driver brakes, a regeneration system recharges the battery and, when the car stops, the whole system shuts down to conserve power.

Fuel cell systems have been around for a while. On December 2, 2002, Honda delivered the first fuel cell FCX vehicles to customers in Japan and the US. The FCX was actually the world’s first fuel cell system to be certified for commercial use.

But since then, Honda has worked to deal with key shortcomings of the system, among them a tendency to stop operating in sub-zero conditions, which is also now under control, and heavy weight, which is being reduced, although the FCX still weighs as much as an Audi A6 saloon.

Thanks to a series of changes, power from the fuel cell is now increased to 107kw from 80kw, while torque remains at an impressive 200lb-ft, high low-down grunt being a real benefit of electric power.

The motor spins to 11,000rpm to deliver power through the front wheels – although most drivers won’t notice it, because it’s so quiet.

From 0-30mph, it outperforms a 200bhp car and is 55% energy efficient, meaning the amount of power from the fuel that actually ends up turning the wheels, compared to 18% for a petrol engine.

Go easy on the accelerator and the Honda will cover 430km (267 miles), equivalent to 62mpg, and will carry four passengers in comfort to a maximum speed of 150kmh (93mph).

Finding hydrogen fuel is a problem but, if you had a high-pressure refuelling station to hand, you could fill the tank in three minutes.

And just to reassure you with all that fuel on board, the FCX has been crash tested from all ends to prove it won’t explode if the worst happens.

At the moment, the FCX is on lease only to certain governments and organisations around the world.

Sachito Fujimoto, senior chief engineer, Honda R&D, told Fleet News: ‘We are not currently planning to put the FCX into other markets, although there is a time in the future when we will introduce it. The main problem is cost.

‘In 15 to 20 years’ time, I believe the fuel cell has the potential to achieve the costs needed to be a mass production vehicle.’

As for re-fuelling, around Tokyo there are currently 12 fuelling stations, although Fujimoto pointed out that the cost of installing new sites should not be higher than building a petrol station.

He added: ‘Honda will continue to play an important part in the development of the fuel cell vehicle in the future.’

Behind the wheel

IT is a case of so near yet so far with the Honda FCX. Sit in this eye-catching supermini and the most striking first impression is how normal everything seems.

The materials are typical Honda quality, all the switches and buttons are in the right place and there are all the necessary home comforts, such as climate control and satellite navigation.

The dashboard looks familiar, with a central speedometer, flanked by an output display in place of a rev counter on the left and hydrogen fuel gauge on the right.

But there is a seminal moment when it becomes clear how far this pleasant little motor is from reaching fleet car parks – when you look at the price.

Sachito Fujimoto calmly informed me that it would cost ‘about 100 Civics’, or anything from £1.2 million upwards. But sitting in the driver’s seat for the first chance to drive the FCX on European roads, the future of motoring seemed tantalisingly close.

Start the engine and, as with any electric vehicle, nothing happens apart from a very quiet whirring if you want the heater on. From then on, it is just like driving an automatic, apart from the complete lack of engine noise.

Acceleration is very rapid from a standstill, thanks to all the torque from the electric motor, and even at motorway speeds, there is only wind and tyre noise to contend with in the cabin.

During a drive around Geneva the shortcomings of running on silent soon became apparent. You need to keep a close eye on pedestrians, who have no idea you are approaching.

Apart from the silence, there is very little to separate this car from many other superminis, combining nippy performance, adequate space and solid build quality.

The only changes you might want to make are to driving style, as the FCX includes an engine management display, showing when you are draining power and when you are recharging the battery by braking or coasting.

You also need to remember to switch the engine off when you get out, as there is no engine sound to suggest you have left the keys in the ignition.

As Honda says, this is another step closer to the mobility of the future to ensure the automobile will be passed on to coming generations. It may seem impatient, but I would like a taste of the future now.

Driving verdict

IF you manage not to be intimidated by the price, this is just like any other supermini to drive and thrives in the cut and thrust of city traffic. Fleets may be in for a long wait, but emission-free motoring will be well worth it.

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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