FOR a decade or longer, the fuel-cell car has resembled the mirage that recedes as you draw closer to it. Hydrogen-powered vehicles always seemed at least 20 years away, the subject of news conferences in Washington and static displays at auto shows. Even when test-drive opportunities came up, they were strictly controlled rides around a track, with nervous company representatives making excuses from the passenger seat.
All that changed last month when Honda handed me the keys to a 2005 edition of its FCX (for Fuel Cell Experimental), the first zero-emission, hydrogen-driven vehicle to be certified by both the Environmental Protection Agency and the State of California for everyday commercial use. This is a street-ready hydrogen car with license plates and no rough edges, a test bed for green technology worth well over $1 million.
Only 20 similar cars exist in the United States and Japan, and I was one of the first journalists to drive it for an extended, unsupervised period - a week in the mixed company of Northeastern traffic.
Given my experience with fuel-cell prototypes that were noisy, balky and incapable of going very far between refuelings, the FCX was something of a surprise. Featuring the latest generation of Honda's own fuel cells (hundreds of them are arrayed in two multiple sets, called stacks) and a body and electric motor derived from the company's unsuccessful EV Plus battery vehicle, the FCX felt like a real car, not a high-strung test mule.
A small two-door hatchback with seating for four, it came with traction control, a CD player and even an automatic climate-control system. There may be fewer than two dozen of these cars in the world, but Honda went to the trouble of giving this one classy floor mats embroidered with the FCX logo.
With new noise-suppression technology, the FCX is one of the quietest cars on the road. While driving, you hear only a low rumble from the fuel cell's compressor and the brakes' vacuum pump, complemented on acceleration by a jet-taking-off whine.
The main hydrogen components are hidden: an 86-kilowatt fuel cell under the front passenger area, two tanks (holding a total of 8.3 pounds, pressurized to 5,000 pounds per square inch) under the rear seat and the ultracapacitor (which stores electricity and takes the place of a battery pack) behind a cover in the cargo area.
Although top speed is only 93 miles an hour, the low-end torque of the 80-kilowatt electric motor is substantial, booting the little car off the line with alacrity. The 107 horsepower has to move a relatively weighty 3,700 pounds, so it takes about 11 seconds to accelerate to 60 miles an hour, but there is no noticeable lag or flat spots in the power delivery.
The FCX is equipped with a standard hybrid feature, regenerative brakes, which capture energy that would otherwise be wasted and feed it to the ultracapacitor. While the brakes feel a bit spongy, they stop the car with confidence thanks to antilock technology and electronic vacuum assist.
Getting under way in the FCX is a little different. You turn the key and a "system check" message appears on a dashboard display, followed (in five to eight seconds) by a "ready to drive" message. You just drop the normal-looking shifter into drive - the car has a single-speed transmission - and take off. No drama, no sonic symphony.
The latest FCX incorporates several improvements, including a new aromatic electrolyte fuel-cell membrane that allows cold weather use to minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit. The cell itself, with thin stamped steel separators replacing bulkier carbon dividers, is half the size of Honda's previous design, but produces twice the power.
In most important ways, the FCX feels ready for prime-time combat on the world's roads. But its Achilles' heels are price, travel range (about 190 miles) and refueling capability. My loan was interrupted by a trip to the nearest compatible hydrogen station - in Latham, N.Y., near Albany -a three-hour journey in an enclosed trailer.
The FCX carried a federal combined city-highway economy rating of 57 miles per kilogram, but since the car holds less than four kilos of hydrogen - a very light gas - long cruises are a challenge. The dash includes two colorful light-bar fuel gauges, one of which displays the estimated number of miles left until the FCX needs a tow truck.
Like an execution in the morning, range-challenged fuel-cell cars concentrate the mind. As I neared the end of my loan, I constantly checked the rapidly diminishing blue bars and mentally prepared myself to get out and push. When the gas pump icon lighted up, doom seemed imminent, but I eased into my office parking lot with about 10 miles left to play.
Between hydrogen fill-ups I had plenty of opportunity to put the FCX through its paces. I drove it 265 miles, one of the longest press outings in any fuel-cell car. Over the course of the week, the FCX began to feel quite normal, though its bold graphics attracted a fair amount of attention. Some onlookers with battery-car experience might have thought that the legend "Sub Zero Performance," painted on the doors, referred to its prowess in stoplight derbies.
I took the FCX on shopping trips, to parties and concerts, and even made a command performance at my daughters' school. I got thumbs-ups from drivers of Toyota Priuses and Honda Civic Hybrids. Of course, the questions came in torrents: "Do you have to plug it in?" is a familiar query for any hybrid owner, and it's an easy one to answer: No!
The notion that the fuel cell itself must be replaced when the hydrogen ran out was also quickly dispatched. Other questions - "How much is it worth?" and "How much does it cost to fill up?" - are more difficult.
Honda hasn't publicly disclosed its investment in hydrogen technology, but General Motors has committed more than $1 billion and produced only a handful of cars. When vehicles are hand-made by Ph.D.'s as part of blue-sky research projects, can you even speculate on how much they are "worth"? A Honda spokesman, Andy Boyd, says the FCX's estimated expense ($1 million to $2 million) is based on "the cost of body and powertrain, and also the experimental nature of some key components, like the fuel cell itself."
The pricing of hydrogen remains fluid. The Department of Energy has estimated that the cost of a kilogram of hydrogen (with roughly the energy content of a gallon of gasoline) could fall to $3 by 2008, but that assumes certain economies of scale that have not yet been established.
The California Fuel Cell Partnership puts the average capital cost to add low-volume hydrogen refueling to gas stations in that state at $450,000. The cost of the Latham station - opened by Honda and a locally based engineering company, Plug Power, aided by a $735,000 state grant - is proprietary.
At my daughters' school, the youngsters were happy to squeeze into the back seat like college students in a phone booth. Their questions about fuel cells were simple.
"Is this the car of the future?" they asked. "Maybe," I said.