Heather Mc Laughlin’s new car sprang to life Monday with a gentle whoosh, followed by a quiet electric whine. A few drops of water trickled out the back and puddled on Dublin Honda’s showroom floor.
“You can drink that,” said Honda spokeswoman Natalie Kumaratne.
The car, a 2017 Honda Clarity sedan, derives its power from a hydrogen fuel cell — not gasoline or a big battery pack. It can go 366 miles on a full tank, refuels in 5 minutes and produces no exhaust other than water.
Mc Laughlin on Monday became the first Bay Area driver to take the Clarity home, as Honda and a handful of other automakers roll out fuel-cell cars in California.
“I’m so excited, I could barely sleep!” said Mc Laughlin, Benicia’s city attorney. “I’ve got bags under my eyes.”
Mark Burda, a salesman designated as the dealership’s Clarity “ambassador,” popped open the door. “Your chariot awaits.”
Fuel-cell cars have arrived without the promotional blitz that preceded the introduction of mass-market electric vehicles six years ago, although Toyota took out a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl to plug its fuel-cell Mirai. Honda will only lease its Clarity for three years rather than sell it outright, with $2,868 due up front and monthly payments of $369.
Fuel-cell cars face deep skepticism from electric-vehicle aficionados, who view them as an expensive dead end.
Whereas electric cars can recharge at home, fuel-cell vehicles require their own public fueling stations dispensing hydrogen that must be trucked in, piped in, or produced from natural gas on the spot. Those stations remain rare, with just six open in the Bay Area.
And yet their long ranges and fast refueling times give fuel-cell cars advantages that the current crop of pure-electric vehicles can’t match.
Most electrics get fewer than 100 miles on a fully charged battery pack, while even the Tesla Model S tops out at 335 miles.
That helped sell Mc Laughlin on the Clarity. By Bay Area standards, her commute isn’t bad: San Ramon to Benicia and back. But what if she wanted to catch an A’s game in Oakland after work? And how about her frequent trips down Interstate 5 to visit her family in Southern California?
“Electric cars just don’t have the range,” said Mc Laughlin, who previously drove a 2012 Honda Civic that ran on compressed natural gas. She also fell for the Clarity’s sculpted design, emphasized on her car by a white body with stark black details.
“I just love the looks of it,” Mc Laughlin said. “It looks like a storm trooper. And it’s a Honda.”
Her life is also well-suited to the car. While her closest refueling station lies in Hayward, another is scheduled to open this year in San Ramon, near where she had been filling up her Civic with natural gas. And as enticement, Honda will pay for $15,000 worth of hydrogen during the course of the three-year lease. That should be more than a typical driver needs, Kumaratne said.
Forty-seven other drivers have ordered the car from Dublin Honda, Burda said.
Unlike many electric vehicles, the Clarity is a midsize car that seats five adults, with plenty of headroom. It also boasts a suite of cameras, including one on the passenger-side mirror, that helps the car stay in its lane at freeway speed and avoid collisions.
And yet, its heart is electric. The fuel cell supplies power to an electric motor that drives the car.
Honda also plans to offer a battery-powered version of the Clarity, as well as a plug-in hybrid.
While many people see fuel-cell cars and electric vehicles as direct competitors, in a kind of VHS versus Beta battle on wheels, Honda does not favor one over the other, Kumaratne said.
“The market will tell us,” she said. “We are investing in everything. We’re not putting all our chips on red or black, odd or even.”