Future Car Special: Comparing Hybrids, Plug-Ins, EVs, and Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars

Future Cars

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Click. My iPhone paints a glow on my face. I squint. It’s 5 a.m. At least I think it’s 5. Sleeping with my contacts in requires a few exaggerated blinks to be sure. I slowly tilt upright and prepare for a whole new kind of comparison test.

While I quickly shave, likely holding the razor backward, I look in the mirror. This time it’s just you and me, buddy, and eight cars. The octet consists of the best relatively affordable representatives of today’s high-efficiency and low-emissions powertrain tech. They’ll inevitably battle for supremacy. But for now, they coexist, if uneasily eyeing each other.

With the diesel engine’s recent VW-assisted suicide, that winnows our herd to electrified drivetrains: two hybrids, two plug-in hybrids, a duo of EVs, and a pair of hydrogen fuel cell cars—which are electric cars, too, by the way. Two by two, we’re going to pick the best from each pair. I grimace at the looming task and head out the door.

In this evaluation, we will be opening a big old barrel of wiggly worms. Tesla founder Elon Musk has called fuel cells “fool cells,” but many industry soothsayers see Musk’s batteries as expensive stepping-stones to an inevitable hydrogen paradise. Meanwhile, bean counters from Stuttgart to Seoul fret that complicated hybrids are erasing much of the cheap-to-build traditional drivetrain’s profit—though they seem to be better returns on investment than BEVs (battery electric cars) and FCVs (fuel cell vehicles). To add more chaos, the finger of President Donald Trump’s EPA is poised over the rewind button on CAFE’s 2022–2025 mileage standards. So, yeah, there are a lot of variables at play here.

But going in, one thing’s for sure: All eight cars are fresh baked from the technological oven. Our eldest member is the still-warm year-and-a-half-old Chevrolet Volt, and the Honda Clarity and Hyundai Ioniq EV and Hybrid are so toasty from the R & D labs that you need oven mitts to drive them. Cooling over on the counter are twin Toyota Priuses—a normal hybrid and the new pluggable Prime. Plus yet another Toyota, the Mirai fuel cell. And there’s the Chevrolet Bolt EV.

So why am I up at this ungodly hour? A few months ago, I started picturing diagrams of fuel cells and all the usual nerdy stuff you put into a story like this. But then I actually thought about it. When I talk to folks about BEVs or plug-ins or fuel cell cars, they never ask what the voltage is. They don’t want to examine a fuel cell diagram, either. What they do is look me in the eye. It’s an apprehensive look. They’re thinking: You want me to put hydrogen in a car, with fuel pressurized at 10,000 pounds-per-something? Or hold a rubber recharging cable with, what, 440 volts coursing through it? Even if their motivation is emphatic climate concern, it’s pretty quick before they’re secretly worrying about more down-to-earth issues.

So we’re going to swivel the spotlight away from the geekery and over at you, the prospective owner. We’ll evaluate real-world experiences while using these cars. You’re going to follow me around as I point out some of the ownership trapdoors along the way. Our test track: Southern California’s streets.

I head out into the predawn chill, schlepping two laptops, a bag overstuffed with clothes and towels, and a carbon-fiber seat with tiny wheels on its bottom. I push the first car’s press-to-start button.

Skip to a head-to-head comparison:

Hybrids: Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid and Toyota Prius Three

CLIMATE CASUALTIES? These cars could be in the eye of the political storm if California’s waiver to the Clean Air Act is challenged by the EPA.

I wake at 5 a.m. because that’s the oh-dark-early hour you get up to go rowing in Newport Harbor. That carbon-fiber seat I just mentioned? For my rowing shell. The first time I saw the beauty of a 60-foot-long Pocock racing shell was as a sophomore at UC-Irvine; I heard the whoosh of water under its three-sixteenths-inch cedar skin and felt the power of eight guys prying 12-foot oars—leaving behind little revolving whirlpools in their wake—and that was that. (Read the book The Boys in the Boat for further inspiration.)

As I pull into the Newport Aquatic Center’s parking lot in the Ioniq Hybrid, the boathouse’s big bay doors are open and glowing in the beachy fog. Inside, banks of neon lights illuminate rows of rowers pistoning back and forth on their machines. Nobody looks up. For better or worse, that’s the Ioniq’s whole point.

It’s the hybrid that’s not a hybrid. If I interrupted the rowers’ exertions by pointing to the Hyundai and proclaiming, “This here is the most efficient gasoline-burning car in the country,” they’d look past the Ioniq for the Prius somewhere behind it. Sure, it’s aerodynamic; its sloping silhouette and three-phase grill shutters whittle its Cd to a mere 0.24. And that just sets the stage for the more technical conversation.

Putting it all in motion is a smooth, 40-hp electric motor. Soon, the starter spins up the engine as the crankshaft’s revs and the twirling electric motor come to a computer-assisted rendezvous, letting the six-speed dual-clutch transmission revisit both their rpm sweet spots during each successive gear (shrinking the pricey e-motor’s size, too). Then once at speed, its 104-hp 1.6-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine’s remarkably long stroke and high-pressure direct injection can sometimes tickle 40 percent efficiency, matching the Prius.

The result—in its Blue model trim—is an EPA-record 58 mpg combined. (Our Limited trim gets 55/54/55 mpg city/highway/combined.) But Hyundai probably would have been pleased with 53. That would snake the Prius’ mpg crown by one solitary mile. Ever read about the horsepower wars of the ’60s? Who would have thought it would turn into this?

When you spread the evidence out on a table, there’s not a lot here separating the stalwart Prius and Ioniq.

In real-world driving, the Ioniq feels as much like a calculation as a car. Most of it is solid arithmetic. At times, it’s even clever. But here and there the math doesn’t quite add up. Smart: Its styling avoids the Prius’ George Jetson space-age style in hopes of netting a wider, less environmentally strident audience. Hyundai’s marketing pitch? It’s simply a really good car that just happens to get an insane 55 mpg. The bad: To top the Toyota’s mileage, the Ioniq’s low rolling resistance tires can erect a wall of road noise. Plus that aero-tapered stern, with its smallish two-piece glass, makes its rearview perspective like looking through the eyeholes of a Halloween mask.

If the Prius is too Tron-like for your tastes, maybe the Ioniq Hybrid is your cup of chamomile tea.

And frankly, the fervent avoidance of any hybrid cues might have left the Ioniq looking too sterile. While we were track-testing it, photographer William Walker said, “I never thought I’d say this, but I think I like the Prius’ looks better.” That’s the eye of the beholder. I think the Ioniq is quietly attractive. Inside, it’s careful to a fault, but it’s unquestionably modern. And, yes, it’s attractive with everything in its rightful place. But no way would you look around and guess it’s a 55-mpg car.

As the brightening eastern sky burns off the morning gloom, some of the rowers and paddlers coming off the water begin to stop and examine the Ioniq. They walk around it, admiring its shape a lot more than Walker did. If the Hyundai wanted to create a visual safe haven from the controversial Prius, then mission accomplished. But even though these guys were interested in the Ioniq, they keep talking about the Prius anyway. Surprisingly so. This is famously conservative Orange County (birthplace of Richard Nixon and one-time hotbed of the John Birch Society), but everybody’s got something to say about the Hollywood elite’s standard Uber ride. Except my friend, Brendan Gerrity, a fellow sculler, who’s cautious of newfangled electronics. When the cyber attack comes, he says, all these electric cars are going to stop in their tracks. I roll my eyes. He walks me over to his 1975 Toyota Land Cruiser and opens the hood. “No fuel injection—a carburetor!” Out of the blue comes another guy neither of us know. “Wow, when we’re cyber attacked,” this guy says, “this will be the only thing running!” What the heck? Just then, somebody’s drone swoops overhead. I walk away quietly.

FUTURE DASH The Prius’ idiosyncratic layout of center-located instruments has been fast-forwarded into the next decade.

When you spread the evidence out on a table, there’s not a lot here separating the stalwart Prius and Ioniq. The Ioniq is noticeably quicker (insomuch as the difference between slow and slower), and it turns in more sweetly. But the Hyundai is heavier and eats more stopping feet. The Ioniq’s traditional stepped transmission subtly bobs your head at shifts; the Prius’ smoother CVT never feels as connected to your throttle foot. The Ioniq is a tad cheaper relative to a trim-comparable Prius IV, but the exact amount of that price difference shows in its material quality. And our Real MPG testing found its mileage falling fractionally behind the Prius (mostly a shortfall in highway mileage). Yet the actual difference between 51.8 and 55.1 mpg is precisely, “Who cares?” Nobody should fret about mileage that’s already above 50.

Since the fourth-generation Prius transitioned to Toyota’s dynamic new TNGA platform, it doesn’t really drive “like a Prius” anymore. But Toyota doubled down on a design personality that—even if you hate it—will never bore you. Hyundai’s rookie effort has had a good first round against the champ, but it hasn’t landed enough blows yet for a dethroning. Our pick? Still the Prius.

2017 Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid 2016 Toyota Prius Three
DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD Front-engine, FWD
POWER TYPE 1.6L 104-hp/109-lb-ft I-4 plus one electric motor 1.8L/95-hp/105-lb-ft I-4 plus two electric motors
SYSTEM POWER (SAE NET) 139 hp 121 hp
TRANSMISSION 6-speed twin-clutch automatic Cont variable automatic
SUSPENSION, F;R Struts; multilink Struts; multilink
BRAKES, F/R; REGEN vented disc/disc, ABS; shift-low vented disc/disc, ABS; shift-low
TIRES 225/45R17 91V M+S Michelin Primacy MXM4 215/45R17 87V M+S Yokohama BluEarth S34
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 176.0 x 71.7 x 56.9 in 178.7 x 69.3 x 58.1 in
CURB WEIGHT (DIST F/R) 3,159 lb (60/40%) 3,087 lb (61/39%)
HEADROOM, F/R 38.2/37.4 in 39.4/37.4 in
LEGROOM, F/R 42.2/35.7 in 43.2/33.4 in
SHOULDER ROOM, F/R 56.1/55.0 in 55.0/53.0 in
BATTERY Lithium-ion, 1.56 kW-hrs Lithium-ion, 0.75 kW-hrs
FUEL CAPACITY 11.9 gal 11.3 gal
0-60 9.4 sec 9.7 sec
QUARTER MILE 17.1 sec @ 80.8 mph 17.4 sec @ 77.6 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 124 ft 115 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.87 g (avg) 0.82 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.5 sec @ 0.61 g (avg) 27.8 sec @ 0.61 g (avg)
BASE PRICE $28,335 $27,600
PRICE AS TESTED $31,560 $28,950
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON 55/54/55 mpg 54/50/52 mpg
REAL MPG CITY/HWY/COMB 57.3/46.3/51.8 mpg 56.4/56.2/56.3 mpg
RECOMMENDED ENERGY Unleaded regular Unleaded regular

Plug-In Hybrids: Chevrolet Volt and Toyota Prius Prime

There have always been two big, rotating question marks floating over plug-in hybrids: Is it even rational to have two drivetrains, and what’s the least electric-only range that’s still just enough?

Well, the answer to the first question has never been a full-throated “yes,” evidenced by most companies describing it as a transitional technology (i.e., we hope this doesn’t last forever). And with battery costs still relatively expensive, item number two has engineers snapping pencils by the Ticonderoga box.

How else do you explain the difference between the Volt’s 53 miles of battery range versus the Prius Prime’s mere 25? Each must think the other is completely wrong, right? And worse yet, with their second iterations, the gap between this pair’s ranges has actually grown.

When that first-gen Volt appeared, it stunned everybody. Wow, a 36-mile range from its 16-kW-hr battery. But after interviewing many owners, GM found many actually wanted more. So Chevrolet turned up the dials, intensifying Volt II’s energy capacity to 18.4 kW-hrs for a whopping 53 miles of engine-off travel. In Toyota’s case, their original Prius Plug-in represented a totally different strategy. If they gave it a modest 4.4 kW-hrs, they deduced, that would cover a useful percentage of your driving and be rechargeable in a sensible three hours via an ordinary 120-volt plug (no pricey 240-volt wall charger). Makes a lot of practical sense, right? Except that many folks receptive to buying a car with a plug want a car that acts, at least part time, like a genuine electric car. The Prius Plug-in didn’t. Its limited power regularly invited the engine to start (called blended mode), and even when driven gingerly, 11 miles of battery range was about it in the real world. Practical? Sure, it got you in the carpool lane driving solo. Satisfying? No.

So for their second act, Toyota has changed course and the car’s name to one with Prime aspirations. Doubling its battery capacity to 8.8 kW-hrs extends its electric range to 25 miles and keeps it in all-EV at full accelerator carpet stomp up to 84 mph. In celebration of this, the Prime is distinguished by a (better-looking) front fascia, more conventional taillights, a rather eccentric double-bubble rear glass (supported by an actual carbon-fiber hatch, no less), and a Tesla-ish multitouch screen highlighting the interior.

An observation about the Volt’s new, greater range: I once drove an original Volt as a long-term car and would regularly pull into the Motor Trend garage just as the engine started. This after my 38-mile commute, mostly on the freeway. I just did the same with this new Volt. When the traffic was flowing, it was flying (at least 80 mph). When it finally gridlocked, I had to detour around it. As I pulled into work, the engine fired up. Despite its greater electric range, the realities of L.A. traffic might have canceled out those additional kW-hrs.

GM GENERIC? Well, the Chevrolet Volt’s mix of modern interfaces in familiar places certainly works.

If there’s one thing to say about both the Prime and the Volt, it’s that both are pretty tortured ways to package a larger battery. In the Volt’s case, its T-shape runs down the car’s spine and beneath the rear seats. Chevy has a center seat belt back there, but both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump voters can agree that nobody could possibly sit in that seat. Strangely, the Prime deletes the rear center seat. (It’s suggested that its engineers weren’t comfortable with any more weight on the rear axle. Remember that carbon hatch?) Already, its battery imposes into the cargo bay, elevating its floor above the hatch opening’s base. Around the figure-eight course, the Prime’s rear weight pays off, canceling some of its understeer while cornering. There’s even a mild drift angle—fun for a test driver but probably not so much for Toyota’s conservative engineers.

TESLA TOUCH The big multitouch screen highlights the plug-in Toyota Prius Prime’s interior.

Where the Prime sometimes heaves over road undulations, the Volt is planted and agile (and its battery-hold mode and steering wheel–mounted regen braking paddle are cool). If this were purely a comparison of driving qualities, I’d pick the Chevy. But the Volt’s packaging is terribly compromised. At 6-foot-1, I find it’s a chore folding myself behind my own driver’s seat setting, and even if the pilot is of average height, rear headroom is subhuman. Associate online editor Michael Cantu hopped back there, and after looking up to see what his head was touching, he plucked a hair from the headliner. Someone else’s hair, Cantu noted. So despite the Prius Prime’s peculiarities (the recorded piano accompaniment to ingress and egress sounds like the sappy soundtrack to a daytime soap opera), its usability, packaging, acceptable EV range, and much better hybrid-mode mileage give it the edge.

2017 Chevrolet Volt Premier 2017 Toyota Prius Prime
DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD Front-engine, FWD
POWER TYPE 1.5L/101-hp/103-lb-ft I-4 plus two electric motors 1.8L/95-hp/105-lb-ft I-4 plus two electric motors
SYSTEM POWER (SAE NET) 149 hp 121 hp
TRANSMISSION Cont variable automatic Cont variable automatic
SUSPENSION, F;R Struts; torsion beam Struts; multilink
BRAKES, F/R; REGEN vented disc/disc, ABS; shift-low & pull paddle vented disc/disc, ABS; shift-low & pull paddle
TIRES 215/50R17 91H M+S Michelin Energy Saver A/S 195/65R15 89S (M+S) Bridgestone EcoPia EP 422 Plus
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 180.4 x 71.2 x 56.4 in 182.9 x 69.3 x 57.9 in
CURB WEIGHT (DIST F/R) 3,531 lb (60/40%) 3,415 lb (56/44%)
HEADROOM, F/R 37.8/35.8 in 39.4/37.2
LEGROOM, F/R 42.1/34.7 in 43.2/33.4
SHOULDER ROOM, F/R 56.5/53.2 in 54.2/53.0 in
BATTERY Lithium-ion, 18.4 kW-hrs Lithium-ion, 8.8 kW-hrs
FUEL CAPACITY 8.9 gal 11.3 gal
0-60 7.5 sec 11.9 sec (EV) 10.1 sec (MAX)
QUARTER MILE 15.9 sec @ 83.9 mph 18.4 sec @ 73.2 mph (EV) 17.5 sec @ 79.1 mph (MAX)
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 114 ft 124 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.83 g (avg) 0.79 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.4 sec @ 0.63 g (avg) 28.2 sec @ 0.58 g (avg)
BASE PRICE $38,445 $27,985
PRICE AS TESTED $40,925 $33,985
APPLICABLE REBATES* & TAX CREDITS** -$1,500*, – $7,500** (-$9,000 total) -$1,500*, – $4,502** (-$6,002 total)
(ELEC) EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON 113/99/106 mpg-e 133 mpg-e (comb)
(GAS) EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON 43/42/42 mpg 55/53/54 mpg
(GAS) REAL MPG CITY/HWY/COMB 37.5/42.4/39.6 mpg 65.3/51.8/58.5 mpg
RECOMMENDED ENERGY Unleaded regular, L1 (120v) & L2 (240v) electricity Unleaded regular, L1 (120v) & L2 (240v) electricity
*Clean vehicle rebate (California) mailed directly within 90 days
**Federal tax credit

Battery EVs: Chevrolet Bolt EV and Hyundai Ioniq Electric

Fast-forward a few days, and I’m again awoken by an oh-dark-hundred chime. This time, we’re headed 40 miles inland to a dark, desolate, and kinda spooky parking lot. My car is facing the eastern sky, turning my windshield into an old-time drive-in theater, the marquee spelling out “Sunrise”—a documentary on the history of art, starting off with black charcoal on a cave wall, brightening into a Rothko color field canvas, and eventually a streaked Turner sky. Ticket for one?

I’m taking in this early bird show because I’m charging the Ioniq EV at a Level 3 EVgo fast charger at a remote charging island behind the Ontario Mills Mall. We want it fully charged for testing, and this is the closest big-power plug to the California Speedway.

I’ve been here about half an hour, and the whole time I’m perplexed by an eighth-grade math problem: On the way, I was speeding, just like everybody else at this hour, trying to stay one step ahead of the imminent a.m. gridlock. The stumper: Would it have been more time-efficient to have driven slower but with a payoff of more quickly recharging its less depleted battery? Then I notice that the fast charger has stopped even though the battery isn’t quite full. What’s up? I move the car over to the 240-volt Level 2 charger to top it off. I’m too tired to solve that algebraic riddle, but math problems like this are a constant topic if you’ve driven BEVs with smaller batteries. There’s nothing like range anxiety to sharpen your math skills.

This Ioniq EV’s battery really isn’t that small—28 kW-hrs with a range of 124 miles would have been my first sentence in an Ioniq EV review were it written a day before the Chevrolet Bolt EV was announced. But the Bow-Tie BEV’s 60-kW-hr battery and 238-mile range made other affordable offerings moot.

The Ioniq is not without kudos, though. For you historians and statisticians, Hyundai’s first dedicated EV is the single-most efficient car in the U.S. at 136 mpg-e. It’s capable of a 100-kW-hr rate of fast charging (that’s standard), earning it a big gold star for anticipating the rising power levels of Level 3 SAE Combo plugs. And there’s a four-stage regen paddle, which is pretty useful for modulating your speed in traffic, behind the steering wheel.

Math problems are a constant topic. There’s nothing like range anxiety to sharpen your skills.

Still. A few months ago, when we compared the 60-kW-hr Bolt EV to the $71,200 Tesla Model S 60, I brought a preproduction Bolt EV to a meeting of the Orange County Tesla Owners Club. With three days’ notice, 15 Tesla owners drove down to Huntington Beach just to see it. Nearly all of them patiently waited as I gave rides up and down Pacific Coast Highway. More recently, unannounced, I brought the Ioniq EV to them for a preplanned meeting. Arriving early, I parked the Hyundai in a prominent spot outside their regular destination and waited. Slowly, the Teslarati trickled in. But quickly, I found myself having to tackle people in order to draw their attention to the Ioniq. A few walked around the spanking-new EV in their midst, stared, and nodded, but the rest just headed in for breakfast. Finally, I did, too.

SPACIOUS SHIPS Although the Chevrolet Bolt EV’s interior materials are middling, its accommodating space is good.

What lost them was its quiet design—and mentioning that 124-mile range. If Elon Musk suddenly announced—oops—the Model 3’s actual range was going to be 124 miles, not 215-plus, his famous 373,000-strong backlog of orders would evaporate one second later. When I attended the Ioniq EV’s introduction in Santa Barbara, Hyundai bravely confronted the car’s range with their best logical reasoning: 97.7 percent of people drive 100 miles or less every day. And then this argument: What it would cost to double the Ioniq’s battery to Bolt-scale (forgetting there’d be nowhere to put it) could buy you a Sonata instead of an Accent. Good points. Weak psychology.

Even if you’re charging at night like you should, it’s a wild world out there. Emergency phone calls happen, and there isn’t a fast charger on every other street corner. Even with all my hypermiling experience with BEVs, I sure feel more relaxed when I see that there is triple-digit range remaining.

Déjà Vu The Ioniq EV’s interior is nearly identical to the Hybrid’s. A difference? Buttons instead of a traditional shift lever.

The Bolt EV’s advantages go beyond range, though. Unlike the Volt, our 2017 Car of the Year is brilliantly packaged. With the battery mostly beneath the floor, there’s space in spades for people and cargo, and the slightly elevated seat heights are great for outward vision in our SUV-infested world. The low center of gravity gives it planted handling. (Unlike its hybrid version, the Ioniq’s aft-battery and simpler twist-beam rear suspension impart an occasional tail wiggle.) And although the Bolt EV can rock at times, its ride somehow avoids the bounding and heaving common among these cars. In traffic, its motor’s torque response conjures a Tesla’s ability to pass slowpokes. Alternately, its one-pedal driving in L-mode (your right foot accelerating and regen decelerating) surpasses Tesla’s in that releasing the pedal can bring you to a complete, predictable stop. When your mind drifts in the numbing flow of traffic and you vaguely perceive slowing ahead, your right foot’s instinctive early lift is a quick down payment on stopping and just might avoid a panicky brake stomp. Overall, the Bolt EV has advantages I’d underline twice.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV 2017 Hyundai Ioniq Electric
DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT Front-motor, FWD Front-motor, FWD
POWER TYPE 200-hp/266-lb-ft electric motor 118-hp/215-lb-ft electric motor
SYSTEM POWER (SAE NET) 200 hp 118 hp
TRANSMISSION 1-speed automatic 1-speed automatic
SUSPENSION, F; R Struts; torsion beam Struts; torsion-beam
BRAKES, F/R; REGEN vented disc/disc, ABS; shift-low & pull paddle vented disc/disc, ABS; shift-low & 4-stage pull paddle
TIRES 215/50R17 91H (M+S) Michelin Energy Saver A/S 205/55R16 91H M+S Michelin Energy Saver A/S
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 164.0 x 69.5 x 62.8 in 176.0 x 71.7 x 57.1 in
CURB WEIGHT (DIST F/R) 3,555 lb (56/44%) 3,266 lb (50/50%)
HEADROOM, F/R 39.7/37.9 in 38.2/37.4 in
LEGROOM, F/R 41.6/36.5 in 42.2/35.7 in
SHOULDER ROOM, F/R 54.6/52.8 in 56.1/55.0 in
BATTERY Lithium-ion, 60 kW-hrs Lithium-ion, 28 kW-hrs
CHARGING RATE 7.2 kW (L2); opt 50 kW (L3) 6.6 kW (L2); std 100 kW (L3)
0-60 6.3 sec 8.1 sec
QUARTER MILE 14.9 sec @ 92.9 mph 16.3 sec @ 84.0 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 128 ft 124 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.78 g (avg) 0.81 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.4 sec @ 0.63 g (avg) 28.0 sec @ 0.59 g (avg)
BASE PRICE $41,780 $33,335
PRICE AS TESTED $43,905 $36,835
APPLICABLE REBATES* & TAX CREDIT** -$2,500*, – $7,500** (-$10,000 total) -$2,500*, – $7,500** (-$10,000 total)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON 128/110/119 mpg-e 150/122/136 mpg-e
REAL MPG CITY/HWY/COMB 126.0/117.8/122.2 mpg-e 159.8/143.1/151.8 mpg-e
RECOMMENDED ENERGY L2 (240v) & L3 (480v) electricity L2 (240v) & L3 (480v) electricity
*Clean vehicle rebate (California) mailed directly within 90 days

**Federal tax credit

Hydrogen FCVs: Honda Clarity and Toyota Mirai

After setting up all the measurement instruments for my drive home in the hydrogen-fuelled Honda Clarity, I step back and take a picture of the car with my phone. But it’s dark—9:30 p.m. I move around to its rear three-quarter side, better illuminated by a light pole, and text it to my friend Larry. Within seconds, he responds: “God Almighty, it’s ugly. Sorry. I don’t get the cutout fender.” I type back, “It’s aero, baby.” He types, “Are you serious?” I try to explain that the mini spats help stick the airstream all the way to the stern while the vents just ahead of the wheels create an air curtain over what’s exposed: “I think it’s weirdly attractive—in a French kind of way.” Larry replies, “That’s why we don’t have French cars here.” He then adds that he’s busy making kale chips.

But I’m serious about the French thing and send Larry a picture of a 1930s Voisin that shares this same eccentrically French geometric aesthetic. Call me crazy (I’m used to it), but this whole Clarity really intrigues me. And should intrigue you, too, I think, even if you violently disagree with me about its styling.

Eight years ago when I drove its predecessor, the FCX Clarity—a zillion-bucks-a-pop warm-up act intended for studying the market—I felt like I’d snuck it off the auto show carpeting and past the dozing guards at the loading dock.

For the story I did about the original Clarity, I staked out a hydrogen station in Santa Monica, hoping to interview a Hollywood type who’d likely be driving one. Eventually a Chevy Equinox FCV rolled up instead. Close enough. I approached, but the driver stopped me in my tracks. “Look, I’m just the secretary sent to fill it up.” That said it all. But times have changed. As I got out of the mass-production 2017 Clarity at the boathouse, Dr. Jonathan Zelken, who drives a BMW M4, was walking past and said, “Wow, is that a show car?” Glancing back at the Honda, I mused, hey, you still got it, kid. But no, you can lease this one right now, actually, for $2,868 at signing and $369 per month for 36 months.

Dr. Zelken doesn’t quite know what a hydrogen fuel cell car is, so I give him the spiel: “It’s an electric car, moved by an electric motor just like a Tesla. But instead of a battery like a Tesla’s, there’s a thing called a fuel cell, which generates electricity from hydrogen and the oxygen in the air. What comes out the tailpipe is simply water vapor.”

Sounds exotic, doesn’t it? But the Clarity and Mirai’s drivetrains should be more familiar to you than the Tesla’s (or Bolt EV’s). Akin to your gasoline car, there’s a tank that carries around only half your fuel—the gaseous hydrogen part. And it has to be refueled. The other half—oxygen—is analogous to your gasoline engine’s intake manifold inhaling air. See the parallel? The battery cars are the odd ones, always needing both chemical actors onboard and, via charging, repeatedly forcing these dance partners back to their original corners to start over again.

The Honda and Toyota share a lot of the high-level, technological basics. But if either had sent spies to snoop on the other, they were pretty lousy spooks. Both agree on where to put the big parts—twin carbon-fiber H2 tanks, one under the rear seat, another in the far reaches of the trunk—and both have electric motors under the hood. But from here, they’re on different planets. Both have small batteries for capturing regenerative brake energy (and supplementing the slow-responding fuel cell’s oomph), but the Toyota’s battery is atop the trunk’s H2 tank, and Honda’s is under the front seats. Beneath the Mirai’s front seats is where Toyota puts its fuel cell (as well as its unique FC Booster, which raises the pack’s voltage to allow Toyota to repurpose much of its existing EV hardware from their hybrid portfolio). The Clarity’s fuel cell? The original FCX Clarity’s was vertically mounted in the center console. Now it’s nested above the electric motor under the hood (with the power electronics rotated to the motor’s side).

None of this will really matter to Joe Cabernet, though. The main difference you’d notice is their sound. Accelerating, the Mirai emits a whine as its compressor pressurizes air into the fuel cell. But the Clarity’s compressor is a turbo pump—slightly quieter and similar to an electric motor’s pitch due to its higher rpm.

Both cars might be facing some blowback from range claims that seem optimistic. Our Real MPG testing suggests the Mirai’s 312-mile EPA number is more like 298. The Clarity’s 366? In the real world, it’s closer to 346. Still, in BEV terms, you’d have to pop for a $100,000 Tesla to match either one of them. And heck, both Honda and Toyota are subsidizing your fuel costs for three years (up to $15,000 worth). So don’t be frightened by hydrogen’s roughly $15 per kg (the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline). That’ll come down.

H2 HONDA The ambiance of the Clarity’s interior is packed with show-car cues. It’s architectural (and vaguely Volvo-like).

Compared to sitting for 30 minutes waiting for the Ioniq EV to charge in a lonely parking lot, I pulled the Clarity up to an Air Liquide (Blue Hydrogen) station in Anaheim to top off its 5.5-kg tank. (The Mirai’s carries 5.0.) I’m puzzled by the inconsistent user interface between this and First Element’s dispensers; still from start to finish I was there for 10 minutes at most. But these are still very rare animals—especially once outside the L.A. and San Francisco county lines.

TURBULENT TOYOTA If the Clarity’s design celebrates straight lines, the Mirai’s hyperactively avoids them.

Which FCV is better? They trade punches pretty evenly. Reflecting each brand’s traditional identities, the Mirai rides more luxuriously, and the Clarity handles better. The Toyota is quieter; the Honda’s tire noise can sometimes be penetrating. From the back seat, the Mirai’s comfortable front chairs appear overstuffed to the point of being claustrophobic; the Clarity—with five roomy seats compared to the Toyota’s four—is elegantly airy (but its trunk space is cramped). Indeed, the Honda’s angular interior is architectural, only let down by its frustrating infotainment screen (continuing our strident complaints about other Honda vehicles’ user interfaces). Which to pick? The Clarity’s better design, extra range, sportier handling, and five seats give it the edge.

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell 2016 Toyota Mirai Fuel Cell
DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT Front-motor, FWD Front-motor, FWD
POWER TYPE 174-hp/221-lb-ft electric motor 151-hp/247-lb-ft electric motor
SYSTEM POWER (SAE NET) 174 hp 151 hp
TRANSMISSION 1-speed automatic 1-speed automatic
SUSPENSION, F; R Struts; multilink Struts; multilink
BRAKES, F/R; REGEN vented disc/disc, ABS; (no additional regen) vented disc/disc, ABS; shift-low
TIRES 235/45R18 94V (M+S) Micehelin Energy Saver A/S 215/55R17 93V (M+S) Michelin Primacy MXV4
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 193.5 x 73.8 x 58.3 in 192.5 x 71.5 x 60.4 in
CURB WEIGHT (DIST F/R) 4,106 lb 4,072 lb
HEADROOM, F/R 39.1/37.1 in 38.5/36.8 in
LEGROOM, F/R 42.2/36.7 in 42.5/30.1 in
SHOULDER ROOM, F/R 59.6/57.2 in 54.3/53.5 in
BATTERY Lithium-ion, 1.7 kW-hr Nickel-metal hydride, 1.5 kW-hrs
FUEL CAPACITY 5.5 kg H2 5.0 kg H2
0-60 7.8 sec 8.6 sec
QUARTER MILE 16.2 sec @ 85.8 mph 16.7 sec @ 81.2 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 132 ft 129 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.81 g (avg) 0.78 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 28.0 sec @ 0.59 g (avg) 28.3 sec @ 0.58 g (avg)
BASE PRICE $59,365 $58,335
PRICE AS TESTED $59,365* $58,335
APPLICABLE REBATES* & TAX CREDIT** -$5,000** -$5,000**
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON 69/67/68 mpg-e 67/67/67 mpg-e
REAL MPG CITY/HWY/COMB 65.3/61.5/63.5 mpg-e 66.1/59.7/63.0 mpg-e
RECOMMENDED FUEL 10,000-psi hydrogen 10,000-psi hydrogen
*Lease only ** Clean vehicle rebate (California) mailed directly within 90 days

The Final Four

We’ve pruned the field to our fuel-frugal final four: Prius, Prius Prime, Bolt EV, and Clarity. It’s a quartet of disparate drivetrains sharing an identical ambition: get you where you’re going while combusting fewer decomposed dinosaurs along the way. Which should you get?

Each of these four—in the order I’ve listed them—is going to ask for increasing commitments from you. The Prius’ experience is so interchangeable with a conventional car’s that the only thing you’ll notice is buying a lot less gas. At the opposite extreme, the Clarity enlists you for battle at the front lines of future tech.

Some of these commitments are disqualifiers. If you answer yes to any of these, step back: Don’t have a garage with 240-volt power nearby? Forget it, Bolt EV fans. Overnight charging is the key to having all of its 238-miles ready to rumble every morning.

Don’t have access to at least a 120-volt socket in a carport? Everybody interested in a Prius Prime, one step backward. Sure, maybe you’re lucky and your workplace provides a public charger. But it’s also accessible to that guy out there with his 2012 Leaf and his PlugShare app.

Don’t have a second car for road trips? Clarity and Bolt EV crowd, back you go. The present hydrogen infrastructure is sparse and almost exclusively West Coast (and the Clarity and Mirai’s 21 days of complimentary conventional cars is still a hassle). The Bolt EV’s L3 electrical watering holes are more plentiful, but there’s often only room for one to drink at a time. If our friend in that 2012 Leaf gets there first, he probably abandoned the car at the charger to go find an espresso.

And even if you beat Leaf Guy, recharging times for non-Tesla EVs mean you’ll be getting Social Security checks long before you arrive at any long-distance destinations. (Tesla’s superchargers are found in thickets of eight or 10 and dispense 2.6 times faster.)

Funny to say, all this infrastructure is a moving target. In three years, Southern California’s population of hydrogen stations will grow from 2017’s 34 to 100; ChargePoints’ imminent EV network of Express Stations is expected to number 100 on the coasts and will be future-proofed to charge at up to 400 kWs. When you think about BEVs and FCVs, don’t picture cool cars and take their refueling locations for granted. They’re intertwined. Co-dependent. A system.

Back when I used to row during my crew years, the emphasis was on being a team—eight personalities melded into one, big, multibodied creature. But sculling these days in a single is precisely the opposite—you’re alone and isolated with your thoughts. Slowly rounding Newport’s Lido Island for the bazillionth time since then, I mentally put all four car keys in a pile.

Which would I pick?

I admire the two fuel cell cars. Despite all their naysayers (sometimes me), their nascent refueling network is actually, if awkwardly, coming to life. This is happening fast. More and more often, when I pull into a station, there’s already a Mirai refueling ahead of me with a Clarity following right behind. It reminds me of the early days of Tesla Supercharging when everyone would get out and share their war stories; they’re becoming community hangouts for like-minded alt-energy enthusiasts. Cool.What’s not cool is still having to backtrack to my nearest hydrogen station, opposite the direction of my commute.

On the other hand, plugging in at home—I have a garage with 240-volt power—frees me from having to plan those logistics. If I’m going on a rare road trip, I can rent an appropriate vehicle. I move the Bolt EV’s key a little closer.

I keep rowing. The morning sun has lit the clouded sky a pinkish orange. Beautiful. I actually care about what’s happening to the atmosphere up there. Right now, only about 4 percent of these FCVs’ hydrogen is produced by clean means. This will change. Increasingly, hydrogen will be produced via electrolysis or carbon-capture techniques. But not now. Here in California (dominated by natural gas), making the Bolt EV’s electricity is relatively CO2-light. The Chevy’s key edges closer to the front.

What about the Prius and Prius Prime? If I had to have one car for everything, OK, it would be the Prime. But by now I’ve become addicted to the smooth, instant-torque driving experience of an EV with a big electric motor. I pick up the Bolt EV’s key and put it in my pocket.

Figuratively, that is. Right now my hands are full of oar handles.

Freeway Ride and Noise

Los Angeles’ notorious 405 freeway is part-time parking lot, part-time automotive fashion show, and for many drivers a long friggin’ commute that attracts lots of fuel-frugal cars. My drive is
38 miles each way, and the difference in how cars roll over those miles can be pretty significant. Here, we’ve measured my very own freeway miles with an accelerometer on the driver’s seat and a sound meter at ear position, at roughly 70 mph (usually at 9 p.m. rather than rush hour).

SOUND TRACKS Interior noise was logged and averaged during these 9 p.m. drives, which included less nearby traffic generating more road noise than at a rush-hour walking pace.

The Big Picture

Think of this as the four sides of a frame defining our thinking about these powertrains. We show EPA and Real MPG range results but use the latter to compute greenhouse emissions and cost. Recharge/refuel times combine both fueling and charging time.

Based on typical SoCal energy rates of $3.08/gal gasoline, $0.137 kW-hr electricity (optimal price during overnight charging), and $14.99/kg for hydrogen (subsidized for three years by Honda and Toyota for zero cost to Clarity and Mirai owners).

Regen brake pedal feel

The vagueness of regenerative brake’s pedal feel can be a major negative. Which is best? On my city-street morning drives, I instrumented their brake pedals with a load cell (measuring force) and a string potentiometer (for pedal travel) and translated the data into my own subjective ranking on a 1–10 scale.

Stress of refueling with …

The first time you recharge an EV or refuel an FCV can be intimidating. To measure this, we recruited associate road test editor Erick Ayapana (an EV and FCV newbie) to try all three while we measured his heart rate, breathing rate, and stress level.

Truncated Space

Along with mushy regen brake pedal feel and sometimes boundy ride quality, you’ll often encounter shrunken trunk room with these cars. Batteries and hydrogen tanks have to go somewhere. Here are all eight cars’ trunks in profile view, their openings on the right. For reference is a common carryon suitcase. The manufacturer-provided volumes show their inconsistency from practical measurements.

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