Amid many promises about futuristic automobiles, an unlikely one seems to be coming true: hydrogen fuel-cell cars.

No, you can’t buy a hydrogen car from a local dealer. But General Motors (GM) and American Honda Motor are putting close to 300 street-legal, full-featured, hydrogen fuel-cell machines into the hands of individual American drivers for use in real-world conditions. Long-term, a fleet could help reduce dependence on oil and lessen greenhouse gas emissions because the cells produce no pollution, just water.

“We’re not developing [these] as a science project,” says Troy Clarke, president of GM’s North American operations. The cars are “a market reality,” adds John Mendel, executive vice president of American Honda.

Which leads the curious, eco-minded consumer to wonder: Do the current models drive well enough to support those claims? I had a chance to find out. I spent a day in northern Virginia with one of the first of 100 Chevrolet Equinox fuel-cell SUVs that GM is distributing and another day in southern California with a version of the Honda FCX Clarity sedan, 200 of which the company began leasing in June.

Chevy Equinox
GM is giving Equinoxes (such as the one I drove) to consumers for three months at a time. The company pays all the bills. Drivers get a short training class, then pump their own hydrogen at GM-selected sites in southern California, New York and Washington, D.C.

During my drive, I kept listening, in vain, for the whine of the air compressor that force-feeds oxygen into the fuel cell to mix with the hydrogen to create electricity. That sound has been a consistent annoyance in earlier hydrogen fuel-cell prototypes—everybody’s, not just GM’s. But GM has silenced the intrusion by redesigning the compressor and adding insulation.

The roar of the fan that cools the battery pack was evident, however. GM says the noise will be remedied in ve­­­hicles built after mine. The nickel-metal-hydride batteries—which kick in when the fuel cell can’t keep up with demand—sit under the backseat. That puts any racket from the cooling apparatus too close for comfort.

The strong, instant torque that an electric motor provides in low-speed driving was a pleasure. Just push the throttle pedal, and away you go. It was hard not to be mischievous sitting next to muscle cars at stoplights; I discovered that most electric cars can outaccelerate gasoline hot rods ... for about half a block—enough to make a point.
Over longer distances the thrill vanishes, however. GM says the Equinox will accelerate from standstill to 60 miles per hour in 12 seconds, closer to sluggish than speedy, though brisk enough to suit moderate drivers. When I nailed the throttle at freeway speed, little punch was left. Passing on two-lane roads can be done only with careful consideration.

The four-door test vehicle had 120 horsepower—about two-thirds the typical amount for a midsize SUV. The transmission was a one-speed unit, possible because electric motors deliver all their torque instantly. The result was inherently smooth power delivery. But I would have preferred a continuously variable transmission like that used in various hybrid cars, or some other high-efficiency automatic, to leverage the motor’s power a little more, especially when driving in middle speed ranges and with a full load over hilly terrain.

Honda Clarity
In June, Honda Motor rolled out the first of about 200 Clarity fuel-cell sedans that will be produced over a three-year period. The “vast majority” of those will be for the U.S., according to spokesperson Sage Marie. The rest go to Japan.

Honda is distributing Clarities through a handful of southern California dealers to Honda-vetted customers who will sign three-year leases at $600 a month. Actor Jamie Lee Curtis was one of the first five people to sign up. After receiving instruction on hydrogen fueling, drivers will pump and pay for their own hydrogen at several Honda-approved stations.

My ear said the Clarity test car’s compressor whine was too obvious. Honda pledged to exorcise the noise before handing over the cars to consumers. On the other hand, cooling for the Clarity’s cache of lithium-ion batteries was silent—the opposite of the Equinox. The electric power steering was a bit touchy, but Honda seemed unconvinced that any correction was needed.

Honda says the four-passenger sedan will hit 60 miles per hour from a dead stop in just nine seconds. I found it lazier off the line than those numbers suggest. But I was surprised at how eager it seemed in mid-range speeds where most driving is done and where the compressor’s whine was minimal.

I also tested the Clarity’s handling on the twisting canyon roads northwest of Los Angeles and found the car to be agile and able to easily stay in its lane through corners. It wasn’t a sporting vehicle, though: for one thing, the low-rolling-resistance tires didn’t grip as well as conventional rubber would have. And that sensitive steering required frequent, small corrections. The average driver probably will be more interested in how well the car saves fuel, however.

In the end, the driving personalities of the two test vehicles, with a few exceptions, were close enough to those of ordinary gasoline-powered cars that if buyers ultimately reject fuel-cell machines, it won’t be because the cars seem unfamiliar from behind the wheel.

Note: This story was originally published with the title, "Fuel-Cell Cars".