You'd expect a car that costs seven figures to be pretty exotic, right? Swoopy and fast, loud and luxurious. Yet this car costs over a million US dollars - the exact figure's shrouded in secrecy - and looks like granny's sensible hatch. High hip point, good view out, upright driving position, holds four, decent boot - what could be more ordinary?
Almost everything, for this car's rarity is its propulsion system - and what happens when it runs out of fuel. For it drinks hydrogen, and its sole emission is water. It's about as exotic as they get, though if Honda gets its way it'll become a common sight far sooner than you'd think.
Of course there's a lot to do before you and I will park a hydrogen-powered car in the drive, most of it involved in refuelling the thing, and making it at a real-world price.
For Honda's virtually got the working parts down pat. Building a hydrogen-powered fuel-cell car small makes sense - it's easier to scale it up than scale it down. Thus we've got the motor in the conventional place, up front; the fuel cell stacks under the floor; and the hydrogen tanks to the rear, well protected over and in front of the rear axle.
The result is a powerplant that puts out 80kW and a decent 272Nm of torque - more than enough to spin the wheels at junctions, as I soon found out when I drove one recently in the US.
Start-up is mildly frustrating - turn the key until it stops. Then do up the seatbelt, adjust the mirrors, check the radio's on your favoured channel. While you do this, the car's going through its five-second start-up procedure - which always felt a lot longer than five seconds. When it's ready, a digital message says 'ready to drive' and you're off. Put it into gear, press the go-pedal and drive as normal.
Indeed, it was so normal you almost wanted to check you were in the right car. Shouldn't there be bells and whistles? Shouldn't people be swivelling their heads? Nope. The only head to swivel was that of the cop I swept past at an inadvertent few mph over the limit. It's certainly easy to speed round town. There's no petrol engine noise to remind you of your speed and, as it's electric-powered, there's lots of low-down torque to haul you off the line, and to shrug off the weight of four adults and the car's not inconsiderable 1670kg heft.
So why does it cost so much - and why aren't there more of them? Obviously the cost at present includes the hydrogen fuel cell car's development.
It's an ongoing challenge to find alternatives to the pricier components. For example, the metal hydrides of the gas cylinders, which absorb gas like a sponge but are expensive and heavy.
Then there are the safety concerns. Heard of the Hindenberg? What happens if you crash - and there's a fire? Given hydrogen is frequently transported for industrial purposes, this question isn't new. If the hydrogen tank's temperature rises above a certain level, a 'disc' suffers a controlled burst. It releases gas which vents through a pipe to the rear of the vehicle, where it'll burn in a controlled blow-torch fashion, arguably much safer than petrol in a similar situation.
With the pieces of the puzzle gradually dropping into place, what happens next? Will we drive conventional petrol cars until - presto! Hydrogen arrives, or are there interim steps? Yes there are, and Honda's among several companies well on the way down them.
First comes improved petrol technology - improved not so much in terms of emissions, but in frugal fuel use. The US already has cars using cylinder-cutting technology. I tried two Honda versions, including the US-market Odyssey, and found it not only efficient, but almost seamless. Under light throttle loads three of the six cylinders cut out; plant boot and all six fire, yet the change-over's usually impossible to spot without the little green light on the dash.
Next come better hybrid cars, such as Honda's Accord V6 hybrid I also drove in the US. This truly impressive vehicle won't come to NZ, though we may see the next generation. Look at it and it's a normal Accord. Drive it, and it offers more punch - there's an additional 12kW from the electric motor, while its 136Nm takes the total tally to an impressive 416.
A thinner, more powerful electric motor than the previous Civic hybrid's and a shortened gearbox mean the combined powerplant takes up very little additional space, but there's no doubting it gets the job done. Claimed fuel economy is 7.9l/100km in the city, and 5.9 on the highway. That's some 43 per cent better than the regular V6. It's shopping hatch territory, from a roomy sedan that'll do 0-100kph in 7.6 seconds.
Some of the lessons learned in developing better hybrid cars - lessons in battery and electric motor technology, for example - contribute to accessible hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. But another major building block comes from CNG-fuelled cars.
A growing market in California, starting with the likes of rubbish trucks and gradually more popular among private punters, CNG is efficient, and now much easier to run thanks to home filling stations. Californian homes are predominantly piped to the gas supply, and a garage unit can refill your car overnight.
Lessons Honda's learning about small-scale gas storage and refuelling are being used in its hydrogen programme. More efficient petrol engines, better hybrids and domestic market CNG-fuelled cars are leading us towards the hydrogen highway.
That highway has come a step closer in California, where the Governator, Arnold Schwarzenneger, has committed to a string of public hydrogen stations which will be available to any hydrogen-fuelled car by 2010. After all, GM and BMW have joined Honda to develop refuelling protocols – the momentum is growing.
Meanwhile hydrogen is expensive to produce, and at present is usually manufactured from natural gas, a non-renewable resource.
In the medium term Honda believes we'll see Home Energy Stations. The HES project started in 2003, to develop a home unit that will reform natural gas into electricity and heat for your home, and hydrogen to fuel your car. It's an efficient system, but not sustainable long term. The world may have more gas than petrol reserves, but even water can be a harmful emission if there's too much of it (read, rising sea levels) and the gas will eventually run out. The holy grail is an affordable method of splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, the system ending in total balance when the car recombines the two to emit water.
Meanwhile hydrogen-fuelled cars are rarer than the proverbial hen's teeth. Most of the world's major manufacturers are developing them, and a number are promising to put developmental cars on lease. Honda already leases a car - to the Spallino family, of Redondo Beach, California - but realistically this family of four is just a glorified laboratory experiment, for there are still only 15 cars on the road and each one is a test-come-PR exercise as much as a beacon to a petrol-free future.
Honda ZC2 FCX Specifications
Dimensions L/W/H/WB 4203/1777/1659/2554mm
Engine AC synchronous electric motor, 89kW and 272Nm
Gearbox and driven wheels CVT drives front wheels
Fuel capacity 3.75kg gas at 5000psi
Performance (claimed) 150km/h top speed, 305km range
Fuel economy (city/highway) 82/77km/kg gas