- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2009

I flew from New York City to the recent Los Angeles Auto Show to see the future.

Not only is my little granddaughter there, but so are some of the up-and-coming alternative-fuel green cars. The two that caught my attention were the Mitsubishi plug-in electric mini car and the Honda hydrogen fuel-cell sedan.

The Mitsubishi MiEv — stands for Mitsubishi Innovative Electric Vehicle — is a four-seater mini car and is roomier than it appears partly because the battery pack is under the seats, with a compact 47 Kw electric motor behind it that drives the rear wheels.

Mitsubishi uses an advanced lithium-ion battery. It’s smaller, lighter and more powerful than the nickel-metal-hydride batteries that power other electric vehicles. The lighter weight helps improve its top speed of 81 mph.

Instead of a tachometer on the dashboard, a meter reports the status of the lithium-ion battery. Its range is nearly 100 miles before it needs to be plugged in, and recharges overnight on standard 110 volts, or in three hours at 220.

The MiEv is not merely an upgraded golf cart. This is a real car. The MiEv goes on sale in Japan later in 2009, and plans are to bring it to the U.S. in 2010 when Chevrolet is scheduled to introduce its plug-in Volt. Price isn’t set, but a Mitsubishi representative told me that MiEv will be about $30,000 in Japan. It has been in test mode for two years with utility companies in Japan, and two vehicles are being loaned to Southern California Edison for fleet testing.

Along with the MiEv plug-in electric, another alternative fuel car that intrigues me is the hydrogen fuel-cell car. Honda’s FCX Clarity is the first on the market, and it’s a winner. A revolutionary fuel-cell stack design can be placed under the console between the two front seats, compact enough to leave room for cup holders.

Honda uses the dominant hydrogen technology — an electric motor that runs on electricity generated by the fuel cells, equivalent to 134 horsepower. The only thing that comes out of the tailpipe is water, which, I was told, is clean enough to drink by Environmental Protection Agency standards, although I did not try.

The small motor allows the front hood to slope dramatically toward the pavement, which allows the windshield and windows above the two front doors to be larger than in most sedans. That gives the driver a commanding view of the road ahead, and gives both driver and front-seat passenger a glorious open feel. Simply, beautiful to look at.

The main thing I noticed driving the FCX Clarity, which has creature comforts you would expect in a luxury midsize sedan, is the quiet. The only noise is an occasional high-pitched whine when the motor is cycling. OK, you also notice the hypnotic dashboard blue LED read-out. I stopped checking when I saw my comparable miles per gallon pass 60. Honda says it gets the equivalent of 70-plus mpg and has a range of 280 miles.

Honda is leasing the first Clarity vehicles for about $600 a month to celebrities, politicians and others who might “influence” the rest of us, such as actress and environmentalist Jamie Lee Curtis. Those leases are only in Southern California for now, where there are places to refuel a hydrogen car.

Chevrolet also has a fleet of hydrogen fuel-cell Equinox sport utility vehicles in fleet tests, mostly with utility companies, but those are prototypes - the FCX Clarity is really here as production cars.

Electric outlets can be found anywhere, so recharging an EV is easy. Not so for a hydrogen vehicle. It’s the classic “What came first: the chicken or the egg?” We can’t have viable hydrogen cars without refueling stations, but who will invest in hydrogen fueling stations unless and until there are cars to refill?

Copyright, Motor Matters, 2008

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