Honda on Wednesday unveiled the car industry’s first hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicle destined for retail customers, who are due to receive the cars in mid-2008.

Japan’s second-largest carmaker said it would begin leasing the FCX Clarity to a “limited” number of consumers in California next summer.

The four-door sedan, powered by a hydrogen fuel-cell stack, will have zero exhaust-pipe emissions and a range of 270 miles.

Honda said it would charge customers lease payments of about $600 a month, making the FCX Clarity the first of the alternative-fuel vehicles affordable to ordinary consumers.

Similar to Toyota’s top-selling Prius petrol-electric hybrid, the car has a distinctive exterior styling that will allow drivers to telegraph their green credentials to other motorists.

Separately, General Motors announced that it would begin tests of 100 of its Equinox hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles using US consumers in the first quarter of 2008. Ten of the vehicles in the pilot, dubbed Project Driveway, will be used by Walt Disney in California, GM said.

GM and Honda made their announcements at the Los Angeles Auto Show, which is rapidly becoming a showcase for the global car industry’s emerging lower-emission technologies.

GM also unveiled a hybrid version of its Silverado pick-up truck, and announced a plan to position its Chevrolet global high-volume brand as a leader in environmental technology.

Hydrogen-powered vehicles are one of the most appealing new car technologies because they emit nothing but water vapour.

The cars – including Honda’s new vehicle – are still years from mass-market viability because of technological hurdles, safety concerns and limited available refuelling infrastructure.

BMW last year unveiled the Hydrogen 7, described as the first car of its type for “everyday use”, but produced the car in small numbers and did no direct retail sales. Honda did not disclose its planned production volumes for the FCX Clarity.

One of the main hurdles to making fuel-cell cars viable for the mass market is the technology used to derive hydrogen to power the fuel cell.

Hydrogen vehicles are still prohibitively expensive. Honda had spoken of selling the FCX Clarity for about £50,000 ($103,000), but decided to lease because, it said, “cost is still an issue”.

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