TAKANEZAWA (Japan)(AFP) Honda Motor Co. on Monday began producing a next-generation fuel cell vehicle that it hopes will propel zero-emission cars running on hydrogen closer to the mainstream. Japanese automakers are in a race to produce fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly vehicles amid soaring prices at the pump, spreading their bets on an array of technology including hybrid, electric and fuel cell automobiles. Honda said it would set up the first network of sales dealers in the United States for fuel cell vehicles. Honda plans to deliver about 200 FCX Clarity fuel cell vehicles on lease in the US and Japan in the first three years of production. The Japanese automaker already has 35 previous generation fuel cell vehicles on lease contracts, mostly with Japanese and US public institutions. It hopes the new version will have more widespread appeal. "With the new model, we are shifting our focus to individual customers. This will be a real stepping stone to the consumer market," said a Honda spokesman. Fuel cell vehicles belch out none of the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, but their high cost and a lack of hydrogen refueling stations pose obstacles to mainstream use. Honda said the new FCX Clarity had a fuel efficiency three times that of modern petrol-powered automobiles. The four-passenger sedan also has a driving range 30 percent higher than its predecessor. It is producing the cars at what it describes as "the world's first dedicated fuel cell vehicle manufacturing facility" in this town in Tochigi prefecture north of Tokyo. The first five FCX Clarity cars will be delivered to celebrities including film producer Ron Yerxa and actress Jamie Lee Curtis. "It's an especially significant day for American Honda as we plant firm footsteps toward the mainstreaming of fuel cell cars," Honda executive John Mendel said at a ceremony to mark the start of production.