The Car Connection Honda Clarity Overview
The new 2017 Honda Clarity is a pair of zero-emission sedans, one powered by a hydrogen fuel-cell car and the other by a lithium-ion battery pack. The Fuel Cell gets most of the promotion; it's the follow-up to the first-generation Honda FCX Clarity leased to a few California drivers from 2008 through 2014. Only about 60 first-generation Clarity cars were leased—they couldn't be bought outright—and each was rumored to have cost Honda well into the six figures.
The Clarity Electric is the successor to the 1,100 Honda Fit EV electric hatchbacks leased from 2012 through 2014, many of them still on the road. It's a mid-size sedan, rather than a subcompact hatchback, which Honda says responded to Fit EV owners' desire for a larger vehicle. Both versions of the 2017 Clarity are very limited in volume, and will be offered only in California. Their volume (likely a few hundred per year for each) will be no more than a rounding error for Honda's popular Civic, Accord, and CR-V models, each selling more than 300,000 a year.
MORE: Read our 2017 Honda Clarity review
Next year, a much higher-volume variant will appear: the 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid, with a projected electric range of 42 miles or more, which will be sold throughout much of the U.S. It's a successor to the low-volume Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid, and will likely sell in far higher numbers than the other two.
The Clarity's design is futuristic and has more ornamentation, vents, trim and accent lines than the two iterations of the concept car that previewed it. The chrome bar that underlines the grille opening and sweeps over the thin, swept-back LED headlamps is a recognizable Honda design element. The flat top of the rear wheel arch, angled slightly forward, may be the most dissonant stylistic element.
Striking look, premium interior
Every Clarity Fuel Cell has a glossy black roof with a chrome arc along the pillars and roof edge that delineates it from the lower-body color. It's a striking look, and most eyes would agree that the longer, sleeker Clarity is better-looking than the homely Toyota Mirai, the other dedicated fuel-cell vehicle on the market. The electric Clarity has a body-color roof panel, as will the plug-in hybrid next year. The Clarity's interior is relatively conventional, with a luxurious feel and materials, and very few of the Mirai's unusual controls or hard plastics.
The motor that powers the Clarity's front wheels produces 130 kilowatts (174 horsepower) and 221 pound-feet of torque. Honda estimates acceleration from 0 to 60 mph at roughly 9 seconds, which we confirmed in some informal on-road testing during a preview drive. Like hybrids and electric cars, it uses regenerative braking to recharge a small battery pack, but that's used only to boost acceleration temporarily—it doesn't power the car for any meaningful distance. The new Clarity's 5.5 kilograms of hydrogen-storage capacity—at 10,000 psi—give it an EPA range rating of 366 miles, though like an electric car, aggressive driving style can cut the estimated range substantially. (Our Clarity Fuel Cell never showed more than 250 miles.) The Mirai, by comparison, is rated at 312 miles.
Honda hasn't released full technical details on the Clarity Electric yet, but it has confirmed that its EPA range rating is likely to be only 80 miles or so. With virtually every smaller electric car now rated at 107 to 125 miles, and a Chevy Bolt EV at 238 miles, the battery-electric Clarity is thus at a major disadvantage. Buyers will have to place a high value on the comfort and size of a mid-size sedan over a compact hatchback to make up for its range disadvantage, though the price is expected to be in line with those vehicles at roughly $35,000.
The first-generation FCX Clarity was roughly similar in form to the hydrogen-powered Clarity, but its earlier 100-kW fuel-cell stack sat in a thick, wide console between the two front passengers, it used a 100-kW (134-hp) electric motor to power the front wheels, and its hydrogen tanks were only designed for pressures of 5,000 psi. The new car has better performance, and Honda is particularly proud of the fact that its fuel-cell stack and all associated electronics fit under the hood in the same volume as a V-6 engine and transmission combination.
Honda will lease the 2017 Clarity Fuel Cell only to households in carefully chosen areas of Northern and Southern California that lie within range of small, but growing number of hydrogen fueling stations. But as zero-emission vehicle options, both Clarity versions are likely to be swamped in volume by total sales of more than a dozen battery-electric vehicles now on the market, including the Tesla Model S and Model X, and a host of shorter-range electric cars as well. The three-year lease on the Fuel Cell costs $369 a month, and comes with 20,000 miles a year and $15,000 of free hydrogen fuel—a major plus when a 60-mile refill with hydrogen cost us $16. Honda hasn't yet released pricing or lease details on the Clarity Electric.
For buyers uninterested in electric cars, or incapable of plugging in—and who are also lucky enough to live near a hydrogen fueling site—the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell offers a way to drive with zero tailpipe emissions aside from water. Its primary rival is the Toyota Mirai sedan, although Hyundai also leases a Tucson Fuel Cell model in even smaller numbers. The Clarity Electric will compete with close to a dozen battery-electric cars available in California, with longer ranges but in smaller packages. A similarly sized Tesla Model S, on the other hand, has almost three times the electric Clarity's range—but for twice the price.