- Unique shape, distinctive looks
- Fuel Cell drives like long-range EV
- Larger, quieter than Mirai
- Free hydrogen fuel for 3 years
- Hydrogen refills in 3 minutes
- Odd proportions from many angles
- Scarce hydrogen stations for Fuel Cell
- Uncompetitive range for Clarity Electric
- Just four seats
- Only offered on a lease
The 2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell steps up to a mid-size form, drives like a battery-electric car, and earns a range rating of 365 miles—but you're still tethered to a hydrogen fueling network.
The 2017 Honda Clarity is a mid-size four-door sedan that comes with two different powertrains, both of them zero-emssion.
The first to arrive, in December 2016, was the Clarity Fuel Cell, which is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell that feeds pure hydrogen, stored in the car's high-pressure tanks, into a fuel cell that combines with air to produce electricity and pure water. The electricity powers a motor that drives the front wheels. It doesn’t need to be plugged in to charge a battery; instead, the driver needs to refill it with high-pressure hydrogen at a specialized (and expensive) station—of which there are only about 30 at this point. The Clarity went on sale in December 2016, but is offered only in parts of California where hydrogen stations are available. It comes in just one trim level, but is well-equipped for a mid-size sedan.
The second version, the 2017 Honda Clarity Electric, will go on sale in spring 2017, and is powered by the same electric motor. Its energy comes from a lithium-ion battery pack that can be plugged into either household current or a 240-volt Level 2 charging station to recharge it. While some technical details haven't been released, Honda says the battery range will be "about 80 miles." That puts the electric Clarity at a significant disadvantage against smaller electric cars get enhanced ranges of 100 to 125 miles, not to mention the Chevrolet Bolt EV with its 238-mile rating.
Both versions of the Clarity will initially be very low-volume, lease-only models offered solely in California. The electric model will cost about $35,000, while the hydrogen version starts at more than $50,000—though Honda throws in three years' worth of free hydrogen with that one. Still, Clarity sightings this year are likely to be as rare as those of exotic supercar models. (Next year, the pair will be joined by a higher-volume sibling, the 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid, with an all-electric range projected at 42 miles or better.)
We rate the 2017 Honda Clarity lineup at 6.0 out of 10, although that number doesn't include a safety score because it hasn't been rated for crash safety by the NHTSA or IIHS and probably won't be. It wins for a comfortable interior and quiet ride, but loses points for strange exterior lines that don't quite come together and use that's limited only to California. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.)
The Clarity Fuel Cell is the latest in a long line of fuel-cell vehicles Honda has built since 1999, all of them released only in handfuls. It succeeds the FCX Clarity, another hydrogen sedan model of which about 60 were leased in the U.S. from 2008 to 2014. Its rivals are the Toyota Mirai sedan and Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell—both offered in similarly limited areas, although Toyota plans to deliver up to 3,000 of its Mirai fuel-cell models each year. Honda plans to offer only a small fraction of that. The Clarity Electric follows 1,100 Honda Fit EVs hatchbacks leased from 2012 through 2014, some of them now re-leased to their drivers for a second time.
We spent a day and more than 80 miles in a Clarity Fuel Cell sedan outside Santa Barbara, California, in March 2017, including a quick fuel top-off at that city's one hydrogen station. Once you find a filling station of the proper pressure and communications interface, the Clarity Fuel Cell can be refilled in about three minutes. We haven't yet driven a Clarity Electric.
Styling and design
The 2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell is about the same size as the Honda Accord mid-size sedan, but it looks distinctly different. The shape looks to have been created from equal parts of three departed models: the previous Clarity FCX sedan, the Honda Insight hybrid hatchback, and the Honda Accord Crosstour fastback utility vehicle.
The exterior lines are challenged for flattering angles, and in profile, the Clarity appears portly at the rear fenders. Its bulk is slightly disguised by a black roof, which pulls the eye lower. The high-tailed "kammback" design will be familiar to those who follow high-efficiency green cars; the rakish fastback profile has a bit of a lift, with a prominent lip spoiler at the tail.
The greenhouse also tapers at the rear to aid aerodynamics—which is partly to blame for the odd rear-fender contouring. The Clarity includes lightweight aerodynamic wheels, underbody aero panels and—due to the tougher sightlines that the upkick in back introduces—an extra rear window in the trunk lid to help with rear visibility.
Inside, the Clarity’s passenger space is divided into four spaces, one for each occupant, with the tunnel creating dividing the cabin down the middle. A small shifter allows easy fingertip selection of forward, reverse, neutral, or park modes through a shift-by-wire system. The dash itself is right in step with other current Honda models, although the instrument panel itself offers a more futuristic, energy-focused layout, and trims and door handles do offer a futuristic departure from Honda’s other production models.
Performance and efficiency
At a simple level, the Clarity Fuel Cell is powered by an electric motor, rated at 174 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque, that drives the front wheels. The electricity that powers it comes from a fuel cell under the hood, with a small lithium-ion battery pack under the front seats can provide added power when sudden acceleration is needed.
The 2017 Honda Clarity uses Honda’s latest generation of its so-called V Flow fuel-cell stack. It's smaller but more powerful, and Honda notes that its entire system—fuel-cell stack, power electronics, and drive motor—fits under the hood in the same space as a conventional V-6 drivetrain. The fuel cell runs most of the time that the vehicle is moving; the battery pack also recaptures energy from braking, or unused energy created by the fuel cell, and stores it for future use when needed for efficiency or sudden power.
The Clarity uses a sophisticated double-wishbone suspension and its turning radius is just 17.7 feet. Behind the wheel, it drives confidently and holds the road better than some other mid-size sedans. Honda says its acceleration and performance are roughly those of a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder gasoline vehicle of the same size. Our rough estimate for 0-to-60-mph acceleration was 9.2 seconds, on a par with mass-market electric cars (though not, perhaps, the mid-size luxury sedans at the Clarity's price of more than $50,000). The one disappointment is that while the Clarity drives like an electric car, its off-the-line performance is more measured because it can't pull maximum current from its small battery, and the fuel cell prefers to operate at a steady output.
The Clarity Fuel Cell is EPA-rated at 365 miles of range from its 5.5 gallons of highly compressed hydrogen. That's higher than the Mirai's 312 miles and the Tucson Fuel Cell's 265-mile rating, as well as higher than any Tesla model now on sale. With energetic driving, however, we found the car will show you a range closer to 250 miles—better than most electric cars, but less impressive than its rated 365 miles.
In overall energy efficiency, Honda claims that the fuel-cell Clarity is twice as efficient as a compact hybrid gasoline-electric vehicle. California requires one-third of hydrogen fuel to be produced using renewable energy, but virtually all hydrogen fuel today is made from natural gas, producing carbon dioxide as a byproduct. The Clarity Electric, a pure battery-electric vehicle charged from the grid, is still more energy-efficient in virtually all cases.
Comfort and utility
The Clarity offers comfortable seating for four adults, and we'd liken the driving position to be similar to that of the current Accord. The driver's seat is power adjustable in many directions, though the front passenger seat doesn't adjust for height. It's a little tight on rear head room for taller adults, but rear legroom is good, as you'd expect in a large sedan.
Honda suggests the cabin is elegant yet futuristic; it includes some nice materials not usually found in mid-size sedans from volume brands, including a nice beige suede-like material on the dash surface. The interior is made of a plant-derived Honda Bio-Fabric. There are drink holders for each occupant, as well as various trays and storage cubbies—including doors pockets and center-console space—and there’s under-trunk storage.
The trunk itself is 11.1 cubic feet—small, though likely adequate for a generous run to the grocery store. Honda notes the trunk can take four sets of golf clubs, suitable for a foursome occupying all the seating spots. One of the reasons for the very high trunk line was to provide adequate trunk volume behind the intrusion of a large armored cylinder set crosswise behind the rear seat that holds hydrogen fuel at pressures of 10,000 psi.
The energy information display in the Clarity includes a three-dimensional display with meters for hydrogen consumption (a ball-shaped gauge), battery levels, motor output, and trip and efficiency information. Those few screens and the tiny shifter aside, however, one of the Clarity's advantages over the other two hydrogen-powered cars on the market is that it's quiet enough to be mistaken for an all-electric car. Honda's managed to muffle the pumps, compressors, and other hardware that are sometimes audible in Toyota's Mirai. An electric-car driver might not know from inside the cabin that the Clarity Fuel Cell didn't plug in—and that's a compliment.
Safety and features
Safety features measure up entirely to those in other sedans with sophisticated technology. As well as the usual complement of airbags, the Clarity Fuel Cell comes standard with a rearview camera, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking, and active lane control. The high-pressure armored hydrogen tanks have been extensively crash-tested to ensure that while the car may crumple around them, they will stay intact.
As in any large sedan with a tail this high, rear three-quarter visibility is not good. But despite the very high and slanted rear window, rear visibility through the mirror is better than you'd expect, due to a window in the panel between the tops of the two rear seats and a corresponding window in the trunk lid. This gives a two-part rear view, with the lower half being through the top of the trunk compartment, but it works.
There's only a single trim level for either Clarity model, reflecting its likely very low sales volume. The Fuel Cell version comes standard with all-LED lights, dual-zone climate control, power-adjustable heated front seats, a head-up display for speed and other information, and an 8.0-inch touchscreen audio system that includes Bluetooth pairing, along with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, among other features.