The Car Connection Honda Clarity Overview
The Honda Clarity is a mid-size sedan that offers three different powertrains: one is a hydrogen fuel cell, a battery-electric model with a lithium-ion battery pack, and new for 2018 is the high-volume model, a plug-in hybrid with a battery pack and an engine.
The Fuel Cell version is 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 compact hatchback like the Chevrolet Volt or Toyota Prius Prime.
MORE: Read our 2018 Honda Clarity review
Both the fuel-cell and battery-electric versions of the Clarity are very limited in volume, and will be offered only in California. Their volume will likely be just a few hundred a year for each, no more than a rounding error for Honda's popular Civic, Accord, and CR-V models, each selling more than 300,000 a year. The Clarity Plug-In Hybrid will be sold in all 50 states and could reach 20,000 a year or higher, Honda says.
The 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid will join the crowd, and will likely be the best-seller among the three. It has an EPA-rated electric range of 47 miles, far higher than the Prius Prime's 25 miles and close to the smaller Chevy Volt's 53 miles.
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 headlights is a recognizable Honda design element. The flat top of the rear wheel arch, angled slightly forward, may be the most dissonant stylistic element. Overall, it has a slightly bulbous, heavy-hipped look.
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 and plug-in hybrid Clarity have body-color roof panels. 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 Clarity Plug-In Hybrid is powered by a specially tuned 1.5-liter inline-4 engine paired with the latest generation of Honda’s two-motor hybrid system, which supplants a conventional transmission. The drive motor, rated at a substantial 146 kilowatts (181 horsepower), produces 232 pound-feet of torque and can power the car itself in many cases, especially in low-speed use. Its 17.7-kilowatt-hour battery pack sits under the front and rear seats and the rear-seat floorboards. We found its performance to be sufficiently strong in electric mode for all but a few types of mixed-use driving.
In the low-volume Clarity Fuel Cell version, the motor that powers the front wheels produces 130 kw (174 hp) and 221 lb-ft of torque. Honda estimates acceleration from 0 to 60 mph at roughly nine seconds, which we confirmed in some informal on-road testing during a test 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 is particularly proud 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.
Finally, the Clarity Electric features a 25.5-kwh lithium-ion battery that has a projected range of 89 miles. 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.
Fuel Cell, Electric for California only
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.
But it's the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid, new for 2018, that's the important model. It provides the first viable, affordable competitor to the seven-year reign of the compact hatchback Chevrolet Volt as the most appealing plug-in hybrid on the market.