Honda Clarity EV and Hybrid first drive: Two powertrains, but only one real choice

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Honda will complete its trio of Clarity alt-propulsion sedans by the end of this calendar year, and the advantages and disadvantages of each are coming into clearer focus.

The Clarity line represents Honda’s strategy to cover all bases as automotive electrification moves forward. CEO Takahiro Hachigo insists his company still sees hydrogen fuel cells as the most promising alternative to internal combustion over the long haul, but no one in Honda’s management is naive enough to think hydrogen is a sure thing, so the Clarity is supposed to prepare for multiple inevitabilities. Clear?

The first of the current Claritys — the Clarity Fuel Cell, now available to handpicked lessees in California — offers good range but relies on a minuscule number of hydrogen fueling stations. The battery-only Clarity Electric will roll out later this summer in limited markets, starting with leases. The last of the three — the plug-in, IC-assisted Clarity Hybrid — will be available on a much wider basis by the end of the year, and it will be sold for keeps to anyone who wants to buy it.

Drive Review 2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

The fuel-cell Clarity has been carrying people around Southern California since December 2016, but the other two are at least months from public roadways. Honda recently offered a short drive in all three at its R&D center in Tochigi prefecture, Japan, and a few miles around a dynamics course was enough for one fairly obvious conclusion. Measured by performance and certainly by pragmatism in the near term, the old way –meaning the one with the gasoline engine and electric assist — is still the best way.

All three Claritys share a platform and chassis configuration, with batteries installed largely under the floor, a la Chevy Bolt. All put the powertrain in the same location under the hood, whether it’s fuel cell/motor, engine/motor or just motor and power electronics. Each has some subtle styling tweaks that distinguish one from the other, with unique 18-inch wheels and a special “hero color” for each variant. All offer more interior space than a lot of current alt-propulsion cars, with reasonably comfortable space for five.

The Clarity Electric uses a single electric motor with a coaxial gearbox, generating 161 hp, 221 lb-ft of torque and fed by a lithium-ion battery pack storing 25.5 kWh of energy. The Electric will be sold only in the United States, with deliveries expected in August. Honda still hasn’t decided whether it will eventually sell the Clarity Electric, but in either case, the rollout will be limited to a very attractive lease in California and Oregon, where Honda says the public charging infrastructure is best developed.

With $1,730 down, residents of those two states will be able to drive a Clarity Electric for $269 per month before taxes. They’ll also get 20,000 miles per year and 24/7 roadside assistance.

Clarity Image 1

The Clarity Hybrid has two electric motors, partly for gearing purposes, with combined output of 181 hp and 232 lb-ft. Its battery pack stores 17 kWh, and it adds a 1.5-liter Atkinson cycle inline four-cylinder engine (Honda has provided no details or output ratings). Think of the Clarity Hybrid like a Chevy Volt. Its engine is primarily a battery charger or range extender, though it can propel the car directly in some circumstances.

The Hybrid delivers 42 miles of electric range on a charge, and 330 miles on a full tank of gas, according to Honda (compared to 366 miles for the Clarity Fuel Cell, according to the EPA). It will be sold in Japan, Canada and the States, where you should be able to buy one anywhere by the end of this year. We’re guessing about $38,000, but we could be very wrong.

All three of the Claritys are comfortable and well sorted, in the transportation sense. Nothing jumps out as obviously annoying, difficult to live with or clearly lacking. Well, almost nothing.

Clarity Image 2

The Clarity Electric is just press and go. There’s a sport button that changes the throttle progression, but if you floor the pedal it goes straight to full torque either way, so it doesn’t matter much. Max acceleration is non-threatening—neither “’’holy cow! This thing goes” nor “holy crap! We’re gonna get run over.”  The Electric is just perfectly smooth, still and almost deathly silent. It’s equipped with a whistle to warn pedestrians of its presence.

One of the slightly weird things in the Clarity Electric is the apparent level of regenerative braking, and we’re not sure we get it. Release the accelerator and the car coasts seemingly friction free, almost like an IC car in Neutral, whereas a Bolt or a BMW i3 feels as if you’re resting your foot on the brake pedal. You won’t do any one-pedal driving in the Clarity Electric.

Clarity engineers say they’re trying to mimic the behavior of a conventional IC car. But unless there’s some software or engineering trick lost in translation, it seems they’re missing an opportunity to recapture energy, and heavy regen braking is easy to get used to anyway. The typical driver will do it in 20 minutes or less. This driver hasn’t gotten used to the behavior of CVTs over decades, yet they’re everywhere.

Clarity Image 3

Then there’s the Clarity Electric’s range. It adds an additional, large battery stack where the Fuel Cell has a pressurized hydrogen tank and the Hybrid a gas tank. Honda would not identify its battery supplier, but it expects the EPA to certify the Electric somewhere between 85 and 89 miles of range.

The engineers say 80 miles was always the target, because an overwhelming number of drivers drive less than that per day. They also say charge rate was an important consideration, and with a purported three hours to full charge on a Level II, 240-volt home charger, or 30 minutes to 80 percent on a DC fast charger, the Clarity Electric will indeed refuel more quickly than many current electric cars (a Chevy Bolt takes nine hours at Level II).

Okay then. It remains that the Clarity Electric has only 50 percent more battery capacity than the Hybrid, and less operating range than many electric cars currently available. It has less than a third of the range in a Bolt, and only a few miles more than the Honda Fit EV that hit American roads in 2013. It all helps explain that attractive lease plan.

Honda FCX Clarity: Don't be too quick to buy into the hydrogen myth

The Clarity Hybrid has the same 100-mph top speed as the Electric in electric mode. It also has the strongest acceleration of the trio, because its two-motor system has the most electric horsepower and torque, and also because—depending on the mode, charge level and how deep you push the accelerator– you can get a little engine assist. Dynamically, the only other thing that really separates the three is the amount of noise, vibration and harshness. The Hybrid’s engine definitely penetrates the Zen-like stillness when it fires, though it’s not a significant disruption.

One of the best features in the Clarity Hybrid is subtle, but critical: There’s a step built into its throttle pedal travel—more than a step, really. It’s something like an automatic transmission kick-down switch of yore, or a hard point that requires obvious effort to push past, and it’s the spot past which the engine will fire. That step in the throttle pedal makes it difficult to get to the engine by accident.

Conversely, the stepped throttle makes it easy to drive the Clarity Hybrid on pure electric power until its battery is depleted, and as much as anything makes it the most pragmatic of the three, regardless of your politics, emotions or social concerns.

Clarity Image 4

If you drive fewer than 42 miles a day, you can drive the Hybrid, recharge, and never buy gas. If you drive 40 miles to work, you can recharge when you get there and drive home. And with 8-10 gallons of gasoline on board (guessing), you can drive the hybrid anywhere, hundreds of miles from the nearest charge port or hydrogen station, with no range anxiety. You’ll never have to worry about charge time or battery level if your kid needs stitches.

No, you can’t DC fast charge the Clarity Hybrid, but it will charge fully with a Level II home charger in a little over two hours. As a potential partial payback, it will almost certainly have more cargo volume than its siblings.

Honda’s trio of Claritys presents an interesting approach to attacking the next automotive wave, and each of the three has strengths to recommend it. Yet there’s a reason the Clarity’s Fuel Cell and Electric will see limited distribution in California and Oregon for the foreseeable future, while the Clarity Hybrid will be available just about everywhere in the United States and Canada, in two trim levels. And it’s not simply the level of infrastructure.


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