► Clarity first to offer BEV, PHEV or Fuel Cell
► CAR drives all three models back-to-back
► Only the fuel cell is confirmed for UK sale
Is the writing on the wall for the internal combustion engine for passenger vehicles? Although no one at Honda would admit such a scenario, it’s clear that the company is planning for a zero-emission future. This is fascinating, given Honda’s legacy for building some of the best petrol engines known to man during its 54-year history as a car maker…
The Honda Clarity is right at the heart of a fascinating three-model strategy by offering it in all-electric, plug-in hybrid and fuel cell forms. Is the company hedging its bets? Or covering all bases?
Honda’s President and CEO Takahiro Hachigo confirmed that by 2025, two thirds of all its cars sold in Europe will be powered by electrified drivetrains. That’s a lofty ambition, given Europe’s enduring love affair with the diesel engine – but times are changing rapidly thanks to mounting geo-political pressure on environmental grounds.
Never mind that, how do the different Honda Clarity cars compare?
CAR has already driven the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell in Europe, and concluded that, ‘as a car, the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell feels more than ready. It’s quiet, comfortable and supremely relaxing to drive, and I would quite happily do so for great distances were there guaranteed places to fill it up.’
It’s a cleverly-packaged car, being able to offer three wildly differing drivetrains, and packaged in ultra-high-tensile steel, aluminium and composites. It’s still portly compared with conventional rivals at around 1800-2000kg for all three models, but in this market, that’s a trim figure for a full-sized alternatively-fuelled family car.
In the UK, the growth of fuel-cell vehicles such as the Toyota Mirai will be dictated by how rapidly hydrogen fuelling infrastructure can be rolled out. Currently there are fewer than 20 filling stations in the UK, and they’re sparsely distributed. If you live in the Midlands or Wales, forget it.
On track, the Fuel Cell Clarity is pleasant enough to drive. It’s an interesting car to sit in, power delivery is smooth, if lacking in punch, and on the confines of Honda’s Tochigi test track in Japan, driving it feels like a largely conventional experience.
If you have the means and space to have one of Honda’s home Hydrogen production stations (when they come to the UK), then the fuel-cell car starts to make more sense.
What about the battery-powered Honda Clarity?
The all-electric Clarity has a little less power than the Fuel Cell version (159bhp vs 172bhp), but weighs a little less. It deploys the 221lb ft developed by its 25.5kWh battery pack in that delightful – huge grunt from a standstill – manner you get with battery-powered cars.
On the track, it feels punchier and slightly more refined than the fuel-cell car. In reality, there’s little in it in terms of insulation from noise, vibration and harshness (NVH), but the electric car gets the nod. In terms of handling and ride, we didn’t learn too much – you can feel the car’s carrying more weight, which results in a little more inertia in bends, but it’s perfectly acceptable.
But where it falls apart for the UK audience is its derisory 80-mile range between fill-ups. The days of being able to travel so short a distance on a single charge are long since gone, and that makes this car a non-starter, despite its silky-smooth drivetrain.
No wonder it only takes 30 minutes to achieve an 80% charge. And that’s why Honda is not bringing the all-electric Clarity to the UK.
And the plug-in hybrid Clarity?
This one has far more potential. Like the Civic IMA before it (remember that one?), the internal combustion element of its drivetrain is an efficient Atkinson-cycle petrol engine. In the Clarity Plug In, the 1.5-litre internal combustion engine is combined with a 17kWh battery pack, and the output of this i-MMD hybrid is 178bhp and 232lb ft.
On track, it feels the most conventional of the three to drive, with smart acceleration from rest, and restful, silent cruising. But unlike many hybrids, it takes an almighty shove on the two-stage throttle to actually get the internal combustion engine to kick in. But when it does, the transition is exceptionally smooth, and it’s only under fierce acceleration that you’re really aware there’s a petrol engine thrumming away ahead of you.
Like the all-electric Clarity, the PHEV version is not coming to the UK. This is a more disappointing decision, given that it is a far more accessible package than the fuel cell version – and there’s a ready-made car parc of rivals to choose from, such as the Volkswagen Passat GTE, BMW 330e and Kia Optima PHEV.
Would you buy Honda’s quirky-looking Clarity over one of these? Honda suspects not...
Which Honda Clarity is right for you?
The answer to that comes down to personal preference and circumstance – and that’s an ongoing question over all alternatively-fuelled cars. Of the three, the Clarity PHEV feels most ‘now’ – a car that you could see yourself using without compromise.
The Clarity EV is one for later – with its current distance-to-empty range, it’s not really in the game, especially compared with where the market-leading Renault-Nissan alliance is with its Zoe/Leaf range of EVs.
As for the Clarity Fuel Cell, it feels ready to go now, but won’t be in the game until a hydrogen infrastructure is in place in the UK, and a simple costing model for running it comes into play. Honda has no plans to bring this version into the UK, stating that it’ll be the next-generation car that’ll be coming in around 2023.
But at around the £42,000 it costs in Japan and the USA, there could clearly be a market for this car for eager early adopters.
A direct comparison between the three cars is interesting, but also quite meaningless from a buyer’s perspective. It’s likely that only one of the three would work for you, and even then, you’re probably not going to buy it for the way it drives. But whichever version floats your boat, it will feel astonishingly refined compared with the current diesel offerings in this market sector.
The direct comparison might be largely irrelevant, but it’s an interesting glimpse into Honda’s future – and likely, that of many other car makers. Breaking down Honda’s two-thirds electric European sales ambitions further, it’s saying that 50% of its cars in Europe are likely to be PHEVs by 2025. Given the only Honda hybrid currently on sale is the NSX, and the i-MMD two-motor hybrid CRV goes on sale in 2018, that’s bullish.
We’ll see who else wants to match or beat that figure in what’s beginning to feel like the upcoming – and accelerating – slow death of diesel.
More Honda reviews by CAR magazine