Electricity is the prime propulsion factor in Honda’s trio of green, midsize Clarity sedans. A different powertrain goes into each version: Plug-In Hybrid, battery-powered Electric, and a Fuel Cell model that runs on hydrogen.
Honda first produced a hydrogen-powered Clarity years ago, but few went to customers. The company has far higher hopes for the new-generation sedan, though the Fuel Cell edition is again limited by lack of hydrogen fueling stations. Several dozen are scattered around parts of California, the only state where the Clarity Fuel Cell is available.
Electric and Fuel Cell models became available, in small numbers, during 2017. Both yield zero emissions, but their range limits vary considerably. The Clarity Electric is rated to travel only 89 miles before its battery pack needs recharging. Several battery-powered rivals beat that figure.
In stark contrast, the Fuel Cell model is EPA-estimated at 366 miles, about the same as the Plug-In Hybrid.
Joining the lineup for the 2018 model year, the Plug-In Hybrid comes in two trim levels: standard and Touring. Clarity Fuel Cell and Clarity Electric versions each come in a single trim.
Plug-In Hybrid models couple a specially-tuned 1.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine with Honda’s two-motor hybrid system. Total system output is 212 horsepower. Rated at 146 kilowatts (181 horsepower) and 232 pound-feet of torque, the drive motor can power the car alone at low speeds.
Clarity Electric and Fuel Cell models are powered solely by an electric motor. The hydrogen model is rated at 130 kW (174 hp) and 221 pound-feet of torque, versus 120 kW (161 horsepower) for the Electric edition. The Electric’s 25.5-kilowatt-hour battery system includes an auxiliary pack behind the rear seat.
All versions are well-equipped. The Fuel Cell model is offered only as a lease vehicle, at $369 per month. In May 2018, Honda offered a $199 lease for the Clarity Electric.
Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has tested any version of the Clarity. A rearview camera is standard. Honda’s LaneWatch system displays a video image of the right-side blind spot.
Electric and Fuel Cell models also include adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, and active lane control. Honda advises that high-pressure hydrogen storage tanks have been extensively crash-tested.
Clarity Plug-In Hybrid ($33,400) comes with heated front seats, keyless entry/start, dual-zone automatic climate control, an 8.0-inch touchscreen, 8-speaker audio, Bluetooth, rearview camera, 18-inch alloy wheels, and LED headlights. (Prices are MSRP and do not include destination charge.)
Clarity Touring Plug-In Hybrid ($36,600) adds a navigation system, including a map of charging-station locations. Also standard are power front seats, perforated leather-trimmed seat upholstery, a driver’s-seat memory, and leather-wrapped steering wheel.
Clarity Electric ($36,620) is equipped similar to Touring version of the Plug-In Hybrid. Perforated leather-trimmed seats, navigation, Android Auto/Apple CarPlay, and heated front seats are standard. Safety features include adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist.
Clarity Fuel Cell ($58,490) is similar in equipment to Electric model, but includes forward collision and lane-departure warnings, collision mitigation braking, road-departure warning, navigation, and a head-up display.
Bulbous proportions, focused on a portly tail, give the Clarity an awkward appearance. Recognizably Honda up front, all three Clarity versions look similar.
In Fuel Cell models, big cylindrical hydrogen tanks behind the back seat demand a rising window line. A black roof helps to conceal that model’s bulkiness, but others lack such visual assistance. At its rear, the roof tapers slightly, to improve airflow.
A prominent spoiler on the trunk lid helps to distract from the rounded rear-end lines. The spoiler also helps to disguise the supplementary rear window in the trunk lid.
Satisfying materials and clear, legible controls convey a handsome, near-luxury feeling within the cabin. Fitted with simulated wood accents, the dashboard is similar to those found in other Honda models.
Only the Plug-In version has seating for five. Others seat only four.
Front seats are comfortable and upright, with helpful bolsters. Rear legroom is ample, but taller adults may face limited head clearance.
Trunk space varies by model. The high-volume Plug-In Hybrid holds 15.5 cubic feet, while the Electric manages 14.3 cubic feet. Only 11.1 cubic feet of space is available in the Fuel Cell model.
Because of the tall tail, over-shoulder views are limited. Visibility using the rearview mirror is better than expected.
Smooth-riding and quiet, each Clarity benefits from a suspension that reacts nicely to uneven pavement surfaces. Roadholding talent is decent enough, ranking about average for the midsize sedan class. At 17.7 feet, the turning radius is comparatively tight, for easy maneuverability.
Despite its small gasoline engine, the Plug-In Hybrid releases plenty of power, operating smoothly most of the time. When started, the Plug-In runs on battery power alone, until its battery charge is depleted. At that point, it reverts to regular hybrid operation. Battery charge can even be stored for later use. Three modes are available: Normal, Sport, and Eco.
Engine sounds don’t necessarily conform to road speed, but with the exception of upgrades, the hybrid powertrain is quiet. The Plug-In’s lithium-ion battery pack sits within the trunk. Recharging takes 2.5 hours at a 240-volt outlet.
In the Clarity Fuel Cell model, the fuel-cell stack sits under the hood. Two tanks of highly-compressed hydrogen fit behind the back seat. A small hybrid battery pack can deliver extra boost when needed.
Of the three versions, the Fuel Cell version feels slowest when taking off from a standstill. Both zero-emission models are smooth and blissfully quiet, apart from an occasional electric-drive whine. Even the Plug-In Hybrid is impressively quiet, except when pushed on steep upgrades, making it nearly impossible to discern when the gas engine kicks in.
When running on electricity alone, the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid has a range of 47 miles. Operating as a hybrid, blending gasoline and electric propulsion, it’s EPA-rated at 110 MPGe (equivalent miles per gallon), versus 42 mpg (city/highway) using only the gasoline engine.
The Clarity Electric disappoints with a range of only 89 miles, EPA-rated at 114 MPGe (equivalent miles per gallon) in city/highway driving. Range of the Clarity Fuel Cell is EPA-estimated at 365 miles. The only other fuel-cell vehicle sold in the U.S. is Toyota’s smaller Mirai.
Well-equipped for its price, the Plug-In Hybrid is the only version distributed nationally, and the only one that can be driven with little concern for range limits. Fuel Cell and Electric models are currently available only in California and Oregon. No environmentally-friendly competitor matches the Clarity for comfort and quietness, as well as exceptional cabin space.
Driving impressions by John Voelcker, The Car Connection. James M. Flammang contributed to this report.