Honda Clarity grows from one-shot to series

For years, the Honda Clarity has been one thing: a hydrogen fuel-cell-powered sedan available for lease to a vetted group of early adopters in California. Now in its third generation, the Honda Clarity fuel-cell car is still basically that. But it’s getting a couple of friends.

This year, the Honda Clarity adds two new versions: an all-electric car and a plug-in hybrid. Granted, the fuel cell Clarity is technically an electric car, but the electric version charges at any outlet rather than being fueled at a so-far rare hydrogen fueling station.

The three were shown together for the first time in the United States since their unveiling at the New York Auto Show at the Drive Revolution event in Portland, Oregon. Journalists had the chance to drive them back to back to evaluate their similarities and differences over short urban routes — and to compare them to their energy-efficient competitors. There are, of course, similarities in the design; these are all Clarity models. There are subtle differences in the grilles, and they have badging specific to their drivetrain type, but otherwise they are identical large four-door sedans.

This one-car-many-powertrains strategy is one other manufacturers are using, as well, especially when it comes to advanced drivetrain technologies. Hyundai, for example, has the Ioniq series, with hybrid, PHEV and EV versions. As Natalie Kumaratne, a Clarity specialist for Honda, pointed out, this makes it easier for manufacturers to respond to changes in consumers’ buying habits.

Right now, PHEVs are gaining in popularity, and the Clarity PHEV will be available in all 50 states. The Clarity fuel cell is only available in California because that’s where the infrastructure exists to make these cars practical. The Clarity EV is somewhere in the middle of that mix. When hydrogen stations become more widespread, or when EV demand reaches a tipping point, the mix can change at the factory in Japan more easily than if these were separate models.

Driving dynamics for the three cars are very similar, but ranges are wildly different. The EV has a range of about 90 miles per charge; the PHEV drives 42 miles on electric power alone and 330 miles with the gasoline engine; and the fuel cell can travel 366 miles, the highest range of any zero-emissions vehicle in the country.

Kumaratne noted that Honda is all in on fuel cell technology. The company sees it as a major part of its electrification process, and it has set a goal of selling 75,000 total Clarity vehicles in the United States in the next four years. That’s part of its larger goal of having 60 percent or more of its sales worldwide be electric vehicles by 2030.