Honda announced today that the plug-in hybrid version of their three-drivetrains-in-one Clarity sedan has been rated at a “class-leading” 47 miles by the EPA from its 17kWh battery. This is the highest all-electric range among “midsize plug-in hybrids” and is comparable to the range of the Chevy Volt, which has 53 miles but is considered a compact sedan (the Clarity is ~10 inches longer). It also got a combined MPGe rating of 110 and a gasoline-only combined MPG rating of 42.
Pricing and availability have not yet been nailed down for the vehicle, but we can expect news on that front soon as the car is expected to be available worldwide for purchase in the 2018 model year, with a price probably in the range of $35,000. This as opposed to the other cars in the Clarity platform, which are available now but only in California and they can’t be purchased, only leased.
To preface all of this, I’ve had very little positive to say about the Clarity project.
In fact, I had a short drive in the all-electric version of the Clarity this past weekend, and didn’t bother to write about it because the car was so uninspiring. When the specs first came out, I decided that the car was dead-on-arrival – at $269/mo and 89 miles of electric only range, with few other bright spots to speak of, it’s simply not competitive in a world where you can get a Chevy Bolt or a Hyundai IONIQ, both of which are better cars in almost every way, for cheaper. Now add the new Leaf to that list. And then, of course, the Model 3. Or any of the myriad older entry-level EVs which now can be leased for under $100/mo or bought lightly used for very low prices.
This is not to say that range is the only number that matters in an EV, but the Clarity is not exceptional in any other way either. Honda missed the market, this car should have come out 5-6 years ago at this price, and lease for about half as much as it does now.
And while I haven’t driven the fuel cell Clarity, I expect that it drives similarly, with the added drawback of having to go out of your way to find one of few fuel cell stations out in the world to go fill up at, standing around filling your “alternative fuel vehicle” at the hydrogen pump at an otherwise-conventional gas station for 15 minutes while waiting for the hydrogen pumps to compress your fuel and trickle it into your tank gram by gram. And yes, it does often take longer than the “5 minutes” which marketing material would suggest, because the hydrogen needs to be kept at the right temperature and pressure so if it’s a warm or cool day, that slows down your pumping.
Not to mention expense, with hydrogen costing $15-20 per kilogram, which would make a fuel cell car even more expensive to fuel than all but the worst gas guzzlers – except that Honda includes the hydrogen for free as part of the lease cost, taking the financial hit on that so they can collect ZEV credits and just hoping that you just won’t drive your car very much. Much simpler, and faster, to just plug in at home – assuming you have enough range for the driving you need to do that day. Which the Clarity EV, at 89 miles, may well have, but at $269/mo why buy it over anything else?
It’s also clear that looking under the hood, the Clarity platform was engineered around the fuel cell. There’s massive amounts of empty space under the hood in the Clarity EV, enough to fit 10-20kWh more of batteries. And yet, despite engineering the car around the fuel cell, it will only be leased, and only in one US market (California). Same goes for the EV – lease-only, and only in California.
So, in comes the PHEV. Many other automakers have provided plug-in hybrid sedans which are simply small-battery retrofits of existing gas models. Honda has not done that here, they did create a separate vehicle platform for this model and while their engineering was compromised by having three drivetrains in the same platform, building a new platform has given them a much better package than most of the competition. 47 miles of electric range is important, as we at Electrek consider ~30 miles, enough to cover the average American daily drive, as an absolute bare minimum before a PHEV system becomes anything but a gimmick.
So with 47 miles the PHEV Clarity should be able to cover most “commute + a trip to the store” typical daily driving scenarios without having to plug in at any point during the day or use any gas. Or, for those with long commutes and the ability to plug in at work, even an 80-mile roundtrip could be done without sipping the dinosaur juice.
Looking at the “Volt Stats” website, which tracks real-world usage of Chevy Volts in the wild, we can see that the vast majority of Volt miles are done on electric-only power, showing that even with a 40-50 mile range, average gasoline usage can be reduced by 70-80%. Some have used this standpoint to argue that PHEVs are even a more effective use of limited battery supply, as the same amount of batteries in 4 PHEVs will reduce gasoline usage overall much more than one large battery in a Tesla. This argument is somewhat persuasive, though I personally still prefer ditching the engine entirely and putting more people into something like the IONIQ, which has a battery which is about 50% bigger than the Clarity PHEV’s and yet nearly triple the electric-only range (because of the Hyundai’s higher efficiency and because the Honda probably doesn’t let you use all of its 17kWh battery, to increase the long-term durability of the battery – this is common in PHEVs).
So, though I qualified my statements with several paragraphs of criticism of the Clarity project in general, it seems like Honda has finally gotten around to getting something right. It is apparent that the PHEV is the only one of these three vehicles that they actually want to sell, and that the other two only exist to meet compliance with California’s ZEV standards. This is still a problem, and is emblematic of the head-in-the-sand attitudes about the future which so many established auto executives hold in common because it shows that Honda will only give up the internal combustion engine kicking and screaming, but hopefully Honda can do some good and make some headway with their Clarity PHEV, realize that customers are happy not going to gas stations, and then maybe the next vehicle they come out with will be as good as the Bolt EV. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take them 6 more years to get there.