Looking for Clarity: Honda's New Plug-In Hybrid

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Dec 07, 2017

NAPA VALLEY, CALIFORNIA—The Napa fires last October killed 41 people, burned 220,000 acres and took out 2,800 homes. At some homesites, only a chimney and an incinerated car remains.

Gratitude towards local firefighters is common in the Napa Valley. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The valley is home to 500 vineyards, which sit back-to-back in this fertile part of northern California. Wineries in Napa Valley generate 450 billion annually, and employ four out of 10 people here. A couple of months later, there are signs of regeneration among the burned skeletons of trees, and the vineyards themselves survived fairly well.

The car has 47 miles of all-electric range--and doesn't need to visit the Hubcap Ranch! (Jim Motavalli photo)

I was in Napa for a Honda Clarity drive. The automaker is making a green gamble, with a new line of green cars—battery electric, plug-in hybrid and fuel cell—under the Clarity banner. The cars share styling, but they’re quite different. I got to drive all three, but it was the volume model—the plug-in hybrid—that was in the spotlight.

Fire damage is evident on the hill above, but this house was spared. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Honda wants to sell 75,000 Claritys in the next four years, said Jim Burrell, Honda America’s assistant vice president of connected and environmental business development. “It’s a very unique value proposition,” he said, adding that the “vast majority” will be the plug-ins, which are arriving at dealerships now.

Note the round front rear wheel well, and the squared-off rear. It shouldn't work, but it does. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The standard version of the plug-in will sell for $33,400 and the Touring (which adds navigation, leather, memory seats and a cool ultrasuede covering for the dashboard) will be $36,600. Burrell said the mix will be 50-50, but I think the Touring is the better deal.

Inside the Honda Clarity Plug-in Hybrid, Touring edition, with ultrasuede on the dash and leather seating. This one's $36,600. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The hybrid has 47 miles of electric range, and a total range of 340. As outlined by Marc Deutsch of the advanced powertrain group, it sports a 1.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine, a 17-kilowatt-hour battery pack (168 cells in 14 modules), and a 181-horsepower electric drive motor (with 232 pound-feet of torque). A second electric motor handles electricity generation. The combined output is 212 horsepower.

A seven-inch screen, satellite radio, and Apple Car Play/Android Auto standard. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The driver has three drive modes—economy, sport and HV. The first is the greenest setting, the second is for performance, and HV conserves battery power. Hold it down, and the car recharges the battery. There are also steering wheel paddles—not to shift, but to dial in levels of regenerative braking.

You'd trust your car to these guys, wouldn't you? Reminds me of the Good News Garage. (Jim Motavalli photo)

This is where I’d talk about driving the car, but Honda has embargoed those impressions until December 12, so I’ll say that the Clarity was _____ behind the wheel. I’ll fill in the rest on December 12, so check back here. I guess I can say that the seats are pretty comfortable, and the hybrid battery doesn’t compromise the 101.5 cubic feet of storage space, or the five-passenger seating.

There's a laid-back feel to Napa, and a lot of vehicles in no hurry to get anywhere. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I can say whatever I want about the other two Claritys. The battery car is a blast to drive, with quick acceleration and excellent handling. It’s also quiet as a church mouse. The Achilles heel, though, is 80-mile range. In light of the Chevy Bolt and the Tesla Model 3 topping 200 miles, and even the Nissan Leaf offering a range topper with 225, Honda could do better.

The fuel-cell Clarity is another matter. With 366 miles of range, it isn’t going to provoke range anxiety. Honda has moved 455 of them in California so far, said Steve Ellis, Honda’s fuel-cell vehicle manager. That total is evenly split between northern and southern California.

The fuel-cell car looks a lot like the battery version, but it has a lot more range--and three- to five-minute refueling. (Jim Motavalli photo)

California has 31 hydrogen stations now, and three on the cusp of opening, Ellis said. Northern California has 12 of those. The Northeast is currently barren of fuel-cell cars, but that will soon change, as a dozen Air Liquide stations (supported by Toyota) are set to open, and all should be online in 2018.

Driving the fuel-cell car is very similar to driving the battery electric, and that’s as it should be. Early hydrogen vehicles were temperamental and darned noisy, with their compressors hissing and sputtering. I remember one GM model that wouldn’t even go out in the rain.

All that’s changed. The cars are ready for prime time, with three- to five-minute refill times, it’s just the infrastructure that’s needed.

Honda showed us some candid videos of focus groups talking about their green car fears. Range anxiety seemed to be the biggest issue. Here’s some of what they said: “Plugging in is a chore.” “I don’t want to even think about it.” “My car would be out of charge all the time.” “It’s kind of scary to be stranded somewhere.” “I don’t want to be the subject of a horror movie.”

Honda points out that 73 percent of potential buyers don’t even know what a plug-in hybrid is or why it overcomes the range issues, but it thinks it can overcome this kind of buyer resistance. It’s new TV ad points out that when the battery is depleted “it’s not the end of the world.”

Here's the Clarity range on video, from the Napa Valley:

If Honda succeeds in educating the public, it might just make its goal of having two-thirds of its global lineup electrified by 2030.  

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