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2017 Honda Clarity: One Model, Three Advanced Drivetrains

If you’re looking for information on a newer Honda Clarity, we’ve published an updated review: 2019 Honda Clarity Review

Honda is on a bit of roll these days. The automaker has introduced several successful models in the past 12 months, its sales are holding steady even as many competitors have slipped and it’s got a long-term plan built around self-driving technology and alternative drivetrains. That last goal, including Honda’s plan to incorporate electric-drive technology into two-thirds of its sales by 2030, is reflected in the design of the 2017 Honda Clarity.

The 2017 Clarity actually represents multiple aspects of Honda’s future product plan. First, it incorporates a modular design that makes it easy (and cost effective) to leverage three drivetrains for a single vehicle. In the past, a modular-design philosophy meant building different vehicles off essentially the same platform, and Honda continues to refine that concept, too. But offering multiple, highly distinctive drivetrains in a single vehicle is a newer trend we see gaining momentum throughout the automotive industry.

A recent trip to Honda’s R&D center in Japan gave us an opportunity to experience all three versions of the 2017 Honda Clarity. The Clarity is a dedicated alternative fuel model. Its focus is fuel efficiency and minimal carbon emissions, which helps explain the car’s smooth, air-cheating shape. But unlike many "green" cars, the Honda Clarity is a large car with a roomy and upscale interior. At 102 cubic feet of passenger volume, its cabin is as big as the Honda Accord, with plenty of room for five full-sized adults. It also includes premium features, like 18-inch wheels, leather seats and LED exterior lighting as standard equipment. See the 2017 Honda Clarity models for sale near you

Where the Clarity breaks from traditional sedans is its use of either a fuel cell, electric or plug-in hybrid technology. The fuel cell version of the Honda Clarity debuted in December, though the limited infrastructure for hydrogen fueling stations means you have to live in San Francisco or Los Angeles before any fuel cell car (possibly) makes sense. The electric version of the Clarity will arrive at California and Oregon dealerships in August, followed by the plug-in hybrid version hitting showrooms late this year.

We drove all three Claritys at the Honda R&D facility and can confirm several driving traits. First, as mentioned, they all feel more substantial and upscale than the bulk of alternative vehicles currently on the market. Between the roomy interior and high-quality cabin materials, the Honda Clarity feels more like a premium luxury car than an earth-saving conveyance. There’s also a heft to the vehicle (they do weigh about 4,000 pounds…) that manifests in responsive steering, confident braking and serene ride quality. Outward visibility is excellent while the interior controls and information-display screens are intuitive.

The best compliment an alternative fuel vehicle can earn is being called "normal" in terms of power delivery. The history of green vehicles is littered with uneven, underpowered and generally underwhelming driving dynamics. The Clarity avoids this by delivering seamless, consistent power, whether light or wide-open throttle is applied. Braking, as mentioned, is similarly capable and consistent, particularly in the pure EV version.

Regarding drivetrain choices, each version of the Honda Clarity has its pros and cons. The fuel-cell Clarity offers 174-horsepower, 221 pound-feet of torque and the same driving range (over 300 miles) and refueling time you’d get with a traditional gasoline engine, yet all it emits is water. But if you don’t live near one of the 26 hydrogen stations in California, the car is a whimsical "what if?" exercise at best.

More hydrogen stations are being built in other U.S. markets, but Honda reps admitted the price of fuel cell technology has to drop before city, state and federal governments will invest in the costly hydrogen infrastructure. The fuel-cell Clarity lease program (you can’t buy one) is $369 a month, and includes free hydrogen and 21 days of free luxury car rental for when you want to drive beyond the range of those 26 stations.

The pure electric Clarity offers far more refueling options … which is good because it only travels 89 miles on a full charge. We were honestly surprised to see such a limited range on a brand-new 2017 electric car. That range made sense … well, actually it never made sense … but it was understandable in 2012 when every other EV couldn’t go more than 100 miles on a full charge.

But now many can, and cars like the Chevrolet Bolt can go 238 miles. An 89-mile range on an all-new, pure electric car in 2017? It doesn’t seem competitive, which is unfortunate because beyond the limited range the Clarity EV, with 161 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque, is extremely pleasant to drive or ride in. The lease price for the Clarity EV was just announced: $269 a month, plus $1,730 down. That price doesn’t include tax and registration, but it also doesn’t include any state rebates, like the $2,500 you’d get back in California.

The last version of the 2017 Honda Clarity, the plug-in hybrid, won’t be out until later this year. Few details are currently available on the plug-in model, but given its traditional fuel type and (we’re assuming) traditional driving range, it’s destined to serve the widest range of consumers. It also drove just like the other two, suggesting similar power and torque coming for the plug-in drivetrain. If the price it right, this is the Clarity that might break through to mainstream consumers.

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