Honda's spacious Clarity Electric could use a bigger battery

The Honda Clarity Electric is sort of the awkward middle child of the largely identical Clarity trio of electrified cars. Nestled between the hydrogen fuel cell and plug-in hybrid variants is the automaker's fully electric large sedan. But with just 89 EPA estimated miles of cruising range, it's a bit of a tough sell compared to the rest of the current crop of electric cars, and even relative to its own hydrogen and hybrid siblings.

But the electric Honda isn't without its charms and its existence and scope says a lot about Honda's vision for clean mobility.

Engine room with room to spare

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

The Clarity Electric is a big car with a very small engine.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

As implied by the name, the Honda Clarity Electric has a torquey electric motor hiding beneath its hood. Specifically, it's powered by a 120-kilowatt -- or about 161-horsepower -- electric motor producing 221 pound-feet of torque. That's technically a little less power than an Accord four-cylinder, but with much more torque. So, it should feel about as responsive off the line and around town the performance was nearly identical to that of the Clarity Fuel Cell.

The EPA reckons fuel economy equivalent for the battery-powered Clarity at about 114 mpge on its combined cycle. Around town, that estimate climbs to a peak of 126 mpge. That's about on par with the Chevrolet Bolt's 128 mpge city estimate, but short of Hyundai's Ioniq Electric, which is good for 150 mpge around town. Though with electric cars, range is king, not efficiency. We'll get back to that momentarily.

In addition to the electric motor, you'll also find a lot of empty space under the the Clarity Electric's hood. That's because the Clarity series was designed to be modular; its engine bay is large enough to accommodate large hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell powertrains. (Heck, there's enough room to squeeze in a V-6 engine if Honda decided to go that route.) But electric motors are much smaller -- with fewer moving parts, fewer accessory systems and no real transmission -- so the Clarity's e-motor ends up looking very small in the middle of the sizable engine room. You can see clear down to the aerodynamic shield that lines the sedan's undercarriage.

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89-mile battery pack

The Clarity Electric draws its power from a 25.5 kWh battery pack located at the rear of the vehicle. On a full charge, that's enough juice to cruise up to 89 miles according to Honda's and the EPA's estimates. You may get more with a light touch -- the trip computer estimates a little over 100 miles -- but probably not much. I finished my short time behind the wheel at around 94 very carefully driven miles.

Compared to the Kia Soul EV with its 27 kWh battery and just 90 miles of range, the Clarity Electric doesn't look too bad. Then again, Honda's own Fit EV does 82 miles with just a 20 kWh battery pack, you'd think Honda's newer EV would be more efficient than that. To be fair, most cars that the Clarity Electric will be compared to the are significantly smaller vehicles, so perhaps the Honda's larger-than-average size is partially to blame for its low stated range.

But as stated before, range is king when comparing electric cars and the fact is that the Clarity's real competition will come from a newer generation of EVs like the 124-mile Hyundai Ioniq Electric or the upcoming Nissan Leaf with its rumored 140-mile range. More dramatically, the Clarity Electric has to live in the same world as Chevrolet's 238-mile Bolt EV and pretty much every car that Tesla Motors builds. Like I said, it's a bit of a tough sell.

A spacious and silent ride

So the Clarity Electric has taken some pretty big criticisms at this point. There's gotta be something good about it, right? Well, yeah, there's quite a bit.

For starters, I mentioned that the Clarity Electric is built on an identical body and chassis as the Clarity Fuel Cell we tested earlier. Both are big sedans with spacious cabins and plenty of head, leg and shoulder room for up to five passengers. The ride is comfortable and quiet, thanks to its well sorted suspension and silent powertrain. The Clarity also boasts the same aerodynamic and styling tricks as its hydrogen-powered older sibling.

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

The weird little window between the seats greatly improves visibility.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

The Electric also boasts pretty good all-around visibility, even out back thanks to a weird slit window that allows the driver to see beneath the rear parcel shelf and through the trunk when peeking into the rearview mirror. It looks stupid, but really helps with rear visibility.

Interestingly, the lithium-ion battery pack is smaller than other Clarity's hydrogen tanks, so the Clarity Electric gains a bit more trunk space when compared to the Fuel Cell model. You even get a tiny pass-through into the trunk when the rear seats are folded flat, so the EV can accommodate longer items.

Driver-aid tech and smartphone smarts

The dashboard tech is also identical to the Clarity Fuel Cell, which is another tick in the "positive" column.

There's an excellent loadout of onboard features, starting with the HondaLink infotainment system with its list of digital media sources and solid navigation system. There's also standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity to fill in any gaps with audio streaming apps and alternative navigation options.

Also standard is the Honda Sensing suite of driver aid tech. Out of the box, that means you get Honda's LaneWatch blind-spot camera, a reversing camera, lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking assist. I'd have preferred a true blind-spot monitoring system to the LaneWatch camera, but this is still a solid standard list of safety features.

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

The Clarity's dashboard layers Android Auto and Apple CarPlay atop a solid suite of infotainment tech.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

That's good, because there are no options. Every Clarity model comes "fully loaded," with the only choice for the owner being the car's color.

Battery beta test?

When it hits dealerships in August 2017, the Clarity Electric will be facing stiff competition. It's entering the market as an 89-mile EV in an era where 100 miles is seen as the bare minimum range for many EV buyers. Chevy's Bolt does over 200. Hyundai's Ioniq Electric does over 120. Heck, even the old Nissan Leaf, a car that hasn't fundamentally changed since its debut in 2010, does 100-plus miles! Things aren't looking great out of the gate for this first-generation Clarity Electric.

To be fair, the Clarity EV is a much larger car than any of those listed, and the only EVs today that rival the Honda for scale are the Tesla Model S and Model X; vehicles that also boast better range than the Clarity, but are also more expensive than the Honda. Or are they?

The Honda Clarity Electric hits dealerships at the relatively low lease price of $269 a month for 36 months (before available California's state Clean Vehicle Rebate of $2,500). Currently, you can only lease the Clarity Electric; no price is listed to purchase one outright. That simultaneously makes apples-to-apples price comparisons tricky and reaffirms a suspicion I've had for a while now.

This first-generation Honda Clarity Electric feels very "first-gen" when the rest of the EV industry is already a generation or two down the road. I don't mean the car itself -- the comfort, cabin and construction are all up to Honda's quality standards for a production car -- but the "electric car" part of the equation feels almost like a beta test of the automaker's battery technology. Honda will likely learn a lot about building and selling EVs from the Clarity Electric and have a much better product a generation down the line. Right now, the Clarity Electric feels like a way for Honda to dip its toe into electric cars, and with its fairly low lease price, a way for buyers to dip a toe in as well.  

But that's OK for Honda; it doesn't seem like the automaker really even wants to compete and sell a ton of battery electric vehicles because, in the words of Global CEO Takahiro Hachigo at a gathering of the press earlier this year, "[Honda] believes fuel cell vehicles are the ultimate type of zero-emissions vehicle." For Honda, the future -- where it's placed its big bet -- is hydrogen.

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