Today Honda unveiled its spacious and nicely appointed Clarity Electric sedan whose approximately 80 miles of estimated range would be about on par for a 2011 model year electric car.
To be offered initially later this year in California and Oregon with “an attractive lease program” based around an MSRP in the mid 30s, the all-electric Clarity is Honda’s latest entry in a market where 200-plus miles range for the mid 30s is the new norm.
The Japanese automaker’s nifty new EV is actually one variant within a three-in-one platform, and the Clarity also comes in a fuel cell version that’s available now, and a 42-mile all-electric range plug-in hybrid version due in 50 states later this year.
Given even base EVs these days are pushing 100-plus miles, and the 238-mile Chevy Bolt and 215-plus-mile Tesla Model 3 are priced within a couple thousand or so of it, many have asked what was Honda thinking.
If, as some commentators have suggested, Honda is suspected of being out of touch with the market, that would not incorrect, according to Honda.
“Today, there are a lot of claims in this space but no automaker knows more about customers of electrified vehicles than Honda,” said Steve Center, vice president of the Connected and Environmental Business Development Office at American Honda.
“Our first dedicated electric car came to market two decades ago,” said Center, “our first fuel cell vehicle more than 15 years ago. And along the way we have benefited from close relationships with our customers, which has informed the strategies we now pursue with the Clarity series.”
So, the 80-mile range in an otherwise “premium” five-passenger EV along the lines of an Accord was most deliberate, and Honda says it’s walking into this with eyes open.
This decade the automaker has also released limited-availability models which enabled it to collect copious amounts of customer data, which lends credence to its assertion of its expertise. The 2013-2014 lease-only Fit EV is one example, and the 2014 Accord Plug-in Hybrid was another. Before that, Honda’s 2000 Insight was the first modern-era hybrid-electric car sold in the U.S., and Honda’s assertion of a wealth of “electrified vehicle” customer experience comes also from that and subsequent hybrids.
If EV fans are still underwhelmed, Honda is otherwise embracing battery power to a greater degree than Toyota or any other Japanese carmaker, but like Toyota, Honda is convinced hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have far greater long-term potential.
“The Clarity Fuel Cell is for the true believers, the most devoted of green motorists, who really want to cut the cord altogether and be on the absolute leading edge of an advanced technology future,” said Conrad. “For the long term, we continue to believe that fuel cell technology has the greatest potential to address society’s energy and environmental concerns while better serving the needs of customers in terms of driving performance, range and refueling, which for the Clarity is 366 miles range with a 3 to 5 minute refuel.”
Clarity Electric Fits A Sub Niche
Not unlike another one-of-three-variants, the Hyundai Ioniq EV, which has limited space for batteries, a similar case is true of the Honda Clarity Electric. Its not very big 25.5-kWh pack occupies available space in the platform that Honda saves cost with in making three electrified versions. The smaller battery further keeps costs down, and there are EV fans who’ve said 80 miles is a right-sized setup, and they don’t wish to lug around or pay for a bigger battery.
It may be observed a Tesla Model 3 or a Chevy Bolt or next Nissan Leaf are priced similarly, but aside from the 2017 Clarity Electric’s range being no greater than a 2013 Nissan Leaf, it otherwise is a solid package.
Its electric motor is rated 161-horsepower (120-kilowatt) and 221 pounds-feet of torque, and this power may be routed via three selectable drive modes – Normal, Econ and Sport. The battery can be by charged with 240 volts in just over three hours or with DC fast charging it can achieve an 80 percent charge in just 30 minutes via SAE Combined Charging System connection.
Honda projects it will earn a relatively respectable EPA fuel economy rating of 120 MPGe city, 102 highway, 111 combined.
According to the world as Honda sees it, the 80 or so mile range EV does indeed fit a niche it knows to exist.
“We have more than 1,000 Fit EV customers who live within the range similar to that of the Clarity Electric,” said Honda’s Natalie Kumaratne, Environment & Safety Public Relations. “Honda has offered our lessees the opportunity to extend their leases since July 2015, and almost 70 percent of them have taken advantage of the offer, proving there is a customer base for the range the Clarity Electric provides.”
What’s more, said Kumaratne, “the Clarity Electric is content rich and is very spacious.”
“Our approach with the Clarity Electric needs to be considered in the context of the overall vehicle series. Based on our experience, we believe there is a market for a larger, more premium EV at an affordable price,” she said. “While pricing has yet to be announced, considering the size, performance and premium features, you can expect it to be very competitive.”
Features for the Accord-like sedan include available Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Honda Sensing suite of safety and driver-assistive technologies standard, and high efficiency LED lights and 18-inch aluminum wheels.
Honda has not made sales projections for the EV, but the entire Clarity line is not intended to set new electrified vehicle records.
“We are targeting 75,000 Clarity vehicles over the first four model years,” said Kumaratne. “We aren’t breaking out each variant’s projections; however, the Clarity Plug-in Hybrid is the volume leader.”
A lot of those sales are expected to come from Honda loyalists, as alluded to with the Fit customers. Leases of that converted EV which had 82 miles range amounted to 92 in 2012, 569 in 2013, 407 in 2014 and 2 in 2015.
Honda has objected to the somewhat pejorative term “compliance car,” but as the saying goes, said advocate Mark Renburke of Drive Electric Cars New England, if it walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it must be a compliance car.
A “compliance car” is called such as it complies with California zero-emission vehicle mandates held by that state and around a dozen others in the U.S.
Admittedly cynical of Honda’s latest electric car when Tesla, GM, Nissan, VW Group, BMW, and others are planning more than short-range limited market plug-ins, Renburke sees the Clarity Electric as a pure play by Honda to meet California’s ZEV rules.
“Basically they want to tap in to their existing base of environmentally-minded, already hybrid or EV driving customers, and continue to extend or ‘recycle’ EV credits, as they have done with the Fit EV,” said Renburke. “It’s essentially a carefully crafted compliance move to delay serious EV market offerings while ensuring acquisition of continued ZEV credits and minimal loss of existing loyal Honda or Fit EV customers.”
Other pro-plug-in states following California-style ZEV rules in the Northeast may follow, he suspects, but meanwhile the aim is to “sell a steady but low volume of BEVs … to earn ZEV credits required for 2018-2025 in order to be able to continue to volume selling its lower efficiency gasoline only cars, SUVs, etc.”
But Renburke predicts Honda will still come up short next to more bullish efforts including the Tesla Model 3, Chevy Bolt, etc., which will sell in tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, as Tesla predicts.
“Honda is still going to lose, but this product will mitigate their short term loss while ensuring they don’t have to take the plunge for a larger short term loss to gear up and actually selling 100,000-plus, 200-plus-mile EVs,” said Renburke.
Reports have alleged that automakers such as Fiat-Chrysler, GM, Ford, and others are losing more money than a legacy automaker would normally like in pushing EVs at this stage. Automakers have also petitioned President Trump saying they don’t sell in sufficient volumes, but the’ve been forced to build and market them by regulations they wish to see eased.
Consumer tax credits up to $7,500 have helped, but Tesla and GM are already on track to exhaust their allotment of 200,000 federal credits by 2018. In not diving in head first, Renburke suspects Honda is being cagey, taking its time with only toes in the EV waters, as industry production costs continue to come down.
It is, after all, about profit, and Honda is not the charitable Goodwill, but a for-maximum-profit corporation, and so this is what it’s willing to do, based on its risk tolerance, and prediction of market timing.
To its credit also, offers Renburke, the Clarity is a larger, and more attractive vehicle priced in line with the old Fit.
“The Clarity has a better form factor, with a sedan look and appeal, than the Fit EV, so that will help convert more brand loyal Honda drivers who couldn’t stomach being seem in a Fit while being fine for the existing Fit EV lease returnees,” he said.
The Bright Side
Every new EV is one more in a market where other automakers have also dragged their heels, or are standing back even more than Honda, and more electric cars are expected this decade into next.
And according to a J.D. Power survey, the top three reasons any new car buyer chooses a certain vehicle over another are brand loyalty and styling, and number one is expected reliability. So, any plug-in car Honda offers already starts with a couple legs up.
Whether fuel cell technology does take off as robustly in coming years as Honda and others predict, and as the rulemakers at the U.S. EPA and California Air Resources Board also encourage, will remain to be seen.
Meanwhile, consumers in markets where the Clarity Electric is offered are promised a well-appointed, carefully engineered dedicated zero-emission car from a highly experienced and well-regarded automaker, and to each his own.