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‘Watts’ more in Honda’s new Clarity series?

S Muralidhar | Updated on March 09, 2018

Bringing them to the masses: The electric range from Honda is poised to go mainstream and the cars are already being leased in select markets

Here are the answers, after driving the Japanese major’s electric trio

The age of the electric car is already upon us. Across price segments, major car-makers have already announced their roadmap for launching electrics within the next decade. And there is a sinking feeling amongst petrolheads that the days of the internal combustion (IC) engine are probably numbered. Thankfully, that is not so much the case in India, yet. With no concrete roadmap in place for building the charging infrastructure or for promoting and incentivising electrics, we can breathe easy (not literally though); there are still a few decades left for the IC engine.

So, why was I, along with a bunch of journalists from India, test driving electrics and hybrids at Honda’s test track within its R&D centre in Tochigi, Japan? On offer for quick laps around the track were two very important cars; both sharing a common platform and design, but internally very different. The Clarity FCV and the PHEV are almost identical, share the same platform, but have different motive power — one is a Hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle and the other is a plug-in hybrid.

Focus on fuel cells

Somewhere in the frenzy to join the electrics bandwagon, fuel cell vehicles (FCV) got squeezed out over the last two decades. Much of the investments have gone into EV development, but Japanese manufacturers like Honda and Toyota haven’t given up on FCVs yet. Clearly, producing Hydrogen and setting up the vending infrastructure will be more energy intensive and will need much higher investments compared to electrics and plug-in hybrids. But, fuel cells could witness a parallel development cycle, and at least in some places like the state of California in the US and in Japan, FCVs may find much higher acceptance in the very near future.

Unlike Toyota, which has already commercially launched the Mirai, Honda is still only leasing out small numbers of the Clarity FCV in select markets. These are currently being treated like test fleets. Though at present the Clarity FCV may seem like a technology demonstrator, it is poised to go mainstream and that was good enough reason to be driving it. The big change it has witnessed is in its design, which now gives it a regular car profile. In fact, across the industry, most Japanese car-makers have given up the urge to distinguish their EVs and fuel-cell vehicles by making them look dowdy, in some cases even ugly.

Mainstream sedan design

The new Clarity FCV is part of a three-car series and literally shares its frame, most of its body panels and many of its parts with the other two cars — the Clarity PHEV and the Clarity Electric. All of them look like regular road-going vehicles, and present a similar face except for minor changes to the bonnet grille, air intakes and headlamps. There are a few other quirks in the body style including the rear wheels, which are partly covered by the body side panel just above, improving its aerodynamics. But, overall the design of the Clarity series cars is meant to highlight the fact that electrics are now mainstream and with this model series, the customer has a choice of three powertrains.

The Clarity is a four-door sedan and its design has a number of Honda DNA signatures including the front bonnet lines and the taut, coupe-like rear end — a design feature that we have seen in the two-door Accord. This is a premium mid-size sedan for the US market, but in a market like ours will be positioned just above the Civic in terms of space. The predecessor to this model was the FCX Clarity, which was the first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle available to customers. The current Clarity FCV was launched for lease customers in California in December last year.

Honda has managed to pack in a number of innovations in this generation of the Clarity FCV including a fuel cell stack that is 33 per cent more compact, yet with a 60 per cent increase in power density compared to the predecessor. Together, the smaller fuel cell and the integrated powertrain is now only as big as a V6 petrol engine and can be shoe-horned completely into the bonnet, freeing up more space for passengers in the cabin.

In fact, the cabin is almost as normal as a regular premium sedan’s plush interior. The only difference was the absence of a gear-shift stick, which was replaced by an array of buttons. The centre console was also a floating style design with wide wood inserts adding a touch of class and eco-connectedness to the cabin. The Hydrogen fuel tank is located behind the rear seat and can be filled in just three minutes. The Clarity FCV has a rated driving range of 366 miles (589 km) for a full tank.

Noiseless power

Get behind the wheel, push the start button and the car’s instruments light up with a bing, but there is no thrum of the engine. There is also no gear stick, so you simply press the drive button, hold the wheel in the direction of travel and push the throttle pedal. It is that simple. Like many other electrics, the FCV and even the PHEV Clarity sedans deliver instantaneous torque and linear acceleration from standstill. There is absolutely no noise inside the cabin except for a faint whine of the electric motor. And as I discovered, both the cars are seriously fast, reaching over 120 kmph within a couple of hundred metres from the starting block at the track. The Clarity PHEV features a combination of a 1.5-litre, four-cylinder Atkinson cycle petrol engine and an electric motor which delivers 181 hp of power and 232 lb-ft of torque. The petrol engine acts as an electricity generator sending power to the battery pack except during specific driving situations when it sends power directly to the wheels. Overall rated driving range is more than 330 miles (531 km).

The all-electric Clarity is powered by a 161 hp motor, which delivers 221 lb-ft of torque. The battery pack takes three hours for a full charge from a wall socket, but can get as much as 80 per cent juice in 30 minutes via a DC fast charger. With the Clarity series, Honda is aiming to reach its EVs sales target set at two-thirds of total car sales by the year 2030. The Clarity Series sedans may not make it to Indian shores anytime soon, but Honda would be ready if and when the EV market here reaches critical mass.

Published on November 02, 2017

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