Honda has a clear vision of the future. And it's not electric.
"We don't think the pure electric vehicle is right for Canadians – in an emergency, you need to be able to fill up in five minutes," said Hayato Mori, Honda Canada's assistant vice-president, product planning and business development.
"We think hydrogen is the answer – it's the cleanest energy source you can get. All it produces is electricity and water, and it fills up in three to five minutes."
That's seems like a surprising thing to hear as we're about to drive the new Clarity, Honda's plug-in electric hybrid.
But Honda is making three versions of the Clarity – hydrogen fuel cell (selling in California), pure electric (selling in Oregon) and the plug-in hybrid (selling across Canada and the United States).
For now, unless you're in Vancouver, there's nowhere in Canada to fill up a hydrogen vehicle – but we've still got plenty of gas stations.
So we get just the plug-in hybrid that lets Honda meet consumer ( and growing government) demand for green cars while beating range anxiety.
A hybrid that could be your only car?
For the Clarity hybrid, Honda's goal was to combine range (it has a 75-km range on battery power) and space (it seats five and is practically Accord-sized, inside and out) to make a practical mid-sized sedan that just happens to be a hybrid.
"There's no way to sit in the centre of the [Chevrolet] Volt's rear seat unless you want the console in your crotch," Mori said. "All the [electric] cars are too small – yes, there is one company that makes a large vehicle that's pure electric, but most of us don't have $100,000."
Honda mostly succeeded. Apart from some exterior styling quirks to improve wind-flow – to improve electric range – and ecofriendly interior materials like upholstery made from recycled sugarcane, the Clarity looks, and drives, a lot like an Accord.
While there are a lot of technical details – the Clarity combines a 1.5-litre engine with two electric motors – when you get behind the wheel, there's really nothing you have to do except drive.
The Clarity can run solely on electric power up until 160 km/h – "You can basically boot it and it will stay in electric," Mori said. If you push past a certain point on the gas pedal, it triggers the gas engine.
"We call it a plug-in hybrid, but essentially this vehicle is really an electric car with a range extender," Mori said. "The gasoline engine's primary objective is to spin the generator to generate electricity to spin the tires."
Most drivers will have a hard time telling when the gas engine kicks in – apart from the engine's whirr (the Clarity doesn't roar), it's seamless.
Drivers can pick three modes – econ, normal and sport. The first two are peppy enough, but Sport, which makes the gas engine kick in faster and stay on longer, is the most fun.
It also uses the most power. After a couple hours in Sport on the highway and winding roads in Arizona's Tonto National Forest, far from charging stations, the battery got down to 20 per cent pretty quickly. But in a hybrid, you're not frantically searching for a charging station and waiting 2.5 hours to recharge – with a combined gas/electric range of more than 500 km, despite the smallish 26.5-litre gas tank, you just keep driving.
Rebates cut price
One shock for some might be the price – the Clarity starts at $39,900.
But that comes with a lot – including 18-inch wheels, LED headlights, rear-view camera, heated front seats, eight-inch infotainment screen (with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto) and Honda's suite of safety tech.
An extra $4,000 for Touring ($43,900) adds on extras such as navigation, leather trim, Sirius XM radio and Ultrasuede trim on the dash.
It's not easy on the wallet being green. That said, the Clarity qualifies for full rebates – $5,000 in British Columbia, $14,000 in Ontario and $8,000 in Quebec – which brings the price down closer to Accord territory.
- Base price/as tested: $39,900/$43,900
- Engine: 1.5-litre Atkinson cycle four-cylinder engine/17 kWh electric battery pack
- Transmission/drive: Electronic/front-wheel
- Fuel economy (litres/100 km, city/highway): 5.6; 2.1 litres equivalent
- Alternatives: Audi A3 e-tron, BMW 330e, Chevrolet Volt, Ford Fusion Energi, Hyundai Sonata PHEV, Kia Optima PHEV, Toyota Prius Prime (Quebec only)
Apart from a couple of awkward aerodynamic quirks, like the vents ahead of the wheels, the Clarity looks, well, like a Honda sedan. We didn't get a single glance from other drivers. It's especially sleek from the front – the LED daytime running lights are sharp.
There's plenty of leg and headroom front and rear. The back seat might be tight for three adults but is roomy for two. There's a cubby under the gear shifter that fits an iPad, along with two USB ports to charge it. The front seats aren't power-adjustable, but they are heated. There's a pocket for smartphones on the back of the front seats that might not get much use. One gripe: The Clarity uses an older version of Honda's infotainment screen that doesn't have knobs for volume or tuning.
There aren't many compromises. It's fun to drive, especially in Sport mode. Between the gas engine and electric motor, it delivers 212 horsepower, Honda said. It switches from battery to gas smoothly when you push hard on the pedal. Battery recharge time is 2.5 hours at 240 volts (a level-two charger) or 12 hours at a 120-volt home outlet.
There's a lot of it, and the best part is that you generally don't have to worry about how it works. The electric motor does the driving 90 per cent of the time. When it comes to the accident-avoidance and safety tech, there's no blind-spot warning. Instead, Honda uses a passenger-side camera.
The trunk holds 439 litres, about 30 less than the Accord. It's room enough for four sets of golf clubs, Honda said.
If you're looking for a fun-to-drive green car with room, the Clarity is a clear choice – but it's a bit pricey without rebates.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.