Assessing the Honda Clarity range: how electric cars fit in, and why

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Honda Clarity lineup: Electric, Plug-In Hybrid, Fuel Cell, at 2017 New York auto show

Honda Clarity lineup: Electric, Plug-In Hybrid, Fuel Cell, at 2017 New York auto show

The 2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell is the only model of Honda's newest sedan presently on sale, though an all-electric version will arrive later this year.

The hydrogen-powered mid-size sedan with a rated 366 miles of range is the one that's gotten by far the most publicity from Honda, as its technology halo vehicle.

Last month, at the New York auto show, Honda unveiled the second and third models: the all-electric and plug-in hybrid versions that round out the three-car lineup.

DON'T MISS: Honda Clarity Electric, Plug-In Hybrid revealed at NY auto show

That leads to a handful of questions about how the three different models fit into Honda's plans, and how the company plans to promote and market them—and in what volumes.

To answer some of these questions, we spent an hour at the show talking to Jay Guzowski, the senior manager of product planning for the Clarity range.

We started by asking how the decision to develop the Clarity was made and what parameters the company placed on its future product.

fcx clarity fuelcell motorauthority 007

fcx clarity fuelcell motorauthority 007

In particular, we were curious about the roughly 80-mile range rating Honda projects for the Clarity Electric, which uses what is obviously a fairly small lithium-ion battery pack.

Guzowski said that the Clarity project started as three separate green vehicles were ending: the previous-generation FCX Clarity fuel-cell sedan, the Accord Plug-In Hybrid, and the Fit EV electric car.

All were low-volume: about 200 FCX Claritys were built globally, and 1,000 and 1,100 of each of the last two were delivered in the U.S. (Some of the Fit EVs have now been re-leased as used cars and are still on the road.)

A MUST-READ: 2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell: first drive of hydrogen-powered sedan

To maximize the effectiveness of its investments, Honda chose to combine successors to all three vehicles into a single vehicle—although, Guzowski said, it was clear that the hydrogen fuel-cell version was viewed in Japan as the most important and most visible of the three versions.

The FCX Clarity and the plug-in Accord had been large, comfortable, mid-size sedans. The major complaint from Fit EV owners, meanwhile, was that they loved their cars but wished they were larger and had more space for people and cargo.

That set the basic size and body type of what came to be called the 2017 Honda Clarity.

2014 Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid

2014 Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid

A green five-passenger mid-size sedan, Guzowski pointed out, was largely "white space" when the program began in 2012 and 2013, let alone one with multiple powertrain options.

The only other such vehicle, the all-electric Tesla Model S hatchback sedan, had just entered the market. At that time, we'd note, its success and sales of well over 100,000 vehicles were by no means guaranteed.

The hydrogen Clarity would let Honda meet its commitments to the Japanese government's "hydrogen economy" program, he said, and was always earmarked to be sold both in Japan and the U.S.

CHECK OUT: Honda Clarity EV electric car to have only 80 miles of range: report

Japanese product planners were also interested in the plug-in hybrid model—envisioned as a much higher-volume variant.

But the all-electric version was "not of high interest" to the Japanese planners, Guzowski recounted, noting that the company saw electric cars suffering from "challenges with the grid and reliability" of charging infrastructure.

The Clarity program solidified in 2014, with the fuel-cell version "leading a little" because it had the toughest packaging challenges.

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