LOS ANGELES -- In a surprise twist that will challenge Honda's carefully cultivated reputation as a leader in green vehicles, the Clarity all-electric model debuting this spring will have only about 80 miles of range on a single charge, Automotive News has learned.
That figure puts the Honda well behind the Chevrolet Bolt's 238-mile range and nearly every other battery-electric vehicle on the market. And it leaves Honda to tackle a tough problem: how to build a cutting-edge brand image around its Clarity line of electrified vehicles with a battery EV whose range barely tops that of a Nissan Leaf circa 2010.
The shortfall is not a failure of its engineering, Honda says, but the unavoidable result of its choices.
The automaker defined two parameters that were nonnegotiable: the physical size of the Clarity platform -- which the EV shares with the Clarity plug-in hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell models -- and the cost of the battery-electric version, which is expected to start around $35,000 before any tax credits or incentives (pricing hasn't been announced).
With those hard points, Honda didn't leave itself any leeway to fit a longer-range battery, which would have been heavier and costlier.
"A pillar of the Honda brand is affordability, and if Honda came out with some obscenely priced long-range electric car, what does that do for the brand?" Steve Center, vice president of environmental business development at American Honda Motor, told Automotive News. "Most of our customers would not be able to acquire it."
Just how big a handicap the modest range figure will be remains to be seen. Thanks to regulatory pressures in California and other states, the number of electric and electrified vehicles on the market is expanding rapidly. While consumers haven't gravitated to these vehicles in large numbers, those who do will soon be able to choose among many similarly priced options that offer varying combinations of size, range and brand cachet.
"To some degree, it's all white space," said Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst for IHS Markit, "and the market is going to spend the next several years figuring it out and where people want to buy in the spectrum of size and range. You just need to get it out there and see how people react."
Honda sees itself as well-positioned. The automaker says its three-model approach with the Clarity series lets customers choose their path to electrification.
That assumes that they choose a Honda at all, and aren't turned off by the 80-mile figure. But Honda argues that with any of the EVs on the market, buyers are forced to make tradeoffs involving size, range or price.
Chevy's Bolt is affordable and long-range, but small. Tesla's Model S and X are large and long-range, but costly. The Tesla Model 3 will be less costly and long-range, but, again, small and possibly not even attainable until next year. The second-generation Nissan Leaf is expected to be small and inexpensive, but still modest in range. And Hyundai's forthcoming Ioniq EV will work the middle of the road in range, price and size.
That leaves an open path for Honda to market a large, well-equipped but affordable car for people who aren't prone to range anxiety. Honda is basing much of its confidence on its experience with the Fit EV. That car also got roughly the same range, yet the main complaint Honda says it heard from the roughly 1,100 U.S. customers was about its diminutive size.
Honda didn't disclose volume expectations for the Clarity BEV, but Center expects to beat the Fit EV "by a whole lot," he said. Many of them will be current Fit EV owners.
"These people want a battery car and they know what they do and where they go," Center said. "They're very rational and they don't need to lug around or charge up a 300-mile-range battery because that costs them electricity."