Los Angeles – The envelope, please.
The winner of the Green Car of the Year is ... the 2018 Honda Clarity, the only electrified vehicle to offer plug-in hybrid, pure-electric and hydrogen options.
The award was announced Thursday at the Los Angeles Auto Show as automakers flood the market with electric vehicles to meet tightening government regulations — and to keep up with luxury automaker Tesla, which has wowed consumers with its high-performance EVs.
Significantly, however, Tesla’s electric Model 3 — the first car from the brand to cost less than $40,000 and still offer 200 miles of range — did not enter the competition this year as the Silicon Valley-based company concentrates on ramping up production to meet a backlog of some 450,000 orders.
With the popular favorite out of the way, the Clarity beat out a field made up entirely of mainstream competitors — including sibling Honda Accord hybrid. Other contenders were the Toyota Camry hybrid, Nissan Leaf EV and Hyundai Ioniq which nearly matched the Clarity’s versatility with hybrid, plug-in and electric-only models.
“The Clarity is the car that really looks to the future,” said Ron Cogan, editor and publisher of Green Car Journal which sponsors the award. “It offers a plug-in hybrid today that anyone can drive conveniently — but it also offers a hydrogen element that is visionary. With the Clarity platform, Honda can shift production easily depending on which technology is in demand — and if a hydrogen infrastructure gets built out.”
The Clarity’s national rollout to dealers demonstrates the challenges automakers face as governments from California to France push automakers toward a gasoline-free future. The plug-in, which can travel 47 miles on a full charge, is available nationwide where owners can fill up on gas when the battery runs out of juice. But the electric and hydrogen versions have been limited to California, the only state that has seen significant acceptance of alternate-fuel tech.
Led by a green consumer culture and big government incentives, battery-powered car sales — hybrid, electric and hydrogen — are 9 percent of sales here. Pure EVs alone account for about 2.5 percent.
In the U.S. as a whole, however, sales of battery vehicles struggle to get over 3 percent, while EV sales are just 1 percent.
Cogan says government regulation and manufacturer offerings have pushed the market to an electric “tipping point,” especially as speedy models like Tesla have proved “electrification has an inherent ability to increase performance.”
But he noted that consumer skepticism still abounds and that electrification is still heavily dependent on government incentives. “The White House is proposing tax reform that would eliminate federal tax incentives (to buy EVs),” he said. “Proof that what happens in D.C. has an impact on vehicles everywhere.”
With gas prices low, consumers have defied industry predictions for two decades that hybrid-electrics would catch fire here. Indeed, as automakers rolled out government-compliant EVs here, they have also showed gas-powered SUVs that are popular with buyers. BMW and Subaru, for example, both rolled out their first-ever, three-row SUVs at the LA Show.
Electrifying large vehicles is difficult because their weight taxes battery range. The full-size Clarity sedan, like Tesla’s large Model S sedan and Model X ute, is the exception to the rule that most EVs have been compacts, including last year’s Green Car winner, the Chevy Bolt EV.
“I think we won because of our strategy to give customers choice,” said Steven Center, vice president of connected and environmental business at American Honda. “They have different driving and commute requirements and we manage to produce three great choices in one real, five-passenger sedan.”
He picked up the bauble at in the LA Show’s Technology Pavilion. Green Car of the Year is sponsored by Green Car Journal and judged by a jury including celebrity car-guy Jay Leno,
“The Clarity is our halo for right now,” said Center as the Honda brand moves to offer electric offers in two-thirds of its lineup worldwide by 2020.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.