2018 Honda Clarity First Drive: Beneath the Frumpy Skin, a Spectacularly Efficient Plug-In Hybrid
New Clarity sedan is as roomy and comfy as any Accord, yet its 47-mile electric range is barely shy of the Chevy Volt’s.
Hybrids aren’t getting a lot of love right now. Most of them sit patiently in showrooms, while buyers are out swilling cheap gasoline —hell yes, another shot!—eyeballing hunky trucks or flirting with that hot crossover who swears she’s actually great with kids. Honda is one brand, however, that’s keeping the hybrid light on, figuring that one day gasoline prices will spike and Americans will come rushing back: “Baby, it was you all along!”
The latest example of the company's hybrid fixation is the 2018 Honda Clarity, a midsize plug-in hybrid sedan that joins a plug-less pair of electrified cars, the midsize Accord hybrid and new Insight hatchback. If the Clarity name rings a bell, that’s because it also denotes a hydrogen fuel-cell version of this very car, with a short-range EV version en route later this year. Like Honda’s original Insight, which became America’s first hybrid in 1999—just beating the Toyota Prius to market—the Clarity looks a bit iconoclastic. Fine, that’s a euphemism; the Clarity has got a serious case of the frumps, with its scrawny tires, loaded-diaper back end, and fuel-saving rear fender skirts that might thrill the nerds on "The Big Bang Theory.” But if you’re down with the gawky looks, and you actually care about great mileage and planet-hugging emissions levels—and good for you—the Clarity offers a compelling proposition: The amenities, safety, and passenger/luggage space of a typically first-rate Honda sedan, with electric range and hybrid efficiency on rough par with smaller plug-ins like the Chevrolet Volt.
I’ll note that, so far, I’ve only had a 2.5-hour drive in the Clarity, during a Honda introduction at the New York Auto Show. But I saw fairly spectacular mileage in the Clarity with very little effort, keeping it right around 48–50 mpg in a combination of highway (mostly) and city driving—whipping the EPA’s official rating of 42 mpg in combined use. That efficiency didn’t even include the Honda’s green trump card: 47 miles of all-electric range whenever it’s turned loose with a full battery. That’s best-in-class electric range for any plug-in hybrid sedan, and only a mite shy of the Volt’s hatchback's 53-mile range. The Honda’s 110 mpge rating actually squeaks past the Volt’s 106 mpge, though the Honda carves out nearly 15 percent more passenger inside.
The Volt’s total driving range of 420 miles leads the plug-in hybrid pack, but the Honda’s 366 miles is generous enough for any interstate trip to grandma’s—and obviously you can fill up at any gas station in minutes, that flexibility being perhaps the most compelling aspect of the gas-electric hybrid approach. Tuck the Clarity into your garage and pop in its electric pacifier every night, and you’ve got a car that, for people who drive less than 47 miles per day, will use no gasoline whatsoever.
Home or away, the Clarity takes only 2.5 hours to fully charge an empty battery on a Level 2 station. Honda engineers say the Clarity, driven smoothly, can even manage 50 miles on a charge. That generous 47-mile range nearly doubles that of the Prius Prime or Ford Fusion plug-in sedan.
The keys to that efficiency begin with a 1.5-liter Atkinson cycle engine that Honda says converts 40 percent of its gasoline energy into actual mechanical work. (That 40-percent thermal efficiency is near the peak of any gasoline engine in the world today.) That engine then mates to a pair of newly compact electric motors, and a 17-kWh, 168-cell lithium battery. The battery's slim profile also helps carve out surprisingly generous trunk space, a happy departure from the constricted quarters of many hybrids.
The upshot is 212 horsepower and 232 pound-feet of torque, including about 130 kilowatts of maximum electric-motor output. That compares versus 149 hp and a stout 294 pound-feet for the Volt, or a measly 121 hp and 105 pound-feet for the Prius Prime. Figure a roughly 7.5-second surge to 60 mph, quicker than the Prime, slower than the torque-rich Volt.
The Clarity’s lightweight, clean-sheet chassis, designed specifically for electrified applications (yes, that includes the hydrogen fuel-cell version), shows Honda's usual, obsessive attention to engineering detail. It includes aluminum subframes and a largely aluminum suspension front and rear; big doses of super high-tensile steel; and the industry’s first resin-molded composite rear bumper that meets all crash standards.
The interior aims to be the Apple Store version of a Honda Accord, including its mod floating-bridge console. It succeeds reasonably well, though a top-end Accord still reads as a bit more luxurious inside. A folding rear seat, here split 60/40, is a rarity in hybrids because of battery-packaging constraints, and further boosts the practicality of a car that already boasts more than 102 cubic feet of passenger space.
With its eight-inch touchscreen and simplified icons and menus, Honda’s Android-based Display Audio system is a vast improvement over its previous systems. It also delivers attractive, readable graphics on the hybrid system’s inner workings, including breakdowns of both EV and total driving range. But alas, the analog audio-volume knob that Honda put back into some recent models disappears again on this Clarity, requiring you to use the steering-wheel controls or a screen-based slider. Apple Car Play and Android Auto are standard, as is Honda’s comprehensive Honda Sensing Safety Suite, in a car that starts from $34,290, or $37,490 for the deluxe Touring edition. Honda Sensing brings everything from adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist to collision- and road-departure mitigation.
The ride is buttery and commendably flat, with Honda claiming less body roll than the Volt, Fusion or previous-gen Accord PHEV. But the driving experience, overall, feels less sprightly than the smaller Chevy’s. The Clarity basically drives like a slower, less-sporty Accord, though it’s thoroughly capable and never less than relaxing. Insanely quiet, too: With its gas engine off and decoupled in Manhattan traffic, the Clarity’s electric motors were nearly undetectable.
In most situations, the Clarity strives to keep the gas engine idled and decoupled and let its electric motors do the work. Or, the main propulsion motor (or both motors) drives the front wheels while the gas engine generates electricity. In either Econ, Normal or Sport modes, the Honda keeps the engine sidelined (if there’s enough electricity in the battery) unless you push the accelerator past a “click point” detent about three-quarters of the way along the pedal travel. As long as you don’t floor it, the Honda can reach its 100-mph top speed on electricity alone—a testament to its powerful and efficient two-motor system.
The Clarity’s various driving modes are a bit obtuse, but an owner should get the hang of it soon enough. Those include the oddly-named button-selected HV mode that boosts efficiency on highway drives, in part because it allows the gas engine to directly power the wheels rather than simply generate electricity. (The Volt's plug-in powertrain can work similarly). That HV mode also maintains the battery’s current state-of-charge, allowing drivers to reserve remaining electric range for, say, urban driving. Hold that HV button down for a few seconds, and the Clarity then uses the gas engine to directly charge the battery to up to 57.7 percent of charge—which of course dramatically reduces fuel economy, and suspends any all-electric operation.
The various power sources are conjoined by a single-speed, direct-drive transmission, versus the CVT or CVT-like arrangement of many hybrids from the Prius to the Volt. Yet the Honda still delivers some of that intrusive, rubbery-bandy CVT feel, where engine revs surge and fall but the car’s acceleration doesn’t match. The tiny Atkinson engine can also get a bit boisterous at high revs. But those issues only really arise when you’re booting the gas like a Mustang maniac, something most conscientious Clarity drivers won’t be doing on a regular basis. I can't speak for everyone, but in a car like this, even this congenital leadfoot enjoys maxing out mileage and seeing how far I can go on battery juice alone.
The Honda’s most inexplicable gaffe involves its approach to regenerative braking, which returns electricity to the battery for incremental-yet-meaningful mileage gains. For the Chevrolet Volt plug-in, a paddle shifter that instantly cranks up the regen braking is one of its coolest, cleverest features: Head into a curve, an exit ramp or downhill descent—or just up to a stoplight—and whanging the Volt’s paddle creates instant deceleration that feels just like downshifting and engine braking on a conventional car. The Honda takes this great idea and utterly blows it: Its paddle shifters merely adjust the level of regen braking from minimum to maximum, and you have to hand-toggle through every individual level. For no reason I can fathom, that regen level shortly defaults back to minimum after every single stop, and again when you shut off the car.
There is only one way to lock the Clarity into max-regen mode, but it’s the opposite of what you’d expect: You have to first switch into Sport mode, in which the gasoline engine runs 100-percent of the time, making it the least-efficient mode of operation. Clearly, the idea is to allow that “sporty” simulation of engine braking, but the paddles are too much of a pain in the ass to actually use in that fashion. So whether you're in Econ, Normal or HV driving modes—the modes that most owners will use the vast majority of the time—there’s no way to consistently dial up the robust, one-pedal-style driving that EVs and hybrid fans have come to know and love, unless you’re willing to thwack those paddles literally dozens or even hundreds of times on every trip. The illogic is nearly mind-blowing: Because max regen is only practically achievable in its least-efficient driving mode (again, with the gas engine always running), the Clarity essentially suggests that it’s an afterthought, rather than one of the key selling points of any electrified car, both for efficiency and driving pleasure. And since the Clarity doesn’t default into Sport mode, owners will be leaving fuel-saving money on the table every time he or she starts the car. Honda, this demands an immediate engineering fix.
Those annoyances aside, this Honda amply delivers on its promise of stellar energy savings—gasoline or electric—with spacious, grown-up sedan accommodations. Wrapping my run from suburban Westchester County with a 20-minute crawl through brutal midtown Manhattan traffic, the Honda’s mileage computer showed me just over 50 mpg. Again, that didn’t even include the nearly 50 electric miles at the gasoline equivalent of 110 mpg, something faithful owners will experience on a daily basis.
Honda hopes to sell about 75,000 units of the three-pronged Clarity lineup over the next four years, the vast majority being this plug-in hybrid version. Those are modest sales numbers by any measure, but even that output will help Honda justify and spread the cost of a development program that should include a few thousand hydrogen fuel-cell Claritys, for now being leased only in California.
It might seem odd that Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler’s Ram division can together sell 2.2 million full-size pickups in a single year, but that fewer than 200,000 plug-in cars were sold in total in America in 2017—barely one percent of the market. By now, it seems clear that only a dramatic spike in gasoline sales will change that picture and get more Americans to see wisdom in plug-in hybrids that can travel anywhere, anytime, without limited range or pissing away valuable hours at a charging station. Until then, drivers who want to cast a vote for fuel conservation, to do their part for climate change—or who just want to blow past gas stations—should definitely put this Clarity on their shopping radar. Until gasoline hits $5 a gallon, a Clarity driver could at least call herself a one-percenter.
Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence@thedrive.com.