How Honda Is Making Hybrid Cars Lighter, Faster, and Normal
Going green doesn't mean giving up gas entirely—at least, not yet.
For most, getting a practical, environmentally friendly car in 2020 still means looking at a hybrid. Pair a big old battery with an internal combustion engine and presto, you've got 50 miles per gallon easy in a heavy, feature-laden car, even if your default driving style is "bat out of hell." For all the talk of coming electric vehicles, in reality most automakers are extremely careful in using the word electrified to describe future plans—that's because hybrids will be a central pillar.
With that in mind, Honda recently revised its hybrid system and tucked it into the Accord and compact Insight, the latter of which re-emerged in 2018 as a conventional sedan with an unconventional powertrain. This third-generation hybrid setup is lighter, smaller, and more powerful, and eliminated the controversial use of certain rare earth metals in its production, a Honda rep told me.
The so-called intelligent power unit alone—the part of the hybrid system housing its lithium-ion batteries—was made a whopping 32 percent smaller than previous generations. The batteries were repackaged to reduce the number of structural components loading the car down, and the car's DC-DC converter was relocated to the car's under-hood power control unit in a single, compact unit. That's crucial when you're trying to shoehorn two electric motors under the hood alongside the 1.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four cylinder engine.
The Insight (base price: $23,860) still has a standard 12-volt car battery to power the starter and accessories, and engineers moved it to the center console to further clear space up front. That might sound like a maintenance nightmare, but the charging terminals are still located in the engine bay for an easy jump, and the tool needed for direct access is stored in the trunk.
As you might expect, convenience is a huge selling point for hybrid buyers, and Honda really focused on making the driving and ownership experience feel as straightforward as possible. The interior has real buttons and a layout that's familiar and intuitive to use. Most importantly, there's no compromise in cargo space in the Civic-platform Insight, as the system's batteries are now hiding under the rear seats.
There's another bonus to the new under-seat packaging. "When you fold down that rear seat, you're able to get a full pass-through and a full trunk so you don't have to sacrifice any cargo space to have a hybrid," Honda product planner Chris Hand said over the phone.
At the end of the day, this is a business, and Honda is trying to woo more regular buyers into hybrids as opposed to just early adopters and the performative environmentalism set. Currently, hybrids account for seven percent of Honda sales worldwide, and the automaker would like electrified (there's that word again) sales to account for two-thirds of its annual output by 2030. That's a high goal, one it intends to reach by making good cars that just happen to incorporate an electric motor or two. Doubling down on small cars and sedans after automakers like Ford left that market behind in the U.S. is also part of the strategy.
People may not even realize you're driving a hybrid Accord or Insight until they notice a small badge on the exterior or watch the car pull up silently under electric power. The Insight is even less flashier than the similarly-sized Civic, which is the point of the whole disguise: making a paradigm shift look normal.
Starting Off With a Decent Hybrid System
The midsize 2020 Honda Clarity (base price: $34,355, including destination) is an exception, still using a second-generation electrified powertrain in the plug-in hybrid guise seen here. (Full electric and hydrogen fuel cell variants are also available to buyers in certain states.) The older hybrid system's inclusion was a matter of timing according to Hand, as the Clarity PHEV was released before the new system was ready for use.
It's the only plug-in Honda sells, and its Franco-futuristic angular lines are also a standout in the lineup. It's got a hefty 17 kWh lithium-ion battery; fully charging it on a 120V outlet will take 12 hours, though a Level 2 charger will fill it in 2.2 hours. Though unless you're trying to be extra eco-conscious, Honda's smart hybrid setup will constantly use the gas engine to supplement and recharge the battery—but more on that in a bit.
The difference between the Clarity and the other models with the newer hybrid system was noticeable, as you could still see a hump for the big battery in its otherwise cavernous trunk.
Driving the Clarity still feels like driving a normal midsize sedan—and that's the point. It won't be winning any drag races, but unlike the Toyota Prius Prime plug-in I drove recently, it actually gets out of its own way when you jump on the throttle thanks to a combined 212 horsepower and 232 pound-feet of torque. The transition between all-electric power (range is 47 miles) and the 1.5-liter engine was very smooth and hardly noticeable beyond the noise. Be gentle around town and you can expend all that electric range without ever waking up the gas-powered lump.
Most of my test drive was around the more congested parts of Austin, Texas, so I'll spare you the cliché of speculating how everyday handling would translate to its competence at the limit, wherever that limit might be. Steering is light but responsive. It's not impossible to outrun the low grip of the Clarity's narrow Michelin EnergySaver tires if you really push it, but in most situations the car heads wherever you point the wheel pretty directly. The ride competently absorbed most of what Austin's garbage roads threw at it, erring towards stiffness over disconcerting bounciness when I hit a big yump.
My only real complaint with the Clarity's driving experience is its large turning radius. Turning around in some of Austin's smaller downtown areas required multiple-point turns, and no, there isn't a physical handbrake to make it any snappier either. If you're an over-the-shoulder reverser, the view backwards is annoyingly bisected by the spoiler, though the lower window integrated into the rear deck lid is a handy touch. As with Honda's other cars, there's also a rear-facing camera mounted on the passenger side mirror to improve blind spot visibility.
How the New Hybrid System Compares
If the Clarity was a funky reminder of how hybrids used to be truly weird cars, the 2020 Honda Insight was a pleasant surprise. I still miss the tiny, futuristic first-generation Insights of yore in all their stick-shift glory, this car is still pleasing to look at—something I could never say about the "like a Prius, except dowdy" second-gen Insight.
Swapping into the Insight for the rest of the day really drove home how Honda's advances in its third-generation hybrids are making the technology feel downright normal. Despite being a smaller car with an enclosed trunk, its 15.1 cubic feet and continuous flat floor were impressive to behold.
While both cars I drove have 1.5-liter Atkinson cycle inline-four cylinder engines to generate power for their hybrid systems as needed, the Insight was considerably faster and nimbler to drive despite being down on power and torque (151 hp and 99 lb-ft). Credit its mechanical similarities to the excellent Civic and a big weight advantage—the Clarity is a hair over 4,000 pounds, while the base Insight LX clocks in at a paltry 2,987 pounds. That's light for a modern compact car of any kind, much less a hybrid.
Honda doesn't list any 0-60 mph times on either of the cars' stat sheets. Per InsideEVs, the Clarity needs 9.5 seconds to get to 60 mph, while Motor Trend measured the Insight at 7.7 seconds. Neither are going to light the drag strip on fire without a drivetrain swap, but thankfully there's enough immediate torque to get out of their own way.
Sure, comparing a midsize plug-in Clarity versus a compact non-plug-in Insight isn't exactly a fair fight, but saving weight and space was a significant part of Honda's third generation hybrid system, and the benefits were clear even if the Clarity needs a bigger battery overall as a PHEV. The Insight had a 60-cell lithium-ion battery good for an output of 96 kilowatts and 1.1 kilowatt-hours of power, whereas the Clarity's pack took up a lot more space and cut into the rear cargo area despite the model being substantially larger. I can't help but wonder how much more spacious the already roomy Clarity could be with a smaller, more efficient third-gen battery. (Honda would not comment on whether an updated Clarity was coming.)
That third-generation system is simply brilliant in the Insight. It doesn't feel as though it's lugging around a giant lump of electrons somewhere amidships—it just feels like a normal small car, a quieter, more conservatively-styled Civic. It also consistently eked out over 50 mpg driving on a heavily mixed route through Austin, backing up Honda's claimed combined mileage of 52 MPG. But this is as straight a hybrid as they come, with a token electric-only mode that'll take you less than a mile on battery power.
While the Clarity is more a comfy midsize tourer, the Insight handled well enough that my curmudgeonly face broke into a smile on some of the hill country's twistier backroads. I would have liked a little more acceleration to call the Insight outright fun, but it can carry enough speed through turns to elicit grins even as it rides on low rolling resistance (read: harder and less grippy) Michelin EnergySaver all-season tires.
The heavier Clarity wasn't by no means a mileage slouch either, with Honda claiming a combined rating of 42 mpg that was also spot-on with what I observed during a long drive that wasn't what anyone would call a gentle cruise. What can I say—torque is torque, and it's addictive stuff.
Honda's Biggest Hits and Misses
Perhaps the most ingenious weight-saving measure is common to both the Honda Insight and Clarity: the use of a dual-motor powertrain that eliminates the need for a transmission. Most hybrids use a single electric motor in conjunction with a continuously variable transmission, but Honda has two in its cars. One powers the front wheels like you'd expect, and the other acting as a multi-purpose generator attached to the internal combustion engine, which it uses to create electric power to send to either the propulsion motor or the battery pack.
In other words, the gas engine isn't directly driving the front wheels most of the time you hear and feel it running—instead, it's powering a generator that's directly feeding electricity into an AC drive motor, recharging the battery, or some combination thereof. There is a clutch to force a direct connection at higher speeds, but this setup saves weight and lowers rolling resistance compared to shoving a regular transmission between the engine and drive wheels.
Driving this system feels a lot like driving a CVT insofar as it's very smooth. Throttle position determines when the gas engine kicks in for more power, meaning you can on a cloud of pure electricity when you're bumping along at slower speeds provided there's enough charge.
Speaking of, electric-only driving is somewhat of a letdown in both. These cars are really meant to seamlessly extend the life of your gas tank for as long as possible, not battery-powered runabouts with an internal combustion engine for longer trips. Even the plug-in Clarity with its usable 47-mile electric range lacks a pure EV mode; no matter what, pushing the accelerator pedal past three-quarters down will wake up the gas engine. It would be nice to be able to lock that out for leadfoots trying their best to be frugal.
Without a transmission to control, the steering wheel shift paddles are repurposed to adjust regenerative braking strength in both cars. It's nice to be able to adjust this on the fly, especially when you're coasting down a large hill, but as someone who's accustomed to using behind-the-wheel paddles to change gears, I found it a strange adjustment that doesn't jibe with Honda's overarching goal of making hybrids feel normal to the masses.
That said, given the strengths of these two cars and especially the Insight's third-gen hybrid powertrain, perhaps it'll be Honda that finally cracks open the electrified car market for regular buyers. Most people I know who might realistically consider a hybrid don't want to shout about their eco-piousness or mess with a charger every day. They just want to get places. The more familiar we can make the future, the better.
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