It’s been nearly a decade since General Motors launched the Voltec platform, which it touted as the future of vehicle architecture: A chassis with electrically-powered wheels that could be fed by a variety of power sources. GM never quite brought the concept to fruition, but Honda has. Their new Clarity offers a choice of fuel-cell, battery and plug-in hybrid powertrains.
Unfortunately, two of those versions are largely useless. The Clarity Fuel Cell is powered by hydrogen, which is no closer to being a viable fuel source now than it was ten years ago. The battery-powered Clarity Electric has a range of just 89 miles, a ridiculous oversight that ought to result in someone, if not several someones, losing their jobs.
The third member of the family, the 2018 Honda Clarity PHEV, is the only one that is truly useful for the bulk of American drivers—and as I discovered during a few days of driving, it’s an absolute gem.
Before we get into why I think the Clarity PHEV is so brilliant, let’s take a quick look at how it works. It has a 1.5-liter 103-horsepower four-cylinder engine and a 181-horsepower electric motor, arranged in such a way that the electric motor primarily powers the wheels while the gas engine generates juice to power the motor. There are certain circumstances (specifically, steady speeds around 60 mph) when it’s more efficient for the gas engine to drive the wheels directly, so a clutch allows that to happen.
That said, the gas engine spends a lot of time doing nothing at all thanks to the Clarity PHEV’s 17-kWh battery pack. (For comparison, the battery in a Toyota Prius is around 1.3-kWh.) With the battery fully charged, which can be done with either a standard EV charger (2.5 hours) or a 110-volt household outlet (12 hours), the Clarity PHEV will deliver an EPA-rated 47 miles of electric-only range. As with most of the latest crop of plug-in hybrids, the Clarity can run its full speed range on battery power, though it will fire up the gas engine to assist with acceleration if you hit the pedal hard enough.
Once the battery gets low—about two bars on the twenty-bar gauge—the car automatically switches to hybrid mode, firing up the engine and generating power for the motor. The remaining battery charge provides a buffer, as the electric motor can consume more power than the gas engine can produce. By default, the Clarity runs in EV mode if the battery has enough charge, but the driver can manually select Hybrid mode and save the battery for circumstances when electric driving is more efficient.
During my time with the Clarity PHEV, it delivered more than was promised. I routinely got over 50 miles from each full charge with of a mix of slow stop-and-go traffic (great for battery range) and high-speed highway running (terrible for battery range). I have a 24-mile traffic-choked commute to the office, so were I a Clarity PHEV owner, I’d be able to do my typical day’s driving without using a single drop of decomposed dinosaur.
Once in hybrid mode, the EPA says the Clarity will deliver 44 MPG in the city and 40 MPG on the highway, but I saw numbers in the high 40s to low 50s. Even in Hybrid Charge mode, in which the gas engine charges the battery to about 2/3rds power—mind you, this is absolutely the least-efficient way to drive the Clarity—I still saw nearly 30 MPG. Amazing. The Clarity works so well that I can’t help but wonder if it signed a deal with the devil.
With so little need for gasoline, the Clarity is fitted with a tiny gas tank—just seven gallons. Fill-ups are lightning quick (the first time I gassed up, I thought the pump was broken), but the gas-only cruising range is only about 300 miles. That’s fine for driving in town; if you charge the battery every night, it’ll be weeks before you drain the tank. But the chief advantage of a plug-in hybrid over an EV is the ability to take long road trips, and provided you don’t want to run down to fumes, a road trip in the Clarity means filling up two to three times a day. Having been there and done that in a second-generation Honda Insight, which had a 10.6-gallon tank, I can tell you that it gets real old, real fast.
I can’t finish this review without discussing the elephant in the room: The Clarity’s exterior styling. I’m all for odd-looking cars and I can dig droopy noses, split backlights, and fender skirts (especially fender skirts), but putting all of them on one car is a bit much. My guess is that Honda wants the Clarity to look like a car from the future; apparently, in Honda’s vision of the future, all of the designers are on drugs.
The Clarity’s interior has its own quirks, but they work much better. The trim placement is unusual, such as open-pore wood on the upper part of the dash and some sort of suede-like fabric on the lower bit, but they look good, and the cabin itself has an open, airy feel. There’s plenty of room in the back seat, though that’s easy for me to say at 5’6”; my taller colleagues might wish for a bit more headroom. The control layout is fairly logical, though the Clarity does use that ridiculous Honda stereo which has touch-pads for volume and power instead of a proper knob. And it’s too bad about the trunk, which is small and has an oddly angled floor.
Driving the Clarity is a pleasure. It has that light, nimble feel that is so much a part of Honda’s roots. The ride is comfortable and surprisingly quiet; given the low rolling resistance tires and Honda’s lackadaisical attitude towards sound insulation, I expected a lot more road noise. The serenity of the cabin came as a pleasant surprise.
But the most important thing about the Clarity is that it delivers what it promises. The electric-only range is long enough to be useful and the hybrid-mode fuel economy is outstanding. The fact that the Clarity is so pleasant a car to drive is icing on the cake. Price-wise, it’s about five grand more than the Prius Prime, which only has about half as much EV-only range, and on par with the Chevrolet Volt, which is similar in its abilities. (Of course, if you have a daily routine of 50 miles or less charge the car at home, you’ll spend next to nothing on gas.) The other Clarity models may not be very useful, but the Clarity PHEV is very, very good.
2018 Honda Clarity PHEV Specifications
|PRICE||$34,295/$37,495 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||1.5 DOHC 16-valve I-4/103 hp @ 5,500 rpm, 99 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm|
|MOTOR||Permanent-magnet synchronous/181 hp, 232 lb-ft|
|COMBINED OUTPUT||212 hp, lb-ft|
|BATTERY||Li-ion/17 kWh, 6.6 kW|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||44/40 mpg (city/hwy)|
|EPA MAX EV RANGE||47 miles|
|240V CHARGE TIME||2.5 hours (est.)|
|L x W x H||192.7 x 73.9 x 58.2 in|