By on December 18, 2017

2018 Honda Clarity PHEV, iMAGE: mATTHEW gUY/hYBRID cARS

(In keeping with our goal of providing interesting and varied content, we sometimes bring you stories published by TTAC’s sister sites that we feel will satisfy your discerning tastes. This first drive review of Honda’s Clarity plug-in hybrid comes to us from a familiar name. It was first published by Hybrid Cars.)

Honda has rolled out its newest salvo in the effort to wean drivers off gasoline.

In a three-pronged approach, a team simultaneously deploys multiple solutions to solve a particular problem. We see this tactic at work when your humble author tries to assemble furniture or harried parents attempt to get their toddler to eat dinner.

Rather than placing all their eggs in one particular alternative-fuel basket, Honda has decided to pursue a cadre of options: a plug-in hybrid, a battery-powered all-electric, and a hydrogen fuel cell car. So confident are they in their gambit, the company has developed a car that can be equipped with either of these three powertrains.

The machine you see here is the Honda Clarity.

Knowing the country’s infrastructure for hydrogen is anemic, and all-electric cars can induce severe bouts of range anxiety, Honda expects the plug-in hybrid version of the Clarity to be king of its three-person family, selling the bulk of its 75,000-unit forecast over the next four years.

The Clarity Plug-In Hybrid utilizes Honda’s two-motor hybrid technology, consisting of a 1.5-liter DOHC Atkinson-cycle inline-four gasoline powered engine coupled to a starter/generator motor. This engine is paired with a 181-horsepower AC synchronous traction motor and a 17-kilowatt hour (kWh) lithium-ion battery pack. Total system output is in the neighborhood of 212 horsepower

2018 Honda Clarity PHEV, Image: Matthew Guy/Hybrid Cars

In EV Drive mode, the Clarity operates like an all-electric vehicle – the engine is off and is decoupled from the drivetrain to reduce friction. Motive power comes from the 181-horsepower traction motor, which draws electricity from the lithium-ion battery pack. We covered about 20 miles in this mode, mostly on flat and smooth California roadway, and were not able to explore the full EV range of the car, but are confident the 47-mile EPA estimate is not overstated.

The second mode, Hybrid Drive, allows the Clarity to function as a series hybrid. Like EV Drive mode, motive power comes from the electric traction motor. The gasoline engine is now coupled to the drivetrain and it, along with a generator motor, produce electricity which is sent directly to the traction motor or stored in the battery pack, depending on the driving situation and the battery’s state of charge.

2018 Honda Clarity PHEV, Image: Matthew Guy/Hybrid Cars

Engine Drive mode is typically engaged when cruising at medium to high speeds. Here, the Clarity functions as a parallel hybrid. A lock-up clutch connects the engine (always linked to the generator motor) and the traction motor to send power directly from the engine to the front wheels, bypassing the battery altogether when the driver calls for maximum power from the engine room, such as when we pointed the Clarity along Napa’s twisty Sage Valley Road.

“Hustle” and “hybrid” are rarely spoken in the same sentence, but Honda engineers went through great pains to ensure the Clarity doesn’t roll over and play dead when presented with a few corners. Its aluminum rear subframe houses a five-link suspension which, in conjunction with a low slung battery pack mounted under the cabin floor, give the Clarity an acceptable handling profile. It is certainly no MX-5 – nor is it even an Accord – but it is more than adequate for the intended demographic who likely will not be taking the Clarity to an autocross or along the Tail of the Dragon. Rather, its solid feel is meant to impart an atmosphere of a premium-market car.

2018 Honda Clarity PHEV, Image: Matthew Guy/Hybrid Cars

Part of this verve can be attributed to the gearheads Honda tapped to join the Clarity team. At dinner, I spoke at length with one of the engineers from Japan. An affable and knowledgeable man, he excitedly told me about the enjoyment he gets from wrenching on his beloved Honda Beat with his young son. Clearly, these people are car nuts … and the Clarity is better off for it.

Inside, customers will not find any spaceship-inspired designs or weirdo switchgear (*ahem Prius ahem*). This is on purpose, as the design team was intent on making the Clarity feel like a normal car. It’s tough enough to get some customers to consider an alternative fuel car, I was told; acclimating to an interior taken straight from the starship Enterprise only makes that task even tougher.

The sole interior feature that will raise eyebrows is a strange “porthole” in the rear parcel shelf, providing an unmitigated view into the trunk. Why? Well, since the Clarity body-in-white is intended to accept three different forms of propulsion (plug-in hybrid, all-electric battery, & hydrogen), it had to be designed so the fuel sources for each mode of power would fit. Hydrogen takes up a lot of space, explaining the tall trunk lid and slightly abbreviated rear window.

2018 Honda Clarity PHEV, Image: Matthew Guy/Hybrid Cars

Here’s where Honda designers ran into a problem. In accommodating a hydrogen fuel cell, the trunklid design was so tall it effectively scuppered rearward visibility, hiding all the tractor trailers and constabulary on your six. To solve this, the team installed a window with a defroster grid on the billboard-high vertical portion of the trunklid (as seen on the Prius) and paired it with a pane of glass on the parcel shelf behind the rear seats so a driver can see objects directly astern. It is an ingenious solution to a problem that never should have existed in the first place.

Odd windows notwithstanding, the rest of the interior is standard Honda fare, with a reconfigurable digital screen dead ahead of the driver displaying a speedometer, flanked by gauges measuring battery and fuel levels. There is plenty of space for front seat passengers and sufficient leg room in the rear passenger compartment for this 6’6” author. Those of non-NBA height will not have a problem.

Sadly, the Clarity infotainment system is of the old Honda variety, the one with a capacitive-touch slider for radio volume that everyone hated. Yes, Virginia, there is a physical volume up/down button on the steering wheel but that only placates the driver and is utterly useless for the front seat passenger. Hopefully, Honda will make a running change and fit the excellent unit found in the 2018 Honda Accord.

Standing in a sunny parking lot, Kiyoshi Shimizu, Development Leader of the Clarity Series, patiently listened to my questions and explained – through a translator – why they made certain design decisions, such as including an air ionizer in the fuel cell car. Shimizu-san explained they are trying to make a car that’s good for the environment and good for humans. There’s that multi-pronged approach again.

2018 Honda Clarity PHEV, Image: Matthew Guy/Hybrid Cars

Honda is predicting previous and current PHEV owners trading out of a Volt or Prius Prime will make up the bulk of Clarity ownership. They also think the car will snag a few Fusion Energi and Optima PHEV owners in its net as well. What they don’t want to happen is a potential Accord customer flipping to a Clarity, given that both cars are roughly the same size and whose MSRPs overlap at the upper end of the Accord scale. When I suggested this flip, the Honda exec to whom I was speaking visibly twitched like a freshly caught codfish.

From wherever the customers appear, they will have a choice of two Clarity Plug-In Hybrids. The standard car is priced at $33,400, while the Touring trim shows a sticker of $36,600. Both models come equipped with the Honda Sensing suite of safety nannies, along with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The high-zoot trim adds navigation, leather seats and steering wheel, power front seats, and suede material on the dash. Smart customers should save their pennies and get the standard model.

The Clarity will certainly face competition from the Chevrolet Volt, priced at $34,095. The larger and more comparably-sized Fusion Energi SE starts at $31,305 but the Ford makes less power from its drivetrain and comparable safety equipment requires a $1,320 Driver Assist Package and a $1,190 Active Braking System. Ford does, however, have nearly $7,000 on the hood of leased 2018 Fusion Energi sedans right now. It pays to shop around.

With a three-car lineup, I think the Clarity family will take its place at Honda in the same manner that the Prius name has turned into a de facto sub-brand at Toyota. To use a hockey analogy, the Clarity is the team’s star captain, acting as the face of Honda’s environmental efforts while the rest of the line does the grunt work and pays the bills.

2018 Honda Clarity PHEV, Image: Matthew Guy/ Hybrid Cars

Honda’s near-term growth is hybrids, said Jim Burrell, Assistant VP of Connected and Environmental Business Development. In conversation, he mentioned hybrid powertrains in cars and light trucks, with the latter term hinting a hybrid CR-V is on the way.

Long term, though, Honda is still betting big on fuel cell vehicles. It was emphasized that no single tech (hydrogen, electric, or hybrid) is enough to solve the CO2 problem, an explanation helping to that’s why they’re justifying plowing ahead with hydrogen. A true three-pronged approach, then.

The Clarity Plug-In Hybrid is manufactured in Honda’s Saitama factory in the Sayama prefecture, Japan. It is on sale now in all 50 states.

[Images: ©2017 Matthew Guy/Hybrid Cars]

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24 Comments on “2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid First Drive – Star Captain Joins the Team...”


  • avatar
    kcflyer

    those rear wheel wells, that’s an, err, interesting choice.

  • avatar

    I don’t know why, but my very first thought after seeing the car was: 6000 SUX.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    This car looks like what I thought Soviet cars would have looked like today if you had asked me the question in 1980…

  • avatar
    NeilM

    I’d guess that the rear wheel’s (very) partial coverage is a nod to the Honda Insight EV’s full spat, and like the earlier version may serve an aerodynamic purpose.

  • avatar
    Heino

    My MIL had the original Insight, which had great mileage, but was a two seat deathtrap. The Accord hybrid was performance oriented and the second Insight could not match Prius efficiency. The company even admitted that they had focused too much on shareholders.

    • 0 avatar
      nvinen

      I got a second generation Insight as a loaner while my Accord was being serviced. It was slow, loud, hot and when a semi passed me I felt like I was driving a tissue box. (Then again I suppose if a semi hits pretty much any passenger car you’re a goner but it just felt really scary with those thin windows and door panels.)

      I loved Hondas at at the time but I found it very hard to like that car. It seemed like a real penalty box. I’ve been in a Nissan Leaf and it felt like a tank compared to the Insight.

      Having said all that, this one looks like someone hit a hybrid Accord coupe with an ugly stick so it’s probably a lot better.

      • 0 avatar
        mattwc1

        I drive a second Gen Insight and everything you said is true. It was a screaming used car deal and perfect for a horrible NoVa commute. It did help by adding better tires( the factory ones were horrible and downright scary above 65mph).

        As far as the Clarity Plug In, I saw one in the flesh locally (central Maryland) and was intrigued. I only thought it was hydrogen only so the article definitely cleared that up. I do agree that the most recent Accord plug in is an appealing choice and probably a very legitimate competitor to this.

  • avatar
    Roberto Esponja

    So, I guess Tatra was indeed revolutionary after all…

  • avatar
    jjf

    Wow this car could have been cast as the 6000SUX in the original robocop movie. The Pontiac Aztec looks refined and dapper in comparison. Is it that hard to make styling non-offensive?

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    They’ll sell a few thousand a year.

  • avatar
    azmtns

    Not only is this a miss with looks, it’s a miss with the market. Honda should be making this a CUV.

  • avatar
    Dan R

    why dont they copy some decent styling/

  • avatar
    Car Ramrod

    The perfect far for people who want a new Accord but scoff at their combined EPA figure of 33 mpg.

    Granted I live in the south, but this describes precisely 0 people I know.

    • 0 avatar
      FormerFF

      I live in the south, and I drive a Fusion PHEV. The Clarity plug in is a car I would consider if it’s still around once it’s time to trade the Fusion, which is not anytime soon.

      Intown, driving in EV mode is the way to go, it’s much more pleasant than having the engine running so much, and the torque delivery is smooth like buttah.

  • avatar
    kcflyer

    If the domestics could put a plug in hybrid in their full size pickups and suvs with 20 to 30 miles of electric range for a reasonable price premium they would have a license to print money. I like Honda but man, that is an ugly car.

  • avatar

    Yuck.

  • avatar
    jmiller417

    I like that it doesn’t sugarcoat the view of what’s in the trunk. If I can’t handle the unmitigated truth of that, I don’t need to be looking.

  • avatar
    HotPotato

    It has more electric range and power than a Ford Fusion Energi, and more room and luxury than a Chevy Volt (for barely more money). But those two cars are genuinely attractive, like stare-fondly-at-your-driveway attractive, and this car…isn’t. (I guess it at least appeals to the part of teenaged me that thought it might be fun to own a late-80s Citroen show car.) Amd other drivers have reported that in hybrid mode it fires up the gas engine too frequently for green and serene motoring. Plus, if the rear area needs so much height (to fit the other version’s hydrogen tanks) that they need to put in a second rear window, why not make the thing a CUV instead? That’s a more popular market segment anyway. It’s almost like Honda is deliberately trying not to sell this car.

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