2018 Honda Clarity PHEV First Drive - Seeking Clarity North of NYC

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey
2018 honda clarity phev first drive seeking clarity north of nyc

Honda’s Clarity is an interesting, and likely oft overlooked, entry in the brand’s lineup. Available in electric, fuel cell, and plug-in hybrid versions, the Clarity is part of Honda’s strategy to electrify two-thirds of its global lineup by 2030.

Other key vehicles in this effort that are already on sale (or are soon to be) are the hybrid version of the latest Accord and the Civic-based Insight hybrid.

This first drive was different than the norm – our drive route wasn’t as comprehensive as most. I was behind the wheel for about 30 miles, with part of the drive taking place on gently curving suburban parkway and the rest in New York City traffic. No long stretches of interstate, no curving canyon roads.

Which is fine, since most Clarity buyers are going to use it as a commuter car. That’s certainly the case with the plug-in hybrid version I sampled north of New York City.

Full disclosure: Honda flew me to New York City and put me in a nice hotel so that I could cover the auto show, with the expectation that I’d spend a morning driving the Clarity PHEV and attend a static walkaround of the Insight at the show. Honda also arranged a Q & A and lunch during the show for journalists to pick the brains of key Honda employees, and fed me several other nice meals, as well. They also paid for two of my cab rides via prepaid credit card.

The Clarity looks vaguely Accordish at a distance, at least in terms of proportions if not actual design. But it rides on its own platform.

The all-electric range is 47 miles and the combined gas/electric range is 340 miles. Naturally, Honda touts the PHEV version of the Clarity as being free of “range anxiety,” putting it in line with competitors like the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric, Hyundai Ioniq plug-in hybrid, and the Toyota Prius Prime plug-in.

Under hood, a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine pairs with a 181-horsepower/232 lb-ft electric motor for 212 total system horsepower. The gas engine is coupled to a starter/generator motor, and the electric motor is an AC synchronous traction motor. A 17-kilowatt hour/168-cell lithium-ion battery pack is the other key component.

There’s three main drive modes – EV Drive, Hybrid Drive, and Engine Drive. EV Drive is simple – the gas engine is off and decoupled and the electric motor provides all motive power, using the battery pack for juice.

When the car switches to Hybrid Drive mode, it works like a “series” hybrid. Motive power continues to come from the electric motor, while the gas engine and generator produce electricity and send it to the battery pack or traction motor as needed.

In Engine Drive mode, the Clarity becomes a parallel hybrid, with the gas engine and electric traction motor working in tandem to get power to the front wheels, thanks to a lock-up clutch connecting the two. The Clarity has no conventional transmission.

Honda claims the drive-mode transition is “seamless,” and I can’t argue – it wasn’t very noticeable in traffic.

Muddying the waters a bit, Honda offers four other drive modes – modes that you, the driver, can select. There’s normal, Econ, Sport, and HV. The first three are self-explanatory, while HV mode can be used with any of the other three to preserve battery charge.

As with most modern hybrids, plug-in or not, much of this goes unnoticed on the road, unless you’re really paying attention. Start chatting with a passenger or dodging traffic, and the Clarity’s powertrain does its work in the background.

The Sport mode does firm up the steering a little, but few buyers will ever flick the switch. This is a commuter car. Most buyers will just leave it in normal, while the die-hard fuel-sippers may use Econ. I did use the HV mode, but didn’t notice a huge difference in driving dynamics. Basically, if you’re light on the throttle, the car will stay in EV mode, while tromping on it will cause you to draw from the gas engine. Indeed, the gas pedal has a “click point” – push the pedal past this point and the gas engine gets pressed into service.

We drove on roads with curves best described as gentle, so I had no chance to push the car. It stands to reason that, with a focus on aerodynamics and 18-inch tires designed to save energy, the Clarity will probably be a handful when driven hard.

Upon hearing I’d spend the morning driving the Clarity, a few journalists at the auto show asked me how it was. I kept coming back to one word: “Nice.” Because that’s what the Clarity is.

A lot of people think of “nice” as a pejorative. I don’t mean it that way in this context, though. The car really is quite pleasant. The interior has upscale materials including a soft swath of suede that looks and feels quality (it was cream colored in the car I drove, meaning it will get dirty fast) and wood trim that also both looks and feels upmarket.

Ride is also pleasant, although the road we were on didn’t much challenge the Clarity’s suspension.

The interior is fairly standard Honda fare – push-button shifter (conventional transmission or not, you still need to shift into drive and reverse somehow), tablet-like infotainment, and storage under the shifter. It’s roomy and comfortable.

It’s quiet, too. And relatively well-equipped, available with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, dual-zone climate control, USB port, infotainment, navigation, satellite radio, Pandora, LED headlights, automatic windshield wipers, HondaLink, Honda Sensing driver’s assist systems, and keyless entry and starting.

Perhaps my biggest beef is that it’s a bit gawky looking in the rear – the side skirts above the rear wheel provide an aerodynamic function but don’t look particularly appealing.

Price is a bit dear, too – at $33,400 the Clarity costs more than the Ioniq PHEV, Ford’s Fusion PHEV, and Prius Prime. Only the Volt costs more. Honda will try to tell you the Clarity has more EV-only range than all but the Volt and better standard features than the Fusion, Prime, and Volt, and the company has a point. Thing is, while some shoppers look for the best value for the money, others look for the lowest MSRP, and the Clarity does require a little bit more cash outlay. Stepping to the Touring model (navigation, that suede dashboard trim, leather seats and steering wheel) brings it to $36,600, and that’s before the $890 D and D fee.

The overall package is impressive, and fuel-sippers with a need for a spacious commuter car should take note. Clearly, the Clarity is nice, but at a price, at least compared to the competition. You do get what you pay for, though, and in this case it’s a smooth operating PHEV that will provide a comfortable commute.

For some, that’s all the clarity they need.

[Images: © 2018 Tim Healey/TTAC]

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5 of 37 comments
  • Chetter Chetter on Apr 05, 2018

    Looks like an updated version of a 1991 Pontiac LeMans hatch. That's not a compliment by the way.

  • YellowDuck YellowDuck on Apr 06, 2018

    Why not just a plug-in series hybrid where the motor only charges the battery? Yes, lower fuel economy in series mode, but only on those days when you exceed the battery range or are heavy on the throttle. It just seems like it would be a lot less complicated and much less expensive to not require a mechanical linkage between the ICE and the drive wheels. Which cars on the market are currently configured as simple plug-in series hybrids?

    • See 2 previous
    • Scoutdude Scoutdude on Apr 07, 2018

      @HotPotato The laggy feeling of the eCVT hybrid set up was definitely present in the early Fords and Toyota's but Ford's current set up it is gone. Some of that is due to the fact that the transaxle was designed for both standard and plug in applications from the beginning.

  • Inside Looking Out "And safety was enhanced generally via new reversing lamps and turn signals fitted as standard equipment."Did not get it, turn signals were optional in 1954?
  • Lorenzo As long as Grenadier is just a name, and it doesn't actually grenade like Chrysler UltraDrive transmissions. Still, how big is the market for grossly overpriced vehicles? A name like INEOS doesn't have the snobbobile cachet yet. The bulk of the auto market is people who need a reliable, economical car to get to work, and they're not going to pay these prices.
  • Lorenzo They may as well put a conventional key ignition in a steel box with a padlock. Anything electronic is more likely to lock out the owner than someone trying to steal the car.
  • Lorenzo Another misleading article. If they're giving away Chargers, people can drive that when they need longer range, and leave the EV for grocery runs and zipping around town. But they're not giving away Chargers, thy're giving away chargers. What a letdown. What good are chargers in California or Nashville when the power goes out?
  • Luke42 I'm only buying EVs from here on out (when I have the option), so whoever backs off on their EV plans loses a shot at my business.