By on April 4, 2018

2018 Honda Clarity

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.

2018 Honda Clarity

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.

2018 Honda Clarity

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.

2018 Honda Clarity

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.

2018 Honda Clarity

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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37 Comments on “2018 Honda Clarity PHEV First Drive – Seeking Clarity North of NYC...”

  • avatar

    Wow Honda, you took the piggish proportions of the Civic and really did a nice job of cleanup. Kudos.

    • 0 avatar
      Menar Fromarz

      But wait, it looks like a ’68 Skylark. Can you get full skirts for it?
      Honestly, I don’t see the point of so many models and platforms that should be combined with the most visually pleasing sheetmetal. For example, why isn’t this the new Accord, or a powertrain version of it? Why are the “eco focused” versions so damn bizarre? I would be happy to consider one if you didn’t want to wear a bag over your head.

      • 0 avatar

        Personally, I really enjoy the wheel skirts and hope there will be an after-market option for the full skirt.

        “Why are the “eco focused” versions so damn bizarre?”

        No idea, my guess is completely different design teams… or perhaps its the same team but management tones down the bread-n-butter models but does not for the one-offs?

  • avatar

    You know, simplify the rear end a bit (delete fake vents) and ditch the weird hood cut line, and you’ve got yourself a Citroen-style sedan.

  • avatar

    Those wheel pants have to go. U. G. L. Y.

  • avatar

    Ugly, expensive, saves the planet, what’s not to like?

  • avatar

    “Under hood, a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine pairs with a 181-horsepower/232 lb-ft electric motor for 212 total system horsepower”

    You’d think the company that made the S2000 could squeeze more than 31 horses out of 1.5 liters!

    • 0 avatar

      The electric motor can provide up to 181-horsepower/232 lb-ft when it’s in serial mode. In this mode there is no way to gett ICE power directly to the wheels.

      At higher speeds (40-ish mph) when the direct drive clutch is engaged, the power from the ICE is additive, but since the ICE RPM is not independently variable in this mode, the power gain is limited.

      Also of note, the battery can only provide about 120hp, so without the ICE running, you are essentially limited to 3/5ths of max rated power, unlike the Chevy Volt, which has a more potent battery pack that can supply peak power in any mode.

  • avatar

    “Whoa, sweet Clarity, ‘bro.”

  • avatar

    So now Honda is the lone holdout for hybrids with trunks? Everyone else is using liftbacks (Ioniq, Prius, Volt) or hatches (Niro).

    • 0 avatar

      … continuing from your examples, surely it’s well past time that question #1 about ANY new model should be “… but what caused you to make the controversial decision to build it as a sedan”.

      I’ve spent decades being baffled by American’s love affair with the hopeless impracticality of the sedan, to finally be vindicated by it’s mass abandonment for vehicles with rear hatches. So why on earth would Honda decide to keep investing in this legacy form factor? And it’s ugly, like MK1 Prius ugly …! It coulda been a contender.

      • 0 avatar

        So why on earth would Honda decide to keep investing in this legacy form factor?

        Because every time a sedan dies a good fairy loses its wings. Either that or the B&B loses a 6 pack of beer, something like that. But yeah, you’d think the world was ending because Chrysler killed the Dart and 200, and Ford is killing the Taurus. It’s just America finally realizing sedans are dumb, and hatches are better…as long as you jack them up a bit and call them “crossovers.”

        Witness the Niro. It’s selling like hotcakes. Why? It’s a “crossover.” Not a “hybrid.” Not a “green car.” Toyota and Honda are still additced to the idea of making their green cars ostentatiously “different” looking. But they just end up looking ugly.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      The hybrid versions of the Sonata, Optima, and Fusion have trunks.

  • avatar

    This is pretty much the ugliest car in recent memory, IMHO.

  • avatar

    A few things to note…

    While all Clarity plug in hybrids have a liquid cooled battery, only Canadian models are equipped with a battery heater. In colder parts of the USA, getting the rated EV range will be impossible for much of the year.

    Strangely, Honda did not include any screens that show electricity consumption. (miles/KWh, total KWh used, remaining battery KWh, instantaneous KW etc.) Only a useless combined “mpg” number is given. Clearly this car is aimed at people that know nothing about EVs. Other cars (Volt, Bolt, E-golf etc. show this information)

    The Clarity charges at 6.6kw, meaning that it can charge at twice the speed of a Chevy Volt or almost any other PHEV, (except some Porsches with optional upgraded chargers and the BMW i3)

    Also, the front overhang is tragic. That is all.

  • avatar

    Somebody here at work just bought one (in white), and yeah, it’s ugly in person, too.

  • avatar

    I think Honda did a bad job of communicating what the Clarity is. Even though I consider myself a pretty devoted industry enthusiast, until quite recently I thought the Clarity was only a fuel cell vehicle. Had no idea it was also a hybrid and plug-in, which is really the bigger story. Maybe it was just me who missed the memo.

    Finding out it wasn’t fuel cell only gave me..ahem..clarity into why I’ve seen quite a few here in Los Angeles (helps that Honda HQ is here too). I pass by one parked on the street every day on my drive to work. The proportions are awkward and ungainly. It reminds me of a beached whale laying on the side of the road.

    • 0 avatar

      Nope, I missed the memo too.

      As a fuel cell vehicle it made sense, but now its power train is just a complicated, confusing (and expensive) technology demonstration. Its almost like they did this just to prove it could be done. But why not just make this a normal hybrid like a Prius? Oh that’s right they already have an Accord Hybrid that is a perfectly good car so the Clarity had to be different.

      Sadly like all current Honda’s this thing is mess of styling bits that serve no purpose. The back 1/3 of the car looks like someone was given various, random, leftover pieces of cardboard from Amazon boxes and told to use them to finish the project.

      Also, note to automakers: Audi’s iPad-on-the-dash is a BAD design, please stop copying the look. Thank you.

      • 0 avatar

        The accord hybrid uses the same technology to derive power from the engine/battery combination. They’ve been using it since the 2014 Accord. Its not that complicated or confusing. FOr the driver, you just put it in D and go, if its all too much to think about.

        I have a 2017 Accord Hybrid, and I get legit 48mph in the warmer months, with no hypermiling. Its more efficent than a prius, given that the accord is bigger, heavier, quieter and less severely styled for aero efficiency

        The accord hybrid has a much smaller battery and larger engine than does the clarity.

    • 0 avatar
      Tim Healey

      After we did a walkaround of the Insight, which is also upcoming, Honda spend a chunk of our Q and A talking about how hard it is to market not just the Clarity, but all of these types of cars. I am debating writing about it — it was interesting but also not very surprising, it’s been well-covered ground by most car sites.

      • 0 avatar

        You need to do an article along the lines of: “10 persistent myths about hybrids and ev’s, and their effect on sales”.

      • 0 avatar

        Why is it hard to market “these kinds of cars?”

        Is it because they choose to style them like they’re trying to take home the blue ribbon in the Ugliest Car in the World contest?

        Is it because they neuter the inherent performance potential of electric motors instead of using it, making the car slower rather than faster than its conventional cousin?

        Is it because they make them incapable of driving on EV mode alone on all but the gentlest throttle, thus constantly shattering the whisper-quiet operation that draws people to electrified vehicles in the first place?

        Is it because they give them pathetically short electric range, achingly slow 3.3 kW recharging, or both?

        Is it because some saddle them with traditional stepped automatics, hacking away at the smoothness and efficiency these cars should have?

        Is it because some can’t be bothered to engineer a new platform and so they put the battery where your trunk space should be?

        It’s hard for automakers to market “these kinds of cars” because their offerings in the space just aren’t that good. Most of them smell like insincere tools built to exploit unintended loopholes in tax and regulatory regimes, not like sincere efforts to build a great PHEV.

        Of the PHEVs on the market today, only three drive like a sincere effort to give the buyer a great PHEV. They are the Chevy Volt, the Honda Clarity, and the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, in that order. The Chevy is great but needs more room and better materials, the Honda is great but needs new styling and an EV Priority mode, and the Mitsubishi is great but needs more power and range. Even those who are making an effort don’t quite get it right.

        I don’t know why it’s taking GM so insanely long to get a PHEV (Voltec) Equinox to market. But with 50 mile EV range, acceptable post-EV MPG, and a post-tax-incentive price competitive they with the conventional one, they would absolutely wipe the floor with everyone else.

  • avatar

    Is that someone’s favorite 90s American car in the background?

  • avatar

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

  • avatar

    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?

    • 0 avatar

      OK, so I’m no expert, but here’s my understanding:

      The Nissan Note ePower is exactly what you are describing, though it has no plug—it’s truly just a hybrid, not a plug-in hybrid. It’s not as efficient as a Prius, but it’s cheaper to build and buy, and you get the lovely quick smooth response of an EV rather than the laggy responses of an eCVT motor/generator setup. But of course there’s going to be some engine thrash still there.

      Among cars with a plug (and hence the ability to turn off the engine thrash), the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV comes close. Its gas engine can clutch in directly only in a single fixed gear (basically fifth gear); other than that it just runs the generator. Again, simpler and more responsive than a traditional hybrid setup, but the downside is that once the battery is exhausted, fuel economy is pretty poor: identical to the non-hybrid model, though the PHEV is still nicer to drive.

      AFAIK the Honda Clarity PHEV has the same basic setup as the Outlander, except that the Honda—with 2 wheel drive instead of 4, a large battery instead of a just-okay one, and a body that is aerodynamic to a fault rather than a big bluff SUV–returns much better MPG.

      I think this technology would work better with a bigger plug-in battery and more powerful motor than most manufacturers are giving us so far, but as they move up that ladder, at some point there’s little sense in keeping the ICE drivetrain at all; a pure battery electric is less complicated and much nicer to drive.

      • 0 avatar

        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.

    • 0 avatar

      That is how the current Hondas work much of the time. The Starter MG is attached to the engine and the power it generates is fed where it needs to go that the time, either all or part to the battery or traction MG. However they found that by mechanically locking the starter MG to the traction MG they increase efficiently a couple of percent in some situations.

      Since the cars are set up for a conventional transmission, both motors need circulating fluid to cool and lube them spending $30-$40 on a clutch and solenoid to lock the two together is a no brainier.

      It is the best Hybrid design currently on the market and is highly suitable for use in plug in applications too.

      The coming E-note is very similar at face value, sans the direct drive clutch, however it is operated in an entirely different fashion.

      The Honda system will have the power generated by the engine directed to only the traction motor in much of its normal operation. The battery is there to capture the regen braking energy and allow engine off operation with fully functional systems, ie electric A/C and PS.

      The Nissan system is specifically designed with an inadequate engine and relies on a larger battery pack to capture energy generated by the engine when the loads are low to supplement those situations where the inadequate engine is well inadequate. The idea here is to allow the engine to operate at the load and rpm that it is most efficient if it is operating at all. So with the Honda chances are as you roll up to a stop the engine will shut down as soon as your foot is on the brake and will stay off until you accelerate at a rate over a threshold value. With the Nissan that engine will keep running at the same RPM generating the same amount of energy but will dump it all in the battery pack and will do so until it reaches a fairly high SOC threshold. Then and only then will it shut down while you are sitting there at a stop light.

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