by Morgan Carter
The Honda Clarity has been holding its own in the hybrid sedan segment for quite some time, but as the competition heats up, its flaws are starting to show. Under the hood, a 1.5-liter gas engine works alongside an electric motor to direct 212 horsepower to the front wheels. While this doesn't give the sedan any athletic aspirations, it returns excellent gas mileage and an impressive electric-only range of 47 miles. But, at a starting price of $33,400, it's a bit pricey for how much you get. With stiff competition from the Toyota Prius Prime and even other Hondas, as well as a growing array of affordable brand new electric vehicles, it is not nearly as popular as it used to be. After all, the electric Clarity was discontinued in 2019, and the Fuel Cell variant is almost impossible to find. Only time will tell.
Honda seems to feel that it has perfected the Clarity PHEV, as there have been no all-new mechanical or feature updates for 2021. The exterior color palette has been reduced, with the deletion of Moonlit Forest. And, of the remaining paints, Platinum White and Crimson now cost extra. In every other regard, it is the same vehicle as it was last year - even the price is the same.
The Clarity has traditional hybrid styling cues, with a smaller than usual front grille and hyper-modern L-shaped daytime running lights. A solid bar runs across the front fascia, intersecting the LED headlights, and bearing the Honda logo. The wheel arches house 18-inch alloys, though the rear arches are partially covered, giving the car a more solid appearance. A body-colored decklid spoiler is standard, along with a power trunk lid, and a shark fin antenna.
The Honda PHEV is a bit stouter and stockier than many other sedans in the segment, measuring 192.7 inches in length and 73.9 inches in width. The wheelbase is slightly short for the size of the car at 108.3-inches, and it doesn't stand very tall at 58.2 inches. As with most electrically assisted autos, it is quite a bit heavier than it looks. The base-level trim tips the scale at 4,052 pounds, while the upper-spec adds another seven pounds. But this is heavy even for a hybrid, as the Honda Accord weighs 700 lbs less.
The exterior can be coated in one of five paint colors. Of these, three are no-cost standard options: Solar Silver Metallic, Modern Steel Metallic, and Crystal Black Pearl. The remaining paints each cost $395 to apply, with a choice between Crimson Pearl and Platinum White Pearl. There are no restrictions in application, aside from price.
Performance has a somewhat different meaning for the Clarity hybrid. Rather than breakneck sprint times and whiplash-inducing cornering ability, its greatest strength lies in its fuel efficiency. The engine is refined and frugal, but it only develops a combined 212 horsepower. But since the sedan isn't overly heavy, this is still enough to get it from 0-60 mph in a modest 7.7 seconds, according to independent tests. Being a PHEV, though, there will be times when you are running purely on electric power. Without help from the gasoline engine, the Clarity takes a much slower 12 seconds to reach the same speed. The lack of an all-wheel drivetrain option means that the Honda is also restricted in the environments it can traverse with confidence.
A single powertrain option is available to the Honda Clarity PHEV, which is naturally a combination of a 1.5-liter four-cylinder combustion engine and an electric motor. Respectively, they develop 103 hp/99 lb-ft and 181 hp/232 lb-ft, while the combined output is 212 hp. As we have come to expect from hybrids, gear shifts are simulated by an electronic continuously variable transmission (CVT). This directs the power to the front wheels only.
The electric motor gives the sedan quite a lot of torque to work with, meaning that pulling off from a stop is a surprisingly brisk affair. However, it doesn't take long for it to run out of breath. This is fine for getting around town, but the car struggles a bit on the highway. The lack of power is only exacerbated by an indecisive transmission, meaning it takes far too long to overtake.
The Clarity doesn't have a lot of power to work with, so you might think that it should be able to manage what it does have gracefully. However, it's a bit clumsy on the road. Body roll is a real concern if you don't slow down sufficiently before a turn, which is only made worse by the uncommunicative steering, since you have very little idea of what the wheels are doing. On the plus side, the extra weight of the electric components help the sedan stick to the road.
For the most part, this also helps to smooth over rough pavement, but the Honda is not a floaty luxury cruiser. Larger bumps are transmitted to the cabin rather disconcertingly, so be sure to slow to a crawl on poorly maintained roads.
That said, the car is well-suited to the city landscape, where these concerns are mostly moot. Light steering means that it is easy to maneuver around busy streets or a packed parking lot, even though the sedan is a bit on the large side. And, even though it is a plug-in, it comes equipped with regenerative brakes. Thankfully, the system isn't overly intrusive, and the available modulation paddles on the steering wheel mean you can turn it down even further if it does become noticeable.
While it may not be the most efficient sedan in the Honda stable, the Clarity PHEV is still highly frugal. On regular gasoline power, it returns EPA estimated figures of 44/40/42 mpg across the city/highway/combined cycles. When working in conjunction with the electric components, the generator boasts much more impressive figures of 110 MPGe. Fully charged, the sedan travels 47 miles on electrons alone, while the combined range is 340 miles. This takes into account a full seven-gallon gas tank and a 17-kWh battery. Charging said battery takes around 12 hrs on a Level 1 outlet, or 2.5 hrs on a Level 2 outlet.
Hybrid cars generally have quality interiors to match their higher price tag, and the Clarity is no exception. Even the plain cloth on the base trim is high quality, but the overall appearance is always modern and stylish. There is enough space around the cabin for all passengers and plenty of features to keep them all comfortable and happy. However, the focus on being high-tech means that there are no physical controls for the infotainment system, which can be distracting for some.
Up to five passengers can be accommodated inside the Honda. There is more than enough headroom all around, and those in the front can't complain about legroom, either. The back row is just as spacious despite the size of the battery beneath the seats, but taller adults will still struggle to fit because the seats aren't as big as they need to be. Oddly enough, the front seats come heated from the base trim, but power-adjustability is reserved for the Touring. A low beltline contributes towards a clear view out from the driver's seat.
Just because there isn't much choice when it comes to customizing the interior, that does not mean that it's anything to be disappointed by. The base trim's cabin is upholstered in Beige or Black cloth. While this may be pretty simple, the fabric is high-quality and comfortable. The Touring replaces this with genuine leather, though, in the same choice of colors. The remaining surfaces, like the door panels and dash, are finished in soft-touch materials and trim with faux wood in several places.
Breaking the trend that many hybrids fall into, the 2021 Honda Clarity does not sacrifice trunk space to make room for its battery back. Behind the rear seats, a practical 15.5 cubic feet of cargo space is presented, which is more than most rivals, including the Honda Insight. This is more than enough space for most daily errands or even some larger suitcases for a trip out of town. If you need to stow something with somewhat unusual proportions, the rear seats can be folded down in a 60/40 split.
Each of the four doors offers a spacious pocket, complementing the four cupholders spread around the cabin. A passenger-side glove compartment and center armrest cubby supply space for larger items, and there is some storage space under the floating console for loose items like mobile phones or wallets.
Hybrids are generally quite modern and well-equipped, and the Clarity sticks pretty close to this stereotype. It is by no means a luxury vehicle with an obscene number of features, but it gets the fundamentals like premium cloth upholstery, heated front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, and a pair of 12-volt power outlets. Keyless entry and ignition make getting and getting going easier, while a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel helps you find a comfortable driving position. The Touring upgrades to leather upholstery on the seats and steering wheel, and adds an eight-way power driver's seat. Both trims come standard with the Honda Sensing suite of driver aids, which comprises adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and keep assist, as well as collision avoidance technology and a rearview camera. Rear sonar is available, too, but it costs extra.
The infotainment suite is comprehensive but not extravagant. The eight-inch touchscreen is programmed with Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and Bluetooth functionality, along with SiriusXM and HD Radio. The only available improvement to this set-up is navigation, which is added when you upgrade trim levels. Eight speakers are standard, regardless of trim, as are the pair of USB charging ports. Unfortunately, this focus on tech comes at the expense of usability. The only way to operate the system is via the touchscreen or the voice controls on the Touring, since there are no physical knobs or dials.
Despite a few complaints over the years, the Clarity has only been recalled a single time, in 2019 for faulty rear seat belt locking mechanisms. This is about the only indicator of the sedan's reliability, since independent organizations like J.D. Power have not subjected the Clarity to review. The most common complaints include the engine revving too high and the lack of physical controls for the infotainment. Honda's warranty plan is pretty standard: 36,000 miles/three years of limited coverage, 60,000 miles/five years of powertrain coverage, and 100,000 miles/eight years of hybrid component coverage.
There is no safety review for the Honda Clarity from either the NHTSA or the IIHS. However, it does come equipped with Honda Sensing, which comprises a full suite of safety features.
Honda Sensing is a standard suite of safety features found on every Clarity model, comprising pre-collision warning with automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, and lane keep assist. But, they also get the kind of built-in features we have come to expect from all modern cars, such as ABS, a rearview camera, stability and traction control, and an array of airbags. Seven are spread throughout the cabin, including dual front, front side, side curtain, and a driver-knee airbag.
While the Honda Clarity Plug-in Hybrid is a respectable sedan in its own right, it doesn't stand out as much as it once did when viewed alongside some of the more modern hybrid and electric competitors on the market. But, at its price point, it still has a lot to offer prospective buyers.
The powertrain won't wow you, especially with pure-electric cars now boasting ludicrously quick acceleration times, but it gets you where you need to go without much fuss. It is also extremely efficient for a vehicle that still relies largely on fossil fuels, offering 42 mpg in mixed driving or 110 MPGe when using both gas and electric systems. On top of that, it presents buyers with a spacious, well-appointed cabin, as well as a practical trunk in comparison to what most rival hybrids offer.
However, it's not the cheapest option on the market, and that is very often what hybrid drivers are looking for. It can't compete with the Toyota Prius in terms of pricing or fuel economy, and even competition from the same Honda stable, like the Insight or Accord, make for attractive alternatives. When you consider that it handles rather badly and that similarly priced rivals offer more in the way of luxury and tech, its glitter is shown to be more pyrite than real gold. That said, it is still a capable and efficient daily commuter, but the fact is that you can find a better car than the Clarity on the market right now, and even more are expected to debut over the next few years.
The 2021 Honda Clarity Plug-in is available country-wide, unlike its fuel cell variant, which we review separately. It also carries a lower price tag since it relies on less complex technology. In its base form, the PHEV goes on sale for $33,400, while the Touring trim of the Honda Clarity carries a price of $36,600. These are MSRP prices and do not include tax, registration, licensing, or the $955 destination charge. What you must remember, though, is that while these vehicles cost more than your standard gasoline sedan, they are eligible for tax credits up to the value of $7,500. Combined with the impressive fuel economy figures, this could mean substantial long-term savings.
The same two trim levels carry over from last year, meaning that you can choose the 2021 Clarity as the Plug-in Hybrid or the Touring. They share the same mechanical specs, starting with the 1.5L four-pot engine paired with an electric motor to produce a combined 212 hp. This is directed to the front wheels via a CVT.
Standard equipment comprises 18-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, daytime running lights, and taillights. Cloth upholsters the cabin, complemented by dual-zone climate control and heated front seats to keep the occupants comfortable. Conveniences include keyless entry and cruise control, while the infotainment suite comprises an eight-inch interface, SiriusXM, HD Radio, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and an eight-speaker audio system. Both trims also come outfitted with Honda Sensing, which includes lane keep assist, lane departure warning, and collision avoidance tech.
The Touring is only slightly more expensive than the base model. This extra investment covers the upgrade from the cloth to leather upholstery, the installation of an eight-way power driver's seat, and the inclusion of navigation.
For the most part, if you want more than the basic equipment found on the entry-level model, you have no choice but to upgrade to the upper-tier Touring. This includes upgrading the upholstery or gaining access to navigation. Nevertheless, there are some minor customization options to be had as standalone add-ons. A few that are worth mentioning include exterior accessories, like 18-inch alloy wheels in a different design ($471), a decklid spoiler ($313), or body-side molding ($227). You can also install rear parking sensors ($538) and illuminated door sills ($304).
If you're looking at a hybrid for your next car, the chances are your focus is more on value than pomp and luxury. So, while the upper-tier Touring gets supple leather upholstery and a power-adjustable driver's seat, it doesn't actually improve upon what makes the Clarity such a great car - excellent fuel economy. Both models share the same powertrain and mileage figures, so it makes more sense to go for the one that costs less. You don't even lose out on any of the safety features since Honda Sensing is standard, and the same infotainment suite is installed in both trims, minus navigation. But this, too, is little more than a convenience, since almost all mobile phones support some form of navigation app.
The smaller sibling to the Clarity Plug-in Hybrid, the Honda Insight matches its more compact stature with a much lower price tag of $22,930. Despite this, it can actually go toe-to-toe with the larger hybrid in most areas. The powertrain is down on power at 151 hp, but the much lighter body means that acceleration is quite similar. Inside, it is just as spacious, with even more legroom to go around. The trunk is slightly smaller, though, at 15.1 cubic feet. However, you'll notice the differences once you're seated, since the materials and build-quality are not up to par, and there aren't nearly as many standard features to interact with. It doesn't even offer smartphone integration on the entry-level model like its big brother does. But these aren't make or break factors for most hybrid shoppers. The Insight is actually more fuel efficient than the Clarity, returning EPA-estimated figures of 55/49/52 mpg. But, since it is not a plug-in, it relies purely on regenerative braking to power the motor, and it is incapable of traveling on EV power only. This means that the larger, more expensive sedan is actually cheaper to run if you're only planning to make short trips on a daily basis between recharging, so it is the smarter buy.
These two plug-ins have always been fierce rivals in the segment, and while they may look quite similar, they couldn't be less alike. The Honda Clarity hybrid has a lot more power under the hood, with 212 combined hp, while the Toyota makes do with just 121 hp. Neither are particularly impressive performers, but the Prius is still king of fuel economy with EPA-estimates of 55/53/54 mpg. In terms of combined fuel economy, it also significantly surpasses the Clarity's 114 MPGe with its own 133 MPGe. However, its electric-only range of 25 miles is a bit of a let down. On the plus side, it is quite a bit cheaper with a starting price of $28,220, but this does translate to a less premium cabin. Still, it gets most of the same tech, so when it comes to sheer value for money, the Prius Prime ekes its way out on top of the competition.