by Jared Rosenholtz
Ask any car enthusiast what the most interesting Honda model on sale today is and they'll probably tell you it is the Civic Type R. With 306 horsepower, a six-speed manual transmission, and bodywork that would make a 12-year old gush, I don't blame them. Unfortunately, manual transmissions and extreme bodywork don't appeal to most buyers. If I had to choose the most interesting Honda for regular car buyers, then it would have to be the 2018 Clarity Plug-In Hybrid.
Although the Clarity is (what I believe to be) the most interesting Honda model on sale, I haven't really seen very many of them on the road. That's because Honda has only sold around 11,000 Clarity models so far in 2018. In the same period, Toyota has sold around five times as many Prius models (counting the entire Prius family).
The Clarity is available in three different versions: a lease-only all-electric version with a lackluster range of 89 miles, an interesting hydrogen fuel cell version (also lease-only), and the plug-in model I tested here. Unfortunately, the EV and hydrogen versions are only available in certain markets like California, so I'll just be focusing on the hybrid here.
All Clarity hybrids are of the plug-in variety, meaning it can be plugged in and juiced up on electric power or use a gas motor. As a plug-in model, the Clarity's closest competitors are the Toyota Prius Prime, Chevy Volt, Kia Niro Plug-In, and Hyundai Ioniq Plug-In.
By calling the Clarity a rival for the Toyota Prius Prime, enthusiasts will be ready to turn off, but let me see if I can regain their attention by focusing on the fact that the Clarity offers a different solution to the fuel economy question.
Under the hood sits a 1.5-liter four-cylinder churning out 103 hp and 99 lb-ft of torque. Doing most of the heavy lifting is a permanent magnet synchronous electric motor mated to a 17-kWh lithium-ion battery producing 181 hp and 232 lb-ft of torque. Total output is a healthy 212 hp (for reasons we won't go into here, the total output is not a simple sum of the gas-powered engine and electric motor outputs).
The Clarity won't win many drag races but it won't hold up traffic either. 0-60 mph takes (a rather respectable) 7.7 seconds. By comparison, the Prius Prime takes over ten seconds to hit 60 mph.
Hybrids tend to behave like normal cars while achieving higher fuel economy using a small amount of battery assistance. Some hybrids offer the ability to drive a few miles at low speed on electric power alone, but plug-in hybrid vehicles combine the best of gas-engine cars and EVs.
The Clarity offers 48 miles of electric driving range before the gas engine kicks in to charge the batteries. This is more than nearly all of its rivals, except for the Chevy Volt, which can travel 53 miles on a charge. Once the battery runs out, the 1.5-liter engine still delivers 42 mpg. When running in tandem, the electric motor and gas engine combine for 110 MPGe, which is the EPA's measurement of the average distance traveled per unit of energy consumed.
Power is sent out through what Honda calls the eCVT, which is actually a direct drive from the electric motor to the front wheels. It still feels like a traditional CVT, but only sends power from the engine to the wheels under certain circumstances, much like the Chevy Volt.
As long as you have juice in the battery, the Clarity essentially drives around in silence as an EV. All of the benefits you've heard about EVs apply here: heaps of torque, instant acceleration, a peaceful driving experience, and excellent passing power. This is the perfect car to drive to work in every day while the sports car sits in the garage waiting for the weekend. I swear I could feel my heart rate slowing as the Clarity wafted through traffic. My stress levels lowered and I could feel the lack of engine vibration soothing me into a better mood.
If your commute to work is around 20 miles or less, you'll be able to do it without ever firing up the gas engine, charging it up at work or when you get home. A full charge takes around 19 hours (from 0%) on a standard household outlet, so it is more of an overnight task. If you have access to a fast charger, the battery can reach 100% from drained in just 3.5 hours. With the seven-gallon tank full and the battery at full charge, the Clarity offers a total driving range of 340 miles.
As much as I loved driving the Clarity in electric mode, things fell flat once the gas engine kicked in. When it comes on, you'll know because it sounds like someone just started up a diesel generator. Mash the throttle, and the once-silent cabin fills with the vexatious drone of a tiny engine mated to a CVT transmission. The engine simply picks an RPM and sticks to it, which is reminiscent of a CVT. In an otherwise silent car, the engine is extremely abrasive to the ear and almost ruins the whole experience.
During my week with the car, I tried to keep it charged up as much as possible to avoid running the gas engine. Honda includes sport, eco, and hybrid vehicle drive modes, but I mostly left the car to its own devices. There is a secret charging mode if you hold down the HV button, which will run the gas engine to keep the electric motor charged up. This way, you can run the gas engine on the highway and have plenty of range available when you reach your destination.
Although it may look similar to other hybrids, the Clarity drives remarkably like a normal car. Steering is relatively quick and it has sufficient powers of acceleration. While it falls short of being "fun," there is something rather enjoyable about having instant throttle response at any speed. The ride is incredibly smooth, ironing out bumps and providing a very luxurious experience.
I particularly loved the outward visibility provided by the unique trunk arrangement. Unlike a Prius, the Clarity is a sedan, not a hatchback. Honda decided to include a glass panel on the trunk, giving the car a hatchback-like profile. From the outside, the glass panel appears blacked out, but Honda included a little window above the rear seatbacks that peers into the trunk and through the back of the car. This gives you an extremely unique, lower view out the rear of the car.
Pricing a Honda Clarity is pretty easy because it only comes in two trims levels. The base model starts at $33,400 and comes standard with an eight-inch touchscreen with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, automatic LED headlights, Honda Lanewatch, a multi-view rearview camera, smart entry with push-button start, Bluetooth, and heated seats.
My tester was a Touring trim, which starts at $36,600 and adds in remote climate pre-conditioning, leather seats and steering wheel, navigation, eight-way power driver seat with memory, four-way power passenger seat, and voice recognition. With destination and handling, the total as-tested price is $37,490. This may sound like a lot, but the Clarity qualifies for a $7,500 tax credit, effectively bringing the net cost below $30,000.
Even the base model is marketed as more of an upscale hybrid, and the material quality reflects that. Honda uses an open-pore wood trim to supplement a very airy interior. The upper dashboard is covered in a sort-of Alcantara material, which feels very premium to the touch. Also, since there is no traditional transmission, Honda has included a handy storage area below the center console.
Although I loved the interior, including Honda's infotainment system, it's what surrounds the HondaLink that needs to be changed immediately. For a few model years, Honda replaced volume and tuning knobs with touch-sensitive buttons. These make it a pain to execute simple tasks like changing the radio station or adjusting the volume. There are redundant controls on the steering wheel for these functions, but they are laid out poorly and tend to be confusing without prior knowledge of which buttons control which functions.
Thankfully, many 2019 Honda models have already gone back to the good, old-fashioned knob. Since the 2019 Clarity hasn't arrived yet, it soldiers on with this annoying touch slider. I hope the 2019 model will go back to having a simple volume knob.
Aside from some very minor gripes with the infotainment, the Clarity's interior is a very spacious and airy place to relax. The Clarity sits in an interesting place between the Civic and Accord in Honda's lineup. Front seat legroom in the Clarity is basically identical to the Accord at around 42.2 inches. In the rear, the Clarity trails the Accord slightly (36.7 inches compared to 40.4) but the Clarity is larger than the Civic and similarly-sized Insight hybrid.
Trunk space is also pretty generous with 14.3 cubic feet of storage. The Accord hybrid has more space, but that's the price you pay for having a larger battery that enables over 40 miles of electric-only driving. Honda does include 60/40 split-folding seats, which aids in practicality, though the odd shape of the trunk makes it slightly less useful than a traditional sedan.
Though the looks won't be to everyone's liking, I believe Honda has done a fantastic job with the Clarity. The front end looks like it belongs in a movie set in the year 2030 and the rear is slightly less revolting than a Prius - which means it is a winner in my book. Driving along in electric mode is an absolute joy and the gas engine, while a bit annoying, does not completely ruin the experience. Combine that with a stellar ride and an upmarket interior and the Clarify comes out as a winner. It receives a rating of Great Buy. If Honda brings back the volume knob and improves the sound of the engine for 2019, the Clarity would be elevated to Must Buy.