2018 Honda Clarity PHEV first drive: The best of 3 worlds


If Honda were a freshman at Alternative Energy College, its major would be “undeclared.” While Nissan and GM and others have announced that electric drive is the way of the future, and while Toyota still insists that hydrogen is the answer, Honda is keeping its options open. Young men in relationships commit better than Honda does with its Clarity. As of Dec. 1, you have three powertrain options available in the Clarity: all-electric, hydrogen fuel cell and the latest addition that you see here, the Clarity plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV).

Clarity PHEV

How do you like the proportion? The look? The roofline?

The 2018 Clarity PHEV is a very efficient people mover. It is big, maybe even bulbous, with seating for five and a 15.5-cubic-foot trunk big enough to store all your corporate insecurities in. For the first 47 miles of your trip, it’s powered by a 17-kWh electric battery spinning a motor/generator and a motor that spins the wheels directly. You can charge the Clarity just like an electric car by plugging it into an outlet. When the electricity runs out, the 1.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine takes over.

Total range is 340 miles, and in between pure gas and pure electric propulsion are all kinds of algorithms that mix-n-match gasoline and electricity as the situation changes. Stomp on the accelerator and the gas engine kicks in. Run out of electricity and the gas engine kicks in to recharge the battery and drive the electric motor. Press the HV button and the gas engine kicks in but only to charge the battery. Drive along at a steady state on the freeway and the gas engine drives the front wheels directly. It’ll do all that and everything in between. 

Clarity bird's eye view

There’s a lot of room inside that shape.

And do it efficiently. On battery power alone, the Clarity PHEV is rated at 110 mpg-e by the EPA. On gasoline alone, it gets 44/40/42 city/highway/combined from the EPA. Total system output — when gas engine and electric motors are all going — peaks at 212 hp.

There are four drive modes: econ, normal, sport and HV. In sport mode, Honda promises the Clarity will be “fun to drive.” One cool feature is a tab on the steering wheel you can pull back to increase the amount of regenerative braking you will get when the car is decelerating. There are four levels of decel available to you with this pull-tab. More control is always good.

I got a drive in a couple Clarity PHEVs and found they might just be the perfect suburban family haulers — from the inside, certainly. There is humongous room, with seating for five full-size people in two rows. Passenger volume is listed at 101.5 cubic feet. There’s even headroom in back for full-size adults.

If I were in charge of Honda’s Clarity division, however, I would have gone a little further and just made the thing into a crossover. That would increase the interior volume even more and make the exterior proportions less bean-like. Why have the roofline droop down like that in back? Why give the sides hips? People are going crazy for more upright, semi-squarish CUVs, so I say, give them a CUV! And Honda is thinking, “Yeah, we need another product planner like I need a hole in the head.” But the current shape is aerodynamically efficient, Honda promises, and that helps mpg-e.

Clarity dash

The dashboard is efficient and informative.

On the road, the whole thing is surprisingly quiet. Not just in EV mode, which you would expect, but when the internal combustion engine kicks in — a transition you often can’t hear. Push the accelerator to the floor and you can hear the engine, true, but in many more mundane driving conditions you can’t, unless you really listen closely. Hence, it was hard to tell how much of the time the car was in pure electric mode. Probably best to stick with the EPA numbers for comparison’s sake.

The dual-pinion electric power steering does a good job of directing the Clarity toward apexes, but the high-efficiency low-rolling-resistance 235/45R-18 Michelin Energy Saver A/S tires start to break away fairly soon, though in a safe and predictable manner. As if anyone’s going to carve canyons in this. In more normal driving conditions, the Clarity is perfectly comfortable for you and however many passengers you may have.

Honda wants electrified cars to make up two-thirds of its sales by 2030. Right now, hybrids and plug-in hybrids are leading the way to that goal. Of the three Claritys (Clarities?), Honda says this one will easily be the biggest seller. Prices start at an entirely reasonable $34,290, while the Touring trim level is $37,490. Those are close to the Chevy Volt, which has a slightly longer EV range but is a smaller inside and out. The Volt looks better, you could argue. But for regular family hauling duty, the extra space of the Clarity PHEV would fulfill the task better.

Mark Vaughn

Mark Vaughn

– West Coast Editor Mark Vaughn covers all car things west of the Mississippi from his Autoweek lair high above the LA metropolis.

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On Sale: Now

Base Price: $34,290

Powertrain: 1.5-liter I4 gasoline engine; AC permanent magnet synchronous electric motor

Output: 212 hp total system power

Curb Weight: 4052 pounds (mfg.)

Fuel Economy: 47 miles electric range; 340 miles combined range(EPA City/Hwy/Combined)

Pros: Roomy inside, 47 miles in EV mode

Cons: Kinda unattractive

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