The folks at Honda recently lent me a Clarity plug-in hybrid to drive for a week. My colleague Kyle Field recently reviewed the fully electric version of the Clarity and found much to recommend it, but that car is only available in California. Kyle and I have been looking forward to comparing our experiences with the two cars. Here is my report.
What Does “Plug-In Hybrid” Really Mean?
The Honda Clarity PHEV is a plug-in hybrid. It says so prominently right on the charging port door. Interestingly, Chrysler is still petrified of calling its spectacular Pacifica Hybrid a plug-in. Apparently, it is concerned mainstream buyers will be put off by the new terminology, even though the minivan gets at least twice the fuel economy of the standard model.
Earlier this year, I had a Kia Niro PHEV for a week. It had an 8.5 kWh battery and about 24 miles of electric-only range. Unlike any other plug-in on the market, it had a 6 speed dual clutch transmission with paddle shifters behind the steering wheel. In EV mode, the car operates silently on electric power, but when Sport mode is selected, the gas engine kicks in and the driver can pretend to be Sebastien Vettel in the cockpit of his Ferrari. It’s great boy racer stuff.
The Clarity has paddles, too, but they control the amount of regenerative braking. Pull on the left paddle for more, pull on the right paddle for less. The Clarity PHEV has a 17 kWh battery good for about 45 miles of all-electric driving, which also makes it eligible for the full $7,500 federal tax credit. It also has a 1.5 liter gas engine that kicks in any time the driver whistles down to the engine room for more power than the 181 horsepower AC permanent magnet electric motor can muster. That doesn’t happen often in normal driving, but when you are pulling out of a mall parking lot in front of a speeding cement mixer, the engine fires up and screams immediately to redline while the CVT transmission races to catch up. I confess I am not a big fan of CVTs. Never liked them. Never will.
In both the Kia and the Honda, the gas engine is connected directly to the driven wheels by a clutch and plays a major role in moving the car forward once the battery is depleted. In the Chevy Volt I drove last year, the gas engine is just there to provide electricity for the electric motor. Once battery power is depleted, it kicks in, but it is nearly silent in operation. Pressing on the accelerator has no impact on whether or not the gas engine comes on. Lean on the go pedal in the Clarity and a cacophony erupts from under the hood that is louder than most normal ICE cars. Why all that thrashing about is necessary is a mystery.
So: Three cars, all of them sold as a “plug-in hybrid.” Two have gas engines that connect to the driven wheels. One has a CVT. One has a 6 speed transmission. One does not connect to the driven wheels at all except in extraordinary circumstances. The Volt is dead quiet in operation. The Kia’s engine can be heard clearly but is not intrusive. The Honda Clarity at full throttle is downright distressing. No wonder the buying public is confused by the “plug-in hybrid” label. Maybe Chrysler has the right idea — just ignore the issue and enjoy the car.
Why Buy A Clarity PHEV?
The first question anyone asks when considering a new car is, “How much does it cost?” The Clarity PHEV starts at $33,400 and is nicely equipped at the price. Deduct the federal tax credit and you can have one in your driveway for a net cost of $25,900. That, folks, is where a plug-in car is cheaper to buy than many conventional cars. The fully equipped Touring version comes to about $38,000 — thousands less than many similar cars.
But there are other reasons to buy the Clarity. The car is LARGE! Front seat head, leg, and hip room is generous. Access to the rear seat is through big doors that look they belong on a limousine. Once again, head, leg, and hip room are ample. This is a true 5 passenger sedan that accommodates all sizes and shapes of people.
The leather trimmed seats in the Touring edition car Honda provided to me were supremely comfortable — perhaps more so than any automobile seats I have ever encountered. The ride is supple, smooth, and well controlled. Road noise is minimal. On the road, the only sound that intrudes into the interior is the thump of the tires over potholes and other imperfections. This is a long distance tourer par excellence. It doesn’t just make its passengers comfortable, it cossets them in a cabin that feels downright luxurious.
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The Technical Bits
The Clarity PHEV does not have the technical prowess of a Tesla, but it has many of the digital doodads considered de rigeur for all modern cars. It has a lane keeping and road surface departure warning system, emergency forward braking, three different views from the backup camera, adaptive cruise control, and a camera mounted in the right door mirror that gives the driver far more information than a normal blind spot monitoring system. If there is a left lane blind spot system, I was unable to find it.
The driver can select from a host of dashboard displays. The navigation system has a simplified display in the instrument cluster which I found very helpful. The infotainment system is compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. There are two settings for the driver’s seat and preferred mirror settings. Three drive modes are offered — EV, Sport, and HV. EV uses electricity then defaults to engine power. Sport sharpens throttle response and enhances regenerative braking.
HV converts the powertrain to a conventional hybrid mode, saving battery power for later. Hold the HV button down and the engine is activated to recharge the battery but it is quite boisterous in operation. Why Chevrolet can make a range extender engine that is virtually silent but Honda cannot is a mystery I can’t answer.
Driving The Clarity PHEV
First of all, the Clarity PHEV is a joy to drive. It feels safe, competent, and safe. There are lots of buttons here, there, and everywhere, many of which will be unfamiliar to the average motorist, but the driver can ignore them and just drive it like a normal car. Here are a few things I learned during my week of test driving:
¤ The car defaults to EV mode every time it is powered up.
¤ EV mode has almost no regen braking built in. Even pulling the left paddle has little effect. Compared to the Jaguar I-PACE I drove recently, regen is hardly noticeable in most circumstances.
¤ In EV mode, acceleration is adequate. In Sport mode, it is far more robust. Sport also ramps up the regen braking.
¤ In EV, if the driver toggles in more regen, it only lasts until the brakes are applied the next time, then it needs to be added back in again. In Sport mode, the regen setting stays fixed.
¤ One-pedal driving is not possible in the Clarity PHEV, a glaring oversight that needs to be corrected immediately. One-foot braking is one of the reasons to drive an electric car. [Editor’s note: one-pedal driving is extremely hard to enable in a plug-in hybrid. This is one of the benefits of fully electric cars over plug-in hybrids.]
¤ Creep is included in all settings both in forward and reverse. This is undoubtedly designed to make the car feel “normal” to new drivers. But it is not normal. It is an EV most of the time. Why are manufacturers so intent on making new technology feel like old technology? It’s just silly. There is no way to disable the creep function.
¤ On roads with two-way traffic, the forward collision warning sometimes activates when a car approaches in the opposite direction, especially when the road curves. That is clumsy engineering on Honda’s part and should be corrected as soon as possible.
¤ The lane-keeping feature and adaptive cruise control work quite well on a straight highway. Modest curves can be negotiated automatically but more pronounced curves set up a sort of ping pong effect as the car vacillates between the left and right lane markers. Not confidence inspiring.
The Clarity PHEV gets great fuel economy for such a large, heavy car. (It weighs in at just over 4,000 lbs — 900 more than the similarly sized Accord.) Nevertheless, it is rated 44 mpg highway, 40 mpg city, and 42 mpg overall. The EPA gives it a 110 MPGe rating. During my week with the car, the fuel economy gauge in the instrument cluster stayed all the way over to the right at 199.9 mpg. On an overnight trip to Fenway Park, the battery was depleted before I arrived and the car ran on the gas engine all the way home. Average mileage dropped to 120 mpg. After a few hours of charging, and some more around-town motoring, I finished the week at 132.5 mpg, having traveled 274 miles and used a total of 2 gallons of gas.
The Clarity PHEV has only a 6.6 kW charger installed, the max for essentially all plug-in hybrids. Time to fully charge the 17 kWh battery is 12 hours on 110 volt AC or 2.5 hours using a 220 volt Level 2 charger. That’s quick enough for the owner to easily charge up overnight and drive on electrons rather than molecules virtually all the time. (Road trips to Fenway are not part of everyday driving!)
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, they say. Personally, I find the styling of the Clarity to be disappointing. It features a plethora of creases, folds, slashes, and odd angles that don’t seem to go together. It’s as if one committee designed the front end, another did the sides, and a third did the rear. Speaking of the rear of the car, the Honda designers definitely suffered from Prius envy. It wound up being a mishmash of shapes that seem unrelated to the rest of the car.
Perhaps I am being too harsh. At my hotel in Boston, I came out in the morning to find the Clarity parked next to current model sedans from Buick and Nissan. Sighting across the trio, they were all about the same length, all had enormous Transformer-style front ends. Their flanks all displayed a collection of slashes and gashes. Each was a fastback design that hinted at a hatchback but wasn’t.
The only departure for the Clarity was that unfortunate rear end treatment that made the car look like it was designed with no thought for aesthetics. To be fair, I find the back end of the current Prius an abomination that offends my eyes every time I see one. That is just my opinion and worth precisely what you paid for it, but I do not find “garish” and “attractive” are words that often go together well.
The Wrap Up
As the week went on, I found myself getting more and more fond of the Clarity PHEV. It took a while to adapt my thinking to the car. The more I discovered about it, the more I found myself saying, “I like driving this car.” It’s a car that grows on you. Most of the time it’s an EV, with all the good things electric cars stand for. Sometimes, it feels as thought the engineers built this car for other engineers to savor.
There are some things about driving electric that have been de-emphasized in the Clarity and the car suffers overall for their lack. EVs don’t need to creep at traffic lights. They do need one-foot braking. They definitely don’t need range extender engines that howl in protest whenever they are called on to enhance performance. If I was asked to grade the Clarity, I would give it a B+. It is definitely a worthy contender, especially at the relatively low price of admission.
If you get a chance, drive one at your local Honda dealer. Just set it to Sport mode to get the maximum enjoyment from the experience.