Honda Clarity PHEV: One Car, Multiple Personalities — #CleanTechnica Review, Part 1

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I was really excited when I knew that I had the chance to try out the Clarity PHEV in California, not because of the car itself, but because it was a Honda.

As a two-time owner of Hondas, I have a special place in my heart for the brand. Unfortunately, in the past few years, it hasn’t made many models about which I could say: “Ahhh … Wicked!” (The six-figure NSX is the exception.)

What I loved about Hondas, besides being true workhorses able to endure (almost) everything people throw at them, is that they had a sense of fun, being at the same time cool and nerdy, and a joy to drive, sometimes feeling like a restless puppy, always begging to play with the owner.

Despite an early start in electrification, with the Fit EV and Accord PHEV pilots, the fact is Honda hadn’t really delivered a mass-market plug-in until the Clarity — a model that, by the way, started its life as a fuel cell model, with plug-in hybrid (PHEV) and fully electric (BEV) versions following some time after.

So, with Honda finally playing for real in the plug-in market, I wanted to know how well the brand’s first mass-market plug-in behaved. Would it feel just like a rushed conversion from the original Clarity FCEV, or would it show that Honda, despite being a late believer in EVs, will still play a role in the new Age of the Electric Vehicle?

The Clarity PHEV

First of all, let’s get the two elephants in the room out of the way:

Yes, it is not a BEV. Yes, there are better-looking cars out there.

Regarding the first topic, some of the “BEV purists” are reading this and saying:

“What?!? CleanTechnica is doing plug-in hybrid reviews?!? It has an ICE engine in it! How dare they?!?! Burn that devil to the ground. Burn it!!!”

Before you remember to add the author to the fire, let me just remind you that you have two options — either ignore this article and jump to the many other CleanTechnica articles about Tesla, other dedicated BEVs, etc., or make an effort to see the point of view of other people who do not share yours.

Still here? Good.

While in an ideal world it would be great if only BEVs were sold and ICE vehicles quickly became banned, the truth is that we are far from that, so we have to work with what we have, and what we have is that in most markets there are more body types choice among PHEVs. Up until recently, BEVs were a sea of compact/small cars and Tesla yachts. Also, because there is a production constraint in batteries, it is generally better for CO2 emissions to have three 17kWh PHEVs reducing emissions than one 51 kWh BEV.

Also, do not forget that, as plug-ins expand into the mainstream, these kinds of buyers are not only less educated on the benefits of EVs, but are also less able/willing to make compromises, especially those who cannot charge at home. Plug-in hybrids offer a necessary safety net, at least until charging infrastructure and word of mouth/education are more spread out.

While there are examples of PHEV misuse (the Dutch case comes to mind), especially in the case of really short-range plugin hybrids — like the first-gen Prius PHEV or premium SUVs (yes, Mercedes, you’ve got a couple of them) — the fact is that there are pieces of evidence that reasonable-range PHEVs, like the Chevrolet Volt, do have a large share of electric driving in the hands of private drivers. That brings us to the 47 mile (75 km) electric range Clarity PHEV, one of the few PHEVs with so much electric range.

And now, the second elephant in the room: The looks.

When the Clarity first showed up, still in fuel cell guise, many immediately called it “ugly,” comparing it even with the Toyota Mirai.

Knowing that tastes differ from person to person (I know someone who likes the Mirai design, saying it is “striking”), while I do not find the design of the Honda PHEV “my cup of tea,” I think that calling it Mirai-ugly is an insult. While there are some debatable design elements, the Honda is far from the Terminator look of the Mirai front, or its seemingly melting back. (Personally, I like the partial cover of the back wheels, despite being a nod to the original Insight — it reminds me of vintage Citroens.)

Maybe a future restyling could change the backlights into something more interesting?

Moving on, if the exterior design could make the Honda lose some points, on the inside, things look better. While you won’t confuse it with the latest space-age luxury offerings, where wars are fought in screen inches, the fact is there are enough design touches and materials (the suede on the dashboard seems a particularly meritable choice) to make the owner happy with her or his buy.

With these two points out of the way, we can now start talking about what the Clarity PHEV has to offer.

As its success in the USA can attest, the car has an unbeatable mix of usable electric range (47 mi / 75 km EPA), big-car space, and grand tourer comfort. It has no direct competition. The sunset-mode Chevy Volt is too cramped, the Prius Prime loses in range and space, and the Ford Fusion Energi … well, it has a 7.6kWh battery vs 17 kWh from the Clarity, and I guess that says all you need to know.

So, the Clarity has space, comfort, and range, and all without breaking the bank (starts at $33,400), making it a good rational choice for fleet buyers. But what about the fun element that used to be sprinkled on past Hondas? Does the sedan have some of that, or did Honda reserved all the sassiness for the upcoming (and cute) Urban EV?

That’s what we will try to find out after a road trip around Northern California and Nevada.

Day 1

After landing at the San Francisco airport in mid-afternoon, the first thing I noticed in the drop-off area were two Honda Clarity vehicles delivering people, with the word “Uber” on the windshield. I thought, “Well, it sure seems like this model is popular among this kind of driver. … Let’s hope people don’t try to hop into my Clarity loaner thinking I’m their driver.”

With my green* Clarity PHEV already in my hands, I got my first surprise: the battery was completely depleted, so we had to rely only on the gas engine to get to San Francisco. (*Maybe because St. Patrick’s Day was one day away?)

The second surprise was in the trunk. While the size of it was more than enough to pack our stuff (two big suitcases and a couple of smaller ones), the trunk could have been more space-efficient, as the floor wasn’t flat and its width was smaller next to the seats.

Off we went to the hotel in San Francisco, and almost from the start, we had our third surprise: the CVT i-MMD gearbox was a screamer, and not in a Ferrari 12-cylinder way — more like a “help me, I’m dying” way. So, while the car felt and behaved on the road like a big grand tourer, the gas engine noise spoiled the whole experience, and it was with relief that we arrived at the hotel. [Update: Apparently, the car uses an “i-MMD” not a “CVT” gearbox. That line was updated accordingly.]

After settling in and finding an available domestic socket in the hotel parking lot, my thoughts were: “I really hope the electrons will help to shut up the engine noise, or else I will have to wear some earplugs….”

After plugging it in, it took some time for me to realize that the car was charging. Apart from a green light on the charging port, there was no other indication that the battery was being charged. This kind of secretive information is on the opposite side of my Kia Soul EV, that not only informs me that it is charging but also, at night, has charging light indicators that can be seen by all the neighbors, as a sort of offseason Christmas decoration.

(Note: Honda later mentioned that Clarity customers use the available HondaLink app to have access to the charging info. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to have a light notification in either of the digital screens.)

Read about the rest of our experience with the Clarity PHEV in a coming article later today. We had a week with the car, so we have much more to write.

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José Pontes

Always interested in the auto industry, particularly in electric cars, Jose has been overviewed the sales evolution of plug-ins on the EV Sales blog, allowing him to gain an expert view on where EVs are right now and where they are headed in the future. The EV Sales blog has become a go-to source for people interested in electric car sales around the world. Extending that work and expertise, Jose is also market analyst on EV-Volumes and works with the European Alternative Fuels Observatory on EV sales matters.

José Pontes has 447 posts and counting. See all posts by José Pontes