Published on April 7th, 2019 | by Jose Pontes0
Honda Clarity PHEV: One Car, Multiple Personalities — #CleanTechnica Review, Part 2
April 7th, 2019 by Jose Pontes
This is a followup to the first part of our review of the Honda Clarity PHEV after a week with the vehicle in California and Nevada. If you missed that piece, be sure to read it first.
After a big night of sleep, fighting off jet lag, the next day we set off to Stinson Beach, using all the range that the full battery (46 mi / 74 km) provided.
And what a different car this is when using only electricity! It’s not only the annoying CVT box that disappears. The car feels more responsive, especially in Sport mode, where we can play the regeneration game with the steering wheel paddles, giving it more or less regen according to what the road (and the driver) require.
Why Honda has made this regeneration command only available in Sport mode is a mystery, as you can also ask for more regeneration in the normal driving mode. The problem other problem in normal mode is that the regeneration does not have a memory function, reverting back to the standard, low-regeneration mode after a few seconds.
Considering this is a simple software update, maybe Honda could do it in an upcoming model year? Maybe in 2020?
Anyway, on the winding mountain roads to and back from Stinson Beach, while I felt the size of the car, I could actually enjoy driving the Clarity. Also, despite pushing it sometimes, not once did the engine come to life, keeping “Mr. Hyde” far from the trip experience.
We arrived at the hotel with 20% charge, which is a great score for a PHEV, considering we did 70 km during the trip running only on electrons, beating the guess-o-meter by a sizable margin.
We took some time to check the space in the back seat, and while it was not limo-like, like a Mercedes S-Class, it had more than enough space to seat two people, or even three, with space to spare.
We then went to Stanford to visit some relatives. Leaving the hotel with the guess-o-meter showing 50 mi (80 km) electric range, and considering we were 36 mi (57 km) from our destination, I expected to make the whole trip there in electric mode, and then I would try to charge in Stanford so that the return trip would also just be in EV mode.
But during the trip, (possibly) driving above the highway speed limit, I realized that the bars (and range) were disappearing faster than I imagined. And then I thought: “What if all chargers in Stanford are busy? Then I would have to make the return trip on an empty battery … and hear the petrol engine screaming! Oh no, I have to avoid that!”
A bit paranoid, I know, but I live my day-to-day life with charging anxiety in my home Portugal — there are way more EVs than chargers, so it is normal to have to charging stations lines, including at normal speed chargers. One time, I had to wait one hour to fast charge my EV … at 2:00 am! So, now you understand better my paranoia.
With the battery at some two-thirds of capacity, I turned on the hybrid mode and a third facet of the Clarity personality appeared: The “range-extended hybrid.”
While the “screaming CVT hybrid” I knew on the first day was the Honda’s “Mr. Hyde” personality and the “EV mode” of Stinson Beach was “Dr. Jekyll,” this third one was somewhere in between, more like “meh/bland mode.” You could hear the engine running, but the fact that it ran in low revs made it easily bearable and suited for the constant high speeds of the highway.
“So, if you can’t do a trip only in electric mode, then it is best to save the electrons for the lower speed bits of the trip and use this HV bland mode for the highway,” I thought.
Then I realized that there was a learning curve to know how to appreciate the full potential of the Clarity PHEV, learning that the higher the battery state of charge is, the more enjoyable the hybrid mode is, as it relies less on the petrol engine to keep things running.
I also got the chance to try the driving aids, the auto steering, and traffic-aware cruise control, which did what was expected from them.
Now, this was when the real adventure started — 231 miles (369 km) going from San Francisco all the way up to the Sierra Nevada and then down to Reno, Nevada.
We started the day with a full battery and gas tank, allowing (in theory, at least) some 381 miles (610 km) of range, 50 (80) of them in electric mode.
If the first part of the trip was nothing to write about, as the “hybrid bland mode” kept things in grand tourer style, once the highway started to climb the Sierra, things changed, as the effort required from the two engines to climb the mountains meant that both powertrains started to work overtime, with their respective ranges dropping faster than before and the petrol engine starting to be heard more frequently.
Although the range would place us in Reno without the need to fill up the gas, I decided to put a little more in at a gas station on top of the Nevada mountains, also taking the time to spread our legs and take some pictures close to the walls of snow around us.
Going down the mountains, the battery was happy to receive some electrons coming from the regenerative braking, which allowed it to win one bar on the EV state of charge (SOC) graph.
When we arrived at the hotel, we had the disappointing news that we couldn’t charge our car, which was a bummer, but because we were tired and had the safety net of the gas engine, we didn’t bother to find a place to charge the car for two hours at a public charger.
If only the Clarity had fast charging … I mean, with a 17 kWh battery, I’d guess it would make sense to provide it. If the tiny Mitsubishi i-MiEV has CHAdeMO fast-charging available for its 16 kWh battery, why wouldn’t the Clarity have fast-charging?
And in this case, it would have made a difference — we wouldn’t mind having a coffee while we waited 20 minutes for the battery to be charged, but 2 hours? Nah…
While most of the current PHEVs have small batteries with small electric ranges not suited for high charging rates (I like to call them compliance PHEVs), both the Chevrolet Volt and Honda Clarity PHEV have decently sized batteries that could benefit from having fast-charging capabilities, which could be another selling point.
After enjoying what Nevada had to offer, it was time to return to California, but with a few stops along the way, so we left Reno for Lake Tahoe, then Davis (Sacramento), and finally Fremont, home of Tesla.
All in all, we did some 268 miles (429 km) that day, and with a half-empty battery. And guess what — Mr. Hyde showed up again. Going to Lake Tahoe, the gas engine sometimes sounded like it was being strangled by the CVT gearbox. Fortunately, going down from Lake Tahoe to the lowlands of California, the regenerative breaking allowed the battery to win two bars on the SOC graph, easing for some time the sound coming from the petrol engine.
When we arrived at the UC Davis facilities, we found a charger, and a couple of hours later, the battery was almost filled again, finally allowing a more relaxed trip to Fremont in bland hybrid mode.
Time to visit the Blackhawk Museum, on the way to Napa for some wine tasting. The trip to the Blackhawk Museum was done in EV mode, with a 108.5 MPGe efficiency. The distance was just 28 miles (45 km) and we were able to leave the car charging while we had lunch and visited the museum, which has some interesting vintage cars and an awesome exhibition regarding the Wild West.
So, after that, it was time to go to Napa and the battery was again fully charged. While the distance (50 mi / 80 km) could be done in theory in EV mode, we decided to play it safe and go for hybrid mode, as the EV mode invites a more spirited driving style that could lead to the last miles being done in “screaming hybrid” mode, and we definitely wanted to avoid that.
Because our return flight was at 22:00, the last day in California still allowed for some tourist stuff, like visiting friends in San Jose, getting to check some of the places where the “Silicon Valley” TV Series was shot*, and discovering a little more of the coastline between Half Moon Bay and Pacifica. We then returned to the airport, adding another 152 miles (243 km) to the counter.
(*Spoiler alert: amazing how realistic the show is — was the first time I got into a coffee shop and 90% of people were with a laptop, with no other noise than the coffee machine working….)
The last day was done mostly in “bland hybrid mode” (as in, high battery SOC) on the highway, where we easily got some high-40s for MPG (as opposed to the round 40 MPG we had in Nevada). We saved EV mode for the end of the trip, which I guess is the best way to use the Clarity PHEV on long trips. For short commutes, there’s really no doubt about it: EV Mode all the way, preferably locked in on Sport so that you can use the full potential of the regeneration paddles.
It took a while, but after 1,114 miles (1,783 km) and $64 in petrol, I finally got a hold of the Clarity PHEV’s multiple personalities.
After dropping off the Clarity, it was time for likes and dislikes:
- The unbeatable electric range for a PHEV. 47 miles EPA means that you will easily beat that number, crossing over to 50 miles or more, which is more than adequate to make not only commutes but also some short trips to neighboring towns. It is one of the few PHEVs able to do so, and one of the others is the soon to be deceased Chevy Volt. All it needs is to add fast-charging capabilities so that it can easily expand its EV road tripping potential.
- Family-friendly car. Lots of space for the family, including in-cabin storage, with the floating center console providing a handy space below it to store all the stuff we carry in our daily life. The trunk is big, but it could have been made more space efficient.
- This car can be fun to drive! Deep in the Clarity PHEV’s multiple personalities, one can find the right setting (EV mode + Sport mode) that can make it a real Honda, one that can not only take you from A to B, but also put a smile on the driver’s face. And for the ones who complain that cars with automatic gearboxes are boring to drive, I advise you to play with the Clarity regenerative braking paddles — they are a hoot!
- Grand Tourer feel. While not intended to be a luxury car, the fact is that the space, comfort, and stylish interior (the suede in the dashboard looks great) contribute to the big car feel, making it a good choice for long trips. Although, be sure to keep the battery with a minimum level of charge, or else…
- “Screaming hybrid mode.” Honda chose to use a CVT gearbox instead of a more practical dual-clutch semi-automatic gearbox (DSG) that others, like Volkswagen and Hyundai, use on their plug-in hybrids. While this might increase the efficiency of the powertrain, the fact is that when the car has no help from the electric side and has only the ICE engine to help it move forward, the sound of the engine becomes (really) annoying, as the engine jumps into higher revs, trying to deliver much-needed power to the front wheels.
- Learning curve. Because the Clarity PHEV is more than the simple hybrid/EV mode of other plug-in hybrids, like the Hyundai Ioniq PHEV, there is a more significant learning curve to draw out the full advantage of the model. This is one of those cases where reading the owner’s manual does help a lot.
- On-car charging info. While other models detail all kinds of charging-related information (charging rates, SOC, time to full charge, etc.) on the car’s digital screens, the Honda has most of its information only available on the HondaLink app. The only on-car indication that the Clarity is charging is a small green light in the charging port.
Long Story Short
The comfort, space, and electric range, added to a competitive price, are all bread and butter items that will appeal to more rational buyers, but I would also advise emotion-seeking drivers to try out the EV+Sport modes, as the Clarity might surprise you.
Just don’t let the battery drop to a low state of charge…