by Roger Biermann
Honda’s pursuing multiple avenues when it comes to alternative energy propulsion. Not relying on pure electrification, it designed a trio of midsize models under the Clarity moniker: a pure electric version, a fuel-cell model, and the most recent addition, a plug-in hybrid released for the 2018 model year. As the only member of the Clarity trio available nationwide, the midsize Clarity Plug-In Hybrid is the easiest way to get behind the wheel of Honda’s forward-thinking electrified range. Priced between $33,400 and $36,600, two trims are offered to rival the Kia Optima Plug-In and Chevrolet Volt. A combined power output of 212 horsepower comes from a combination of a 1.5-liter four-cylinder combustion engine and a single electric motor supplied by a 17-kWh battery pack. Power is sent to the front wheels through an electronic CVT, and the headline figures are a 340-mile range with 47 miles available on pure electric power. The Clarity PHEV is the only Clarity model that qualifies for up to $7,500 federal tax credit.
The latest addition to the Clarity range, the Plug-In Hybrid, was released for the 2018 model year. Launching with a high level of standard specification, safety features, and loads of tech, Honda has decided to keep the Clarity PHEV unchanged into its second year on sale. The good news is, if you were an early adopter of the Clarity PHEV, no one will be able to tell.
The Clarity’s styling makes use of unique elements in the PHEV realm, with elements like the semi-covered rear wheel arches, various airflow ducts on the rear doors, and the J-shaped LED daytime running lights. Some conventional novelties are present, with both trims featuring LED headlights and LED taillights, a body-colored decklid spoiler, and a sharkfin roof antenna. Both models also feature the same 18-inch aerodynamically designed alloy wheels. Accessory wheels of the same size are available as an option.
The Honda Clarity Plug-In shares most of its dimensions with its sibling variants, measuring 192.7 inches in length and riding on a wheelbase measuring 108.3 inches. These measurements place the Clarity Plug-In close to the Honda Accord Hybrid in size, while a width of 73.9 inches and a height of 58.2 inches are larger than an Accord. A curb weight of 4,052 lbs makes the Clarity Plug-In marginally heavier than the all-electric version, and about 600 lbs heavier than the heaviest Accord Hybrid.
The Clarity Plug-In gets access to a wider range of exterior color options than the FCV and Electric models, with a color palette of six. The palette comprises two metallic options, Solar Silver and Modern Steel, and four pearl colors, Platinum White, Crystal Black, Crimson, and the striking Moonlit Forest, all of which are no-cost options.
The Honda Clarity Plug-In is no speed demon, but both trims provide more than ample performance for use around town. Combining combustion and electric power, 0-60 mph takes a respectable 7.7 seconds, but on electric propulsion alone, that stretches past 12 seconds. It’s not bad considering a Prius Prime takes longer than ten seconds on combined power, but the Chevrolet Volt is quicker. Top speed, meanwhile, is limited electronically to 101 mph. Front-wheel drive is standard, and the only drivetrain for the Clarity Plug-In, mimicking the standard drivetrain for all plug-ins of this size.
While the Clarity range is electrified in one way or another, the PHEV is the only model to feature a combustion engine. A 1.5-liter naturally aspirated inline-four develops 103 horsepower and 99 lb-ft of torque, with outputs augmented by a 181-hp, 232 lb-ft permanent magnet synchronous motor. The combined system output is 212 hp, and it’s routed through an electronically controlled CVT transmission or E-CVT.
From a standstill, the immediacy of the electric augmentation is standard EV-feel, with a surge of torque devoid of gearshifts by virtue of the CVT continually adjusting gear ratios to suit efficiency. It gets up to speed promptly, but not rapidly, and makes city driving simple. But it lacks punch at highway speeds, and overtaking takes some effort. What’s more, at highway speeds the engine and E-CVT drone incessantly. Neither of those traits is unique to the Clarity - in fact, they plague a good majority of plug-ins in this segment - but there are rivals that offer better performance like the Chevrolet Volt.
Despite a smaller battery than the Electric and FCV variants, the Clarity Plug-In carries the additional weight of a combustion engine over the front axle. This works to its benefit, however, as the additional weight settles the front end over bumps. While the Electric tends to be floaty over undulating surfaces, the Plug-In’s additional weight pins the front end leading to smoother, more predictable handling and driving characteristics. However, the suspension is still soft, and around corners, the extra weight results in more body-roll. On bumpy roads, there’s still excess movement, and the Clarity relies on wheel travel rather than damping to iron out bumps - which can lead to an uncomfortable ride.
The steering, however, is sharp and direct, with good weighting and ample responses. But the system is numb, providing little feedback and ignoring the most minor of inputs. Braking is blended with regenerative capabilities, and steering mounted paddle shifters control the amount of regeneration at hand, but regeneration is still minimal and the brake pedal needs to be used almost as normal.
The Clarity is not sporty, nor does it relish in being threaded through a twisty mountain pass. But it’s still more resolved in this incarnation than the pure electric version, and the city limits suit the Clarity PHEV most.
The gasoline-only MPG rating of the Clarity PHEV is impressive, with a combined figure of 42 mpg. But a hybrid’s biggest advantage is the electric augmentation which gives the Clarity PHEV an MPG equivalent rating of 110. On electric power alone the Clarity PHEV can drive up to 47 miles, while the combined gas-electric driving range of 340 miles is truly impressive. The battery, however, can’t be full recharged on the go and requires a physical charge. Honda claims on a standard 120-volt system a full charge will take 12 hours, while on a 240-volt system the battery will recharge in 2.5 hours.
Honda blends a classy interior design with high-quality cabin materials and an abundance of space and practicality in the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid. The materials look and feel premium, while both the cloth and leather seating surfaces are comfortable. Space is abundant, and a good range of seating adjustment up front, including power adjustment on the Touring trim, ensures comfort on long journeys. Heated seating is standard across both trims. The rear of the cabin boasts generous amounts of legroom, with broad hip and shoulder points aiding larger passengers. The rear seat bases aren’t supportive of taller passengers, but two sets of LATCH anchors can be found for securing child safety seats.
The Honda Clarity Plug-In, like its siblings, seats five occupants in a spacious cabin. The front occupants are treated to heated seats as standard, while the front seats are supportive and offer a wide range of adjustment for comfort on both long and short journeys. Headroom is particularly generous, while the floating center console ensures there’s plenty of space in the footwells too. The rear seats offer just as much space and comfort, however, taller passengers may find the seat bases too short to provide appropriate thigh support, particularly on longer journeys. Comparable in size to an Accord, the Clarity delivers similar levels of interior comfort for all but the tallest occupants.
On the base Clarity Plug-In Hybrid, Honda offers seating surfaces exclusively in cloth, with a choice between beige and black dependent on the exterior color. The chosen cloth color corresponds with the main dash and door panels, while the center console gets faux wood with an open-pore grain appearance. The Touring trim upgrades to perforated leather upholstery, with the same two color choices and corresponding interior trim panels. The open-pore wood-look trim remains.
Honda’s packaging team has once again worked their magic, with the Clarity Plug-In offering not only more cargo volume than the two remaining Clarity siblings, but more than most midsize hybrids in general. The trunk features a large opening with a low liftover height, and avails itself to a maximum capacity of 15.5 cubic feet, compared to the Chevrolet Volt’s 10.6. Furthermore, the rear seats fold flat in a 60/40 split for the loading of larger items.
Inside the cabin, there’s an abundance of small storage items. The floating center console enables storage of handbags in the footwell without interfering with legroom, while the center stack itself features a large storage binnacle and two large cupholders. The glove box is large, as are the front door pockets, while the rear door pockets are slightly smaller. There’s a center armrest in the rear with two cupholders, while front seatback pockets feature a dedicated smartphone pouch.
Both trims are well equipped with an abundance of technology, including dual-zone climate control, heated seats, push-button start, auto-up/down electric windows, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, adaptive cruise control, a tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel, front and rear 12-volt power sockets, and a 60/40 split rear seat with a center armrest. On the base trim, there’s manual seat adjustment and cloth upholstery, but leather and power adjustment are added to the Touring model, along with a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Other features include a standard multi-view reverse camera and a color driver information display.
Regardless of trim, Honda equips the Clarity PHEV with the same infotainment system. Unfortunately, it’s the loathed eight-inch touchscreen display with no volume knob, and the touch zones for volume control are small and difficult to use on the move. The touchscreen system is paired with a 180-watt eight-speaker sound system and features AM/FM/HD/SiriusXM radio capabilities along with full smartphone integration via Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Bluetooth hands-free and audio streaming are integrated, as is Pandora capability, while dual USB ports ensure charging and connectivity capabilities. The only difference between the two trim lines’ infotainment systems is that the Touring model receives built-in navigation with voice recognition and HD digital traffic.
The Clarity PHEV seems to be the least reliable of all three Clarity models. There have been numerous reports of the engine revving high while speeds drop drastically, suggesting problems between the integration of the engine, electric motor, and E-CVT. Other less severe issues reported include moisture inside the headlight lenses, while a constant bugbear is the frustrating infotainment system that diverts driver attention away from the road in order to accomplish minor tasks.
Despite the Clarity range being on the market since the 2017 model year, neither the NHTSA or IIHS has crash-tested any of the three Clarity variants yet. This may be due to the limited distribution, but with the Clarity Plug-In available nationwide, we would have expected crash testing to be performed sooner rather than later.
While crash tests have not been performed, Honda has still equipped the Clarity PHEV with high levels of standard safety features. Seven airbags: dual front airbags, side airbags, side curtain airbags, and a driver's knee airbag are equipped, as is a standard reverse camera. The Honda Sensing suite of safety features comprising forward collision alert, autonomous emergency braking, road departure mitigation, and lane keep assist is also equipped as standard on both Clarity Plug-In trims.
With nationwide availability and a 340-mile range, not to mention an all-electric range of more than half that of the Clarity Electric, the Clarity PHEV is the best Clarity money can buy. Impressive gas mileage is complemented by high levels of standard safety, an abundance of interior space, and one of the largest trunks of any plug-in hybrid in the midsize segment. But there are flaws, too, and the Clarity isn’t the most enjoyable or most composed vehicle in its class. Despite the ride quality improving over the Clarity Electric, poor surfaces still upset its composure, and the drivetrain isn’t particularly potent at highway speeds. It’s noisy too, which doesn’t help when others are more refined, and if you think you can crank the volume up to hide the drone of the CVT transmission, there’s no knob on the infotainment, and the touch zones are too small for you to effectively up the volume on the go. The best Clarity isn’t the best midsize hybrid.
Unlike limited-availability Honda Clarity derivatives, the Plug-In Hybrid is available for purchase nationwide, with a model line-up comprising two trims. The base Clarity Plug-In Hybrid starts off with a base MSRP of $33,400 before options, licensing, registration, and a $920 destination charge, while the range-topping Touring is priced from $36,600. The Clarity Plug-In is, however, eligible for up to $7,500 in federal tax credits, while various states may offer purchase incentives, such as the $1,500 incentive by the state of California and use of the HOV lane even when riding solo. Other states offer a number of tax rebates, purchase and lease incentives, and charger rebates and credits.
Unlike the limited-availability Electric and FCV versions of the Clarity, which are offered in one take-it-or-leave-it package, the Clarity PHEV is available in two trims, a base model and a Touring trim. Both feature the same 212-hp combined power output courtesy of a 1.5-liter engine and electric motor combination, and both are equipped with 18-inch alloy wheels and LED exterior lighting.
The base model features keyless entry, push-button start, heated front seats, cloth upholstery, dual-zone climate control, Honda Sensing safety features, and an eight-speaker sound system with an eight-inch touchscreen infotainment setup, replete with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay functionality.
The Touring trim takes a step up in price but adds power adjustment to the front seats, leather upholstery, remote climate-control preconditioning, and built-in navigation with voice control and traffic updates.
Honda doesn’t offer the Clarity PHEV with the option of any additional packages, instead, equipping the Honda Sensing safety suite as standard on both trims, which adds forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane keeping assist, and road departure warning.
There is a range of accessories for to the Clarity PHEV, although most are cosmetic exterior trim pieces. The worthwhile options are 18-inch accessory alloy wheels at $1,800, back-up sensors at $514, and in colder climate states, $80 for an engine block heater.
Of the two trims on offer, we recommend the base model Clarity Plug-In. It features all the same advanced safety features, and the cost saving is worth forgoing leather upholstery and navigation, especially since the latter function can be taken care of via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Power seat adjustment is a nice to have, but not a necessity, however, we do recommend splashing out on the optional reverse parking sensors at a minimal cost.
The Honda Insight might be classified as a compact car, but the all-new hybrid from Honda has greater front and rear legroom than the Clarity, while 15.1 cubic feet of cargo volume in the Insight is nearly as much as the Clarity offers. Both are equally economical and both offer similar performance. The Insight has slightly better driving dynamics and is $10,000 cheaper than the Clarity, but the Clarity offers standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality and has a more upmarket interior. However, the Insight isn’t a plug-in, which means there’s no electric-only mode. If you’re hell-bent on a plug-in, then we’d recommend the Clarity, but if you’re OK with forgoing pure electric driving range, the Insight might be a better option at a discounted price.
Chevrolet is taking the EV fight to Tesla with the Bolt, but the second generation Volt is still a highly desirable plug-in alternative in the midsize segment. The Volt loses out compared to the Clarity in terms of trunk volume by a good margin, while the rear seats don’t accommodate adults anywhere near as comfortably as the Clarity does. Where the Volt draws back is in its 53-mile electric range versus the 47 miles offered by the Clarity, and in its enjoyable driving dynamics, robust acceleration, and better-resolved suspension. The Volt also has a superior infotainment system, which let’s face it, isn’t very difficult. Both are priced similarly, and while the Clarity offers a nicer cabin with more space, the Volt is better to drive.