I recently purchased my second plug-in vehicle, a 2018 Honda Clarity PHEV Touring, trading in our family minivan. My first plug-in is a 2012 Volt that I bought used back in 2014, which I will write about another day.
There are plenty of light reading overviews on the Clarity around the Web, so I figured I would focus more on the drive, why we bought it, what we like and don’t like, and answer any questions you might have.
The Clarity is a large 4 door “midsize” sedan that has 3 different models of EV built on the same platform: Fuel Cell, Battery, and plug-in hybrid. The fuel cell and battery electric are of little interest to me since they are not available in Iowa and I own the hybrid version so it will be the focus of the review.
With its hybrid powertrain, the Clarity runs primarily on electric power if battery charge is available but will switch to mixed mode if you exceed the threshold of power available from the battery. Given most conditions it is easy to drive 100% electric for the first 47 miles of EPA rating, but I will discuss in further detail below why this number might not always be accurate. It also offers a 44/40/42 City/Highway/Combined rating, which is incredibly impressive given the large dimensions of the car.
The Honda Clarity has distinct styling that evokes a love/hate relationship with people. The body covers the rear wheels at the top and it also has functional “speed holes” in front of the rear wheels that serve to improve the aerodynamics of the car, but this makes the car look different than most other cars on the market.
The car uses LED lights for everything, except for the vanity mirrors, which use a 1.4 watt incandescent. The headlights are all full automatic LED, and the running lights are as well giving a striking appearance from the front. The turn indicators are nice and bright. I must say I like how much flexibility LED bulbs give the designers in the appearance of the car. Remember the old sealed beam halogen bulbs on every car in the 1980s? Even if you don’t like the design, you can’t argue the design isn’t unique and only possible with LED lighting.
The interior color is tied to the body color. White, green, and red come with beige, and silver, grey, and black come with a black interior. Our silver model with its black interior looks very clean. Not quite Tesla Model 3 clean, but you can see in photographs that it removes a lot of the clutter and replaces the radio interface with a large touch screen with climate controls down below. The vents are hidden in the dash folds, and the shift console is elevate above a large storage area. There is no sunroof option at this time, I imagine to help keep costs down on a lower volume vehicle. The power memory seats tied to individual driver’s keys is also nice.
The car makes ample use of soft touch plastics and nice materials. Nice for the price class. The car feels like what you would expect a mid 30’s luxury car to feel. I don’t feel like I am only paying extra for the electric aspect, but instead getting a nice luxury car.
The instrument cluster is targeted towards normal car drivers offering a simple battery gauge on the left, gas gauge on right, speedo in the middle, and a configurable cluster in the center that can show items like range, efficiency, turn by turn directions, etc. I like this, it isn’t different for the sake of being different or electric.
The car comes standard with Honda Sensing, which is an impressive array of safety features that go as far as adaptive cruise with lane keeping, braking mitigation system, road departure warnings, and other safety features. It is missing blind spot detection if that is important to you, but offers a blind spot camera on the right side.
So why did we test drive this car? My wife wanted to replace the minivan with something more efficient, but still had plenty of space for 4 and would even comfortably fit 5 for some longer trips. It had to have the adaptive cruise with lane keeping, and plug in hybrid was also a requirement.
Initial impressions are everything in many situations, and unfortunately the Honda dealers are not trained to sell this car. They didn’t have it charged, the dealer knew nothing about it specifically, but was able to help with general Honda controls. I appreciated the sales person was honest and stated he knew little about it right up front and would only be able to answer questions about the user interface and other Honda specific features. I highly recommend you call the Honda dealer and ask them to plug it in before you drive it as that makes a large difference. Like my Volt, it doesn’t drive as nice around town once the battery is depleted. On the highway it does just fine. More on that later.
The seats are all very comfortable except the middle back is best suited for kids. I am 6’1″ but have short legs (32″ inseem) and tall torso (38-39″ to top of head sitting) so need a lot of headroom in a vehicle. The clarity doesn’t disappoint leaving plenty of space for me in the front and my head just rubbing in the rear, it is better than most vehicles. The lack of sunroof really helps me in this regard.
Legroom is impressive both front and back. With the seat adjusted for me in the front, I still had 4″ of legroom sitting comfortably in the rear. The floating console might bump your knee, so you will want to sit in the car and see if it is a problem for you. It is not an issue at all for me, although my leg does rest on it at times. It is rounded on the edge so it isn’t uncomfortable for me.
The lack of shift lever will bother some people, but all the buttons are in logical spots and I found them easy to use. Instead of sliding the lever, I press the button, and the buttons are laid out in roughly the same order as an automatic. The one issue is finding a button by feel is a bit more difficult than finding a lever, so I generally glance at the console to select my gear, at least until it is more familiar.
Visibility is fairly good. The porthole window helps in the back, but the camera is great too. The front A pillars block the view to some extent as is common on modern cars due to safety constraints, but they are generally positioned to minimize this effect.
Step on the brake and press the start button and the car springs to life. As with other EVs, absent any engine noise. Press the gear select button, let off the brake and step on the accelerator pedal and you are on your way. Silently.
Before we talk about acceleration, we need to talk about the hybrid operation of this car. Think of the accelerator pedal (or “go” pedal) as a request for how much power you want. The battery can only provide so much power, up to 120 hp. If you request more power than that with the go pedal, the engine will start to provide up to 180 hp of electrical power (120 from the battery, and 60 hp from the generator on the engine).
That sounds complicated, but thankfully the car makes this easy to understand. There is dial around the speedometer with a white needle and a blue bar and a green bar (battery charging from regen braking, etc). If the white needle moves past the end of the blue bar, the car starts. The blue bar has a dithered region on it where it might be unclear whether the engine will start or not, but that depends on driving mode.
Secondly, there is a detent, or a stopping point that is very noticeable, in the go pedal travel. If you hit that and push past it until you feel the click in the pedal, the engine will start no matter what. It isn’t difficult to push past on purpose, but it is also easy to stop before pushing past as it feels like the end of the pedal movement.
On either side of the dash board are efficiency indicator LEDs. These are green if you are driving carefully and turn white if you are driving aggressively. They turn red in sports mode.
Next, we need to talk modes. There are Eco, Normal, Sport, HV, and HV Charge. By default the car will start in normal mode (or eco if it was used when the car was shut off). Sport or HV/HV Charge mode needs to be selected every drive. These modes control how the car drives, and in the case of eco, also adjust climate control settings. Mode selection appears to the left of the speed on the instrument cluster.
Eco mode reduces climate system power, and also makes the car stay in EV mode until you push past the detent in the go pedal. This mode is saved between starts. Go pedal mapping seems fairly slugish and climate system might feel a bit weak, but probably the mode you want to drive in if you want the best efficiency.
Sport mode increases gasoline engine utilization for better performance. It also holds the regen brake setting between stops. Sport mode and regen setting are reset between power cycles of the car. This is not really a sporty car, but this will help acceleration.
HV mode is similar to hold mode on some other PHEVs. It runs in parallel hybrid mode so will run the engine much more. This will result in maintaining battery charge for later use. The button can be pressed and held for a couple seconds to enter HV Charge mode, where the engine will run more aggressively when power isn’t needed for moving the vehicle and the extra charge will go to the battery. This mode is capable of recharging the car to around 60% in an hour. I notice it didn’t add much or any charge on my test drive, I think it is mostly designed to be used on the highway.
Depending on how hard you step on the go pedal, acceleration is anywhere from leisurely to brisk. If you stomp the pedal to the floor the engine will rev to high RPM and accelerate like a CVT (constant engine RPM), which is always a bit different feeling if you aren’t used to CVTs. I haven’t conducted instrumented tests, but I imagine it is about the same as the Gen 1 Volt at around 9 seconds to 60, but a bit slower in EV only mode.
Overall, the car is very quiet and refined feeling. It emits a melodious hum at low speeds to warn pedestrians, which is all but inaudible in the cabin. When the engine starts at stop lights it produces a small shake and you can feel it rumble to life, but when driving it is nearly imperceptible unless under hard acceleration. I have to look at the energy info screen to tell if the engine is running at times.
Handling. What do you really expect from a 4000 lb car on energy efficient tires? It is safe and secure, but nothing really exciting about it. McPherson strut up front and multilink in the rear. I honestly haven’t pushed it hard at all. The rear is definitely more planted feeling while turning on rough roads than some cars with torsion bar in the rear, like the Volt 😉
Braking is also what I would expect. Pedal feel is a little vague at the beginning, where I assume it is using regen braking before shifting to friction braking. However, I think it might shift a little earlier than the Volt as the charge needle on the dash hits a point and stops fairly early in pedal travel.
I do have a complaint about regen braking. In all modes and even at the strongest setting, it is too weak. Less than the Gen 1 Volt provides in L gear selection. I basically don’t use it at all as it doesn’t seem strong enough to make it worth while. Since the brake pedal blends some in I just go that route instead.
Honda Sensing. This is one of the main reasons I looked at this particular hybrid. A requirement for me in my next car was that it have adaptive cruise control (ACC), lane departure warning, and emergency braking. This takes it a step further and adds low speed follow for traffic jams (down to 0 mph), lane keeping (LKAS), road departure mitigation, but it lacks blind spot detection. It partially makes up for that by having a camera on the right side of the car that activates when you turn on your right blinker (yes you can turn this off). It can also be activated by pressing a button on the end of the turn signal stock.
These features work very well. I was surprised that when ACC and LKAS were activated, the car will actually steer itself as long as you keep your hands on the steering wheel. It works from 45 to 90 mph and will work on any type of highway as long as lane markings are easily visible. The driver needs to be alert at all times. I notice Honda is careful not to overly advertise the self steering aspect of this feature.
I have triggered the brake mitigation system a few times, and I must say I am impressed. It is important to note that this system is designed to work at mid to low speeds, I think 62 mph and lower. Also, it is meant to reduce the severity of an accident, not avoid one completely. However, it will provide warnings and gentle braking reminders early so that the driver can avoid a collision. It activated for me when a driver in front was turning right, and they slowed down more than I expected and took them longer to clear the roadway. The car gently braked, but I would have avoided by nudging the car slight to the left out of the path of the car.
I am glad I opted for a vehicle with ACC. I haven’t tried the low speed follow yet, but overall these systems are quickly becoming standard on modern cars, bit unfortunately some cars don’t even offer all these safety features. I am glad Honda makes the same package standard on both the base and Touring models of the Clarity.
The instrument cluster is the only part I don’t really like. It is slow to respond to touch inputs, and lacks any sort of direct volume control. The built in Navigation system (Touring only) is just a Garmin app for the infotainment system. However, I have always liked Garmin GNSS mapping software. It offers visible and easy to follow directions.
The saving grace is they don’t force me to use the Honda Apps, and I can use Android Auto (Apple car play is also there). This allows me to use Google Maps and other Android Auto Apps like my Amazon Music streaming service. Just plug your phone into the driver side port under the floating console.
I think the infotainment center could warrant its own review. It takes up a large portion of the manual, offers some customizable controls, has tons of voice features I will probably never make use of and will take a lot longer to learn.
Charging is relatively fast for a PHEV having a 7.2 kwh charger built in, I generally get a full charge after about 2 hours, although temperature and battery condition might change that. I have defended 3.6 kwh chargers for a long time as being adequate for PHEVs, but after using this one I don’t think I will do so any longer.
I haven’t had enough time with the car to gather range performance in all conditions, but currently in winter I am showing right around 35 miles on a full charge. This is reasonable given my Gen 1 Volt is getting around 25 in similar driving. Heaters in electric cars always draw significant power in cold weather, as well as Li-ion batteries aren’t as efficient at low temperatures. I fully expect to easily exceed the 47 mile range in warm weather without climate control active.
Comparing the car to the Volt and a few things stand out. This car is a much bigger car, over a foot longer and far more interior space and rear seat room make the Clarity PHEV a much better choice as a people hauler (for more than 2 people). The Volt offers a slightly sportier EV only drive and also provides more information about vehicle efficiency to the driver, offering MPGe ratings, etc. The Honda was clearly designed to just be driven and not to make the driver think about the details.
The other vehicle I considered was the Pacifica Hybrid model, but honestly I was trying to get away from a van as my 3 kids are getting older and I don’t need the extra space. The Pacifica Hybrid now starts at about $40k for a base model, but it is high 40s to get the safety equipment that is standard in the Honda for $10k less.
The car is a very refined and modern plug in hybrid electric vehicle. It offers a comfortable ride with the latest safety and convenience features. Ample trunk and interior space make it a great purchase for a family or for hauling coworkers since it easily seats 5 people. The all electric 47 mile EPA combined range combined with over 40 mpg on gas make this an incredibly efficient and low operational cost car.
I have been very pleased with my purchase of the car, and look forward to driving it for many years. It checked the boxes I wanted in a car, space for 5 with some storage, ability to drive many EV only miles, and good gas efficiency as well. This vehicle will be driven 15 to 20k miles a year, so efficiency was important to me.