Every electric car asks you for something. Maybe it’s asking you to deal with range anxiety, maybe it’s a steep price. Some just feel weird or give up too much space to their conventionally powered counterparts. The 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid, though, doesn’t ask you for anything. It’s just a car, electrified.
(Full Disclosure: Honda’s PR representative took me to a nice lunch and then handed me the keys to a gassed up, fully insured Clarity Plug-in for the weekend. When an emergency called me upstate, Honda generously allowed me to keep the car all week and had it picked up in Albany.)
What Is It?
A lot of what’s good about the Clarity Plug-In comes from the unique platform. The Plug-in shares its basis with with the Clarity Electric and Clarity Fuel-Cell, but that’s it. It’s not a retooled Civic or Accord like the new Insight, it’s designed from the start for electrification.
That being said, it is Accord-sized. That’s a notable departure from other green cars, which tend to be smaller than the average midsize sedan. The Volt and Prius Prime, for instance, are more Civic-sized.
The Plug-In, for what it’s worth, is expected to be the volume seller of the Clarity lineup. That’s mostly because the Clarity Electric has an embarrassing range of 80 miles and the Clarity Fuel Cell is only sold in California to the nine or so people who have easy access to hydrogen fuel.
Specs That Matter
Luckily, the Clarity Plug-In avoids the range and scarcity problems of its siblings. It’s good for 47 miles of electric travel, besting every plug-in but the Chevrolet Volt. Drain that, and you can cruise for another 293 miles thanks to the 1.5-liter engine under the hood. Recharging the battery takes 12 hours on a normal, 110-volt outlet or 2.5 hours on 240-volt charger.
The EPA says the Clarity Plug-In gets 110 mpg equivalent when running with the battery charged. I don’t think anyone fully understands the black magic that goes into calculating MPGe, but the Volt is only good for 106 mpg equivalent so the bigger Honda just barely wins the efficiency battle. When you’re out of battery, the Honda’s gasoline motor is good for a Volt-tying 42 mpg.
That 101-horsepower gasoline motor can either work as a generator or, at high speeds, directly power the wheels. When it does work alongside the 181 hp electric motor, the engine helps contribute to a total peak system output of 212 horsepower.
It should be noted, however, that the numbers of that don’t directly translate to real-world driving. The Clarity Plug-In has no transmission and only one gear, which has a highway cruising ratio. As a result, the engine only links directly to the wheels at highway speeds and usually functions as a generator for the electric powertrain. As a result, you’ll rarely get the full 212 horsepower in day-to-day usage. You will, however, get all 232 lb-ft of torque off the line, helping the Clarity get to 60 in 7.7 seconds in Car and Driver testing.
Pricing is simple. You can either get a base model for $34,295 or a Touring for $37,495. My tester was the latter.
What’s great about the Clarity is that it feels like a midsize, Honda sedan. Inside, it makes no effort to be the “car of the future” with weird environmentalist trimmings or oversized touchscreens like in the BMW i3 or Toyota Prius Prime.
As a whole, it just feels entirely normal inside. Normal, and pleasant, with comfy seats that didn’t bug me after eight hours in the car through D.C. and Manhattan traffic.
More importantly, this is the first mainstream plug-in that I’d actually recommend for families. Because the Clarity is even bigger than an Accord, there’s plenty of passenger and cargo room.
I comfortably sat four adults in it without complaint, and my weekend luggage didn’t come close to filling the trunk. With 14.8 cubic feet of space, it dwarves the Volt’s 10.6-cubic-foot cargo hold. If you’re looking to take a few friends or family members out of town, the Clarity Plug-In is one of the only electrified vehicles that’ll be able to handle it.
And it doesn’t just handle long hauls; it’s perfect for them. Over hundreds of miles from New York to D.C., back to New York and up to Albany the Clarity was a rockstar. The engine was either off or whispering, the ride was always comfortable and the standard Honda Sensing helped cut down on driving fatigue.
The Clarity didn’t make a great first impression, as the proportions are a bit awkward. Even in a nice shade of green called Moonlit Forest, the Clarity isn’t the most attractive car. It’s particularly hampered by wheel spats, which cover part of the tire in what I assume is some strange attempt to make the car look futuristic or improve aerodynamics.
But it’s the exact kind of “look at me I’m different” touch that the Clarity Plug-in nearly avoided, so it hurts the car’s otherwise exceptional normalness.
And while the interior avoids falling into that trap, it also dates from the dark moment in Hondaland when volume knobs where illegal and everyone was sad. The infotainment as a whole is pulled from the Civic, which feels a full generation behind the one in the Accord. While I’m typically not a CarPlay buff, Honda’s system was clunky enough that I let my phone do the heavy lifting for most of my week with the Clarity Plug-In.
LaneWatch is also a relic of Honda’s past, a pseudo-replacement for blind-spot monitoring that shows you a camera feed of the car’s right side whenever you put on your right blinker.
While I used to be a fan, the system feels clunky today. First, there’s no camera on the left so you’re given a convex mirror. And whenever you put on your blinker, you lose your GPS screen to a feed of the right side. This strikes me as particularly counterintuitive, as I tend to make liberal use of my GPS and my right turn signal at intersections where I’m supposed to turn right.
Finally, it could use a bigger gas tank. With the battery drained from the weekend, the seven-gallon gas tank had to be filled before my bladder needed to be emptied on the way back to New York.
For the five days I had it in Albany, the Clarity was basically an electric car. Even on the basic 110-volt outlet in my uncle’s garage, I could top off the battery every night and whirr around town without waking the gas motor.
It’s particularly pleasant operating the Clarity as an EV, as the electric torque is great for around-town and city driving. I know this is common among all electric cars, but I never tire of zipping down an onramp with no engine noise and an endless powerband.
When it is out of juice, however, the Clarity is still a quiet and comfortable cruiser. The weird thing, though, is that the engine is charging the battery and not powering the wheels most of the time. As a result, the position of your foot doesn’t directly change how much engine noise you’re hearing.
Not that you’re hearing much. Except under heavy acceleration, the engine is mostly quiet and unnoticed. A bit of road noise gets in on the highway, but it’s hard to tell if that’s only noticeable because you can’t hear the engine.
Finally, Honda Sensing is standard on all Clarities. That includes full-speed radar cruise control, automatic emergency braking, road departure mitigation and a lane-keeping system. In a week where I spent hundreds of miles on the highway and hours in traffic, I was tremendously happy to share some of the work with the car.
If you’ve read this far in a review of a Honda Clarity Plug-in, I’d hope your prime concern isn’t performance driving. That’s not to say the Clarity is sloppy, it’s just never going to run with actual driving-focused cars.
The main problem is the heft. I know it’s not necessarily polite to assign a number, but at 4,052 pounds it’s abundantly clear that the Clarity has not been counting calories. The burliest Accord is 624 pounds trimmer. And it is 500 pounds heavier than a Volt, despite that car also being weighed down with batteries.
As a result, the Clarity loses some of the chuckability that Honda is known for. The steering is still solid and the front end feels as tossable as a normal Civic, but as the car starts to turn it’s clear that you’re hauling some extra cargo out back. Body roll is instantly apparent, and the eco-friendly tires are never far from the edge of their grip when you start driving hard.
Here’s where things look great for the Clarity Plug-In. At $34,295 to start, the well-equipped base model comes in barely above the Volt’s $34,095 entry point despite being a full class above it in size and usability.
But even compared to conventionally-powered alternatives, the Clarity Plug-In makes a solid case. A 2018 Accord EX, with destination, will set you back $28,365. Obviously, that’s $5,930 less than the Clarity Plug-in, but the federal government’s $7,500 tax incentive closes that gap and then some. If you’re in a state that offers additional tax rebates for zero-emissions vehicles, the math works out even more in the Clarity’s favor.
Of course, you’ll give up some of the Accord’s dynamics and upgraded interior trimmings. But that doesn’t change the fact that, from a financial perspective, the Clarity makes a lot of sense. Not only does it cost less when you include tax credits, but your day-to-day commuting can be done without a drop of gas.
Plus, the Clarity doesn’t ask for any real compromises on your part to live a zero-emissions life. You don’t have to install a 240v charger; 12 hours on the cord is fine. You can fit five humans in one without a massive battery tunnel in the middle, plus cargo in the spacious trunk.
You get the technology and luxury you’d expect for a $34,000 car, even if you’re only paying $26,500. If you aren’t focused on performance and can live without a volume knob, then, it’s hard to find much to dislike about the Clarity Plug-In.