Lacey Elliott: Improved fuel economy is the biggest current trend in the automotive industry. Range anxiety, meanwhile, is a real stress for drivers of electric cars. I ran out of power last summer while driving a purely electric vehicle on a 160 km road trip. I thought that I had done everything right, yet I still ended up running out of charge approximately 15 km from my final destination. Personally, this is the reason that I am a huge fan of plug-in electric hybrids (PHEVs).
I was more than excited to have the all new Honda Clarity for this week’s test vehicle. The Clarity has been in other markets since 2008. As Honda continues to electrify its line up, I am confident that Canadians will be just as excited as I am about this new car.
Dan Heyman: OK let’s get it out of the way right away – the Clarity is an odd-looking duck, especially from the rear ¾ view or in profile, where the covered rear wheels make their presence felt. They’re functional, though, because Honda itself admits that they wouldn’t have done it if they weren’t.
There’s a lot more to it than that, though, and I was interested in seeing if the efficiency and reduced range-anxiety promised by the Clarity’s PHEV digs would make me if not completely forget the outlandish styling, then at least accept it and move on.
LE: There is nothing familiar about the styling of this car. If you didn’t see the badge, it would be hard to guess that this car is part of the Honda family. It is a simple design with strong modern accents and a futuristic appearance. Possibly too futuristic?
The cabin design and layout are both functional and streamlined. All the materials feel high quality and luxurious. The easy-to-read touch sensitive infotainment screen gives you access to Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and it acts as the display for the back-up and side view cameras (for the reverse and LaneWatch systems).
Driving the new Accord a few weeks back, I was delighted to use a physical volume knob. The Clarity still uses a touch sensitive slider and has redundant controls on the steering wheel. The function is adequate but I definitely a missed having a separate mechanical knob in this car.
Four adults fit comfortably in this hybrid. No complaints were uttered, even from the two in the back seat. The back row seating does split and fold, but because of the gas tank, you lose space in the trunk. It’s not a large tank; only 26 litres. The Clarity is only marginally smaller than the gas-powered Honda Accord.
DH: I have to disagree with Lacey, here. Other than those covered wheels, I find the Clarity to be pretty much in-keeping with Honda’s current styling language. The super-narrow headlamp lenses connected by an impressive chrome bar above the grille is reminiscent of the current Accord (and, to a lesser extent, other Hondas), just taken to the nth degree. I wouldn’t even mind those rear wheels if the covers reached further down; the reasoning as to why they look as they do is purely functional, of course, but that doesn’t change the fact that they make the car appear to be riding higher than it is. If you look past those covered wheels (and squint), it looks a little like a grand-touring hatchback – again, much like the latest Accord – all low-roofed and long. That front overhang and those back wheels are always going to divide opinion, though, and I think the car looks better in darker shades. Too bad the darkest shades are reserved for the Touring model.
Lacey’s right about the infotainment system; why the Accord gets a volume knob and the Clarity doesn’t is beyond me (must have something to do with the two cars’ production schedules), as the controls – especially for volume – are just to finicky to be operated safely while on the move. There are steering wheel controls, but some good that does the passenger.
It’s a shame, really, because the rest of the infotainment experience is good; the standard 8” screen is nice and clear, I found smartphone compatibility to be without a single hiccup and the audio comes through rich and clear. When your main point of interaction with the system is so underwhelming, however, it kind of takes the sheen off the rest.
What I take no issue with, however, is interior comfort.
For drivers and passengers (both front and back) alike, it’s very spacious and airy, even without a sunroof which isn’t an option on either of the two Clarity trims. The view out and forward is impressive – love those windows ahead of the wing mirrors – and while the slanty rear window makes for over-the-shoulder blind spots, the standard LaneWatch feature reduces the effect.
Equally impressive is the trunk even considering the gas tank Lacey was talking about. It’s very deep, which is a good thing for two reasons: it makes room for more stuff, and it allows you to move your wares further back and away from the window mounted to the trunklid. It makes for better visibility, but I guess my wife was correct in suggesting that it may be a bit of a security risk, even though it’s dark-dark-dark tinted. The defrost lines are the main giveaway that it’s even a window at all. Plus, you can always use the security bin under the trunk floor, though the charge cable tends to take up most of the room in there. Fitting a rear-facing car seat, meanwhile, is no problem at all.
ON THE ROAD
LE: Under the hood of this Honda is a 1.5-litre Atkinson Cycle four-cylinder engine and two electric motors; one is for supplying driveline power and the other is a generator. There is also a 17kWh lithium-ion battery that allows you to drive on electric-only power for up to 76 km. So, if you drive 35 km each way to work on mostly flat terrain, you will use little to no gas during the week. At home, a regular 110V outlet will fully charge the battery in 12 hours. This timeline made me more aware of my driving habits. If I got home around 6 PM and didn’t leave for work until 7:45 AM the next day. I always got into the Clarity with a full charge. But if that doesn’t fit your lifestyle, a 220V outlet charges the battery in under three hours.
The gas-powered engine puts out 103 hp and 99 lb-ft of torque. Most of the horsepower comes from the electric motor, with 181 horses and 232 lb-ft of torque. And of course, that torque is available from zero to 2,000 rpm. Keep in mind, it is the electric motor that provides power for most of your driving. It is only when the battery gets low that the gas engine kicks in.
The reason I love this plug in hybrid? Once you max out on the electric power, the gas engine kicks in and you can extend the drive range to almost 550 km. No range anxiety in this car!
With three different drive modes you can decide how efficiently you want the car to perform. Econ mode is designed to maximize battery power and overall fuel efficiency, especially when driving in stop-and-go traffic. The Sport mode gives a slightly more aggressive feel and the engine kicks in sooner allowing you to accelerate harder. I don’t think that people purchasing a hybrid are really wanting a ‘sports car’ but it is nice to have a bit more pep if desired. The HV mode allows the regenerated power to be saved for later and puts priority on the gas engine. If you hold the button longer, you will charge the battery directly. You could use this when you are driving on the highway and wanted to regenerate extra power in preparation for heavier traffic when exiting.
I am pleasantly surprised. The Clarity is a heavy car yet the handling is very nimble. Wind and road noise are minimal, and overall the ride is well-mannered and enjoyable.
Hyundai Ioniq PHEV: Plugs into Growing Electrification Demand
DH: Heavy it may be, but the Clarity does its best to cover that up by providing some properly sprightly acceleration from stop, especially when on EV power and thanks to the Clarity’s 1-speed direct drive auto.
I specify in EV mode here because while the Clarity doesn’t feature a drive mode that locks out the EV engine (a handy feature if you want to save power for when the car’s gas engine is at its least efficient, say in rush-hour traffic downtown), I liked that it does have two different hybrid modes.
Lacey explains how it all works in her piece, but I thought I’d chime in here just to show how well it works: when on the highway, I set it to “Hybrid Charge” mode and saw a regen rate of 2 km per 1 km driven on the way to using 2.3L/100 km of fuel over the course of my drive. Those are some impressive figures that should make anyone think twice about automatically reverting to an EV car and not first thinking about a PHEV like this.
If you want more regen, then a pair of paddles mounted to the steering column – one for more drag and regen, one for less – are on-hand to help you achieve that. Do keep in mind, however, that the level you set as you slow down to a stop is “forgotten” as soon as you start up again, meaning you have to do it all over again next time you come to a stop. It also makes the “less regen” paddle pretty redundant. I don’t really see the need for this, and a brief talk with Honda revealed that I’m not the only Clarity driver who has expressed that curiosity.
It’s worth noting, however, that if you are planning on spending your time in either of the two hybrid modes (or to drive with zero EV charge), the Clarity becomes a bit of a different animal. Without the extra power provided from the electric motor, you’re left with a rather small four-banger hauling around just under 2,000 kilos of mass. Needless to say, it gets wheezy (and noisy) in those types of circumstances and while some will argue that’s the price you pay for a PHEV, competition from the likes of the Hyundai Ioniq Electric Plus or Ford Fusion Energi get more power from their respective gas engines.
Neither of those cars ride as well as does the Clarity, though. It doesn’t get air suspension, but it sure feels like it as even the meanest-looking bumps are handled with relative ease and little drama, kind of the way a Lexus would. Indeed, I’m currently sampling a model from Honda’s upscale Acura division, and I’d say the Clarity has the better ride of the two. The Acura is a sports model so there’s that to consider, but the bottom line is the Clarity, with its smooth ride and zero-noise operation (except for an almost musical tone as you start to roll), is a relaxing and almost refreshing ride.
SAFETY & TECHNOLOGY
LE: To help compare the efficiency of different types of vehicles, electrical energy consumption is converted into a gasoline-equivalent litres per 100 kilometres (Le/100km). One litre of gasoline contains the potential energy equivalent of 8.9 kWh of electricity. Honda has rated this car was 2.1Le/100km with combined electric and gas driving.
The Clarity comes in two trim levels with the base model starting at just under $40,000 and the top line Touring Trim starting at $43,900. They both include standard features like lane keep assist, blind spot alert, adaptive cruise control, heated seats, remote climate pre-conditioning, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. With the HondaLink app you can check the state of your charge, activate the climate control system and initiate charging, all remotely from your mobile device.
Of course, if you live in Ontario, you may be able to take advantage of tax credits and other incentives on your purchase. That’s $5,000 in BC, $8,000 in Quebec and $13,000 in Ontario at the time of writing.
DH: You have to be impressed with that base list of features – even though the base car only gets leatherette seating, it’s a nice add for those that want something that’s easy to clean like leather, but for that much less cost. I’ve also grown to accept (and learned to use) the LaneWatch feature, which threw me off at first in every Honda I sampled that had it.
LE: As I mentioned earlier, the Clarity has been around for years in other markets. In California, it is sold as a hydrogen fuel cell and a full electric vehicle. However, it is only available to Canadians as a Plug-in Hybrid. With rising gasoline prices and the ability to use both electricity and gasoline, this Clarity is worth a look. The styling might be too futuristic for some, but I think that is just the way the automotive industry is going and we will see more vehicles looking this way. The Clarity delivers amazing efficiency, along with everything you’ve come to expect in a Honda.
DH: So, does the Clarity succeed? Have I managed to lower my eyebrow about the styling, and just concentrate on the drive experience? Well, for the most part, yes. This is a PHEV that works exactly as I think a PHEV should, with easily switchable drive modes that have a very tangible effect on your driving and charging. Big fan of all that, plus that 10/10 ride that I still can’t comprehend.
Yes, the infotainment is annoying in its operation, but at least it works as advertised. Yes, the Clarity gets a little wheezy on pure gas power, but if driven correctly, having to drive solely on gas should be a rare occurrence. And finally, yes, the styling is polarizing and it will always make you look twice, sometimes for good reason, sometimes for bad. All in all, though, the Clarity has been one of my most eye-opening drives of the year, and though we’re only half way through 2018, I feel it will continue to be at the top of my “most memorable drives of 2018” list well into the waning months of ’18.
Follow Wheels.ca on