In the beginning there was Insight.
It was 19 years ago now, when Honda introduced North America to its first hybrid powered automobile. Even though it didn’t really sell in large numbers the compact, quirky two-seater equipped solely with a manual transmission (for the first year) has gained cult status today.
It was capable of an impressive 3.4L/100km on the highway and some resourceful owners have kissed, a then unheard of, 2L/100km with minor modifications. The term hypermiling—a series of fuel-saving driving techniques—arguably owes its popularity to this first-ever Honda hybrid.
That little lift-back from the turn of the millennium seems far removed from the current generation of hybrids and more recently PHEVs and BEVs that seem to dominate in the news but not as much on the roads.
So there are hybrids but also BEVs and PHEVs, what’s the difference?
BEVs (Battery Electric Vehicles), quite simply, are electric vehicles driven by one or more electric motors powered by a stack of battery cells. There is no gasoline back up and if you run out of charge on the road your progress will come to an unfortunate and usually untimely halt. And it might not be as easy to get going again without an expensive call to roadside assistance. A quick splash from a tow operator’s jerry can would not be a possibility here.
For 2018 Honda introduced its new Clarity Plug-in that joined the growing number of PHEVs (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles), like the Hyundai Ioniq and Chevrolet Volt, on the market.Think of these as halfway houses to a BEV. PHEVs have a combination of electric drive motors and a gasoline engine that in most scenarios is only used to charge the batteries.
These cars operate solely on electric power most of the time and the gas engine is summoned only under heavy acceleration or highway driving. Good for a shorter commute, PHEVs offer a much greater electric-only range than a hybrid and charge much faster than a BEV. These are the best of both worlds in a sense and the number of public charging stations are growing, making them a more attractive proposition now.
Hybrids, as most know, are basically gasoline cars with electric assist motors that run in combination with each other, and are governed by sophisticated computer systems that know exactly how to extract the most energy from every drop of fuel. These are by far the best selling, and it’s easy to see why. You get much lower emissions, better fuel economy, adequate power, a lower price of entry than most EVs and the bragging rights that you’re doing something good for the environment. That last one probably the biggest bonus for many consumers, admittedly or not.
What is the Clarity like to drive?
In its default mode the Clarity drives exactly like a full-fledged battery electric. There is no engine noise whatsoever. It’s strange at first but oddly comforting after a few days of driving it around. At low speeds an acoustic warning noise emanates from the vehicle, a feature common on many EVs to warn pedestrians you are approaching in a silent car.
Getting past the lack of engine noise the Clarity drives like any other Honda. The body motions are well controlled; the steering, always a Honda strong point, is direct, accurate, and has a nice heft to it.
Ride quality was very good in general, except when encountering some very rough roads where the suspension felt like it bottomed out on the bump stops a few times. Blame the rough weather and the poor condition of Toronto’s Dufferin street on this one.
Provided you don’t push this 1800 kg sedan past 7/10ths it is quite the capable handler too. I would even call it fun, and that’s not an exaggeration. It’s nice to see Honda injecting some of the brand’s sporting DNA into this rather bland looking sedan. Ok bland is not really the correct word here. Weird might be more fitting, quirky perhaps. There are partially covered rear wheels, air inlets, fins and wide hips with a large rear end that doesn’t really make for a good looking package, but not ugly either. The Clarity drew many stares everywhere it went. I didn’t really pin this car as an attention grabber, but there you go.
This seems to be a recurring theme of late as Honda is really pushing the design envelope. It might not jive with everyone’s tastes but you really do notice them. I can’t help but smile every time I see one of those new lime green Civics tooling around. While it’s a bit too bright for me, it sure brightens up the sea of grey and silver that seems to dominate the streets.
What other drive modes does the Clarity have?
Like so many vehicles today the Clarity comes with multiple drive modes, easily activated by pressing one the console mounted buttons.
Select economy mode and the Clarity favours full EV driving until the batteries are depleted. The system will then dull throttle response in order promote fuel efficient driving. Sport mode sharpens throttle response, calls upon the gas engine more frequently and makes the car feel a bit lighter on its feet.
There are steering wheel mounted paddles that don’t shift gears here, as there are none—the Clarity features a 1-speed direct drive transmission. Instead, pulling the left paddle increases the level of regenerative braking and the right decreases it. When you lift off the accelerator the car automatically slows down as the generator creates drag. Normally after a few seconds the system is deactivated, except in sport mode where it stays active the entire time. I found myself using this as much as possible to try and capture some of the energy lost during braking. It’s nice to see in real-time how much extra range you are getting from the system.
There is also HV (hybrid vehicle) mode that helps the batteries maintain charge by involving more of the gasoline engine and HV charge mode will actively charge the batteries, using the gas engine, up to a maximum of 58 percent.
It’s worth noting that the otherwise ultra quiet cabin is disturbed by the gruff sounding 1.5L 4 pot, especially when using HV charge mode and when the batteries are low. The first time I heard it turn on I looked around hoping to find a Honda lawnmower in the lane beside me. Alas it turned out to be the Clarity itself.
In this car the gasoline engine seems like it has been fully relegated to generator duty and wants nothing to do with actually powering the wheels. It’s a bit of a sore point in an otherwise very well cobbled together sedan.
What is the inside like?
Surprisingly spacious and accommodating sums it up nicely.
Out of all the cars and SUVs I have tested this year, the Clarity swallowed our full-size stroller with the greatest of ease and looked like it could fit a second one and a full weeks worth of groceries to boot. Honda says this is one the most spacious vehicles in its segment and I believe them.
The fit and finish were exemplary giving the feel of being in a much more expensive car. The fuzzy suede-like trim on the dash and doors was a nice unique touch and the faux open pore wood didn’t feel cheap as so many of these types of trim can. It was a pleasant environment to be in and one of my favourite aspects of the Clarity.
Are PHEVs any good and is it worth getting one?
This is a bit harder to answer. My week with the Clarity netted an impressive 4.5 L/100km; probably the best economy I’ve ever gotten with any car, so if ultimate fuel economy over short distances is your goal then yes buy a PHEV today.
The gasoline engine should put to rest any fears of range anxiety and with an estimated total range of 547 km, this Honda would work well on longer drives as well. It’s has a combined output of 212 hp and feels reasonably peppy around town, but said pep was something that I feared using lest I deplete the battery charge too much.
And that’s where my issue with these plug-in hybrids lie. Drive them spiritedly, pass too many trucks or jump of the line with more than 5 percent throttle and watch as the EV range and battery charge depletes faster than you can say “Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle.”
In the Jaguar XE diesel I tested prior to the Clarity I achieved a very respectable 5.5L/100 km and I drove that car like the sports sedan it is.
So while PHEVs alleviate range anxiety associated with BEVs they bring with them a different sort of anxiety, one where you have to constantly monitor your driving style and watch all sorts of bar graphs to ensure you get close to the advertised economy.
If you use your vehicle mainly for commuting and don’t really drive long distances too often, this PHEV might be one of the best on the market.
Photos © Kunal D’souza
2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid Touring
BODY STYLE: Mid-size 4 door sedan
DRIVE METHOD: Front-engine, Front wheel drive, two-motor hybrid, eCVT (direct drive transmission)
ENGINE: 1.5L Atkinson-cycle inline-4 cylinder (Power: 103 hp @ 5500 rpm; Torque: 99 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm) + AC synchronous electric traction motor (Power: 181 hp @ 5000-6000 rpm; Torque: 232 lb-ft @ 0-2000 rpm) Total system output: 212 hp
CARGO CAPACITY: 439 L
FUEL ECONOMY: Gasoline Only (Regular): 5.3/5.9/5.6 L/100 km city/highway/combined; Electric/Gasoline combined: 2.1 Le/100km; All electric range: 76 km; Charge time with a Level 2 240 V charger is 2.5 hours
PRICE: Base plug-in: $39,900; Touring: $43,900