As you're likely aware, Honda's Clarity line of sedans is the tip of the spear the company is using to stab into the murky darkness of near-future mobility. A trident, actually: the Clarity Fuel Cell, Clarity Plug-In Hybrid, and the Clarity EV. The thinking from Honda is that each of these powertrains is best for a certain customer, and by satisfying all of the needs, they reach the most customers. Makes sense. Hydrogen – pending an appropriate infrastructure – is best for zero-emissions, long-range driving. The plug-in hybrid is best for those with short commutes who occasionally take long trips, and the EV, with a range of "80 miles or more," is best for, uh, virtually no one. OK, that last bit of thinking is ours and not Honda's, but we're sticking with it.
Eighty miles. That's almost enough to drive from Ann Arbor to Detroit. In perfectly cool weather that doesn't negatively impact the battery's performance or require you to use HVAC. This is approximately the same range as the Fiat 500e, which is a California compliance car that has lease deals we once described as "almost free." It's about 50 percent less range than the 2017 eGolf and 70 percent less than you'd get with a Chevy Bolt. It's simply not enough for a car that is positioned as an upscale family vehicle. Not when there's another car in the same showroom, for roughly the same price, with 42 miles of electric range and a 1.5-liter four-cylinder riding backup for total range of 340 miles.
Perhaps this is all ringing a little repetitive to you. If so, it's because our own Joel Stocksdale made this exact case back in April. Unfortunately, having now driven it, we can confirm that Joel's assessment was dead-on.
Both the 2017 Clarity Electric and the 2018 Clarity PHEV have the same upscale, bland-but-frustration-free interior as the Clarity Fuel Cell we drove back in March, and also the same attention to packaging as the hydrogen Clarity. Trunks have usable space, and there's no preposterous humps or tunnels hiding bundles of batteries. The case for the EV could be made if the plug-in version had the storage space of a toaster or if it shed some of the niceties to save weight. It doesn't. It's functionally the same car until you get it out on the road. And then it's better.
Foot flat from dead zero in the Clarity EV is everything you expect from an approximately 4,000-pound sedan being powered by a 161-horsepower motor. There's the now-traditional instant-torque gratification that drops off right around 30 miles per hour. It continues to accelerate from that point with all of the enthusiasm of a line at the DMV. Few people will actively complain about the acceleration, and even fewer will actively praise it.
The Plug-In, on the other hand, gets a little more overall power (181 hp) and a littler more torque (232 pound-feet vs. 221) and a whole lot more emotion. There are two ways to "floor it" in the PHEV. One, duh, is to just stomp that pedal through the floor like it owed you money. Doing it this way kicks on both power sources, makes some surprisingly satisfying noises and probably gets you to 45 a fraction quicker than the EV. The other way is to quickly get the pedal almost to the floor, right before the detent that triggers the gas motor. This method doesn't go as fast as either the pure EV or the two-motor method, but it allows you to take full advantage of the electric motor.
Most PHEVs strive for a simpler user interface where the two motors blend behind the scenes, while the Clarity really seems to have been built to let drivers pick how they would like things. And this isn't just true from a stop. The same, very intentional levels exist accelerating from any speed. This should satisfy those drivers who geek out on their max range only to be foiled by a surprise gas attack when trying to pass slower-moving traffic.
As we stated before, we got very little time with these cars and can't speak to their particular handling characteristics in detail. Having spent time with the Clarity Hydrogen, however, we can say that these drive very similarly. Heavy, comfortable, exceptionally well-controlled body motions and surprisingly pleasant steering. Again, this is a case where the EV could have made a case for itself, but Honda nailed these details on the PHEV.
It's clear that the Clarity EV is, like the Clarity Fuel Cell, an experiment in tech and driver preferences and patience. In October of last year, Honda launched a new Electric Vehicle Development Division "to further increase development speed" of its electrification efforts with a stated goal of electrifying two-thirds of its global vehicle sales by 2030. The first real vehicles out of this task force will include an EV for China that will launch this year and a dedicated EV model that will be shown at an auto show in the fall.
If you'd like to help the cause and provide a number of important EV-driving data points to Honda, and you have a commute that can handle it, by all means look at a Clarity EV. If you're a normal person who requires a semi-normal, near-luxury car that works every day and goes wherever you need whenever you want while returning 105 MPGe, take a long hard look at the Clarity PHEV.