First Drive

2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid Review | It's what's on the inside that counts

Honda puts a PHEV powertrain and a spiffy interior in a roomy sedan.

  • Image Credit: Honda
  • Engine
    1.5L I4, Electric motor
  • Power
    212 HP / 232 LB-FT
  • Transmission
    Fixed, Single Speed
  • Drivetrain
    Front-Wheel Drive
  • Engine Placement
  • Curb Weight
    4,052 LBS
  • Seating
  • Cargo
    15.5 CU FT
  • MPG
    44 City / 40 Hwy
  • Base Price
CALISTOGA, Calif. — By creating an entire platform dedicated to clean cars, the Clarity trio is a step toward Honda's target of electrified vehicles making up two-thirds of its global sales by 2030. Of those three Clarity cars — the Electric, Fuel Cell, and Plug-In Hybrid — the PHEV is going to be the volume model, shipping to all 50 states. With that in mind, we headed out to California's wine country to test Honda's successor to the Accord Plug-In Hybrid on the hilly roads surrounding Napa Valley.

The Clarity PHEV comes in two trim levels. The base version starts at $34,290, including destination charges. It includes 18-inch wheels with Michelin Energy Saver tires, LED lighting, multi-angle rear-view camera, Honda Sensing suite of safety technology, adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, heated front seats, and an eight-inch touchscreen display with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Not too shabby.

Touring trim is several grand more at $37,490. This adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel, leather-trimmed upholstery and ultrasuede trim pieces, eight-way power driver's seat and four-way power passenger seat, and satellite navigation system with voice recognition. Honda expects about a 50/50 sales mix between the two trim levels.

2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid

The Clarity PHEV's powertrain combines a 1.5-liter engine with two electric motors (a high-output, 181-horsepower drive motor and a second motor that acts as a generator and a starter). The gasoline engine runs on the Atkinson cycle and achieves an impressive thermal efficiency of 40 percent, which is greater than any other engine we can think of (and Honda claims it's a world-beater for a production vehicle). Its lithium ion battery pack has a capacity of 17 kWh. The result is 212 total system horsepower, 232 pound-feet of torque, 47 miles of electric driving range, and a total range of 340 miles. EPA rates it at 110 MPGe in EV mode, and 44 city/40 highway/42 combined overall.

This is the first time your author had actually seen any of the Clarity series in person, and it comes off as much more approachable than it does in photos. Indeed, there are even subtle, catching details that not only please the eye, but serve a useful function. The ducts that move air past the wheels are especially interesting. They beg the eye to trace a path around the vehicle, and the inlets in the rear doors are particularly fanciful.

Our other favorite detail dealt not with aerodynamics, but vision. Peering into the massive trunk of the Clarity PHEV, we noticed a small strip of glass that allows one to see into the cabin. From the driver's seat, this actually allows your line of sight from the rear-view mirror to pass through the trunk and to the road behind the car. It provides a little extra confidence, while allowing the Clarity to achieve that very swoopy, aerodynamic shape in the rear of the vehicle.

2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid

Interesting-looking sheet metal and an advanced powertrain are compelling reasons enough to take note (and maybe a test drive) of the Clarity, but the really impressive thing here is the car's interior. Particularly in the Touring trim level, the look and feel of the Clarity's cabin is perhaps the best we've seen in recent memory in a car bearing the Honda badge.

The interior comes in ivory white or black (we preferred the white). The design is conservative, pepped up by clever styling. The Touring combines a plastic that does a fine impression of wood grain with strips of ultrasuede throughout, including across the dash. The floating central touchscreen doesn't feature any wacky surrounds, and looks simple and uncluttered on the dash. The leather-trimmed seats are comfortable, and the leather-wrapped steering wheel is comfortable in hand over a long drive. The shift buttons on the lower part of the center console are the only things that look a little out of place, but the open area below them makes for useful, accessible storage.

Just above that set of buttons are three more, which select drive modes to cater to your deriving style or situation. The Econ button reduces throttle response. Sport does the opposite. The HV button will put the car into series hybrid mode to maintain charge, in case you want to save it for when you get into the city. Likewise, holding down the HV button will put it into charge mode, which will bring the battery level back up to as much as about 58 percent charge while you drive.

2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid

In addition, the Clarity PHEV uses a pair of paddle shifters to dial in various levels of regenerative braking. Apart from the default zero regen feel, hitting the left paddle increases resistance up to four levels. In all but Sport mode, though, the regen cancels and goes back to zero once you get on the gas. Sport mode will hold onto your selected regeneration level until you come to a stop. We wish it would just do it by default in all drive modes. On hilly roads, we had to keep dialing up regen at almost every crest.

The Clarity offered a decent drive, though, and we definitely appreciated the amount of power it had on offer. It never felt sluggish, and it served as a reminder of how much fun a good electrified powertrain can be. The feeling of accelerating uphill under electric power is addictive. The energy-saving tires leave a little to be desired when taking off from a stop, though, with the torque overcoming traction under a heavy right foot.

The Clarity handled well, too. Smoothness is the key here, and the car felt happy to rotate around corners, though there were instances when the tires strained for grip as we pushed it through tighter turns. The Clarity had no problems carving canyons, keeping impressively flat and well composed. At least on the smooth but winding Northern California roads, the Clarity truly rode like a premium car. It was also refreshingly quiet, a combination of electric power and acoustic glass and thoughtful engineering.

2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid

On paper, at least, the Clarity PHEV is very competitive. It's more expensive than both the Toyota Prius Prime and the Ford Fusion Energi, but it beats the Chevrolet Volt in price and in standard content. The Volt has more EV range, at 53 miles, but Honda's 47 miles trounces the range of the Toyota (25 miles) and the Ford (22 miles). The Prius Prime might be the best value, offering safety and driver assistance systems standard at just $28,005, but spending time in that cabin is pretty dreadful. The Volt might be more fun to drive than the Clarity PHEV, but the Honda has a far more attractive interior and offers more bang for your buck.

Were it our money on the line, it would be a tough choice between the Volt and the Clarity. As rational grown-ups, though, the Honda would likely win out. The pleasant, quiet cabin, smooth ride, standard tech features and, of course, the extra space would prove too good to pass up. If you're surprised by the Clarity PHEV, you're not alone. But if you're shopping in this segment, it's worth a close look.

Related Video:

Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid Information

Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid

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