SCOTTSDALE, Arizona—The auto industry, both luxury and mainstream, seems lately to have fallen into a frenzy of vehicle electrification, like the manufacturers are in some sort of desperate arm’s race, and vying to win it at any cost.
A lot of investments in research and development have been made, but not one automaker is certain whether the future will be dominated by pure electrics, hybrids, or hydrogen fuel-cell technology.
As good as it all sounds, consumers haven’t shared the same fondness for battery-powered vehicles our politicians and carmakers have. Currently, overall electrification sales sit under one percent of total auto sales, and there’re no signs of a major surge.
Honda’s current answer to the electrification push is its new 2018 Clarity. It takes on a portfolio approach, offering all the above: pure electric, plug-in hybrid, and hydrogen fuel-cell. The Japanese brand is open and honest about its smorgasbord of offerings, with a global vision of two-thirds of its sales being electrified by 2030.
“The entire auto industry is all going to change, and we know that,” says Jean Marc Leclerc, senior vice-president, sales and marketing, Honda Canada. “Now’s the time to lay the foundation.”
For the Canadian market, that foundation starts with the Clarity mid-size plug-in (PHEV) sedan; the fuel-cell vehicle is available only in California at the moment, while the pure electric will test the waters in all 50 continental states in the U.S. first.
Even though fuel-cell technology is the long-term hope for Honda, the current volume draw belongs to the PHEV—a no-compromise solution that offers up 76 kilometres of pure electric range, a gasoline engine to take over when needed, and loads of comfortable passenger space for the whole family.
The Clarity is not too far off in size from Honda’s other mid-size sedan option, the Accord. Unlike other alternative vehicles in the market, Honda is taking a more conservative approach with Clarity.
If you somehow missed the big, blocky “fuel-cell hybrid” on its plug-in panel, it’d look like an ordinary sedan. The Clarity sports standard LED lighting front and back complemented by striking thin fog lights and functional front air curtains that also give it some character. The curtains force air to wrap around its tire towards the rear, where it’s then pushed off by an aerodynamics-enhancing rear wheel cover.
Rounding out its efficiency-inspired look are striking 18-inch two-tone aero wheels topped with a plastic cover also designed to keep turbulent air out.
Its exterior won’t set any hearts ablaze, but its interior does a solid job in making it a refined, modernized space. Simplicity would appear to be the design theme for the Clarity’s interior, and at first look and feel, that’s the right course of action.
Only two trims are offered: a base, simply known as the Clarity; or the top-of-the-line Touring. If you want that refined feel, it happens at the Touring level, with leather trim, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and a sophisticated Ultra Suede dash that’s more impactful in brown than black.
In front, there’s plenty of cabin space between the glove compartment, centre console, and storage cubby, sized to fit an iPad below its electronic gear shift. This is also the area where you’ll find a few USB outlets; personally I think it’s a rather poor spot for them, likely leading to the awkward twists and bends in your cords you get when plugging into the USB slots below your seats on an airplane.
The Chevrolet Volt would be its closest competitor, and interior space would be where the Clarity shows its advantages. Seating is up to five adults with an extensive amount of headroom and legroom in the second row. That space continues in the trunk with 439 litres that can hold up to four golf bags.
Technology in the Clarity is a mixed bag. One on hand, the technology driving the car is definitely impressive. But that aside, the Clarity makes you wonder if Honda’s really done enough here, as some of the features seem outdated, a faux pas for a car that’s supposed to lead us into the future.
Let’s start with the volume knob. Its comeback has been praised in new vehicles like the CR-V, Odyssey, and Accord, but unfortunately the knob missed the Clarity. Now Honda has admitted its sliding-touch volume control was a mistake, it’s unfortunate to see it resurface in a new vehicle.
But as I said, tech in the Clarity is mixed, and the rest fits mostly in the good pile. Standard standout features include a straightforward high-definition eight-inch LCD screen that features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto; and the Honda Sensing safety technology suite. In addition, an informative HMI screen provides the driver the car’s battery and fuel gauge; power charge meter; and range, broken down into pure electric and gas.
Under the hood and below the Clarity’s two rows of seats are a 1.5-litre Atkinson-cycle engine; two electric motors (a high-torque and high-output); and a 17-kWh lithium-ion battery, all sending power to the front wheels.
All-in-all the Clarity offers a total output of 212 hp (181 hp motor; 103 hp engine) and 232 lb-ft of torque (232 lb-ft motor; 99 lb-ft engine). The transmission’s job is replaced by the car’s single-speed electric motor, that rotates at different speeds for low or high gears.
It’s definitely a complicated system, but one that creates fairly seamless driving transitions between pure electric, hybrid, and those rare moments of pure gas. The Clarity, through its Power Control Unit, is set up to be as electric as possible, with Honda Canada explaining that when fully charged – a process that takes two to three hours on a Level 2 charger – it runs off the electric motors 90 percent of the time.
Out of the gate, the Clarity performed as expected, going 74 kms on pure electricity. The drive was quiet, without the typical whiny sounds you get from similar models. It was hard to tell when it transitioned from pure EV to hybrid mode, and I knew only because the HMI screen said so. For a short time, there was no EV range left, and the sedan carried on, but lost its smooth, relaxing nature.
Only at highway speeds and when pushed hard could the Clarity get into full hybrid mode, and it wasn’t very sporty to say the least. For the Clarity to go in full engine mode, it must be at full throttle, and that’s the only time the clutch engages between the car and wheel.
There’s no button that puts it in EV or gas mode: it’s all based on driver throttle and brake pressure. However, situated above the gear shift are three driving modes: Econ, Sport, and HV, the latter being the one button that can manually manipulate where the power comes from.
Pressing the HV button keeps the Clarity in hybrid mode, using both electric and gas; but holding it down sets off a “charge” mode that builds back some lost electricity, which is key when EV range dwindles into single-kilometre digits.
If that wasn’t enough buttons for you, the Clarity has paddle shifters that act as deceleration selectors to manually control the degree of regeneration. This can be used to slow down the vehicle when you see traffic or a street light ahead. A word of caution: it has four degrees of deceleration, but won’t ever come down to a stop without brakes, instead just coasting ever so slowly, not even to a crawl.
For Honda not to have an EV button but instead offer this weird HV one comes off as convoluted. But it makes sense: a driver who simply wants a fuel-efficient car will enjoy Clarity’s ease-of-use; while the gadget junkie would enjoy playing around with drive modes and paddle shifters.
It should be noted the Clarity handled well, too. The drive route took us to some windy Scottsdale roads and the PHEV felt smooth and effortless. Turns were precise and balanced throughout, similar to a Civic or Accord.
A lot of the Clarity’s value will lie with provincial incentives in British Columbia ($5,000), Ontario ($14,000), and Quebec ($8,000). If you live in those provinces, simply subtract those numbers from the Clarity’s base price of $39,900; or the Touring’s $43,900.
For its size, fuel-efficient driving, and impressive standard equipment, the Clarity clocks in at a reasonable price. It may sit higher than the Toyota Prius Prime, Ford Fusion Energi, and Hyundai Ioniq Electric Plus, but the first two pale when compared to the Clarity in terms of overall comfort, space, and driving experience.
Its main rival is the slightly smaller Chevrolet Volt, which is only $1,000 less in both trim levels with smaller wheels and no leather-wrapped steering wheel, albeit a little more EV range.
The 2018 Clarity PHEV is the first major step in Honda’s electrification plan for Canada. We didn’t get a fuel economy number registered during the drive, but Honda Canada claims 5.6 L/100 km (2.1 Le/100 km) in hybrid fuel economy.
Honda’s long-term goal is to go the hydrogen fuel-cell tech route, but until the infrastructure catches up, the Clarity PHEV is a nice stop-gap.
With 76 km of pure electric range and a seamless transition into hybrid or gas, the Clarity offers exceptional fuel economy without the stress of range anxiety. Could it look nicer? Could it offer better tech inside? Yes, but with 3,300 litres of class-leading total interior space, the Clarity’s will make family life easier and happy for years to come.
The 2018 Honda Clarity plug-in sedan has just entered showrooms across Canada as of December 15, 2017 and is currently available for purchase.
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.