What’s that weird-looking Honda?
I’ve been driving numerous plug-in hybrid models of late, as my readers and viewers tell me they want to know more about them.
This week? It’s yet another — the Honda Clarity. Or, as several friends and family members called it during its time in my custody, “that weird-looking Honda.”
It’s a strange-looking shape, covered in strange-looking styling elements. Rear wheels are partially covered by the bodywork. There’s a regular rear window and thin glass slit beneath it. Air vents are sculpted into the lower edge of the rear doors. The wheels look like a turbine-blade, or the coleslaw attachment for your food processor, depending on who you ask.
The styling won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But styling doesn’t sell cars like this one, and it’s nothing if not unique looking. Nothing else on the road looks like a Honda Clarity. Some shoppers like this. Clarity’s styling only needs to satisfy a single goal: maximum aerodynamic slipperiness for maximum energy efficiency.
After all, here’s a car that seeks to attract loyal Honda shoppers and first-time electrification enthusiasts alike, by getting them all but totally off of gasoline for around-town driving, while maintaining the freedom to carry on driving as far as you like, on gasoline backup power.
How’s it work?
Plug the Clarity in to recharge its battery and you’re clear for about 70 kilometres of driving, on all-electric power. No gasoline, whatsoever.
Charging the battery from empty is a 12-hour endeavour on standard household power though a 240-volt Level 2 charger (available in public charging stations or installed at home for approximately $1,000 to $2,000) sees that figure drop to less than three.
Exceed the 70-kilometre electric driving range and the gasoline engine uneventfully picks up the pace, sustaining the battery and driving the car. This is automatic, invisible, and requires nothing of the driver.
So, for every trip of under 70 kilometres between recharging, you’re totally off of gasoline. Pass that 70-kilometre mark and you can go another 550-600 kilometres further on gasoline hybrid power. Stop at a gas station for a refill and you’re good for 550-600 kilometres more. You never have to stop and plug the Clarity in and wait for it to recharge, unless it’s convenient to do so.
It’s like having a full electric vehicle for shorter trips and a gas electric hybrid for longer ones.
And if you can recharge at work, a 70-kilometre (each way) commute could be handled on the daily without any use of gasoline.
This is all possible because two power sources propel the Clarity PHEV’s front wheels.
One of these is a 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine powered by a tank full of gas.
The other is an electric motor, powered by a battery full of electricity.
These two systems can take turns driving the vehicle or work together. When a gas-powered engine and a battery-powered electric motor are used in conjunction we call it a hybrid. See also Toyota Prius, Honda Insight, Kia Niro Hybrid, and others.
A hybrid can drive a moment here and there on stored electricity. A PHEV can drive several dozen kilometres on stored electricity.
What’s the difference? The battery.
In a regular hybrid, a small battery is recharged entirely by the action of an on-board generator, built into the driveline. That generator is driven (largely) by the gasoline engine. It’s an efficient and self-contained setup, but it can only drive on pure electric power for very short distances.
In a plug-in hybrid, the battery is much larger. So large, in fact, that the on-board generator can’t recharge it on its own. That’s why there’s a plug: you plug the Clarity (and other PHEV models) into an electrical outlet to refill that (much larger) battery. The additional energy is then used to drastically increase the all-electric driving range of the vehicle.
For the techy types: the battery is a 168-cell, 17-kWh lithium-ion unit, and the electric motor is a 181-horsepower AC synchronous unit. Add in the gasoline engine, and total available output is rated at 212 horsepower. That’s more than the sporty Honda Civic Si.
So, it’s a bit strange to look at and the powertrain isn’t yet familiar to the masses in general, though Clarity does make one of the best arguments I’ve yet encountered for apprehensive folks to try PHEV ownership. Specifically, that’s because of its generous all-electric driving range, and the fact that it’s a very well-rounded car in terms of how it drives and functions.
All models are four-door, front-wheel drive, and have adequate room for the transport of four adults. Front seats are easily boarded and exited, and plenty of charging and storage provisions are easily within reach.
Average-sized occupants up front will find themselves surrounded by adequate space in each dimension. Ditto the rear seat occupants. At five feet, 10 inches I had no issue sitting “behind” myself; rear-seat headroom is just fine for those average in height and, blessedly, the rear section of the front seats includes a handy little smartphone storage pocket.
It’s a Honda after all and few automakers do handy on-board storage quite as well.
The trunk is awkwardly-shaped (thanks to the battery pack, which lives beneath), though a two-person camping trip or major grocery run can be handled with relative ease.
Broadly, Clarity rides nicely at virtually all times. It’s soft and relaxing and relatively quiet on the highway, and around town the ride is nicely set between sporty and squishy.
It’s comfort first, but not a spongecake and in most situations, it rides like an entry-level premium car: something like a lower-end Lexus or Audi. The Clarity’s ride won’t cause you any stress.
Neither will the performance. With 212 horsepower assisted by the immediate torque output of the electric motor, full-throttle passing and merging is handled with pleasing pickup, and while driving on electric-only power around town, throttle response is immediate, relatively abundant, and completely devoid of any sound or vibration.
Various on-screen displays help drivers monitor the driveline and various drive modes can be selected to optimize when and how Clarity uses its stored electric power.
Use your 70 kilometres of electric driving no, or save it for later. Select “sport” or “econ” modes to further fine-tune the experience to your tastes. You are the boss of the Honda Clarity.
Elsewhere, the cabin in my Touring-grade tester offered plenty of interfaces, switchgear and displays that will be familiar to recent Honda owners, though an upscale flair is created with the extended use of suede, wood, gloss, and various textured, floating elements. It’s instantly a Honda on board, but also, instantly a unique one.
Some drivers will wish for a more modern central command touch-screen interface as Clarity’s fails to impress in terms of graphics or layout. Further, the air conditioner is weaker than some will expect; at somewhere north of about 25 C it can take several minutes for it to bring the cabin temperature down.
Pricing (before applicable government discounts) from $40,100 for a base-model unit, or $44,100 for a top-line Clarity Touring like my tester.
Numerous automakers are working harder than ever to make electrified vehicles like this one more appealing and less compromised than ever — Clarity is a strong example of that trend.
- Model: 2019 Honda Clarity
- Engine: 1.5-litre, four-cylinder, electric drive, 17kWh battery
- Drivetrain: front-wheel drive
- Transmission: e-CVT
- Features: Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, automatic climate control, automatic lights, heated leather, push-button start, Honda Link remote control system, automatic wipers, collision warning
- What’s hot: Lovely drive, decent on-board space, easy-to-use controls, good performance, say goodbye to the gas station
- What’s not: very dated central command system, styling not for everyone, air conditioner may struggle on very hot days
- Starting price (Clarity): $40,100
- Price as tested (Clarity Touring): $44,100