2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid First Drive

Not an Accord That Plugs In, but Close

Go ahead, ask any average person on the street what a plug-in hybrid is. It's likely you'll be met with puzzled looks.

To date, the notion of a car that both consumes gasoline and has an electrical port — a plug-in hybrid, in other words — hasn't quite resonated with the American buying public. Honda hopes the 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid changes the status quo.

Honda's Only Plug-In Hybrid
The Plug-In Hybrid is the third member of the Clarity family to debut, following the launch of the battery electric and fuel cell variants. Among the Clarity models, the Plug-In Hybrid (PHEV) is expected to be the sales leader by a vast margin. The Clarity is similar in size to an Accord, and pricing of the PHEV version (starting at $34,290, including $890 destination) is about what you'd pay to get a top-level Accord Touring.

Here's a basic outline of how the Clarity's hybrid system works. An electric motor drives the front wheels, fed by a 17-kWh lithium-ion battery pack beneath its seats. In typical driving situations, the Clarity PHEV runs solely off the battery. Eventually, as the battery's charge is consumed, the Clarity's nonturbocharged 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine comes into play. The engine is coupled to a second electric motor to generate electricity to feed the battery and/or the primary electric motor (as a series hybrid). At higher speeds, the engine can join the primary electric motor in driving the wheels directly (as a parallel hybrid).

2018 Honda Clarity PHEV

Clear as mud? The driver need not worry — the Clarity PHEV automatically switches among its three operating regimes as needed.

Acting without the assistance of the gasoline engine, the Clarity delivers 181 horsepower and 232 pound-feet of torque. The output rises to a peak of 212 hp when the gasoline engine is called upon to help out. Honda's hybrid layout eliminates the need for a conventional transmission since the engine's contribution is funneled to the wheels through the primary electric motor.

Ample Electric Range, Solid Fuel Economy
Plugging the Clarity in provides 47 miles of all-electric driving capability. This is a lot more electric-only range than most other plug-in hybrids provide. It's very close to the class leader, the Chevrolet Volt, and its 53 miles of electric range.

Once the battery is depleted to its minimum state of charge, the Clarity operates like a conventional hybrid in which the gasoline engine shoulders more of the propulsion burden. In this mode, the Clarity delivers an EPA-rated 42 mpg combined (44 city/40 highway). The gas tank holds up to 7 gallons, which means the Clarity PHEV can travel up to 340 miles in total when starting with a fully charged battery.

Consistent Thrust
If you floor the accelerator, the Clarity PHEV can and will summon its gasoline engine even when the battery is fully charged. A zone of additional resistance in the accelerator pedal's travel (feels similar to a kickdown switch) provides a tactile cue to the driver for when the engine will definitely be brought to life.

The upside to allowing the engine to join the party in that manner is that the Clarity's acceleration is the same whether the battery is full or empty. This is not the case with the Volt, which is considerably less energetic once its engine comes online.

Normal, Sport and Econ drive modes primarily alter how eagerly the accelerator responds to a given input. A fourth mode, HV mode, runs the engine to recharge the battery. This mode charges the battery up to 58 percent while driving. The Clarity PHEV's consistent performance largely obviates the need for this mode, though it provides for ample EV-only range for when you reach your destination, if so desired.

2018 Honda Clarity PHEV

On the Road
Hugely complex on paper, the Clarity PHEV is simple to use in practice. It's not necessary to futz with the various modes — you can simply get in and drive it like any other car if you so choose. There's satsifying thrust on tap from a standstill thanks to the Clarity's ample low-end torque. Like most plug-ins, though, its acceleration at freeway speeds is considerably less exuberant. Its 212 hp has some 4,052 pounds to move, after all.

This is a pleasant-riding car, thanks in part to the Clarity's multilink independent rear suspension. Its ride quality is refined, and it steers precisely around turns. Routine handling is cooperative rather than engaging, which probably isn't a surprise given its curb weight, though body roll is kept at bay. When the engine turns on, you'll hear it, but engagement is smooth. In general, the Clarity is a quiet car both around town and on the highway.

When you lift off the accelerator, the Clarity PHEV slows gently with only a modicum of regenerative braking. Four levels of regenerative braking can be selected via the steering wheel paddles. Unfortunately, the regen level you choose shortly reverts back to the default minimum unless you select Sport mode.

The Clarity PHEV is among the more polished plug-in hybrids. Its cabin looks and feels well-finished, with a design motif that brings to mind high-end home audio equipment. It's roomier than a Volt, especially in the back seat, and has a much larger trunk.

2018 Honda Clarity PHEV

Trim Levels and Pricing
Base Clarity PHEVs come with lots of standard equipment such as heated seats, dual-zone automatic climate control and a host of driver assistance features. A Touring trim that adds leather, navigation and power front seats is $3,200 more.

The Clarity PHEV is the only version of the Clarity family that isn't lease-only, and it's the only one that's available in all 50 states. It's at dealers now.

The Verdict
Along with the Volt, Toyota Prius Prime and the new Hyundai Ioniq Plug-In Hybrid, the other notable option for car shoppers may already be lurking in Honda's own showroom. Compared to the Clarity PHEV, the Accord Hybrid offers more interior and cargo space, is more enjoyable to drive, looks less goofy to our eyes, and is expected to deliver better conventional hybrid fuel economy.

Where the Clarity PHEV differentiates itself from its stablemate is in its plug-in nature. Given the general public's befuddlement around plug-in hybrids, though, it remains to be seen whether the Clarity PHEV can sufficiently breakthrough. There's no denyng the appeal of a plug-in hybrid if your driving habits lend themselves to it, and in that segment the Clarity PHEV's refinement, range and room make it a strong player