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First drive: 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid [Review]

by Drew Johnson

With the Plug-In Hybrid, Honda\'s Clarity line is complete.

After failing to crack the armor of the Toyota Prius with the first two generations of its Insight Hybrid, Honda is employing a new three-prong attack with its latest Clarity line. Honda has already introduced the Clarity Electric and Clarity Fuel Cell, and now comes the third and final Clarity rendition, the Plug-In Hybrid.

The basicsThere's a growing number of plug-in vehicles available on the market today, but Honda believes the Clarity Plug-In is positioned uniquely within the category as a large car with a premium interior. We'll get to the latter part of that claim in a bit, but it's hard to deny the Clarity Plug-In's big car credentials. Stretching 192.7 inches in length, the Clarity PHEV is nearly 10 inches longer than the Toyota Prius Prime and about an inch longer than the Ford Fusion Plug-In Hybrid.

At the heart of the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid is a gas-electric drivetrain that consists of a 1.5L four-cylinder engine and a pair of electric motors (one for drive power and another for electricity generation). The 1.5L is essentially a re-worked version of the engine you'd find under the hood of a Honda Fit. In Clarity Plug-In Hybrid guise that mill is good for a relatively modest 103 horsepower and 99 lb-ft of torque. The Clarity's main electric motor generates 181 horsepower and 232 lb-ft of torque. Combined system output stands at 212 horsepower and 232 lb-ft of torque. Power is routed to the Clarity's front wheels via a fixed, single-speed transmission.

The battery in the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid is a 17kWh lithium-ion unit that takes 2.5 hours to charge off a 240V source and 12 hours on a 120V plug. Total electric range for the Clarity Plug-In is 47 miles. Combined with the conventional gas engine, the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid has a total range of about 340 miles.

The Clarity Plug-In Hybrid is offered in two trims — base and top-spec Touring. The entry-level version of the Clarity PHEV comes well equipped with standard features like LED exterior lighting, keyless entry with push button start, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity, heated front seats and a comprehensive safety suite that includes adaptive cruise control, road departure mitigation and lane keep assist. Stepping up to the Touring trims adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel, power-adjustable front seats, leather-trimmed seats, compass and satellite navigation. Oddly, rear parking sensors are a dealer-installed option.

Looking the partLaunching a new vehicle nameplate is no easy task, but Honda says the move was necessary to cater to the Clarity's target audience. The type of buyer that seeks out an alternative-fuel vehicle like the Clarity doesn't want to merely blend into the crowd, so a plug-in version of the Accord wouldn't suffice. That kind of eco-recognition worked out for the uniquely-shaped Toyota Prius, and Honda is hopeful the same will hold true for the Clarity.

But unique isn't synonymous with beautiful. The front-half of the Clarity Plug-In is handsome enough with design cues from Honda's latest Accord and Civic models, but the rear of the plug-in is a hodgepodge of shapes, lines and creases. The Clarity's most daring design element is a set of rear quarter panels that partially cover the car's rear wheels. Though good for aero, the covers aren't great for aesthetics, especially when combined with the Clarity's up-swept belt line. Together they create a massive swath of sheet metal that carries over to the Clarity's rear end. In fact, the Clarity's rear profile is so high that Honda had to incorporate a small window into the car's trunk, otherwise rearward visibility would be nearly impossible.

Luckily, you can escape the Clarity's awkward exterior styling by slipping behind the wheel (that is until you look in the rear-view mirror). The Clarity's cabin is conventionally arranged with a well-laid out gauge cluster, center-mounted touchscreen display and the same kind of push-button transmission selector you'll find in various other Honda models. The Clarity is even quite practical with generous door pockets and a large storage area beneath the gear selector.

Clarity Touring models feel as premium as advertised. The Clarity's dash and door cards are adorned with a microfiber material that's typically found in vehicles a few price brackets up. Wood is fake but convincing, with aluminum trim providing a nice accent. The entry-level Clarity isn't quite as convincing on its premium stance; it's let down by a rubber steering wheel, synthetic leather instead of microfiber accents and manually-adjusted front seats.

On the roadBeing a vehicle designed for zero-emissions driving rather than all-out driving pleasure, we were expecting a vanilla driving experience in the Clarity Plug-In. We were pleasantly surprised to find our expectation didn't match up with reality.

Steering is well-weighted and direct with an excellent on-center feel. The Clarity Plug-In isn't a light-weight with a curb weight of just over 4,000 pounds, but most of that heft is located low in the center of the car's chassis, resulting in a very planted feeling on the road. Body roll is largely kept in check thanks to a MacPherson suspension up front and a multi-link kit in the rear.

But despite being sportier-than-expected, the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid still returns a comfortable ride over all but the harshest of road surfaces. That comfortable experience is enhanced by a cabin that is extremely quiet, even when the gas engine kicks on to provide additional power.

With a zero-to-60 time of just under 9 seconds, the Clarity Plug-In is actually peppy for a mainstream electric vehicle, but far slower than a typical mid-size sedan; you'll need to plan well-ahead for any overtaking or freeway merging maneuvers. Things get even worse when the Clarity's on-board battery runs out of juice, leaving only the 103 horsepower gas engine to lug around the 4,000 pound sedan through a single-speed gearbox. Moreover, the Clarity's typically quite cabin turns into a buzzing penalty box when you're whipping away at the poor little 1.5L under hood.

Brakes are quite good in the Clarity Plug-In, lacking the artificial feel that can often plague electric vehicles. There's also a set of ‘Deceleration Selectors' (think paddle shifters) mounted behind the Clarity's steering wheel that allow for custom tailoring of the car's regenerative brakes. Want a more aggressive setting that slows the car to generates more charge? Simply toggle the paddled on the left side. Clicking on the right side paddle reduces the amount of regenerative braking applied. The system works quite well and does an admirable job of replicating conventional engine braking via a set of paddle shifters in a typical car.

When fully charged, the Clarity Plug-In hybrid operates as a pure electric vehicle during most driving conditions. You can keep an eye on the Clarity's electric operation via the large center readout in the car's gauge cluster. Keep the meter within the blue section and you'll remain in EV mode; press the accelerator pedal beyond a click point and the Clarity Plug-In switches to hybrid mode to generate more power. The blue range of the dial shrinks as the battery is depleted, resulting in more time spent with both powertrains running.

The system defaults to normal mode, but there Clarity Plug-In offers three button-activated settings — Econ, Sport and HV. There's also an HV Charge mode that can be activated by pressing and holding the HV button.

Econ mode, as its name suggests, is the Clarity's most efficient driving mode. Econ mode keeps the Clarity in electric mode longer by increasing the pedal travel necessary to trigger the car's click point. Sport mode works in the inverse, decreasing the amount of pedal travel required to bring the car's gas engine to life. When switched to HV, the Clarity essentially operates as a typical hybrid vehicle with the gas engine and electric motor working in tandem. If you want to charge up the Clarity's battery on the go, you can press and hold the HV button to activate HV Charge mode, which focuses the system's energy on recharging the battery. Once the battery's state of charge hits 58 percent, the car reverts back to normal hybrid mode.

You can keep track of everything going on in the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid's drivetrain via an animation displayed on the car's central infotainment screen. Unfortunately that screen is buried within a few different menus, so it's not easy to pop up at a moment's notice.

The 8-inch touchscreen in the Clarity offers good resolution, be we found it to be a little laggy in operation with a split-second delay between our input and the system responding. Although minor, we wish the graphics were a little more special to reflect the Clarity's advanced drivetrain. But if we had just one wish, it would be for a volume knob instead of a hard-to-use slider.

We give the Clarity's front seats high marks for offering excellent comfort and support. There's also plenty of head, shoulder and leg room for front-seat passenger. The rear bench offers good legroom for outboard passengers, but headroom can be tight for those over six-feet-tall. Although Honda bills the Clarity as a five-passenger vehicle, that would be a tight squeeze with normal-sized adults. The center-rear seat in the Clarity protrudes slightly which, when combined with the hump in the floor, limits leg room. The center seat is also raised compared to the outboard seats, so headroom is even tighter for that seating position.

Trunk space is good at 15.5 cubic feet, but that trails the cargo room offered by the Prius Prime.

Leftlane's bottom lineWith the 2018 Honda Clarity, Honda has essentially created a much better Insight. Instead of simply building a Prius imitator, Honda has developed something unique of its own with the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid.

We give the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid high marks for its excellent driving dynamics and premium-feeling cabin (at least in Touring-guise), but it's hard to overlook the fact that the Chevrolet Volt is faster and offers better all-electric range. Not to mention the Volt is available with blind spot monitoring and cross-traffic detection, two features that are sorely lacking from the Clarity's spec sheet. But the Clarity offers better rear-seat passenger room than the Volt, which could be its trump card for some buyers.

2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In HybridBase price, $33,400. Touring priced from $36,600. Prices exclude an $890 destination charge.

Photos by Drew Johnson.

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