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2018 Honda Clarity review: A complex car with a simple soul

The Clarity's plug-in hybrid drivetrain may be complex, but that doesn't mean you can't just get in and drive.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
6 min read

To geek or not to geek? That's the question I asked myself while driving the 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-in Hybrid (PHEV). Was it better to search the car's confounding number of drive modes and delve into its efficiency data, or just take the wheel and drive, leaving it all up to the car's own smarts?


2018 Honda Clarity

The Good

The 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-in Hybrid operates seamlessly between electric and hybrid operation, such that it's difficult to tell when the engine is on. Forty-seven miles of purely electric range means no gasoline for a 20-mile commute. Standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay make for excellent phone integration.

The Bad

The 1.5-liter engine sounds strained at times, and the Clarity's collision warning system lights up even when adaptive cruise control is controlling braking.

The Bottom Line

The 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-in Hybrid can deliver excellent fuel economy, depending on how frequently you charge the battery, while offering comfort and refined road manners. A long list of standard features, such as driver assist systems, and a sizable federal tax credit make this car a real value.

In Honda's new plug-in hybrid, I could choose between Eco, Normal and Sport drive modes, and layer on top of any of those modes Hybrid Vehicle or Hybrid Vehicle Charging modes. Add the ability to choose from five brake-regeneration modes and, frankly, the math to calculate those permutations is beyond me.

If I wanted to strain my brain, I could, but the Clarity PHEV would happily make all these decisions for me. If it has any of its 47 miles of pure electric range available, it will drive as an electric car. When that range runs down, it seamlessly and quietly fires up its 1.5-liter engine, joining that motivation to whatever electrons it can gather to keep the car moving.

Frankly, there was only one number that mattered: the 83 mpg the Clarity PHEV showed for a 100-mile trip that began with a fully charged battery.

2018 Honda Clarity Plug-in Hybrid

The Clarity Plug-in Hybrid joins its siblings in Honda's line-up, the Clarity Electric and Clarity Fuel Cell Vehicle.

Wayne Cunningham/Roadshow

The 2018 Honda Clarity PHEV comes out as the last of three variations on this model line, the first two being the Clarity Fuel Cell Vehicle and Clarity Electric. The Clarity series are all midsize sedans, similar to the Honda Accord, with seating for five and ample trunk space.

"The Clarity is intended to be an environmental halo vehicle for Honda," spokesman Chris Martin said, "so it has to be a distinct model from Accord." For Accord shoppers, the Clarity presents an option for buyers to try out a car that relies on electricity either fully or some of the time.

Plug-in hybrids are a little weird, and not well understood. As a simple explanation, the Clarity PHEV is an electric car with a back-up gasoline-electric drive system. Run out of electricity and the gasoline engine continues to make the car go.

As such, the phrase "your mileage may vary" applies to a ridiculous degree. Plug in every night, drive a 20-mile commute every day, and you won't use a drop of gas. Never plug in, and you will still get the Clarity PHEV's 42 mpg EPA-rated average, which is still very good for a big sedan.

Honda Clarity Plug-in Hybrid a more fuel-efficient Accord option

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Under the hood and in the chassis, the Clarity PHEV mixes a 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine, a 17 kilowatt-hour battery pack and an electric motor, all driving the front wheels. There is no conventional transmission, as the power mixes in through a second motor and, I assume, a cousin of Maxwell's demon.

Total power output for the Clarity PHEV comes to 212 horsepower, more than most four-cylinder midsize sedans.

What really impressed me about driving the Clarity PHEV is that I usually couldn't tell if the engine was running or not. Cruising at 55 mph on a highway, the difference between pure electric drive and hybrid mode was negligible. The drive system in either mode was virtually silent, while sound-deadening materials minimized the noise from wind and tires.

2018 Honda Clarity Plug-in Hybrid
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2018 Honda Clarity Plug-in Hybrid

With Eco, Sport and two different Hybrid Vehicle modes, the Clarity Plug-in Hybrid can seem overwhelming, but you don't really need to worry about fine-tuning it.

Wayne Cunningham/Roadshow

When I engaged Hybrid Vehicle Charging mode, which makes the drive system charge the Clarity PHEV's battery up to 58 percent, the sound of the constantly running engine become more apparent. Climbing a hill in standard Hybrid Vehicle mode, the engine sounded strained, although the car kept its speed just fine.

Really mashing the accelerator, even in full electric mode, fires up the engine to maximize the Clarity PHEV's power output, also increasing the noise. When I floored it to pass another car, I was underwhelmed by the acceleration.

Sport mode tuned up the Clarity PHEV's accelerator response in a substantial manner, while Eco not only detuned the throttle, but also scaled back the energy-sucking climate control.

Taking the Clarity PHEV out of its element and driving up a winding mountain road, its suspension and steering performed exceedingly well. Although far from sports car handling, I felt no stomach-churning body roll. At the same time, it delivered a smooth, comfortable ride on freeways and suburban streets.

As a leader for Honda's electrification efforts, the Clarity PHEV comes loaded with an impressive amount of standard equipment. LED headlights, Honda's suite of advanced safety systems and an 8-inch touchscreen-based infotainment system fill the list.

2018 Honda Clarity Plug-in Hybrid

Standard adaptive cruise control, lane keeping and LED headlights help make the Clarity Plug-in Hybrid a good value.

Wayne Cunningham/Roadshow

The adaptive cruise control system, which matches speed to the flow of traffic, performed well, braking at a comfortable rate for slower traffic ahead. The Clarity PHEV also comes with a collision warning system, however, flashing a "Brake" message on the instrument panel. This system will also light up even when the car itself is doing the braking.

The Clarity PHEV's lane-keeping system tracks a comfortable course in the center of a lane, feeling more advanced than many competitive cars. The car also comes with a system that keeps it from skittering around too much when going over metal gratings.

Honda goes its own way when it comes to blind-spot monitoring. Rather than the illuminated warning icons of competitors, Honda puts a camera in the right side mirror. Signaling for a right turn, I was treated to a view of the right lane on the car's center touchscreen, kind of like the back-up camera. For left lane changes, the Clarity PHEV uses a bifocal mirror that should cover that side of the car.

2018 Honda Clarity Plug-in Hybrid
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2018 Honda Clarity Plug-in Hybrid

As a high-tech car, the Honda Clarity Plug-in Hybrid uses an LCD instrument cluster showing power use and regenerative braking.

Wayne Cunningham/Roadshow

With its high-tech focus, the Clarity PHEV features an LCD instrument panel showing a virtual power gauge. In the Touring trim model I drove, matte-finish, wood-look trim was a nice touch around the cabin, as was the soft suede-like material on dashboard and door panels.

Honda has made significant strides with its infotainment systems in recent years, and the Clarity PHEV benefits. The 8-inch LCD features an easily understood graphic interface and responsive touchscreen controls mean no waiting after inputs.

The navigation system offers one-box destination search, which let me enter a business name or address without having to search for the appropriate menu. If I needed a little help, I could dig into points-of-interest categories, including one for charging stations.

The navigation system maps in the Clarity PHEV are big and colorful, showing traffic flow and landmarks. I was impressed when, under route guidance, the system showed a photographic image of a freeway junction. That image helped me recognize where I needed to turn, but the system only gives that sort of detail for some areas.

Android and iPhone users will likely just use the Clarity PHEV's integration with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, both systems which mirror certain phone features, such as navigation and audio apps, on the car's dashboard LCD. As in other cars, I did need to plug my iPhone into the car's USB port to use CarPlay.

2018 Honda Clarity Plug-in Hybrid

Along with its fuel-efficiency drivetrain, the Honda Clarity Plug-in Hybrid features a roomy, five-passenger cabin.

Wayne Cunningham/Roadshow

The 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-in Hybrid goes for $33,400 base, and $36,600 in Touring trim, and that's before a potential $7,500 federal tax credit, where the net price could come down to the mid- to high-20s. The Touring trim brings in nicer interior touches, along with navigation software. Beyond those two choices, there isn't much in the way of an option list for the Clarity PHEV.

I would certainly consider the base model, as saving $3,200 makes good sense. The navigation software isn't all that necessary, as the base model still supports Android Auto and CarPlay. I would miss some of the nicer cabin materials of the Touring trim.

Honda gets to claim that the Clarity PHEV offers the best pure electric range of any plug-in hybrid sedan, due to the fact that the Chevrolet Volt, which runs for 53 miles on its battery pack, is a hatchback. More importantly, Honda can boast substantially better interior and cargo space than the Volt.

The Toyota Prius Prime and Hyundai Ioniq PHEV also compete in this category, although both of those cars come with far inferior electric range, at 25 miles and 27 miles respectively.

With the Clarity Plug-in Hybrid, Honda does very well on the numbers in a car that's both comfortable and refined.


2018 Honda Clarity

Score Breakdown

Performance 8Features 8Design 7Media 8