2019 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid review: Worth a second look
Back in 2016, Honda debuted the new Clarity, reviving the nameplate as a green car platform that would host a trio of electrified powertrains. The hydrogen-powered Clarity Fuel Cell hit the road first, early in the year, followed closely by the battery-driven Clarity Electric, but the humble Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid didn't hit the road until a year later, to much less fanfare than its siblings.
The years haven't been kind to the older Clarity siblings. The Fuel Cell model -- still my personal favorite of the three -- is still very limited in geographic availability thanks to the United States' slow-growing hydrogen infrastructure. Meanwhile, the Clarity Electric entered the EV market with less range than nearly every major player and today, with a paltry 89 miles per charge. That makes it a pretty terrible choice in a field dominated by 200-mile-range models.
The 2019 Honda Clarity Plug-in Hybrid that arrived in the Roadshow garage recently has lived in the shadow of its siblings but emerges as the most practical and the most commonly available model of the three. And in the wake of the Chevrolet Volt's demise, the Clarity has found itself in a very interesting position in the plug-in hybrid landscape that I think makes it worth a second look.
Spacious, but weird
The Clarity's design hasn't changed at all since its debut two years ago. The styling language isn't too far off of the current Honda aesthetic, with a front end that looks a lot like that of the Accord . The proportions, however, are a lot less sporty. At about 192 inches from nose to tail, the two sedans are about the same length, but the Clarity's wheelbase is 3 inches shorter, at 108.3 inches, creating longer overhangs and a less sexy stance.
The design starts to get weird at the rear end with the partial fairings over the rear wheels, a rather haphazard collection of rear quarter creases and cuts and a tall rear decklid. This gives the Clarity a busy and chunky-looking rear end that's not exactly ugly, but also not not ugly.
Despite its shallow roofline, the Clarity is not a hatchback; there's a discrete trunk back there. This weird decision means that Honda had to build a window between the rear headrests that looks through the trunk for rear visibility. It's stupid, but it works, and I sort of think it's a nice design novelty. But, if Honda ever did another Clarity generation, a rear camera mirror like you'll find in certain GM models would be a much better solution.
At just 15.5 cubic feet, the Clarity's trunk is more than a cube short of the Accord Hybrid's 16.7 cubic feet, thanks to the former's larger hybrid battery protruding with a hump into the cargo floor. Still, that's a cubic foot more than the Clarity Electric and nearly 4 cubic feet more than the Fuel Cell model, which also loses its rear-seat pass-through.
Yet another way of looking at it is that the Clarity's trunk isn't too far off the 15.9 cubic feet the Subaru Crosstrek Plug-In Hybrid offers with its rear seats in the upright position. While the Crosstrek more decisively takes the utility crown when its seats fold flat, the two boast similar passenger volume. The Honda edges out with more shoulder room, while the Subie has a little more for heads and legs. We'll return to why, exactly, I tossed the crossover into this discussion in a moment.
Honda Earth Dreams Plug-In Hybrid eCVT
Beyond similar scale and aesthetics, the Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid and the Accord Hybrid feature familiar engine rooms.
Pop the Clarity's hood and you'll find Honda's Earth Dreams Hybrid eCVT system, which mates a 103-horsepower, 1.5-liter gasoline engine toa 181-horsepower electric motor. For the most part, the gas engine never actually connects to the driven wheels; instead, it hums along in its efficiency sweet spot, acting as a generator for the electric motor, which sends 232 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels via a single-speed gearbox. (The gasoline engine can occasionally connect to the wheels during light highway cruising, but it's a fairly narrow window of operation.)
There's not a whole lot to say about the Clarity Plug-In's driving style: With decent electric torque, it's fairly spry off of the line, but it's also not particularly impressive. The big, heavy sedan feels better suited to a relaxed driving mode, which, I know, is basically a nice way of saying it's a bit boring. There's a Sport mode that livens things up a bit with snappier throttle response and a more liberal application of torque, but it does nothing for the heavy car handling, and the scale and weight of the Clarity make themselves apparent when attempting any sort of dynamic driving. This is a vehicle that shines best when you're just enjoying the smooth, quiet ride.
The Clarity differs from the Accord Hybrid (and the smaller Honda Insight) in its larger, 17-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack and the charging port on the driver's side front fender. Together, they grant the plug-in hybrid up to 47 miles of electric range per charge. The PHEV can be juiced at a regular 110-volt wall outlet in about 12 hours or a more reasonable 2.5 hours at 240-volt, Level 2 stations. L2 chargers can be installed fairly cheaply in the average American home and are highly recommended for plug-in drivers.
Fully electric operation is estimated at 110 miles per gallon equivalent, dropping down to about 42 combined mpg for hybrid operation beyond that first 40-odd miles. Calculating what those numbers mean in the real world is fun if you love math, but frustrating for most, I know. With plug-in hybrids, your mileage may vary based not just on your driving style, but also your charging habits, local charging station infrastructure and a host of other factors. Thankfully, there are plenty of real-world estimates for all three Clarity PHEV model years on user reporting sites like Fuelly. There, I'm seeing averages around 60 to 80 mpg from many users, presumably those who charge more often, stretching all the way into the 200-mpg neighborhood.
Anecdotally, I was able to charge at public charging stations near the local libraries and coffee shops where I do much of my writing and, even with a day of filming, which is usually brutal on fuel economy, I ended the week at about 125 mpg combined, barely touching the gasoline tank at all. Eventually, the gas would need to get used -- it doesn't keep forever -- but my takeaway is regular charging plays best to the PHEV's strengths.
Cabin and cabin tech
The Clarity's cabin is about as nice as that of the average contemporary Honda. Cabin materials are well-chosen and varied, giving the dashboard a high level of visual and tactile interest. I especially like the floating center console, which looks a tad weird offers good ergonomics and opens up a generous storage shelf beneath.
In the center of the dashboard is the 8-inch Honda Display Audio system, which is starting to feel a little dated. Both the software and hardware are about a generation older than much of Honda's current lineup, which has -- for the most part -- been updated over the past few years. That said, standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay allow me to pretty much gloss over the OEM software and use the superior maps and apps on my phone, so I found the day-to-day cabin tech experience to be quite pleasing.
Safety tech consists of the standard Honda Sensing suite with automatic collision mitigation braking, road- and lane-keeping assistance and adaptive cruise control that works in stop-and-go traffic. Not a bad out-of-the-box loadout. It's also packing Honda's LaneWatch blind-spot camera system, which I don't love since it only works on the passenger side of the car when the turn signal is active, and requires I look away from the road to see the camera's dashboard feed. Still, LaneWatch is better than no blind-spot system at all.
Pricing and competition
The underdog 2019 Clarity Plug-In Hybrid finds itself in an interesting position in the wake of the Chevrolet Volt's demise and the rise of plug-in hybrid SUVs.
For starters, it's one of the longest-range PHEVs on the road today for the money. At $34,330 (including a $930 destination charge) or $37,530 as tested for this Touring model, the Clarity delivers nearly 50 miles of range per charge at a price competitive with smaller plug-in sedans, like the Prius Prime or Hyundai's Ioniq and Sonata plug-ins, all of which only manage 25 to 28 miles per charge.
The Clarity's scale also works in its favor. Being designed with a battery in mind and landing at the large end of the midsize sedan class means that the Honda's trunk is about as large as the hatch on many of the plug-in SUVs, vehicles like the Kia Niro and the aforementioned Subaru Crosstrek. Competitively priced, these plug-in SUVs tend to average at or below 20 miles per charge and offer even lower hybrid economy than a sedan beyond that. Of course, the Honda is no match for the spaciousness of an SUV with its seats folded flat and it doesn't offer all-wheel drive, which many SUVs do, but for drivers who value people space more than cargo capacity, the more efficient Clarity isn't a bad compromise. At least, until the Toyota RAV4 Prime arrives with its 39 miles of electric range -- less than the Clarity, but still respectable in this class.
I know what some of you are thinking, for $36 grand you're in the ballpark of a decent fully electric vehicle, and I agree. But I also understand that not everyone's not ready (or able) to make the full EV plunge just yet. For those looking to just dip a toe into the electrified lifestyle, the spacious, efficient and humble Clarity Plug-In Hybrid is a surprisingly good choice.