Automobiles

[REVIEW] 2019 Honda Clarity Touring Plug-in Hybrid

You’ve probably heard the old adage before: “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, or “It’s what’s on the inside that counts”. Perhaps there is no other vehicle in the Honda line-up that resembles these statements other than the Honda Clarity.

Looking like a vehicular muckbang between the cars in RoboCop, a Citreon SM, the first-generation Honda Insight hybrid, and the Honda Accord, the Clarity certainly won’t be mistaken for anything else on the road.

What is it?

The all-new Clarity series, led by the Clarity Plug-In, is at the forefront of Honda’s initiative to bring electrified vehicle technology into the mainstream. The bigger picture here is they Honda is aiming for electrified vehicles to make up two-thirds of its global automobile sales by 2030.

Those who still profess that true Japanese-built cars are higher in build quality will rejoice that all Clarity models are manufactured in Honda’s Saitama factory in the Sayama prefecture, Japan.

Why is the Clarity an important car for the company? Because the Clarity completes Honda’s first-ever vehicle series that offers customers an array of electrified powertrain choices in one sophisticated, spacious and comprehensively equipped 5-passenger sedan. No doubt this is just a preview of what is to come in the future.

Incidentally, the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid (PHEV) is the only model in the range that is available in Canada. However, our neighbours south of the border also have access to the Clarity Fuel Cell and Clarity Electric, the latter of which is sold in all 50 states.

However, as the volume leader of the trio, the Clarity Plug-in Hybrid sedan is what Honda Canada hopes customers will gravitate to when looking for a PHEV. One that delivers a highly refined technologically advanced driving experience with no compromise to driving range, performance or comfort. Or at least that’s what it says on the outside of the tin.

You might ask then, why buy a Clarity and not the Honda Accord Hybrid? Well, for one, the Honda Accord Hybrid is not available in Canada in a plug-in variant, therefore the Clarity is going to be always more economical than the Accord Hybrid, period.

Depending on the province that you reside in, the Clarity PHEV will also qualify for provincial green vehicle rebates whereas the Accord Hybrid does not.

Powertrain

The Clarity Plug-In Hybrid’s locomotion consists of Honda’s innovative two-motor hybrid technology. This includes a 103 horsepower 1.5-liter DOHC i-VTEC® Atkinson-cycle in-line 4-cylinder engine coupled to a starter/generator motor. This gasoline engine is then paired with a 181-horsepower AC synchronous traction motor powered by a 17-kilowatt hour (kWh), 168-cell lithium-ion battery pack.

Combined, both powerplants output 212 horsepower. Working together, they can extend the total range of the Clarity to well over 500 kilometres on one tank of gas plus a fully-charged battery.

This flexibility with a Plug-in Hybrid, to be able to drive wherever and whenever is what many customers want, at least psychologically, in order to free themselves from range anxiety. It also alleviates recharging concerns that they may have from even long-range battery-only electric vehicles.

If you want to be technical, the Clarity’s gasoline engine is able to assist in directly driving the front wheels, or it spins the generator to provide additional current to the electric motor and to recharge the battery. Charging from a 240 volt Level 2 charger takes about 2.5 hours, but on a standard 120 volt household wall plug, a full charge can take as much as 12 hours.

If you live close to work, as most Canadians do, you could theoretically run the Clarity in pure-EV mode for almost all the time. Like most typical PHEVs, just the electric battery range is enough to meet the daily driving needs of many Canadians and then some.

Distinctive or Polarizing?

Unique exterior design elements set the Clarity apart from most vehicles on the road. The unmistakable corporate Honda grille is blended with a distinctive front-end styling, encompassing distinctive L-shaped LED DRLs and slim LED headlamps.

Out back, the taillight lenses are optimized with a “washboard” surface that is wind tunnel tested to let the air flow smoothly across them, reducing minute amongst of drag.

The decisive angular shapes and flowing curves do look high-tech and futuristic. Still, the rear side profile of the Clarity is where it starts looking a bit off, a bit RoboCop, a bit Citroen SM, a bit early 1990’s era Ford Taurus.

Special “air curtains” built into the front fenders and rear doors help air pass over the wheels with minimal disturbance, rather than tumble across the wheel openings. Honda says that these front air curtains, rear tire covers, and rear air curtains allow the Clarity to slip through the air with as little drag as possible.

However, the looks are definitely not to everyone’s liking. The big question will be how many people will sacrifice looks in the name of saving a few bucks, or the planet.

Riding on a 108.3 inch wheelbase and at over 192.7 inches long, the Clarity is half an inch longer than the Accord and therefore the largest sedan sold by Honda Canada. However, curiously, its wheelbase is 3.1 inches shorter.

The chrome accents help to make the Clarity look a bit more upmarket, but there’s no hiding its junk in the stylistic trunk.

In fact, by comparison, an Accord Touring 2.0T is more than 600 pounds lighter than the Clarity PHEV. At 4,054 pounds, the Clarity far surpasses the Accord’s weight, most of it attributed to the former’s battery pack.

Thankfully though, the battery does not eat up any trunk space, leaving the Clarity with ample (albeit odd-shaped) trunk and interior space for hauling family, coworkers, and their stuff. Despite the Clarity’s fastback styling and transparent double window rear, it does not have a tailgate but indeed a regular trunk lid.

How does it drive?

Modes galore! Like most plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, the Clarity offers a choice of three driving modes—Econ, Normal, and Sport—each delivering progressively more aggressive acceleration and pedal response.

Cleverly, but perhaps not that original of an idea, Honda allows drivers to control the four regenerative-braking system settings via the steering wheel mounted flappy paddles. There are also a further three choices for controlling how the Clarity deploys its battery charge.

Sport mode holds onto the selected regeneration level till the vehicle comes to a halt, but annoyingly, in other drive modes, the regen level cancels and goes back to zero when one touches the throttle pedal. On hilly roads, I had to manually increase the regen to maximize “engine” braking.

Most of the time, the front-wheel-drive Clarity runs solely on its 181-hp AC motor. With 232 lb-ft of torque from essentially 1 RPM, there is plenty of power on offer. Despite its curb weight, the car never felt sluggish and there was plenty of power on tap for almost all conditions.

Of course, there’s no way 181 horsepower is going to propel more than two tons with much urgency. For comparison, with a fully charged battery and with the gasoline engine assisting, the Clarity Touring will achieve a 0-100 km/hr run of about 7.8 seconds. The lighter Accord Touring with a 252-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four and a 10-speed automatic will do the same run in about 5.7 seconds.

Once the Clarity’s lithium-ion battery pack is drained, the 1.5-liter inline-four (rated at 103 horsepower and 99 lb-ft of peak torque) fires up to feed current to the battery pack. Compared to the Accord Hybrid, the Clarity’s changeover between battery and battery/gas engine is much less apparent. I was impressed by how quiet the gas engine was except when climbing hills. Overall, the Clarity is a reminder of how much fun a good electrified powertrain can be.

The Clarity drives nicely too, feeling like a more expensive version of the Accord. Canyon-carving is perhaps a bit too ambitious with the low-grip eco-friendly tires, but the ride is well-composed. Handling is a bit awkward when pushed, thanks to the curb weight. Body lean is acceptable, but the electric power steering is comfortably numb.

That being said, the Clarity’s combination of electric power, acoustic glass and a slippery body shape results in a very serene cabin. Once again, one can’t help but draw comparisons to the Clarity feeling like a more upscale (albeit less sporty) Accord in how it rides and drives.

On the inside

The inside of the Clarity is a lot more conventional than the outside. Bright, modern and sophisticated, the Honda’s interior offers a premium feel coupled with exceptional comfort and refinement.

I was a big fan of the Alcantara inlays on the centre console, wrapping into the front and rear doors. The trim panels with the natural-looking exposed wood grain also felt upscale, restrained, and well thought out.

Neat touches include phone pockets for backseat passengers, but I found that they were a bit small depending on the phone you have. Rear legroom is generous, and the seatback angle is comfortable.

The floating centre console stack with push button transmission gear selectors felt totally appropriate, given the high-tech electrified nature of the Clarity. As expected these days, Honda’s infotainment system supports both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Surprisingly though, the Clarity does not have the latest iteration of the Honda’s system, and still has the annoying volume control slider versus a control knob.

Happily though, Honda’s excellent LaneWatch blindspot display system is also available on the Clarity, with the video feed appearing on the infotainment system.

With the rear view camera and the unique design, the view out back from the driver’s seat is a bit odd albeit functional. There is a Honda CRX-like transparent window beneath the actual glass window, separated by a crossbar.

Strangely, there is even a plastic covered porthole or gunslit that runs partway the length of the rear parcel shelf behind the rear seats. One can look through this area through the back of the car, supposedly for improved visibility.

Active safety equipment-wise, the Clarity comes standard with forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, and lane-keeping assist.

Final Thoughts

The plug-in hybrid market is an interesting place to be right now. The Ford Fusion Energi is making an exit as Ford transitions out of the passenger car market. GM has cancelled the PHEV Volt in favour of keeping the pure-electric Bolt EV. But yet, Toyota is making great headway with their Prius Prime Plug-in Hybrid, with inventory flying off the dealership lots almost as soon as the Primes land. Incidentally, the Prius Prime is cheaper than the Clarity but also less upscale.

Moreover, premium brands such as Jaguar, Land Rover Range Rover, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, Volvo, to name a few, have all also tossed their rings into the PHEV game.

Looks aside and on paper at least, the Clarity PHEV is very competitive. Admittedly, the more I drove it, the more I liked it. The outgoing Volt may be more fun to drive than the Clarity, but the Honda has a far more upscale interior, a more refined driving experience, and more bang for your buck.

As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If you’re shopping in this segment, you just may be surprised by the Clarity. Its pleasant, quiet cabin, standard tech features, and larger battery size may just be enough to get pass its looks.

Andrew Ling
Andrew is a proud car and tech geek who has worked in Surrey for over the last 10 years. He comes from a communications/marketing background and has worked for automotive-related companies such as Edmunds.com, BenzWorld.org since 1999. From track driving, to rally driving to autocross, he has done it all! When he’s not reading about the latest automotive news, he can be found outdoors snapping pictures at various events around town.
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