Honda spent the better part of the 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s honing the simple. In fact, in the US, it was literally the company's advertising slogan: "Honda. We make it simple." However, it also ventured into the exhaustingly complex, as well, but that was fairly hidden from the mainstream. Remember its Formula 1 engines that shattered records? And don't forget how the company's roots in motorcycle engine development blew up engineering precepts. Honda combined oval pistons, V5 engines, and crankshafts that clustered the power pulses in a brief duration over the 720 degrees in a four-stroke cycle; in so doing, it created a kind of intrinsic traction control. To the racing nerds of the world, it was all fascinating, complex, and reliable to boot. Engineering precepts be damned.
But their road cars of the time? Mostly still simple. At least on the surface.
Which brings us to Honda's latest differing powertrain, the one buried in the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid. (There's also a battery electric and a fuel cell version, the latter of which is only available in California.) As a plug-in hybrid, the Clarity steps over the biggest impediment in consumers' minds about battery electrics: limited range. The Clarity plug-in offers plenty of that—340 total combined miles (547km)—and is also a size larger than most plug-in hybrids, offering real room for five adults and their luggage.
Chiefly propelled by a 181hp (135kW) electric motor that extracts power from a 17kWh lithium-ion battery pack, it can be charged in 2.5 hours from a 240-volt source, though that shoots up to about 12 hours when being fed by a standard household current of 120 volts. Thusly charged, the Clarity PHEV can do 47 miles (76km) on electrons alone before the 103hp (77 kW), 1.5L inline-four chimes in. It also carries a combined fuel rating of 110MPGe on electricity and 42mpg on gasoline. However, the button to release the charging door on the front fender is quite buried under the dash and requires familiarity or strong inspector's instincts.
That gas engine is mainly programmed to drive a generator, applying current to the electric motor and recharging the battery, though it can also drive the wheels directly, depending on circumstances (and a floored throttle), mustering a max of 212 combined horsepower (158 kW).
The Clarity can be driven in one of three driver-selectable modes: Econ, Normal, and Sport (though the default is Normal.) These deliver increasingly greater pedal response up the scale. Starting in Normal mode, the car calculates power needed based on accelerator pedal input and road conditions. If gas engine power is needed to help generate more electricity, the engine engages. If the battery's charge level drops under 11.4 percent, the gas engine charges the battery, drives the wheels, or both. Econ mode conserves battery charge more aggressively, reducing the frequency of gas engine use. Sport mode boosts the responsiveness of the throttle.
Yet, there's more. A second stage of driving mode tweaking can be triggered by HV mode while in any of the other modes. This conserves battery charge longer than without it in each of the main three modes. For even more modal variation, HV Charge prioritizes gas engine operation to charge the battery or power the wheels directly. Simple, right?
Yeah, I'm not done. There's yet another layer. The Clarity PHEV uses an adjustable regenerative braking system with four Regen settings, selected by the paddle on the left side of the steering wheel, while the right-side paddle releases each stage of Regen braking and allows a coasting mode. Combined, there are 13 different driving and Regen modes available to the driver. Of course, you can completely ignore all the modes and simply drive, but the bewildering combination is incongruous for a car aimed at allaying trepidation over complex and new powertrains that may or may not require special consideration or knowledge on the part of the driver.
Three clarity flavors, but just one you can buy
The Clarity PHEV is indeed one of three Clarity flavors that share everything but drivetrains, but it will outsell the others by far to be the volume leader for the model. Plus, it's the only one you can purchase, with the battery electric Clarity leasable only in California and Oregon while the fuel cell model is both California-only and lease-only. With a base price of $34,290, the Clarity PHEV is not exactly cheap, but considering it retains the $7,500 federal tax credit (plus a $1,500 California clean-car purchase rebate and a New York State rebate of $1,700, not including any other local incentives) it's a lot of car for the money. Options add up, though, like the Honda Sensing driver-assistance features and the additional $3,200 for the Touring version with leather and navigation.
The inevitable comparison is to the Clarity's stablemate, the Accord, but also to other plug-in hybrids, and, therein, the Clarity offers more room. Being a larger car than much of that competition, the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid can comfortably seat five adults; indeed, I had three adults in the back sitting comfortably and not fighting each other for personal space. With special attention to aerodynamics—not just for efficiency, but also due to the very low noise floor of electric driving—it feels a class larger than it is. Ride quality, bump isolation, and road harshness all rank way up there at Cadillac levels (well, maybe prior-generation Cadillac levels) with noise absent under almost any circumstance. Throw in a large trunk, and you realize it's a generously sized car with real room for luggage.
Not being mean here, but the Clarity is an odd-looking duck, too. It's not hideous like the Prius Prime or Mirai. It's just unusual, with a very long front overhang, slanted rear-wheel cutouts, and a fairly bulbous, hippy rump. Inside, though, it's well-assembled, logical, and borderline luxurious, though the push-button transmission selectors are unusual, fussy, and would be unfamiliar to newcomers.
Of course, there's a downside to that room and sound-deadening in the form of weight. At over 4,000 pounds (1,814kg), it's by far the heaviest Honda passenger car (not including SUVs). Along with its comforting, whipped-cream ride comes clumsy handling, unlike the new Accord's nimbleness. But carving corners was never really meant to be high on the priority list here, and it's unlikely to be on Clarity shoppers' minds, either.
The other noticeable piece of the driving puzzle is self-inflicted by that very quietness. Under heavy throttle, especially up long hills, the four-cylinder engine gnashes away up front. Because the interior noise is otherwise so low, high-stress gas engine operation is much more noticeable.
The Clarity is a mass-market jump into an as-yet poorly defined world of plug-in hybrids, which Honda hopes to help define better. The bewildering variations of its drive mode settings can be left to its own devices and forgotten, at which point it becomes a normal car, but then what's the virtue of offering them at all? How many Clarity owners will use them, even to a fraction of their capabilities? It makes us think a hyper-efficient plug-in hybrid of truly lightweight and aero efficiency might have been a better platform to showcase the various ways to enable the greatest driver-selectable efficiencies. In this regard, the Clarity PHEV is both simple when you ignore all those bits and complex when you fiddle with them.
Listing image by Honda