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2018 Honda Clarity Review

2018 Honda Clarity Review
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The 2018 Honda Clarity lineup includes the Japanese maker’s greenest models, with two of its three versions releasing no tailpipe emissions at all. However, only one of the three mid-size sedan versions will be sold nationwide. That’s the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid, which goes on sale early in 2018. The plug-in Clarity comes in standard and Touring trims, while the Fuel Cell and Electric models only offer a single trim level each.

The other two versions—the battery-powered Clarity Electric and the Clarity Fuel Cell version, powered by hydrogen—are distributed in very limited regions of California. Most U.S. drivers will never see one, although all three versions are quite similar in appearance.

We rate the 2018 Honda Clarity line at 6.0 points out of a possible 10. We’re not fans of its awkward styling, but it’s a comfortable, spacious, quiet, and well-equipped sedan with excellent green credentials, even for the high-volume plug-in hybrid version that comes with a tailpipe. Note that we have not rated the Clarity for safety; if the car gets high crash-test ratings, that number could rise. 

We’re not big fans of the Clarity’s styling, while marries a recognizably Honda front end to an awkward, high-tailed rear and rising window line made necessary by the very large cylindrical hydrogen tank behind the rear seat of the Clarity Fuel Cell version. The interior, however, is standard-issue high-end Honda, with nice materials and clear, legible controls.

On the road, none of the Clarity versions can be considered a sport sedan. They are, however, quiet, smooth, and comfortable, not to mention spacious inside and outfitted with good feature content even in the lowest-priced Clarity Plug-In version, which starts around $34,000. The Fuel Cell version is in the mid-50s, though it is offered only as a lease vehicle and Honda has improved the lease terms since it launched more than a year ago.

The excellent 2018 Accord midsize sedan, offering two gasoline engines and a hybrid option, will do far better than the somewhat ungainly Clarity. But for shoppers who want to plug in, Honda offers the only mid-size sedan with a trunk that gives more than 40 miles of range. Californians can also choose the Electric version, with a disappointing 93-mile range, or the Fuel Cell version, which is usable only within range of that state’s network of several dozen hydrogen fueling stations.

The new Clarity Plug-In Hybrid is the most important model in the lineup, however. At least for 2018, it offers a combination of space, comfort, and green powertrain that isn’t matched by any other competitor. We expect it to do well if Honda can figure out how to explain the benefits of plug-in hybrids to its shoppers, a task that bedevils more than one carmaker even today.

While the 2018 Honda Clarity mid-size sedan is about the same size as the new Accord from the same maker, its proportions are completely different. It’s visually taller, with an awkward high tail, and a portly appearance from the rear. It’s almost a mashup of three departed Hondas: the Accord Crosstour utility vehicle, the Insight hybrid hatchback, and the previous Clarity fuel-cell sedan. We rate the new Clarity at 4 points out of 10 for design and styling, dinging it one point for its ungainly lines.

While the Clarity Fuel Cell’s black roof somewhat disguises its bulk, the other models do without this visual aid. The rear of the roof tapers slightly to enhance airflow, which makes the high rear cowl that covers the hydrogen fuel tank all the more obvious. The effect is a car that’s simply portly in the rear. A prominent horizontal spoiler on the trunk lid disguises the otherwise rounded, falling-away lines of the rear. It also disguises a second rear window in the trunk lid to compensate for the height of the rear window base.

Things are better inside, with a handsome and luxurious-feeling interior design. The dashboard design is similar to those of other Honda models, though the Clarity’s stylists haven’t yet restored the audio volume and tuner knobs that returned to the Accord after a brief absence. Interior materials include artificial-wood accents, and on the higher trim, Ultrasuede insets in light colors that feel downright luxurious. Only a few items like oddly shaped door handles and the small drive selector hint at the unusual powertrains; mostly the interior reads stylish and upscale.

The three versions of the 2018 Honda Clarity have three different powertrains, but the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid added to the lineup this year will be the one most U.S. Honda shoppers will see. After a day with the newest and highest-volume version, the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid, we found that despite its small gasoline engine, it’s got a lot of electric power and runs smoothly under most circumstances.

For the range as a whole, focused most on the plug-in, we give the 2018 Clarity 5 out of 10 points for performance. It gains a point for smooth power, but loses one for only average roadholding, a situation underlined by the simply superb handling of its sibling the 2018 Accord, also a mid-size sedan.

The 2018 Clarity Plug-In is powered by a specially tuned 1.5-liter inline-4 engine paired with the latest generation of Honda’s two-motor hybrid system, which supplants a conventional transmission. The drive motor, rated at a substantial 146 kilowatts (181 horsepower), produces 232 pound-feet of torque and can power the car itself in many cases, especially in low-speed use.

By default, the plug-in Clarity operates solely on battery power until its charge is depleted, and then reverts to being a conventional hybrid. Drivers can also conserve battery charge for later use, and select among Normal, Sport, and Eco power mapping. When in hybrid mode, the Clarity Plug-In uses its engine like a generator in most circumstances, meaning the engine note may not be in sync with gains or reductions in road speed. It’s quiet enough that it doesn’t matter except on hills, when the burden of a 1.5-liter engine running hard enough to generate power to haul a large mid-size uphill gets noisy. Otherwise, it’s smooth power.

The 2018 Clarity Plug-In’s 17-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack sits at the front of the trunk, and gives an EPA-rated electric range of 47 miles. In hybrid operation, its fuel economy is rated at 42 mpg. Recharging time is quoted at 2.5 hours at a 240-volt charging station.

Two all-electric versions

The Clarity Electric and Clarity Fuel Cell are each powered solely by an electric motor driving the front wheels. The hydrogen model has a bit more power, at 130 kw (174 hp) and 221 lb-ft of torque against the 120 kw (161 hp) of the battery version. The source of the electricity to that motor varies between the two, however. It’s a 25.5-kilowatt-hour battery pack for the Electric, rated at a disappointing 93 miles of range, that’s made up of the Plug-In Hybrid’s underfloor pack joined by an auxiliary pack behind the rear seat.

For the Clarity Fuel Cell, it’s the company’s newest fuel-cell stack under the hood, fed from two tanks full of highly compressed hydrogen behind the rear seat that give an EPA-rated range of 365 miles. The hydrogen version also has a small conventional hybrid battery pack under the front seats for extra boost when maximum power is needed.

On the road, all three Clarity versions perform confidently and deliver decent roadholding that’s only about average for the class. That’s something of a shame, given the superb driving characteristics of the new 2018 Accord midsize sedan. (We’d love to see the plug-in hybrid powertrain married to the handsomer Accord too.) The Clarity’s turning radius is relatively tight for a large sedan, at 17.7 feet, and the double-wishbone suspension responds well to uneven road surfaces.

The two versions with battery packs feel faster off the line than the Fuel Cell model, which can’t pull a lot of energy from its small battery. Fuel cells prefer to operate at steady outputs, so the hydrogen version has limits on its performance the other two don’t. Still, none of the three can be categorized as anything remotely close to a sport sedan. That’s where the gasoline-powered Accord fits in.

The 2018 Honda Clarity varies in its number of seats depending on powertrain: five in the high-volume plug-in hybrid and the Electric models, but only four in the Fuel Cell version. It’s a roomy midsize sedan, its ride is smooth, and the car is quiet in operation under all but a small number of circumstances. We rate it at 6 points out of a possible 10, adding one point for exceptional roominess even against competing sedans.

The Clarity’s seats are comfortable, with good bolstering and range of power adjustment in front, although the passenger seat height remains fixed. Some drivers may find they prefer the car’s slightly more upright seats to those of the Accord, which is lower and racier after its redesign this year. Rear leg room is ample, as you’d expect from a large sedan, though rear head room may be limited for taller adults. Each occupant gets a cup holder, and various trays, door pockets, storage cubbies, and center-console space accommodated anything we filled it with.

Trunk space varies greatly among the three powertrains. The high-volume Clarity Plug-In has 15.5 cubic feet, the most of any version, while the Electric is rated at 14.3 cubic feet. The Fuel Cell version, with one of two 10,000-psi hydrogen tanks behind the rear seat, offers only 11.1 cubic feet. Honda helpfully notes that accommodates one set of golf clubs for each of the four occupants.

On the road, the two zero-emission Clarity models are smooth and quiet at all times. The Fuel Cell model has none of the noise from pumps, compressors, and air inlets we heard in the hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai. Aside from occasional whine from the electric-drive components, they were among the calmest midsize sedans we’ve driven. Even the plug-in model is laudably quiet under most circumstances; it’s almost impossible to notice that its small engine has switched on.

The exception to that rule is when the large sedan has move swiftly up steep hills, one of the few times we heard the engine at maximum power—and then you’re aware it’s a small powerplant turning over a high speeds. That was only a single incidence in a day of driving, however.

The 2018 Honda Clarity lineup has received no safety ratings from either the IIHS or the NHTSA, so we’re not rating it on our safety scale either.

Given Honda’s recent safety ratings across a variety of its cars, we’d expect the Clarity to do fairly well on such tests if they happen. But the very low volumes of the Fuel Cell and Electric models on sale during 2017 discouraged testing, and the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid model is new for 2018. Perhaps that’ll be the one that gets tested in due course.

In general, the Clarity offers similar safety features to other mid-size sedans. It has the usual complement of airbags, a rearview camera is standard. Honda’s LaneWatch video camera comes as standard equipment as well; it displays an image of the right-side blind spot on the dash display via a camera under the right-door mirror. The Honda Sensing suite of active-safety systems is also standard.

The lower-volume Electric and Fuel Cell models also feature adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, and active lane control. Honda notes the high-pressure hydrogen storage tanks have been crash-tested extensively; they will likely retain their intensity even as the rest of the car crumples around them.

The Clarity’s high tail means rear three-quarter visibility is limited at best. But visibility through the rearview mirror is better than expected, due to a glass panel in the space between the two rear-seat tops that lets the driver see right through the upper part of the trunk via a corresponding glass panel in the trunk lid. The resulting two-part view out the rear is unexpected but clever.

The 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid is offered in two trim levels—standard and Touring—while the Clarity Fuel Cell and Clarity Electric versions only come in one trim apiece. We rate the Clarity lineup at 6 out of 10 possible points for its features, giving it an extra point for well-equipped standard versions starting around $34,000.

All Clarity versions come standard with keyless entry and start, dual-zone automatic climate control with rear vents, an 8.0 touchscreen and an eight-speaker audio system, and LED lights front and rear. Bluetooth connectivity, Android Auto, and Apple CarPlay are all standard as well. All Clarity models feature 18-inch alloy wheels, though their designs differ among the three versions.

The high-end Touring version of the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid adds a navigation system, including a map of charging-station locations. It also adds an eight-way power adjustable driver’s seat and four-way adjustable front passenger seat, imitation-suede interior and perforated-leather upholstery, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, for a cost of $2,200 more.

The single trim levels of the Clarity Fuel Cell and Clarity Electric are roughly equivalent to the Touring version of the plug-in Clarity, along with a head-up display for speed and other functions.

Each of the three Clarity models takes a different approach to full or partial zero-emission driving, but all three can operate at least some of the time without any tailpipe emissions. That’s enough to give the Clarity range 10 out of 10 points on our fuel-economy score.

The most common version, the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid, earns an EPA-rated electric range of 47 miles—close to the 53 miles of the smaller Chevy Volt, but in a more spacious sedan with five seats. In hybrid operation, its fuel economy is rated at 42 mpg, the same as the Volt.

The Clarity Fuel Cell gets an EPA range rating of 365 miles from the 5.5 gallons of hydrogen compressed to 10,000 psi in the two tanks behind the rear seat. That’s higher than the 312-mile rating of the smaller Toyota Mirai, the only other fuel-cell vehicle now on sale in the U.S. We found that energetic driving lowered that range to more like 250 miles, still better than all but a few Tesla electric cars.

The disadvantage to hydrogen, of course, is that fueling infrastructure doesn’t exist outside California. There are now several dozen hydrogen fueling stations in the state, but it’s not a car you can drive to Texas on a whim. Today, most U.S. hydrogen is produced from natural gas; it still offers lower “wells-to-wheels” carbon emissions than most gasoline cars, but certainly isn’t as low as all-electric cars plugged into California’s electric grid.

The Clarity Electric is the biggest disappointment; with a larger battery pack, it could be a more reasonably-priced competitor to the Tesla Model S sedan. But with just 93 miles of range, its sole advantage against the slew of smaller five-door hatchbacks with ranges of 107 to 238 miles of range is its five-seat mid-size sedan shape. That may not be enough, and it will likely remain a rare beast limited to California roads.


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