There’s a new plug-in hybrid in town, and it could expand the audience for cars that provide useful electric range for daily driving while retaining an efficient gasoline engine for longer trips.
The 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid is the third and most important model in the Clarity lineup, which already includes the hydrogen Fuel Cell model as well as a 93-mile battery-electric version.
Both those cars are sold in low volumes in California only; the plug-in Clarity will be the high-volume entry, at up to 20,000 sales a year, according to Honda.
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Since 2011, the Chevrolet Volt has been the king of plug-in hybrids, with the longest production life and the highest battery range. Starting at 35 miles of range in 2011, it’s now up to 53 miles in its second generation.
The Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid comes in at 47 miles of electric range, and the same EPA-rated fuel economy as the Volt, at 42 mpg combined.
But the Honda is a five-seat midsize sedan, while the Chevy is a considerably smaller compact hatchback with only four usable seats.
We spent several hours last week driving a couple of different Clarity Plug-In models around the picturesque hills of Napa and Sonoma valleys in Northern California, while taking copious notes.
Our top-line impression is that the Clarity is the first real contender to give the Volt a run for its money.
Sure, the Toyota Prius Prime has better fuel economy (plus the Prius name and Toyota reputation), but its range rating is 25 miles and it’s no larger than the Volt
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Then there’s the BMW i3 REx, a battery-electric small hatchback with a tiny two-cylinder range-extending engine that powers a generator. This year’s model has 97 miles of electric range, plus another 83 miles on gasoline.
But it’s close to $50,000 before you start adding options, whereas the 2018 Volt is about $34,000.
That’s where the Honda Clarity Plug-In shines: it’s a larger, more comfortable car with a more luxurious interior priced right on top of the Volt.
We’ve never been fans of the Clarity’s somewhat awkward, thick-waisted shape, a compromise required to accommodate the two large, high-pressure hydrogen tanks in the Clarity Fuel Cell version that came first.
The interior, however, is striking—especially in the higher of two plug-in hybrid trim levels, known as the Touring trim. That includes light-colored Ultrasuede inserts in the dash and doors that catapults the interior feel from basic to luxe.
The dashboard and controls are typical Honda, which means largely intuitive and easy to learn.
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We did note the lack of volume and tuning knobs for the audio system (there’s a slider on the steering wheel), but one source suggested they may make a return in future, just as they have on the new 2018 Accord.
The big question, though, is what the plug-in Clarity is like on the road and behind the wheel. In brief, it’s smooth, quiet, and has well-suppressed engine noise under most circumstances.
We found the rated range of 47 miles from the 17-kilowatt-hour battery pack to be entirely credible, though to let us test the various powertrain modes, we didn’t do a single full-to-empty run. (We’ll do that as soon as we get a Clarity for a multi-day test.)