If you’re interested in a compact fuel-saving car, it’s not hard to find one that looks the part. Models like the Toyota Prius hybrid, Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid and Nissan Leaf electric car are easily recognizable. They don’t share their styling with ordinary gas-powered vehicles, and are often sculpted to maximize their fuel-saving aerodynamics.
But perhaps you want the extra interior space or smooth, quiet ride of a midsize car. For a number of years, you’ve been able to buy a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) version of the Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata or Kia Optima sedan. These PHEV vehicles can be charged up with electricity from the grid to deliver some all-electric driving range, and then a gasoline engine kicks in until you’re able to charge up again.
But you’d have to pay close attention to recognize anything special about the PHEV versions of the Fusion, Sonata, or Optima — some subtle badging, and a car-charger port on the front fender. And the all-electric ranges of these models linger in the 20s, meaning, that longer commutes will regularly rely on gasoline.
The new 2018 Honda Clarity solves both problems. This new midsize sedan features aggressively futuristic looks, an aerodynamic body, a spacious and well-finished interior, and an EPA-estimated 48 miles per all-electric charge. And, as with other plug-in vehicles, drivers are eligible for a federal tax credit and can travel solo in Maryland HOV lanes.
Pricing for the Clarity PHEV starts at $34,295, with plenty of features, and the tested $37,490 Touring model adds leather upholstery, power seat adjustments and an in-dash navigation system. If those prices seem high, subtract the $7,500 federal tax credit — more than you’d get on any similarly sized plug-in hybrid competitor. (Honda also makes fully electric and fuel-cell Clarity models, but so far they’re available only on the West Coast.)
The Clarity’s exterior features various details that different eyes will find either delightfully unique or forced and fussy. Start up front, with low headlights and a chrome grille bar that runs into them, atop a set of L-shaped LED bands. The side of the vehicle features several scoops and swoops, and its partially-covered rear wheels recall Honda’s first hybrid, the 2000 Insight. Around back, the trunk is almost as high as the roof — to reduce wind resistance — and a second mini-windshield gives a bit of an extra rear view.
Inside, the Clarity’s minimalistic interior has a touchscreen infotainment system with no physical buttons. It keeps the dashboard looking clean, but it’s functionally compromised. Nor is the system as advanced as newer Honda models, which have also added back conventional buttons and knobs. Simulated open-pore wood is a classy touch, and the tested Touring trim has rich-feeling leather upholstery.
Note that although the new Clarity is shaped like the Prius hatchback, it does have a trunk rather than an open-cargo hold. That cuts into its versatility but helps keep the cabin quiet. And, with 14.8 cubic feet of trunk space, it’s still more functional than the Fusion, Sonata or Optima PHEV models. And passenger space is competitive with these midsize sedans, a cut above the compact Prius and Leaf, and much better than the extra-tight Volt.
On the road, the Clarity is smooth and serene, especially when it’s operating in all-electric mode, feeling more upscale than a Prius. It’s composed rather than outright sporty, even compared to a Honda Accord or Civic, but it’s respectably agile.
The tested Clarity achieved just over 50 miles per charge even on days that included less-efficient highway driving, edging out the EPA’s 48-mile estimate. That’s outstanding for a sedan that’s roomy, refined and reasonably priced. One niggle: Most partially electric cars have more advanced displays to help you keep track of your range, mileage and driving habits. The Clarity’s gauge cluster and infotainment screen can present such information, but often only one piece at a time.
Another note: Gas mileage isn’t outstanding by hybrid standards once your electric range is used up: 42 mpg in mixed driving. That’s better than a gas-only sedan but behind even most midsize hybrids today, much less a compact Prius. And the seven-gallon gas tank will mean extra fill-ups if you take your Clarity on a road trip.
But if you’d stick mainly to electricity, the Clarity is a supremely economical, yet impressively spacious and refined sedan. Unlike similarly sized plug-in hybrids, you can easily avoid burning any gasoline even on long commutes. And, unlike a purely electric car, you do have extra flexibility if you need to take a longer trip or are unable to charge it. It’s not perfectly executed, but its strengths far outstrip its weaknesses.
Visit tinyurl.com/clarity-18-sentinel to see more photos of the tested 2018 Honda Clarity.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.