Best of both worlds
THE GOOD
  • Excellent electric-only range
  • Roomy, well-appointed interior
  • Easy to live with
THE BAD
  • Polarizing exterior style
  • Dated infotainment interface
  • No sunroof or heated steering wheel

While electric vehicles (EVs) are increasingly being adopted for city use, a common argument against them is that you’d need a second, gas-powered vehicle for longer road trips.

Not so if you opt for the 2021 Honda Clarity, a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) with a generous 76-km electric-only range and the reassuring backup of an internal-combustion-based hybrid drive system for easy long-distance driving.

Power: 8/10

Power for the Clarity comes from a 1.5L gas engine making 103 hp and an electric motor making 181 hp, for a net output of 212 hp. Power goes to the front wheels via an automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT). In hybrid mode the Clarity will dispatch the zero-to-100 km/h run in about nine seconds, while in EV mode it takes considerably longer at nearly 13 seconds.

Around town, however, the real story is the Clarity’s burly 232 lb-ft of instantaneous electric torque, which makes it decently responsive off the line no matter what mode it’s in. The Clarity isn’t exactly quick, but it’s no eco-slug, either, and in EV mode it feels much more powerful than the Toyota Prius Prime, a slightly smaller PHEV with a little less electric driving range.

As expected in a PHEV, noise levels depend on the driving mode. In EV mode, the Clarity is whisper-quiet inside. Hybrid mode adds a barely discernible background engine mutter when moseying around town with a partially charged battery, but it can rise quite a bit when the battery is depleted, or when accelerating hard or climbing steep highway hills.

Fuel Economy: 10/10

Official fuel efficiency ratings for the Honda Clarity show it using 2.1 Le/100km in EV mode, otherwise known as “litres equivalent,” and 5.3 / 5.9 / 5.6 L/100 km city / highway / combined in hybrid mode. A 17-kWh lithium-ion battery gives a claimed range of 76 km in EV mode, extending to 547 km combined after the gas engine kicks in. Claimed charging time for the battery is approximately 2.5 hours using a Level 2 charger (240 volt), or 12 hours using a Level 1 charger (120 volt).

I picked up the Clarity with a fully charged battery and it was showing an average fuel consumption of 4.4 L/100 km over the previous 500 km. After two days of running various errands – including two trips to neighbouring municipalities – I’d racked up 75 km and still had an indicated 25 per cent of battery life left. At this point, wanting to test out the charging times, I plugged in at the free Level 2 charging station while doing my weekly grocery shop. A 45-minute charge brought the battery back up to 50 per cent, suggesting a real-world charging time closer to three hours.

The Clarity’s 76-km EV range is far superior to the Prius Prime’s 40-km official range, and doubly so given that I was easily able to exceed the Clarity’s claimed range, while I found myself unable to match the Toyota’s. It’s easy to take the Clarity on extended runs without using gasoline, and given how much less I’m driving during a pandemic I wouldn’t have used any gas at all if I hadn’t manually forced the car into hybrid mode. Even then I didn’t use much gasoline to make meaningful real-world fuel consumption observations, which is ultimately a testament to how successful the Clarity is as a part-time EV.

Styling: 6/10

Eco-focused cars tend to prioritize aerodynamic efficiency over stylistic conceit, and the Clarity is no exception. With its slippery fastback shape (although it’s actually a sedan), long overhangs, and partial rear fender skirts, it looks very much the part of a green machine. Various styling cues are borrowed from the Accord and Civic sedans to give the Clarity a family resemblance, but the look lacks cohesiveness. AutoTrader.ca’s Dan Ilika ranked the Clarity among the five ugliest cars on the market, citing its “awkward proportions and design elements that are trying too hard to be futuristic.” I don’t think it deserves quite such harsh criticism, but it’s certainly a bit of an acquired taste.

Inside it’s an entirely different story, and the Clarity’s cabin is an undeniably enjoyable place to be. The styling is clean, understated, and well-coordinated; and genuine leather upholstery in the Touring trim is complemented by upscale-looking faux suede and dark faux wood trim on the dashboard and centre console.

Comfort: 8/10

With supportive seating wrapped in perforated leather, a luxuriously trimmed cabin, a cushy ride, and hushed electric performance in EV mode, the Honda Clarity scores high marks for comfort. Nice touches abound, like the roomy under-console storage tray and the seatback phone pockets for rear passengers. The Clarity’s substantial length translates to excellent rear legroom, and at 5-foot-10 I was able to sit with the driver’s seat in my normal position with space to spare.

The one area the Clarity perhaps falls a little short – especially when running in EV mode – is climate system performance, which can be less vigorous in terms of output and temperature than the systems in conventional gas-powered vehicles. Offsetting this is the ability to remotely pre-condition the cabin climate while the car is still plugged in.

Practicality: 7/10

With comfortable seating for four (or five in a pinch), a 439-L trunk with folding seatbacks, and excellent electric range backstopped by its long-distance range, the Clarity is a far more practical family sedan than its quirky looks might suggest. It’s a surprisingly long vehicle, however – especially in city environments where its EV capabilities will prove most useful. I had to move my motorcycle out of the way to fit the Clarity into my home parking spot, and at my local grocery store’s free EV charging station the Clarity stuck out into the aisle even when pulled forward all the way up against the charger.

Rearward visibility is also a bit limited, even with the innovative beltline window through the trunk lid. And while the trunk is reasonably large, its irregular shape and big hockey-stick hinges detract from its ease-of-use. A raised hump at the front of the floor means that items – especially groceries – tend to pile up at the back if you accelerate briskly.

Features: 7/10

Even in base trim, the Honda Clarity is a well-equipped car, with dual-zone automatic climate control, an eight-speaker audio system controlled by an eight-inch touchscreen, proximity key with push-button start, heated front seats, adaptive cruise control, automatic LED headlights, automatic windshield wipers, and plenty of driver-assistance tech (more on this shortly).

For an additional $4,000 the Touring package adds features like perforated leather upholstery (replacing cloth), a leather-wrapped steering wheel, satellite navigation, and HD radio.

Notably missing from the features lineup are a sunroof, heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, ventilated front seating, or power seat adjustment. Even the cheaper Prius Prime Upgrade trim gets a heated steering wheel, although it similarly lacks the other features and makes do with faux-leather upholstery, so the Clarity is the overall winner here.

User Friendliness: 8/10

Other than the somewhat restricted rear sightlines and the need to plug the car in when parking at night, there’s nothing about driving the Honda Clarity that’s different from any other Honda. It shares the brand’s slightly odd push-button shifter, but while this might give a moment of pause for first-time operators it’s fairly straightforward, and the rest of the controls are laid out in a logical manner within easy reach of the driver.

The infotainment system is responsive enough once it’s up and running (it does take a moment to boot up) and includes all the expected connectivity (Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto), but it lacks proper volume and tuning knobs. The multi-layered infotainment interface also takes a bit of getting used to, and I often found myself relying on the touch-sensitive shortcut buttons to get back on track.

Driving Feel: 7/10

On the road the 2021 Clarity is composed and settled-feeling, and while it doesn’t corner quite as crisply as the more tautly sprung Accord, it’s pleasantly responsive and well-mannered. The regenerative brakes offer excellent pedal feel and linear response, with none of the odd low-speed transition effects I encountered in the Prius Prime.

Power delivery is likewise linear and predictable, and unless you start playing around with the available driving modes the Clarity feels thoroughly normal and relaxing to drive. Driving modes include the option to force the car into hybrid operation (which conserves battery power for later), eco mode (which dulls throttle response in the name of efficiency), or sport mode. There are also paddles on the steering wheel to increase or decrease the amount of regenerative braking that kicks in when you lift the throttle. Sport mode locks the selected level in, and if you then crank the regenerative braking to the max you can enjoy one-pedal driving up to a point (you still need to use the brakes to bring the car to a complete stop).

Safety: 8/10

Honda has earned a good reputation for safety, and the Clarity Touring is equipped with a wide range of active safety features including a forward collision warning system, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning with lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control, and Honda’s LaneWatch blind-spot display. I found this latter feature to be particularly useful for spotting bicyclists in city bike lanes when turning right, though the brand has announced plans to move away from the camera-based system in favour of sensor-based blind-spot monitoring.

As a low-volume production model, the Clarity hasn’t been evaluated by the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) for crash ratings or headlight performance (it’s in good company here, as neither have any Porsche, Jaguar, or Land Rover models).

Value: 8/10

At an MSRP of $44,505 for the base model and $48,505 for my Touring trim tester, both before a $1,700 freight charge and taxes, the Honda Clarity is priced significantly higher than Hyundai’s Ioniq PHEV ($32,649–$38,249) or Toyota’s Prius Prime ($33,550–$38,700), but it also offers far greater electric range of either of these main competitors and a more luxurious overall feel.

Adding to the value equation is the federal government’s PHEV purchase incentive, which ranges from $2,500 to $5,000, depending on the purchase terms. British Columbia and Quebec, meanwhile, sweeten the deal with their own provincial incentives ($1,000–$1,500 in B.C. and $4,000–$8,000 in Quebec).

The Verdict

Honda has a reputation for building easy-to-live-with daily drivers, and the brand is no stranger to the hybrid game. With the Clarity the company has brought the two together to create an easy-to-live-with plug-in hybrid that’s at the top of its class in terms of electric range, yet feels utterly normal to drive and can embark on a cross-country road trip at the drop of a hat. If you’ve been pondering the idea of a hybrid, an EV, or even just a more fuel-efficient gas-powered sedan, the Clarity has a lot to offer under its quirky bodywork, and is well worth checking out.

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 1.5L   Model Tested 2021 Honda Clarity Touring
Engine Cylinders I4 Hybrid   Base Price $48,505
Peak Horsepower 212 net hp   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque N/A   Destination Fee $1,700
Fuel Economy 5.3 / 5.9 / 5.6 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb (hybrid); 2.1 Le/100 km cmb (electric motor only)   Price as Tested $50,305
Cargo Space 439 L  
Optional Equipment
None