Will Honda’s Clarity Plug-in Hybrid Be the Chevrolet Volt’s Toughest Competitor Yet?

Since late 2010 the “extended-range electric” Chevrolet Volt has set a standard other plug-in hybrids have yet to match, but its toughest competitor to date may be here soon.

To be launched later this year by the company whose 2000 Insight was America’s original modern-era hybrid car, the 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-in Hybrid promises some Volt-topping attributes and comes close to the Volt’s claim to fame – all-electric range.

The main reason people spend extra to buy a plug-in hybrid over a regular hybrid is for EV-like electric driving, and the Volt’s 53 miles has been comfortably heads above other automakers’ 20-some miles, but the Clarity is expected to offer 42 miles electric range.

At the same time it’s significantly roomier, has Acura-level refinement and features, to whom it may concern it has “Honda” on the grille, and evidence the market is chomping at the bit for more is plain to see.

Just this week Kelley Blue book upset some readers in naming the Prius Prime plug-in hybrid with just 25 miles range its top pick over the Volt, and now here comes this luxurious 42-mile Honda.

In originally explaining the rationale for the Volt, General Motors emphasized 40 miles was enough for three-quarters of all drivers’ daily needs. Its first-generation Volt had 35 miles through 2012, and 38 miles from 2013 through 2015, meaning the Clarity is right in line with what justified the Volt’s existence.

Pile on a bunch of other tangible and intangible qualities Honda is baking into the Clarity Plug-in Hybrid, and buyers may be hard pressed between the two.

Known Specifications

Unveiled at the New York Auto Show this month, Honda’s plug-in Clarity is to be the “volume” leader of the “3-in-1” Clarity platform that includes an already launched fuel cell variant and an 80-mile range all-electric version due later this year.

Honda released only core powertrain specs for the Clarity Plug-in Hybrid but we managed to get a few more facts from Honda public relations representative Chris Martin.

Honda projects it will sell 75,000 Clarity variants in the next four years. Most will be the Plug-in Hybrid.

Martin prefaced all comments saying engineers are still finalizing details, and efficiency and performance projections may change. The core powertrain is known however, and readers may conjecture at will.

Under the hood is essentially a variant of the dual motor hybrid system from the Accord Hybrid, albeit with 1.5-liter engine instead of 2.0-liter, and a largish 17-kWh battery for electric only driving.

2017 Honda Accord Hybrid Review – Video

The engine is based on a next-generation Honda 1.5-liter DOHC i-VTEC engine first used in the 2015 Honda Fit, according to Honda’s Natalie Kumaratne, Environment & Safety Public Relations.

2017 Accord Hybrid shown. Interestingly, system torque of 232 pounds-feet is the same as for the Clarity, but horsepower of 212 is higher. Accord EPA economy is 49 mpg city, 47 highway, and 48 mpg combined.

“However, for the application to the Clarity Plug-in Hybrid the engine has been optimized for the unique requirements of a plug-in vehicle using the Atkinson cycle, where it functions primarily to generate electricity,” said Kumaratne, “but can also serve as a direct power source under certain driving conditions in parallel with the electric motor.”

The Clarity has three drive modes – Normal, Econ, and Sport which let drivers maximize efficiency or driving performance. A fourth HV mode maintains the battery’s state of charge and can be selected in conjunction with Normal, Econ and Sport driving modes.

Included is Honda’s Sensing suite.

Its electric motor produces 181 horsepower and 232 pounds feet of torque. The battery recharges in 2.5 hours when fed 240 volts suggesting a faster on-board charger than what comes in the Volt which takes 4.5 hours to recharge its 18.4-kWh battery.

The Clarity’s horsepower otherwise compares to the compact Volt’s lower 149 horsepower and higher 298 pounds-feet from a 1.5-liter engine and electric power.

Open Questions

While it’s been speculated at the Volt fan site GM-Volt.com the Clarity works on the Volt’s “EREV” principle of keeping gas engine off under full acceleration, this may not be correct, but officially the company has not said.

That would be a critical question as other “blended PHEVs” – like the Prius Prime, Ford Energis, Hyunda/Kia PHEVs, etc. – feed in gas power to achieve maximum acceleration.

This off-topic comment came with breaking news about the Clarity. They voted it up, and suspect Honda is chasing GM – which it is – but we’ll see if the Clarity really works like an “EREV.”

That gas engine power wrecks the whole experience of driving “EV when you want to with gas back up when you need it.” To date, only the Volt in this price segment is a pure extended range EV (EREV), with one exception being the BMW i3 REx which has a tiny gas tank for limited range, and less than full power in extended-range operation.

Martin said at this stage he has not been told by Honda’s engineers whether they are targeting the Volt ‘s EREV principle of gas engine off under full acceleration, but they may not, he said.

2017 Chevrolet Volt.

The nearest thing to the Clarity was the 2014 Accord Plug-in Hybrid, and a firm foot to the floor did kick its engine on, so it would be only speculation until further notice that the Clarity will do otherwise and match the Volt in this regard.

That said, the dual-motor architecture could in theory be set up to run in EV only regardless of accelerator position.

But casting further doubt, Martin also noted a full accelerator input signals an “emergency” event, so the decision may come down to which is quicker – EV only, assuming the battery and motor can deliver, or battery plus gas in series hybrid mode.

This will be the engineer’s call, and enthusiasts for now can only hope as that is another of the Volt’s attributes that even GM-Volt forum members suspect Honda will match.

2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid. Top speed in EV mode is not known at this stage.

Martin also was not privy to the performance numbers for the Clarity, but odds may be good that the Volt will be quicker as it’s smaller and has more torque. Its 2.6 second 0-30 time beats even the Chevy Bolt EV’s 2.9 seconds, and its 8.4 seconds from 0-60 is respectable. That it does this in pure EV mode, and does not need to turn the gas on would put it ahead of the Clarity if Honda does things little different than the others.

We’ll see what the Honda says closer to launch, but its lower power and higher curb weight – Martin says it’s penciled in at approximately 4,000 pounds, around 450 pounds more than the Volt – suggest its power-to-weight ratio lags the Volt.

Expect a little less zippiness from the Clarity compared to the Volt, but likely acceptable and not anemic power.

Another mystery that plug-in hybrid buyers will want to know is the Clarity PHEV’s fuel economy in gas-electric hybrid mode. The Volt is EPA rated at 42 mpg which is OK, but far less than the class champ Prius Prime’s 54 mpg rating.

SEE ALSO: 10 Things You Need To Know About The 2017 Honda Accord Hybrid

It’s also less than the Honda Accord Hybrid’s 48 mpg from its 2.0-liter dual motor hybrid system.

Because Honda carried forward system architecture from the Accord into its new Clarity – with smaller engine and big 17-kWh battery to feed more electric drive – it would not be improbable for it to deliver mid 40s or possibly better.

Notable is the Clarity’s engine is a 1.5 liter versus the Accord’s 2.0, and the two cars are aimed at slightly different driver expectations.

The Malibu uses a more-expensive permanent magnet AC generator motor with rare earth metals rather than the Volt’s ferrite permanent magnet AC motor. This was done to improve hybrid mode efficiency whereas the Volt’s motor works well in dual motor mode in EV driving, and was “good enough” for hybrid driving. GM has also said this powertrain could theoretically be made a PHEV. Could they fit an 18.4 kWh battery like the Cadillac CT6 PHEV gets, without undue cargo space loss and competitively priced? If so, the Clarity would have a stronger competitor.

SEE ALSO: Why the Chevy Malibu Hybrid Gets Better MPG Than The Chevy Volt

For its part, Chevrolet made its 46 mpg hybrid Malibu better in its gas-electric operation than the Volt because the Volt was biased toward staying off of gas altogether. The Malibu was instead tuned for mpg while the Volt was tuned for “electric” drive feel even when burning gas.

Whether Honda’s engineers and bean counters approach the Clarity’s hybrid mode efficiency the same also is another open question.

Driving Dynamics

Based on the same chassis as the Clarity fuel cell vehicle, the Clarity Plug-in Hybrid uses a stiff body structure with strategic use of high-strength steel, optimized weight distribution, and it promises a relatively controlled drive experience.

The next-generation body rivals that of the Accord’s if not surpassing it.

It may yet do alright as the Accord is a solid, if not in sports car territory, and the Clarity is in league. Further, if you haven’t noticed, a lot of family sedans these days are competent handlers.

The Volt’s fans like to emphasize it has a fun-to-drive factor, but both it and the Clarity are eco cars focused on efficiency, and may be within realm.

Interior Space

Both the Volt and Clarity are well contented, but the Clarity may prove more refined.

Initial drive reviews of the Clarity Fuel Cell vehicle already on the market have won it praise as being nice enough to be an Acura, and the Plug-in Hybrid is expected to be the same.

Materials such as ultrasuede, and standard Honda Sensing suite make it a premium package indeed, but where it is hands down the winner is interior volume.

2017 Chevrolet Volt.

Honda says it will release specs closer to launch later this year, but the three Clarity variants were built to satisfy focus groups who said a sedan should comfortably fit five.

The compact Volt’s rear seat technically also fits five, but its knee room is less, and space abroad is also. Honda media rep Chris Naughton also let on the Clarity is a bit roomier than the Accord Hybrid which is on the large scale of a midsized class car.

Honda’s press kit showed where it wanted to satisfy focus groups. Photo of rear seat without passengers in gallery.


Martin emphasized also the Clarity will top the Volt in cubic feet for cargo and passenger by a significant margin.

“We expect it will have the most interior volume of any of the versions of Clarity,” said Martin of a provisional projection of around 121 cubic feet of passenger plus cargo space topping the Volt’s 100.9 total cubic feet, “and the cargo volume, the Volt is 10.6. we’re at 19.1.”

Looks

Attractiveness is subjective, but both ought to get their proponents and detractors.

The Volt is more “mainstream” and actually looks like a Cruze with some differences, and while we’re at it, it shares hints of the Honda Civic, Kia Forte, and other vehicles by automakers conspiring to make vehicles both attractive and ordinary all in one stroke.


That is, they blend in, and the Clarity meanwhile is a bit away from that mold. Like it or not, its rear three-quarter view with semi-faired in rear wheel reminiscent of the original Insight which set the tone 17 years ago as an odd looking green car (see gallery).

Some will groove on the originality, others may see it as awkward or stylistically tone deaf, if not as much as some have disliked Honda’s Japanese rival’s car, the Prius.

Brand

Chevrolet has proven the Volt’s quality and it is the leading plug-in hybrid both in terms of cumulative sales – thanks also to its head start – and monthly sales.

That’s stated preemptively because people with long memories may otherwise sneer at a GM product or American brand in general. To who think along those lines, just the fact the Clarity is a Japanese Honda is enough to settle any question.

Pick a Chevy or a Honda? That’s a no brainer to those of a certain mindset – pun intended. Honda has long been a darling of Consumer Reports, and its reputation for quality, durability and resale value is high.

Beyond that, Chevrolet has won more awards than an other brand for the past three years, and it is on a mission to remake its name after GM’s federal bailout and restructuring embarrassment of last decade.

The Volt is a pinnacle product and so if you are just catching up, it actually is the more proven of the two. Now in its second generation, among plug-in fans it is a premium nameplate, even if there is a “bowtie” on the front of the grille wearing silver “braces.”

Price

The Volt starts at just below $34,000 and is eligible for a $7,500 federal credit and state incentives as the case may be. Honda says the Clarity, eligible for the same subsidies, will start in the mid 30s, so that may mean very close or a couple thousand or more above the Volt.

SEE ALSO: 2017 Chevy Volt Review – Video

Enthusiasts are speculating after credits it could be below the critical $30,000 mark, but this is not definite until Honda tells us.

Jury’s Out

We could have contemplated more variables, but the above are some of the high points.

Steven Center introduces the new Clarity Plug-In Hybrid and Clarity Electric at the 2017 New York International Auto Show on Wednesday, April 12, 2017.

In sum, Honda appears to have an edge in several if not all departments, and the incumbent Volt will have its own subjective and objective advantages.

More will have to be disclosed, drive reviews will need to verify impressions from the fuel cell car carry over to the Plug-in Hybrid, but so far, the Clarity may be the Volt’s strongest contender yet.