Insightman’s Clarity Plug-In Hybrid Owner’s Log

Photo of our new Clarity Plug-In Hybrid
The beaming face of our new Clarity Plug-In Hybrid

2016–2017: The Purchase Decision

In late 2016, Honda announced there would not be a new Accord Plug-In Hybrid. Instead, there would be a plug-in hybrid version of their new Clarity Fuel Cell car. I was hoping for a new 1800-lb all-aluminum Insight that could achieve 80 or 90 mpg, but the plug-in Clarity would be a good car to replace my wife’s 2010 Insight because she wanted a larger Honda. Many times below, I'll refer to the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid as just "Clarity," but you'll know it's the Plug-In Hybrid—Honda doesn’t sell the other two in Michigan.

Even though Honda maintained the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid would go on sale in 2017, the company didn’t reveal much information about the car until the middle of November. I pestered our local Honda dealer for information they didn’t have. Just to do something constructive, I created data sheets about the car and handed them out to the salespeople. They humored me because they had heard stories about how I had pestered their predecessors for more than a year while I awaited my 2000 Honda Insight.

I was worried that the car wouldn’t arrive in 2017 because the US House was proposing the elimination of the $7,500 electric-vehicle tax credit as part of their tax reform bill (fortunately for electrified car buyers, that part didn’t pass). That tax credit brings the effective price of the Clarity Plug-In Touring below $30K, nearly $4K below the price of the less luxurious Accord Touring.

On November 16, 2017, Honda announced the Honda Clarity Plug-In would go on sale December 1, 2017. Even though our local dealer’s computers weren’t yet set up for this new model, I persuaded them to take my deposit for the first Clarity Plug-In Hybrid to arrive.

December 2017: Our Clarity Arrives

On December 2nd, an auto transporter rolled into Ann Arbor carrying on it’s top a Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid in Touring trim. It was painted in the one color available on no Honda other than the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid: Moonlit Forest Pearl. It was exactly what we wanted.

Photo of our Clarity atop the transporter
The long-awaited appearance!

When I first saw the car I thought the dealer had misinformed me about the color. I was sure it must surely be the Crystal Black Pearl paint. Then the clouds parted and sun shone down upon our Clarity and it was green after all. Very, very dark green. It’s much darker than the images I’ve been gazing at on the web and in Honda’s Clarity brochure. Even though it will need frequent washing, I really like the actual color. Someone who once painted cars for a living told me our Clarity’s paint job was very good—much superior to the non-Japanese Hondas he’s seen.

Photo of our Clarity in the dealer's lot
It really is green, after all

As I did with my 2000 Insight, I offered to let the dealer put our Clarity in the showroom for a week so they could let other potential Clarity customers see it. Because you really have to be a Honda fan to know about the Clarity, and because it’s not an SUV or CUV, not many showroom visitors expressed much interest—in the car. What did generate interest was the Moonlit Forest Pearl paint. People wished it was available on other Hondas, too.

There was a secondary motivation for leaving our Clarity in the showroom: I needed the week to make more room in our garage. The junk inside was perfectly arranged to accommodate my wife’s 20-inch shorter 2010 Insight and a lot of it had to be pitched. I’d already had a 240-volt, 60-amp circuit-breaker box installed earlier in the year in anticipation for our plug-in car, but I still needed to mount and hook up the 40-amp Bosch charging station I’d purchased.

As soon as our salesman’s computer allowed him to order dealer installed options, we picked these:

Finally, in mid-December we brought our Clarity Plug-In Hybrid home—the day after the season’s first snow storm.

Photo of Mary and her new Clarity
Mary’s coat is dark green…then there’s the Clarity

January, 2018: Early Impressions

First, I must admit I do not qualify as a car reviewer because my experience is so limited. I’ve been driving small 2-seat cars most of my life. My last 4 cars were a 1986 CRX Si, a 1991 CRX Si, a 2000 Insight, and my current 2006 Insight. I’m looking forward to seeing the giant 3rd-generation Insight at the auto show in Detroit next week.

So based on my history with two-seat Hondas, driving my wife’s Clarity Plug-In Hybrid is a completely new experience. The Touring trim seems so luxurious with its heated, leather power seats, leather accents on the doors and dash, and electronic features so far beyond my Insight’s that the Insight which was once one of the most advanced cars available now seems antiquated. This level of luxury in a Honda must surely be an affront to those responsible for the Acura side of Honda’s car business.

The 4,059-lb Clarity PHEV feels really solid and well-planted—especially when driving the un-plowed, snow-packed streets where we live. I bought some Nokian Hakkapeliitta snow tires and had the dealer put them on before we brought the car home. As I followed my wife home from the dealer, it was impressive to watch her Clarity forging steadily through the 5-inch deep snow while my lightweight Insight (also sporting Hakkapeliittas) bounced back and forth between the ruts in the snow. After driving the Clarity, my half-weight (1,850 lbs) Insight feels like a toy car (but still a fun toy car).

Before we purchased the Clarity PHEV, I was aware that it was not a Japanese clone of the Chevy Volt. Chevy calls the Volt and extended-range electric car and designed it to run on battery power until the battery is exhausted, when the gas-powered engine steps in to eliminate "range anxiety." In contrast, Honda designed the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid to mix the contributions of the electric motors and the gas-powered engine.

Still, I expected to be disappointed if the Clarity fired up it’s engine when I was trying to travel on all-electric power. Thankfully, I’ve found that it’s not difficult to maintain battery-only operation, at least around town. I have yet to test it’s willingness to go 90 mph in EV mode on the expressway. Although it’s no Tesla, the Clarity is faster than my Insight, even when using only battery power (OK, no one thinks of an original Insight as a speed demon).

One feature I was keen to investigate was the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid’s accelerator-pedal detent. In Econ Mode (more on the modes later), when you floor the accelerator, you achieve the maximum acceleration available from the electric drive motor when powered only by the battery (121 hp). However, you haven’t actually floored the accelerator, you’re feeling the detent, not the floor. Press harder to push through the detent and the gas engine starts up and begins generating more electricity. The combined electricity from the battery and the engine-powered generator enable the electric drive motor to deliver its maximum of 181 hp. Stay on the up-side of the detent and you can avoid starting the engine—in most situations.

Various reports peg the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid’s 0–60 time somewhere around 9½ seconds when using both battery and engine-generated electricity. Likely due to the impressive torque generated by the drive motor, it feels faster to me.

There are many instances when the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid might decide to fire up the engine despite the driver’s intent. For example, if the outside temperature gets down to 14°F, the engine starts up. If the car has been driven exclusively on electric power for a long time (how long I don’t yet know), the engine starts up. If the battery charge is nearly depleted, the engine starts up.

As Insight-trained hypermilers, we’ll be leaving our Clarity in Econ Mode. Interestingly, Econ Mode and Normal Mode remain in effect until you select another mode, but Sport Mode resets to Normal Mode when you turn off the car. There is no button for Normal Mode, you select that mode by pressing the button for the currently selected mode a second time.

Here’s where the detent feature falls short in my opinion: Econ Mode is the only mode where the accelerator detent works as expected. However, it turns out the detent occurs at the same point in the travel of the accelerator no matter which mode you’re in, and in Normal and Sport modes, the engine starts up before you reach the detent!

Fortunately, the detent isn’t the only way the Clarity enables you to anticipate when the engine will start. A circular tachometer-like electric-thrust gauge that surrounds the digital speedometer read-out shows you when the engine will kick in, but the haptic feedback from the detent is meaningless in all modes but Econ Mode.

From inside the passenger compartment, the engine is a lot quieter than that of my wife’s 2010 Insight. The Clarity clearly uses much more sound-deadening technology, including acoustic glass. However, when the engine starts up, the sound that you do hear is the familiar CVT droning moan. An S2000, this isn’t. Still, I’d rather hear the actual engine sound instead of an artificial engine sound that carmakers are mistakenly adding to some high-performance cars.

I’m old fashioned and still believe in breaking-in engines gently. So while the car is new, we’re going to go easy on the engine. However, the engine has remained dormant for most of our driving so far. So we’re going to use the HV (Hybrid Vehicle) Mode at first more than we expect to use it in the future. That mode works with any of the Econ, Normal, and Sport Modes; it causes the car to conserve the charge in the battery. On the various displays you can still see power coming out of the battery when accelerating, but then the engine runs longer to return the battery to the state of charge it was holding when you activated HV Mode.

If you hold the HV button down for a couple of seconds, it engages HV Charge Mode. In this mode the engine runs to both power the car and to increase the charge in the battery. However, for some reason I have yet to discover, Honda decided that HV Charge Mode switches automatically to HV Mode when the battery is 58% charged. Why 58%? Honda suggests drivers use the HV Charge Mode only when driving on the highway. Because all of our trips in the Clarity have been short, we haven’t experimented much with HV Charge Mode.

When backing out of the garage under battery power I expected to enjoy the silence of all-electric drive. But the silence was broken by a sound I couldn’t identify. I rolled down the window to better hear the sound, which was somewhat like a chord played on an electric organ. Then I realized I was hearing the sub-12 mph "Acoustic Vehicle Alerting System" Honda created to warn pedestrians. To simulate being a pedestrian, I stood in the driveway while my wife drove our Clarity towards me. I don’ believe the sound is in any way threatening and it’s nowhere near loud enough to alert pedestrians they’re about to be run over by an otherwise silent car. I’m investigating what it would take to change to the sound of a screaming Star Wars Tie Fighter. That would certainly turn pedestrian heads!

The electric heating for the passenger compartment siphons a lot of power from the battery. If the Clarity is started in Econ Mode, the car conserves battery charge by turning on the heat in the driver’s seat instead of activating the climate-control system. When the climate-control system is providing resistive heat, the electric range gauge shows a loss of a couple of miles for every mile used by the motor. However, the engine can also serve as the traditional source of heat. Car and Driver writes, "Plug-in models also get an electric-powered engine-heat-based system that works as the primary heat source when the engine is running; Honda requires it to be run at cold temperatures (below 14 degrees F)."

The Clarity recognizes the negative effect of cold weather on the battery; when the outside temperature is below freezing, the gauge indicates an all-electric range of only 30–34 miles from the fully charged battery instead of the advertised 47.

The leather seats are very comfortable in both front and rear. As expected, the center seat in the rear is the least comfortable of the 5, but it’s not bad. The driver’s seat in our Touring model offers 8-way power adjustment (no lumbar adjustment). The shotgun seat offers 4-way power adjustment (no adjustments for height or seat-bottom tilt). I guess it’s not unusual for modern cars with powered seats to automatically adjust the driver’s seat for each individual key-fob holder, but our Clarity is my first experience with this technology. The climate-control settings also follow the key-fob, but the side mirrors have no motors, so they can’t adjust to each key fob automatically.

My only complaint with the seats is they don’t heat up quickly enough. I expect an electrically heated seat to feel warm within seconds of applying power, but it takes 4 or 5 minutes before my butt can detect any difference. Maybe it will work better in the summer.

I’ve always admired the design of my old Insight’s instrument panel with its large Fuel Consumption Display. After all, the purpose of a hybrid car is to save gas, right? In contrast, The FCD in the 2nd gen Insight is too small for my tastes. One of the many optional instrument panel options for the Clarity includes an FCD almost as large as in the 1st gen Insight. I like that.

I’m still trying to figure out a lot of things. The Nav system has many options we’ll probably never need, but it is easy to use via voice control. The aids to help drivers learn to drive economically still need to be evaluated. Also, I need to better understand how to use the HondaLink app to warm up the interior remotely. Perhaps we have to take the car out of Econ Mode before leaving the car to allow the full climate-control system to be activated by the app.

The Plug

Photo of 240-volt charging station
My Level 2 charging station

An electric vehicle charger converts AC power to DC power and controls the battery charging process to both recharge and protect the car’s high-voltage battery. The Clarity Plug-In Hybrid’s charger is built into the car (as with all modern plug-in cars) and it is a particularly robust 6-kilowatt (kW) charger. In contrast, the Chevy Volt’s internal charger can handle only 3.6 kW of power. That means the Clarity’s charger can recharge its high-voltage battery faster—provided you are supplying enough electricity.

An EVSE (Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment) is an external device that connects the charger to an AC power source. It takes orders from the charger and safeguards users from electrical hazards. An EVSE is sometimes called a "charger" even though the actual charger is built into the car. Instead, calling it a "charging station" or "charging cable" is more meaningful to most people than "EVSE."

Because the Clarity’s charger controls the EVSE, the recharging can occur based on a user-defined schedule, which offers the opportunity to take advantage of periods when electricity may be less expensive. The Clarity allows you to set up a charging schedule from its dash-board screen or using the HondaLink app.

Photo of Honda Level 1 charging cable
Clarity Level 1 charging cable

Honda includes a 120-volt Level 1 EVSE cable with the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid. It can be plugged into the typical 120-volt, 15-amp electrical outlet found in homes, although Honda recommends that no other electric devices be drawing current from that circuit at the same time. Due to the limitations on the power this EVSE can supply, it can take up to 12 hours to recharge the Clarity’s battery. For people who do not plan to drive their Clarity more than 47 miles per day on EV power alone, an overnight connection to the included 120-volt EVSE will be sufficient to meet their charging needs.

However, to take full advantage of the Clarity’s 6-kW charger, Honda recommends a 240-volt Level 2 EVSE with a capacity of at least 32 amps. Such an EVSE can recharge the Clarity’s battery in less than 2.5 hours.

It’s hard to imagine there will be many times when we’ll drive our Clarity 47 miles twice in the same day with a 2.5-hour home visit between the two trips, but there’s another advantage the Level 2 charger offers beyond fast recharging. Using either the key fob or the HondaLink app, you can activate the Clarity’s climate-control system to warm up the interior on a cold day or cool the interior on a hot day. If you’re willing to trade battery charge for comfort, you can also activate the climate-control system when the car is not plugged in to a Level 2 EVSE, but you cannot do it when the car is plugged into a 120-volt Level 1 EVSE.

More than a year ago, when Honda announced the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid, we had a 60-amp 240-volt circuit-breaker panel installed in our garage. Along with the panel, the installation of the underground wiring from the house to the garage cost about $1,100. In November I ordered a Bosch Power Max 2 EVSE with the 18-foot charging cable for about $800 from EV Charge Solutions (a 25-foot cord costs about $64 more). There are less-expensive EVSE units, but I chose this one because it plugs into the wall. That plug will make the EVSE easier to move later. For people with vacation homes, a plug-in EVSE makes good sense.

I futzed around for a month fabricating a board on which to mount the EVSE. Then I fashioned a nice piece of maple-wood to hold the coiled charging cable below the EVSE. My friend, Jeff, joked I should have used that piece of maple for a cheese board, instead. For 30 years that particular piece of wood has been patiently waiting in the garage to find its ultimate purpose. Now I’ll get to see it in its prominent new location more often than I would a seldom-used cheese board, and it won't have to be constantly fending off attacks from a cheese-knife.

Next, I had to run an electrical cable 30 feet from the EVSE to the circuit-breaker panel. I've done a lot of wiring in my house, but I’ve never worked with anything thicker than 12-gauge cable. This 40-amp EVSE needs 6-gauge cable. Not only was it difficult to bend around corners, but the only tool I own that would cut this cable is a hack-saw. It’s tough to strip, too, but a utility knife is up to the task as long as you take your time to not slice your fingers.

For most people, I’d recommend having a professional electrician wire up your EVSE. You can use a standard garden-hose hanger in place of a cheese board.