“Too long; didn’t read,” abbreviated tl;dr by internet commenters who can’t be bothered to spell out all of four words, could be our new national motto, a reflection of society’s shrinking attention span. Twitter’s generous doubling of its character limit notwithstanding, we live in a world that tends to ignore complex ideas that can’t be dumbed down to fit on a TV ticker. Which might explain why, according to one firm’s research, 73 percent of consumers have no idea what a plug-in hybrid is.
Indeed, plug-ins can be complicated. Consider the Clarity, which like its peers wants to be both a zero-emission battery-electric vehicle and a range-anxiety-defeating, gasoline-burning hybrid. Its primary locomotion comes via a 181-hp electric motor that pulls juice from a 17.0-kWh lithium-ion battery pack. Charging from a 240-volt tap takes about two and a half hours; from a standard 120-volt wall plug it’s more like 12. With its battery full, the Clarity can travel an EPA-estimated 48 miles on electricity before it has to fire up a 103-hp 1.5-liter inline-four, extending total range to an EPA-rated 340 miles. The gasoline engine spins a generator to provide additional current to the motor and recharge the battery, but it also can assist in directly driving the wheels, bringing the car’s total horsepower to 212. This version of the Clarity carries a combined rating of 110 MPGe on electrons and 42 mpg on gasoline.
Now that’s a long paragraph and we imagine anyone who isn’t already familiar with plug-in technology has had their eyes glaze over while reading it—or just grown utterly confused. But that isn’t even the half of it. The Clarity offers a choice of three driving modes—Econ, Normal, and Sport—each delivering progressively more aggressive acceleration and pedal response. Its regenerative-braking system has four settings, selected by paddles on either side of the steering wheel (although none of them allows a true coasting mode). And there are a further three choices for controlling how the car deploys its battery charge.
The Clarity certainly isn’t the most complex plug-in hybrid in the world—only its front wheels are driven, for starters—but compared with something like the Chrysler Pacifica PHEV, which is just as simple to operate as the regular version of the minivan, the Clarity seems like a product designed by engineers for engineers. Which is odd, since Honda seems serious about giving the Clarity a mass-market appeal, what with it being a true mid-size sedan with a real trunk and a roomy back seat that makes it a legitimate five-passenger vehicle.
Indeed, the PHEV will be the volume leader for the Clarity nameplate, which also includes battery-electric and hydrogen fuel-cell models. All three share body structures and similar underpinnings, with a front strut suspension and a rear multilink setup. But the plug-in model is the only one sold in all 50 states and the only one you can actually buy, period. The fuel-cell Clarity is offered for lease only, and that’s just in California, while the battery-electric model can be leased in Oregon in addition to the Golden State. Honda has barely moved 1000 of those two models combined this year.