Over the last couple of weeks, we had access to both the Honda Clarity and the Honda Insight. When you add in the Accord Hybrid, you’ve got three Honda models that all look like they do the same job. But before you shop any of these cars, you need to understand their relative merits and drawbacks.
Honda Accord Hybrid
47MPG city/47MPG hwy
The Accord Hybrid is the most conventional vehicle in the Honda hybrid lineup, and we’ll spend the least time on it here.
In the Accord Hybrid, you simply put gas in the tank and go. There are no plugs to attach, no chargers to install. It has a two-motor hybrid drivetrain, which allows the Accord Hybrid to power the wheels without the need of a conventional automatic transmission.
The gas engine and the electric motor work in parallel (hence the name) most of the time. For 2018, the Accord hybrid has three driving modes: EV Drive (100-percent electric motor), Hybrid Drive (electric motor and gasoline engine) and Engine Drive (gasoline engine). In EV Drive, the electric motor is capable of operating on its own, but only for short distances at low speed. Once the battery is depleted, or you reach a speed threshold, the traditional hybrid mode takes over and both the gas engine and the electric motor are working in concert.
Beyond that, the Accord Hybrid is just like any other Accord, just with significantly better fuel mileage. Since the hybrid battery pack is smaller, there’s no longer a storage penalty in the trunk.
55MPG city/49MPG hwy
Part of the confusion surrounding the Insight is its name. Honda has kept the Insight name alive despite the fact that it’s undergone three significant changes in its lifetime, to three distinct bodystyles. It started out as a weird little three-door, two-passenger hatchback, from 1999 to 2006. Then it shifted to a five-door hatch in 2007, sold through the 2014 model year.
It would be a lot less confusing if Honda just called the 2019 Insight what it actually is: The Honda Civic Hybrid. The previous two generations of Insight were dedicated hybrid platforms. But the current Insight is the tenth-generation Civic platform, with a hybrid drivetrain.
All the weirdness about the previous two generations of Insight styling is completely gone. This is a straightforward, stylish, modern sedan that just happens to have a parallel hybrid drivetrain. Despite the fact that it’s larger (5.9 inches longer wheelbase, 11.4 inches longer end-to-end, and five inches wider) and up to 341 pounds heavier, it features a 14 mile per gallon city fuel mileage increase, and an eight mile per gallon highway fuel economy increase over the 2014 model.
What’s also apparent is the 2019 Insight’s significant improvement in power. The last Insight provided a combined rating of just 98hp, and it felt it. In its day, it was an incredibly fuel efficient car, but you paid for it with sluggish performance. The 2019 Honda Insight isn’t what you’d call “fast,” but you’ll have no problems merging into traffic or pulling away from an intersection.
The drivetrain is a 1.5-liter version of Honda’s two-motor hybrid system (the larger Accord Hybrid’s gasoline engine displaces two liters.) Under most driving conditions, the Insight — like the Accord Hybrid — operates as a series hybrid, where the gasoline engine connects to a generator motor to produce electricity that either powers the electric propulsion motor, recharges the 60-cell lithium ion battery pack, or both.
Also like the Accord Hybrid, the Insight has several selectable drive modes (ECON, Sport and EV). ECON relies more heavily on the electric motor. Sport more heavily on the gas engine. EV allows full electric operation, but only up to a mile.
The Insight also has several degrees of regenerative braking, which turns the kinetic energy from deceleration into electrical energy, which is stored in the Li-Ion batteries. In place of a conventional car’s paddle shifters are Deceleration Selectors that allow the driver to select between three levels of regenerative braking performance. Using the right lever, the driver can add regenerative braking power — helpful when descending hills — while the left selector reduces it.
Beyond that, though, the driving and ownership experience is just like that of owning a Civic. If you’re familiar with previous generations of that car, you’ll feel right at home in the Insight. It has all the comfort, convenience and connectivity features that are included in the Civic (which you can read about in one of our other Civic reviews).
In the week that we had the Insight, though, its best feature was one we didn’t really think we’d use that much. We’ve used Honda’s Adaptive Cruise Control before, but the week we had the car, it was during extremely heavy traffic in the peak of the summer driving season. We spent a solid hour in stop-and-go traffic, and Adaptive Cruise Control was the only thing that prevented a psychotic breakdown. Set the shortest distance between cars, and select a speed of 65 miles per hour and the Insight will manage your speed all the way down to a dead stop. If you’re stopped for more than a few seconds a message on the instrument panel flashes, and you’ll need to touch the gas pedal again to get rolling, but it will immediately reset to its Low Speed Follow mode, and increase speed as traffic quickens its pace.
This feature isn’t exclusive to the Insight, and it’s not exclusive to the highest Insight trim levels. In fact, it’s standard not only on the Insight, but on the Accord (including the Hybrid) and the Clarity. It’s part of the Honda Sensing system that allows the Insight to achieve a Top Safety Pick+ rating from NHTSA.
The Insight is built here in the United States, in contrast to the two generations of Japanese-built Insights that precede it.
Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid
MSRP (base): $33,400
The Honda Clarity is where things start getting weird and confusing. There are actually three Clarity models — Clarity Fuel Cell, Clarity EV, and Clarity Plug-In Hybrid. If you don’t live in California or Oregon, though, you’re going to be limited to the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid model. The Fuel Cell is only available in California, and the EV is restricted to California and Oregon.
The Clarity Plug-In Hybrid is – as its name implies — a hybrid that you can plug into a charger. You don’t absolutely have to do that, but you will definitely want to. The Clarity fuel tank is tiny — just about seven gallons — and the best you’ll get out of its gas engine is about 42 miles per gallon. To achieve the full 110 MPGe rating, you’ll want to either charge the battery at your office or parking area, or have a charger installed in your home.
Like the first and second generation Insights, the Clarity is a dedicated platform unto itself. Its exterior styling is definitely on the futuristic side. In fact, with its heavily skirted rear wheels and odd hatchback-ish styling, it looks more like the previous generation Insight than the current Insight does (which makes us wonder why THIS wasn’t called the Insight instead).
Inside, the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid is about as luxurious and smartly styled as a Honda gets. It shares an instrument cluster and an iPad-like infotainment interface with its Accord and Civic (and Insight) cousins, but the dash itself is more stylish, with an Alcantara detail running through the middle. The console is unique, too, a two-tiered design that provides a storage tray under the shift buttons. Oddly, the USB port is under here, too, and it’s in a location that’s impossible to see unless you wedge yourself under the dash. You need to get good at plugging things in by feel.
What differentiates the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid from the Accord Hybrid and the Insight is its ability to drive up to 47 miles on electric power only. The gas engine in the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid is really a generator that powers the electric motor, hence the tiny seven gallon tank. If you happen to live less than 25 miles from your office, you can plug the car in at night and enjoy full electric driving to and from the office, and you can consider the gas engine as an emergency only range extender.
Then, when you need to head out on longer trips, you’ve got a range of around 340 miles thanks to the impressive 47 mpg fuel economy of the gas engine.
We’ve mentioned before that plug-in hybrids are probably the most attractive option for conventional drivers, and the Clarity Plug-In Hybrid is no different. What’s unique about the Clarity is its form factor as a five-passenger sedan. Its size isn’t far off from an Accord, meaning that it’s the most spacious plug-in hybrid available until you get into vehicles like the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV and the Chrysler Pacifica Plug-In Hybrid minivan. If a sedan is your thing, though, you won’t find one as comfortable to live with as this one.
With all the hybrid options available from Honda, you’d have to be a pretty selective customer not to find one that meets your needs.