The Toyota Prius became a sales sensation after it was introduced in the U.S. in 2000, provoking media predictions that hybrid cars would soon take over the market. As it turned out, folks didn’t want hybrids — they just wanted Priuses.
With its aero shape, split-window grille, eco-console and leafy badge, it was a personal statement. It was the green preener’s car. Nickname: Pious.
But what if you didn’t want to shout your moral intentions to the world? What if you didn’t need to show off your green chic at the Academy Awards? What if you simply wanted an affordable, family hybrid with the utility of a best-selling sedan?
The Toyota Camry hybrid was your answer. It was affordable, fuel-efficient and as plain as a quart of vanilla ice cream.
It sold modestly compared to the Prius, but it was part of Toyota’s strategy to leverage the halo status of the Prius and hybridize everything in its lineup from sedans to sport utilities to Lexus premium vehicles. Other brands followed the Camry hybrid — notably the Ford Fusion Hybrid and plug-in Energi, and Honda Accord Hybrid — with only moderate success compared to their gas-only counterparts.
But here comes Honda with a new strategy. Determined to electrify its entire lineup just like Toyota (Honda says two-thirds of vehicles it sells in 2030 globally will be electrified), Toyota’s Japanese rival has introduced its own green-geek halo: the plug-in hybrid Clarity.
Aero shape, split rear window, funky console, leafy badging. And it’s aimed, not at the Prius, but at the plain-vanilla Camry Hybrid.
In fact the Camry and Clarity in my driveway are as closely matched as Ali vs. Frazier: They’re the meat of the U.S. sedan market at $37,000 (before incentives — more on that later) with similar dimensions, leather interior, heated seats, automatic headlights, automatic braking and blind-spot assist.
Oh, it’s on.
First impressions favor the handsome Camry. No, that’s not a misprint. The eight-generation sedan is a quantum leap from the last wallflower. Remade from the ground up, it is visually sleek with sculpted rocker panels and strong rear shoulders. Unlike its sporty, mascara-caked XSE V-6 stablemate whose face deserves an episode on “Botched,” my XLE hybrid tastefully presents Camry’s new look with subtle, chrome grille lines artfully echoed in the headlamp LED signature.
The result is a Camry that is well-proportioned with a widened stance. The athletic look extends to the driving experience while the TNGA-global platform is wider, firmer and more balanced.
The Clarity is no boat — especially with 17-kWh of battery lowering its center of gravity — but neither is it an Accord. The Accord is a handling sensation (North American Car of the Year, take a bow), eclipsing even the improved Camry. The Clarity is built on its own separate platform to handle multiple model trims from plug-in to EV to the expensive California-only hydrogen chariot. Want all-wheel drive? Move up to an SUV.
Honda hopes you’ll warm up to the Clarity’s unique styling. The front end (particularly in white) is a dead ringer for a “Star Wars” stormtrooper, its jewel-eye LED headlights surrounded by a black mask. Aft of the mask the Clarity geeks out with a long front overhang (complete with aerodynamic front-wheel air curtains), partially covered rear tire-wells, and aforementioned Prius-like dual rear window.
The split window aids visibility to overcome the Honda’s tall, roomy rear trunk. Cargo space is cavernous compared to the hydrogen car I tested a year ago (no hydrogen fuel tank, natch). The Camry, too, has gained trunk space over its predecessor thanks to cleverly packaging the battery under the seat instead of the trunk. Alas, neither car is a hatchback, meaning that — despite lay-flat second-row seats — the pass-through opening is too narrow to be bicycle-friendly.
Both cars sport distinctive interiors, with the Camry once again getting my nod for most user-friendly. As with all new Camrys, the console’s unique “Z-dash” offers helpful knobs for volume, storage space and easy shifter.
Clarity goes nerd with an Acura-borrowed trigger shifter bridging cavernous sub-console space (great for purse storage). A knob-less infotainment screen will annoy in the middle of a white suede dash (now, that will dirty easily!), though some will find Camry’s lack of smartphone app connectivity less forgivable.
Grin and bear the Clarity’s styling. Learn the trigger shifter. Because the Clarity’s real sci-fi payoff comes with the drivetrain.
The Camry’s camel-like 611-mile range may get you to Chicago and back on a single tank of fuel. But with its 17.4-kWh battery’s 40-plus mile range, Honda’s plug-in will make you a stranger to the cashier at your local gas station.
I never visited a pump during my week-long date with the Clarity. After a round-trip 65-mile airport run, I dipped into the gas engine briefly, then recharged at home on a pathetic, 4-miles-per-hour-charging, 110-volt wall plug. Still, that was enough to get back to full-charge overnight.
The driveline is optimized for efficiency, so stoplight burnouts are brief (despite its bigger battery, the Clarity barely beats the Camry Hybrid zero-60 in 7.6 seconds versus 7.9). The gas engine will even come to the rescue over 50 mph to keep the battery from over-exerting itself.
The Honda also has a clever, steering wheel-mounted, regen paddle like the Chevy Volt plug-in to recharge the battery under braking. In Ecomode (Sport mode is also available, but lord knows why, given the Clarity’s conservative nature) and generous use of regen paddle, I managed 55 miles on a single charge — out-performing the system’s advertised 41 mpg.
Clarity offers other useful Easter eggs like the HRV button which switches the system exclusively to the gas engine on long 80-mph highway trips to preserve the battery for when you want it around town. All of this information can be watched on the Clarity’s colorful, digital instrument display.
Geeky stuff, but useful.
Oh, and there’s a geek sweetener. Only the Honda comes with a $7,500 EV tax subsidy. Which means its bottom line sinks below $30,000. That’s a greenback bargain that any green will understand.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.
2018 Toyota Camry Hybrid
Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan
$28,695 base ($37,363 Hybrid XLE as tested)
2.5-liter, inline 4-cylinder with 1.6-kWh nickel metal-hydride battery and AC motor-assist
208 total system horsepower
Continuously variable transmission (CVT)
0-60 mph, 7.9 seconds (Car and Driver); range: 611 miles
3,571 pounds (as tested)
EPA fuel economy: 44 city/47 highway/46 combined
Highs: Nice duds, Camry; 600-plus mile range
Lows: Toyota hybrids don’t get tax breaks; wish it had a hatchback
2018 Honda Clarity Plug-in
Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan
$34,290 base ($37,490 Touring trim as tested)
17-kWh nickel metal-hydride battery and AC motor with 1.5-liter, inline 4-cylinder assist
212 total system horsepower
0-60 mph, 7.6 seconds (Car and Driver); Range: 340 miles (47 EV only)
EPA fuel economy: 110 MPGe (combined electric/gas); 42 mph gas only
Highs: Good EV range for a big car; trunk space
Lows: Geeky styling; wish it had a hatchback
Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★