LOS ANGELES.—A recent trip to the West Coast afforded an opportunity to drive something rather interesting: the Hyundai Nexo, the company’s new hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicle. Even now I’m struggling to get my head around this obviously clever machine. Completely ignoring the elephant (element?) in the room and the fact that Hyundai still hasn’t decided how much it will cost, the FCEV is very well-executed, a fine alternative power vehicle from a company that has been building some pretty good cars of late.
But at some point you have to come back to the fact that it hydrogen-fueled, bringing all the baggage that entails into play. Hence the continuing head-scratching.
Hyundai and hydrogen actually go back two decades—the Nexo is its second-generation mass-produced hydrogen vehicle and a follow-up to the Tucson FCEV launched in 2013. But the Tucson was designed to use an internal combustion engine, and shoehorning a fuel cell stack, batteries, and pressurized storage tanks into it involved compromises. The Nexo has been designed from the ground up as an FCEV with better efficiency and more range. Well, Hyundai wants it to serve as the company’s new eco/tech flagship. And on those counts, it has delivered.
More range, better efficiency
Overall, Hyundai’s engineers tell us the new powertrain is now at 60.4 percent efficiency, up from 55.3 percent in the older Tucson. The stack power density has increased by 50 percent (to 3.1kW/L), and the installation is smaller and lighter than before despite carrying more hydrogen. The 95kW fuel-cell stack—all new for the Nexo—lives under the hood. It’s an integrated unit with the 120kW (160hp), 395Nm (291lb-ft) permanent magnet motor at the bottom. At the rear of the vehicle are the three 13.8-gallon (52.2L) hydrogen storage tanks—nicknamed Bob, Kevin, and Stuart—and the 1.6kWh battery that can send another 40kW to the motor that drives the front wheels.
The storage tanks can hold a total of 13.9 pounds (6.3kg) of hydrogen at 10,000psi, which together with its aerodynamic design gives the Blue-trim Nexo a range of 380 miles (611km)—the longest range of any zero-emissions vehicle, according to Hyundai. (If you pick the fully loaded Limited trim the range drops to “just” 354 miles/570km between fills.) The city/highway/combined are 65/58/61mpg for the 380-mile Blue Nexo and 59/54/57mpg for the 354-mile Limited Nexo.
The aerodynamic optimization is actually the best external sign that the Nexo isn’t just any other modern SUV. Vents in the front bumper and air deflectors on the flat underbody ahead of the front and rear wheels work to minimize the turbulent airflow from the wheels as they rotate. And the wheels themselves are of an aerodynamic design to minimize drag. The handles are flush with the doors when the car is in motion, and even the windshield wiper lives out of the airflow underneath the front cowl. Despite all this, the Nexo still has a drag coefficient of 0.32, but that’s an improvement over the Tucson, which had a Cd of 0.35.
It’s like riding in a shuttlepod
I particularly like the “Art Deco meets Starfleet” interior, which is a much more upscale take on the bridge console layout than the smaller, cheaper Kona EV we wrote about earlier this week. It’s wonderfully quiet when on the move, which I find results in a relaxing drive even when the route involves some heavy LA traffic. Visibility is good, and the interior is bright and feels spacious thanks to the large moonroof. All the materials you touch feel high quality.
Hyundai has crammed the Nexo with the latest and greatest advanced driver assists, including a remote parking tool that appears to work well enough to be useful. (This can parallel park as well as pull into and out of perpendicular spaces in parking lots.) The parking assist is one of the few features to be locked behind the Limited trim; it also gets bigger wheels (which may explain a lot of the range decrease) as well as the bigger moonroof and a power lift gate at the rear.
All the other advanced driver assists—forward collision avoidance, adaptive cruise and lane keeping, blind spot video cameras, rear cross-traffic alerts, and more—are standard across the Nexo range. And the built-in infotainment system is actually pretty good; it features Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and Nuance’s voice recognition technology. The native navigation app will constantly tell you where the nearest hydrogen station is, as well as keeping tabs on your range.
If you’ve been looking for an SUV but wanted a hydrogen-powered one (or, if you were waiting for an FCEV that isn’t a sedan), the Nexo is almost certainly the vehicle for you. As long as you live in California, that is. As the only state with any real kind of hydrogen infrastructure, it’s the only place in the US where the Nexo will be sold for the time being. And with that, cue a multi-page discussion thread below on whether or not hydrogen makes sense for personal transportation vehicles…