There have been hydrogen cars before, but the Hyundai Nexo is perhaps the most convincing example to date, writes Chris Pickering
When asked to name the most technologically advanced car on sale, most people would probably hazard a guess at the current Mercedes S-Class (the latest in a long line of cars that has famously introduced such landmark innovations as ABS, active cruise control and crumple zones). But there’s another contender for that title, which comes not from Stuttgart or Silicon Valley, but from South Korea: the Hyundai Nexo.
The most obvious feature that sets the Nexo apart is the fact it runs on hydrogen. Located in its nose, the fuel-cell stack silently strips electrons away from the most abundant molecule in the universe, creating a steady flow of electric current. This is used to charge a 1.56kWh lithium-ion battery, which provides power to a 120kW electric motor, also mounted under the bonnet. The only tailpipe emissions are purified air (passed through the fuel cell’s sophisticated filtration system) and droplets of water vapour.
The Nexo is the second hydrogen car to come from Hyundai, following on from the ix35 Fuel Cell. At its heart is an all-new 95 kW fuel cell stack that’s said to offer 50 per cent better power density at 3.1kW/litre, while the overall powertrain efficiency now climbs to 60.4 per cent. Internal differences include a new design for the bipolar plates that separate out the individual cells, providing a more effective dispersion of air and hydrogen. Careful attention has also been applied to the humidity of the cells to ensure that they can function over a broad temperature range. Hyundai claims this has given the Nexo a class-leading cold-start capability, with the fuel cell capable of reaching working temperature in less than 30 seconds following an overnight soak at -29°C.
Notably, the Nexo has also been designed as a fuel-cell vehicle from the ground up, whereas ix35 was based on a combustion-engined platform. The new chassis uses a relatively conventional high-strength steel construction, but it has been carefully designed to suit the fuel-cell system’s packaging needs. In place of two tanks that took up a significant portion of the boot space in the ix35 there are now three carbon-fibre tanks – two of which sit under the rear seats. Not that you would guess from sitting in it, because the Nexo offers bags of rear-seat room and a generous 461-litre boot.
Things feel a little more radical from the front seats. The dashboard has been cleared entirely of buttons, which instead sit on a giant floating centre console. Meanwhile, the infotainment functions are handled by a vast touchscreen display, while another large screen behind the steering wheel provides a virtual instrument cluster. Combined, these features give the cabin a distinctly sci-fi appearance that’s more space station than SUV. It feels entirely in keeping with the Nexo’s cutting-edge character and its £65,995 price tag.
The materials are clever too. True, there’s the odd flimsy bit of plastic, but generally the quality is very good. All the major cabin surfaces, including the bamboo-based headliner, plastics, trim, soft skin and floor mats all come from UL-certified bio-materials. Hyundai says this represents the most extensive use of such materials on any vehicle to date.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the driving experience is much like a fully electric SUV. The Nexo feels quicker than its 9.5-second 0-to-60mph time would imply, with a steady stream of smooth, silent torque fed through a single-speed transmission. Unlike other fuel-cell cars we’ve driven you never hear the compressor at work either. Wind and road noise often become more noticeable in electric vehicles, but both are well suppressed here – aided in part by the Nexo’s impressively low drag co-efficient of 0.329 (down from 0.35 on the ix35).
The feeling of serenity that comes from the Nexo’s powertrain refinement is bolstered by its soft, pillowy ride. There is a degree of body roll, but the handling feels reasonably precise, aided by the Nexo’s comparatively trim 1,825kg kerb weight (battery electric SUVs, in contrast, are often over two tonnes). This also helps to maximise the range, with 6.3kg of hydrogen (stored at 700 bar) good for a theoretical distance of 414 miles. That’s enough to take you from London to Leeds and back again.
Refuelling the Nexo only takes around five minutes and the process is barely more complicated than filling up a conventional car. Admittedly, the choice of filling stations is curently limited, with only around 20 in the UK (mostly around London and the Midlands) but that number looks set to grow.
So, it’s a thumbs up for the fuel cell, but that’s only half the story. The Nexo also has one of the most comprehensive suites of driving-assistance functions on the market. In addition to the usual autonomous emergency braking and lane keep assist there’s now a system that Hyundai dubs Blindspot View Monitoring (BVM). This uses a pair of wide-angle cameras mounted under the wing mirrors to capture a live video feed of the Nexo’s blindspots. As soon as you indicate left or right, the blindspot view from that side is automatically displayed in the instrument cluster. It sounds like something of a gimmick, but it works brilliantly, expanding your field of view while driving.
The Nexo also has a remote smart-parking function. This allows you to select a parking space then step out of the car, whereupon the Nexo will park itself automatically at the touch of a button. The practical application of this is that it allows you to guide the car into and out of very tight spaces, but it’s also a step towards fully autonomous parking. With Hyundai talking about offering SAE Level 4 autonomy in smart cities by 2021, it’s possible that future models may be able to drop you off in the city centre and find their own way to a car park.
The great thing about the Nexo, however, is that it still works here and now. It offers similar performance to its combustion-engined counterparts, with refinement levels that even a lot of electric vehicles would struggle to match. Crucially, it feels like a finished product, with enough practicality to use every day and sufficient quality to justify its aspirational price tag. The scarcity of hydrogen filling stations remains a challenge, but in some respects that’s a chicken-and-egg situation because there are so few fuel-cell vehicles currently on our roads. The Nexo, however, demonstrates that there is clear potential to tip that balance.