FuelCell Energy – The Most Advanced Production SUV Available
I first drove a fuel cell car in 2005. That Ford Focus was part of an early test program that had the blue-oval brand working together with Daimler-Benz and Ballard Engineering to develop automotive fuel cells. Back then I thought H2 would become the go-to alternative fuel, but it would take another 15 years before experiencing a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle again.
To be clear, plenty of hydrogen-powered vehicles were created before and yet more have arrived since, from a whole host of manufacturers. The 2001 Santa Fe FCEV was Hyundai’s first attempt, soon followed by the 2004 Tucson FCEV. Both received updates in following generations, making Hyundai one of just a handful of automakers keeping the hydrogen flame afire.
Most early adopters have temporarily given up on the technology, and they’re turning to gasoline-electric hybrids and full plug-in electrics. Hyundai’s Ioniq Electric joined the fray in 2016, while its EV lineup now includes the Kona Electric (which will get a styling update for 2022) and will soon add the Ionic 5.
Smart packaging gives the Nexo a competitive advantage
The Nexo combines everything Hyundai learned from hybrid, electric, and hydrogen fuel cell production, into one very well thought out fuel cell-powered crossover. I say well thought out because Hyundai was intelligent enough to wrap it up in an SUV body, this being the only expanding market sector. Toyota chose a mid-size sedan body for its H2-powered offering back in 2015, and while a new second-generation Mirai will make it more appealing due to better styling, it’s not a crossover.
Hyundai smartly targeted the compact SUV segment too, which maximizes the Nexo’s global take-rate. It has the same width and height as today’s Tucson, although grows 7.5 inches (190 mm) from end to end to benefit legroom and cargo capacity. Fortunately, it still looks good proportionally, plus is really eye-catching overall thanks to Hyundai’s sharp new grille design, some seriously slender LED lighting elements, a sweet set of Land Rover-style pop-out door handles, a cool coat of matte gray paint, and sporty 19-inch five-spoke rims. It looks even better at night when an LED lightbar ahead of the hood comes to life.
Dual display electronic interfaces combine with buttons aplenty
The cabin appropriately takes Hyundai SUVs into the next-generation, with a Mercedes MBUX-inspired dual-display instrument cluster immediately grabbing attention. It houses driving gauges and an advanced multi-information display on the left, plus a touch-capacitive infotainment system to the right.
The conjoined digital displays actually improve on Mercedes’ design by incorporating right and left rear-facing cameras within the MID that “pop-up” when activating either turn signal. This useful feature is now a mainstay across Hyundai’s lineup.
The pewter-colored center stack’s layout is as much of a throwback as the digital displays are modern, but in a charmingly busy sort of way, as if Hyundai was trying to conjure the spirit of a Nakamichi Dragon cassette deck.
The look is cool and ease-of-use satisfying for those who prefer pressing real buttons and turning actual knobs, and the sound emanating from the Nexo’s standard audio system was more than good enough to overcome the quiet drivetrain.
Ample power and plenty of range
Simple PNDR buttons engage the single-speed transmission, which drives the front wheels by way of a 40-kWh battery powering an electric motor that boasts 120-kW (161 hp) and 291 lb-ft of immediately available torque.
The sole purpose of the 95-kW fuel-cell stack is to make electricity on the go. It’s basically a mobile electrical power plant, which means recharging is continuous and refueling happens almost as quickly and easily as refilling a conventional SUV’s gas tank. The EPA claims a range of 354 to 380 miles (569.7–611.6 km) on a full tank.
This zero emissions SUV takes just five minutes to refuel
Hydrogen refueling stations are starting to show up in my city, the one I used to refuel the Nexo being a Shell outlet that added a hydrogen bay a year or so ago. After swiping my card and entering details via touchscreen, and then attaching the nozzle to the Nexo’s H2 connector, its three-step process of filling and checking for leaks only took a few minutes, leaving me to detach the nozzle and slot it into its holder, similar to how a self-serve gas pump works.
The refuelling cost seemed about the same as what I’d normally pay for regular gas, so unlike an EV there are no notable savings, although the ability to simply pump and get on your way within minutes means this Nexo doesn’t suffer from the usual electric car recharging challenges. We also need to keep in mind this is a relatively new technology that hasn’t benefited from any economies of scale, meaning its operating costs will come down as hydrogen infrastructure grows and more people start using it.
Performance is silently smooth and quick enough
If you’ve driven an electric vehicle, you know exactly what it’s like the pilot a fuel cell-powered car. Ample torque is readily available, resulting in reasonably quick sprints from stoplights and plenty of highway passing power. It’s unflappably smooth about doing so too, a real joy for those who prize refinement above intensity. By the numbers (as measured by my trusty Seiko Flightmaster) it’s about average for the compact crossover segment, with the Nexo hitting 60 mph from standstill in about 8.5 seconds (Hyundai claims 9 seconds to 60 mph or 9.2 to 100 km/h), while its top speed is rated at 111 mph (179 km/h).
Nexo combines deft agility with impressive refinement
This said, the Nexo’s handling is anything but average. No doubt its underfloor battery placement lowered its center of gravity, making it feel ultra-capable around corners, but its electrically assisted rack and pinion felt positive and engaging as well.
The Nexo’s ride quality was even better, Hyundai having really sorted out its front MacPherson strut and rear multi-link suspension setup well. The result is a compact crossover SUV that should be ideal for most tastes, despite its sizable 245/45HR19 tires.
At least a importantly the Nexo feels solid and well-constructed, with no body creaks and very little wind or road noise marring the tranquil experience inside, helping to make for a surprisingly refined personality.
The Nexo’s controls are appropriately focused on efficiency
Those looking for a sport mode, however, need not apply. Instead, the Nexo’s default Normal selection managed performance duties well enough, while choosing Eco mode softened reactions to make the most of each droplet of compressed hydrogen in its three 13.7-gallon (52-liter) tanks. The drive mode selector is mixed in with the infotainment system’s quick access buttons on the lower console, incidentally, but these are right next to the four aforementioned transmission buttons, so you shouldn’t have trouble finding it.
The set of paddle shifters attached to the steering wheel are not for shifting gears, by the way, but instead the one on the left can increase regenerative braking energy to the battery when employed. What’s more, doing so applies braking force without using your feet, even bringing the Nexo to a full stop when not moving too fast, as long as you choose the strongest of its three settings. The right paddle does the choosing, plus restores the system to a zero level for as little rolling resistance as possible in order to maximize fuel economy.
A comfortable, accommodating interior
The rest of the Nexo is pretty normal. The previously noted gauge cluster/infotainment combo is packed with features, such as a helpful overhead parking camera, accurate navigation, and all the expected smartphone connectivity functions including wireless charging.
The cabin isn’t dressed up to premium levels, so don’t expect fabric-wrapped roof pillars or any pliable plastics below the waistline, but the dash top is soft synthetic, as are the door uppers front to back. All doors are finished just as nicely right down to the armrests too.
A heatable steering wheel rim keeps fingers warm in winter, while the driver’s seat was comfortable thanks in part to three-way heat and cooling, plus two-way lumbar support that just happened to fit my lower back. Likewise, the rear seating area is spacious with plenty of legroom. Three can sit abreast, but it would be more enjoyable for two. The outboard positions get warmers, while a folding center armrest increases comfort. Lastly, rear passengers benefit from dual cupholders and a three-prong power outlet.
Just behind the rear, 30 cubic feet (850 liters) of dedicated cargo space can be expanded to 56.5 cu ft (1,600 liters) by folding the 60/40-split rear seats forward. The carpeted load floor ends up being quite flat and useful, plus Hyundai provides some additional storage below. A retractable cargo cover will hide valuables, or can be removed completely.
price and practicality will turn most early adopters off
As good as it is, the Nexo’s $59,910 ($71,000 CAD) entry price will turn many would-be buyers off, especially when considering its lack of fuel savings and the $39,000 ($52,000 CAD) needed to buy a Tesla Model Y, not to mention the $33,245 ($41,599 CAD) required for an Ioniq Electric. Adding to this is a lack of H2 refueling stations. While my city has three, most don’t. As of January 2021, only 45 publicly accessible hydrogen refueling stations were available in the entire US, 43 of which were located in California (the two others are in Connecticut and Hawaii).
Vancouver, Canada has three, with a fourth being finished in a popular island community nearby, plus a fifth in Kelowna, a local tourist hotspot. The only other Canadian retail station is about 3,000 miles (4,800 km) away in Quebec City. More are planned in both countries, but hydrogen is mostly a left coast thing for now.
Still, for those within access, H2 is a viable alternative, and Hyundai’s Nexo the best choice so far.
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FuelCell Energy – The Most Advanced Production SUV Available
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