Volkswagen is ready for a hydrogen-powered future with Passat and Golf SportWagen HyMotion

The world needs a lot more hydrogen refuelling stations before a fuel-cell car makes practical sense, but when the world is ready, Volkswagen has not one but two cars primed for production.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
2 min read
Josh Miller/CNET

Josh Miller/CNET

The future of the automobile is electric, but the question remains: exactly where will those electrons come from? More and more cars are pulling that juice from batteries, but hydrogen is potentially an even better source. When the stuff is run through a simple fuel cell the electricity flows, just like a battery, with the big difference being you can fully recharge in just minutes. And, the only emission is water.

It sounds lovely, but hydrogen filling stations are rare, which means these cars are literally going nowhere. Still, multiple manufacturers are showing off their support for the technology at this year's Los Angeles Auto Show, and Volkswagen had not one but two cars here: the Passat sedan and Golf SportWagen.

Volkswagen Passat HyMotion fuel cell-powered practicality (pictures)

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Both use the same basic hydrogen fuel-cell system, and so both offer the same impressive range of 310 miles (500 km) and the same leisurely performance, taking 10 seconds to reach 60 mph. Still, with an efficiency of roughly 60 miles per kilogram of hydrogen, and with hydrogen costing just $2 per kilogram, you can see the potential cost benefits strongly offset the performance.

Up front is the same electric motor that can be found in the e-Golf, powered both by the hydrogen fuel cell and a small battery pack. Like a hybrid, a regenerative braking system stores power in the battery for use when you need some extra oomph pulling away from a light.

I was able to take a short drive in the Passat version, and while the car refused to sprint away from any traffic lights, performance was... acceptable. In all other regards the car felt exactly like any other Passat, with of course the main exception being the noise. The car cruises along quietly and smoothly.

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Compromises are few compared to a standard Passat. Trunk volume is reduced, thanks to the larger tank required to safely store the hydrogen, and the car weighs about 200 kg (440 pounds) more than a standard Passat. And really that's it. The driving experience overall is generally good, and even better is confirmation from Volkswagen that the car could be put into production in very short order -- if only the market were ready.

When will the market be ready? When will there be enough hydrogen filling stations around for VW to make a go at putting cars like the Passat and Golf SportWagen HyMotion into motion for real? Sadly at this point your guess is as good as mine, but it's at least good to know that once the market is ready, the cars will be there.

Check out all our coverage of the LA Auto Show here