Hyundai recently invited me to drive its upcoming hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (FCEV) from Los Angeles to CES 2018 in Las Vegas. The prototype, still unnamed but seen undisguised for the first time, previews a hydrogen-fueled small SUV that will hit Californian roads in late 2018, according to Hyundai's estimates.
Two Lyfts and a flight later, I found myself face to fascia with the prototype. It debuts a new design philosophy, with narrow LED headlights, a broad grille and a squinting rear end. The door handles hide away when locked, much like a Tesla Model S. There's a new interior treatment, new tech to discover and, of course, the revised fuel cell powertrain.
I was ready to learn about all of this from behind the wheel during the approximately 240-mile ride from the Hyundai America Technical Center in Chino, California to the Vegas Strip.
The FCEV prototype
But first, I had to get a bit of background. The prototype builds on experience Hyundai has gained since starting its fuel cell program back in 1998 and from the more recent Tucson FCEV lease program, which has been running since 2014. This prototype, however, rides on a new dedicated fuel cell platform.
For starters, the FCEV uses three identical small 700-bar hydrogen tanks, rather than the Tucson's two mismatched units. The new packaging's 156.6-liter capacity holds 12 percent more hydrogen fuel while weighing 13 percent less (245 pounds total) than the previous setup. It also means that the tanks intrude less vertically, freeing up space above to move the lithium-ion battery without compromising cargo capacity.
The 1.56 kWh lithium-ion pack is about 64 percent more capacious than before. Judging by the numbers, I'd reckon this is the same lithium-ion polymer unit found in the Ioniq Hybrid, which means it also integrates a small 12-volt accessory battery into the larger unit, allowing it to ditch the traditional lead-acid battery and pull off the trick of jump starting itself in an emergency.
A bigger battery means Hyundai was able to make more generous use of regenerative braking. On the steering wheel, you'll find paddle shifters similar to those of the Ioniq Electric that toggle between three levels of regen. The most aggressive mode doesn't quite replicate the "one-foot driving" feel of a pure EV, but it comes close.
Driving the wheels, the prototype's 120 kW (about 161 horsepower) e-motor is more powerful than the old 100 kW unit and outputs about 70 pound-feet more at 291 torques. That's good for a zero to 60 mph sprint of 9.9 seconds -- two ticks faster than the older vehicle and not too bad for a compact eco SUV.
Because the e-motor can draw more deeply from the larger battery pack, the automaker was also able to retune its fuel cell stack -- the bit that does the actual chemistry of converting hydrogen into water vapor and electricity -- for improved efficiency. The new stack is smaller, lighter and now integrated with the e-motor for a more compact overall package.
Output from the fuel cell stack is down a bit at 95 kW versus the old Tucson's 100 kW stack, but that's OK, because the bigger battery and massaged energy management make up the difference. The net result is that efficiency is up to a vaguely stated "55-plus mpge." (We should learn more specifics next week at CES.) That's a bit short of the approximately 67 mpge claimed by the Mirai.and
The Hyundai should have a range advantage, up a claimed 30 percent to "more than 350 miles" on the EPA's test cycle. That's a 30 percent increase (85 more miles per 5-minute fill-up), which is good given the relative rarity of hydrogen filling stations in many areas. It also should be more than enough to get us to Vegas.
Next-gen Blue Link tech
My shift wasn't until the journey's second leg, so I was able to kick back for a while and take in the new cabin.
The FCEV greets the driver with a wide black dashboard that houses a pair of LCD screens, not dissimilar to what we've seen in the most. One screen is a digital instrument cluster that displays speed, fuel level and an eco-driving gauge that lets you know how efficiently you're driving. The second screen is a new version of Hyundai's Blue Link infotainment and is mostly familiar from what I've seen across the automaker's current fleet. There is a new split-screen function and a new multipane home screen, both very similar to .
Below the display is a wide floating center console with a plethora of physical buttons for drive modes, climate controls and more, and a physical control knob that can also be used to access Blue Link functions.
Behind the wheel
After a quick stop for lunch, I was finally handed the keys to the SUV with, sadly, a freshly reset trip computer. About 150 miles lay between me and my destination.
But first, I had to cooperate with Hyundai's needs for video and photography. That entailed about 17 miles of slow driving (approximately 45 to 55 mph) back and forth on a mostly deserted road. Fortunately, this is where electrified cars do their best work, so I was up to an average of 60.3 mpge before actually merging on to I-15 North towards Vegas.
The first thing that I noted while merging was the smooth acceleration. Passing power was good and, once up to my cruising speed of 72 mph, the FCEV was quiet. Having spent a good deal of time behind the wheel of electrified and fuel cell vehicles, this wasn't surprising.
What was surprising was the lack of compressor hum or whine that you sometimes get with fuel cell vehicles. In the, for example, I could hear a little turbo-like whistle when accelerating hard. The Hyundai prototype made no such noise -- not a game changer, but worth noting.
Though lighter than before, the weight of the FCEV is evident in the ride quality. It's a smooth ride with light steering effort, but this is still a heavy vehicle with batteries, hydrogen tanks, electronics and three adult passengers. Being more concerned with economy than dynamics for this test drive, I didn't do any lane-change tests on public roads and just enjoyed the rather boring 2-hour highway cruise through the desert, past Mountain Pass and over the Nevada border.
Arriving at our destination on the Las Vegas Strip, I checked the trip computer and was informed that I'd averaged 53.1 mpge for the trip. That's just short of Hyundai's "55-plus mpge" estimate, but not bad considering the elevation change, speed and payload of three adults and luggage. On a flatter, more urban cycle, I could see 55 to 60 mpge being very attainable.
The semiautonomous future
The FCEV is also planned to be a flagship for the automaker's semiautonomous and driver aid technologies.
It will debut with Hyundai's new Lane Follow Assist (LFA) and Highway Driving Assist (HDA) technologies, evolutions of lane-keeping steering assist made more accurate. HDA is a hands-on SAE Level 2 semiautonomous system that can lane center, rather than just back and forth between the boundaries, using camera sensors, high-accuracy GPS and map data. Hyundai says the GPS and map data allows this system to maintain lane centering even if the lane markers aren't visible, which I'm going to have to see to believe.
The FCEV may also boast Remote Smart Parking Assist, which allows the driver to remotely park or summon the vehicle from a parallel or perpendicular parking spot from outside of the car. This is useful for slotting the car into tight garages or spaces where the doors would be blocked. Ultimate availability of any of these semiautonomous features will depend on regulations in various countries around the world.
The model also will debut a new Blind-spot View Monitor (BVM) system. It's similar to Honda's LaneWatch camera system, but Hyundai's BVM works on both sides of the car, rather than just the passenger side, and displays its blind-spot feed in the instrument cluster rather than the center display. I suggested that a graphic overlay would be useful for judging distances when merging, so you can thank me if it makes its way into the final product.
The prototype shows promise but will go through a few more revisions and test cycles before it's ready for mass manufacture. Hyundai tells me it's targeting a Q4 2018 sales window. I'll be able to share more about the FCEV including more specific fuel economy estimates, the official name and, hopefully, Hyundai's plans for dealing with infrastructure and hydrogen fuel costs when the model officially debuts on Tuesday at CES 2018.
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