2019 Hyundai Nexo first drive review: The hydrogen-powered crossover
Hyundai proves that fuel-cell cars are ready for prime-time -- as soon as there's somewhere for people to actually fill them up.
How poignant, just days after reading dire warnings about climate change from the UN, to be driving an alternative-fuel vehicle that promises no local emissions at all. Could hydrogen fuel-cell cars be the cars of the future?
The 2019 Hyundai Nexo aims to convince that the answer yes. Like the existing Toyota Mirai and Honda Clarity, it is fueled with hydrogen and its only waste produce is water. Assuming the fuel is made using renewable electricity methods, hydrogen could be the ultimate green power source for future vehicles. And, unlike some other fuel-cell models, the Nexo doesn't feel like you're driving a science project.
Back to science class
A quick reminder of how a fuel-cell car works: Pumps force hydrogen from the fuel tank and oxygen from the outside air into a special device called the fuel-cell stack, where chemical reactions convert those gasses into electrons (i.e., electricity) and water. That electricity, in turn, goes to an electric motor that drives the car. The Nexo also has a 1.56-kilowatt-hour battery to store excess energy from the fuel cell and to allow for recouping some via regenerative braking.
The Nexo can store 14.0 pounds of hydrogen onboard in its 13.8-gallon tank system, giving it a driving range of 380 miles if you buy the base Blue trim level. That falls to 354 miles with the highly equipped Limited version, because its weight and bigger wheels reduce efficiency. Efficiency on the move is rated at 61 miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) combined for the Blue model and 57 MPGe combined for the Limited.
Those range figures are further than most of today's electric cars can travel on one charge. More importantly, topping up with hydrogen takes only five minutes or so, versus the lengthy recharging times required by an EV.
The hydrogen storage system consists of three tanks shaped, apparently, like the Minions from the Despicable Me films, with engineers thus nicknaming the tanks Kevin, Bob and Stewart. By using three smaller tanks rather than one or two large ones, Hyundai engineers say they were able to maximize back-seat and cargo space. The arrangement also allows for fitting multilink rear suspension. The battery sits beneath the trunk floor, while the fuel-cell stack and electric drive motor are in the engine bay.
If you peek in our galleries of the Mirai and Clarity, you might assume that all fuel-cell cars are legally required to look… unusual. Hyundai bucks that trend with the Nexo; it's a futuristic take on the brand's crossover design language, sure, but not something that appears to have descended from a sci-fi film.
"We chose an SUV body because of the practicality that US customers place on an SUV seating position," says Mike O'Brien, Hyundai's vice president for product planning, adding that the Nexo was styled to be, "A very acceptable design, a design that people will look for and seek out."
The Nexo looks mostly like any other crossover, albeit with eco-car-specific styling cues like a full-width running light strip across its nose, door handles that retract flush into the bodywork, aerodynamically optimized wheel designs and a drag-reducing "air tunnel" D-pillar. It all results in a commendable 0.32 drag coefficient and a vehicle that is recognizable as a Hyundai, undeniably futuristic, yet still quite palatable to everyday car shoppers.
Within the cabin, the Nexo takes on a much more cockpit-like look than any other Hyundai, what with a tall center console that recalls the design of Porsche interiors. It's littered with lots of buttons, controlling everything from the transmission to driving modes, and from infotainment to the cooled seats. Beneath the console is a storage area with a wireless phone charging pad and extra USB ports. A full-digital color instrument cluster is straight ahead of the driver.
For infotainment duties, the Nexo uses a crisp 12.3-inch widescreen touchscreen. Whether you operate it by swiping the display or twisting the rotary dial, it works seamlessly for everything from navigation and media to energy-flow information and, worryingly, the integrity of the hydrogen tanks and fueling system. (There are hydrogen sensors in the cabin that would alert you to a leak of the odorless gas.)
The back seat is roomy enough for an adult passenger to sit upright comfortably. Behind the second of seats you'll fit 29.6 cubic feet of cargo, which expands to 56.5 cubic feet with the seats lowered. Those are comparable figures to a Hyundai Tucson (31.0/61.9 cubic feet).
Driving on hydrogen
Because it is, ultimately, an electric car that generates its own electricity on board, the Hyundai Nexo drives with the sleek, smooth and silent demeanor of any other EV. With the Nexo weighing 3,990 to 4,116 pounds depending on trim, the motor's 161 horsepower and 291 pound-feet of torque are adequate in most situations. It's not especially quick, even though the motor is instantly responsive to throttle inputs at any speed. Hyundai estimates a 0-60-mph time of 9.5 seconds.
You can adjust the level of regenerative braking, just like in the new Kona Electric, by way of paddles on the steering wheel. Depending on how you're driving, it might be that recouped energy in the battery the powers the Nexo's front wheels: "We use either the battery or the fuel cell stack depending on the situation to get the maximum power," explains Jerome Gregeois, Hyundai's senior manager for eco powertrains.
Unfortunately, the Nexo doesn't drive as sweetly as other new Hyundai crossovers . The steering weight feels artificial and twitchy in my hands, and the underdamped suspension engenders a lot of floatiness. That's not to say the Nexo is a chore behind the wheel, but rather that it feels like engineers focused more time on the advanced powertrain than the ride-and-handling mix. That's probably OK given the car's intended use as an emissions-free commuter.
The cabin is at least very quiet, owing primarily to the lack of internal-combustion noises. In addition, Hyundai claims its data show the Nexo is quieter at a 62-mph cruise than a BMW 328i, thanks to insulated glass and various other sound-deadening efforts.
Other clever technologies include a new blind-spot camera system that, when you signal, projects the view of traffic on the car's flanks in the instrument cluster. Unlike Honda's similar LaneWatch, the system shows both left- and right-hand views, and also still works alongside a traditional blind-spot monitoring system. It's a nice thing to have when, say, dicing up heavy LA rush-hour traffic.
Other safety tech includes the expected pre-collision warning and braking features and adaptive cruise control. The Nexo can be equipped with lane-centering steering on the highway, and it will even brake and try to steer you out of danger if you change lanes when there's another vehicle in your blind spot.
There is also a remote self-parking function that allows the Nexo to reverse itself into parallel or perpendicular spaces. The driver hops out, holds a button on the remote key fob, and the Nexo does the rest. In a demo in a parking lot, the car even drove itself forward and back a few times to ensure it was perfectly centered in the spot. The car can then extract itself from the space later; it'll drive forward up to six feet at a time while you hold a button on the fob. The feature, which apparently meets all applicable US laws and will be offered at launch, was originally designed in deference to the ultra-narrow parking spaces of Hyundai's home market of Korea.
Pricing for the Hyundai Nexo has still not been announced, though Hyundai will let customers both lease and purchase the car when it launches at the end of this year. As a point of comparison, the Toyota Mirai can be leased for $349 per month or purchased for $59,285, while the Honda Clarity fuel-cell is offered only for leasing, at $369/month. Also, because of where you can find hydrogen stations (more on that in a second), the Hyundai Nexo will initially only be sold in the San Francisco Bay Area and greater Los Angeles, California.
OK, but where do I fill it up?
That's the biggest chicken-and-egg problem for any fuel-cell car. Hyundai says that today there are 35 public hydrogen filling stations in California, with plans for a total of 59 to be operational by 2020. And there are plans for more hydrogen networks in Hawaii and certain Northeast states. But for the most part, Hyundai has to wait for other companies to build hydrogen stations.
"We're a vehicle manufacturer and we're not an energy company, so we rely on energy companies … to invest in fueling infrastructure," says O'Brien.
Filling with hydrogen is quick and easy; I watch as a Hyundai staffer demonstrates doing so at a station in the Los Angeles area. You simply connect the pump hose to the car, swipe your payment card and wait. It's as simple and as brisk as topping up with unleaded, and fully filling the Nexo should take less than five minutes.
Prices for hydrogen currently range from about $10 to $16 per kilogram in California, Hyundai says. If gas rises to, say, $5.00 per gallon and hydrogen falls to about $10/kilogram, then Hyundai claims hydrogen would start to become more economical on a per-mile basis. Either way, Nexo customers needn't worry about the financials, as they receive a card that covers $5,000-worth of fuel -- enough to drive roughly 10,000 miles -- per year.
Promising idea, uncertain future
There's no denying that the 2019 Hyundai Nexo is a competent, technically impressive and well-made vehicle. If hydrogen stations were on every street corner in America, they would allow for refueling fuel-cell cars in a fraction of the time it takes to recharge an EV's battery. Unfortunately, hydrogen stations are beyond rare.
It's tough to recommend the average customer taking the plunge into adopting a fuel that is still very difficult to find. Moreover, automakers are launching impressive new electric cars with long driving ranges, which seem like a more ready-to-go option for emissions-free motoring given the expansive charging networks across the country. Still, there's something to be said for the cachet of driving a futuristic vehicle. Anyone who buys or leases a Nexo will surely enjoy knowing they're on the cutting edge of experimentation with new automotive energy sources.
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