Aside from talk surrounding autonomous everything, how the Toyota Supra/BMW Z4 twins are an abomination (they aren’t, but that hasn’t stopped the interwebz from going medieval) and the Jaguar I-Pace being the best thing since sliced bread, most of what we hear about when attending auto shows is the future of alternatively-powered vehicles.
Internal combustion engines are out, they say, only whoever “they” are all too often can’t agree on what’s going to replace them; EVs take too long to charge, PHEVs are either misunderstood or “not quite EV enough” and traditional hybrids (think Toyota Prius) have run their course. Of course, at this juncture, there is no right or wrong answer, but regardless of that, Hyundai wants everyone to put all that aside and think about this instead: hydrogen, personified here by their all-new NEXO hydrogen-powered SUV. It’s a second-generation car (after 2015’s Tucson FCEV) and the only FCEV currently available in Canada to the public.
“If you think about it, (hydrogen power) just makes sense,” said Don Romano, President and CEO of Hyundai Canada. “You’re talking almost 600 km of range. There’s no electric vehicle that gets that kind of range. (and) when you electrify the world (for EV cars), it requires a whole different infrastructure. With hydrogen, there’s no infrastructure; you produce it, you store it, and you deliver it, just like gasoline.”
“Instead of having a gas plant, you have a hydrogen plant which requires just two things: hydrogen and water.”
Storing and transporting hydrogen on a grand scale is one thing, but when it comes to a small-scale operation (like a family car or SUV), there’s a little more to it; it has to be able to fit in a much smaller package, and do so safely. After all: what’s the point of having all this great emissions-free driving if you can’t fit anything in your car, because it’s all taken up by hydrogen tanks? If they are going to be viable highway transport, they have to sort the packaging issue out first and foremost.
Well, with the NEXO, they’ve found a way – there’s a single tank mounted behind the rear axle, and two ahead of it, below the rear seats. This way, not nearly as much room is taken up in the passenger area, which has a larger capacity than does the current Tucson. That’s no small feat, and even though they don’t take up so much space, the tanks have enough capacity to provide 570 km of range and can be filled in less than five minutes. That’s assuming, of course, you have a place to fill it; right now, there are only two of these in Canada – one at a Shell station in Vancouver, BC and one in Quebec City, QC – but with the NEXO as well as soon-to-arrive-in-Canada Toyota Mirai and Honda Clarity Fuel Cell, it seems manufacturers are betting – or, more likely, that they know — that more are on the way.
Either way; unlike the Tucson before it, which was only available as a lease if you passed a driving/mileage stress test, the NEXO is available to anyone able to plump for the $72,999 required to get it in Canada. The arrival of accessible filler stations helps, as does the range.
Looking at the NEXO, there’s little question that it’s something special. The ultra-narrow headlights, clear taillamp lenses and futuristic wheels look more akin to something you’d see on a concept car at the Geneva Motor Show, but they are all production baby, as is the egg-crate grille and Jaguar-esque hidden exterior door pulls. Vancouver-based MODO car sharing service has ordered two of these and aside from the obvious environmental advantages, you know that the futuristic look have MODO’s marketers tickled pink.
Inside, the futuristic angle is handled by the twin digital displays that act as the dashboard and the button-select transmission (not to mention the bluey seat upholstery and door cards), while the sheer amount of buttons on the high-mounted centre console/centre stack should satisfy the traditionalist in any buyer. It reminds a little of the previous-gen Porsche Cayenne, which is weird because when they redesigned the Cayenne for this year, a big goal was to actually reduce the number of buttons on the centre console. Nevertheless, this is how it is in the NEXO and while I’m not a huge fan of button-select transmissions (here or in any other car that employs the tech), I don’t mind being able to change my interior temp without having to navigate through menus.
Indeed, I’m much more content to have my menus showcasing the stuff that’s important to me in a car like this: power flow and expected range, which the NEXO has either in the gauge cluster ahead of you, or the main display to the driver’s right. Also in the gauge cluster? A blind spot cam that covers both the left and right sides; simply activate your turn indicator and it flashes on. I’ve experienced backup cams placed here before, but while that makes sense on paper, in practice the wheel spokes tend to block your view. When you’re just changing lanes, however, you don’t have to turn the wheel so much, reducing the issue.
One thing the electronic transmission means, though, is that there are no gear linkages present, allowing for storage space below the centre console, and quite a lot of it. Along with the cleverly-packaged hydrogen tanks, storage is good. I’m less enamoured with the cupholders, though; there’s one near the driver’s elbow – that’s fine, I guess – but the front passenger has to make do with a chintzy, retractable number that doesn’t look all that stable and gets in the way of your knee. You know what other car had this? The last Porsche 911. You know what the new, 992-gen car doesn’t have? This.
That’s about it when it comes to interior issues, however; otherwise, this is a nice, roomy SUV that somehow feels a whole lot bigger inside than it looks, and I know that’s what I look for in an SUV.
Power from the permanent magnet motor is rated at 160 hp and 291 lb-ft of torque, channeled to the front wheels via a single speed reduction-gear auto. What that means in a less science-y way is that power is available almost as soon as you drop the hammer, though you can meter this out by switching between normal and eco drive modes. Of course, it all happens in almost complete silence, with just the whisper of the wind as it shoots over the NEXO’s slippery shape and a light thrum from the tires and 19” wheels below.
Another way to adjust the drive is through brake regeneration paddles mounted to the wheel; right increases brake regen to three levels, while the left-hand side paddle reverses that. Indeed, when in full regen mode you can really feel those brakes being applied – best leave it for when in heavy traffic. Unlike the Honda Clarity and Insight, the regen level doesn’t reset when you come to a full stop, which I think I like. I’d have to spend a little more time behind the wheel to be sure, but I remember wishing this to be the case when I tested the Hondas.
While I only spent about an hour in the vehicle (and didn’t get the chance to do a fill-up), my time showed me once again how hydrogen could be a very viable solution on the ever-changing alternative-fuel landscape. I like that hydrogen is plentiful, I like that all that’s coming out of my tailpipe is water vapour and I like how the NEXO drives. The pricing will surely be a challenge for many, but the NEXO is a halo car for now. Some day, though, similar tech could very well filter down to an even more mass-market level. It happened first with hybrids, then EVs. It could happen here, too.