The Hyundai Tucson Fuel-Cell Vehicle seemed awfully familiar when it rolled through the WardsAuto parking deck in early October for 2016 Wards 10 Best Engines evaluation.
That’s because it was the identical vehicle that so impressed us last year that we put it on the 2015 list. By all accounts, it’s the first time in 22 years of testing that the same vehicle arrived two years in a row. The only difference was a new license plate and updated promotional decals on the doors.
The telltale was the odometer, which reflected the CUV had been driven about 1,800 miles (2,897 km) after we returned it last October.
Hyundai keeps this Tucson FCV at its North American technical center in Superior Township northwest of Detroit, driven primarily by test engineers.
The South Korean automaker is doing its darndest to kickstart the market for hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles, and ground zero is the state of California, where the Air Resources Board is pushing heavily for zero-emission tailpipes. The Tucson FCV emits nothing but water.
Despite regulatory motivation, the market remains minuscule, barely worth tracking.
Last year, when Hyundai began leasing the Tucson FCV in California for three years for $499 a month and $2,999 down, the automaker found a mere 60 customers who lived close enough to a handful of hydrogen-fueling stations near Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Today, the customer pool has grown incrementally to 82 (plus 10 north of the border in Vancouver), and those numbers should hold steady through 2016, says Hyundai spokesman Derek Joyce.
The limited infrastructure is holding back broader acceptance of fuel-cell vehicles. Joyce says there are lots of people in California who want the Tucson FCV, partly because fuel and maintenance are everyone’s favorite price – free.
But the 82 customers were picked after a fair amount of vetting. Hyundai reviewed each customer’s driving patterns – where they live, work and play – to make sure the limited infrastructure would meet their needs.
Nine Stations Now, More Coming
Hyundai says there are nine hydrogen refueling stations in California, and the state’s Fuel Cell Partnership website shows another 50 in the permitting process or approved for construction. Many of those are behind schedule and should have been up and running by now.
Hyundai executives say the number planned is much higher – more than 100 – and that the automaker’s hydrogen pump in Chino, east of L.A., will be open to the public. A station is expected to open in Washington D.C. in the next few months.
There’s no time to waste. Every day that passes without enough stations is a lost opportunity to lure consumers.
Hyundai must be bleeding money in the cause for zero-emission vehicles, which is admirable from an environmental standpoint, but the bean counters will only take so much.
John Juriga, powertrain director for Hyundai-Kia America, says the automaker is in it for the long haul, claiming there is no sunset provision or time limit to the FCV project, which also has vehicles being driven by consumers in South Korea, Germany and some Scandinavian countries.
Another Hyundai executive tells us the construction of additional hydrogen stations often is delayed by local government officials wanting more than just a shiny new refueling depot.
They also see an opportunity for new sidewalks, roadways, greenbelts and other community enhancements. Oh, the curse of bureaucratic red tape.
It takes about two months to build a hydrogen refueling station but about two years to get through the permitting process, Hyundai engineers say.
Our refueling experience with the Tucson FCV, like last year, did not go smoothly. The vehicle needed to be hauled 35 miles (56 km) by flat-bed truck from our offices in Southfield, MI, to the Hyundai-Kia tech center in Superior Township.
But there was a fresh complication this year: After refueling at the tech center, the meter on the pump said the tank had been filled. However, after the vehicle was shipped back to Southfield, the fuel gauge indicated the tank had not, because of an issue with the pump’s metering system. It went back to Superior Township again. This happened twice during the loan.
Remarkable Technology, Unremarkable to Drive
The California experiment has been troubled as well, with reports this past summer of pumps in Orange County not working or dispensing hydrogen so slowly that long lines have formed. Some pumps struggle to reach the appropriate pressure for dispensing fuel. Filling the Tucson’s tanks requires hydrogen be dispensed at 10,000 psi (700 bar).
With such extreme hurdles in the way of refueling and some Californians considering giving back their FCVs, the WardsAuto editors will have much to contemplate as we decide whether the Tucson is worthy of a repeat. To be fair, Hyundai features the stories of eight owners who are thrilled with the hydrogen-powered CUV.
Perhaps this infrastructure quandary is why Toyota is not making its new Mirai FCV available to us in Detroit for 10 Best Engines testing this year.
Refueling aside, the Tucson FCV remains among the best electric vehicles to drive. Even with the accelerator pedal mashed, this 5-passenger CUV is quieter than a hair dryer, and an on-board fuel source softens much of the range anxiety that occurs when the heat or air conditioning is turned on and depletes the charge of a standard battery-electric vehicle.
Our newest judge, Associate Editor Bob Gritzinger, gives the Tucson FCV solid marks on his scoresheet, calling it “great off the line” and quiet, with plenty of low-end torque. He says the electric drivetrain is “ample for anyone used to a basic 4-cyl. gasoline engine.”
But Gritzinger also finds some demerits, saying the Tucson FCV needs some fine-tuning and is slow to produce additional power above 40 mph (64 km/h).
Part of this CUV’s appeal is its unremarkable behavior on the road while relying on remarkable technology – using hydrogen to create a chemical reaction that generates electricity and turns the wheels.