Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles have been hyped as the ultimate alternative powertrain, at least by the manufacturers long invested in their development.
Hyundai, along with General Motors, Honda and Toyota, has been one of the most vocal and active proponents of the technology and this year brings out its latest attempt at a mass-market FCEV, the Nexo CUV.
Replacing Hyundai’s low-volume Tucson FCEV CUV, winner of a 2015 Wards 10 Best Engines award, the Nexo is well beyond the look, feel and sound of that model.
With a space-age outward appearance, the purpose-built Nexo wouldn’t be out of place in a driveway circa 2050.
Hyundai somewhat sacrificed efficiency for that style. Speaking at a recent media drive for the model in Hollywood, CA, the brand’s U.S. design chief Chris Chapman notes his team wasn’t forced to do the kind of “aero-effected” (i.e., strange contours and shapes) elements found on other FCEVs. This results in the Nexo getting a somewhat underwhelming drag coefficient (0.32) – well off the 0.24 achieved by the Toyota Prius hybrid and 0.29 Cd of the Toyota Mirai FCEV, but looking much cooler and less wacky than those two models.
“I think hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles can be distinctive without being weird,” says Chapman, who adds the Nexo’s floating C-pillar – a popular design flourish on many CUVs today – is responsible for “two full counts” in drag reduction.
Also lessening drag are underbody covers, air curtains at the wheels and D-pillars and fully hidden wipers.
In keeping with Hyundai’s other CUVs, daytime running lights are high and headlights are low.
Chapman calls the grille, with its rows of undulating triangular peaks, in keeping with the brand’s signature cascade grille design.
Soft-touch, low-gloss surfaces in soothing colors abound inside the vehicle.
Engraved horizontal lines decorate sections of hard trim on the door panels, as does a uniquely perforated speaker grille for the vehicle’s high-end Krell audio system.
Many of the interior materials have some natural elements, being described as “bio-based.” There is an interesting, oatmeal-colored “bamboo-thread fabric” edging the seats, which are said to be largely covered in “vegan-based leatherette”; sugar cane infuses the plastics and carpeting.
But the biggest story with the Nexo is under the hood, where Hyundai has advanced range sharply over that of the Tucson FCEV (FCEV is Hyundai’s preferred acronym for fuel cells, as the vehicles create electricity on board via a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen in the fuel-cell stack and store the electricity in a battery, compared with receiving electrons from an outlet that are stored in a battery as in plug-in vehicles).
The Nexo can go up to 380 miles (612 km) in its base Blue grade when its three tanks of hydrogen are filled. The high-end grade, the Limited, has a 354-mile (570-km) range due to bigger wheels and tires (19-in. vs. 17-in.) with more rolling resistance. Both figures vault the model well ahead of the 265-mile (426-km) range of the Tucson and put the Limited ahead of the Honda Clarity FCV, which has a 366-mile (589-km) range, and the 312-mile (502-km) range Mirai.
The Nexo is powered by a 95-kW fuel-cell stack and a 40-kW lithium-ion battery for total output of 135 kW. That’s up from the 124-kW total of the outgoing Tucson FCEV (100-kW stack, 24-kW Li-ion).
The motor also is more powerful, producing 291 lb.-ft./120 kW (395 Nm) of torque, compared with 221 lb.-ft./100 kW (300 Nm) with the Tucson FCEV’s motor. Hyundai claims a 3-second improvement in 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) time with the Nexo vs. the Tucson, at 9.5 seconds vs. 12.5 seconds.
We get behind the wheel of the Nexo in Hollywood and then a week later in suburban Detroit, the latter experience coming during testing for our 2018 10 Best Engines awards (which includes electrified vehicles).
Without the Tucson FCEV to test it against it’s difficult to say we feel the difference in total output, but one thing we notice – thanks to an in-vehicle display – is the Nexo’s ability to operate on battery power alone during stop-and-go city driving. Hyundai says eliminating the need to use the stack in these instances is one benefit of the upsized battery.
While not as peppy off the line as Hyundai’s other new alternative-powertrain model, the Kona battery-electric small CUV, the Nexo still has relatively strong acceleration for a large-ish crossover. At roughly 183.9 ins. (4,671 mm) long, the Nexo is dimensionally closest to the Hyundai Santa Fe midsize CUV, roughly 4 ins. (101.6 mm) shorter in total length. It is slightly heavier than the Santa Fe’s top grades.
The cargo floor in the Nexo is flat and of relatively normal height, thanks to clever packaging of the hydrogen storage tanks. Hyundai has gone to three tanks, each holding 13.8 gallons (52 L) of hydrogen gas, from the Tucson’s two tanks, one holding 9.8 gallons (37 L) and the other 27.2 gallons (103 L).
Rear seats are split 60/40 and fold flat, accommodating large boxes for shipping during one weekend with the vehicle.
The Nexo’s electric power steering is light, but we’ve experienced worse. It has decent feedback and a good on-center feel.
As the vehicle skews more toward luxury than the mass market, ride and handling is on the soft side and the Nexo exhibits some slight understeer in turns. Hyundai employs a MacPherson-strut suspension up front and a multilink rear suspension.
While we can’t seem to get comfortable in the driver’s seat during our time behind the wheel in California – the head restraint seems too poofy and forward, making us feel like a human question mark – in Michigan we are able to adjust controls just right to experience seating nirvana.
A minor quibble with the Nexo is the button-filled “bridge” center console. While physical switchgear is certainly more user-friendly than touchscreens, the collection of buttons looks dated. The reach to access seek buttons also is cumbersome. Given the slant of the bridge, we feel it necessary to keep our arm unnaturally lifted so as not to accidentally hit some other button.
That said, the car’s giant touchscreen, taken from the Genesis G90, has stellar graphics and fast response to inputs. For instance, a manual point-of-interest search takes in our keyboard selections and returns results for local grocery stores lightning-quick.
BMW-style, there also is a physical dial on the bridge to cycle through and select some functions of the infotainment system.
Thanks to gobs of sound-deadening material, the Nexo inside is vault-like quiet, free of the compressor and fan noises heard inside prior FCEVs. Noise is most prominent when turning off the CUV, when it exhausts water vapor that is a byproduct of the chemical reaction in the stack.
Hyundai has said the Nexo will be the basis for its Level 4 autonomous technology due in 2021. It’s not hard to imagine the vehicle operating autonomously given its current ability to parallel- or perpendicular-park itself, either with the driver inside or outside the vehicle. We experience this in a demo in California, then try it for ourselves while sitting inside the car in Michigan. Locally, the Nexo finds a parking spot at the grocery store, then backs itself in, pulling forward and back a few times before it is perfectly between the lines. The CUV also can autonomously pull out of a parking spot and come to you via holding down a button on the keyfob. Mind-blowing.
Hyundai has yet to release pricing for the Nexo, but in a change from its lease-only Tucson FCEV it has said the vehicle will be available for purchase or lease. The automaker also is expected to offer three free years of hydrogen, a good thing given a demo fill-up at a station in Woodland Hills, CA, showed a pump price of $17.49 per kg. With the tanks holding a total of 6.3 kg of hydrogen, a fill-up would cost $110.19.
In contrast, the ’19 Santa Fe costs $72.76 to refuel, given its 18.8-gallon (71-L) tank and the current average price of regular unleaded gas in Los Angeles of $3.87.
Still, we need multiple technologies for future vehicles and FCEVs seem to be a good solution to the relatively short ranges and long recharge times of current battery-electric vehicles.
However, with longer-range batteries and ultra-fast chargers on the horizon for BEVs, the need for FCEVs may be short-lived, at least outside the commercial truck and bus sector where batteries would be too heavy and costly to implement.
Thanks to Tesla’s dominance, BEVs already have a big lead on FCEVs, with Wards Intelligence data showing 113,912 BEVs sold through September of this year compared with a mere 1,813 BEVs.