First, the principle behind hydrogen. A hydrogen-powered car is basically an electric car that generates its own electricity. So hydrogen is not burned, as a petrol- or diesel-powered car does. Hydrogen is passed through a "fuel cell", which converts it into electricity and water. The water is the only emission, the electricity drives the electric motor.
The big advantage of a hydrogen-powered car is that its range is as great as that of an internal combustion engine car. The Nexo can travel over 650 km on a full tank of hydrogen, and such a distance is difficult to achieve with a battery-powered electric car. Moreover, a hydrogen-powered car can be refuelled in minutes, while charging batteries takes many hours.
Hydrogen also has drawbacks. If it is not generated in a sustainable way, the car may be clean but the source certainly is not. Fuel stations have to invest a lot to offer hydrogen, as this gas has to be delivered at low temperature (-30 degrees) and high pressure. Converting energy into hydrogen, transporting and storing it and then converting it back into electricity in the car is, on balance, less efficient than a battery electric car that takes a much more direct route. Finally, the tanks and fuel cell require a lot of space. That's why Hyundai is introducing this technology in a large SUV; it simply won't fit in a mid-size Hyundai i30, let alone a compact i10.
The SUV of the future
Hydrogen technology not only requires a lot of space, because few fuel-cell cars are sold, prices are currently high. To justify the hefty price, Hyundai presents the Nexo as "the SUV of the future". This is evident from its unusual looks, but also from the interior design. Inside, light colours and soft materials have been used, much of which is biodegradable. The interior space can be called generous, as four adults sit just fine. The unusual technology certainly does not come at the expense of interior space, as the boot too is substantial (but does not have a "double bottom").
Between the two front seats is a large, shiny panel with so many buttons it wouldn't look out of place in a spaceship. The test driver really had to take some time to study all the buttons, as the Nexo offers much more new technology than just the fuel cell. Hyundai also introduces all new comfort and safety technologies on the Nexo. The Nexo can park and exit itself without the driver being in the car. Besides the usual blind spot detection, when the indicator is switched on, the image of the blind spot appears on the display behind the steering wheel. Thanks to a wide-angle lens, this is much wider than what the driver sees by looking over the shoulder, making it a real asset.
The Nexo is basically equipped with all the technology needed for fully autonomous driving ("level 4"). The driver indicates the destination and then the computer takes over the driving completely. In the development phase, the car covered a 190-km route from Seoul to Pyeongchang fully automatically. However, legislators do not yet allow fully autonomous driving cars, so for now the Nexo is limited to assisting the driver.
Thanks to the high seat, large space between the front seats and the view of the huge bonnet, the Nexo feels big. At the same time, this electric SUV moves with such ease that the bodywork seems weightless. Those conflicting feelings make driving the Nexo very special. Besides: even the most powerful petrol or diesel engines have to rev to build up power to accelerate, but the Nexo drives with such ease that such cars are instantly obsolete. On the motorway, only sounds from the tyres are audible. Noises from the driving wind and driveline are absent.
When it comes to performance, a car with a fuel cell has a disadvantage over a battery electric car. It is difficult for the fuel cell to work "more" or "less". That is why the Nexo is fitted with a battery that can deliver an extra 40 kW for a short time. This is noticeable to some extent, because when the accelerator is fully depressed, a certain resistance has to be overcome to really push the Nexo to perform. Never is the Nexo really fast, but the performance is more than enough for smooth entry or safe passing.
Like electric cars and hybrid cars, the Nexo converts energy released when braking into electricity. Levers behind the steering wheel can be used to choose how strongly the car decelerates when the accelerator is released. However, even at maximum regeneration, the effect is slight (the Hyundai Kona Electric decelerates much more emphatically at maximum energy recovery). The test drive took place in Norway, where maximum speeds are low. This is partly why Hyundai's promised average consumption of 0.9 kg of hydrogen per 100 km was achieved in practice. It is then possible to cover 650 km on a full tank of hydrogen (total 157 litres). A nice detail:the on-board computer indicates how much air has been purified (the fuel cell requires clean air and therefore filters it) and how much co2 has been saved compared to a drive in a conventional SUV.
The Nexo is not only superior when it comes to powertrain, its handling is also much better than that of a traditional SUV. Hyundai does not opt for comfortable or sporty, but for "effortless". Just as the powertrain performs effortlessly, the Nexo lets itself be steered through curves as if the laws of nature didn't exist for a while. This is not to say that the Nexo challenges you to drive fast, but rather that its handling also contributes to the feeling that this is the SUV of the future.
Is hydrogen the energy source of the future? That is hard to say. It depends on whether companies (filling stations) want to invest in the necessary infrastructure, what driving on hydrogen costs and whether the government provides tax incentives. Under the right conditions, hydrogen could take over the role of diesel and become the energy source of intensive users for whom batteries don't suffice. It is important how hydrogen is generated, because if it is not environmentally friendly, then one problem will be replaced by another. It also depends on the development of the technology, as the fuel cell and tanks are now so large and expensive that the technology only lends itself to large vehicles.
This test is therefore limited to the product, and it is virtuous. The Hyundai Nexo convinces in every way as the SUV of the future. The Nexo looks great and offers plenty of space. The equipment (comfort and safety) is downright innovative and really takes a leap forward for the Hyundai brand as a whole. In the end, the Nexo drives so much better than a conventional car that its green credentials are almost an afterthought. It's a hyrdrogen-ius!
- Exceptional handling
- No harmful emissions
- A leap forward in comfort and safety
- No four-wheel drive
- Inclined display behind steering wheel
- Uncertain future in terms of price and availability of hydrogen