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First drive: 2019 Hyundai NEXO

by Byron Hurd

Hyundai's new dedicated fuel cell EV is here. Why does that matter?

The automotive world is electrifying rapidly. Diesel is dead. Batteries are evolving by leaps and bounds. Charging stations are everywhere. Gasoline may still be king, but the tide is turning.

There's a catch, though. Hybrids--even ultra-efficient plug-in models--seem to have reached a saturation point. Outside of established nameplates (read: Toyota Prius), there's just not much demand. The real expansion of electrified powertrains is happening at the full-blown BEV (battery-electric vehicle) end of the spectrum.

So, what about hydrogen?

Hyundai has been in the fuel-cell game for two decades now. The 2019 Hyundai NEXO is the company's first shot at a dedicated FCV (previously, it had hydrogen-powered Tucson). Like the Honda Clarity FCV, the NEXO has been built on an all-new, dedicated green-car platform. Unlike the Honda, however, NEXO is not being offered with multiple powertrains. This is a hydrogen-powered vehicle, full-stop. Oh, and it's a crossover instead of an oddly proportioned sedan.

In many ways, it represents the worst of both worlds. FCVs are fundamentally electric cars, but unlike BEVs, they don't boast high-capacity battery packs capable of storing enough energy for dedicated electric driving. Yet, like a hybrid, they carry the burden of bulky powertrains dedicated to producing, storing and utilizing electricity.

Oh, and as an added bonus, FCVs run on hydrogen, which is expensive to produce, store and transport. Plus, the hydrogen filling station infrastructure is practically non-existent. Even in California, where the large metro areas have multiple filling stations, hydrogen is not at all convenient.

And then there's the process...

Hydrogen can be obtained via solar-powered electrolysis. The science behind that isn't really important. What matters is that we're talking about using expensive solar panels to produce electricity, then using that electricity to produce hydrogen, then using that hydrogen to produce electricity again (the fuel cell in action) and using that electricity to drive electric motors to produce propulsion.

If it sounds inefficient, that's because it is. Even Hyundai's fuel cell stack itself is only a little better than 60% efficient, and that's after we've already produced the hydrogen.

So, why bother?

Hydrogen isn't cheap, and it probably never truly will be. At some point, however, we're going to need renewable, zero-emission fuel sources. And until we reach a point where batteries can hold up to rapid charging (and the infrastructure is built to support it), we're going to need ways to address range. Think of a fuel cell as the ultimate range extender.

The experience

The beauty of a FCV is that while its powertrain may be complex, the experience of driving it is actually very straightforward. The NEXO comes in two trims: Blue and Limited. Blue models come with smaller wheels and offer 380 miles of range on a single fill-up. Limited models, which have bigger wheels, more weight and higher-rolling-resistance tires, offer 354.

This is where hyrdogen goes from being a worst-of-both-worlds to best-of-both-worlds experience. Driving the NEXO is just like driving any other EV. Maintaining it is simple too. There are a couple of filters which qualify as maintenance items, but the powertrain has very few moving parts. The battery is even warrantied to 100,000 miles for peace of mind.

What do we mean when we say it's like driving any other EV? Well, there's tons of torque, for starters. The NEXO's motor produces just 120kW (~160 horsepower) but nearly 300 lb-ft of torque, and that's available instantly. Then, after you've abused that torque repeatedly, the NEXO only requires a five-minute stop at a filling station to be back at full range. Simple. Well, assuming you can find the filling station.

Like most electrified cars, it has selectable drive modes with adjustable regenerative braking. The wheel-mounted paddles will adjust the regen level. There's no true one-pedal-driving mode, however, which is a noteworthy omission. Holding the left paddle will maximize regenerative response (which makes lifting off the throttle the same as hitting the brakes), but unlike other EVs and some hybrids, you can't simply leave it in that mode indefinitely.

It's quick. It's quiet. It's roomy. Hyundai was wise to make the NEXO a crossover. For a company that has lagged the competition in developing a modern lineup of people-movers, this is a refreshing change.

While the NEXO's crossover configuration may be refreshingly forward-thinking, its cabin layout is somewhat anachronistic. Hyundai says the center console was inspired by an airline cockpit, and we believe it. It's a huge panel of grey-painted plastic switches (including the "gear" selector), and looks like it would have been right at home in a luxury car circa 1990.

It's kind of cool in its own right, though. 1990s nostalgia is in, and baking it into a vehicle style modern buyers will appreciate seems like kind of a win-win.

Perspective

The 2019 Hyundai NEXO is a good car, but in the context of the current economy, it doesn't make a ton of sense. Pricing has not been announced yet, but NEXO will be expensive (as the Clarity is), and while both are eligible for subsidies that will bring prices down, those likely will not last forever.

So, don't think of NEXO as a car in the traditional sense. Think of it as a tech showcase--a testbed or proof of (a currently still somewhat lofty) concept. Hydrogen will play a role in the future of energy on earth. That's pretty much inescapable. How that will impact mobility will come down to where it's most efficient to produce that fuel--on the ground or in the vehicle. For now, the jury's still out.

Leftlane's bottom line

The 2019 Hyundai NEXO is very impressive in a vacuum. It's the future wrapped in a contemporary package, and we think that's promising.

2019 Hyundai NEXO FCEV Blue base price, $TBD

Photos courtesy of Hyundai.