Automakers have been experimenting with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for many years now and I’ve driven a number of them but usually these drives have been brief and always with a member of the engineering team beside me in the passenger seat.
All credit to Hyundai then, for letting me keep its wonderful new Tucson hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) for a full week to drive wherever I wanted. It shows very clearly how much confidence the company has in its vehicles - even when they are basically pre-production models. This Hyundai Tucson is one of the very first FCEVs to reach commercial production and they’ll be leased for 3-years in very limited numbers and only in the Vancouver area.
I’ll start this test report with a brief primer on what a fuel cell electric vehicle actually is. It must be underlined that whatever fuel an FCEV uses, its job is to create electric energy to power the vehicle’s motor or motors. So in fact, all FCEVs use electric motor drive systems. The difference is that you don’t plug them in to recharge batteries. You top up the fuel (in this case hydrogen) that feeds the cells. All that comes out of the tailpipe is water and heat, so FCEVs are zero emission vehicles.
Fuel cells produce electricity using a chemical process that consumes the hydrogen fuel. Fuel cells can be designed to accept all kinds of fuels besides hydrogen, but it’s this gas that has been most widely applied to vehicles. Fuel cells have been used in a wide variety of applications besides automobiles, including spacecraft, buses, forklift trucks and even submarines. Large ones can even be used to help power small communities. Of course, there is a penalty in that hydrogen is not “free” but must be manufactured, though if this is done using renewable energy the environmental burden is light.
My test Hyundai Tucson was much like any other well-equipped compact SUV/crossover, finished and trimmed to the company’s usual high standards. It’s driven much like any other vehicle - you turn it on, shift into drive and press the “gas” pedal to unleash the 134-horsepower. Since it uses electric power, the torque is impressive and of course, the vehicle is all but noiseless. With electric motors, you get all the power immediately so the Tucson is very brisk off the mark - brisk enough to lose traction if it’s wet, so a gentle right foot is needed. Like other electric vehicles, there’s a feeling of refinement and smoothness and a compact crossover has the ambiance of a more luxurious and expensive SUV. On the road, much of the noise comes from the wind and the tires, but good cabin soundproofing takes care of most of that. At 120 k/h, the Tucson was a joy to drive and it was perfectly happy around city traffic too.
One of the great assets of FCEV design is range, something that’s usually a worry with rechargeable electric vehicles. The Tucson FCEV has a range of 426-km and takes less than five minutes to refuel. This range is roughly the same as that of a gasoline powered Tucson. According to Hyundai, cold weather has only a minimal effect on performance with this vehicle. So the Tucson FCEV does not create the “range anxiety” that’s a problem with most battery electric vehicles. I topped up my Tucson FCEV with hydrogen at Powertech Labs in Surrey and there are other services around the Lower Mainland and also in Whistler. There’s no doubt that the hydrogen infrastructure is quite small right now in the region, but this is bound to change as more FCEVs become available. Several major automakers are readying production FCEVs and this is certain to prompt the establishment of more hydrogen stations.
Naturally enough, the technology associated with fuel cell vehicles is complex, though it’s well proven now and regarded as highly reliable. The hydrogen is carried in a large tank in the rear of the vehicle and this does rob the cargo area of space, but not very much. Open the Tucson’s rear hatch and there’s plenty of cargo room, especially when the rear seats are folded down. The load floor is lengthy and flat, despite the bulky (and exceptionally safe) hydrogen tank.
Hyundai is showing great leadership in this exciting technology and hopefully, interest will be such that production is increased and more people have the opportunity to own one of these impressive Tucsons. The lease figure of $529 per month may seem high, but it includes all maintenance and unlimited refueling. The original lease payment was $599, but this was reduced thanks to the BC government’s new Clean Energy Vehicle Program. The $3,600 down payment original required for a Tucson FCEV lease has been eliminated by the same program. Lease customers get the same service treatment as owners of Hyundai’s top-of-the-line Equus sedan and this includes dealer pickup and a hybrid loaner. When it’s been serviced, the Tucson is returned to the customer’s home or office.
SPECS AT A GLANCE…
BODY STYLE: 4-door compact SUV/crossover
ENGINE: 100 kW electric motor powered by fuel cell
TRANSMISSION: Gear differential unit
FUEL ECONOMY: 27.8-litres/100 km combined (hydrogen)
PRICE: $529/month lease arrangement