Wherever you are in the world right now, if you want a fuel cell vehicle, your options are limited. The Toyota Mirai is notionally available in quantities that belie its bespoke, hand built nature. The Honda Clarity FCX — Honda’s limited-production test vehicle leased in small numbers and soon to be replaced by Honda’s first production fuel cell sedan — is entirely unavailable.
Live in just the right place in Southern California, near to central London, or in a number of other very specific places around the world, and there is one option: the Hyundai ix 35 Fuel Cell Sedan — known in the U.S. as the Hyundai Tucson FCV — and a car which Hyundai is keen to point out was both first to market and based on its own, well developed, technology.
Given the fact that the South Korean automaker is only just celebrating its first decade in the UK, it may feel like Hyundai have been working on fuel cells for a startlingly long time. You’d be right. Longer, it turns out, than the firm has been selling cars in the UK. But then Hyundai as a car builder has actually been around since the 1960s, something that’s easy to forget from a Euro (or US) centric point of view.
So Hyundai have been building cars a long time, researching fuel cells for ages, and not only that, have clearly placed almost all its metaphorical eggs in the hydrogen fuel cell basket to the detriment of investment in other fuel technologies.
In that case, the ix35 FCEV had better be pretty good.
Unlike a lot of zero emission vehicles, the interior of the ix35 Fuel Cell doesn’t scream alternative fuels, or even particularly high tech. The instruments are certainly likely to be comfortingly familiar to electric car drivers, with a power/charge gauge sat prominently next to the speedo. The main indication that it’s not a battery EV from the inside is the much less granular fuel gauge. Those self-same gauges are unlikely to phase those unfamiliar with electric vehicles though. The information provided is direct and simple. But whilst the dash feels fairly current, the ix35 FCEV is based on the 2009 update of the ix35, and given the significant improvements in vehicle design since then, the interior does feel slightly dated and a wee bit cramped.
Being a crossover SUV, one imagines an ocean of space internally, but despite external dimensions, much of that interior space seems lost to the engine bay and internal stylistic tweaks. That said, the particular ix35 FCEV we were driving for this review was participating in Hyundai’s “A Streetcar Named Hyundai” project – an attempt to map each and every street in central London covered by the famous ‘Knowledge’ Hackney Cab test — so was packed with an inordinate number of bonus cameras, and chargers, and cables. To which we added one of our own.
On reflection, perhaps the cabin would have felt a lot better without quite so much camera technology vying for attention inside.
Despite the interior sea of black plastic, the car itself drives very well. Well, at least, under 25 miles an hour. Being part of the streetcar project, the review vehicle was (not physically, but by request) limited to 25mph which somewhat restricts the extent of the review. But that said, given we were driving through central London — and the average speed in London is 8.98 mph — perhaps it’s the most accurate review we could have done.
At those speeds at least, there was very little noise from the fuel cell stack, a refreshing change to nosier fuel cell prototypes we’ve driven in the past from other automakers. The driving position is comfortable with an excellent view of the road. The turning circle was remarkable for its tightness, amply demonstrated by a number of streetcar project related trips down small dead-end side-roads, followed by three point turns. These urban pirouettes were achieved with no fuss. Again, perhaps mirroring the traditional London driving experience better than could be achieved on a nice test drive out in the countryside! The rear-view camera provided an excellent adjunct to the mirrors, and enabled a good view whilst reversing. And whilst the ix35 wasn’t exactly storming away from the lights (although we certainly didn’t push it that hard in the midday traffic), nipping across the oncoming traffic and out from junctions was comfortably achieved. With a 0-62 time of over 12 seconds, you’re not going to be winning the traffic light grand prix, but it didn’t feel particularly sluggish, the 100kW motor managing to pull the car pretty rapidly when necessary.
All in all, it was a very competent city car, at least based on the 25 mph maximum speed we were able to drive the car to.
At this point, at least in the UK, the Hyundai FCEV has to be a good city car, despite being a crossover SUV. Why? Because in the UK there are currently only 15 hydrogen filling stations. Including the one that opened yesterday. And many of those aren’t publicly accessible. So if you don’t happen to live in a town with a hydrogen filling station you are, essentially, out of luck. Which essentially leaves Hyundai Londoners. And talking to the crew of the Streetcar ix35? They’re not getting 369 miles out of a tank. The range guestimate on half a tank was 130 miles, so whilst they weren’t enormously forthcoming, 250 miles seems a reasonable estimate. And with a price tag in excess of £53,000 in the UK (after incentives), for a car you can’t currently drive out of the city, that seems pretty steep. If you want range anxiety, this is car that may well give it to you!
If you live in London, and don’t have somewhere to park your EV to charge? The FCEV may be a fair choice – light effective steering and a great driving position make for a pleasant car to drive in the city. Outside London, with the fueling situation as it is, prospects are less exciting. And this excludes the entire debate over the cleanliness of hydrogen production.
But with advances in battery technology, perhaps the real question is not whether the ix35’s fuel cell technology is a good choice, or indeed, whether it’s actually able to achieve its much debated ecological impact, but instead whether the infrastructure will be in place in time to be relevant. With battery EVs, many people could fill-up at home whilst the charging points gradually made their way across the country. Unfortunately for Hyundai, people can’t just plug-in at home to an already available hydrogen source whilst they wait for the filling stations to appear.
Moreover, with Elon Musk already talking about 650 mile+ electric vehicles, and 200+ mile battery EVs announced by mainstream automakers, the fuel cell’s promise of massively higher range than pure EVs seems further away than ever. The reported 369 mile range of ix35, which once seemed light years further than the first generation EVs, seems perilously close to achievable with only moderate improvements in battery technology, perhaps leaving the ix35 fuel cell (and other kin) dangerously close to becoming a niche product.
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