2019 Hyundai Nexo: first drive of 380-mile fuel-cell crossover utility

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Pretty much any story on a new vehicle these days notes that new-car buyers are snapping up utility vehicles, while traditional sedans languish on sales lots.

That puts Hyundai right on trend with its latest hydrogen-powered entry, the Nexo, which it dubs a crossover utility vehicle. It succeeds the earlier Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell, also a crossover, of which roughly 200 were leased in Southern California over three years.

The Nexo gives Hyundai a pair of distinctions: It’s the only hydrogen-powered utility on the market, and its EPA-rated range comes in at 380 miles combined from the 6.3 kg of compressed hydrogen it carries in three tanks. That’s higher than the 366 miles of the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell, the previous range champ among hydrogen vehicles, as well as the 312 miles of the Toyota Mirai.

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It’s also higher, Hyundai noted, than the 335-mile rating of the longest-range battery electric vehicle, the Tesla Model S 100D.

Not a ‘science experiment’

The 2019 Hyundai Nexo has the upright lines and cargo hatch of a utility, though it lacks the ground clearance and all-wheel-drive option many buyers will expect. In size, it’s a compact crossover roughly the size of the old Tuscon, but its smooth lines and broad-shouldered presence make it look larger and more substantial than the gasoline counterpart.

Hyundai’s designers have done a good job in giving the Nexo a “normal” appearance. At the launch event and drive held last week in Los Angeles, executives repeated the company’s belief that its fuel-cell vehicles should not look like a “science experiment.”

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Only the front end indicates that the Nexo may be powered by something other than a gasoline engine. Its diagonal pattern of cross-hatching pierces the otherwise smooth and rounded nose. And the body overall lacks the exaggerated wheel arches, vents, inlets, and off-road allusions now found in many otherwise conventional suburban utilities.

Inside, the cabin of even the base Nexo Blue can come with light-colored fabrics (some made of recycled materials) with subtly contrasting accents and a seat perforation pattern unlike any other car’s.

A center 12.3-inch touchscreen floats above the horizontal dash, within the same horizontal housing as the digital instrument display behind the steering wheel—a very similar setup to that being rolled out by Mercedes-Benz on its latest models.

READ MORE: Audi teams up with Hyundai to build fuel-cell vehicles

Virtually all controls sit in a grid of silver buttons on a wide, rectilinear, almost horizontal console that contrasts oddly with the gentle curves of the rest of the interior.

Seats are comfortable and supportive, and there’s enough head- and legroom in the back for 6-foot riders to sit behind each other.

Next-generation hydrogen fuel cell

Hyundai has researched fuel-cell powertrains since 1998, and put its first hydrogen-powered prototype on the road back in 2000. Following the Tucson Fuel Cell, the Nexo’s second-generation powertrain is more compact, more powerful, more efficient, operates across a much wider temperature range, and will likely last longer.

Specifically, the Nexo’s fuel-cell stack operates at up to 60 percent efficiency, meaning that proportion of the energy contained in its hydrogen fuel is converted to electricity. The Tucson’s maximum was 55 percent. Cold starts are possible from as low as -22 degrees C (- 8 deg F).


 
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