The Sunday Times Driving Placeholder
The future, today. Sort of.
Pros
A very relaxing drive
Refuelling takes a few minutes
Hydrogen experience feels surprisingly "normal"
Cons
Only a handful of places to fill up
Very expensive...
...if you could actually buy one, as claimed

First Drive review: 2015 Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell

The car of the future, oddly similar to the car of today

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First Drive: Hyundai ix35 Fuel  cell

Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell, £53,105

I AM standing on a forecourt by Heathrow next to a Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell, and the man from Hyundai is cheerfully telling me about the levels of excitement this pioneering alternative-energy production car has failed to generate.


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Apparently, as he unflinchingly and even happily relates, it’s apt to fall a bit flat. This specially reappraised version of Hyundai’s middle-market SUV uses pumped-in helpings of hydrogen to power its electric motor, pointing the way towards sustainable personal transport in a post-oil world. It is, according to Hyundai, the first fuel-cell car to go on sale in Britain (though when we tried to buy one, we couldn’t — more of that later).

The reason that first-sighters and early adopters feel a bit let down, apparently, is that it doesn’t glow or hum or make a noise like Thunderbird 2 at lift-off. It doesn’t announce its futurism in any visible or audible way. Indeed, it looks and behaves like (there’s no other word for it, really) a car. A car of the kind that, to all intents and purposes, the world is already driving.

Disappointing, then. But disappointing in a good way. For perhaps this is the kind of disappointment that ultimately leads to confidence, a comforting sense of normality — the kind of disappointment that could be the difference between the Hyundai ix35 being the flagship for the gleamingly exemplary carbon-free transport of the 21st century and it becoming tomorrow’s Betamax.

We’re at Heathrow, by the way, not only so that I can learn a bit about Hyundai’s fuel-cell ambitions from someone who has been working on them, but also so that I can be offered the novelty of a personally guided refuel at a hydrogen filling station. This, too, will prove to be a positively disappointing experience. But we’ll come to that in due course. In the meantime let’s go back to the positive disappointment I experienced when the future turned up outside my house on the back of a truck.

Science was never a particularly strong area for me, but I understand enough to know that hydrogen has rarely hitherto been associated with the propulsion of cars and is more frequently associated with the explosion of bombs. So, I was naturally thinking: never mind whether or not the ix35 comes with a serviceable boot space; does it come with an underground shelter?

Hydrogen has rarely hitherto been associated with the propulsion of cars and is more frequently associated with the explosion of bombs

Nothing of the sort, as it turns out. Keyless entry; push-button start; away you go. No “hazmat” awareness course; no “special ops” training. And no exciting opportunity to wear a space helmet.

Still, with this adapted family workhorse in all its unfazing straightforwardness, Hyundai has beaten Toyota to the British fuel-cell market. Toyota’s Mirai, an all-new chisel-cut executive saloon, doesn’t arrive here until next year. Hurrah for Hyundai, then, although our man from the company stresses that fuel-cell technology, at this relatively larval point in the format’s evolution, is at least partly a collaborative process.

Toyota and Hyundai have got together to agree on “common messaging” rather than developing independent terms of reference and confusing everybody. At this stage of the journey, it’s in both their interests that the fuel-cell concept gains traction. They can start scrambling over each other to get at the customers later, when there actually are customers.

However, the rivalry does highlight two approaches to the tricky problem of beginning to embrace tomorrow’s fuel supplies. Are you better off devising a bespoke car from the ground up, or inserting the necessary plumbing into a model with which people are familiar?

Ix35

In the electric car market, the equivalent would be Nissan, with its purpose-built all-electric Leaf, and Mitsubishi, which simply got the decorators in on its already popular Outlander. Sales of the electric Mitsubishi significantly outstrip sales of the electric Nissan, perhaps indicating that people are more broadly comfortable with what they know.

Anyway, the ix35 that arrives at my house says “Fuel Cell” — literally, in stickered lettering down the sides — and it’s a rare item indeed. At the moment there are eight on the road, acquired by people with (according to Hyundai) “vested interests” in the project. Deliveries this month to low-emissions companies such as Transport for London will take the number of ix35s in Britain to 17.

Hyundai stresses that the car is available to members of the public but when we tried to order one we were told the vehicle was still “in the testing phase” and Hyundai was “not contemplating putting it into production”

Hyundai stresses that the car is available to members of the public, although it admits that buying one isn’t as simple as walking into a dealership. Buyers must contact Hyundai HQ in High Wycombe and order a car from South Korea. When we tried that, however, we were told the vehicle was still “in the testing phase” and Hyundai was “not contemplating putting it into production”. An unfortunate breakdown in communication, perhaps.

Mind you, this has not stopped Hyundai thinking about things such as colour schemes. At first the car came in white only. Now Hyundai is in a position to offer red or blue as well. Although as it appears that you can’t buy one anyway, you can imagine it in any colour you like.

I took my white one into the countryside west of London and drifted about in electric silence. There’s plenty of acceleration and the car is entirely comfortable at 70mph on a motorway, holding its own with the herd. It doesn’t feel unduly heavy and the steering is light to the point of nondescript.

As with a hybrid, you know the story is going to be about fuel economy and emissions, but you wonder whether the car could be better sold on its driving experience — its relaxing, shoulder-lowering, spa-style waft. It’s frictionless and the opposite of visceral. But weren’t the first dreams of transport magically effortless? Maybe fuel-cell motoring harks right back to the flying carpet in that sense.

The car’s capacity — the meter was indicating 270 miles’ worth of power when I climbed in — seems to overcome the range anxiety attached to smaller all-electric vehicles, and is roughly on a par with that of the Tesla Model S.

Nevertheless the fact remains that, at the moment, hydrogen filling stations are harder to locate than electric charging points (see here) — indeed, they are almost as difficult to find in the UK as unicorn shops. Had the Heathrow facility been closed for repairs, my next option along the M4 would have been Swindon, more than 60 miles away. Nothing against Swindon, but I don’t think I would have been too happy.

Even now, though, there are nearly as many hydrogen filling stations in the UK as there are operational fuel-cell cars, and the infrastructure will grow. The figure being talked about is 65 stations by 2020. It may also be worth reflecting, in this context, that the first combustion-engine cars didn’t emerge into a world studded with BP mini-marts. For quite a while, in the nascent days of motoring, your best chance of laying your hands on petrol was to find the right chemist.

Hydrogen filling stations are almost as difficult to find in the UK as unicorn shops

So quibbles about infrastructure can mostly be filed under “Objections it is unhelpful to have at this stage” — along with quibbles about price. For a car such as the ix35, which can be had for less than £19,000 in conventional form, an EU-subsidised price of about £53,000 looks madly expensive. But, again, that price is mainly a reflection of where we are. If people buy in, it comes down.

After blamelessly tootling about in the countryside, I headed back to Heathrow for a hydrogen top-up. The station was an eerie, unmanned facility by a hotel car park. Racks of bright red cylinders sat in a metal-walled compound. There was a chain-link fence at the entrance, although that’s about to go, and lights and a canopy are promised.

In the planned future your car will carry some kind of ID tag. You’ll scan yourself in, fill yourself up and be billed remotely. What you’ll do about picking up a Lion bar, two litres of milk and a discounted Best of Robbie Williams CD is as yet unclear, but no doubt these facilities can be brought on stream at some point, if public demand insists (as surely it will).

There’s no fuss, though, and certainly no cables and plugs; just a pump-style stand, a nozzle and a rumbling compressor. Open the flap, lock on the nozzle, fill the car — nothing more alienating than that.

Technically, what went into my ix35 at a pressure of 700 bar, leaving little flecks of ice around the nozzle, was “brown” hydrogen, manufactured and delivered with its own CO2 footprint and costing about £11 a kilo. (The car will hold about 6kg in total.) But there’s green hydrogen, produced with renewable energy, somewhere down the line, and talk of a £7-a-kilo price, which would make the car roughly comparable, in terms of pence per mile, with a diesel.

And then I drove home, feeling that I had seen the future, and that it looked extraordinarily like the present. Disappointed? Hardly. Rather reassured.

2015 Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell specifications
  • Price: £53,105 (with HyFive EU grant)
  • Battery: 24kWh lithium polymer
  • Fuel cell: 100kW with two hydrogen storage tanks
  • Power: 134 bhp
  • Torque: 221 lb ft
  • Transmission: Single speed, front-wheel drive
  • Performance: 0-62mph in 12.5sec
  • Top speed: 100mph
  • Range: 369 miles (when hydrogen is stored at 700 bar)
  • Road tax band: A (free)
  • Release date: On sale now

 

Read more: The future of hydrogen filling stations in Britain

 


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