Hyundai Nexo on the Kiwi commute: hydrogen is happening and here's a car to prove it
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- Next-generation tech but easy to drive
- Cleans the air as it goes (yes really)
- Loaded with luxury equipment
- You can't buy a Nexo in NZ
- You can't easily fill up a Nexo in NZ
- Extremely expensive judging by other markets
Hydrogen is either the future of automotive power or a two-decade-long waste of time and money, depending on who you ask. And that’s just among our row of desks at DRIVEN.
However, the fact that Toyota, Honda and Hyundai – three companies proven to be pioneers in alternative powertrains – have all now developed hydrogen fuel-cell models for public lease/sale should tell us something, surely?
Not for sale/lease New Zealand right now, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment. But the Toyota Mirai, Honda Clarity and Hyundai Nexo are definitely out there. Collectively, they mean you can have a fuel-cell vehicle as your daily driver in certain parts of Japan, Europe, the US and Korea.
In theory, the Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) seems like automotive utopia. You fill it with hydrogen in a few minutes; the on-board fuel cell creates an electrochemical reaction between the fuel and oxygen, making electricity that drives the motor.
So an FCEV is really just a different kind of electric vehicle, except that you don’t need to wait around for it to charge, it has similar range to a petrol vehicle and the only waste product is water, which drips out the plastic “exhaust” pipe. That’s the cool sci-fi bit. That, and the fact that it cleans 99.9 per cent of fine dust from the air as it drives (because the fuel cell needs purified air to work properly).
As with electricity, the elephant in the room is how the hydrogen is made. It can be manufactured in a variety of ways, including with fossil fuel, but if the method is “green” such as electrolysis (which requires a lot of sustainable electricity and water, which we do have in NZ) then it’s an undeniably clean fuel.
The hydrogen is stored at very high pressure in tanks under the car. So we can get the Hindenburg jokes out of the way now, let’s just acknowledge that yes, it is flammable. Just like the massive tank of petrol in your current vehicle. However, the tanks in FCEVs are incredibly strong (how does triple-layer with carbon fibre sound?) and even if they did get punctured, the fuel would dissipate because hydrogen is lighter than air.
The vehicle you see parked here in the Kiwi sunshine is the Hyundai Nexo. You might remember from the start of this story that you can’t actually buy one in NZ, but Hyundai has three demonstration examples.
This is not the first time we’ve driven Nexo on local roads – but it is our first chance to spend a week with it on our own terms.
It’s like an EV to drive, because that’s what it is. It’s a bespoke model on a standalone platform, but Hyundai has made Nexo feel utterly mainstream: it doesn’t even leap off the line like a Kona Electric, instead meting out its performance in a measured way. There’s a mild hybrid system on board with a 1.56kWh battery to smooth performance out even further.
Hyundai has gone to great lengths to make Nexo a luxury SUV first, high-tech eco-car second. It looks swish without being overtly weird, it rides on 19-inch wheels and it’s loaded with luxury equipment.
You could even argue the company has gone too far towards making the car feel conventional: the cabin is nicely finished but crammed with physical buttons. Not very 2020 at all.
The chassis is tailored very much towards comfort, with a compliant ride and a fair bit of body roll during brisk cornering. But it’s consistent and has the feel of a nicely executed package.
There are still two massive problems with a car like Nexo in NZ. The first is that there’s nowhere to fill it up right now. The second is that like all new technology, the car itself is extremely expensive.
HNZ has its own hydrogen supply, but without a way for the public to access the same fuel this car doesn’t have much potential as a consumer product.
A proper hydrogen filling station network could take years to develop – decades even. But if it’s going to start anywhere in a small country like NZ, it’ll likely be with heavy transport, which works really well with hydrogen.
NZ company Hiringa Energy has already signed a deal with US-based Hyzon Motors to get FCEV trucks on Kiwi roads from next year, building to a fleet of 1500 by 2026. An initial fuelling infrastructure will be operational next year. Not for public use… but it’s an important step.
What could Nexo cost to fill? Well, how long is a piece of string? Yes, you can buy hydrogen by the kg right now, but that price doesn’t take into account a future fuelling infrastructure. So it doesn’t mean much.
A 2019 report from Concept Consulting Group quotes a future mass-produced green hydrogen price of $8.81 per kg in NZ (but without consideration for automotive use). That means a Nexo would require about $55 worth of hydrogen to travel 666km on full tanks (6.8kg). Even taking into account fuelling infrastructure and applicable taxes, the aim would surely be for a hydrogen car to remain cheaper to run than a petrol one (at $2 per litre, a typical petrol car with a 60-litre tank costs $120 to fill).
But what about the cost of the car? Again, irrelevant for NZ right now. But in the UK a Nexo costs about 50 per cent more than a Kona Electric. A price of $120,000-$150,000 wouldn’t be out of the question in the current market.
But as with BEVs, when the infrastructure starts to appear and demand starts to rise, prices will start to come down.
Hyundai has just announced a tie-up with petrochemical giant Ineos to further develop the hydrogen economy, which may include the Nexo fuel-cell system being adapted for use in the forthcoming Ineos Grenadier SUV. So yes, there’s plenty of hydrogen stuff happening.
Bad news for the DRIVEN editorial team: in general, arguments about hybrids versus EVs versus FCEVs are redundant. The future is uncertain and so we all seem to feel the need to argue about which will “win”. In reality, there’s no such contest happening. They’ll all be part of the picture for decades to come.
ENGINE: Permanent Magnet Synchronous Motor (PMSM) with hydrogen fuel cell system
GEARBOX: Single-speed automatic, FWD
ECONOMY: 0.84kg H2/100km, range 666km (WLTP