Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell

Hyundai leased its first Tucson Fuel Cell crossover last week, which the automaker claims makes it the first mass-produced fuel cell vehicle (FCV) that has been offered to the public (Honda may have something to say about that...). The vehicle, which consumes hydrogen and emits only clean water vapor from its exhaust pipe, will initially only be offered for lease in Los Angeles and Orange Counties – two regions with the greatest density of approved hydrogen stations in the country – at a monthly fee of $499. Since the Tucson FCV rolls down the same Ulsan, Korea, production line as its gasoline-powered relative, production is scalable based on customer demand.

We attended the festivities with the dignitaries and elected officials - clapping until our hands hurt. But once it was over, we grabbed a set of keys and took the new FCV for a half-hour jaunt. According to the press materials, written with a welcomed sense of humor, Hyundai will offer it in three colors: white, white and optional white. Our test model was the latter.

Driving Notes
  • The outside of the FCV is difficult to distinguish from the combustion version, until one gets close enough to see the "Hydrogen EV" cladding on the sides, the "Blue Drive" on the front doors or the "Fuel Cell" on the rear liftgate. The lack of exhaust pipe (one exists, but it is tucked out of view) is another giveaway. Subtle aero improvements have dropped the coefficient of drag from 0.37 to 0.35 (overall length, width and height are essentially identical between the models).
  • Hyundai has hidden two 10,000-psi Kevlar-wrapped tanks inside the Tucson Fuel Cell. The larger tank is just aft of the rear axle, with its dome raising the rear decklid floor by a couple inches (nearly imperceptible). The smaller tank is located just in front of the rear axle, beneath the passenger seats in the space normally occupied by a gasoline tank. The tanks are bulletproof – literally – having been tested for burst, drop, and gunfire resistance. If there is a leak, hydrogen sensors will alert occupants (there is a flush rectangular sensor on the roof of the cabin, just behind the driver's head near the dome light). If there is a fire, a pressure-release valve will vent the hydrogen in a controlled manner to prevent damage from overpressure.
  • In operation, a fuel cell vehicle acts and drives much like an electric vehicle. The Tucson Fuel Cell driver faces a familiar two-pod instrument cluster, with an analog charge/power dial on the left and an analog speedometer on the right. Set inside the power dial is a digital segment temperature gauge for the coolant. While electric vehicles typically don't have coolant, the FCV uses the liquid to cool its fuel stack and electronics. The digital segment fuel level gauge, set inside the speedometer, displays the balance of hydrogen in the tank. A digital multifunction display, between the two dials, offers trip computer information and instant MPGe readings.
  • The standard Tucson Limited FWD, with a 2.4-liter combustion engine, tips the scales at 3,294 pounds. Brace yourself, as the Tucson Fuel Cell is a whopping 807 pounds heavier. Hyundai engineers note swapping the gasoline engine for a fuel stack under the front hood is virtually a wash, and the two Kevlar-wrapped fuel tanks don't add much weight. The bulk of the added mass comes from the 24-kW lithium polymer battery pack. Normally, packing on that much weight has negative effects on driving dynamics - but not this time. The low-slung and compact weight (all situated below the passenger cabin) acts like a ballast inertia damper, countering the bouncing and jarring effects of driving down the road. Unlike its combustion-powered sibling, which can follow undulations in the pavement, the Tucson Fuel Cell glides like a silent electric limousine.
  • Compared to its combustion sibling, the Tucson Fuel Cell falls 48 horsepower shy, and it has all of that aforementioned mass to lug around. Have no worries, as the FCV's torque output is 44 pound-feet greater, and it's available right off the bat. While a 0-60 time of about 11.5 seconds won't cause whiplash, the emission-free crossover feels rather zippy between 15 and 45 miles per hour, which is likely where it will spend most of its time. It is expectedly lethargic off the line, and overtaking at highway speeds requires a bit of planning, but if you keep it in the sweet spot, it's rather enjoyable.
  • Hyundai fits the FCV with slightly larger front disc brakes (to accommodate the increased curb weight) that are part of a regenerative braking system that pumps energy back into the battery pack. Brake feel is okay, but the driver is definitely aware of the two-tons beneath his jeans. The steering, with slightly different ratios, is overboosted, light and uncommunicative – but it adds to the sense of isolation, so many will approve. Transitional handling is safe and predictable, but unexciting – anyone who shows up at an autocross with a Tucson Fuel Cell crossover is lost.
  • Government officials in California haven't figured out how to properly charge for hydrogen fuel (once they develop a pump that can reliably weigh the fuel while dispensing, expect it to be sold by the kilogram), so Tucson Fuel Cell owners enjoy free fuel from six Los Angeles-area stations during the term of their lease. The programs are capped at 12,000 miles a year, so owners won't break the bank. Each of the stations is equipped with a 700-bar pump fitted with a WEH TK17 pistol-grip nozzle that is held just like a common gasoline/diesel nozzle. Once the female nozzle is connected securely to the male nipple on the vehicle, an infrared ring around the nozzle communicates data wirelessly with the vehicle during fueling – it is clean and very high tech. At today's dispensing rates, it takes about 10 minutes to fill an empty "tank" (two tanks, actually). A full tank, which is 12.4 pounds of hydrogen, delivers a range of about 265 miles.
I've driven a handful of FCVs from a variety of manufacturers, and each seems to trump the one before it as the technology is refined. With the Tucson Fuel Cell crossover, Hyundai has impressively crossed its T's and dotted its I's – there are no range issues, drivability concerns, fuel costs, or maintenance worries to speak of.

If you are an Angelino seeking a no-compromise emissions-free vehicle, the Koreans may have just written your hydrogen song.