They say you can always tell the pioneers. They're the ones with the arrows in their backs. Unfortunately, that was our experience pursuing – and eventually rejecting – the new hydrogen fuel cell-powered Hyundai Tucson.

I first heard about Hyundai's new hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (FCV) at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November 2013. As a tech buff, the thought of driving a new, clean technology vehicle sounded exciting. Best of all, Hyundai was wrapping the new vehicle in a smart, familiar package, as a loaded current-generation Tucson SUV. The FCV Tucson was billed as $499 a month with $2,999 down, with free fuel and free maintenance. Our family needed a new, small, fuel efficient SUV, so I signed up for information on the upcoming lease program.

Someone has to go first. Why not us?

In the spring of 2014, I learned more at a Clean Fuel Symposium, held on the Queen Mary in Long Beach. The panel was packed with experts on alternative fuel vehicles. One spokesperson outlined the chicken or egg problem with alternative fuels like hydrogen: fuels first or vehicles? Another said something that I should have heard more clearly. "If the argument [to move to alternative fuel vehicles] has to start with a change of behavior from consumers, that's a hard row to hoe." I would soon to learn what an FCV would really cost, both in hours and in dollars.

Nonetheless, I was ready to try jumping the hurdles and get an alternative fuel car. A low impact on the environment, plus free fuel and a solo car pool lane sticker? What could go wrong?

Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell

My wife was a much harder nut to crack. My habit of jokingly calling it a "nuclear-powered" car probably didn't help much either. Our conversations went like this:

"A what kind of car?"
"Hydrogen fuel cell."
"What?"
"It's essentially an electric car."
"Don't those things have a really short range?"
"Yes. That's what the hydrogen is for. You fill it with hydrogen to fill the fuel cell, instead of charging it overnight like an electric car."
"Where do you get hydrogen?"
"Well..."

It turned out the nearest hydrogen station was in Burbank, about 13 miles from our house. In LA traffic, that could be more than half an hour's drive each way. Since there's an excellent bakery in Burbank (Porto's), I told my wife I was fine with taking the time each week to fuel up every 200 miles or so.

My wife and I aren't necessarily "early adopters," but we were among the first ten customers in California for the Ford Fusion Hybrid in 2009, a car that has proved to be a popular hybrid. Moving to an alternative fuel vehicle would also be a good example to our idealistic 15-year old son, who was about to become a driver. He liked the idea of a zero emissions car whose fuel potentially won't hurt the environment as much as the petroleum extraction and refining process.

We had briefly considered full electric, but the Southern California version of range anxiety (will my battery die on the freeway on a 100 degree day far from an exit?) quickly took care of that. A Tesla, with its 250 mile range, would have been nice, but we didn't have an extra $80,000 to spare. We also seriously considered plug-in hybrids, like the Chevrolet Volt, Toyota Prius Plug In or the Ford Fusion and C-Max.

Hyundai offered a vehicle that seemed to meet our real world needs.

These cars offer the alluring promise of 90 miles plus per gallon equivalent, based on a mix of gas and electric driving. However, few true plug-in hybrid SUVs are available. Most of what's available are conventional sedans, like the Volt or the Fusion. In the end, my wife (the sensible one) nixed either an electric or plug in hybrid vehicle. Based on previous issues with our 50-year old home electrical system and equally ancient garage, she feared that adding a high-speed charger might well result in disaster. Although it did demand some compromises, Hyundai offered a vehicle that seemed to meet our real world needs. And we'd definitely be first on the block with a hydrogen car. Someone has to go first. Why not us?

Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell

The FCV version of the Hyundai Tucson is no "stripper." The car comes with leather seats, a navigation system and the chance to ride solo in California's coveted car pool lanes. To further sweeten the deal, Hyundai is offering free hydrogen fuel for the life of the lease (3 years, 36,000 miles) for the aforementioned price of $2,999 down, $499 a month for 36 months. So what was the pioneering part? An FCV is basically an electrical vehicle. But instead of charging it each night, you fuel the fuel cell (think of it as a battery) with hydrogen. It's another approach to creating a low-emissions, high mileage vehicle, like electric, hybrid, CNG (compressed natural gas), "clean diesel", etc.

We weren't going to be driving the Tucson from Los Angeles to its namesake city in Arizona

Hyundai originally said the Tucson FCV had a range of 300 miles. They later backtracked and said 265 miles was more realistic. Either way, we weren't going to be driving the Tucson from Los Angeles to its namesake city in Arizona. In fact, during the timeframe of the three-year lease, my travel would pretty much be restricted to Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange Counties, with Santa Barbara (100 miles from my home) and San Diego (120 miles) as stretch goals.

The problem was a lack of hydrogen filling stations. A helpful map provided by the California Fuel Cell Partnership listed 59 hydrogen stations. However, only nine were actually open. Another 48 were "in development," to be built over the next three years with funding from California taxpayers, to help break the "chicken or the egg" logjam.

In the summer of 2014, only four stations were open within 30 miles of our house. There were only about seven open in all of Los Angeles and Orange Counties, which together contain 19 million people. No such stations existed in Ventura or San Diego Counties "yet" as the hydrogen proponents like to say. There were no interchange stations in areas like Fresno, that would allow FCVs from LA to fuel up for the trip to San Francisco, or vice-versa. Even driving to Las Vegas, just 275 miles or a single tankful away for most of today's gasoline cars, was still in the realm of science fiction, with no hydrogen stations along the route.

Nonetheless, pioneering this green technology seemed exciting. It was cool, too – literally. On an FCV test drive, we stopped at a hydrogen filling station. The nozzle made electronic contact with the fuel port on the Tucson, and my hand grew icy on a summer day. The gas is stored at ice-cold temperatures.

DEU WASSERSTOFF TANKSTELLE

The car is appointed like a high-end Tucson. White with a dark interior, it's packed with creature comforts like heated leather seats, navigation, and a nice sound system. I took the car for two test drives, the second with my wife driving, at the nearest participating dealership, an inconvenient 30 miles from our home. Still, we agreed it was a nice vehicle and got our credit approved. We planned to pick it up the next week.

When we returned, however, the deal blew up like a hydrogen-filled zeppelin. The dealer told us what Hyundai hadn't made clear – that the way the lease was written, our actual cost would be $572 a month including tax and other costs. This added another $2500 to the vehicle's cost over three years. (Someone in the dealership actually used, not kidding here, the expression "bait and switch"). We felt we were being punished for trying to help the environment and test a new technology. A frequent criticism of hybrid, electric, plug in and other alternative fuel vehicles (and the taxpayer subsidies applied to them) is that they are marketed and sold to rich people.

Indeed, $500 a month would definitely get us a luxury car. A local BMW dealer offered a new 2014 BMW 528i Sedan with navigation, heated seats, a premium package and concierge service for $4,500 down, $435 a month, almost $1,000 less than the FCV Tucson over three years. If we wanted something more directly comparable to the Tucson, a small SUV, we could have leased a BMW X1 with navigation, for $228 a month and $4,900 down – a savings of around $9,000 over the course of the lease.

The Tucson FCV is an experimental vehicle. The program directors told us that all kinds of sensors would be monitoring its performance at all times. As an experimental vehicle, the car company could charge beta testers like us a reasonable price, in return for the known limitations of the new technology, including limited fueling stations, limited range, and added time and aggravation.

If you got the entry-level Tucson, you could get two for the price of one FCV.

Instead, Hyundai stuck an arbitrary $50,000 price tag on a vehicle no one would be allowed to buy. According to AOL Autos, the MSRP of the similar 2015 Hyundai Tucson Limited Front Wheel Drive is $26,300, for an out-the-door price of around $30,000. If you got the entry-level Tucson, which starts at $21,500, you could get two Tucsons for the price of one FCV. With a 15.3-gallon tank and 21/28 EPA mpg rating (2014 model) the standard Tucson should have a range of about 360 miles. That's more than enough to go from LA's San Fernando Valley to San Francisco or Las Vegas, on fuel you can get on any street corner.

Yes, there are mitigating factors. The Hyundai program did offer free fuel, although fueling would have cost at least an hour each week. But when the additional $70 a month in costs was finally presented, on top of all the compromises we'd have to make, we walked away. It's not acceptable for a consumer to feel penalized for testing a new technology, or worse, feel like he's subsidizing a giant industrial conglomerate. As I told one of the program's managers, "This program seems to be set up for rich people" with infinite time. It's too bad. I was looking forward to being a pioneer. I wasn't afraid to put up with a few arrows, but some are just too expensive.

Ultimately, our problem with Hyundai's Tucson FCV was not a technology issue, but one of value. We perceived that we would be paying more per month than we ever had for a car, but getting far less usability. So instead, we decided to buy a Subaru CrossTrek Hybrid. We negotiated a price including tax of just over $30,000, including leather heated seats, navigation and a sunroof. We put $6,000 down and took advantage of Subaru's zero percent financing. Paying $512 a month, we'll own the car in four years. The car's 30 miles per gallon fuel economy, high ground clearance and all-wheel drive came in handy on our vacation to California's high Sierras. Sadly, that 350-mile journey is one the Tucson FCV can't make. At least, not yet.


UPDATE: Hyundai wanted to make it clear that the official lease information does include mention of the added costs. Here is the text of that fine print (emphasis added):

$499 per month for 36 months including fuel and maintenance. $2,999 due at lease signing. No security deposit required. Excludes taxes, title, license and options. LIMITED NUMBER OF 2015 MODEL YEAR TUCSON FUEL CELL VEHICLES AVAILABLE SPRING 2014 AT SELECT SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA HYUNDAI DEALERS. QUALIFIED CUSTOMERS MUST RESIDE WITHIN A SPECIFIC ZIP CODE. Excludes taxes, title, license and options. No security deposit required. Lessee responsible for excess wear and mileage at over 12,000 miles/year at rate to be determined once lease offer becomes available. No purchase option at lease end. Lessee responsible for insurance. Hydrogen fuel is included in the lease (subject to change) and provided by a third party. At Your Service Valet Maintenance included during lease term. Includes 3-year/36,000-mile Complimentary Maintenance applicable only for first originating vehicle lessee. Free maintenance only available in the U.S. Tucson closed end lease offered through Hyundai Motor Finance (HMF) and subject to credit approval through select dealers. Well-qualified lessees only. Dealer price may vary. See authorized Hyundai dealer for details.


==

Michael Goldstein is an automotive and general interest journalist who has written for the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, OC Weekly, NY Daily News, Car & Driver and many others. His article Blood Money was named best Investigative story in the 2013 Southern California Journalism Awards.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 198 Comments
      mbukukanyau
      • 4 Months Ago
      For those complaining about him turning down an additional $73.00 in payments, for one, its his money, number two that is not his only complain, he would need to put up with 12 miles of LA traffic every week to charge it. In case you did not know, its his time too.. he can spend it how he chooses
      SpikedLemon
      • 4 Months Ago
      The cost argument sounds just like an excuse. To believe that you were eligible for an advertised and assumed that it was "tax free" is just sad. The rest of your argument fails as soon as you invalidate your claims that you're willing to push for new "green" tech but eliminate on your own poor math skills. You clearly were along for the ride and wanted an easy out. The fuel availability argument, however, sounds far more reasonable. The severe inconvenience of not being able to refuel locally nor being able, at all, to travel beyond your tank's range (even an e-car can recharge wherever there's an outlet - albeit slower). The fuel availability, and not the cost issue, should have been the articles primary argument.
      Aaron
      • 4 Months Ago
      "He liked the idea of a zero emissions car whose fuel potentially won't hurt the environment as much as the petroleum extraction and refining process." Oh, but your son has no problem with fracking, steam reformation of natural gas, energy-intensive cryogenic storage and transport? Although California mandates 1/3rd of hydrogen be produced from renewable sources, 2/3rds are not.
      frustrated
      • 4 Months Ago
      Tip: if you're a journalist, how about doing some journalism? You know, the kind with research and the like? The hydrogen economy is, as Elon Musk and many others with more than half a brain have stated, "Bullshit." Here's a place to start, but be advised--the oil and gas industry likes to spin this as the next big thing. It's simply another way to prop up a "can't die soon enough" industry: http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/energy/next-generation/4199381
      Aaron
      • 4 Months Ago
      "He liked the idea of a zero emissions car whose fuel potentially won't hurt the environment as much as the petroleum extraction and refining process." Oh, but your son has no problem with fracking, steam reformation of natural gas, energy-intensive cryogenic storage and transport? Although California mandates 1/3rd of hydrogen be produced from renewable sources, 2/3rds are not.
      Aaron Schwarz
      • 4 Months Ago
      The high cost of fuel cell's at this point makes this $600 per month "as too expensive" seem like a hyperbolic disingenuous cheapskate statement / Luxury segment vehicles from BMW that your compared to the fuel cell hyundai, are the fastest depreciating, most fuel gobbling, most costly to own and operate vehicles on the road. Big surprise that the lease payment on the FCEV is expensive // Unless you live near a refilling station, does it make sense to buy or lease a vehicle that requires a special fuel that is only available at special refilling stations : at least with than EV like a LEAF you could recharge over night with a standard extension cord. Oh and that statement about your wife fearing a Level II charger : if you homes electrical panel can't throw out 20amps at 240v for an EV charger, you should probably look into fixing your homes electrical panel with professional electrician help. Clothing dryers and ovens easily consume 7kw when they operate, and 100amp main in would easily cover a L2 charger with an electric clothing dryer and electric oven use. If fear is holding you back perhaps spiritual or psychological help would be a good idea. If $80 different on the least payment broke the deal, perhaps you were trying to over extend your finances in the first place / Good for your for buying a hybrid, but 30MPG's is really rather meh / especially given that it will not likely return that kind of fuel economy in the real world : especially not a subaru, which are notorious for gobbling fuel
      frustrated
      • 4 Months Ago
      Tip: if you're a journalist, how about doing some journalism? You know, the kind with research and the like? The hydrogen economy is, as Elon Musk and many others with more than half a brain have stated, "Bullshit." Here's a place to start, but be advised--the oil and gas industry likes to spin this as the next big thing. It's simply another way to prop up a "can't die soon enough" industry: http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/energy/next-generation/4199381
      deandauger
      • 3 Months Ago
      I completely agree with Mr. Goldstein's conclusion. I'd be frustrated too, especially with the limited infrastructure; even though a Hydrogen station is "just" 10 miles away from where I live, it's definitely out of my way. And I couldn't do a long trip, not unlike the under-100-mile EVs. The FCV scenario in its present state is just too limiting. Why can't these big carmakers commit to presenting a more compelling case? The nicest rating I could give is "try again next year".
      Dana Lacoste
      • 4 Months Ago
      I drive a Fiat 500e and that market saw something similar: the price advertised wasn't the price the dealers were actually offering: Chrysler Financial put the details out there but it was up to the dealer to negotiate the deal. (I got the advertised price: the local dealer in San Diego didn't feel that screwing over customers was a good idea I guess :) Yes, the tax is on top of the lease, and those arguing that the author should've expected that have a valid point, but this is FAR from a traditional lease: there is NO buyout option at the end of the lease (you are required to return it to Hyundai, like the EV1) and the comparable cost for an electric car like a Nissan Leaf or a Ford Focus (or my Fiat 500e) is ridiculous: the Hyundai is more than double the cost (I pay $267/mo AFTER tax, and with $0 down). Yes, it's bigger, but it's not double the size of a Leaf! I feel much like the author: I would LOVE to get a FC Tucson, but that price, DAMN, it's just too high.
      bcsaxman
      • 4 Months Ago
      I hate to put on my tinfoil hat (it's just not that comfortable), but hydrogen cars have always struck me as a trojan horse of sorts. Let me explain: Oil companies now make their kabillions off of a basic model - extraction, refinement, & distribution - for which practically the entire world's population is a captured market. Every person and/or business has to 'fill up' at some point, just to keep their own economies running. And every time they do, the oil companies get their cut, but also must replenish the 'pipeline' so to speak, with yet more extraction & refinement (for which they also get paid) & of course ultimately more distribution. Now, electric cars and even just more fuel efficient cars tend to limit what profit they can make from that model. If you don't need to fill up as much, the energy companies don't make as much on distribution, don't need to refine as much, don't need to extract as much in the first place. Pure electrics put this trend on an even faster track, as the technology for self charging at home completely eliminates their distribution profits, and self generation (ala PV panels or wind turbines) could potentially do the same to profits made from their refinement & extraction business. If I'm the head of one of those fossil fuel companies, and I now know that, despite past best efforts, the technological genies for making & selling hybrid and EV cars, as well as the one that allows personal energy creation, are all out of the bottle and in the consumer market, then my only play left is to try and co-opt that market with something that LOOKS green, and may even be more green than the way it was done before, but still preserves at least some (and if done right, perhaps all) of the extraction/refinement/distribution model that makes me rich. That, folks, is hydrogen. The most economical way to get hydrogen out there is to crack it out of natural gas. Guess who already makes a lot of money extracting & refining that? They simply have to expand already existing technologies and plant to meet the demand. And what a coincidence that the only way to get the hydrogen to consumers is by way of a distribution method that looks just like the fueling stations we already have for gas & diesel. I'll bet, if the transition & full roll out ever occurs, we'll even see the exact same company names on the signs that we see now (Exxon, BP, etc …). And if they can convince clueless politicians that taxpayer money should be used to jump start that expansion of hydrogen stations, as they certainly have in California, well then all the better (actually, given the subsidies they already reap in the fossil fuels sector, more like 'business as usual'). I like green. I like fuel efficiency. I love the idea of getting rid of this oil/gas extortion racket that's warming the planet, killing people in the mideast, & draining my civil liberties as well as my wallet at home. The latter especially won't happen with hydrogen.
      j
      • 4 Months Ago
      "With a 15.3-gallon tank and 21/28 EPA mpg rating (2014 model) the standard Tucson should have a range of about 360 miles. That's more than enough to go from LA's San Fernando Valley to San Francisco or Las Vegas, on fuel you can get on any street corner." Perhaps so. But you will never have the privilege of driving on steam reformed natural gas that is stored as liquid hydrogen, and pumped into your car at 700 bar pressure, by using enough electricity to run a battery EV for 40 miles.
      paulywesterberg
      • 4 Months Ago
      I signed up for the Leaf when they first announced it, but it took them 3 years to start sales in my area and by then they added 3k to the price and I was forced to further select a dealer and then pay their inflated price. Early adopters will be fleeced and dealerships make it difficult for a manufacturer to set prices. The same thing happened with the volt. Teslas may cost a lot, but at least the pricing is transparent.
        Letstakeawalk
        • 1 Day Ago
        @paulywesterberg
        Tesla raised the prices on early buyers as well, by manipulating how options were priced and packaged. There were also lots of complaints in regards to Tesla's confusing pricing for maintenance packages, and whether or not they were required to keep the warranty. http://www.hybridcars.com/tesla-quietly-increases-pricing-again/ http://www.greencarreports.com/news/1079637_tesla-model-s-service-contract-600-year-or-warranty-voided http://www.teslarati.com/tesla-model-s-service-plan-checklist/
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