Driving a Fuel Cell Equinox - Autoline on Autoblog with John McElroy

I think I'm going to puke if I have to go to another auto show that promotes itself as the "greenest" of them all. These days, every auto show in the world claims to be more concerned about the environment than any of the others. And LA was no different.
But I have to grudgingly admit that I learned a good bit of green stuff at the LA show.

The highlight was getting to drive a fuel cell-powered Chevrolet Equinox. I'm one of the few people in the media that got to take this vehicle out for an extensive test drive, going from the LA Convention Center over to the historic home of Capitol Records where I did an interview with Eliot Scheiner, the Emmy award-winning record producer who is working with Panasonic and Acura to develop 5.1 surround sound for automotive applications -- but that's another story. Back to the fuel cell Equinox.

If I didn't know this thing was powered by a fuel cell, I might never have noticed. It drives just like a normal vehicle, unlike the fuel cell cars I drove some years back that were agonizingly slow, disconcertingly unreliable and made annoying noises. With this one you hear a slight buzzing noise at "idle" from the hydrogen injectors, but once you're underway all you hear is the wind and the road and some slight gear whine.

Now, if you put a stopwatch to the Equinox, it doesn't seem that fast. It'll run 0 to 60 in a little over 12 seconds, which is kind of pokey. But the seat of the pants feel is much better than the stopwatch suggests. That's the beauty of running on electric motors. They provide max torque instantaneously. So coming off the line, the Equinox feels responsive. Part throttle acceleration is also very good. In fact, in stop and go traffic, the Equinox is more pleasant to drive than "normal" cars because there's no engine revving, no shifting and no driveline windup. It feels very smooth.

On the highway the Equinox easily kept up with traffic, and it would squirt past cars at the push of the pedal. But once you're up around 70 mph it starts to lose its oomph. GM claims it has a top speed of 100 mph but we never got to test that claim. I should also point out that all this driving was with three people in the car and a bunch of video camera gear. The air conditioning was also running full blast. In addition, the fuel cell, hydrogen tanks and plumbing add about 400 pounds over a standard Equinox. Keep in mind that GM is two generations beyond this fuel cell that's available in the Equinox. They had to freeze development three years ago to do all the crash testing and packaging. So it will only get better.

GM claims the fuel cell Equinox will get the equivalent of nearly 40 mpg. That's with three tanks in the car that store 4.2 kilograms of gaseous hydrogen. (One kilo of hydrogen is roughly equivalent to one gallon of gasoline.) And while they take up some of the luggage room in the rear, there's still plenty of room back there. The packaging is that good.

This is all part of a program called Project Driveway involving 100 fuel cell Equinoxes that GM is going to make available to select people in California, New York and Washington DC. They'll get the vehicles free of charge for three months at a time as long as they're willing to share their experiences with the company.

So how do you get on the list? You have to live near a hydrogen fueling station. And that, of course, is where the whole fuel cell concept runs smack into a wall. Even though fuel cell technology is making impressive gains, the hydrogen infrastructure just isn't there to support it on a national basis.

But automakers keep pushing the issue. Honda unveiled its stunning fuel cell car at the LA show, called the FCX Clarity. It's a purpose-built fuel cell car, not an existing model that they dropped a fuel cell into. And I can't wait to get a chance to test drive that one.


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