Living with the Hyundai Tucson Fuel-Cell Vehicle

We long for more filling stations

Published: February 09, 2015 08:00 AM

We’ve recently rented a fuel-cell powered Hyundai Tucson SUV and spent a few weeks tooling around Connecticut, learning what we can expect from this production-ready car-of-the-perpetual-future.

Like any electric vehicle it starts off very smartly. But unlike a Tesla Model S, for instance, or even a Ford Focus EV, this fuel-cell Tucson feels a little underpowered once under way.

A more serious problem--and the biggest obstacle to the rapid adoption of hydrogen as a fuel--is the scarcity of hydrogen filling stations. We have access to only one, in Wallingford, CT which is 32 miles away from our track. That situation could change, but for now anyone with a hydrogen car will be on a short leash or will need to carefully plan their travel plans.

On paper, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have three advantages over battery-electric vehicles. First, they have a longer range than today’s battery-electric vehicles. The Tucson FCV, for instance, has a claimed range of 265 miles per fill-up. The only battery-powered vehicle that comes close to that right now is the Tesla Model S, which typically squeezes out 225 miles on a charge. Secondly, refueling with hydrogen takes only a few minutes, versus the several hours of charge time for an EV. Third, cold weather reportedly doesn’t sap a fuel-cell’s driving range the way it does with conventional EVs. That’s a notion we’ve verified for ourselves.  

The green-car headlines coming out of the Los Angeles Auto Show in November were hogged by Toyota’s new fuel-cell Mirai sedan. People were also talking about a fuel-cell Audi A7 and a new Honda FCV. Meanwhile, humble Hyundai has been leasing its Tucson Fuel Cell Vehicle in southern California for about a year already.

And leasing, we think, is definitely the way to go. The Tucson FCV’s three-year lease costs $499 a month (plus $2,999 down) and includes all maintenance as well as free hydrogen fuel. The free fuel is a big bonus. Filling up our Tucson from empty would run about $55. We make that calculation based on a price of $10 per kilogram of compressed hydrogen; the Tucson’s tank capacity is 5.6 kilograms (about 12.5 pounds).    

Fuel-cell cars are essentially electric cars that produce their power on board. The fuel-cell unit, called a stack, takes in gaseous hydrogen, which then combines with oxygen from the atmosphere, producing electricity and, as a byproduct, plain water. The Tucson also has a small high-voltage lithium-polymer battery that stores power from both the fuel-cell stack and from regenerative braking and feeds it to the electric drive motor.

The Tucson’s electric motor is rated at 134 horsepower, which is not very much to push around a vehicle that weighs 4,200 pounds. This certainly accounts for the vehicle’s sluggishness. In other respects the fuel-cell Tucson has all the same features and usability of a regular Tucson. It’s a practical small SUV with decent seating for five people. The main hydrogen tank, a giant jelly bean about the size of a beer keg, resides beneath the trunk floor and steals a just a little volume from the cargo bay.

Fueling is similar to filling a normal car with gasoline. You just hook up a hose from the dispensing unit to a receptacle inside the car’s fuel-filler door. In order to obtain a meaningful range from a hydrogen tank small enough to be packaged in a passenger vehicle, that gas has to be highly compressed. The Tucson and other fuel-cell vehicles use hydrogen that’s compressed to 10,000 psi. Filling two-thirds of the tank took only about three minutes.

Driving the fuel-cell Tucson feels a lot like driving any electric car. Instant torque provides a quick spurt off the line and very quiet operation after that. But there just isn’t very much oomph for getting up to highway speed in a hurry.

From a technology standpoint, the Tucson works well. The car itself, though, is nearing the end of its model life and its stiff ride and Spartan interior don’t do it any favors. Even if there were hydrogen dispensers on every corner, today’s Tucson isn’t much of a head-turner as are futuristic space ships as the upcoming Toyota Mirai. And that might be the car’s Achilles’ heel.

—Gabe Shenhar

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