Hyundai’s Nexo stands out from the emerging wave of electric cars by being a limited-production fuel-cell vehicle—essentially an electric vehicle that produces its power onboard and has water as its only emission.

CR won’t be buying one for a formal test, given the Nexo’s limited availability (it’s sold in only California metro areas) and the sparse refueling infrastructure for hydrogen. Instead, we rented one from Hyundai.

We spent a couple of weeks driving the Nexo, and we’re impressed with its driving range, ride quality, and self-parking ability. 

2019 Hyundai Nexo front driving

What we drove: 2019 Hyundai Nexo Limited
Powertrain: 161-hp electric motor; one-speed direct-drive transmission; front-wheel drive
MSRP: $58,300 to $61,800
Options: Limited trim
Destination fee: $1,045
Total cost: $62,845

What We Like . . . So Far

The Nexo drives much like an EV—smooth, quiet, and responsive. The electricity is generated via a chemical reaction of hydrogen interacting with oxygen in the fuel cells. A traditional EV requires hours of recharging to get fully charged, but a fuel-cell vehicle can replenish its hydrogen in a few minutes from a pump. However, these special pumps are rare in the U.S. 

Don’t be misled by the motor’s 161-hp rating. Instead, drivers feel the impressive 291 pound-feet of torque that enable the Nexo to glide forward with immediate, near-silent thrust. A high-voltage battery augments the fuel-cell-generated power when swift acceleration is called for, and that battery stores energy recouped from braking and coasting, just as a hybrid vehicle does.

More EVs and Hybrids

The Nexo holds 14 pounds of hydrogen in three cylindrical tanks tucked under the rear seat and cargo area. Hyundai says that with that amount of storage, the lavishly equipped Limited version will have 354 miles of range. That works out to the equivalent of about 56 mpg.

The Nexo can drive longer than other fuel cell cars, such as the Honda Clarityand Toyota Mirai, and it even offers a more livable driving range than most mainstream electric cars. Plus, we noticed that the range wasn’t as adversely affected by cold temperatures as it can be with EVs.

Despite their capacity, the hydrogen fuel tanks do not intrude into the passenger or cargo space, or cause the floor to be unusually high, as with other fuel-cell vehicles we’ve driven.

Its ride comfort rivals a luxury car because the suspension effectively absorbs bumps. The cabin is very quiet as well. Handling is quite responsive, with prompt steering response and well-controlled body lean in corners.

The door handles present themselves to passengers as they approach the vehicle, like the ones on the Tesla Model S, adding to the wow factor. Once inside, the driver is treated to an eye-catching, high-tech cockpit, with a large infotainment screen and many buttons taking center stage.

We like the live camera view that appears in the instrument panel when the turn signal is activated. This might seem at first to be distracting, but we found the feature to be useful, making merging safer. This feature covers both sides and doesn’t take over other functions, such as the radio screen, like the frustrating Honda Lane Watch.

The Nexo also can park itself. Once it identifies an open spot—whether parallel to the car, or perpendicular to it—the driver can step out of the vehicle and oversee the operation.

Drivers need only stand in close proximity and hold a specific button on the key fob, and the Nexo will back itself into a parking spot. Other cars can typically be moved only forward and back; this is the first system we’ve seen where the car can back into a perpendicular parking space and straighten itself out perfectly.

2019 Hyundai Nexo interior

What We Don’t Like

The fueling process is similar in concept to that of regular gas vehicles in that the hydrogen is pumped into a car using a hose. The nozzle must be securely fastened because of the high-pressure transfer of hydrogen. Refilling isn’t as quick as pumping gas. We found that it takes a good 15 minutes to replenish the tanks—admittedly, much quicker than recharging an EV. But because hydrogen filling stations are rare, this type of vehicle is impractical for most consumers.

The gear selector’s buttons blend in with other gray-on-gray switches and can’t be controlled by feel alone. This design choice was clearly created to add to the high-tech vibe rather than to make selections easy for the driver.

There’s quite a bit of clutter on the center console, with hard buttons, a touch screen, and a rotary knob, all in service of the infotainment system.

Despite its SUV-like styling and hatchback practicality, the Nexo is exclusively a front-drive vehicle, which could limit its potential market.

The Nexo doesn’t come cheap, starting at $58,300, but that cost is in line with other fuel-cell vehicles. Buyers (in California) can choose to lease a Nexo Limited for $499 per month. Hyundai says it will give buyers $13,000 worth of hydrogen to help with the high price of the fuel. Without that incentive, the price of a kilogram of hydrogen (the equivalent of about a gallon of gas) ranges from $13 to $16.

Hyundai Nexo refueling with hydrogen

What We'll Keep Our Eyes On

We had some initial concerns with the infotainment system’s ease of use, but it became less daunting as we spent more time with the car. Because the Nexo is a harbinger of things to come from Hyundai, we will be interested in seeing how its features make their way into future products.

The limited hydrogen infrastructure in the U.S. has long been a  factor holding back the proliferation of fuel-cell vehicles. We are keenly interested in seeing how well early adopters respond to FCVs like the Nexo—and whether that drives any growth in the refueling-station network to make these more accessible to a wider audience.

2019 Hyundai Nexo rear

About the cars we rent: Consumer Reports tests only the cars that we purchase. We pay automakers on occasion to drive early or different versions of cars we ultimately buy (we don’t borrow press cars free of charge, as many other publications do), but those impressions are never part of the 50-plus-evaluation regimen that we put our purchased cars through.

Learn more about how Consumer Reports tests cars.