SEOUL, South Korea — Host cities bet big on the Olympics. Billions are poured into infrastructure, marketing, and cultural branding in preparation for the wave of international visitors. By some accounts, the 2018 Pyeongchang winter games cost South Korea an estimated $12.9 billion. A little more than a hundred miles to the west of the Olympic festivities, Hyundai is making a bet of its own on the future of eco-friendly energy with the all-new Hyundai Nexo.
It’s gradually becoming tough out there for the internal combustion engine. Despite continued investment and occasional breakthroughs like Infiniti’s new cutting-edge variable-compression four-banger, smart money is starting to flow away from traditional gas and diesel engines in favor of electrification. It’s not just automakers–major European countries will ban diesel engines (or in extreme cases, all internal-combustion engines) in the coming decades, with Korea itself restricting the sale of diesel vehicles by 2030.
As part of its plan to offer 31 “eco-friendly” vehicles by 2020, the new Nexo fuel cell crossover seems like a rather bold step forward, especially for our market. Aside from clusters of hydrogen stations in California, the U.S. is largely bereft of the architecture needed to supply the Nexo with the hydrogen fuel it needs.
After driving the Nexo some 120 miles through semi-rural Korean roads, I’m left scratching my head as to why the ongoing fuel cell experiment is contained mostly within the borders of California. On paper, it’s a no brainer–it replaces what we already have. If hydrogen stations were half as numerous as gas stations, range anxiety would evaporate entirely.
Of course, the world isn’t confined to numbers on paper. Feasibility issues begin to pile up when you examine what it would take to create a country-wide hydrogen network. Ignoring the billions (if not trillions) of dollars needed to create a station infrastructure, consider hydrogen production complexity and cost, a process that still relies entirely on fossil fuels. Unless the current oil mega-corporations decide to leverage their monumental assets on wide-scale clean production of hydrogen, it’s destined to remain a regional alternative fuel experiment.
I sure hope not. The Nexo is a technological marvel in the vanilla wrapper of a compact crossover, and is one of the most fascinating vehicles I’ve driven. Underneath that SUV shell hums a 95-kW fuel cell stack working in tandem with a 40-kW battery to return a combined 180 hp and 291 lb-ft of torque. With the three cylindrical hydrogen tanks topped-off with 52.2 liters at 10,000 psi each, the Nexo has a range around 350 miles. Even with this immense pressure, the automaker claims the tanks can be brimmed in around five minutes.
This is the newest generation of Hyundai’s fuel cell tech. The Nexo provides a noticeable improvement over the last-gen Tucson fuel cell in performance, range, and usability. Despite a larger footprint–up almost six inches on wheelbase length to a 183.8 inch total–compared to the Tucson FCEV, the Nexo is faster, with the 0-62 mph run handled in 9.2 seconds. It’s no Tesla, but this is more than quick enough for regular use.
Beyond the technical achievement, the Nexo is a sharp package. The taut design of the front end is one of the cleanest we’ve seen from Hyundai, incorporating a bi-level headlight design not dissimilar from the 2019 Santa Fe we drove after the Nexo. It’s refreshingly free from the absurd futuristic design found on other FCEVs like the Toyota Mirai, instead appearing as a sleek, handsome crossover.
That “crossover” part is key. If you believe the headlines and sales figures, buyers continue to migrate from sedans to SUVs of all sizes. Aside from the Model X and the all-new Jaguar I-Pace, there isn’t a mass-market EV SUV available. It’s all hatchbacks, and sedans–exactly what the market is moving away from. At this point in the FCEV market, buyers are most likely making their purchase based on the range and reliability of the technology, but the Nexo’s crossover packaging is impressively on-point.
The Nexo’s interior is reasonably pedestrian. The front portion of the cabin is bisected by a tall, flat console filled with a mishmash of A/C and audio controls, a design that is perhaps the only jarring portion of the interior. Two embedded screens combine for 12.3-inches of display, handling infotainment and powertrain info duties. Other than the polarizing center stack, it’s as pleasant a place to be as any other current Hyundai product.
Surprise, surprise—the Nexo drives smooth and silent. Other than non-intrusive tire rumble and a touch of wind noise, it’s hushed as other EVs. If it proves to be too quiet and you find yourself nodding off at the wheel, Hyundai stuffed it with a suite of its latest driver assistance tech. The most notable of which is the combination of Highway Driving Assist and Lane Following Assist, a dynamic duo who keeps the burden of long-distance highway cruising off the shoulders of the driver. Automatic steering inputs keep the Nexo in the confines of the chosen lane, while the adaptive cruise control maintains speed. Beyond that, the usual suspects are here, from forward collision warning and avoidance, pedestrian detection, automatic high-beams, blind spot monitoring and cross-traffic alerts.
The Nexo is also the chosen launchpad for Hyundai’s “Level 4” autonomous driving tech. At this level, the system operates the vehicle and navigates a predetermined route on its own. Three Nexos were outfitted with autonomy gear and drove themselves (with drivers in the passenger seat, of course) from Seoul to Pyeongchang. Of course, this tech isn’t quite ready for public consumption, so it remains a demonstration piece, for the moment.
In all, Hyundai Nexos is an amazing achievement. All at once, it’s a usable vehicle that could potentially operate within the same boundaries as a regular ICE car, while retaining the super silent and eco-friendly nature of the EV. For the lucky folk in California, the 2019 Hyundai Nexos arrives later this year with a price tag to be announced closer to the launch.