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Hyundai Nexo review: Heralding hydrogen's future?

As vehicle emissions rules become increasingly strict, tax on traditional petrol- and diesel-drinking cars continues to rise. It’s why manufacturers are downsizing engines to fit vehicles into acceptable tax brackets. It’s why there’s an uptake for plug-in hybrids, regenerative hybrids, and fully electric vehicles (EVs), too.

It’s also why some believe that hydrogen fuel cell technology is the future. Which is where the Nexo – Hyundai’s second H2 vehicle, which is due to hit the roads in 2019 – fits into the picture. All that’s emitted from this SUV’s real tailpipes is water, making it truly emissions free.

How about that for feeling totally smug and having no tax to worry about? There are a couple of catches though: hydrogen fuel isn’t abundant in the UK (you can count the number of public fuel stations on both hands), thus limiting your driving potential; and this future tech is an expensive initial purchase, with the Nexo expected to be in and around the GBP65K price bracket.

Design: Futuristic fun

There’s no doubt that the Nexo looks the part, representative of its futuristic vision.

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At the front there’s that cascading front grille and angular headlights with LED composites, between which a full-width LED ‘horizon line’ bar resides. Shame that the Hyundai badge on the front is flat like a print-out, and on closer inspection the grille looks rather plasticky.

The rear features triangular lights, again with LED composites, which looks great when illuminated. The ‘NEXO’ logo is absolutely huge, though, just so everyone is beyond certain what you’re driving (as, chances are, these cars will be very rare sightings indeed in 2019). Side-on reveals flexed panel work, which is for the sake of aerodynamism.

Even the 17-inch alloy wheels have been designed with areo in mind, to keep the drag down, further aided by the sealed underside of the vehicle. Even the door handles pop in and out (very noisily and nothing like as elegant as the Lexus LC500).

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In many ways the Nexo looks a lot like Hyundai’s Kona soft-SUV, which may be divisive, but we think it ticks all the right boxes for that different, futuristic look, without going down the dogged Toyota Prius route.

Interior: Good ideas, weird layout

Step inside, however, and it’s a bit of a different story. In our photos the Nexo looks clean and cheerful, but in person that huge centre console – which is a litany of buttons – looks excessive and feels plasticky.

Multiple unmarked dials add to the confusion of this bustle of buttons, while the four-button (D, P, R, N) drive area is unnecessarily the same size as a traditional gearstick.

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Which is a shame, as the Nexo also embodies some good ideas. Its centre 12.3-inch screen is bold, bright and well positioned – almost merging into the 7-inch drivers cluster beyond the steering wheel. This is the kind of contemporary idea we like.

Fitting with the Nexo’s vision many of the interior materials are sustainable: there’s bamboo and sugar cane in here. Which all sounds well and good, but everything just looks like a different kind of plastic; and these non-plastics are all slightly different shades, textures and finishes that fail to finish in a cohesive whole. There are some excellent other features aboard though.

Heated and cooled driver and passenger seats (those vents are excellent for warmer climes) make the comfortable seats even better, an almost panormatic sunroof creates a light and airy feel, while a variety of USB ports make plugging in a phone extra easy (both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are here as standard too; the Krell soundsystem isn’t as good as it should be though).

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We’re not doubting the Nexo’s good ideas, but while its exterior delivers on its futuristic vision, the interior’s tech positioning feels like an as-yet-untitled work in progress rather than the finished deal. Especially at this price (the majority of your cash is going towards the fuel tech, clearly).

Driving: Safe and stable

The Nexo fires up with the press of a button and, like an electric car, it’s more-or-less silent. That’s because, in essence, it is an electric car (well, it’s an FCEV): the hydrogen fuel cell (FC) is used to power electric motors (EV), thus the feel on the road is much the same.

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Much like other EVs, including the BMW i3, that means the Nexo functions on a largely one-pedal driving basis.

Because the car uses regenerative braking to push energy back into the battery for greater economy – there are three levels, available on left and right paddles around the steering wheel – lifting your foot off the accelarator feels a little like breaking, so you’ll need to learn to gentle feather your foot off the pedal. At lv3 regenerative the braking is quite harsh, so we’d stick to lv2. The Nexo can hit 62mph in just under 10 seconds, so it’s not the quickest thing on the road by any means.

The high torque of the electric motors does mean acceleration is initially snappy though, which is handy for rapid pull-aways – although be cautious with corners which can be a little wallowy, while wheelspin is a bit too easy as a result of the torque. The Nexo isn’t quite as snappy as pure EVs because it has to house a trio of hydrogen tanks, which are all positioned to the rear of the vehicle. Their layout means rear seats still offer plenty of space, making this a true family car contender when it comes to roominess and boot space.

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Safety features come in abundance too: from blind spot camera (which displays the live image in the driver’s cluster) to lane departure alert and adaptive cruise control with auto-braking, the Nexo can pretty much drive itself down a motorway.

There’s a little too much road noise when cruising along at 70mph, though, which is entirely more noticable because this is otherwise a near-silent car. But on the safety front there’s all the mod cons you could want.

Hydrogen’s future?

With an expensive purchase price expected when the Nexo goes on sale in 2019, surely hydrogen is a far cheaper fuel to keep the car running? Well, not exactly.

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Hyundai quotes the Nexo as being capable of running 62 miles on 0.95kgs of H2.

We were achieving around 1-1.1kgs. Now, H2 is about GBP10/kg and to fill the car you’ll need about 6kgs, totalling GBP60, which ought to be good to cover around 350 miles, maybe a bit more. Let’s compare that to a Hyundai Kona, which has a 50 litre tank.

At the time of writing that’d fill up for GBP62.50 (GBP1.25/litre) and deliver in and around 40mpg fuel economy, theoretically travelling up to 500 miles. So the conventional fuel is, at present, cheaper per mile. There’s also contention around hydrogen production.

It’s synthesised, produces waste product and is neither economical nor sustainable – unless it’s derived from existing processes. Sure, a lot of electricity production involves burning fossil fuels – but there’s the capacity to move away from that, with pure EV owners potentially able to refuel (or at least top-up) from personal systems, such as solar installation. Hydrogen?

No can do. Furthermore, hydrogen fuel is rarely available in the UK. More public stations are being added, but unless you’re within the M25 belt around London in the UK then your driving scope is considerably limited.

There are far more stations in Japan and Scandanavia, for example, which makes the vehicles more viable.

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Overall, hydrogen isn’t easy to produce, doesn’t really cost less than traditional fuel, and is scarcely available in much of the world. Which all presents a problem. Why not cut out the whole hydrogen part, opt for a pure electric setup (which is lighter weight) and essentially cut out the middle man?

First Impressions

In theory the Hyundai Kona represents a great achievement: it’s a zero emissions 5-seater that’s fully practical, choc full of safety equipment and tech, and is a no-nonsense comfortable drive.

However, in the UK at least, its hydrogen dream is flawed: the fuel is not readily available, its production isn’t economical, nor is it cheap to fill up. That’s the situation for any consumer FCEV, so the Nexo is no harder hit there than, say, the Toyota Mirai. Right now an EV would make a lot more sense.

Where the Nexo continues to struggle, however, is in its finish and price tag. We think the exterior is futuristic and fun, but the interior leaves a lot to be desired for a car that’ll cost you in the region of GBP65K. Yep, sixty-five grand.

Reality check: that’s pricier than a Jaguar i-Pace.

Or go and buy two Hyundai Kona EVs instead and get a house extension or super-luxe holiday while you’re at it.

Either the Nexo is just that far ahead of the curve or it’s a sign that the wheels are falling off the hydrogen dream outside of its already better-established bases in Japan and Korea.

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