Test Drive:2019 Hyundai Nexo

Christian Wardlaw | Oct 15, 2018

Introduction

Fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEV) portend a hydrogen-powered future. Advanced to the point where they could easily replace gas- and diesel-fueled vehicles, widespread FCEV adoption is restricted by these things:

  1. Today, the re-fueling infrastructure is limited to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
  2. The cost of the technology remains high.
  3. People don’t understand the technology, or how FCEVs work.
  4. Only three FCEV models are available to U.S. consumers, and only in California where hydrogen filling stations exist.

Hyundai is currently one of three car companies (in addition to Honda and Toyota) that sells an FCEV model in the United States. For 2019, the all-new Hyundai Nexo replaces the Hyundai Tucson FCEV. The 2019 Nexo is a dedicated FCEV, and when it goes on sale by the end of 2018, it will be available only in areas where hydrogen re-fueling is possible.

2019 Hyundai Nexo photo
2019 Hyundai Nexo

I spent a morning driving the 2019 Hyundai Nexo in the Los Angeles area, and this is an impressive FCEV. In standard Blue trim, it provides 380 miles of driving range (Limited offers 354 miles). It seats up to 5 people. It offers between 29.6 and 56.5 cu. ft. of cargo space. And it looks like a typical crossover SUV, at the same time embodying the future of mobility.

Styling and Design

Hyundai wanted the Nexo to look futuristic, distinctive, and high-tech, but without erring on the side of looking too different. Wisely, the Korean automaker elected to use a crossover SUV body design, too, though all-wheel drive is unavailable for this model.

Designers also used the concept of ‘hidden tech’ when creating the Nexo’s cabin, which employs numerous bio-friendly materials. The goal was to give the interior a sense of lightness, a simplification of the Nexo’s natural complexity, and balance between the pilot-style cockpit and the passenger space.

Within this context, the end result is a success, but more importantly the Nexo is also attractive inside and out.

Hyundai provides generous room for 4 people aboard the Nexo, and 5 can squeeze in when necessary (three kids fit in the back, no problem). The front seats are heated and ventilated, and the Nexo has a heated steering wheel. Comfort levels are high all around, accompanied by good outward visibility.

Features and Controls

Electronic transmission controls facilitate a bridge-style center console with storage below, referred to as a ‘flight deck’ by Hyundai. Digital instrumentation and infotainment data are presented on side-by-side display screens, similar to how the latest Mercedes-Benz models convey information.

Usefully, the infotainment display is canted toward the driver for easier reference. Unfortunately, its corresponding controls are on the ‘flight deck’ center console, where the various stereo, climate, infotainment, and transmission buttons and knobs feature dark markings against a gray background. Furthermore, the controls on this panel are also aimed toward the ceiling. Together, these factors make them difficult to identify during the day.

Safety and Technology

Hyundai equips the Nexo with a full slate of driver-assistance and collision-avoidance systems, and has engineered the car for maximum crash protection, it says. Blue Link services provide safety-related features like automatic collision notification and SOS emergency calling, as well as unique functions such as a hydrogen fuel station locator service.

With the Nexo, Hyundai debuts a new wide-screen infotainment system that will be making its way into future versions of the company’s products. Naturally, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are part of the system’s offerings, along with updated voice-recognition technology with a text-to-speech function. A premium Krell audio system provides lush sound quality.

Remote Smart Parking Assist is exclusive to the Limited trim level. It identifies an appropriately sized parallel or perpendicular parking space; the driver can then exit the car and operate the system using the key fob, standing nearby while the Nexo parks itself.

Driving Impressions

Fuel-cell electric vehicles create power by combining hydrogen fuel with oxygen from the outside air. The chemical reaction produces electricity and water (and a little bit of heat). The electricity is fed through a battery to a motor to drive the car’s wheels, while the water is expelled from the exhaust outlet in the form of water vapor.

Operating a hydrogen fuel pump is similar to using a gasoline pump. You swipe your credit card, open the FCEV’s fuel door, uncap the nozzle, attach the pump, and wait until the tank is full. For the Nexo, when using the latest hydrogen pump technology, that wait is about 5 minutes.

In California, state mandates require that 33% of all hydrogen fuel is produced using renewable sources. This means creation of the fuel isn’t a totally ‘green’ process. However, the industry is rapidly working toward making it as clean as possible.

Like any electric vehicle, the Hyundai Nexo generates plenty of torque. Its 291 lb.-ft. of twist is responsible for making the near 2-ton car feel responsive to your right foot, as the electric motor’s 161-horsepower rating is fairly unimpressive.

Drivers can choose between Eco, Normal, and Sport powertrain modes, each of which has a predictable effect on the Nexo’s driving character. An Eco+ mode is also available for when you must extract maximum efficiency in order to make it to the next hydrogen station.

In town, the Nexo has no trouble pointing and squirting through traffic, easily leading the pack in addition to keeping up. The car emits a futuristic whir, signaling its special character to the driver, and a paddle on the steering wheel facilitates one-pedal driving, which in my opinion always adds some fun to driving an electric vehicle.

Thanks to a 3-tank hydrogen fuel system design, Hyundai can use an independent rear suspension in the Nexo, which improves ride and handling. The test vehicle had Limited trim, but even with its larger 19-in. wheels and more aggressive tires the Nexo remained calm, cool, and composed, including on a canyon road.

Steering effort levels are higher than expected, hefty and syrupy like a luxury car. Brake pedal feel is entirely natural, though, in spite of their dual roles of stopping the Nexo and adding regen to capture energy.

The Nexo is quiet, too, but with a coefficient of drag measuring 0.32 Cd, it does suffer from a bit of wind noise. Driving-assistance technologies operate with accuracy, though the adaptive cruise control could benefit from some extra refinement with regard to distance maintenance.

Conclusion

My time with the new Hyundai Nexo was short, but aside from the lack of hydrogen station infrastructure, it looks and drives like a normal car. Re-fueling is nearly an exact match for a gasoline vehicle, too, the pump handle getting mighty cold and forming ice crystals during the process.

Clearly, FCEVs are ready for prime time, and they’ll only improve in the years and decades to come. What’s missing, outside of Los Angeles and San Francisco, is a way to re-fuel them.

Creation of this infrastructure cannot come soon enough, and when hydrogen is available to more people in more parts of the country, FCEVs like the Hyundai Nexo, which emits nothing but water vapor and actually cleans the air as it drives through it, will become increasingly viable.

Collectively, we all need to step harder on that particular accelerator, because at the rate things are going widespread adoption of FCEVs won’t happen for decades.

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