Driving the Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell: The world's first production hydrogen fuel cell car

"It's right here, it's right now", said Tony Whitehorn, Hyundai UK president and CEO. He wasn't quoting Fat Boy Slim, but talking about hydrogen, which Hyundai is making a serious commitment to as a future fuel for cars, as an alternative to conventional petrol or diesel.

What better way to demonstrate that commitment, but to present us with the Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell, the world's first full production fuel cell vehicle?

Slip into the Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell's leather-clad driving seat and you could be in any small SUV. That's no accident: convincing people that a fuel cell vehicle is something they want means making it as normal as possible, so that there's no feeling of compromise in owning a zero-emissions car.

But what exactly is a fuel cell and how does this future technology work? The Hyundai ix35 technically has an electric powertrain, it has an electric motor under the bonnet to drive the wheels, rather than a combustion engine.

Although hydrogen is flammable, it's not burnt to produce power as you would with diesel or petrol. Instead the "fuel cell" is used to generate electric energy chemically from the hydrogen, like having a small power plant in your car. This energy then drives the car's motor and all the other systems, but the main point is that it's emission free at the point of use: there's not even an exhaust pipe at the rear.

Everything behaves like a conventional automatic. Slip it in to drive and we pull away smoothly and in silence, just as battery-powered electric vehicles do. The stature of the ix35 Fuel Cell gives you a comfortable ride, it soaks up the lumps in the road with the height giving you great visibility.

Our route is though busy streets in west London, over plenty of those ubiquitous speed bumps. It's just like being one of those notorious SUVs on the school run. But with zero emissions. There's no sideways glances, because the ix35 Fuel Cell looks the same as the regular ix35, except silent, like a hydrogen-powered ninja of the road.

When we see a patch of clear road, we put our foot down and the Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell responds, leaving us little to complain about. In terms of performance, it produces 136hp, with a top speed of 100mph and a 0-62 figure of 12.5 seconds.

So why would you want a hydrogen-powered car over a battery-powered car like the Nissan Leaf? For starters, the Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell has a range of 369 miles and because it runs on gas, re-fuelling takes 3-5 minutes, via a pump, just as you would refuel a petrol or diesel car today.

That's a huge advantage over the battery-powered zero emission cars already available, because you don't have to plug it in to recharge for 8 hours before you can start driving again. The downside, is that you need a supply of hydrogen - you can't just plug it into the mains.

Hydrogen has been on the agenda as an automotive fuel for some time, but it is in something of a chicken and egg situation. Without the infrastructure, there's nothing to fuel vehicles. But with no vehicles, the infrastructure isn't needed.

"I do believe we've come to that pivotal moment in the UK," Whitehorn told us. "We are, right now, the first manufacturer to go from a hand-built vehicle to series production."

Hyundai has stepped up and pledged to produce 1000 ix35 Fuel Cell vehicles, before scaling up to 10,000 in 2015 as the infrastructure grows. "Fuel Cell is no longer coming, it's here," reiterates Whitehorn.

However, you won't be able to just go out and buy one. The first 1,000 are to be leased by public or private fleets to demonstrate that hydrogen vehicles are a viable reality. Five will be making their way to London as part of the London Hydrogen Network Expansion project.

Of course, Hyundai can't force a revolution in automotive fuels on its own. There are huge efforts going into creating a hydrogen network that's going to power the future. Through partnerships, like UKH2Mobility, Hyundai is working with other automobile manufacturers, government bodies, and industrial partners with a vision to ramp-up both the vehicle production and the fuelling stations in tandem, to create a viable alternative for customers.

Currently there's basically no infrastructure, just a scattering of hydrogen fuelling stations which are in place for demonstration or research. That's planned to expand to 65 by 2015, and onwards into the future and it's good to see names like Sainsbury's and Morrisons involved. Traditional "oil" companies might need a legislative poke from government to put hydrogen on forecourts, but supermarkets might not.

That all seems like a minor concern as we're sitting behind the wheel of the Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell car. With a driving experience that feels wholly conventional, it's up to these players to provide the pieces, at the right prices, to bring us a hydrogen-powered, zero emissions, future.



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