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INTO THE GREAT UNKNOWN

By / 5 years ago / Road Test / No Comments

Talk of hydrogen fuel cells – not to be confused with hydrogen powered internal combustion engines – has been going on in motor manufacturing circles since most current motoring journalists were in short trousers. Mercedes-Benz had an impressive display at the Frankfurt motor show towards the end of the last century, but the accepted view was that commercialisation of the technology was so far off that it wasn’t really worth worrying about. The technology was the realm of nutty professors and over-enthusiastic Californians for whom money was no object.

Now, it appears, the day we have all been waiting for is about to arrive and Hyundai is one of a number of motor manufacturers drawing back the dustsheets from their offerings, rather like competitors at a village fete revealing their carefully cultivated prize marrows.

It’s all a far cry from the early prototypes that a number of major motor manufacturers unveiled around five years ago. The technology was already highly sophisticated, but the individual components weren’t, resulting in bulky, top-heavy vehicles with limited practical applications and less interior space.

Hyundai’s own credentials here go back to 2000 and the first Santa Fe FCEV, followed in 2004 by a Tucson with an 80kW fuel cell on board. To speed up progress, the company opened its Eco-Technology Research Institute in Korea in 2005 and is now poised to make the FCEV a serious fleet proposition.

Hyundai has chosen the iX35 as the bed for its latest foray into the fuel cell market and, according to the company’s National Fleet Sales Manager, Martin Wilson, the car is pretty much ready to go into production. From the outside the iX35 FCEV looks like any other modern SUV and even an under-the-bonnet inspection fails to reveal anything that looks vaguely weird. And that, perhaps, is its real appeal.

Climb behind the wheel (our test car was a left-hand drive version) and it looks and feels completely normal. Turning the key brings about a similar experience to that of a hybrid or conventional battery-powered electric vehicle. A bleep announces that everything is in order and the lights come on, but there’s no noise from the engine. However, select “Drive” in the automatic gearbox and off you go.

Like any other EV it’s a silent ride, so to give pedestrians a fair warning of your approach Hyundai’s engineers have added some engine “sound effects” which can be turned on at the press of a button.

In its current form the iX35 has a range of 325 miles on an 11.3kg tankful of hydrogen – a 55% improvement over the previous fuel cell. The 100kW fuel cell stack has been developed in-house by Hyundai and this has resulted in a significant drop in production costs.

The fuel cell is supplemented by a 21kW lithium-polymer battery pack and produces a top speed of 100mph. And, being powered by electricity, peak torque comes at zero rpm ensuring brisk acceleration from rest.

Testing is now taking place in the real world prior to Hyundai’s planned commercialisation date of some time in 2015. However, much research has already gone into every aspect of the iX35 FCEV, not least of all safety. The car has been extensively crash tested from every direction and to date no leaks have been detected. And while there is a 150kg weight gain over the standard production car, there is no loss of cabin space, making it a perfectly practical vehicle for anyone with H2 on tap.

Verdict

The technology is quite brilliant and few would argue against FCEVs being the future of motoring. It’s hard to beat an abundant energy source (the atmosphere) and zero tailpipe emissions. Once the refuelling infrastructure is in place there will be no stopping the fuel cell.

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