Hyundai ix35 fuel-cell review

Hyundai-ix35-fuel-cell-prototype Hyundai has been battling away at its fuel-cell project for 13 years now. In 1998 it started to develop a Santa Fe sports utility with a 75kW United Technologies Corporation (UTC) fuel cell. Robust, fast and pretty much bomb-proof, this early test vehicle was also very quiet, because its UTC proton exchange membrane fuel cell used ambient air pressure rather than a noisy compressor or turbocharger to compress air into the cell.

I drove it in 2003 and was highly impressed. It marked a new and refreshing approach to an industry seemingly hell bent on adopting the Ballard fuel-cell as standard and the Mercedes-Benz Necar range as a model for development.

How things have changed. After a strong start, Mercedes-Benz's efforts faltered, although it is now back, with the B-class F-cell, which it plans to make commercially available by 2014.

Honda already builds its epochal fuel-cell car, the FCX Clarity, which it leases to customers in Japan and California. General Motors’ "Project Driveway" came to an end this year with 115 Equinox SUV fuel-cell vehicles tested in the US and Europe. And two years ago, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai/Kia, Renault/Nissan and Toyota signed a letter of understanding committing them to start introducing fuel cells in Europe (most likely Germany) from 2015 onwards – the fuel cell is far from dead.

Through it all, Hyundai has plugged away. In 2006 it produced its own fuel-cell stack in a Tucson SUV, then last year, it developed the system further in an ix35 SUV crossover. Like Toyota, Hyundai has traditionally favoured the SUV as a fuel-cell test vehicle, because its size and high-riding stance allows space for the installation of fuel-cells, power electronics and pressurised hydrogen tanks.

Hyundai has already built 28 ix35s and is planning to put the vehicle into limited, 1,000 vehicles-a-year, commercial production in 2015. No prices yet, though Hyundai claims the economies of scale on 1,000 vehicles a year would reduce the cost to one sixth those of the original 1998 Santa Fe prototype, which would have cost several million pounds. Actually the first examples will be most likely leased to carefully selected customers so Hyundai can keep a close eye on them.

In the meantime, Hyundai is participating in a Copenhagen-based, fuel-cell feasibility study, making two ix35s available for European MPs to drive and allowing the press access to the cars.

Hyundai’s experience with UTC has influenced the development of its own fuel-cell, which only requires air at low pressure to reduce noise and maximise overall efficiency, although the ix35’s blower does slightly pressurise the cell and purge it of water when switching off.

“We don’t use air compressor because energy consumption is very high,” says Kwon Tae Cho, a senior research engineer on the fuel cell project. “We use an air blower instead, which means net power goes up, but noise is low.”

The 100kW fuel cell is fed from twin Dynetek pressure tanks holding 5.64kg/144 litres of hydrogen at 10,000psi (700 Bar), giving a range of 348 miles. The motor produces 136bhp/199lb ft, which is enough to sprint the 1.8 tonne ix35 from 0-62mph in 14.1sec and give a top speed of 100mph.

Early testing shows that while bench tests have shown a potential life of 8,000 hours, actual road tests give a life of 3,000 hours and Mr Cho says that hydrogen purity and air filtration are major components of this fall off, although his team is still working on a slight drying of the cell under hard operation, which reduces electricity generation and damages the cell. He also wants to extend the cold-start capability of the cell from the current minus 25 degrees Centigrade, to minus 30.

The cabin presents pretty standard accommodation for passengers, although boot space is compromised as the fuel tanks are under the floor. As well as a conventional speedometer, the dashboard has a power meter, which shows power being used or that being regenerated when the vehicle is coasting or braking. There’s a conventional fuel gauge meter and a temperature gauge showing the state of the fuel-cell’s coolant. Turn the key start and after a 20sec systems check, a green Go lamp appears on the dash showing it is ready to pull away.

Like most electric vehicles, the ix35 pulls away briskly, which gives an impression of a faster car than it actually is. Above 50mph the motor’s torque and efficiency wane quickly and performance falls off. Around town, though, the ix35 is plenty quick enough and almost silent. So much so, that it has to generate an artificial warning sound at low speeds to warn pedestrians of its approach.

If the fuel cell is highly impressive, the rest of the vehicle needs work. Dynamically it isn’t a patch on the competition, or even its Santa Fe and Tucson predecessors. Body control is poor and you can feel the extra 660lb over the standard model, creating roll, moving the tail around over bumps and uncomfortably heaving over sleeping policemen.

The electrically assisted steering is too light and has no feedback. The brakes aren’t good either. They combine electricity regeneration from the AC induction motor and conventional friction linings, but the calibration is so poor you end up slowing down in a series of lurches, however sensitive you are on the pedal.

As a potential bellwether of fuel-cell development, the Hyundai probably falls behind the Mercedes-Benz F-cell and Honda FCX Clarity, but the company has doggedly stuck with the program and continues to pour in resources and manpower. It really should have spent a bit more time on the vehicle dynamics before allowing the ix35 out to politicians and the press, however.

Impressive as the ix35’s fuel cell is, it is the lacklustre driving experience that leaves a lasting impression.

THE FACTS : Hyundai ix35 fuel-cell prototype

Tested: Five-door sports utility crossover with 100kW proton exchange membrane fuel-cell fed by twin Dynetek high pressure tanks holding 5.64kg/144 litres of hydrogen at 10,000psi. Alternating current induction (asynchronous) motor driving the front wheels via a single-speed reduction gear.

Price/on sale: N/A/ 2015

Power/torque: 136bhp/199lb ft

Top speed: 100mph

Acceleration: 0-62mph 14.1sec

Range: 348 miles

CO2 emissions: Zero at tailpipe

Verdict: Nice fuel-cell, shame about the vehicle. Hyundai can and has done better than this.

Telegraph rating: Three out of five stars

By Andrew English, The Telegraph