What would you say if I told you that you could buy a crossover SUV that emits nothing but water vapor and heat, and actually cleans the air as it drives down the road? Not only that, it can travel up to 380 miles on a tank of fuel, and it takes about five minutes to fill the tank using a familiar pump at a station. And as long as you use it during the first three years, you get $13,000 of free gas.
No, I haven’t been taking advantage of California’s legalization of marijuana. If you live in the Golden State, you can buy or lease such a vehicle right now, today.
It’s called the 2019 Hyundai Nexo, it’s real, and it’s spectacular.
The Nexo is one of three hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle models available to California drivers. It is sold through a handful of dealers located near Los Angeles and San Francisco. In addition to the free fuel, approval to use it in high-occupancy carpool lanes, and a $7,500 federal tax credit, California is offering an income-based rebate good for up to $7,000. And, when you actually do need a gasoline vehicle for a road trip, Hyundai pays for up to 21 days of car rentals during the first three years of ownership.
That oughta take some of the sting out of the $58,300 base price for the Nexo Blue ($61,800 for the Nexo Limited).
Effortless, Zero-Emission Driving
As futuristic as the new Hyundai Nexo sounds, this crossover looks absolutely normal. Stylish and upscale, in fact, with cool flush door handles just like a Range Rover Velar and eco-friendly paint that is soybean-oil-based. Get the Limited trim for the 19-inch wheels shown above, which look much better than the standard wheels.
Equipped with three carbon fiber tanks and a 95-kW fuel-cell stack, the Nexo converts hydrogen gas into electricity, which flows through a 1.56-kWh lithium-ion battery to the crossover’s 120-kW electric drive motor. Emissions from this process include water vapor and hot air, and the air exiting the Nexo is cleaner than it was going in.
You read that right: the Nexo actually cleans the air as it drives down the road.
The resulting 161 horsepower and 291 lb.-ft. of torque is good enough to accelerate the 3,990-pound vehicle to 60 mph in a claimed 9.5 seconds, according to Hyundai.
Driving range is 380 miles in Blue trim, which is 115 more miles than the automaker’s previous Tucson Fuel Cell could muster. The EPA says the Nexo Blue is rated to return 61 MPGe. Limited versions weigh 126 lbs. more and ride on less aerodynamic 19-inch wheels wrapped in 245/45 tires, so its range is 354 miles and EPA rating is 57 MPGe.
Refueling at a hydrogen station takes about five minutes, says Hyundai. Should you run out of fuel for whatever reason, the automaker offers 24-hour roadside assistance every day of the week and will tow the Nexo to the closest hydrogen station – which may or may not be open or operational. The limited but growing refueling network does remain somewhat temperamental.
Hyundai says that it stress-tested the Nexo at temperatures down to -20 degrees Fahrenheit and up to 120 degrees, as well as at high altitude. During a morning spent driving the Nexo in metropolitan Los Angeles, I encountered no such extremes.
What’s most remarkable about driving the Nexo is that it is unremarkable. Because it is a type of electric vehicle, it is quiet, emitting a bit of a Jetsonian whine at idle and a whir as you accelerate. Otherwise, it looks and drives just like any other crossover SUV.
All that electrified torque is available the moment you step on the accelerator, squirting the Nexo away from intersections with ease, but this Hyundai isn’t downright fast like a Tesla, and that’s just fine. Its comparatively leisurely performance is entirely in keeping with the Nexo’s Zen-like design inspirations.
To extend range, put the Nexo in Eco mode. Aggressive coasting regeneration will help to improve efficiency. In Normal mode, paddles on the steering wheel cycle between different levels of regen, and if you hold it you can operate the SUV in one-pedal-driving mode, which means that with careful planning you never need to use the brake pedal. Switch to Sport mode and the Nexo feels more responsive to right-foot inputs.
In the city, the Nexo rides serenely, communicative enough to give the driver a feel for the road yet compliant enough to soak up bumps and cracks in the pavement. The crossover’s low center of gravity, combined with the Limited trim’s bigger 19-inch wheels, provides athletic cornering. There is a touch too much weight to the steering, but not enough to ruin the experience.
My time behind the wheel ends after a short but rousing run on Topanga Canyon Road near Malibu. Again, you won’t mistake the Nexo for a sports car, but it certainly isn’t sloppy in corner after curve.
In fact, you might mistake the Nexo for a standard-issue compact crossover. Nothing about the Nexo’s driving dynamics, aside from the whine and whir, suggests that it is a futuristic fuel-cell vehicle. And that is one of the best things about it.
Upscale, High-tech Interior and Equipment
Hyundai uses bio-friendly materials for the Nexo’s convincingly upscale cabin, reducing CO2 emissions by 26 lbs. per vehicle during the manufacturing process. The standard leatherette is a vegan-based material, and the seats are heated, ventilated, and comfortable.
About the size of a Hyundai Tucson, the Nexo offers seating for five people. I rode in the back seat for about 20 miles, appreciating the supportive cushions and legroom. Because Hyundai uses three hydrogen tanks, it can preserve both passenger and cargo space, which measures 29.6 cu.-ft. behind the rear seat and 56.5 cu.-ft. with the 60/40-split back seat folded down.
Hyundai characterizes the Nexo’s control layout as similar to a flight deck, and its oversized displays, flat planes, center console bridge, and numerous buttons and knobs definitely convey that sensation.
The driver faces 7-inch instrumentation and 12.3-inch infotainment displays, married into a single black panel stretched across more than half the cabin. The result reminds me of a high-end Mercedes-Benz but with a touch less sophistication.
Manual controls for infotainment, climate, transmission, and other functions are arrayed on the center console bridge, angled more toward the Nexo’s roof than anywhere else. This, combined with the dark lettering on gray buttons, makes them harder to see and use than they should be.
Standard equipment includes Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Bluetooth with text-to-speech capability, Qi-compatible wireless device charging, navigation, and three free years of Blue Link services with a hydrogen station locator. Upgrade to Limited trim and you’ll get a truly outstanding Krell premium audio system, filling the cabin with rich, rewarding sound.
A long list of driver assistance and collision avoidance systems is standard on the Nexo, and Hyundai addresses concerns about hydrogen fuel storage by using carbon fiber for the tanks and explaining that, should one puncture, the fuel would “instantaneously dissipate into the atmosphere” because “hydrogen is 16 times lighter than air.”
Several technologies either debut for the first time on a Hyundai or are new to the brand and also available on the Nexo.
Falling into the latter camp, Blind Spot Collision Avoidance Assist provides steering assist to prevent a driver from changing lanes when a vehicle is in the blind spot. The company’s new Blind-spot View Monitor is also available for the Nexo, using the wide-angle surround-view camera system to show the driver what’s on either side of the Nexo, displayed as a video feed in the digital instrumentation panel. Note, though, that these systems work only when you’ve signaled a lane change.
New for Hyundai and debuting on the Nexo, a Lane Following Assist system keeps the vehicle centered in its lane at speeds from 0 to 90 mph. Hyundai says it works on both city streets and highways. Another debut is Remote Smart Parking Assist, which autonomously parks the crossover in parallel and perpendicular parking spaces while the driver stands outside the vehicle using the key fob to activate the system.
The Bottom Line
With the 2019 Nexo, Hyundai demonstrates that a clean, green future is available today. All that’s missing is the infrastructure, and renewable sources of large quantities of hydrogen fuel.
Oh, is that all? Just fuel and places to get it?
Patience, young grasshopper. Baby steps. Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles might be a novelty today, but the network of refueling stations is growing, along with interest in the technology and the vehicles. Hydrogen – the most abundant element in the universe – can power a vehicle without harming the planet. We simply need to make harnessing it a priority.
And that starts with vehicles like the new Nexo.