There is no truth so inconvenient that it can’t be fixed with clever marketing. With an eco-parade of automakers making promises both daring and dubious in their race to join the green gravy train, some skepticism is in order. But now I’ve been to the fuel cell mountaintop and have prayed to the hydrogen altar in an Equinox FCEV. Say Hallelujah! I’m ready to fall to my knees as a true believer in the New Gas. Well, almost.
Following in Bob Dylan’s footsteps, this Chevy has gone electric. A 98-horsepower electric motor sits at its midsection, mated to a 93-kilowatt fuel cell stack that converts hydrogen into electricity. Energy created from regenerative braking is stored in a NiMH battery that assists the fuel cell. Tanks located aft store 4.2 kilos of hydrogen. You can drop that garden hose and extension cord– the Equinox cannot extract hydrogen from water, nor can it run on battery power alone. Unlike the aging folk-rocker, the Equinox emits only heat and water vapor.
Like its Suzuki XL7 platform mate, this conservatively styled crossover won’t set the world ablaze, but the profile is clean and functional. Differences that distinguish the FCEV from its dino-powered sibling are modest. A modified front grille aids cooling of the fuel cells and regenerative system. The quad “exhaust” setup, including four distillers in the tail that emit water vapor, is aggressively styled to earn pistonhead approval, and wins my vote. And let’s not forget– not that we could– the advertorial paint job, adorned with water molecules and “FUEL CELL” logos visible from the next county.
The interior is equally familiar, taken straight from the standard Equinox playbook. The traditional rev counter is replaced by a power gauge that displays kilowatt output from the motor and brakes. This New Age tach makes for great car-geek entertainment, especially when it dips into the green zone as the regenerative system kicks in. A NAV graphic depicts a real-time rendering of the high-tech wizardry at work, including a reminder of how much Old Gas you haven’t burned. However, the monitor’s excessively low position on the center console leaves that amusement strictly to the passengers.
[This evaluation was limited to a short, controlled course, with no high-speed runs possible. Results of this first drive suggest that this FCEV will operate much like an ordinary CUV, albeit one that tips the scales at 4,300+ pounds.]
Startup is a non-event. A bit of pump and fan whirr substitute for engine idle; a dash light provides a useful reminder that the system is operating. Mash the “gas” pedal and power spools-up smoothly. There’s a slight lag in take-up, likely due to the need to pull the fuel cell setup’s several hundred pound weight penalty.
The General claims a top speed of 100 mph and zero to 60 times of about 12 seconds. The surge in the seat satisfies more than those figures suggest, thanks to the 236 ft.-lbs. of torque available throughout the rev range. Interior noise at speed is minimal. Although brake pedal feel suffers slightly from the regenerative braking, stopping power appears unaffected.
GM’s “Project Driveway” will distribute 110 FCEV’s for public testing, gratis. Most approved individuals will receive a three-month test, while fleets get a trial of up to three years. With hydrogen refueling stations as common as the Holy Grail, volunteers must reside in the LA, New York or Washington metro areas, and can’t stray too far from home.
A vehicle that can cart the kids to soccer practice and hit triple-digit speeds while leaving only a harmless vapor trail in its wake is tempting to greenies and gearheads alike. Nonetheless, there are challenges that stymie real-world functionality.
The FCEV’s most obvious liability is range. When refueled at 10,000 psi, the Chevy can travel about 150 miles. Yet many hydrogen pumps dispense gas at half that pressure, so range will frequently be reduced by roughly that amount. The fuel cell system’s substantial bulk– particularly when shoehorned into vehicles not specifically designed around it– shortens an already too-tight leash.
But wait, there’s more. Chemical reactions in the fuel cells create corrosion that contribute to their early demise. After 50k miles, they’re kaput. The New Gas is inefficient to transport and difficult to store, so net energy savings are debatable. Most US hydrogen production is either sourced from natural gas or generated with electricity produced from coal, oil or gas. So most, if not all, roads lead back to hydrocarbons.
Still, a guy can dream, and I’m dreaming. A bit of seat time in the Equinox makes me cross my fingers and toes, hoping this leads to something beyond vaporware. Despite obvious hurdles, to dismiss hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars now would be an exercise in premature pontification. Now, feel free to pass the Kool-Aid; mine’s in the cupholder near the handbrake.
[General Motors provided the test vehicle, insurance, taxes and hydrogen.]