By on December 10, 2018

Hyundai’s hydrogen-powered Nexo is so ludicrously specialized that it’s utterly impossible to make a case for it outside of California. In fact, even that might be overstating its usefulness — allow me to try again. The Nexo Fuel Cell works near Los Angeles or San Francisco and absolutely nowhere else in North America. And, while that’s primarily due to its dependency on hydrogen fueling stations, which exist almost exclusively in two relatively small corners of the Golden State, it’s not the only reason.

You need to be a certain type of person to want to drive the Nexo. Someone who likes making a statement, is interested in green tech, and possesses absolutely zero interest in spirited bouts of driving. It’s slow, appliance-like, and offers nothing to the typical enthusiast crowd, save for some interesting styling. However, if you want something eye-catching that runs on alternative energy and routinely spend a large portion of your day in horrible LA traffic, it could be the right tool for the job. 

(Full disclosure: Hyundai flew me out to the California coast to test the Nexo and highly enjoyable Kona EV, paying for my meals and lodging for the duration. They were also, as always, exceptionally kind to me. Unfortunately, that will not be able to save the car from the harsh criticisms I’m about to throw its way.)

As first impressions go, the Nexo Fuel Cell is exquisite. It looks like a premium item in person, with lots of little exterior touches that make you smirk. Mine was rose gold, which helped garner looks from Hollywood visitors and locals alike. But it comes in an array of neutral and less-ostentatious metallic hues if you don’t want to pretend your vehicle is on loan from a rap video.

However, that could be a mistake, as the Nexo is best experienced at low speeds while bumping your favorite tunes. The largest contributing factors to this are its top-tier audio system and lackluster performance. Its 95 kW fuel cell and 40 kW battery work in tandem to power an electric motor that makes 161 horsepower and 291 lb-ft of torque via a direct-drive gearbox. While that sounds sufficient, Hyundai claims the Nexo weighs in just under two tons — resulting in a 0-to-60 time that leaves something to be desired.

While heavy LA traffic severely impacted the number of times I could test the manufacturer’s estimate of 9.5 seconds to 60 mph, I will comfortably say the Nexo is about as thrilling to drive as a 2001 Chrysler Town & Country. That’s okay, because I don’t think it was ever Hyundai’s intent to turn its new hydrogen model into a tire-shredding performance machine. Instead, the corporate goal appears to be besting the stats of the old Tucson FCEV — which the company has accomplished.

However, it needs to be said that the front-drive Nexo absolutely falls apart during spirited driving. Hard corning induces a level of wheel hop I’ve not encountered in some time. But even moderately sharp turns cause the vehicle’s electronic nanny’s to put in some overtime as the car itself swings wide. It’s not really an issue during normal commuting, when the vehicle isn’t being asked to do much and is thus well behaved, but I wouldn’t advise anyone to pick up the Nexo if they’re interested in exploring its outer limits. You’re just going to feel like you’re actively destroying it.

Keep it cruising and you’ll be happier, but perhaps not overjoyed. While driving in traffic, the Nexo’s forward and rear collision warnings would chime endlessly — even when there wasn’t another vehicle in my immediate area. Due to my limited time with the model, I failed to uncover the menu selection that shut this down, but did discover that turning the vehicle off while stopped in traffic also did the trick. Sadly, that didn’t affect how broken the Nexo felt in its default setting, which many customers are unlikely to change. Highway Driving Assist and Lane Following Assist by Hyundai also failed to impress, throwing me from one side of the street to the other a little more often than Tesla’s Autopilot. While not deal breakers, especially if you like driving yourself, it made the car’s most interesting features feel rushed and kind of chintzy.

Fortunately, there is a lot of other standard tech to keep you distracted from those shortcomings. Most elements you’ll be required to interface with on the regular are intuitive and appear to be of superior quality. However, these aren’t perfect, either. The floating center console offers some interesting storage options and an array of physical buttons, which I appreciated, but it also didn’t feel quite as nice as the rest of the Nexo’s otherwise-superb interior.

Technically a flagship model for the brand, the Nexo is only slightly larger than the current Tucson at 183.9 inches in length and is dwarfed by the Santa Fe. Interior space is serviceable and feels very open with 30 cubic feet of cargo space behind the the second row — which can accommodate adults without much trouble or be folded. The seats are firm but not uncomfortable and are helped by a relatively soft ride. Save for the incessant safety warning chime that you absolutely have to disable to maintain sanity, the Nexo rides smooth and nearly silently with just a hint of tire drone and wind noise at highway speeds. However, at low speeds, it emits an pleasant, angelic tone to alert unaware pedestrians — much like the “lesser” Kona EV, which I found to be genuinely fun from behind the wheel.

Range is estimated by the manufacturer to be an impressive 370 miles, thanks to the Nexo’s three 10,000-psi hydrogen tanks. However, Hyundai and Kia recently issued updated range estimates for their respective Kona and Niro electric crossovers, so the that number could be similarly downgraded soon. Of course, this won’t help or hinder your getting out of California in the Nexo, since its hydrogen fueling infrastructure effectively ends once you’ve ventured a few miles beyond its largest coastal cities. That’s hardly the fault of the car, but it does limit its overall usefulness.

And that’s the real issue. Even if I loved the Nexo, I wouldn’t be able to recommend it or any other hydrogen-powered automobile due to their inherent geographical limitations. Though there may yet be a small market for the model inside of California.

The crossover offers quite a bit of tech and enough off-kilter styling to telegraph its modernity to everyone around you. It has some neat aerodynamic tricks up its sleeve, too, including automated door handles that become flush with the door when not in use. But there are also things like a two-spoke steering wheel, twin 12.3-inch displays, fancy remote parking (which doesn’t require you to be in the car), advanced navigation, and a push-button transmission to help it really shout, “I’m something new and very different.” Hyundai even bolstered the fuel cell’s cold-weather performance, with the ability to start in conditions as cold as minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit. Odd, considering they’re only selling it in California, but it remains a technological achievement of some note.

And technological achievements are likely what will reel in all of its prospective buyers. While the Hyundai Nexo is not fast or particularly fun to drive, it is unique enough to warrant some attention from technophiles. For me, it’s a car I wouldn’t mind being trapped inside of in heavy city traffic (because that’s where it shines) but not something I would ever consider recommending to most auto enthusiasts or the average Joseph/Josephine.

Starting at an estimated $55,000 and available in the latter half of 2019, the Nexo comes in at a price point that puts it up against a BMW X4 or Mercedes-Benz GLC 350e with all-wheel drive. But those cars burn still burn smelly gasoline, not the magic gas of the future we call hydrogen. So we’re left with the Honda Clarity and Toyota Mirai, which also provide a comfortable and quiet ride but similarly tepid dynamics (albeit less so in the Honda), as more direct comparisons. Having never occupied the Clarity Fuel Cell, I cannot comment much about its performance, but the Mirai isn’t much better than the Nexo and offers its own unique brand of ultra-modern styling in a less-spacious feeling package.

Regardless, there’s little reason to cross shop unless you’re living in coastal California and hydrogen cars already appeal to you. But, even then, I would still suggest waiting. The technology and especially the infrastructure have a ways to go before reaching a point where battery-electric vehicles and especially internal combustion vehicles have to seriously worry.

Unless you’re looking for a drivable conversation piece and find yourself perpetually stuck in rush-hour traffic, the Hyundai Nexo is a hard pass. It’s extremely slick but lacks the fundamentals.

[Images: Hyundai; © 2018 Matt Posky/TTAC]

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33 Comments on “2019 Hyundai Nexo First Drive – The Future Is Beige...”


  • avatar
    CKNSLS Sierra SLT

    Unless there are underlying government subsidies or incentives to build these things-I don’t understand why one would build (or buy) a vehicle that can’t be refueled easily.

    • 0 avatar
      forward_look

      There’s also the problem of the cost of fuel cells, which is still ridiculously high due to the precious metal catalysts involved. If they solved that, still the problem of H2 infrastructure and handling.

      If they could run on a liquid fuel, they’d have something.

    • 0 avatar
      ttacrules

      I plan to lease one. They can be refueled easily in the Los Angeles area. I have another vehicle for traveling outside of California (can also rent one).

      • 0 avatar
        Vulpine

        I understand the potentials for fuel cell but I’m interested in the realities based on actual use. Any chance you could keep us informed as to the pros and cons as you lease that car?

  • avatar
    jack4x

    Hydrogen is the cold fusion of automotive propulsion. Great in theory, not gonna realistically happen in anyone’s lifetime, and now unnecessary in the face of rapidly cheapening alternatives.

    It’s sobering to think what other incremental design improvements could have been made to ICEs, batteries, etc. by now if the billions of development dollars wasted chasing this pointless exercise had been used for R&D in something productive.

  • avatar
    pbx

    In June of this year Shell opened a public hydrogen fuelling station in Vancouver, with plans for 2 more.

    • 0 avatar
      chris724

      Where do these west coast cities get their hydrogen? Natural gas reformation, or grid powered electrolysis?

      • 0 avatar
        TDIandThen....

        BC is a combination – hydropower and geothermal have a lot of spare overnight generation capacity, meaning hydrogen via electrolysis or ‘green hydrogen’ is a viable medium term source for the region. There’s also some biomethane made into H, and the rest – which is still quite a lot – comes from natural gas. If I remember correctly hydrogen in BC is about 40% less emitting than gasoline, once energy transformations and all the steps are taken into account.

  • avatar
    salmonmigration

    Air Liquide recently announced they’re going to be building the first bulk-scale hydrogen liquefaction plant in “the Western US”, in order to serve the weird hydrogen cars that you can lease in California.

    Chemical plants and refineries already make huge amounts of hydrogen, and it’s generally burned for fuel in boilers on site. But practically nobody produces liquid hydrogen. You need expensive and exotic compressors and heat exchangers, and power-hungry refrigeration plants in order to make it into liquid.

    • 0 avatar
      chris724

      It also boils off while parked. Not a good idea!

      • 0 avatar
        salmonmigration

        Yeah I mean, that’s just a talking point. Gasoline turns to varnish if you park it too long. Lithium ion cells have a limited lifespan.

        Battery EVs will just need a scale up of existing power infrastructure, plus some home and public charging stations.

        Hydrogen fuel would require a whole new industry built from scratch.

        • 0 avatar
          mcs

          I’m sure those 10k PSI tanks along with the associated hardware and safety hardware have a limited lifespan too. Gas turns to varnish, Lithium Ion loses range. What happens when a 10k psi nears the end of its life and the owner hasn’t properly maintained the system?

  • avatar
    jatz

    Pretty car though I’m not crazy about the Dodge Magnumming of the rear roofline.

    As to what makes it go, don’t care so long as it’s cheap and locally available.

  • avatar
    RHD

    That rose gold color screams “I’m a narcissistic woman who likes things that look expensive, like iPhones!”
    No (straight) man would buy one in this color. Gotta tell it like it is.

    We need to know why Hyundai used a chain link fence as the inspiration for the grille.

    Other than that, kudos to Hyundai for exploring a niche. This ain’t gonna be the next Camry, though.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    It resembles a 2008 Tucson.

    I’m not sure *any* fuel cell vehicle is suitable for sale, even in California. Fueling remains a nightmare. And it’s worth considering that the per-mile cost of this fuel is on par with operating a Dodge Hellcat – no joke.

    https://www.edmunds.com/honda/clarity/2017/long-term-road-test/2017-honda-clarity-fuel-cell-hydrogen-mageddon.html

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      This must be the first one that’s actually *for sale.* Traditionally, these hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles were leased to customers, because the expensive materials made them cost-prohibitive to sell outright for anything south of six figures.

      This car’s predecessor, the Tucson Fuel Cell, was available as a 36-month lease for $499 a month with $2,999 due at signing and complimentary/unlimited hydrogen refueling.

    • 0 avatar
      ttacrules

      The price is only high because of the small quantities of hydrogen that are made. Ammonia (NH3) is made from hydrogen and cost 50 cents a kilogram. Hydrogen should cost *less* than ammonia.

      • 0 avatar
        Vulpine

        @ttacrules: Ummm… The article you linked below suggests otherwise on the cost of hydrogen right now; the more efficient process is strictly laboratory analysis and has not been tested at industrial scales… yet.

        You’re talking as though it were available today but that’s still a few years down the road, especially if the production is going to rely on ammonia output from a thorium nuclear plant.

        Ammonia pipelines are somewhat limited in extent and shipping liquid ammonia will be essentially the same as shipping petroleum fuels, at least for a while.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    A correction to Mr. Posky: the future here is actually rose gold.

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    So the fuel cell drivetrain fails on performance while the suspension fails on handling. Why and I not surprised?

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    Oh. The car itself reminds me of a ’90s-vintage Buick. Pale metallics never did float my boat. This thing needs to be at least 20 shades darker.

  • avatar
    JoDa

    “That’s okay, because I don’t think it was ever Hyundai’s intent to turn its new hydrogen model into a tire-shredding performance machine”

    Really? Whodathunk.

    The future is 1000s of localized small/mid sized nuclear power plants cracking water off-peak for hydrogen fuel cell EVs…If you understand thermodynamics and specific energy. It is the ONLY viable alternative to the magnificent hydrocarbon.

    • 0 avatar
      ttacrules

      Safe thorium-based nuclear power plants are the key to the hydrogen economy. What I see happening is that nuclear power plants produce ammonia (from water and air) since it can be moved using existing ammonia pipelines. At the pump, ammonia (NH3) can be easily converted to H2. The cost for H2 would be less than $2/kg at the pump. This is what oil companies are afraid of, not BEV’s which serve a niche market.

      https://phys.org/news/2014-08-air-ammoniaone-world-important-chemicals.html

      • 0 avatar
        Vulpine

        @ttacrules: I disagree that BEVs are a niche market, considering how many OEMs are going that way right now with a charging infrastructure that is growing daily. HFC lacks that infrastructure and it could take decades to build in such infrastructure, considering the ammonia lines you mention would now need to be extended to the refueling stations OR ammonia distribution centers (tank farms similar to petroleum) and trucked to those stations. I’m not certain petroleum tanks can be converted over to ammonia storage.

        Also, at least at the moment the number of thorium power plants is extremely limited. I am aware of a few–mostly pilot–operations in northern Europe but none anywhere else. If there are others, I’d like to know.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    This must be one of the only passenger vehicles on the market that uses a two-spoke steering wheel. The other is the equally-quirky BMW i3.

    Mercedes-Benz had one on the non-AMG S-Class sedans from 2014-2017, but switched to a new three-spoke for all models during the 2018 facelift.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    The perfect car for the Cupertino crowd.

  • avatar
    ttacrules

    Couple things I don’t understand:

    1. Why Hyundai flies in people from outside of California who have no comprehension about FCEV’s or why they are suitable for people who live here.

    2. Rose gold? Nobody likes this color so why would Hyundai make it, let alone give it to reviewers?

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    1. Independent and hopefully unbiased reviews of the vehicle can help sales;

    2. Believe it or not, there ARE people who like the color, even if you and I are not among them. My wife, for instance, loves the color, to the point that her watch and her phone are that color and she’s planning on having her next laptop computer either anodized or ‘skinned’ in that color.


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