Car reviews - Hyundai - NEXO
Refinement, comfortable ride, space and vision, effortlessly normal to live with (if you’re near a hydrogen fuelling station!)
Room for improvement
Styling a little plain, mediocre country-road acceleration, excess of silver cabin detailing, need to live near a fuelling station
Australia’s first-ever FCEV, the Hyundai Nexo, dips its toes into the eco waters
26 Mar 2021
IF YOU’VE been busting to know what driving a hydrogen vehicle is like, we’ll skip to the chase – surprisingly normal.
In an era where most of us are now familiar with how electrification works in a passenger vehicle – even if it’s only that first moment of movement in a Camry Hybrid taxi – there’s nothing unusual about not hearing a combustion engine humming away up front.
In that regard, the Hyundai Nexo medium SUV is just like Hyundai’s Kona and Ioniq EVs – smooth, effortless, and borderline-silent. Except that the Nexo feeds on hydrogen, not electricity, and even though it has a battery mounted above its rear axle – powering ancillaries while adding a performance boost when required – the front-drive Nexo’s chief source of propulsion is the fuel cell occupying its engine bay.
First drive impressions
Officially, the Kona and Ioniq are Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) whereas the Nexo is a Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) – not a hydrogen one.
The Nexo’s fuel cell converts the chemical energy in hydrogen to electricity, hence its FCEV classification, and while it relies on wind and solar energy to produce the hydrogen that drives it, the Nexo emits nothing more than water vapour to the atmosphere.
In terms of range, the Nexo’s 666km WLTP-measured distance is pretty impressive. So too is the time it takes to fill the three high-pressure hydrogen tanks (totalling 156.6 litres) that sit beneath its rear-seat area – around five minutes. And while its outright performance is somewhat less than many battery-electric alternatives, the Nexo’s claimed 9.2 seconds to 100km/h is bang on the money for an everyday medium SUV.
Indeed, when driving the Nexo around Canberra’s multi-faceted road network, there’s a satisfying suaveness to its off-the-line speed and general urban acceleration. Given that Australia’s first 20 Nexos will be leased to the ACT public service and powered by Australia’s first public hydrogen fuelling station (located in Fyshwick), it’s fitting that the Nexo feels so naturally at home briskly navigating the nation’s capital.
Out on the open road, the Nexo doesn’t feel quite so spirited. While it’s no porker (kerb weight is 1814kg), the Nexo’s combined system output of 135kW doesn’t really lend itself to EV-style thrust when overtaking. Top speed is a modest 179km/h, and its rolling acceleration beyond 100km/h is unexceptional at best, though it rarely feels wanting for driveability urge or tractability ease.
There are two drive modes – Eco and Normal – neither of which change its driving flavour to any huge extent. Eco is all about easing its throttle sensitivity, to benefit efficiency. What can’t be altered is its fixed-rate suspension set-up which was tuned here in Australia, in conjunction with focusing on reducing road-noise levels. Yet given the Nexo’s clear focus on ride comfort over sporty handling, its lack of adaptive damping is hardly an issue.
Wearing 245/45R19 Hankook Ventus S1 Evo tyres, the Nexo does a surprisingly good job containing coarse-surface road roar, particularly in light of its hushed powertrain. And while its ride quality isn’t limousine plush, it’s actually quite soothing until the road surface really starts to deteriorate.
The height of the Nexo’s fuel-cell system in its engine bay is probably the biggest giveaway as to how it handles. Unlike in an EV, you don’t sense that there’s a super-low centre of gravity – more a propensity to lean its front-end during cornering. But there’s a cohesion to the Nexo’s dynamics that feels finessed and satisfying, from its general handling balance to the progressive response of its lightly weighted steering.
For all the tech lurking underneath, the Nexo mostly feels like any other well-sorted regular SUV. Only at walking pace does the Nexo require attention to how much throttle you give it to keep it smooth, and same goes for the greater-than-normal pedal travel needed when braking.
Otherwise, its regenerative braking system (with three intensity levels) works seamlessly, and the way it functions as an SUV is admirably slick.
Featuring a bespoke FCEV platform to achieve best-possible packaging efficiency, the Nexo’s leggy 2790mm wheelbase delivers plenty of cabin space.
Its front seats are mounted fairly high for a superb view over its broad, flat bonnet, and its driving position is excellent. The retro-futurist two-spoke steering wheel is cool to look at and pleasant to hold, and there’s an easy functionality to its vast information screens, if not its button-laden centre-console ‘bridge’ that does take time to navigate.
In the rear, there’s ample room for two adults and terrific vision, as well as a centre position that’s doable for moderate distances, though the rear floor does have a hump in the middle. And while the boot offers an average 461 litres of space (with a small polystyrene cubby beneath the floor), folding the multi-position rear backrests almost delivers a flat load area.
As for the overall cabin design, much like the outside it’s a hit-and-miss affair. Many of the materials are intriguing – there’s 34kg of bio-plastic used for interior parts including carpet, trims, headlining, door trims seats and centre console – and vegetable-oil-derived bio-paints have been used throughout the cabin, along with bio-fibres made from corn and sugarcane waste. But the excess of silver paint covering much of the interior screams 1996 concept car and doesn’t look expensive.
The screens, however, which dominate the overall vista, are slick and classy. Of greatest interest is the ‘eco contribution’ screen, that breaks down how much air the Nexo has purified and its carbon-dioxide reduction during a journey. One example showed that over 435km, the Nexo purified enough air for eight adults to breathe during a day and saved 62.3kg of CO2.
As for the overall equipment, our Nexos are well-specced. Every available feature globally is standard in the Aus-spec Nexo, which essentially mirrors the Highlander spec level of Hyundai’s combustion-engined SUVs. We also get every available colour, though that only amounts to four – Cocoon Silver and Copper Metallic with stone grey interiors, or Dark Blue and White Cream with dark blue interiors adding a touch of 1980s retro.
For now, the Hyundai Nexo will remain the domain of the ACT and Queensland governments in a leasing arrangement totalling 25 cars (five are heading north). But in the coming months, Hyundai plans to progressively start making the Nexo available to the public.
The decision is all based around monitoring the energy used of the first 20 cars deployed in the ACT, and how much hydrogen will need to be produced by Australia’s first public hydrogen fuelling station.
“We’re probably months away from it (Nexo being available to the public),” said Hyundai senior manager of future mobility and government relations Scott Nargar. “We don’t own the (hydrogen fuelling) station, we don’t control it or operate it, so we’re just trying to work out if we’ve got enough gas to keep our 20 cars going.
“Once these 20 cars go to the different departments in the ACT government, we’ll know their heavy usage. We don’t know whether they’re doing 150km a day or 150km a week – some departments do a lot less than others.
“If we had more capacity at the station (which is coming – the station has been future-proofed for easy expansion), we’d do it straight away.”
Hyundai is remaining mum about what the actual leasing costs will be for the Nexo, seeing its chief fuel-cell competitor (the Toyota Mirai) is yet to launch. But to get this future energy solution out into the market, Hyundai knows it needs to subsidise hydrogen’s green journey.
As an alternative fuel source, hydrogen seems to be a no-brainer for countries as abundant in wind and solar energy – and land – as Australia. And as an eco-friendly SUV, the Nexo performs impressively well in normalising the experience, without making it bland or boring.
The design itself might already be three years old but you’ll be seeing the Nexo around, in however limited numbers, for quite some time to come. And if you have a green conscience, that should be heart-warming.
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Model release date: 1 March 2021
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