WALLINGFORD, Conn. — If you’re looking for a white-knuckle driving experience, the Hyundai Tucson fuel-cell car isn’t for you. The darned thing is well-mannered, and quiet, exceptionally quiet even among the near-silent electric cars. There’s not much in the way of compromises, either — the same load space (give or take an inch) as the production Tucson, and 265 miles of range.
Hyundai talks about this fuel-cell Tucson as the first “mass-produced” hydrogen car, which spokesman Derek Joyce explained to me means that it’s produced on a spur line at the factory in Korea. Hyundai has the capacity to build 1,000 hydrogen Tucsons globally by the end of 2015, and whether it actually does so depends on demand and, especially, construction of hydrogen stations. Right now there is a grand total of nine in California (with three more set to open), and one each in South Carolina and Connecticut. No wonder these cars are currently available only in the Los Angeles area, which has seven of the state’s nine.
In terms of utility, nothing is lost converting the Tucson to hydrogen power. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
The first Tucson was delivered in June to customer Timothy Bush in Tustin, California. The deal is he pays $2,999 down and $499 a month, a price that includes unlimited fuel and free maintenance. Hyundai won’t say how many it’s delivered since, but it can’t be a whole lot. Some cars have gone to Europe (the Tucson is a global model), including a few to fleet customers in Copenhagen.
The Tucson I drove is on the East Coast so that it can be seen by Washington decision makers (who control the purse strings at the not always hydrogen-friendly Department of Energy) and journalists like me. I encountered it twice, catching up with it at Connecticut’s only hydrogen station.
Larry Moulthrop of Proton OnSite runs a fleet of 10 Toyota hydrogen cars, and gets occasional fuel-cell visitors from GM and Mercedes-Benz. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
The Sun Hydro hydrogen pump is operated by fuel-cell specialist Proton OnSite, and it’s solar powered, part of a network envisioned by owner (and Lumber Liquidators honcho) Tom Sullivan. The East Coast hydrogen highway has been delayed, but a second station is now going through approvals in Braintree, Massachusetts, according to Proton’s Larry Moulthrop, vice president of hydrogen systems.
Refueling the Tucson took only a few minutes. Anyone used to gas stations could learn the technique in a snap — the only challenge is ensuring a positive, no-leak connection. Hyundai minder Joe Guy Collier had put about 100 miles on the odometer since the last fill, and it still had 158 miles left, so the range appeared accurate.
The Tucson has regenerative braking like the battery electric it closely resembles, and an onboard gauge shows when the car is charging or using power. Otherwise, there’s not much to give the car away as fuel-cell powered. The many hydrogen prototypes I’ve driven had dangling wires, and air compressors that hissed and snapped. One GM car couldn’t be driven in the rain. But that’s all a thing of the past in this well-mannered production vehicle.
The Tucson can store 12.4 pounds of pressurized hydrogen, enough for 265 miles of cruising. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
The electric motor puts out 134 horsepower, compared to 164 in the base Tucson GLS, but the fuel-cell version has the edge in torque — 221 pound feet compared to 151. There are 12.4 pounds of hydrogen stored in the made-in-Korea carbon fiber reinforced tank under the cargo floor (raising it an inch). It’s a weighty beast at 4,101 pounds, but it handles well and is basically a delight to drive.
If you’re lucky enough like Tim Bush to live in Southern California, then you should have a fun time with the Tucson. Like most electrics, it doesn’t require much maintenance — just a filter that has to get replaced at 6,500 miles, and a coolant change at 39,000. Other than that it’s zero emission motoring, with a virtual certainty that you’re not going to meet other fuel-cell cars coming and going.
Here's a close-up of Sun Hydro refueling on video:
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