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While most in the industry are harping on about electric vehicles, there’s another zero-emission revolution quietly happening in the background: that of hydrogen-powered cars.

There’s plenty of debate in both camps on which is actually the most environmentally friendly from well to wheel, but in the future, there’s every possibility that these two sustainable options for powering vehicles can co-exist, just like the fuels of today.

For now, there are two clear advantages on the practicality front for hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV). They have longer ranges than EVs, eradicating range anxiety, and refuelling can only take five minutes. By comparison, a decent charge for an EV on the go will take the best part of an hour.

But then of course, there’s the infrastructure. There are 16,000 EV public charging points in the UK. There are 11 hydrogen refuelling stations. Need we say more? There are plans to have 65 stations by 2030, but for now, this limitation – and the expense of the cars in the first place - means hydrogen cars are only viable for a precious few.

Hyundai has been at the forefront of hydrogen vehicle development, starting research in 1998, it claims. There was a Tucson-based prototype in 2007 and then, in 2014, a hydrogen variant of its ix35 SUV arrived, which laid claim to being the first so-called ‘mass production’ hydrogen car.

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There are now 500 of these cars in Europe, of which 17 made it to the UK. We even ran a long-term hydrogen ix35 to find out how realistic it was to live with.

The Nexo replaces the ix35, and is built from the ground up as an FCEV. Compared to the ix35, the fuel cell technology is smaller, lighter and stronger, refuelling times are shorter and the air supply system is improved. It has 414 miles of range on a WLTP cycle and takes five minutes to refuel. 

Hyundai calls the Nexo its “technological flagship” and to this end, has made sure technology extends far beyond just the hydrogen fuel cell. It has a blind spot view monitor which shows drivers on a central screen the rear left, right and side views of the Nexo using cameras while changing lanes as well as Remote Smart Parking Assist, which enables the Nexo to park itself or retrieve itself from a parking space without a driver in the car.

The model is capable of Level 4 autonomous driving, which means it can self-drive in all but the most complex driving scenarios, and was tested in South Korea where it completed a 118-mile run. However, this technology won’t be fitted to the production models given that legislation does not yet allow for that level of autonomy.

It’s also safe, recently becoming the first hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle to score a maximum five-star Euro NCAP safety rating.

Given the issues we’ve highlighted surrounding hydrogen, it’s unsurprising there are few competitors to the Nexo. The £66,000 Toyota Mirai is the only other hydrogen car on sale in the UK, while there are no plans to bring the Honda Clarity FCV to the UK despite it being on sale elsewhere.

Is the Nexo ready to arrive in dealerships yet?

We drove a pre-production Nexo, but to all intents and purposes, it’s ready to go bar a few materials and the sat nav which is still in development. 

The opportunity has come up because it’s ‘Clean Driving Month’ and Hyundai has teamed up with University College London to map the most polluted and congested roads in the city, and then – you guessed it – have the Nexo drive around to help clean the air. Yes, it’s a marketing ploy, but demonstrates an impressive string to its bow.

There are two elements which are displayed in a section of the infotainment system. The first shows how much air you’ve purified, equating it to the amount of air an adult breathes a day. Hyundai claims that, in one hour, the Nexo purifies 26.9kg of air, the same amount as 42 adults.

The second is the CO2 reduction achieved by driving the Nexo over a petrol car. For example, in one 8.7-mile section of my drive, the system claimed CO2 was reduced by 2.1kg.

How does the Hyundai Nexo perform on the road?

Green credentials aside, what’s it like to drive? You might expect a hydrogen car to feel dramatically different, yet it doesn’t. The Nexo hasn’t been created to be the ultimate driver’s car but, nonetheless, it is respectable on the road. In many ways, it feels like any electric vehicle with the same instant and linear power delivery.

The 120kW motor delivers 161bhp and 291lb ft of torque and the Nexo does 0-62mph in 9.5sec. From a standing start, it has just slightly more lag than your typical EV, but is still far more satisfying than an average internal combustion-engined car.

It rides comfortably but there’s a fair bit of judder on uneven Tarmac, while handling is hampered by the heavy weight (1814kg), which you notice immediately. That said, at a brief opportunity to throw it around a corner or two, it fared better than expected given its heft.

There are two driving modes, Normal and Eco. There’s not a stark difference in how the car feels between the two, but the Eco only delivers 80% of the overall power, though this can be overridden by pushing through a step on the throttle.

It’s also well insulated from wind and road noise, especially given there’s no traditional engine to partially conceal them. 

Does the Nexo stand out from other Hyundai cars inside the cabin?

The most notable innovation behind the wheel, other than how the car is powered, comes from the blind spot view monitor. As soon as you indicate to change lanes, a screen comes up on the digital instrument cluster. The first time was distracting, but by the fifteenth time, I was happy not to check my blind spot physically. In a world where convenience rules, not having to move your head is the ultimate convenience.

The interior is a comfortable place to be. The materials will become softer in the final production cars but the general layout remains. The plethora of buttons is overwhelming in the central section of the car and could have been designed better. On the upside, everything is very clear to use. The purpose of keeping touch controls was to keep all customers happy, with a 50/50 split on those who prefer controls over a touchscreen. To that end, most features can also be controlled through the 12.3in touchscreen so it’s the best of both worlds.

On our drive, we stopped at a hydrogen refuelling station at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington to see how easy it is to refuel. In essence, it’s nearly as straightforward as filling up a petrol or diesel, but there’s a knack to it that might take a few goes to master. There’s also lots of disconcerting noises coming from various sections of the fuelling machinery which might have caused alarm if a hydrogen refuelling expert hadn’t been there to assist. 

To fill up the Nexo would cost around £70, giving it a massive disadvantage over EVs. While they are expensive to buy (though not nearly as expensive as FCEVs), owners can start to recoup that cost with cheap charging. 

The cost of hydrogen will fall as and when infrastructure and cars on sale grow, but in the meantime, the message is not that hydrogen-fuelled cars are the thrifty option but that they are truly sustainable, with only water coming out of the tailpipe. On top of that, a handful of existing hydrogen refuelling stations are already self-sustaining, using electrolysis to create carbon-neutral hydrogen. 

Should you buy a hydrogen-powered car like the Nexo? 

You’d have to be a well-paid, obsessive Hyundai fan or an affluent early-adopter to fork out £65,000 for the Nexo. But that’s beside the point. Hyundai is trailblazing here, creating a genuinely innovative vehicle to progress future power technologies at the expense of a profitable car. 

Unfortunately, little progress has been made over the past few years to bring down vehicle prices or increase infrastructure, meaning there’s a long way to go for these to be common place. 

The news earlier this year that Hyundai will team up with Audi to develop hydrogen fuel cell technology is important: it is these sorts of partnerships that will make it economically viable. By 2025, the two car makers want to reduce the cost of an FCEV by a third. 

When that happens, the rest will follow.

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