Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell is a solid ride, but hydrogen is still a work in progress

A strong start, but there's a long road ahead

Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell

Our planet is dying. Fossil fuels are choking the atmosphere, and their supplies are dwindling - which means the combustion engine is on a limited lifespan.

We need our vehicles to relie on more sustainable, more eco-friendly fuels. EVs (electric vehicles) are already trailblazing an alternative to gasoline with rechargeable battery packs powering the likes of the Tesla Model S, X and 3, BMW i3 and i8, Chevrolet Bolt and Nissan Leaf.

That's all well and good, but EVs also have their limitations. They take an age to charge (versus refueling a gasoline car) and range anxiety is a real issue - not to mention the fact that over time the batteries will begin to degrade and reduce the driving range.

The market then, is crying out for more alternatives to come to the fore, and currently second place in the renewable, eco-friendly race is hydrogen. A number of manufacturers are working on hydrogen powered vehicles, but Hyundai is first out the blocks with the ix35 Fuel Cell - a car you can actually buy if you really want to.

Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell

Since its launch, Toyota has also introduced its own hydrogen motor in the form of the Mirai - but that's currently limited to the state of California in the US - while British startup RiverSimple is working on its Rasa hydrogen car which is due for a full release in 2018.

The ix35 Fuel Cell isn't exactly widely available, with limited availability in some European countries. It's not cheap either, with it setting you back £53,000 (around US$76,000, AU$97,000), but that's the premium you pay to be an early adopter.

Hydrogen in disguise

A quick look at the ix35 Fuel Cell and you wouldn't know this is a hydrogen vehicle. Well, my review car was actually far less subtle with a Fuel Cell decal down both sides and "I emit nothing but water" plastered across the rear windshield - but if you were to purchase the car it would be free of this branding.

Your only clues are the blue-backed Hyundai badge in the sizable front grill, the oversized petrol cap covering the hydrogen intake, and of course the model details on the rear of the car.

My point though, is it just looks like any other SUV, and that's because Hyundai's simply taken its gasoline ix35 and slapped a hydrogen fuel cell in it.

Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell

There's no wild styling or quirky detailing as designers are let loose on a new technology, this is a vehicle which won't draw the eye in shock/amazement.

In the back there's plenty of space for shopping bags, holiday cases and the family pet, but there's no room for a spare tire. Instead, the space under the trunk is filled with a hydrogen tank - it's gotta go somewhere - so you'll have to make do with a puncture repair kit.

Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell

For those fearing that this tank could cause problems in a crash, fear not. The walls of the aluminum drum are an inch and half thick, it's coated in carbon fiber and it's been drop tested from a height of six stories, ten times with no damage.

There's also a safety value which can release the hydrogen in a concentrated jet to avoid a full tank explosion.

Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell

Turning H into H2O

In basic terms it takes hydrogen from the tank in the car, and sucks in oxygen from the air outside to form a chemical reaction to produce electrons - and thus power - while the only by-product is water.

Jump inside the ix35, hit the start-stop button on the dash (with your keyfob in the car) and after the start up tones from the on-board computer there's silence.

Step outside, and if you're parked somewhere quiet, you'll hear a faint buzz coming from the engine chamber - that's the Fuel Cell getting to work. Most of the time though you won't hear it - the only audible sound this car makes is rubber on tarmac.

Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell

It's nice, but not as nice as the range readout on the dash - with a full tank of hydrogen the iX35 Fuel Cell can travel just shy of 370 miles before it needs a top up. That's something EVs are still dreaming about, and when you do come to fill up you'll be back up to 100% in no more than three minutes.

Refueling is the massive sticking point though. In the UK, for example, there are only four publicly accessible Hydrogen refueling points - all of which are based in and around London.

And there in lies the problem. Hydrogen is an exciting new technology, but it's currently crippled by lack of infrastructure. It feels a bit chicken and egg - no one wants to spend the money to invest in fueling stations with so few cars on the road, and consumers don't want to take the leap a buy one because there's no where to top up the tank.

Hyundai claims there will be 65 hydrogen stations in the UK by 2020, but with over 1,800 gasoline forecourts in operation here you can see there's still a long way to go.

Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell

Infotainment and features

The Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell does come with a pleasing area of gadgetry for the tech heads and button pushers, starting with the wireless key.

Just walk up to the ix35 Fuel Cell with the key in your bag or pocket, and you can unlock the car by pressing the small black button the door handle. Once inside, just hit the power/start button on the dash while planting your foot on the brake and the car springs to life. Magic.

The center console sports a large touchscreen display, giving you access to satellite navigation, radio and music streaming from your phone, the ability to make and receive calls (via your smartphone) and various vital statistics about the car itself.

Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell

I found the interface to be slow and quite unresponsive at times - making it almost impossible to use while driving as it required more attention than I was prepared to give it. USB and a 3.5mm port in the cubby hole below the center console means you can plug in auxiliary devices, and also charge your phone if you're running low.

The navigation is also pretty rudimentary, with maps failing to go into enough detail. The free offering on my smartphone is much more complete.

Climate control ensures passengers as well as the driver travel in comfort, as does the inclusion of rear heated seats as well as the duo up front. It's not the most elegant of layouts - the swaths of grey plastic don't exactly dazzle - but it's a solid, functional offering.

Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell

Electric windows and folding door mirrors are things you'd expect from a vehicle at this price range, while the rear facing camera makes reserving and parking much simpler.

The drive

Smooth, quiet and surprisingly light. The Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell isn't a small car, but even my passengers commented on how light the car felt as we glided round the streets of my local town and then took to the sprawling motorways of the UK.

You won't be breaking any 0-60 (12.5 seconds) or speed (tops out at 99mph) records, but planting your foot firmly on the go kart style accelerator and the ix35 Fuel Cell delivers a healthy 135PS of power to the front wheels (there's no all-wheel drive). Perfect for getting away from a junction, or making a quick overtake.

Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell

The instant acceleration is only made possible thanks to a battery pack though - as there's a slightly longer delay for the Fuel Cell to deliver its juice. The battery pack is charged via kinetic energy produced under braking, so you'll never have to recharge it yourself.

With this being an SUV the ride height is a commanding one, giving you a good view of the road ahead, although the rear window is a little on the small side.

Something a little annoying is the footbrake, which has a habit of sticking when 'on', requiring you to hook a foot round the back of the pedal and leaver it up manually. It doesn't feel particularly great and I fear for its durability in the long term.

Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell

Early verdict

I managed to clock up some decent mileage during my weekend with the ix35 Fuel Cell and it was an enjoyable one.

I loved the drive, the smoothness and lightness at the wheel of the ix35 was impressive and the spec level inside the cabin at least goes part way to easing the car's asking price.

Hydrogen can still be the fuel of the future, but there's a long way to go until it's powering our autonomous cars and giving Big Oil a real scare.

The ix35 though, is almost impossible to recommend. Unless you live next door to one of the four refueling points and never travel too far from home then the ix35 Fuel Cell won't be the car for you.

Normal drivers aren't Hyundai's main focus though. It's targeting government and agency fleets based in London, and thus near the fueling stations - and for that purchase it does work, if there's the budget.

What it does offer though is a glimpse of the future. This car is a significant stepping stone towards more affordable hydrogen vehicles, a wider selection of refueling locations and hopefully a cleaner, greener planet.

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