• Hyundai’s next-gen hydrogen-powered vehicle is a tech showcase
  • Range of up to 380 miles
  • Hydrogen refueling time is similar to that of gasoline

If you were to peer into Hyundai’s crystal ball, one of the vehicles you’d see is the 2019 Nexo Fuel-Cell Electric Vehicle. The Nexo, a hydrogen-powered SUV, is unlike any other vehicle on the market today. In fact, if it weren’t for the badging, you might not believe it’s a Hyundai at all.

This isn’t Hyundai’s first hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicle or even it’s first such 5-passenger SUV -- a Tucson fuel-cell was launched a few years ago – but the new Nexo is easily Hyundai’s most ambitious vehicle. We already got a taste of the new Nexo in Hyundai’s home market of South Korea. Last week we learned more about the forthcoming Nexo and drove it closer to home: Southern California.

California only, for now

There’s a good reason Hyundai chose California for its U.S. introduction of the Nexo to automotive media: It’s the only place where it will be available. Despite promises from automakers and others in the industry that hydrogen is the future, vehicles powered by its liquified form have long contended with a chicken-and-egg scenario. It goes like this: Without an extensive infrastructure of hydrogen fueling stations, drivers who could even use such a car are in the minority, which means there isn’t much demand for fuel-cell vehicles. And because there isn’t much demand for fuel-cell vehicles, there’s limited need for hydrogen fueling stations, and not much motivation for building more. And so it goes.

Still, slowly but surely more hydrogen stations are going online. At present, there are about three dozen fueling stations in all of California where everyday drivers can refill their fuel-cell vehicles in a process remarkably similar to pumping gasoline, both in time and procedure. Industry optimists point to more stations in the works and, someday, the infrastructure spreading beyond California.

In case you’re wondering, only two other hydrogen-powered cars are available, both in California only. And unlike the Nexo, which has the practicality and cargo space inherent in an SUV, the other two are sedans: the lease-only Honda Clarity fuel-cell, and the Toyota Mirai, which can be leased or purchased outright. For the 2019 Nexo, Hyundai is following Toyota’s approach of both offering it for lease or for sale.

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Dedicated platform, advanced features

Apart from its fuel source, the 2019 Hyundai Nexo stands out in its design, technology, and even the platform on which it's built. While Hyundai’s first stab at a fuel-cell was modifying an existing platform – a Tucson compact SUV – the 2-row/5-passenger Nexo was made exclusively as a fuel-cell. Whatever cynicism there might be among those skeptical of fuel-cell vehicles, there’s no arguing the amount of work and research that has gone into making the Nexo a reality.

Both inside and out, the new Nexo looks like it rolled straight out of the future. It boasts a slippery skin in which even the door handles retract for better wind-resistance (and a cool factor), and an interior featuring twin screens. For better or worse, the center console is filled with so many buttons that you might wonder if you’re supposed to fly this thing rather than drive it.

It also boasts some of Hyundai’s latest safety and driver-assist features. There are of course now-familiar features like automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping assist. What impressed us even more is a new form of blind-spot monitoring called Blind-spot View Monitor. In a way, it’s similar to Honda’s LaneWatch in that it displays an image of the rear side of the vehicle when you operate the turn signal. But unlike Honda, it works in both directions, and the real trick here is that the image is displayed not on the center stack, but in the instrument cluster. This allows you to keep your eyes closer to the road.

Perhaps the Nexo’s best parlor trick is the ability to park itself. Similar to the latest BMW 5 Series, the Nexo offers a feature that enables the vehicle to back itself into a parking space and pull out of that space – even with the driver outside of the vehicle. We watched a demo of it in action, and it’s a sight to behold.


Smooth and skillful

As we found in our first drive of the Nexo in South Korea, the little SUV isn’t terribly quick. The Nexo’s 0-60-mph time clocks in at 9.5 seconds. That is certainly faster than the Tucson fuel-cell and isn’t dangerously slow, but it will feel laggardly if you’re expecting EV-like instant propulsion.

Otherwise, the Nexo is remarkably smooth and quiet. With no gasoline engine humming and vibrating (and, yes, polluting), the Nexo simply wafts along in a quiet and confident manner.

In this respect it’s similar to an electric vehicle. But the beauty – and a big incentive – for hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles like the Nexo are their range and fill-up time.

The 2019 Hyundai Nexo will be offered in two trims, and each has a different but impressive range that is the top or near the top for this exclusive segment. The base Nexo Blue has an estimated range of 380 miles, while the higher-trim (and heavier) Nexo Limited is estimated at 354 miles. Both of these figures are akin to a conventional gasoline-powered vehicle. The Honda Clarity fuel-cell, by comparison, has a range of 366 miles, while the Mirai comes in at 312 miles.

Available soon, to a select few

Whether hydrogen-powered cars go on to become The Next Big Thing or a mere footnote in automotive history is still to be determined. But in the here and now they are available in select regions of California, and they can include thousands of dollars in incentives thanks to their ultra-green status. The 2019 Hyundai Nexo will be the next vehicle to join this exclusive group when it goes on sale by year end. As of this writing, Hyundai still hasn’t released pricing details on the Nexo, but we promise to give you the scoop as soon as we get it. Stay tuned in the coming days for that info.

By nature, drivers who are even eligible to buy or lease the Nexo will be in the minority, but those who do will be experiencing an emissions-free vehicle that feels like the future. Furthermore, the Nexo represents what we’ll call an alternative to the alternatives – the (for now) world’s only hydrogen-powered SUV.

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