California doesn't suit everyone's tastes -- innumerable out-of-staters will now happily run down everything that is geographically, climatically, philosophically, and fiscally W-R-O-N-G with the Golden State. But everyone knows ol' Cali is where it's at when it comes to alternative propulsion. Actually, allow me to rephrase that. Everyone knows it's Cali's front-page-making, trendsetting, big-money, coastal metropolitan sprawls that spur on alt-propulsion's gallop. (Well, it's currently more like a trot.)
It's rather perfect, then, that Motor Trend is based in influential Southern California. The Tesla Model S is everywhere, it seems; the brand's pioneering Roadster still creeps up occasionally. Nissan Leafs, Chevrolet Volts, and CNG-charged Honda Civics flaunt their white (Civic, Leaf) and green (Volt) carpool lane stickers. The unmistakable BMW i3 and Fiat 500e flock to the 405 freeway. On the H2 front, the Honda FCX Clarity occasionally shows its face, there are Toyota Highlander FCHV-adv cameos (probably driven by Toyota employees nearby), and I've seen exactly one (possibly lost) Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell roaming our neck of the woods. Soon, Toyota's bizarrely styled Mirai will take to the streets. But as of this writing, there's only one electric vehicle on the market sucking down compressed hydrogen that anyone can seek and acquire: the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell. Naturally, "anyone" refers to Californians.
After a $2,999 down payment and for the price of $499 per month over a 3-year lease, carefully prescreened (by Hyundai) drivers from Los Angeles and Orange Counties can help move society another step closer toward the long lusted-over hydrogen future. Funds willing -- $74.9 million in the coffers last I checked -- there's a monetary incentive in the form of a $5,000 rebate through the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project (sponsored by none other than the California Air Resources Board).
Consider the Tucson Fuel Cell a well-equipped Tucson Limited FWD with the Technology Package ($29,875 total) and a few vital changes. First, the Tucson FC loses the Tech Package's panoramic sunroof but gains its own front grille. Then the multilink rear suspension, front anti-roll bar, and 18-inch wheels get exchanged for a space-clearing torsion beam, an 11-percent thicker front anti-roll bar, and the 17-inch alloys from the 2010-2013 Tucson. Last, but certainly not least, the 100-kilowatt fuel cell stack, 134-horsepower electric drive motor, and hydrogen reservoir supplant the 2.4-liter I-4 and 15.3-gallon fuel tank. Winter White is the sole paint choice and the leather for the seats is cut in black. Maintenance is fully covered under the manufacturer's At Your Service valet program (shared with the Equus luxury sedan). Hydrogen fuel is complimentary courtesy of Hyundai, so customers can pump in all the H2 their hearts desire.
Since the rumored true cost of assembling one Tucson FC is well in excess of $100,000, lessees are getting a bargain, particularly when accounting for the unusual driving and ownership experiences. As it's an EV, the Tucson FC was exceptionally quiet and serene inside during our drive in the O.C., especially since it relies on "low pressure" ambient induction to feed the fuel cells. In contrast, air compressor noise permeated the Project Driveway Chevrolet Equinox's passenger compartment. The Mirai and FCX Clarity incorporate compressors too. The Tucson FC rides more smoothly than the conventionally powered Tucson and carries a much greater sense of heft. You sit up high, as one would expect from a crossover SUV, and feel all the heaviness beneath your seated position.
There's a lot of weight. The Tucson FC's 4,101-pound estimated curb weight is 720 pounds heavier (plus 21 percent) than a 2014 Tucson Limited FWD we had in for testing. The Mirai sedan isn't much better, as it's 22.5 pounds lighter than the Tucson FC, about the weight of a large Thanksgiving turkey. Our scales ascertained 4,369 pounds for a hydrogen Equinox back in 2008; an FCX Clarity of the same vintage checked in at a Lotus-esque 3,571 pounds. Payload capacity is reduced from the Tucson Limited's 1,116 pounds to the FC's 859. As is cargo volume: 23.8 cubic feet to the Limited's 25.7 because the load floor is about an inch higher to accommodate the H2 tank.
But at least there's room for five inside the Tucson Fuel Cell's straightforward, nicely furnished cabin (bum warmers for 4 out of 5 seats!) The single biggest reason for the Volt to lose out on a prospective sale is its four-seat arrangement. The John Q. Public that's embraced alt-propulsion has made it clear that they can live and even fall in love with different refueling routines, but they'd still like the package qualities of normal cars. The FCX Clarity has four seats out of necessity; its fuel cell stack runs down the spine of the car. The Mirai has four seats because Toyota had a weight target and wanted to make sure the rear passengers had plenty of space.
I suspect there's another inescapable rationale for anyone picking the Tucson Fuel Cell over the Mirai. I spent the majority of my days driving our extended-stay Honda Accord Hybrid because I enjoy, among myriad details, the anonymity it affords on the road. I just look like any other schmuck who went out and bought one of the 356,785 Accords sold in the U.S. this year (through November). In all likelihood, the Mirai will serve as the poster child for the hydrogen fuel cell movement and therefore needs its funky skin. But I have a hard time comprehending its exterior. Your least car-savvy friend will muse aloud of the Toyota: "Something's…not right here." Admittedly, the Hyundai is visually more my speed.
Boy, speed is not one of the Tucson FC's virtues. Its H2 canister refills plenty quickly, capable of gulping 12.4 pounds of 10,000-psi goodness in around 8 minutes (assuming the H2 dispenser is up to the task). The quantity nets the CUV an EPA-endorsed range of 265 miles. And remember, the fuel is free. The kicker is that with 4,101 pounds to lug and 134 hp at its disposal, the crossover is restrained doling out acceleration. Hyundai quotes a 0-62 mph time of 12.5 seconds (3.5 off the 151-hp Mirai's dash to 60 mph) and a top speed of (going downhill?) 100 mph. In real-world driving, the Tucson FC handles itself well in the city before onward motion falls off noticeably approaching freeway speeds.
Accelerator pedal response is much crisper than in the last fuel cell vehicles I put time in. Both the fuel cell versions of the Equinox and Kia Mohave felt much more languid in comparison. (The two are also bigger and heavier than the Tucson.) The electric motor isn't packing a lot of heat but it delivers what it has swiftly. To offset how naturally not fleet of foot it is, the CUV doesn't tiptoe, but shoots forward once you release the brakes from a standstill. It surprised the hell out of me at first encounter. Some -- but not all -- EVs with single-speed gear reduction and lack of torque converter simply sit stationary at a stop with your foot off the brake pedal.
While it moseys at its own pace, the Tucson FC is a pro at arresting its momentum. Four-corner discs are paired with a regenerative braking setup, and a 0.95-kW-hr lithium-polymer battery acts as the CUV's second energy reserve. The electric motor becomes a generator as the crossover decelerates, allowing the battery (mounted underneath the cabin) to store energy for later use. Rated for 32 hp, the battery assists the fuel cell stack in powering the e-motor when the driver dials in for hard acceleration. The E (Eco) and L (Low) "gears" on the patterned transmission gating (the present Tucson has a straight-pull shift action) inspire more environmentally conscious driving habits if the driver is into that.
My main point of contention is that, from a purely technical viewpoint, the Hyundai fuel cell system cedes packaging and power efficiency to Toyota and Honda. At its 1.7 kW per liter fuel-cell volume-power density, the Tucson FC trails the discontinued FCX Clarity (1.9 kW/L) and has 55 percent of the Mirai's rating (3.1 kW/L). Honda's next fuel cell vehicle (due in 2016) has trained its reticle on the 3.1 kW/L mark as well. As it's been offered in Europe as the ix35 Fuel Cell since March 2013, and knowing the lease-only Tucson FC isn't the long-term fuel-cell answer, I'm excited to see and experience Hyundai's follow-up.
Opinion aside, the sheer novelty of piloting something as ahead of our times as the Tucson Fuel Cell is quite the sales proposition. The instrument cluster shows how many times the H2 cistern has been refilled (twice on our test Tucson) and an mpg-e readout. The precautions taken for the CUV have been extensive too. Any accidents involving a Tucson FC require it to travel to Hyundai HQ in Fountain Valley, California, to inspect the powertrain, though the goal is to eventually move all repairs to the dealers. With that said, let's all get back to griping about there not being enough hydrogen fueling stations around. Vehicles that mix hydrogen and air with a little magic (the magic of electrolysis) and then squirt out water vapor but not carbon dioxide are already upon us. And L.A. and Orange Counties, both F-rated for air quality by the American Lung Association, will continue to be their eager and happy receivers.