As Hyundai ramps up its hydrogen car production, can the ix35 gain some traction in the UK

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This is the ix35 Fuel Cell, Hyundai’s hydrogen-fuelled car, which the Korean manufacturer claims is the car of the future and has backing from EU policyholders to make it so.

To demonstrate this is no flash in the pan with more than 1000 made in 2015, and 250 in active service throughout 11 European countries, including in the UK, as it aims to ramp up its production to 10,000 hydrogen-powered ix35s. We have even tested the technology by running one on our own long-term fleet to see how feasible it really is.

The Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell felt very pleasant, if not particularly enthralling

Plug-in electric cars may have been hogging the environmentally friendly limelight in recent years, but Hyundai is adamant that the range, usability and edible emissions of hydrogen fuel cells make it the long-term alternative technology to pursue, especially with the arrival of the Toyota Mirai and the Honda Clarity FCV set arrive later in 2017.

Hyundai says it started researching hydrogen fuel cells as a viable powertrain back in 1998 and produced the first prototype in 2001. Based on the Santa Fe, the 2001 concept had a 75kW fuel cell, a 72-litre gas tank, a top speed of 77mph and a range of around 99 miles.

The 2007 Tucson-based prototype had a 100kW fuel cell, a 152-litre gas tank, a 93mph top speed and a 186-mile range. Today’s car, based on the ix35 SUV has a 100kW fuel cell equivalent to 134bhp, a 144 litre of hydrogen capacity in two tanks, a 100mph top speed and a range of 369 miles.

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Getting under the ix35 Fuel Cell’s skin

From the inside and outside - aside from a slightly smaller boot - the ix35 is completely conventional, down to the standard-issue autobox shift lever. Under the skin, however, it is completely new.

The fuel, compressed hydrogen at a pressure of 700 bar, is housed in two gas cylinders in place of a conventional petrol tank – a smaller 40-litre unit in front of the rear axle and a 104-litre tank behind the rear axle.

A fuel cell is mounted under the bonnet. The hybrid battery packs are located under the vehicle, positioned in the centre for weight distribution. Inside the fuel cell, an anode and cathode sandwich, and a polymer electrolyte membrane.

When the hydrogen flows over the anode, it splits into hydrogen protons and electrons. The polymer electrolyte membrane only allows the protons to pass through. The electrons travel to an external circuit which operates the motor. At the cathode, electrons and protons react with oxygen from the air to create water as a by-product of the process. Hyundai claims the driving range is 369 miles on a tank of gas.

The compact SUV uses 0.95kg of hydrogen to cover 62 miles and has a maximum tank capacity of 5.64kg of gas. The front wheels are driven by a 65kW - equivalent to 87.2bhp - electric motor, through a single speed reducer gear.

Under the floor is a 24kW battery developed by LG Chemicals, which is used primarily to assist the fuel cell stack when power demand is at its greatest. The battery pack is also used to ‘harvest’ waste energy from the regenerative braking system.

Behind the ix35 Fuel Cell’s wheel

The biggest compliments that can be paid to the Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell is that it looks very much like a regular ix35 from the outside and drives like any other electrically powered vehicle. There are a few subtle differences.

Up at the front is a grille that's bespoke on the Fuel Cell variant of the ix35. The grille is functional and there are two cooling radiators behind it, one to cool the stack, the other is for the traditional systems such as air conditioning and so on.

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A blue-tinged Hyundai emblem provides another hint that this is no ordinary ix35. On the instrumentation panel, the dial on the left indicates ‘charge’ and ‘power’ to show when you’re expending the available electricity and when you’re recouping it through regenerative braking.

The right-hand dial shows your speed and remaining fuel level. There’s no noise on start-up, or thereafter, and step off from a standstill is impressively brisk, with 221lb ft of torque instantly on tap. Not that the performance is barnstorming; at more that 100kg heavier than a regular ix35, it is more than 1.5sec slower than a 2.0-litre diesel to 62mph, and maxes out at about 100mph.

Still, it feels perfectly comfortable to drive in the urban environment for which it is mainly intended. In contrast, the Nissan Leaf - arguably the best of the plug-in bunch - will manage just 130 miles before its battery is exhausted.

Thanks to their forever depleting batteries, running the ancillary electrical devices on most EVs is effectively like shooting a hole in your fuel tank, but the FC’s onboard generator makes running the air conditioning full blast seem relatively painless.

The fuel filler has a very thin, needle-type nozzle, so there’s no prospect of absent-mindedly pumping 30 litres of derv into your tank. Cleverly, the filler also includes infra-red technology to enable it to 'communicate' with the hydrogen fuel pump so that rate of flow and pressure can be regulated. The toughened hydrogen tanks impinge slightly on available luggage space, which is 436 litres with the rear seats up compared with the 591 litres of the regular crossover.

On the short drive around west London, the ix35 rode extremely well and was particularly good at swallowing speed bumps. The car’s poise is undoubtedly helped by the battery pack and gas tanks mounted low down under the floorpan. Compared to the Nissan Leaf, the Hyundai seemed even more composed and able to isolate the passengers from the rough and tumble of city life to a quite exceptional degree.

OK, the Fuel Cell will never be an engaging drive, but as a way of criss-crossing cities, it promises to be highly impressive. Hyundai expects the fuel cell to ‘last the life of the car’, but admits that the longevity of the unit is affected by both the purity of the hydrogen used and by the local air quality. The latter issue is tackled by the use of super-efficient charcoal air filters.

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Should I buy the Hyundai ix35?

Hyundai announced that the ix35 Fuel Cell’s on-the-road price to be £53,105, which includes part funding from the HyFive Project, a scheme designed to bring hydrogen-fuelled vehicles to Europe, with Honda, Toyota, Daimler, BMW and Hyundai all supporting this initiative.

The fundamental issue with hydrogen-powered cars is still the chronic lack of the infrastructure required to refuel them, however HyFive is set deploy three more hydrogen re-fuelling points in London by the end of this year, taking the total in the capital to five.

Most ix35 Fuel Cells will end up in the hands of councils and corporations initially, as you won’t be able to stray too far: unlike a battery-powered car which can be recharged off any household socket, the iX35 needs a highly specialised hydrogen filling station.

However, the range of the ix35 Fuel Cell makes a compelling argument for this type of vehicle over the limited range of electric cars. But it remains to be seen how much this technology will cost the consumer.

Matt Burt/ Hilton Holloway/ Nic Cackett

Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell 2013-2018 First drives