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It's not easy being green for car companies Add to ...

What’s most remarkable about Hyundai’s Tucson fuel cell sport-utility vehicle is how unremarkable it is. This is both good and bad, which speaks to the dilemma car companies face when they introduce “green” vehicles.

Despite Hyundai Canada’s best efforts to use the Tucson as a halo vehicle – to cast the Hyundai Group’s design and engineering capabilities in a positive light – no one in the parking lot at Bean Around the World noticed. Scores walked by, unaware of the astounding level of refined technology hiding under the dated-looking sheetmetal.

Even the cappuccino drinkers ignored the Tucson. Yet the real value of this advanced Hyundai far exceeds a sexy, $100,000 Tesla S electric vehicle. The Bean-ers saw a $20,000-something Tucson.

Advanced? Really? Think about it: slightly more than a decade ago, fuel cell cars were crude demonstration projects that whined, howled, growled and drove like pigs – or like the product of fourth-year engineering students competing in a green car challenge. Not today.

Hyundai’s smooth-driving Tucson gets its motive power from a fuel cell stack via a chemical reaction that separates electrons and protons from the on-board hydrogen tank, using the electrons to power the electric motor. This is a gross over-simplification, of course. Indeed, a fuel cell ride has proton exchange membranes and pumps and compressors and precious metals and a slick cooling system, brainy software and more – all there to give the Tucson the pollution-free equivalent of a 1.8-litre gas engine and range of around 400 kilometres.

My tester is worth a fortune. So is the one Hyundai Canada leased to British Columbia residents Jennifer Ma and husband Clayton Crawley for $599 a month for 36 months with a $3,995 down payment. They’re getting a deal, with free fuelling at a hydrogen station operated by Powertech Labs Inc., of Surrey, B.C. Hyundai Canada will lease a handful more in the coming weeks and months, surely losing money on every one in a marketing effort aimed at boosting what Hyundai is now calling the “H Factor.”

I wasn’t swarmed in this fuel cell rig; I would have been with a Model S, ditto a BMW i8. A Chevy Volt and a Nissan Leaf get some serious neck-twisting even now. And though Toyota’s Prius is the poster child for Vancouver taxicabs, the world generally understands that Toyota delivered breakthrough hybrid engineering in the Prius.

Each of these stands out for the engineering and science that put them on the road and for novel designs that suggest something special is at work here. The Tucson fuel cell car is an anonymous gem, yet a triumph. No other manufacturer in Canada has had the courage or foresight to launch a fuel cell car for public consumption.

But fuel cells are coming to some markets, though not necessarily Canada for the foreseeable future. Toyota, Honda and General Motors all say they will lease fuel cell cars for the masses in the United States and Japan; the Canadian distribution arms of all three are mum on plans for this country, even as Toyota’s futuristic Mirai fuel cell vehicle is being readied for a U.S. launch this year. Why? It will lose money on every one, just as Hyundai is now.

Hyundai Canada president Don Romano thinks that the real value of this Tucson is in brand building. Hyundai, he says, has accomplished what Toyota, Honda, GM and others have not – put a fuel cell car into the hands of real-world customers. However, Hyundai’s amazing achievement is undermined by the dull Tucson packaging.

High-tech green cars need to look the part, that’s clear. If Tesla’s Model S looked like a 2015 Tucson, it wouldn’t have the same “wow” impact. Meanwhile, Toyota has been basking in the green glow of the homely, noisy and reliable Prius for a decade and a half. It seems, then, that car companies looking to make the most impact have two choices with their green offerings: go sleek and high-end (Model S) or go ultra-humble (Prius).

What will Hyundai and others do next? Either end of the spectrum makes sense, but landing in the middle does not.

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