Finding yourself atop an Olympic podium doesn't happen overnight. It takes long days spent training and honing your skills in relentless pursuit of an ultimate goal. More than a will to win is required; you need a plan for the future. Which brings us to this handsome little crossover.
The Nexo is Hyundai's best guess at what life would be like if you could buy hydrogen at your local fuelling station (spoiler alert: You probably can't). At 4,670 millimetres in length and 1,630 mm in height, it is approximately the size of a Tucson, a Honda CR-V or any of the medium-sized crossovers that currently ferry the average Canadian family around.
The Nexo is conventional in looks, layout and interior dimensions. It has useful trunk space and ample room for five passengers. You can refuel it in as few as 10 minutes, and it has a range of slightly more than 600 kilometres on the highway.
It's about as difficult to own and operate as a toaster – with one rather large asterisk.
Fuel-cell vehicles bridge the gap between clean-running plug-in electrics and inexpensive, energy-dense conventional combustion engines.
There's zero hydrocarbon emissions. Hydrogen is passed through a stack of membranes, where it reacts with oxygen, producing electricity and water. The Nexo's fuel-cell stack is about the size of a four-cylinder engine, although its three 52.2-litre hydrogen tanks take up considerably more space than an ordinary tank for gasoline.
Hyundai has sold a fuel-cell vehicle in Canada before, or at least leased one to consumers. A half-dozen Tucson FCEVs were made available to customers, mostly in British Columbia, for a monthly charge of $599 a month, which included the cost of refuelling.
Hyundai Canada will be selling the Nexo outright this time, with plans for around 25 cars. (Toyota will also be bringing a fuel-cell vehicle into Canada this year, the Mirai, in Quebec).
That's a minuscule segment of the market, but consider the Nexo to be a pioneer for Hyundai rather than a profit centre.
To drive, the Nexo is quieter than a Mirai, and much quieter than a combustion-engined car. Hydrogen feeds noiselessly into the fuel cell, and the instant availability of 291 lb-ft of torque makes the Nexo feel responsive – and quicker than it actually is. Paddle shifters are used to control the amount of battery-regeneration when the driver lifts off the throttle, making for a nearly single-pedal driving experience.
The Nexo also functions as a pioneer for other Hyundai technologies. Demonstration units equipped with multiple LiDAR (light detection and ranging) systems and considerable processing power have already completed a hands-off Level 4 autonomous drive from Seoul to Pyeongchang.
A ride-along in one such vehicle showed assertive acceleration mixed with a slight tentative nature at intersections. However, the car drove itself through a roundabout without difficulty, something many human drivers struggle to do in North America.
You'll have to drive the production Nexo yourself, but there are several features to make life easier. For instance, automated cruise control and lane-following assist worked flawlessly in the clear, dry conditions.
There's also a clever camera-based blind-spot monitor: Engage the turn signal in either direction and a high-resolution image pops up in the instrument panel. It's simple, safe and I'd expect to see it showing up in other Hyundai products.
The as-equipped Nexo had no issues navigating confusing streets, fast-moving highway traffic or subzero local conditions.
This last accomplishment is perhaps the most significant advantage the Nexo has over a conventional electric vehicle: It will start at a claimed -30 C and, unlike a battery-powered car, it doesn't suffer range loss in the cold.
As a winter Olympian, the Nexo is completely convincing. It handles and rides well, looks good on the road and emits only water – no doping allegations here.
The only major issue is a lack of infrastructure to support it. More hydrogen stations are coming to Canada, but Nexo ownership in the short term will mean you'll have to live close to just one of the handful of stations located in British Columbia, Toronto and Quebec.
The capability is here. However, even the best athletes in the world still need support to make it to the top. Hyundai gets the gold here for effort and execution, but without the hydrogen fuelling stations, the Nexo is less a medal contender and more just happy to be allowed to compete.
- Base price: TBD
- Engine: 120 kW electric
- Transmission/drive: Single-gear/front-wheel
- Fuel economy: N/A – 609-kilometre range
- Alternatives: Toyota Mirai
Just as Tesla broke the tradition of electric vehicles needing to look like glorified golf carts, the Nexo shows that you can have an alternative powertrain car that doesn't look like a robot catfish. It's handsome, if a little innocuous, but looking mainstream is part of the Nexo's appeal.
The single jarring element to the Nexo's overall futurism is the swath of buttons between the seats. It can be a bit confusing to find the control you want.
With a little more than 150 horsepower at maximum output, the approximately 1,800-kilogram Nexo will get to 100 km/h in 9.2 seconds. That's not particularly quick, but the electric torque comes on with alacrity. There's ample grip as well; it's not sporty, but it is competent.
The Nexo's twin-screen infotainment set-up slightly resembles that in more recent Mercedes products. It features bright graphics and is quick and easy to navigate. Based around a 12.3-inch display, there are multiple menus to show you how the Nexo is routing power around, but even just the standard navigation impresses.
In terms of dimensions and packaging, the Nexo doesn't force you to compromise on space or comfort. It's even slightly wider than a CR-V for rear passengers, and 839 litres of volume behind the rear seats is plenty for everyday use.
A perfectly logical choice, if only the infrastructure was there for it. In five years, maybe?
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.