2019 Hyundai Nexo First Drive – The Future Is Beige


Hyundai’s hydrogen-powered Nexo is so ludicrously specialized that it’s utterly impossible to make a case for it outside of California. In fact, even that might be overstating its usefulness — allow me to try again. The Nexo Fuel Cell works near Los Angeles or San Francisco and absolutely nowhere else in North America. And, while that’s primarily due to its dependency on hydrogen fueling stations, which exist almost exclusively in two relatively small corners of the Golden State, it’s not the only reason.

You need to be a certain type of person to want to drive the Nexo. Someone who likes making a statement, is interested in green tech, and possesses absolutely zero interest in spirited bouts of driving. It’s slow, appliance-like, and offers nothing to the typical enthusiast crowd, save for some interesting styling. However, if you want something eye-catching that runs on alternative energy and routinely spend a large portion of your day in horrible LA traffic, it could be the right tool for the job. 

(Full disclosure: Hyundai flew me out to the California coast to test the Nexo and highly enjoyable Kona EV, paying for my meals and lodging for the duration. They were also, as always, exceptionally kind to me. Unfortunately, that will not be able to save the car from the harsh criticisms I’m about to throw its way.)

As first impressions go, the Nexo Fuel Cell is exquisite. It looks like a premium item in person, with lots of little exterior touches that make you smirk. Mine was rose gold, which helped garner looks from Hollywood visitors and locals alike. But it comes in an array of neutral and less-ostentatious metallic hues if you don’t want to pretend your vehicle is on loan from a rap video.

However, that could be a mistake, as the Nexo is best experienced at low speeds while bumping your favorite tunes. The largest contributing factors to this are its top-tier audio system and lackluster performance. Its 95 kW fuel cell and 40 kW battery work in tandem to power an electric motor that makes 161 horsepower and 291 lb-ft of torque via a direct-drive gearbox. While that sounds sufficient, Hyundai claims the Nexo weighs in just under two tons — resulting in a 0-to-60 time that leaves something to be desired.

While heavy LA traffic severely impacted the number of times I could test the manufacturer’s estimate of 9.5 seconds to 60 mph, I will comfortably say the Nexo is about as thrilling to drive as a 2001 Chrysler Town & Country. That’s okay, because I don’t think it was ever Hyundai’s intent to turn its new hydrogen model into a tire-shredding performance machine. Instead, the corporate goal appears to be besting the stats of the old Tucson FCEV — which the company has accomplished.

However, it needs to be said that the front-drive Nexo absolutely falls apart during spirited driving. Hard corning induces a level of wheel hop I’ve not encountered in some time. But even moderately sharp turns cause the vehicle’s electronic nanny’s to put in some overtime as the car itself swings wide. It’s not really an issue during normal commuting, when the vehicle isn’t being asked to do much and is thus well behaved, but I wouldn’t advise anyone to pick up the Nexo if they’re interested in exploring its outer limits. You’re just going to feel like you’re actively destroying it.

Keep it cruising and you’ll be happier, but perhaps not overjoyed. While driving in traffic, the Nexo’s forward and rear collision warnings would chime endlessly — even when there wasn’t another vehicle in my immediate area. Due to my limited time with the model, I failed to uncover the menu selection that shut this down, but did discover that turning the vehicle off while stopped in traffic also did the trick. Sadly, that didn’t affect how broken the Nexo felt in its default setting, which many customers are unlikely to change. Highway Driving Assist and Lane Following Assist by Hyundai also failed to impress, throwing me from one side of the street to the other a little more often than Tesla’s Autopilot. While not deal breakers, especially if you like driving yourself, it made the car’s most interesting features feel rushed and kind of chintzy.

Fortunately, there is a lot of other standard tech to keep you distracted from those shortcomings. Most elements you’ll be required to interface with on the regular are intuitive and appear to be of superior quality. However, these aren’t perfect, either. The floating center console offers some interesting storage options and an array of physical buttons, which I appreciated, but it also didn’t feel quite as nice as the rest of the Nexo’s otherwise-superb interior.

Technically a flagship model for the brand, the Nexo is only slightly larger than the current Tucson at 183.9 inches in length and is dwarfed by the Santa Fe. Interior space is serviceable and feels very open with 30 cubic feet of cargo space behind the the second row — which can accommodate adults without much trouble or be folded. The seats are firm but not uncomfortable and are helped by a relatively soft ride. Save for the incessant safety warning chime that you absolutely have to disable to maintain sanity, the Nexo rides smooth and nearly silently with just a hint of tire drone and wind noise at highway speeds. However, at low speeds, it emits an pleasant, angelic tone to alert unaware pedestrians — much like the “lesser” Kona EV, which I found to be genuinely fun from behind the wheel.

Range is estimated by the manufacturer to be an impressive 370 miles, thanks to the Nexo’s three 10,000-psi hydrogen tanks. However, Hyundai and Kia recently issued updated range estimates for their respective Kona and Niro electric crossovers, so the that number could be similarly downgraded soon. Of course, this won’t help or hinder your getting out of California in the Nexo, since its hydrogen fueling infrastructure effectively ends once you’ve ventured a few miles beyond its largest coastal cities. That’s hardly the fault of the car, but it does limit its overall usefulness.

And that’s the real issue. Even if I loved the Nexo, I wouldn’t be able to recommend it or any other hydrogen-powered automobile due to their inherent geographical limitations. Though there may yet be a small market for the model inside of California.

The crossover offers quite a bit of tech and enough off-kilter styling to telegraph its modernity to everyone around you. It has some neat aerodynamic tricks up its sleeve, too, including automated door handles that become flush with the door when not in use. But there are also things like a two-spoke steering wheel, twin 12.3-inch displays, fancy remote parking (which doesn’t require you to be in the car), advanced navigation, and a push-button transmission to help it really shout, “I’m something new and very different.” Hyundai even bolstered the fuel cell’s cold-weather performance, with the ability to start in conditions as cold as minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit. Odd, considering they’re only selling it in California, but it remains a technological achievement of some note.

And technological achievements are likely what will reel in all of its prospective buyers. While the Hyundai Nexo is not fast or particularly fun to drive, it is unique enough to warrant some attention from technophiles. For me, it’s a car I wouldn’t mind being trapped inside of in heavy city traffic (because that’s where it shines) but not something I would ever consider recommending to most auto enthusiasts or the average Joseph/Josephine.

Starting at an estimated $55,000 and available in the latter half of 2019, the Nexo comes in at a price point that puts it up against a BMW X4 or Mercedes-Benz GLC 350e with all-wheel drive. But those cars burn still burn smelly gasoline, not the magic gas of the future we call hydrogen. So we’re left with the Honda Clarity and Toyota Mirai, which also provide a comfortable and quiet ride but similarly tepid dynamics (albeit less so in the Honda), as more direct comparisons. Having never occupied the Clarity Fuel Cell, I cannot comment much about its performance, but the Mirai isn’t much better than the Nexo and offers its own unique brand of ultra-modern styling in a less-spacious feeling package.

Regardless, there’s little reason to cross shop unless you’re living in coastal California and hydrogen cars already appeal to you. But, even then, I would still suggest waiting. The technology and especially the infrastructure have a ways to go before reaching a point where battery-electric vehicles and especially internal combustion vehicles have to seriously worry.

Unless you’re looking for a drivable conversation piece and find yourself perpetually stuck in rush-hour traffic, the Hyundai Nexo is a hard pass. It’s extremely slick but lacks the fundamentals.

[Images: Hyundai; © 2018 Matt Posky/TTAC]

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