Rather than sit at home watching the Olympics on TV like the rest of you slackers, I decided to travel to South Korea and see the games firsthand, maybe enter the snowboard big air comp — they might need me, and I had my passport, so technically I could be on the team. And I further vowed to get there in a Korean car. Not across the Pacific — for that, I took a Korean Air A380. But to get from the sprawling metropolis of Seoul to the mountainous outpost of PyeongChang where the Games were held, a distance of 120 miles, I chose a Hyundai Nexo, naturally.
Nexo is Hyundai’s latest hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. It was introduced at CES and goes on sale in the U.S. in the fourth quarter of this year. Nexo is interesting for a number of reasons. First, rather than being just a converted crossover utility vehicle with fuel cell pieces stapled, Scotch-taped and stuffed haphazardly inside, it sits on its own unique and very expensive chassis.
You wouldn’t know it’s a fuel cell EV from the outside. It looks about like your typical generic, garden-variety crossover. It’s not as science-fiction flashy as the Toyota Mirai, nor as blandly efficient as the Proboscis-monkey Honda Clarity. Hyundai went with anonymous and safely boring for its fuel cell vehicle design (though it does have cool integrated flush door handles that automatically present themselves, a la Tesla). In addition to being lighter in weight than an internal combustion vehicle converted to fuel cell use, the platform offers a roomy interior with about the same passenger and cargo space as an equivalent gasoline-powered crossover. By planting the Nexo’s three cylindrical hydrogen tanks under the floor and seats, the Nexo gains a roomy and efficient interior.
Fuel Cell with decorative top
The fuel cell itself is highly efficient, too — Hyundai claims it’s 60 percent efficient; that is, it converts 60 percent of the energy content of the hydrogen into electrical energy. Electric cars (battery-electric vehicles) are much more efficient at converting energy, and gasoline cars are much less efficient. The Nexo’s power density increases by 50 percent over the previous Tucson fuel cell vehicle, with the size of the electric-generating stack smaller by 18 percent and the weight 14 percent less. The craft’s front-mounted induction electric motor makes 120 kW, or 161 hp. With three 52.2-liter hydrogen tanks underneath, it gets an estimated U.S. EPA driving range of 350 miles.
That 350 miles was way more than enough to get the 120 miles to PyeongChang, so off I set, wading into Seoul traffic like a local on the way to lunch. Driving in Seoul is like a combination of driving in Japan and driving in Italy. Maybe a little more Italy, but with more order than chaos. There is none of the territory claiming I find in LA traffic, where you swear a death oath on anyone who “cuts you off” and takes up “your lane.” Instead, everything in Seoul just flows. Big buses and little scooters all merge into a single, flowing vehicular reptile that oozes efficiently through urban Seoul and out into the suburbs. I adapted immediately. Granted, once everyone got out on the wide-open highways, lane discipline sort of fell apart, but no one minded if anyone passed on the right. This wasn’t a German autobahn.
For its part, the Nexo just hummed along, as quietly as a winning high school science experiment. You couldn’t hear the pumps pushing the hydrogen through the stacks, and you could barely hear the electric motor spinning the front wheels. There was room galore inside, too. The only goofy thing was the center stack of buttons — there were zillions of them. It was like a Gemini spacecraft. But I prefer that to those single computer screens that require you to go through 15 submenus to change the radio.
Top speed was listed at 111 mph, which is pretty fast for such a futuristic vehicle. Zero to 62 mph is listed at 9.2 seconds. I didn’t doubt either one.
In no time at all, I arrived at PyeongChang, parked the Nexo and shuttle-bused it to the Big Air Comp. Surely the coach would recognize me up there in row 8 seat 5? Perhaps he’d heard about my prowess in the halfpipe at Mammoth, or the time I fell and broke a rib at Mount Charleston? I awaited my chance at bringing Olympic glory to America. And then I waited some more. Swedes, Finns and Russians flew off the top of the monstrous ramp, spinning through the air like crazed lawn darts, then landing with a thump on the downhill ramp. It was pretty thrilling stuff.
In the end, I was probably glad that the team didn’t need me, opting instead to stay with the roster they’d kept at the trials. I could understand it, and I was willing to forgo my own Olympic dreams for the greater good of the sport. I’m a team playah, after all.
As I write this, Americans Redmond Gerard, Chris Corning and Kyle Mack are carrying the colors. Good on ya’, boys. The final is Sunday. USA! USA! USA!
On Sale: Fourth quarter of 2018
Base Price: TBA
Powertrain: Hydrogen fuel cell, electric induction motor, FWD
Output: 111 hp
0-60 MPH: 9.2 seconds 0-62 (mfg.)
Fuel Economy: 350 miles range(EPA City/Hwy/Combined)
Pros: An efficient crossover powered by hydrogen
Cons: Where am I gonna get hydrogen?