First Drive: Hydrogen Powered Kia Borrego FCEV and Nissan X-Trail FCV

by Sebastian Blanco, contibuting editor, Yahoo

It’s hard to learn much about a car in 10 minutes, but when that’s all you’ve got, you study quick. During the Hydrogen + Fuel Cells 2009 conference in Vancouver, British Columbia in mid-February, we got to spend a few minutes in both the Nissan X-Trail FCV and the Kia Borrego FCEV. Both of these large vehicles participated in the 1,700-mile Hydrogen Road Tour but were rearing and ready to go when we took to the streets of downtown Vancouver for a quick spin. The Borrego performed a bit better than the X-Trail, but both managed to impress us with their zero-emission* selves.

The Borrego FCEV is, above all, a smooth, smooth ride. Starting from 0 mph and then coming to a stop are about the smoothest possible experiences you can have behind the wheel, enhanced by the lack of engine vibration and noise. The SUV performed a bit better than its hydrogen-loving cousin, the Hyundai FCEV (based on the Tuscon SUV), did when we tested it in October. The steering felt fine, but we didn’t really push the handling because we never got to go more than about 35 mph. Acceleration wasn’t as punchy as some electric cars we’ve driven, but that might be due to the vehicle’s size (comparing this SUV to a Tesla Roadster or Dodge Circuit isn’t exactly fair) more than anything else. Kia says the 110 kW electric motor is capable of moving the Borrego to about 100 mph. We look forward to testing that on a track some day.

In a vehicle of this size, there’s no way to visually notice, from the driver’s seat at least, that the powertrain is any different than that in any other vehicle. Everything is hidden away, leaving plenty of room for passengers and gear. The quiet SUV went unnoticed by pedestrians as well—a couple of elderly women looked pretty surprised when they finally realized we were slowly inching along, waiting for them to cross the street.

The Kia rep told us that the start time for the Borrego FCEV is about five or six seconds, similar to other production cars and comparable to what the Hyundai FCEV is capable of. Once up and running, a press on the acceleration pedal draws energy from the fuel cell and from the supercapacitor. The 115 kW fuel cell and the regenerative brakes can recharge the supercap when needed (yes, it says ultracap in the “Power Flow” picture, but that not what’s in the car, we were told). The powertrain is the fourth generation of a system that Hyundai developed in-house and provides power to a 154 hp electric motor. With a full tank of 7.9 kg of H 2 (pressurized at 700 bar), the Borrego can go about 315 miles. The Borrego-based FCEV was unveiled at the LA Auto Show last fall, and is currently undergoing testing in the US and Korea.

The X-Trail feels similar to the Borrego: big, hydrogen powered and quiet. The Nissan didn’t feel quite as smooth as the Borrego, but was still miles smoother than an ICE-powered SUV because of that missing engine. It’s a good bet that, once EVs and hydrogen-powered vehicles become more widespread, customers will gravitate towards them for the smoothness as much as they do for the alternative-fueled powertrain.

Speaking of which, the X-Trail we drove was the second-generation model (model year 2005) that is being used as a platform to showcase the hydrogen technology. What’s notable about the vehicle was that it uses the very first hydrogen powertrain – motor, fuel cell stack, battery pack – where everything was made by Nissan. The company has used parts from Ballard and other companies in the past, but wanted to build one where everything was its own.

The X-Trail uses a 700 bar tank that is large enough to raise the rear seats some. When tested in the Japanese 10-15 mode, a full tank provided a range of about 500 km (310 miles), but the Nissan rep told us that real-world driving drops that by about 30 percent to 350 km (217 miles).

There is a “creep torque” built into the vehicle. This means that, if the vehicle is in “Drive” and the driver takes his or her foot off the brake, the vehicle will start to move forward slowly. This was built into the X-Trail FCV to simulate the type or car that most American’s are used to driving.

Overall, driving these two vehicles showed that hydrogen vehicles present a lot of promise. The appeal of a big, quiet and clean SUV is obvious. But, there are immense political, pricing and infrastructure hurdles to overcome before hydrogen SUVs like these are ready for everyone, and by that time there will be great competition from pure battery-powered alternatives. If there was a hydrogen station nearby that used captured H 2, we’d be happy to drive either one of these SUVs every day. Until that happens, though, we’ll just keep on going for these little test drives and checking out what’s next.