Hyundai’s new charm offensive in Germany

Nexo
Nexo – the next milestone in the company’s strategic evolution

The second stop for the successor to Hyundai’s ix35 Fuel Cell was neither Detroit nor Tokyo but Offenbach, home to the automaker’s German and European headquarters. In mid-January, seven weeks prior to its official European premiere in Geneva, the Nexo was shown to a select group of journalists in this city by the river Main in the German state of Hesse. H2-international took the opportunity to get an in-depth look at a car that had just been unveiled Jan. 9 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

A small but illustrious circle of reporters were able to catch a first glimpse of the matte-gray, hydrogen-powered SUV in Offenbach. The choice of location sent a powerful message, namely that Hyundai views Germany as a crucial target market in Europe. What attracted the automaker’s interest was not only the number of hydrogen stations available across the country. According to Frank Meijer, head of Eco Car and Mobility at Hyundai Motor Europe, much progress had been made in the heart of the continent. The public was able to see the new vehicle as early as March, at the International Motor Show in Geneva, Switzerland.

From fast follower to first mover

In his opening remarks, Meijer took the gathered press down memory lane, back to 2013, when Hyundai was the first automaker to put a fuel cell car on the market. He said, “Until 2013, we were fast followers. Now, we are first movers.” The delivery of more than 500 fuel cell cars to European businesses, including 50 rental vehicles to BeeZero in Munich and 75 taxi cabs to Paris-based startup STEP, meant that Hyundai had become the market driver throughout Europe, where about 80 percent of sales now involved a Hyundai-brand vehicle, he said. Toyota, Hyundai’s only real competitor thus far, reportedly has over 6,000 fuel cell vehicles in operation worldwide.

Now, five years after the market launch of the ix35 Fuel Cell, the time seems ripe for a new line of cars to continue the company’s vision. But Hyundai didn’t just throw in a few upgrades to give the appearance of a state-of-the-art fuel cell vehicle. Instead, it created a whole new product. And this time, it made no compromises – such as integrating the fuel cell system into an available model, the Tucson – but tailored the car to the needs of the engine and the powertrain. The pre-series Hyundai FE Fuel Cell that was showcased last spring in Geneva (see July 2017 issue of H2-international), and last August in Seoul, gave attendees a taste of what the automaker was planning next.

In the Nexo, three same-sized 52.2-liter hydrogen tanks replace the differently sized versions in its predecessor. One of those, along with the high-voltage battery, can be found beneath the trunk compartment cover, while the other two have been placed under the back seats. This kind of design has two advantages. First, it increases cargo space to 461 liters. Second, the standardized dimensions help drive down costs in negotiations with South Korean suppliers.

How the Nexo got its name

Nexø is the name of the second-largest city on the Danish island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea. The island has become known for its exemplary efforts to advance research in sustainability and has been dubbed the country’s clean energy laboratory, or the “Bright Green Island.” Now, there’s a renewably powered car named after one of its cities. According to a spokesperson for Hyundai, the name was likewise chosen because it had “a nice futuristic ring to it.”

The novel 95-kilowatt fuel cell stack, this time the automaker’s own creation, is supported by a lithium-ion buffer battery offering 40 kilowatts of power. Together, they drive a 120-kilowatt electric engine that will take the five-seater to 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, per hour in 9.5 seconds, shaving 3 seconds off the ix35 Fuel Cell’s acceleration time. The maximum speed is 179 kilometers, or 111 miles, per hour.

So far, Hyundai has provided no details about how much fuel the car will need. Oliver Gutt, head of product management, said that it would “certainly not require more than its predecessor.” The target was a range of around 800 kilometers, or 497 miles, based on the New European Drive Cycle, to be achieved, among other things, by a more effective fuel cell design at 60 percent efficiency. Despite several attempts to ask about the price of the new model, there was no answer to this question either. There wasn’t even a hint as to whether the list price for the Nexo will be below the EUR 65,000 for an ix35 Fuel Cell. The market launch in South Korea is scheduled for July, and the car will reportedly be available to both private and commercial customers in Germany starting in August. It’s one more sign that Hyundai’s charm offensive is focused on Germany and Europe, as the new model will not be for sale on the US market by then.

The car has some intriguing features, such as retractable door handles. There is also a self-parking mode, so the driver can get out of the vehicle before the car maneuvers into tight parking spots. Other things worth mentioning are the use of voice commands to activate dashboard functions and the anti-sleep alarms integrated into the seats.

Regarding batteries, the company followed a two-are-better-than-one approach. The high-voltage accumulator is complemented by a 12-volt unit, as Gutt said, to prevent starting problems because of a dead battery, as had sometimes happened with the ix35. If someone were to leave open the trunk now, the interior lights would no longer drain the battery to a point where the car could not be started. There would always be enough power reserves to get the fuel cell up and running in 5 seconds, so it could generate electricity, he said.

Autonomous fuel cell cars

Hydrogen first

Meijer explained that the initial plan was to put a comparatively small number of cars up for a sale until demand picked up. He reassured us that there was enough production capacity, since the car was no longer being manufactured separately from the standard assembly line process.

A spokesperson also named Norway as another important target market because of the country’s attractive incentive programs. Denmark, on the other hand, is being pushed to the sidelines after it changed vital regulations.

The Nexo is proof of how important this engine technology has become to Hyundai. “It’s a flagship project for us,” Bernhard Voß, a spokesman for Hyundai, said. There was no mention of any possible breakthroughs by the corporate group’s other two brands, Kia and Genesis. The only thing that the company’s representatives were willing to reveal was that all findings from corporate research would be made available to each sister company within the group.

The above doesn’t mean Hyundai has left the development of battery electric vehicles to its competitors. It even believes that BEVs will offer a much more attractive sales environment than FCEVs over the coming years. But one of the aims of the automaker’s worldwide offices, especially its German one, is to continue improving the public image of the gas and the conditions for wind-sourced hydrogen and counter the many falsehoods that are still circulating. Additionally, the corporation wants to be prepared should oil prices rise again. “We’re branching out,” Voß said. Hyundai’s strategists have been keeping an eye especially on the light commercial vehicle and truck markets.

Government sources have told Reuters that Hyundai was planning to invest a total of EUR 17.6 billion in new technologies. The automaker is said to be hiring around 45,000 new employees to take on the challenge of developing new hydrogen, battery and autonomous cars as well as artificial intelligence in the next five years.

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