That’s not a green car. It’s a dirty great limo…
Yes, it’s a long-wheelbase BMW 7-series with a 6-litre V12 engine. But it runs on liquid hydrogen as well as petrol, emitting virtually no CO2 when it’s burning H2. As hydrogen is one of nature’s most abundant elements, we’re not about to run out. And it’s a proper car: 0-60mph in 9.5 sec, 143mph and a combined range of 435 miles. Nor is it a one-off prototype; engineered and tested to BMW’s usual standards, deliveries start in Spring next year.
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I’ll buy one.
You can’t. BMW won’t divulge how much one of these costs to make, but you can bet it’s many times the cost even of the 760Li it’s based on. Instead, it will loan the 100 cars it plans to make to politicians and the prominent to help get hydrogen onto the agenda. BMW’s corporate view is that burning hydrogen in internal combustion engines is our best bet for when the oil runs out, in opposition to those who back fuel cells or battery-powered vehicles.
So I’ll need to get elected to get one.
Yes. In Germany. There’s currently nowhere to fuel it in the UK, and only five sites in Germany. Other disadvantages include the range of only 125 miles on hydrogen, the reduced power of dual-fuel engines that means the V12 only produces as much power as a six-pot diesel, and the colossal size and weight of the hydrogen tank. Only a stretched 7-series can accommodate it, and even then the rear seats need to be moved forward 4.5 inches, the rear armrest can’t be folded up, making this a four-seater, and the tank extends most of the way into the boot. BMW says it has chosen the 7-series for its first production hydrogen car because it is aimed at politicians, but the truth is that a smaller engine would be too slow, and a smaller car would be rendered almost unusable by the tank.
Absolutely not. Someone has to take the first steps towards getting the hydrogen economy working, and that’s exactly what this car represents. And the technology is moving quickly – BMW expects to be able to build hydrogen-only engines making 134bhp per litre using direct injection and turbocharging, and switching to aluminium or even carbon-fibre tanks will cut the size and weight by at least a half.
So how does it drive?
Pretty well. The engine takes four or five seconds to fire up, and once running it’s quiet but slightly louder and coarser than a 730d diesel when stretched, with similar performance and a slightly lazzy throttle response. It’s noticeably heavier than a standard 7, crushing rough surfaces flat with its bulk but starting to heave over undulations. Very impressive for an eco-car though, and you know that BMW – a company of engine-obsessives – will eventually make it brilliant. It gives you hope that in a future without petrol we might not be condemned to driving hateful, silent electric golf buggies.
Some interesting facts, please.
The tank puts so much extra weight – around 200kgs – over the rear that the Hydrogen 7 gets the uprated back axle from the armoured 7-series Security. It also has an integrated carbon fibre rollcage to keep the tank in place in a high-speed crash. There are vents in the roof and floor allowing the hydrogen to be gasified and dumped in an emergency, and the bonnet has a unique ‘power hump’ to cover the hydrogen injectors. The hydrogen filler flap opens automatically with a beautiful, neat piston, and once you’ve attached the F1-style refuelling hose you can brim the hydrogen tank in under eight minutes. And talking of eight minutes, it’s probably the only vehicle for which BMW doesn’t quote a Nurburgring lap time.
Not sure whether this is the chicken or the egg, but the important thing is that it’s here, encouraging us to start work on a hydrogen infrastructure to refuel these cars, which will in turn encourage more hydrogen cars to be built, and so gradually get us out of the big pickle we’re in. Not hugely impressive as a vehicle – yet – and you might not agree with BMW that hydrogen engines are the future, but it’s an important, worthwhile project nonetheless.