General Motor’s new HydroGen4 is the latest proof that fuel-cell cars are advancing at an astonishing rate; trouble is, they have so far to go. Hydrogen-powered cars are still light years away from being affordable and practical, but this one comes closer to looking, working and driving like a conventional car than any we’ve yet driven.
It deserves your attention; partly because it’s a very smart bit of automotive engineering, and partly because despite all the recent hype over plug-in hybrids and battery-electric vehicles, there are still plenty of clever people who think that cars like the GM Hydrogen 4 represent the real future of driving.
Fuel cells – remind me…
You fill up with compressed hydrogen from something that looks like a regular pump; it takes no longer than brimming a petrol tank. The hydrogen flows into the fuel cells, where it is split into protons and electrons, the electrons creating a current that drives the electric motor. They recombine with oxygen to create only water vapour as a by-product.
But of course you have to make the hydrogen – which requires energy – and get it to the forecourt. And you have to make the fuel cell; these HydroGen4s still cost GM around £400,000 to make, and it will be 2015 before the price will decline to something semi-sensible.
So what’s different about the GM HydroGen4?
Firstly, GM has built more of these HydroGen4s than any previous fuel-cell car; 100 are going into daily use around the world with families and businesses. We drove one in Berlin, where ten will be based, using the city’s government-sponsored hydrogen filling stations.
GM has built previous HydroGens using Zafira bodyshells; this one uses the US Chevy Equinox crossover as a host. This new version is more powerful at 93kW and carries more hydrogen, with 4.2kg compressed at a massive 700bar giving a range that has increased 30 miles to 200 miles.
Its fuel-cell stack is radically different with 440 cells, twice as many as the old car giving much better reliability. It will operate down to -25 degrees; previous versions would just freeze up. And it has all been built into something resembling a proper car, rather than the four-wheeled science project that was the HydroGen3.
>> Click next below to read the CAR verdict of the GM HydroGen 4
So how does it drive?
Like a really well-sorted electric car, but without the fear of running out of juice. You put the key in the ignition, twist, wait a moment for the system to arm, and you’re ready to go.
It’s a regular auto, so you select D, and scoot off in near-silence and with the instant, constant torque of a powerful AC motor. The HydroGen4 weighs two tonnes so acceleration is adequate rather than alarming; at around 12 seconds its on a par with city cars, and a top end of 100mph is enough for motorways.
Frankly, you just forget you’re driving something from 2020 and enjoy the amazing refinement and the Prius-style graphic which shows what the system is doing. Until you have to use the regenerative brakes, that is, which have no feel and little inclination to stop you until you hoof them.
On the day we drove its HydroGen4, GM’s bosses were in Washington pleading for a financial lifeline. You have to admire it for investing so heavily in hydrogen, producing such a polished product, and continuing to back it when GM’s own Volt plug-in hybrid makes it look a very long shot for the fuel of the future. But if it is, and this car gives us fresh hope that it might be, we’ll all be very grateful to GM – if it’s still around.
>> Click ‘Add your comment’ below and tell us what you think of the GM HydroGen4. Should the General uses its bailout money to build more cars like these?