What is a FCEV?
It stands for Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle, and this Sportage SUV is Kia’s latest attempt at a hydrogen-powered car. This technology has been the talk of the industry for the last decade as the ultimate in eco-friendly motoring.
Most experts thought production cars were another ten to 15 years away, as sky-high development costs and a lack of accessible filling stations were the stumbling blocks. However, Honda recently announced it would sell a £50,000 fuel cell saloon from next year in America and Japan, so all car makers are now re-assessing their plans.
Why is a small player like Kia making a hydrogen car?
Kia is still a relatively young auto company, having made its first ever car as recently as 1974. But after it joined forces with Hyundai a decade ago growth has been phenomenal, and it has recently announced ambitious plans. Compared with 2006, it wants a 90 percent increase in global sales by 2010.
The UK dealer network is to grow from the current 140 outlets to 170 by the same year. The first hybrid car will be launched in Korea in 2009 and in Europe by 2012. Fuel cells, as the ultimate in 'green' driving, are the logical next step.
How does the Sportage FCEV work?
Hydrogen isn’t just about making big bombs. On the Sportage FCEV, the gas is stored at 700-bar pressure in twin 76-litre tanks. It’s then piped into a fuel cell stack, which is about the size of a big shoebox, where it combines with oxygen to make electricity.
This electricity is then stored in a battery and used to drive three electric motors developing 107bhp in total. All that comes out of the exhaust is water vapour. You fill the car at a special H-pump, but it’s just like topping up with regular fuel.
How is this Sportage different to today’s model?
If you ignore the stickers down the car’s flanks, visually there’s no difference at all. You’ll only notice anything unusual when you drive it. Shift the automatic gear selector into Drive, press the throttle and… there’s virtually no noise.
The one thing you can hear is a whining sound as you speed up. It’s because the system puts about fifty percent more hydrogen into the fuel cell stack than is actually needed, to make sure there’s enough to flood every corner of it. The whine is the pump, which collects the excess and recycles it.
What about under the bonnet?
As it’s not your standard internal combustion engine, there are big differences when you pop the hood. Visually the engine bay is just a collection of aluminium-topped boxes, one of which features a small digital counter.
Its role is to measure the number of starts-ups because this is the main cause of degradation of the fuel cell. Engineers say they reckon this issue will be fixed before the public can buy this car, so it will only be a feature of this prototype.
Is the FCEV quick?
The FCEV’s performance figures aren’t staggering, but they’re not bad either. The car will hit 60mph in around ten seconds – at least as quick as a standard Sportage – and go on to 88mph.
The range between fill-ups is a respectable 240 miles. It doesn’t sound much, but it’s a major improvement on previous attempts. Hyundai-Kia’s first fuel cell car was a Santa Fe SUV, which had a range of just 100 miles. Its successor – which debuted in 2004 and was based on a Hyundai Tucson – could manage 212 miles.
Kia’s efforts to create a viable fuel cell car are at least as impressive as those of some other, much larger, auto companies. But the big question is when will a FCEV hit the showrooms? Bosses say their next hydrogen vehicle, due in 2012, will be 'ready for commercialisation'. Power and range will rise to 134bhp and 375 miles respectively, they say.
But will it go on sale? The answer is they’ve not yet decided. It depends on the state of the hydrogen infrastructure at that time; the argument is if there’s no pumps for drivers to fill up from, there’s no sense in having the car on sale. And it’s a fair point.