Today Car Dealer has tried one of the first models to be powered by a fuel cell from Kia– and it’s very real indeed.
The maker is committed to producing 10,000 fuel cell vehicles a year by 2015 and judging by the Mohave SUV test model we tried at the firm’s Eco Tech Research Institute in Mabuk, Korea, it’s well on course.
But what was quite clear from today’s briefing was that the dealer model when these cars are more prevalent on roads will be very different indeed.
‘Servicing will not need to take place as often as possible,’ said Dr Kim Sae-Hoon. ‘Our fuel cell cars have very few serviceable parts – the air filter will need replacing and the coolant, but this could potentially be done DIY.’
But before dealers start to worry too much, Kia still says a large number of parts will need looking at, such as the conventional serviceable parts like tyres and brakes.
And this technology will be here before we know. A hybrid Kia will be first – in 2012 a cee’d diesel hybrid will be on the market – then fuel cell will be next.
And if our test is anything to go by they’re well on course to be ready. Based on Kia’s Mohave SUV – a large Land Cruiser sized off-roader – the fuel cell car is already very polished.
Its fuel cell mixes hydrogen and oxygen to create a chemical reaction that produces electricity to power an electric motor – the only by-product being water and heat.
Kia has mated a super capacitor to the power train too which stores power and boosts the electric motor when needed. This is then regenerated under braking.
Starting up the Mohave is still done by key, but there’s no explosion of noise as it fires into life. All you hear is a series of clicks and whirrs as the fuel cell prepares for propulsion.
It’s virtually silent from the inside on the move too – the loudest thing on our test was the squeak of the leather seats – and from outside a slight generator hum can be heard. But even that’s so quiet it’s drowned out by the tyre noise as the car pulls away.
Kia is actually having to engineer in a noise so that pedestrians can hear fuel cell-powered cars coming – and that won’t be the sound of a conventional engine. Kia instead wants something completely different; a noise that would ‘mark it out as a fuel cell’ we were told.
Our test drive was short and restricted to relatively low speeds, but what was immediately apparent was just how real and ready this technology feels. Inside the car things look and feel just like a conventional model, apart from a kilowatt dial on the dash where the rev counter would be.
Performance from the 115kw motor is impressive for a car of this size. 0-60mph takes 12.8 seconds and it’ll hit a top speed of around 100mph. What’s more, on a full tank of hydrogen – which costs just £20 – it’ll do 425 miles.
And because all that power is available immediately, it pulls away very smoothly and cleanly. However, there’s very little ‘engine’ braking when you slow down which does feel a bit disconcerting.
It also takes a little while to start up again after turning it off. During our test we stopped and restarted the fuel cell and the cycle takes around 30 seconds until a green ‘ready’ light appears on the dash.
How far off is full-scale production of fuel cell cars from Kia? Not very. The maker is already making 100 a year and this capacity is increasing all the time. It estimates they’ll be commercially available by 2015 and cost in the region of £35,000 by the time they’re in dealers.
But before we get too excited there are obviously obstacles to overcome – cold starting is still causing issues as the water in the system turns to ice, while a hydrogen filling station network will be needed in the UK.
However, what is clear is that not only are car manufacturers like Kia committed to getting this technology on the road as soon as possible, but that it’s not as far off as some people think…
by JAMES BAGGOTT