Paul Horrell27 June 2014

Toyota's hydrogen powered car is here

The Fuel Cell Sedan runs on hydrogen and batteries, emits only water. Paul Horrell reports

Top Gear likes fuel-cell cars. James May, in particular, thinks hydrogen is The Future. Or at least part of The Future. Hydrogen is the gas that goes into fuel cells. It generates electricity while emitting only water. The electricity drives a motor, so you get the same smooth, quiet performance as a battery car. But you can drive for far longer, and refuel in a few minutes instead of the hours you need to recharge. 

You'll remember James' film with Honda's fuel-cell Clarity.

As he says, hydrogen is to all intents and purposes limitless. And it's available from many sources – including clean electrolysis of water by solar energy. But at the moment there are hardly any hydrogen filling stations. For that reason, fuel cell cars are a bit Ambitious But Rubbish.

Never mind. If there were more stations there would be more cars. If there were more fuel cell cars, there would be more hydrogen filling stations. Chicken, egg, etc.

And here is another fuel-cell car. It's the Toyota Fuel Cell Sedan. It's an actual production vehicle – Honda only built 200 of the FCX. Luckily Toyota put vastly more effort into designing and engineering Fuel Cell Sedan than they did into thinking of a name.

We've driven a prototype (the disguised car in the pictures above), and it's good. It goes on sale in Japan next April at about £40,000, with European and US sales a few months later.

It's actually a hybrid, in the sense that the motor gets electricity from two sources. A small buffer battery augments the electricity from the fuel-cell stack during full-bore acceleration. Then when the stack has more power than you need, it regenerates the battery. All of which makes the car more efficient. It also helps responsiveness, because fuel-cells need a few seconds to build up to full power, like turbo lag.

But Toyota has been developing fuel cells for 20 years, and has hugely improved on the old bogeys: size, cold-start performance and cost. The new cell stack is small enough to fit under the front seats. It can start at 30 below. And the cost is just one tenth of what it was a decade ago.

Two cylindrical tanks hold the hydrogen – one under the rear seat and one between the rear wheels. The pair holds just 5kg of highly compressed hydrogen, but hydrogen is the lightest element and the engineers claim this is enough for 300 miles real-world driving. And then you can refuel in just three minutes. Provided there's a filling station, anyway.

And what’s it like to drive? The so-called prototype we were in was actually a mule. In other words, it has the guts of the Fuel Cell Sedan underneath, and drives like it. But the body and interior are hacked about from some generic J-market Toyota saloon. In any case it's got an eye-boggling spiral disguise wrap.

But it goes well. The stack can do 100kW of electricity, and the battery adds more. If you got on a little steering lock, it'll squeal the inside front tyre if you floor it from low speed.

There's a smooth flow of acceleration – I timed it with my watch at under 10sec for 0-60mph, but like all electric cars the strong initial rush tails off at motorway speed. You often get a lot of hissing from fuel-cell prototypes – they compress air and pump it into the stack – but you don't hear it in this one except when you absolutely floor it.

Do you like the look of the real car? Comments below please. It's certainly more a more radical shape than the Honda FCX Clarity. But after just 200 examples, Honda stopped the FCX Clarity, and has showed a concept for the next one die in 2016, the FCEV. That's the white car in picture 8 above, and you can't accuse that of being dull.

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