Climbing Behind the Wheel of a Hydrogen-Powered Fuel Cell Muscle Car

·8 min read
Photo credit: Hyundai
Photo credit: Hyundai
  • The N Vision 74 hydrogen fuel cell car has 670 hp, rear-wheel drive, and a claimed 370 miles of range.

  • The design was inspired by the car Giugiaro turned into the Delorean DMC-12, the Hyundai Pony Coupe concept.

  • Sadly, the automaker has no plans to put the N Vision 74 into production.

The battery electric era is already arriving, but a big question remains over what will follow it. A significant percentage of the auto industry holds that BEVs will be the long-term answer. They are, in essence, betting that the issues of range, cost, finding materials for battery packs—and the challenge of recycling old cells—will all be answered in time.

Yet others believe that battery-powered EVs will only be an interim solution, one that will eventually be supplemented by hydrogen power through fuel cells.

This isn’t outer-edge stuff. Two of the biggest automakers in the world—Toyota and Hyundai—are committed to hugely expensive fuel cell programs, and both have already put hydrogen-powered vehicles into limited production. But these cars, the Mirai and Nexo respectively, are worthy and unexciting, certainly from everything but a technical point of view. Now meet one that’s not.

In truth Hyundai’s spectacular N Vision 74 concept isn’t a pure hydrogen car so much as a hydrogen-assisted EV. Nor are there any plans to put it into production with any type of powerplant. But it looks great, delivers up to 690 hp through its rear axle, and is fully capable of smoking its back tires while travelling sideways. There’s also a genuine reason it looks a little bit like a Delorean DMC-12—and Autoweek has driven it.

Photo credit: Hyundai
Photo credit: Hyundai

The N Vision 74 earned huge amounts of online praise when it was first unveiled earlier this year, but the muscular coupe isn’t just a pretty show concept. Indeed, beneath its bodywork lies a hard-working prototype powertrain, one that was created well before the idea of turning it into a stylish coupe was hatched.

The core structure isn’t a Hyundai; rather, it’s a Kia Stinger. That’s according to Albert Biermann, formerly the group R&D boss, and instigator of its N performance division. Now he is semi-retired and has the job title “executive technical adviser”—one that gives him the ability to give more behind the scenes details than the company’s PR team probably want him to.

According to Biermann, four Stingers were modified to create what Hyundai calls “mecha-protos,” ones built on an existing car, to trial a new high-output system that combines a 62.4-kWh battery and an 85-kW fuel cell. These send power to a pair of 335-hp electric motors at the back, one turning each rear wheel. The project’s main purpose was actually to help develop the system that regulates the relationship between the two e-motors in lieu of any mechanical connection across the axle.

“We developed a ‘virtual differential’ by software control,” Biermann says, “and that’s been a huge challenge for our engineers. But at some point we might consider [using] it for a special car needing more power than our modular system can provide with one motor at each axle.”

Given the group’s most potent current EV architecture offers 577-hp using separate motors for front and rear, that suggests there will be some seriously high performance models in Hyundai’s future.

The N Vision 74’s muscular coupe bodywork came later, and is the work of a team under the leadership of Hyundai’s Executive Vice President of Design, Lee SangYup. Lee knows plenty about making good-looking sports cars; before joining Hyundai he worked for GM, Volkswagen, and Bentley, with previous credits including the Cadillac Sixteen concept, the fifth-generation Chevrolet Camaro, and the spectacular Bentley EXP 10 Speed 6.

Photo credit: Hyundai
Photo credit: Hyundai

Inspiration for the N Vision 74 came from the very beginning of Hyundai’s history as an independent maker. Having graduated from building Fords under licence in the mid-‘70s, the company’s first car was the Pony sedan. Although designed to offer low-cost transport in South Korea, and later some export markets, this was designed by ItalDesign’s Giorgetto Giugiaro.

Wanting something more exciting for auto show stands, Hyundai also commissioned the legendary designer to create a Pony coupe concept sitting on the same platform. To no great surprise, this featured the wedgy proportions of some of Giugiaro’s more famous cars from the era, that list including the Lotus Esprit and the Alfa Romeo Alsasud Sprint.

The Pony Coupe didn’t make production. As it would have used an 80-hp 1.6-liter Mitsubishi-sourced engine and a solid rear axle, that was no great loss to the world of performance cars. But with the efficiency of all great designers, Giugiaro recycled much of it into another new project he began soon afterwards: the Delorean DMC-12, although with the addition of gullwing doors. Which is why it’s entirely understandable if you’re looking at the N Vision 74 and humming Huey Lewis’s Power of Love.

Although its inspiration is nearly 50 years old, the N Vision 74 isn’t a retro pastiche. The basic form owes plenty to the past, including the abrupt transition between roof and rear screen, but futuristic details abound, the most impressive up close being the pixelated lights front and rear.

The N Vision 74’s fuel cell comes straight from a production Hyundai Nexo, and its relatively lowly output—equivalent to 113 hp—isn’t enough to fully power the rear motors by itself. Instead it sits upstream of the battery pack, effectively acting as a range extender. With the combination of a fully juiced battery and the 4.2 kg of hydrogen gas it can carry in its twin rear tanks, Hyundai claims the 74 can go up to 370 miles.

Photo credit: Hyundai
Photo credit: Hyundai

My drive took place on track at Bilster Berg in Germany, one of those rich-guy ‘driving resort’ circuits, although likely the only one in the world constructed on the site of a former British army munitions depot. My turn was brief, but enough to prove that the N Vision 74 feels savagely fast. For the most part, the 74 drove like an EV, with instant throttle responses and a lack of any of the mechanical inertia of even the most potent combustion engines. But the concept also lacked the sense of fading power common to pure fuel cell vehicles, when the powerpack can only sustain its full output for limited periods. Hyundai claims the car has a sub-4 second 0-60 mph time, and from the cockpit it certainly feels that quick.

Under braking it is less accomplished—the development team reckons the concept weighs around 4400 lbs, and that felt obvious when asking it to slow at the end of Bilster Berg’s longer straights, the wooden-feeling pedal bringing less retardation than I was expecting. Nor was there much aural drama, with the soundtrack being one of rushing wind, roaring tyres and the thrash of the cooling fans working flat-out to keep the powertrain’s temperatures in check.

Yet traction felt amazingly secure for something putting nearly 700 hp through its rear wheels, with minimal drama in slower and tighter corners. Much of this is doubtless down to the clever algorithms controlling the allocation of torque across the back axle. Biermann admits that the first version of the virtual differential was “scary, to be honest,” but the system felt to me like a conventional mechanical system.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

And although smart side-to-side torque vectoring was doubtless helping the N Vision 74 to turn, its contribution felt invisible—even when the traction control was slackened enough to allow me to push to the point of rear-end breakaway. (With the system fully de-energized, one of Hyundai’s development engineers also proved that the car can produce big drift angles, too.)

Sadly, there seems very little chance the N Vision 74 will spawn a production car, despite the hugely positive reaction it has enjoyed. The advanced E-GMP architecture that sits beneath Hyundai and Kia’s EVs uses an underfloor battery pack best suited to crossovers and SUVs, one that would likely ruin the 74’s sleek lines. Nor would creating a gasoline version on the Stinger platform really be in keeping with the forward-looking technology.

The N Vision 74’s role is as proof of Hyundai’s commitment to a hydrogen-powered future, one that will develop alongside the advanced EVs that the company is already bringing to market.

“EV is not an interim technology, it will stay out there. It is clear that for cars, EV is hard to beat,” says Biermann. “But my line of thinking is easy: If we want the world to go carbon neutral, we will need millions of tons of hydrogen in all aspects of society. And if you do that, it is then no big deal to put that into cars or trucks or buses. I think Mr. Putin gives us a very good lesson not to depend on any individual source of energy too much.”

“What is the best synergy to grid power? Hydrogen, that’s clear,” he adds. “You can store it, you can use it when you need it, you can take it everywhere. It’s like milk and cheese, milk is like power from the grid—you use it, or it goes off. Hydrogen is like cheese—stored energy that lasts. It will be part of the future, that is unavoidable.”

For now, the N Vision 74 is the sort of future we can all get behind.

Share your thoughts on the future of fuel cell technology and Hyundai’s continued interest in the technology in the comments below.