You’d be forgiven for expecting something rather space age when swinging open the driver’s door of Nissan’s futuristic hydrogen-powered X-Trail. But you’d be disappointed.
Except for a colourful Prius-like screen, Nissan’s special Fuel Cell Vehicle (FCV) looks decidedly, well, ordinary.
But don’t be fooled. This car is about as special as they come. So special that the model I am stepping into at the moment is one of only a handful of X-Trail FCVs globally, and is valued at a sizeable $1 million (about R7.5 million).
You have to remember of course, that this is a prototype and its value is nothing near what Nissan is hoping consumers will eventually pay for the privilege of driving one.
Seriously simple chemistry
Although the actual functioning of an FCV is rather complex, the concept remains simple.
Where a normal combustion engine ignites petrol to create the energy that keeps the wheels turning, an FCV combines hydrogen and oxygen in its fuel cell. The beauty of the fuel cell process is that the only by-product is water. Simply put: H2 + O2 = energy + H2O.
It was hard to believe the motor of the FCV was already running when I strolled over to the parked vehicle a moment earlier, what with there not being any noise from an engine. But now, as I click the driver's seatbelt into the secure position, a mere glance at the console-mounted screen makes it obvious there is some serious chemistry going on underfoot.
In addition to the fuel cell process the FCV also relies on a compact lithium-ion battery (which is mounted in the boot) to give a hand with acceleration.
Step on the brakes and this battery is cleverly recharged with the kinetic energy that would normally have gone to waste as heat.
The eagerness of the X-Trail FCV impresses me when I step on the accelerator. With 90 kW it has only marginally less power at its disposal than the 102 kW of the regular X-Trail 2.0-litre, but its 280 Nm outdoes the petrol with some 80 Nm worth of torque. Not shabby.
I turn onto the main road and accelerate hard while watching the screen to see how energy is channelled from the battery towards the motor. And still nothing more than an almost eerie silence.
This is the third in a line of X-Trail FCVs that have been developed by Nissan since 2002, and incorporates the company’s latest green technology.
Most impressive is the new fuel cell-stack, which has been developed in-house. Nissan managed to create individual cells that are much thinner so that more cells can be crammed into the stack, 40% more to be exact. More cells mean a higher electric output, which in turn means better performance and a smile on the driver’s face.
Nissan also upped the pressure of the egg-shaped hydrogen tank that is bolted underneath the rear seats from 35MPa (350 bar) to double that at 70Mpa (700 bar). With more hydrogen stored away, the X-Trail FCVs can be driven for a very decent 500km before needing a drink. This is significantly more impressive than the 350km range of its predecessor.
The X-Trail FCV feels and behaves exactly the way a “normal” car does. It feels responsive, rolls a bit in the bends and eagerly accelerates up hills. Pretty much what you’d expect.
The only difference is that you feel much more isolated from the experience, largely because of the quiet efficiency of its motor. Almost as if you are playing a PS3 game instead of steering the real McCoy.
Its resemblance to standard models is not necessarily a bad thing either, and will likely make FCVs like the X-Trail easier on the palate of Joe Jones.
The only downside is that Mr Jones will have to wait a little longer before settling into his new Nissan FCV. The manufacturer is only planning a small-scale European introduction in 2011 with early commercialisation set for 2015. No dates have been set for South Africa yet.
One of the obstacles to a successful mainstream roll-out is that niggling problem of infrastructure. The X-Trail FCV might have a pretty impressive range, but if it is to succeed in the real world you must be able to top it up with regularly available hydrogen.
Brian Johnston, Nissan’s senior project engineer for Electric and Fuel Cell Vehicles at the company’s technical centre in North America admits that it is a bit of a chicken and egg situation; FCVs won’t be successful unless there is an infrastructure to support them, and energy companies are cagey to invest millions in the required infrastructure unless there are enough FCVs to make it worth their while.
“The best way our company can overcome this obstacle is through partnerships with the energy industry and government to make sure everybody is marching together at the same rate,” explains Johnston.
Let’s be realistic though. Regularly available hydrogen is just one of a number of obstacles FCVs have to overcome, there are plenty more. But that’s not the point here. After an all-too-short test spin it is obvious to me that the X-Trail FCV is a big step in the right direction. For that alone Nissan gets our vote.