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Chemically altered Kia. Image by Kia.

Chemically altered Kia
Car makers have been talking about fuel cells for years and finally some are being built. Kia's FCEV Sportage is not bad at all.

 



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| First Drive | Frankfurt, Germany | Kia Sportage FCEV |

When Kia invited us to drive a development version of its fuel-cell vehicle at the R&D centre near Frankfurt, we imagined a quick spin around the car park followed by a long and dull presentation of a technology that is largely not ready for sale. We didn't expect to be let loose on the public road in the Sportage FCEV and we certainly didn't expect it to impress us as much as it did.

How it works

Most people know that fuel cells combine oxygen and hydrogen, the chemical reaction resulting in the emission of pure water and rather usefully, electricity. If it were as simple as that we'd have given up the internal combustion engine years ago, though the appearance of drivable fuel-cell powered prototypes on the scene is a signal that the technology is moving closer to reality.

In the case of Kia's Sportage FCEV (Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle), the fuel cell, hydrogen storage tanks and most of the electronics are situated under the bonnet, while a slim-line lithium-ion battery nestles under the boot floor, powering the 100kW motor that turns the front wheels. That's equivalent to 134bhp, which is about the same figure the 2.0-litre turbodiesel model musters and the electric motor provides a similar level of torque as the diesel engine, though the maximum is available from zero rpm and doesn't begin to dip until beyond 4,000rpm - the motor rotates as quickly as 12,000rpm.

To fuel the FCEV, you'll need access to a source of high purity hydrogen, which is not exactly a widespread commodity as yet, and neither is it very cheap. Kia dismisses this as not their problem at this stage, suggesting that there are many ways to obtain hydrogen for automotive use, though a single one has yet to be identified as the standard.

In practise

As seen in Nissan's X-Trail FCV, packaging all of the necessary components for a fuel cell vehicle is a tricky business, which is why both Nissan and Kia have chosen SUVs as their basis. The Sportage is remarkably unchanged in practicality and exterior appearance - decals and shiny wheels aside. Inside, a glance won't tell you that this is a fuel cell vehicle either. The boot is virtually as big as ever, while the driving controls all look like those from a conventional car, apart from a few switches with puzzling acronyms on them.

Though there is no combustion noise, a distant whirring can be heard in the depths of the fuel cell system. Slot the lever into drive and press the accelerator and the Sportage pulls away smoothly. Immediately the steering feels too light though and offers zero feel. However, the first press on the brakes reveals that they offer up familiar feel to a normal hydraulic system. More impressively, the Sportage is actually quite quick. There is a little lag in the system after you press the throttle hard, but once it catches up the feeling is not too dissimilar to that of a turbodiesel; though instead of loud mechanical noise you are greeted with the high frequency whirr of an electric motor. Thanks to a decent ride, this Sportage was actually a good companion on our cross-country route and unusual as it was in some ways, it's not really a compromise either.

Future plans

There's a long way to go before fuel cell cars can be produced for the mass market. Costs and supply of hydrogen aside, Kia has started work on other hurdles, such as cold starting and crash safety. The Sportage has successfully started up and driven after soaking in -15-degrees Celsius for 24-hours. Crash testing was carried out too.

Kia has already previewed its next generation of fuel cell vehicle, with headline figures including a range of 375 miles and a top speed of 106mph. In-wheel electric motors are also planned to assist with traction.

Summary

As unusual as some aspects of driving this car are, it really shone through as something we all could get used to. Sadly, it's not just the supply of hydrogen that is a barrier, but also the cost of producing the fuel cell vehicle itself. Kia optimistically predicts it will be 2025 before fuel cell vehicles will really have an impact on the market.

Shane O' Donoghue - 18 Sep 2008









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2008 Kia Sportage FCEV. Image by Kia.2008 Kia Sportage FCEV. Image by Kia.2008 Kia Sportage FCEV. Image by Kia.2008 Kia Sportage FCEV. Image by Kia.2008 Kia Sportage FCEV. Image by Kia.

2008 Kia Sportage FCEV. Image by Kia.2008 Kia Sportage FCEV. Image by Kia.2008 Kia Sportage FCEV. Image by Kia.2008 Kia Sportage FCEV. Image by Kia.2008 Kia Sportage FCEV. Image by Kia.



2008 Kia Sportage FCEV. Image by Kia.
 

2008 Kia Sportage FCEV. Image by Kia.
 

2008 Kia Sportage FCEV. Image by Kia.
 

2008 Kia Sportage FCEV. Image by Kia.
 

2008 Kia Sportage FCEV. Image by Kia.
 






 

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