Peppy performance, seamless power delivery, petroleum-free fuel, zero emissions.
Lack of hydrogen filling stations makes mass production unlikely, 180-mile range trails traditional gas-powered vehicles.
Other than the "Fuel Cell" decals and opalescent paint job, the hydrogen-powered 2008 Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell Prototype seems like your garden-variety compact SUV — until you turn the key. The futuristic soundtrack that ensues is a cross between Doc Brown's DeLorean and an industrial-grade freezer. It crackles and fizzes like the Flux Capacitor while "STARTING, PLEASE WAIT" appears in the gauge cluster, then settles into a vibrant hum reminiscent of the ice cream aisle. Turn it off and you're treated to a great hissing sigh, followed by more whirring and popping noises.
OK, so this Equinox is a little different. But if you believe the folks at GM, it might amount to a sneak preview of the post-petroleum future. Hydrogen is plentiful, renewable and non-polluting — and as the Equinox Fuel Cell's sprightly and ultra-smooth performance demonstrates, this ubiquitous element is more than capable of fueling our beloved four-wheeled conveyances.
So what's the catch? Well, for starters, you can't buy one yet. But that's not for a lack of technological readiness; rather, what's lacking is infrastructure. As of this writing, there are 66 operational hydrogen refueling stations in the U.S., according to the National Hydrogen Association, and most of them are clustered in California and the Northeast. It's a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma: Automakers won't mass-produce fuel cell vehicles until the infrastructure is there, and there won't be significant private investment in infrastructure until fuel cell vehicles are being mass-produced.
Be that as it may, Chevrolet let us borrow one of its roughly 100 hydrogen-powered Equinoxes for a week, and we're here to tell you how it drives. In a nutshell: well. Make that very well. The average American commuter could switch to an Equinox Fuel Cell today and never miss gasoline — it's that good. If the age of the hydrogen-powered car never dawns, it certainly won't be for a lack of effort on Chevy's part.
The front-wheel-drive 2008 Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell is powered by a complex system consisting of an electric motor, a fuel cell stack, a power management and distribution module (PMD), and a nickel-metal hydride battery pack. The vehicle runs on hydrogen, which is stored in compressed form within three rear-mounted, carbon-fiber-encased tanks. The fuel cell stack combines the stored hydrogen with oxygen from the air to produce electricity, which the PMD then routes to the electric motor along with electricity from the battery pack. The motor, in turn, sends up to 93 kilowatts of energy to the front wheels — enough electricity to power 10 homes, says GM. The only emissions byproduct is water vapor, which escapes via four outlets in the rear fascia.
Torque output is rated at a formidable 236 pound-feet, which is available whenever you depress the throttle. We recorded a 0-60-mph sprint of 9.6 seconds in this portly 4,357-pound SUV, a huge improvement over Chevy's projected 12.0-second jaunt. Even more impressive is the refined way in which the Equinox Fuel Cell accelerates. Thanks to the single-speed transmission, there are no shifts to interrupt the power flow, and that instantaneous torque makes the Equinox feel downright quick at times. Despite its prototype status, this powertrain is unequivocally ready for prime time. Most drivers would be perfectly content with its combination of golf-cart smoothness and adequate acceleration.
Otherwise, the Equinox Fuel Cell drives pretty much like any other Equinox, which isn't a bad thing. The ride is well-damped, yet not unduly soft. The electric power steering is surprisingly responsive, with little play on-center and unexpectedly sporty weighting through corners. Body control is good until the low-rolling-resistance tires start to squeal, and a 60.4-mph slalom speed is nothing to sneeze at for an efficiency-minded prototype. Braking performance, at a class-competitive 134 feet from 60 to zero mph, is also laudable considering the Equinox's prototype status, substantial mass and regenerative braking function.
One aspect of the Equinox Fuel Cell's powertrain that could use some work is its operating range. GM projects a real-world range of 150-180 miles, or barely half of what typical gasoline-powered vehicles can achieve. Complicating matters is the fact that some pumps only dispense hydrogen at 350 bar, or 5,000 psi, whereas the Equinox Fuel Cell is capable of storing it at a denser 700 bar (10,000 psi). Limited to a 350-bar fill, the Equinox's already limited range is cut in half.
Road noise is average inside the 2008 Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell, but overall sound levels are eerily low due to the near total absence of engine noise. At a constant cruise, the Equinox hums along like a maglev train; roll into the throttle and the hum rises to a stirring but unobtrusive crescendo.
The seats are upholstered in a space-age blue material with black mesh accents, conjuring up images of a ride at Epcot Center. Seat comfort is satisfactory, but there are only two seats in back rather than the usual three. Leg- and headroom are ample all around.
The Equinox Fuel Cell's climate controls are certifiably idiot-proof, consisting of three large knobs that are unmistakable for anything else. In an unconventional nod to BMWs past, the power window switches are mounted on the center console. The stereo faceplate features easily deciphered buttons, though sound quality is strictly average. Cargo volume is relatively limited due to the hydrogen tanks and non-folding rear seats, measuring a mere 32 cubic feet.
Design/Fit and Finish
Aside from the pricey paint job, eye-catching decals and larger cooling ducts up front, the Equinox Fuel Cell looks like, well, an Equinox. That means the exterior design is handsome enough, in a forgettable sort of way. Inside, the Equinox Fuel Cell mixes standard Equinox elements with high-quality seating materials. Fit and finish wasn't the greatest in our test vehicle, but that's obviously not the point.
Who should consider this vehicle
Not applicable, as this is simply a prototype that's not available to the public. And frankly, we're not sure it will be in the future. With the $100,000 Tesla Roadster showing the way, plug-in electric cars may ultimately steal hydrogen's thunder, offering adequate range and performance without the need for a vast investment in refueling infrastructure.