An early ride in Mercedes’ hydrogen fuel cell powered SUV
Battery cars are all well and good, but range and liquid-quick refuelling aren’t part of their repertoire. Hydrogen fuel cell cars could be the answer, providing fast fuelling and a good range with just steam and water as the only emissions – but only as and when a viable fuelling infrastructure can be put in place.
Until that time, the complexity and cost of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will restrict the popularity of hydrogen-fuelled cars. Still, that hasn’t stopped manufacturers from investing heavily in the technology.
We’ve just had a passenger ride in the latest entrant in the field, Mercedes-Benz’s GLC F-Cell. This project has been on the go for 24 years so far, and follows the B-Class F-Cell, just 200 of which were built.
Mercedes reckons the GLC moves the hydrogen game on to a new level, courtesy of a new platinum-light fuel cell stack that’s lighter, smaller, and 40% more powerful than the B-Class’s. Sitting on the standard GLC chassis, the stack fuels a 13.8kW/h lithium-ion battery under the boot floor. This drives a 197bhp/258lb ft electric motor inside the rear axle, making this heaviest-yet GLC (2055kg) good for a 0-62mph time of under six seconds and giving it a limited top speed of 100mph.
Two 700-bar pressurised carbonfibre tanks inside the centre tunnel and under the rear seat hold a total of 4.4kg of hydrogen, enough for a 272-mile hydrogen range. Refuelling time is under 3 minutes. The GLC F-Cell can also be plugged into mains power via a rear bumper socket to add another 30 miles.
Externally, only blue grille and sill highlights, F-Cell badges and bespoke wheels tell you that you’re looking at a very different GLC. Internally, there are more differences, including digital hydrogen tank and lithium-ion battery readouts and an energy flow display on the infotainment screen.
Behind the wheel, there’s a choice of four drive modes. ‘Hybrid’ blends stored battery power with the electricity generated by the fuel cell stack. ‘F-Cell’ and ‘Battery’ give you one of the two power options. ‘Charge’ diverts some stack-generated electricity back into the battery.
On a chauffeured country road drive near Mercedes’s Stuttgart R&D centre, the GLC F-Cell provided the EV’s usual near-silent refinement and instant power. Mode-switching between the power sources is totally smooth, with none of the pump vibration you get in other fuel cell vehicles Iike the Toyota Mirai when the fuel cell stack is being fed with hydrogen.
The extra weight of an EV’s battery always forces some suspension compromises, and it’s the same story here. Comfort is OK on smooth motorways but jiggly over town-speed imperfections. The overall sensation is not greatly dissimilar to driving the GLC 350e plug-in hybrid.
Practicality relative to conventionally-engined GLCs suffers too. The placement of the rear hydrogen tank has lifted the rear seats by 40mm, reducing head room, and the underfloor battery has cut boot space, but not by enough to be a nuisance.
This GLC F-Cell will be going out on a customer lease basis in selected countries, but we won’t be seeing it in Britain any time soon, thanks to the near-total absence of commercial hydrogen fuelling stations in the UK.
Having said that, Mercedes has admitted that right-hand drive cars are being built for the Japanese market. A group of car makers including General Motors, Great Wall, Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes and Toyota have come together in the form of a Fuel Cell Council. If that organisation’s plans for a more comprehensive fuelling infrastructure come to pass, maybe things will change.