REVIEW | BMW iX5 Hydrogen is a green gas-guzzler

28 February 2024 - 07:30
By Brenwin Naidu
The iX5 Hydrogen is currently a trial project.
Image: Rob Till The iX5 Hydrogen is currently a trial project.

Is driving a hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicle, and therefore sitting above a pressurised gas tank, a cause for anxiety?

Well, it’s not all that different from an internal combustion engine car because just metres away from the passenger cell sits a ferociously hot block in which a series of controlled explosions happen within cylindrical chambers.

It’s true that, unless you’re happy to hustle your vehicle along Flintstones-style, you’ll need to rely on some form of heat-generating propulsion that whizzes, hisses or vrooms.

The left-hand drive BMW iX5 Hydrogen trial car we’re about to nose around Midrand in meets all the safety standards required by any modern production-series BMW. This assurance comes from Dr Jürgen Guldner, general programme manager for hydrogen technology at the German manufacturer.

He flew into Mzansi as part of a global roadshow promoting the technology, presented in a format that seems just about showroom-ready, in the form of this special iX5 trial model. There are 100 units of the model in global circulation, all for demonstration purposes. But real, paying consumers will not be able sign up for the vehicle just yet.

Prototype iX5 units are left-hand drive.
Image: Rob Till Prototype iX5 units are left-hand drive.

That might only happen when the next generation X5 model comes to fruition. It is expected to be the first line-up from the brand to offer a complete spread of power trains, from electric to hybrid, plug-in hybrid, fuel-cell hydrogen, and internal combustion. As expected, Dr Guldner is a major apologist for hydrogen set-ups. A positive aspect of the power source is its weight advantage over a fully electric equivalent that relies solely on batteries.

In addition, the fill-up process is a lot quicker. Whereas a fully electric vehicle might take at least half an hour to juice up completely (using a fast charger), topping up a hydrogen tank could take under five minutes, apparently.

So exactly the same as the experience we are currently accustomed to — going from empty to a full tank in the time it takes to choose and pay for a garage pie. South Africa currently has no hydrogen filling stations or hydrogen-powered production vehicles on sale. Sasol has been vocal about its efforts in the space. Last year, it previewed an “on-road hydrogen mobility system” at the Smarter Mobility Africa summit, using the Toyota Mirai as a demo model.

The Mirai was the first hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle to be mass-produced. Toyota brought over local units for research purposes. China lays claim to having as many as 351 hydrogen filling stations, Europe has 244, and there are 70 across North America.

While ardent BMW fans love to reference the core, sporting models that define the brand, this is a company that has never shied away from experimentation.

It was in 1972 that it showed the world its first attempt at an electric car, with a battery-powered 1602 that debuted at the Olympic Games in Munich.

Refuelling can be done in under five minutes.
Image: Rob Till Refuelling can be done in under five minutes.

In the year 2000, it unveiled the 750hL, based on the exquisite E38 7-Series, which had a V12 motor powered by hydrogen.

The hydrogen was stored cryogenically at a temperature of around -250°C, in a double-walled steel tank behind the rear seats.

“Even in a huge rear-end collision, in which the tank would be affected in its protected area, the steel cylinder with its double 2mm thick walls would not leak,” said the carmaker at the time, after crash-test protocol.

Unlike the 750hL, which retained an internal combustion engine, the iX5 Hydrogen relies on silent electric motivation. Also, unlike its ancestor, the hydrogen storage solution deployed in the SUV is completely out of sight. Two tanks are positioned towards the rear of the chassis, sandwiched beneath the back seats.

The power train comprises a fuel-cell system (125kW), hydrogen tanks (6kg), an electric motor (295kW), and a 170kW battery. Fully fuelled, the iX5 Hydrogen lays claim to a driving range of just over 500km.

Standstill to 100km/h takes less than six seconds, and from a responsiveness perspective the iX5 Hydrogen has that instant get-up-and-go typical of an electric vehicle.

While its power train is quite futuristic, the car’s on-road character stays true to the familiar X5 experience. That means crisp handling, assured reflexes and refined cruising, further enhanced by the complete silence of the electric power train. Well, we should elaborate on that, because the experience is not completely silent. Imbued with synthesised acoustics (as with the iX and i7), the vehicle hums along, with a soundtrack composer Hans Zimmer was paid a fortune to produce.

The 750hL in the year 2000.
Image: Supplied The 750hL in the year 2000.

Just the kind of dreamy tune to which you can think happy thoughts about grassy meadows, free-roaming wildlife and cars that emit nothing but water vapour.

Hydrogen motoring could become a reality sooner than one imagines. After all, it was as late as 2013 that BMW previewed its Mini E and Active E electric trial cars in the country. Two years later, it kicked off production with the i3 and the hybrid i8.

Look at how far things have come.