Hydrogen is Hot

Chevy's fuel-cell SUV zips around Las Vegas

I knew that GM had built real, road-ready hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. But I didn’t really believe it until I saw one, and drove it.

The Chevy Equinox I piloted—one of about one hundred that GM will put on the road later this year—looked as polished and user-friendly as any new car on the lot. It’s a comfy, soccer-mom/dad vehicle that seems like any other small SUV until you turn the ignition—err, I mean the key. There is no ignition.

That cranks on a hydrogen fuel cell stack that instantly produces enough electricity to power six houses—or to propel the Equinox like a rocket. Its electric motor cranks out the torque as soon as you hit the gas—err, I mean the accelerator. If you think electric motors are wimpy based on how hybrids drive, that’s only because hybrids have very wimpy small motors. With a full-sized model, you’ve got full-sized power. My biggest problem driving around Vegas was to not go too fast and cause an accident.

The Equinox is not a sports car—but it has plenty of power to zip around traffic and haul furniture or kids. That’s what it will do later this year as part of GM’s project driveway—in which regular folk can apply to take the car, for free, for a few months and report back on their experience. GM will also be loaning them out to journalists, policy makers, and celebrities—maybe in time for the Oscars?

And they say the hydrogen-powered Equinox could be a real car by 2010. (though you’ll have to live near the handful of hydrogen fueling stations—mostly in California) for it to be practical. The vehicles in the current fleet of hand-built prototypes are crazy expensive. (GM won’t say, but it’s safe to guess several hundred thousand each.) But GM says that the production vehicles will be affordable. It’s no accident, they say, that they are first introducing fuel cells in their budget-minded Chevy division. (Although GM also announced a new Cadillac model.) The standard gas-powered Equinox starts at around $22,000.—Sean Captain