Trying to predict the future is a great way to look stupid five years down the line. Never more so than when it comes to hydrogen-powered cars. In the late 1990s pundits were confidently reporting that we were less than a decade from a viable automotive fuel cell, and that the zero-emission revolution would start soon afterwards. More than 20 years on if feels like we’re at least as far from being able to complete a journey running solely on H2.
This is probably why, instead of delivering another worthy lecture about all the rational reasons hydrogen makes sense, Hyundai decided to go out and build a spectacular-looking demonstrator instead. The N Vision 74 shares a distant design link to the Delorean DMC-12, but that isn’t the coolest thing about it. Topping the list of star features would be the fact it’s got nearly 700hp and goes sideways, with PH having been given the chance to experience both of those qualities on track at the Bilster Berg driving resort in Germany.
The N Vision 74 earned plenty of headlines and online love when it was first revealed earlier this year, but it definitely isn’t a cossetted show concept. My first experience on track involved a pace well beyond the sort of gentle trundling that expensive one-offs are normally limited to.
It turns out that the N Vision 74’s development story is a much more interesting one that Hyundai’s corporate message crafters would likely have chosen to disclose. One of the bosses on hand at Bilster Berg was Albert Biermann, the one-time M Division development boss who went to Hyundai and ultimately became R&D head for the entire group. He’s since semi-retired to become, officially, executive technical advisor, but he remains an impressively forthright interview subject.
“It’s a Stinger,” he says, with a broad grin, when I ask him what the N Vision is based on. It turns out that the technology demonstrating side of the project started long before the idea of turning it into a muscular coupe. Biermann says the original idea was for a Genesis-branded project, with four Stingers modified to trial a new powertrain that combined a 62.4kWh battery pack with an 85kW fuel cell, power then reaching the road through twin rear motors, one powering each wheel. The project’s main role was to help manage the tricky relationship between each side of the back axle.
“We developed a virtual differential by software control, and that’s a huge challenge for our engineers,” Biermann says, “but at some point we might consider that for a special car needing more power than our modular system can provide with one motor for each axle.”
Looking at the spec makes clear that the fuel cell, which comes from the existing Hyundai Nexo, is only playing a minor role here given that 85kW is the equivalent of 113hp. Which isn’t going to get very far turning a pair of 335hp electric motors. It basically serves as an on-board generator to diminish the rate at which the battery charge falls by. With the combination of a fully-charged battery pack and 4.2kg of hydrogen in the twin rear tanks, the N Vision 74 has a claimed range of 370 miles.
The muscular design came later, with the concept’s bodywork being based on an impressively deep dive into Hyundai’s early history led by design boss Lee SangYup. Having worked for both Bentley and Chevrolet, where he led design of the 2010 Camaro, Lee has no shortage of experience when it comes to creating muscular coupes, with the N Vision 74’s inspiration coming from a planned two-door version of Hyundai’s very first independently produced car, the Pony hatchback. Like the regular version, this was designed by Giorgio Giugiaro. The concept shared the wedgy form of many of the great man’s more famous ‘70s offerings.
The Pony Coupe didn’t make it to production, which is probably just as well given the indifferent dynamics of the rest of the clan. But Giugiaro used it as the starting point for another project he got involved with shortly afterwards, creating a car for a new American sports car company run by a former GM executive. Although the Delorean DMC-12 had gained gullwing doors, and that famous stainless steel construction, by the time it reached the market there is an obvious connection when you look at both cars together.
So when Hyundai chose to reach into its past for inspiration for the demonstrator, there’s no surprise that it has ended up with something distinctly Delorean-like, although the N Vision gets plenty of high-tech details like all-pixel headlights in its front ‘grille.’
Before driving I get to experience the N Vision 74 from the passenger seat, with development engineer (and amateur racer) Jonghyuk Kwon. Bilster Berg is a brave place to launch anything potent, and although Hyundai isn’t using the full layout, the concept will be negotiating several of the fast-falling corners which make the most of the spectacular elevation changes. Even short straights prove the ’74 has huge pace - and as we reach a long, falling left-hander there’s the unmistakable sensation of rear-end slip building and I’m soon watching the track approach through the side window.
Back to the pits and it’s time to swap over, this requiring me to negotiate the roll cage and then wiggle myself into a tight-fitting bucket seat that seems sized for narrow Korean backsides. Once in place, there’s not much to look at beyond a race-style detachable steering wheel and a digital display that relays various temperatures and levels, none of which receives more than a cursory glance once moving. My drive is going to be less spectacular, both because I don’t want to forever be remembered as the man who binned a seven-figure one-off, but also as the N Vision 74’s traction control has been re-energised. Although I’m told I can experience a more permissive ‘sport’ mode later on.
Yes, it’s properly quick. Hyundai claims a sub-4 second 0-60mph time, which feels feasible after the first dose of full throttle. The N Vision 74 drives like a pure EV, with immediate responses and no sense of mechanical inertia. Nor does it have the feeling of slackening acceleration I remember from the last fuel-cell Hyundai I drove, the much earlier iX35, which couldn’t keep up with demands for full urge for more than a couple of seconds. Acceleration in the N Vision feels relentless, certainly at the speeds possible on Bilster Berg’s tight layout.
What’s missing is much in the way of aural drama. The soundtrack is one of rushing wind and the noise of the battery of cooling fans that work flat-out to keep temperatures in check. Sitting on road-spec Pirelli P-Zero 4S tyres, and weighing around two tonnes according to Hyundai engineers, the N Vision also felt obviously heavy under braking. The pedal seemed wooden and wasn’t great to modulate, and stopping distances into some of the tighter turns were long. Conversely traction was very impressive, especially blasting out of slower corners with much less drama than expected for the combination of 670hp and rear-wheel drive.
Much of this was doubtless down to clever algorithms. Biermann said the first version of the virtual differential “felt scary to be honest”, but the system has been tuned to the extent there were no obvious clues that the rear wheels were linked by nothing but software. Torque vectoring across the back axle is helping the N Vision 74 to turn, but almost invisibly - it felt much less aggressive than something like an Aston Martin Vantage. From the driver’s seat it honestly felt like I was driving a car with a mechanical differential, and that stayed true even when the traction control was slackened so I could experience some progressive rear-end breakaway in slower turns.
All of this is huge fun, even if it is very unlikely a production version of the N Vision 74 will happen, not even one switched to become a conventional EV. Insiders say that the company’s E-GMP platform’s use of an underfloor battery pack means it couldn’t be used for a low, sleek coupe without huge modification. And while Hyundai is still serious about hydrogen, the ‘74’s fuel cell is only a relatively small part of its powertrain - although one that does offer the prospect of blended long-range propulsion. Let’s check back in another ten years on that one.
But perhaps the most interesting takeaway is that Hyundai is actively considering a future where it requires the extra power, and dynamic freedom, that come from using more than one electric motor per axle. Which is significant when you consider that the group’s most potent existing EVs - the Kia EV6 GT and forthcoming Hyundai Ioniq 5 N - already have 570hp. For Hyundai, clearly that’s not enough.
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