BMW iX5 Hydrogen
Over the past decade, BMW has firmly established itself as a significant manufacturer of electric vehicles, but with an eye on the needs of an evolving zero-emission transport landscape, has developed a hydrogen-powered version of its popular X5 SUV. Richard Gooding discovers that the highly developed prototype offers much to fleets, providing the fuelling infrastructure is in place
What is it?
Four years in development, the BMW iX5 Hydrogen, is quite simply, a hydrogen-powered version of the X5 SUV. First displayed as a concept in 2019, initial prototypes were made in 2021 for the IAA Mobility event in Munich. Based on the current ‘G05’ version of the X5 SUV, the iX5 Hydrogen has a 125kW fuel cell stack – currently the world’s most powerful passenger car fuel cell system – along with a 170kW lithium-ion battery and an electric motor from the iX, which uses BMW’s fifth-generation eDrive tech also used in the company’s all-electric and plug-in hybrid models.
It’s not the first time BMW has looked deeper into hydrogen technology. Similarly to the 2023 iX5 Hydrogen project, in 2005, the company released 100 examples of an H2-powered 7 Series. The Hydrogen 7 was powered by a 257bhp ‘bivalent’ 12-cylinder engine which could also run on petrol, with the hydrogen burned by the ICE, and stored as a liquid rather than a compressed gas.
The Hydrogen 7 employed similar technology to that seen on an ‘E38’-generation 7 Series, the 750hL of 2000, whose hydrogen combustion engine was also powered by both hydrogen and petrol. BMW’s most recent foray into FCEVs was with the 2015 5 Series GT Hydrogen, a car on which there was collaboration with Toyota. The two companies have been working together on fuel cell technology systems since 2013.
What range does it have?
Even though the fleet of iX5 Hydrogen cars are prototypes, BMW quotes an official single refill driving range of up to 313 miles from the two carbon-fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) hydrogen tanks. Stored at 700 bar, the cylindrical tanks hold six kilograms of hydrogen and are arranged in a ‘T’-shape along the middle and rear of the car.
How long does it take to refill?
Refueling at a hydrogen filling station takes around three to four minutes and is almost as straightforward as filling up an ICE vehicle with fuel. The only downside is that according to the Hydrogen Council’s H2 Insights update of March 2023, there are only 12 hydrogen refuelling stations open in the UK, and looking on the UK H2Mobility website, there are just four hydrogen refuelling stations open to cars.
However, the network is growing globally, with the same H2 Insights document reporting a total of over 1,000 stations, with more than 650 in Asia and the Pacific region, 276 in Europe and the Middle East, and 116 in the US. This global total has risen more than 55 per cent over the 690 stations recorded in 2021.
Until the end of 2030, H2 refuelling stations will be built at 125-mile (200km) intervals and at every urban ‘node’ in Europe, many featuring 700 bar refuelling points for passenger cars and light commercials. This comprehensive building programme will result in more than 600 refuelling stations, some featuring 24/7 automated operation – refuelling is still completed by the driver – and obviously increased availability of locations to refuel.
The UK doesn’t have the same focus on hydrogen as Europe, although the government has awarded £8m to a pair of projects in the North East. Based in the Tees Valley, the new Hydrogen Transport Hub project includes the development of airport support vehicles – led by ULEMCo – and a plan to build four publicly accessible hydrogen stations for a wide range of vehicles. This will be led by start-up company Element 2.
How does it drive?
Outside, the hydrogen-powered X5 looks remarkably similar to any other version of BMW’s family SUV. There are the obvious metallic blue flashes on the bumpers, front grille and wheels, but remove the rather obvious graphics and you’d be hard pressed to tell this X5 was ‘alternatively’ fuelled. It’s the same inside; blue highlights indicate this is no ICE X5, but everything is familiar. That’s a good thing. A telltale graphic ahead of the passenger gives the game away, as do the fuel efficiency and H2 tank level read-outs, but otherwise, you could be sitting in an electric version of the X5. If there was one.
That’s also the overall impression when you’re on the move. To drive, the iX5 Hydrogen is very similar to an EV. There’s the same high level of hushed refinement and relaxed comfort, and that’s because, in effect, the iX5 Hydrogen is an electric car. A chemical reaction occurs in the fuel cell – the individual cells are supplied by Toyota – between the gaseous hydrogen from the tanks and oxygen in the air, converting the hydrogen into electricity. This is stored in the power battery, which is charged by recuperation energy from deceleration, the motor acting as a generator, or from the fuel cell itself. The battery then sends the electricity from the battery to the electric motor which has been borrowed from BMW’s all-electric iX SUV. Water vapour is the only external emission.
The electric motor, power electronics and transmission are grouped together in a compact housing to form a highly integrated drive unit on the rear axle. These share BMW’s fifth-generation eDrive technology also used in its plug-in hybrid and all-electric models, but the company has also developed unique hydrogen components for the fuel cell system, including a high-speed compressor with a turbine, and a high-voltage coolant pump.
On the move, the iX5 feels quick – 0-62mph takes just six seconds thanks to the 531lb ft (720Nm) of torque. On air suspension, the ride is comfortable and overall the impression is just as that of any other X5. The same Eco Pro, Comfort and Sport driving modes that feature on BMW’s EVs and PHEVs are present here, too, so the iX5 driving experience can be tailored for efficiency or fun. It’s this attention to detail which makes the iX5 Hydrogen prototype feel very close to a production car.
In addition to the zero-emissions running, there are other, more hidden, environmental benefits. BMW claims that FCEVs need 100kg less raw materials than BEVs, their batteries need 90 per cent less critical raw materials than standard EV batteries, and that platinum, the main raw material used for fuel cells, already has a high recycling rate. BMW states this will increase with the phase-out of combustion engines.
Why does my fleet need one?
Even if you wanted one, you can’t have a hydrogen-powered X5. Yet. BMW has stated that it ‘envisages potentially offering our customers a production vehicle in the second half of this decade.’ What form that may take, we don’t yet know. But, if the iX5 Hydrogen is representative of this forthcoming production car, the signs are promising. Offering the quiet, relaxed and zero-emissions driving experience of an electric car but with more convenient refuelling times, there is little not to like. A compelling and interesting future proposition in markets where the infrastructure is there to support it, the BMW iX5 Hydrogen has much to offer fleet drivers and operators.