Santa Monica Boulevard isn’t the place where you’d expect to find a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle zipping past the Bentleys and Benzes, but apparently Audi can see further into the future than the rest of us. The Audi A7 Sportback h-tron Quattro is a hydrogen-fueled electric vehicle that’s ready for the road, and we’re slicing through traffic in this snappy section of Los Angeles to prove it.

Every year, carmakers come to the Los Angeles Auto Show with concept cars meant to demonstrate that California’s impending regulations for carbon-neutral (zero air emissions) personal mobility can be met by practical automotive technology. This year fuel-cell vehicles have come out of the closet to prove that they’re ready to become more than just science projects.

The fuel of the future is now arriving

Science guys have been talking for years about a forthcoming switch to hydrogen fuel, which promises clean air and sustainable fuel not just for cars but also for the entire economy. As far as the automobile goes, an on-board fuel cell promises a steady supply of electricity that can provide a battery-powered EV with enough juice to cruise just as far between fill-ups as a conventional gasoline-fueled automobile. Think of the fuel-cell vehicle (FCV) as an EV with a really, really long power cord.

When you look at the Audi A7 Sportback h-tron’s performance data, all the signatures of real-world practicality are in place. The A7 h-tron can cover about 100 kilometers (62 miles) on a kilogram of hydrogen, which represents the equivalent of 62 mpg for a gas-fueled car (so the Audi scientists tell us). With a capacity of 130 liters of hydrogen, the A7 h-tron has the ability to cruise 311 miles between fill-ups at the hydrogen pump, each of which will take approximately three minutes.

Of course, the trick is to find a hydrogen pump for an automobile. And it seems that a hydrogen infrastructure that will suit the automobile is finally on the horizon, as government-funded programs that are ramping up in Southern California and the Northeast (where zero-emissions regulations for passenger vehicles are already in place) seem to be the crucial step that will make hydrogen pumps a reality.

It doesn’t look like a science project

When we drove the Honda’s first experimental fuel-cell vehicle back in the 1990s, it made sounds like a very unhappy vacuum cleaner as fans attempted to cool the fuel-cell stack, while 5,000 pounds of road-hugging weight ensured that it drove more like a parade float than a car. The Audi A7 Sportback h-tron Quattro is not like that at all.

Every maker of futuristic vehicles always struggles with style, as it tries to decide whether to get attention with either rocket-ship futurism or user-friendly familiarity. Although Audi’s fuel-cell program has been developed with the Audi A2 hatchback and Q5 crossover utility, it has reached fruition in the A7 Sportback, a car that combines practicality with extreme style. As we’re told by Immanuel Kutschera, Audi’s chief engineer for the fuel-cell program, the Audi way is to deliver a premium experience in style, performance and practicality, no matter what the fuel source might be. As a result, he says, the transition to the future comes more easily for everyday motorists.

Actually the A7 h-tron is more remarkable than other fuel-cell vehicles we’ve driven simply because it doesn’t look any different than a regular A7 Sportback. It’s all down to a remarkable job of packaging the fuel-cell hardware.

The fuel cell is located under the hood, so no additional exterior air ducts are required. There’s an 85 kW (114 hp) electric motor in front and another in the rear. The electrically powered all-wheel-drive system comes from the Audi A3 plug-in hybrid, so no mechanical powertrain components take up crucial space in the front or rear suspension bays or beneath the passenger cell. Four hydrogen tanks are located out of the way within the body, while the small, lithium-ion battery pack fits unobtrusively beneath the floor of the cargo area.

Drives like a car, only with electricity

In some ways the Audi A7 Sportback h-tron performed like a science project for us, as it required a little help from an engineer with a laptop computer to clear some fault codes before it came to life. But in every other respect, it did business like an Audi, proving quiet, drivable and even kind of fast.

You’d never guess that this car (one of several A7 h-trons) was anything other than an Audi, as it powered up Sunset Boulevard with a smooth authoritative rush. We’re told that the combination of two motors, the fuel-cell, and the small battery work together to deliver a uniquely steady surge of power. The electric-assist steering didn’t annoy us, and we were particularly impressed by the firm, confidence-inspiring pedal response from the regenerative brake system.

The Audi A7 h-tron weighs 4,299 pounds, so it’s no surprise that the car feels heavy but poised on the road. With a combined 228 hp and 398 lb-ft of torque on hand, this science project gets to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds on the way to a top speed of 112 mph. More impressive is the way in which the Audi h-tron feels like a real car, not an electrically powered arcade game. This Audi A7 Sportback h-tron Quattro drives like a Tesla, only maybe better.

Here’s the chicken; where’s the egg?

Hydrogen has been the fuel of the future for more than 20 years (General Motors began experimenting with fuel-cell vehicles in the 1950s, in fact), but the future has so far failed to arrive. Though hydrogen is used industrially throughout the country, vehicle access to the fuel has not been available until recently when carmakers put small test fleets of fuel-cell vehicles into use.

The question has been, which will lead to the fruition of the FCV idea, the availability of vehicles or the presence of hydrogen fuel stations? Clearly critical mass will come from the presence of both. Professor Dr. Ulrich Hackenberg, the member of the Audi management board responsible for technology (who looks just like the character Doc in "Back to the Future"), explains, “The h-tron concept car shows that we have mastered fuel cell technology. We are ready to launch the production process as soon as the market and infrastructure are ready.”

Meanwhile, plans for hydrogen stations are moving forward, though they are unlikely to be appearing on every street corner any time soon. Indeed, it’s interesting (and somewhat ironic) that the Audi A7 h-tron has been equipped with a rechargeable 8.8 kWh battery so the car can propelled on pure battery power for 31 miles, which is meant to ensure that you can get to the nearest hydrogen fuel station even if you run out of fuel. Once again, alternative fuel is a promising idea, but range anxiety still endures.

For now the Audi A7 Sportback h-tron Quattro suggests that there’s less to fear from the clean-air future than we might have supposed. So long as there’s room for a car that looks like an Audi and drives like an Audi, we’ll be all right.

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