Hyundai Nexo is the first fuel-cell vehicle crash-tested by the IIHS

The 2019 Hyundai Nexo has taken a small step for a Korean automaker, and a giant leap for public acceptance of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. The Nexo is the first fuel-cell vehicle to go through the full battery of Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) crash tests — and it did well. The Hyundai achieved the highest-possible rating of Top Safety Pick+, although that only applies to vehicles built after June 2019. The safety award could be a major coup for Hyundai and other makers of hydrogen cars.

While all vehicles sold in the United States must meet certain safety standards, no hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles prior to the Nexo had undergone testing to earn safety ratings from the IIHS or the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). IIHS and NHTSA crash-test scores are often used by carbuyers looking to judge the safety of potential purchases, but that data hasn’t been available to anyone shopping for a fuel-cell car.

That’s admittedly not a big market, which is part of the problem. The Nexo is only sold in California, as are the other two hydrogen cars currently on sale — the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell and Toyota Mirai. Automakers haven’t expanded sales to other states due to the lack of hydrogen fueling stations outside of California. Even in the Golden State, sales are slow: Hyundai shifted just 140 Nexos between January and July 2019. Normally, the IIHS wouldn’t test such a low-volume vehicle, but Hyundai volunteered the Nexo for testing.

The Nexo earned the top “good” rating in all six IIHS crash tests, as well as the top “superior” rating for its front-crash prevention system. Only vehicles built after June 2019 earned the top “good” score for headlights, a required component of the Top Safety Pick+ rating. Hyundai recently adjusted the headlights’ aim to allow better visibility, particularly around corners, according to the IIHS. Vehicles built before June 2019 got an “acceptable” headlight rating, dropping them down to the second-tier Top Safety Pick overall rating.

IIHS tests should erase any doubts about hydrogen fuel-cell cars’ ability to be as safe as any other car in a crash. It’s now possible to directly compare the Nexo to, say, a Hyundai Santa Fe, and judge for yourself. But that will only be relevant if automakers expand sales of fuel-cell vehicles beyond California.