Hyundai Motor’s European headquarters in Frankfurt announced at the weekend the automaker would begin series production of the hydrogen ix35 fuel cell SUV for public and private lease by the end of 2012, claiming to be the first global automaker to begin commercial roll-out of zero-emissions vehicles.

Next December 2012, Hyundai will begin production at its main Ulsan factory in Korea with a target of building up to 1,000 vehicles by 2015.

On planned volume, that sets it well ahead of Japanese rivals Honda, which has a small fleet of FCX Clarity fuel cell models on test in the US and other markets, and Toyota, which only recently said it would launch a fuel cell sedan in the US by 2015

Hyundai Europe said it had already signed contracts with cities in Denmark and Sweden to lease the ix35 fuel cell to municipal fleets. Honda began a small lease programme for the FCX Clarity to both public and private sector drivers back in 2008.

Beyond 2015, Hyundai said it planned “limited mass production” of 10,000 units.

“The ix35 Fuel Cell is the pinnacle of Hyundai’s advanced engineering and our most powerful commitment to be the industry leader in eco-friendly mobility,” said vice chairman and R&D head Woong Chul Yang.

“Zero-emissions cars are no longer a dream. Our ix35 Fuel Cell vehicle is here today, and ready for commercial use.”

Built with proprietary technology, the ix35 has a fuel cell stack which converts hydrogen into electricity which powers the vehicle’s motor. The only emission generated is water.

Hyundai’s described the ix35 fuel cell model as the “halo” of its Blue Drive sub-brand used by its cleanest vehicles including the Sonata hybrid, i20 Blue Drive and BlueOn, the battery-powered i10 EV.

“As governments around the world step up regulations to reduce carbon output and fossil fuel dependency, zero-emissions mobility solutions such as [the] ix35 fuel cell will become a driving force of change. [It] aligns with the 2009 agreement by the European Union’s G8 countries to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 and California’s Zero Emission Vehicle regulations,” the automaker said in a statement.

The automaker claims drivability and performance similar to that of the petrol ix35. Hyundai’s fuel cell version, similar in size and market segment to Toyota’s experimental Kluger/Highlander-based SUV test models, accelerates from zero to 100 km/h (62mph) in 12.5 seconds, has a top speed of 160 km/h (100mph) and can travel 588km (about 350 miles) without refuelling.

Hyundai chose the ix35 (known as the Tucson in some markets) as the first vehicle for its fuel cell technology. The ix35 is its second-best-selling model line in Europe, behind the i30.

Hyundai said it was “encouraged by the actions of several governments, especially in Europe, that have created detailed roadmaps for building a hydrogen infrastructure and are providing necessary funds.

“Hydrogen fuelling stations exist in several European nations and additional ones are being built and planned. Expansion of fuelling stations is also anticipated in Korea and California, and Hyundai will also supply its ix35 fuel cell to public and private fleets there.

Hyundai Motor group chairman Mong Koo Chung has made the fuel cell programme a top priority for the company.