A UCLA commuter coffee mug for your car  $20. A deluxe alumni license plate frame  $39. A joyride in UCLA’s $750,000 hydrogen fuel-cell car  priceless.

Even a short jaunt around campus at 25 miles per hour is a hip trip if you’re at the wheel of what might just be the next-generation alternative-fuel vehicle. OK, maybe it’s because it’s cool to drive something that costs three-quarters of a million bucks.

And really, to one intrepid reporter at least, tooling around in a hydrogen-powered ride doesn’t seem appreciably different than driving any other small sedan, just quieter and a lot more politically correct.

Still, there’s a definite thrill to being behind the wheel of this Mercedes Benz A-Class sedan, one of two sleek-looking vehicles boldly monogrammed with “F-Cell” (for fuel cell), given to UCLA’s engineering school by DaimlerChrysler for evaluation. For one thing, there’s an exclusivity factor: No one else on campus is allowed to drive the F-cars except for the team taking care of them at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, led by Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Chair and Professor Vasilios Manousiouthakis. The team studies the production of hydrogen power.

And as you listen to the singsong whine of the compressor, you’re aware that there is an amazing catalytic reaction going on under the hood in a fuel cell the size of a car battery. Basically, hydrogen molecules are first being broken down into ions and electrons, which drive the car’s electric motor. Then, the ions recombine with the electrons and oxygen in the air to form water, the car’s only emission.

Hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius get most of the alternative-fuel publicity. But with gas prices wreaking havoc on our pocketbooks and dictatorships flush with petrodollars threatening our security, hydrogen is getting increasingly serious attention.

In his 2003 State of the Union speech, President Bush announced a $1.2-billion hydrogen fuel initiative to develop commercially viable hydrogen-powered fuel cells. The 2006’07 California state budget includes funding for three hydrogen fueling stations and five hydrogen-fueled buses. And the first of what will eventually be a fleet of 30 hydrogen-powered Priuses in Southern California has hit the road in Santa Ana.

Hydrogen vehicles don’t pollute at all  clean water droplets are all they leave behind. “No cylinders, no spark plugs, no internal combustion engine. All gone,” explains Manousiouthakis. There’s less wear and tear on the vehicle. Hydrogen is also much more efficient than gasoline at generating power. For now, however, there are major disadvantages to owning such a pioneering vehicle, even if you could buy one. (And you can’t, so that trip to a dealer to demand a cherry-red hydrogen Mustang convertible will have to wait a few years.)

Lack of fueling stations and the astronomical cost of fuel cells and storage tanks hydrogen costs at least four times more than gasoline to produce are roadblocks to the growth of the fuel-cell car market. So even if you could buy a hydrogen car today, it would be hideously expensive. Plus, the car can go only about 100 miles on a fill-up of 2.5 kilograms of highly pressurized hydrogen fuel, pumped into two very strong carbon-fiber storage tanks that sit under the car’s seats. The closest place to UCLA to refuel currently is the Air Quality Management District’s station in Diamond Bar, about 43 miles away from campus.

But hydrogen hope springs eternal. Manousiouthakis is certain that if the price of the car ever drops low enough, people will rush to buy them. How low? “$40,000,” says the professor.

We think we’ll wait for the previously owned hydrogen-car market to open up first.