FIRST DRIVE

Piloting the otherworldly Toyota Mirai

Coming soon, a fuel-cell car for the real world

Published: November 18, 2014 05:15 PM
Photo: David Dewhurst Photography

Just ahead of the LA Auto Show, Toyota rolled out the Mirai sedan, its first production-ready hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle (FCV). It looks like Toyota is making the sort of big bet on hydrogen that it did with the Prius back in 2000, a move that started the hybrid-car wave. We drove a prototype of the Mirai last winter and liked it fairly well.

The Mirai is based on a modified Lexus HS platform, a car that’s a bit smaller than a Toyota Camry. Power is rated at 153 horsepower and acceleration is claimed to be 9 seconds from 0 to 60 mph. That’s not a quick sprint time and unlike other electric cars, the Mirai doesn’t feel so eager to gather speed. Once rolling, though, it glides quietly and effortlessly. You do hear a distinctive whine while accelerating with this example. The Toyota rep who joined me on our ride told me that that comes from a compressor sucking outside air into the fuel stack where the chemical reaction producing the electricity takes place, and he advised that it would be muted prior to production.

Photo: David Dewhurst Photography

Otherwise, the ride is unobtrusive in a Toyota kind of way. The suspension soaks up bumps well. Handling is nothing to write home about and in truth not that much different from a Prius. The high-tech interior has two display screens and a sci-fi ambience. Fit and finish looks and feels appropriately upscale. Unfortunately, the Mirai seats only four; in lieu of a center rear seat there’s a covered storage bin.

Two tanks with a combined volume of 122 liters (about 33 gallons) hold 5 kilograms of high-pressure hydrogen gas good for a driving range of about 300 miles, Toyota says. The tanks take five minutes to refill. While the price of hydrogen at yet-to-be-built fueling stations is not established, current estimates are that it ought to be about $10 per kilogram, which works out to about $50 to get 300 miles of driving.

Toyota says the Mirai will go on sale in small numbers by the end of 2015. Only about 200 will be available at first, but U.S. allocation will grow to 3,000 by 2017. The initial price will be $57,500, reduced to about $45,000 after various clean-energy incentives. But Toyota expects that about 90 percent of customers will lease one instead, for $499 a month including three years of free maintenance and most crucially, complementary hydrogen fill-ups. That’s definitely the way to do it as the technology advances rapidly.

Fuel-cell vehicles, just to remind everyone, are electric cars that generate electricity on board rather than hauling around a big heavy battery needing frequent recharges. With hydrogen the underlying fuel, the only byproduct is water vapor.

Some obstacles remain. The first is a lack of hydrogen fueling structure. And for right now, the cheapest way to harvest hydrogen is to extract it from natural gas, meaning that fossil fuels still play a role. There are, of course, cleaner ways to make hydrogen, such as using solar or wind power to hydrolyze water, but today that’s a lot costlier.

To address the lack of hydrogen filling stations Toyota has made a partnership with the state of California to build hydrogen stations in that state, and has a deal with a compressed-gas company, Air Liquide, to build stations in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

We stopped at a hydrogen filling station in Fountain Valley, California, and the process of attaching the hose to the filler neck was almost as simple as pumping gasoline.

The Mirai seems like a high-tech wizard of a car, and it delivers an unobtrusive driving experience albeit with some sacrifices in practicality, performance and range. The 300 miles you get on full tanks looks good compared with currently available EVs but is no match for the 400-plus mile range of many conventional gasoline cars. And by the time the Mirai is widely available, it will face competition from the battery-electric Tesla Model 3, due out in 2017, which may have a comparable range, size, and price point, if not the fast-fueling capability.

Gabe Shenhar

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