► Powered not by petrol or diesel, but by hydrogen
► Refined, easy and surprisingly ‘normal’ to drive
► 312-mile range, 3min refuelling. But no infrastructure (yet)
Meet the future. No, we’re not getting ahead of ourselves – ‘Mirai’ actually means ‘future’ in Japanese. But does Toyota’s new hydrogen-powered saloon car really have the answer to our emission-free transportation needs going forward?
Well, it had better have something. Otherwise what’s the excuse for it looking so weird?
Hold on, you’re saying Toyota is now mass-producing a hydrogen-powered car?
Yep, the Toyota Mirai is a fully-fledged hydrogen-powered production car that you can buy – outright – today. Toyota isn’t entirely alone in this, given Hyundai is also producing the ix35 Fuel Cell, but the Mirai is purpose-built for the task, rather than a converted previous-generation SUV.
‘Mass-production’ needs a bit of refinement, too. The Mirai is assembled in the factory previously responsible for, amongst other things, the Lexus LFA, and Toyota isn’t exactly popping them out like chocolate bars. The original planning was a rate of around three a day, but this has been increased following the surprise launch success in Japan, which resulted in 1500 orders in the first month. European expectations are a little lower, at around 50-100 sales a year.
In the UK the Mirai costs £66,000, which is quite pricey for a four-seater saloon that’s a similar size to, but less practical than, the latest Mondeo. But then, it is cutting-edge science on wheels. And Toyota will do you a four-year, 60,000-mile lease deal that includes servicing, tyres and fuel for £750 a month. In raw monetary terms that compares rather well to a Tesla.
Has Toyota lost its mind? Where am I going to refuel a hydrogen-powered car?
Fair to say the Mirai isn’t exactly aimed at ordinary punters right now – Transport for London is taking on a couple of the first batch, with other customers coming from the hydrogen industry and other commercial ventures. Even so, there should be a dozen on the road in the UK by the end of November 2015.
They perhaps won’t be travelling too far and wide, though. For although the Mirai has a theoretical range of 312 miles and takes just three minutes to refuel, the only appropriate filling stations currently available here are located in Heathrow, Hendon and Swindon. A grand total of nine should be either operational or under construction by the end of 2016.
That’s hardly comprehensive is it? What is the point of this exactly?
Hydrogen has long been considered the wonder-fuel of the future. Reasons for optimism include its energy efficiency, its abundance (it’s the most profuse chemical substance in the universe) and its potential cleanliness; reasons it’s still pretty far out there basically boil down to cost and infrastructure. Which in turn becomes a chicken and egg problem – no infrastructure, no cars / no cars, no infrastructure. Tricky.
So Toyota is taking a step, one it knows is both tentative and among the very first upon what is likely to be a very long road. It says it’s taking this step because the planet needs it, man – and to be fair, not only do we shudder to think how much money the firm is surely losing on each Mirai it produces, Toyota has made approximately 5680 patents relating to the car available royalty-free to help others make the journey with it.
But it’s also clear Toyota is keen to establish a technological association in the public consciousness between itself and hydrogen. A strategy that’s worked brilliantly with hybrids thanks to the Prius.
So far so sci-fi – what’s the Toyota Mirai like to drive?
You can put away the tinfoil spacesuit (and the flameproof undergarments, as we’ll see in a moment) – once you get over the unconventional looks the Mirai is basically just a regular car. Albeit one that is particularly refined, and blessed with noticeably more comfortable than average seats.
The drivetrain layout is similar to a hybrid, or better yet a range extender, since the front wheels are permanently driven by an electric motor. This is the same as the unit fitted in the Lexus RX450h, but the electricity comes from a chemical reaction in the hydrogen-powered fuel cell stack located under the floor of the Mirai’s passenger compartment. The only emission is water vapour – some of which is recycled to humidify the process. A conventional nickel metal-hydride battery from the latest Toyota Camry hybrid helps out with low-speed running and acts as a performance booster during hard acceleration; this is charged via brake energy regeneration, just like a traditional hybrid.
And that’s largely how it drives. Initial acceleration is smooth, and with carefully applied sound insulation including acoustic glass, almost serene. Yet if you give the accelerator a proper prod, the system delivers instant torque in that typical electric motor fashion – enough to send those front wheels scrabbling in damp conditions. Once up and running, this translates into strong mid-range overtaking capability, made seamless by the single-speed transmission.
The steering is vague around the centre, and decidedly artificial-feeling beyond this, but with so many major components located low down in the chassis, cornering can be tackled briskly – in fact the Mirai is nippy and stable enough to cling to the tail of far more conventional, even performance-orientated machinery. This despite the soft and squishy suspension tuning that makes it a comfortable cruiser first and foremost.
Would the Toyota Mirai be an easy car to live with?
The limited fuelling opportunities aside, it seems like it, yes. The Mirai wouldn’t inspire you to take the long way home, but it’s a doddle to drive, packed with standard kit and functionally competent. There’s generous space for all four passengers, the innovative ‘foam in place’ seat construction is exceptionally comfortable, and the boot a reasonable 361 litres despite the packaging compromises demanded by the twin hydrogen fuel tanks and other fuel cell gubbins (packaging is one reason most previous fuel cell vehicles have been SUVs).
The interior design isn’t quite as alarming as the exterior, but it certainly has a spaceship vibe. Shame this is more 1990s TV drama than the clean sophistication invoked by the large central screen of the Tesla Model S, and that elements inside aren’t convincingly premium enough in car with a £66k sticker price. The steering wheel, for example, which looks like a cartoon goat that’s been smacked in the face with a shovel; curious that the Mirai’s artificial ‘engine’ note sounds like a stunned goat bleating in the distance, too. Turn up the hi-fi and ignore.
How safe is the Toyota Mirai?
Hydrogen gives some people the screaming heebie-jeebies – thanks, Hindenburg. Yet there are far more fuel-related safety measures within the Mirai than a conventional vehicle.
The cabin is completely isolated from the fuel cell stack, on-board sensors detect the slightest leak, and the hydrogen tanks are tested to 2.25 times their nominal 700bar pressure, thoroughly crash trialled and shot at with a rifle. You can’t refuel the thing without an automatic system check, and since hydrogen is also the lightest element in the universe, it disperses extremely quickly if it does manage to escape.
It’s weird, but it works – to such an extent that really it’s only the Mirai’s appearance that deserves that initial description. There’s merit to the technological argument, too, no matter what Tesla’s Elon Musk says about ‘fool cells’, and even if it’s also impossible not to notice that the cash price competes right with the heart of the Model S range, where you’ll find greater performance, better resolved interior modernity, and a comparatively generous number of opportunities to refuel.
For the record, Toyota isn’t suggesting hydrogen is an alternative to electricity from a socket; rather, that it’s complementary. We should applaud both its and Hyundai’s efforts at progress, and congratulate anyone able to make running a Mirai a viable proposition.