By John Stewart
As they did with the Prius, Toyota designers clearly went out of the way to ensure the Mirai looks like nothing else on the road, as they did with the Prius. Some love the looks, some hate them, but whatever the opinion, there will be no mistaking the car when the first units appear in mid-2015.
Combined investments by Toyota, the State of California and Air Liquide, a hydrogen producer, will result in well over 100 hydrogen stations in California alone within the next two years. Production in the first year will be limited to roughly 300 vehicles, eventually ramping up to somewhere near 3,000 per year. By the time hydrogen fuel stations are in demand, there will be enough to go around.
True to its promise, Toyota has become the first manufacturer to build a production car powered by a fuel cell ready for sale. In November Toyota announced the name of the car, Mirai, which means “the future” in Japanese. At a recent event tied in with the Los Angeles Auto Show, Toyota allowed automotive journalists and business reporters to drive the car, which in simplest terms might be described as a hybrid Camry with a better battery.
That “better battery” would be a hydrogen fuel cell, which offers numerous advantages over actual battery packs. Hydrogen fuel cells can be refueled in 3–5 minutes, instead of hours for a battery pack, and they weigh less. The hydrogen is held in two heavily reinforced high-pressure storage tanks at about 10,000 psi—enough fuel to enable about a 300-mile range. These components offer packaging advantages that result in a low center of gravity and sporty cornering capacity.
Toyota’s advance presentation included experts who suggested the car represented a turning point in clean transportation, and addressed questions about what it would be like to live with a hydrogen car. To the assembled audience, their assertions that hydrogen will become a big player in the future seemed generally credible.
The Mirai driving experience is very similar to driving a plug-in electric car—very quiet, good throttle response and thanks to the low center of gravity and attention of the suspension, very good ride and handling characteristics.
The powertrain is rated at 153 hp with 247 lb.-ft. of torque. Unlike the Prius, the Mirai is a four-seat sedan with a trunk instead of a hatch, so direct comparisons are inappropriate, but the Mirai is clearly a more relaxing car to drive, with better interior appointments, better handling and lower NVH. It also will be priced differently—somewhere around $57,500, leasable for $499. After federal and state rebates and tax credits, the bottom line will be somewhere under $50,000.
The Mirai goes on sale in Japan by the end of 2014, and in selected regional North American markets in the second half of 2015. How fuel-cell technology will affect enthusiasts and car collectors remains to be seen, but we can foresee the day when hydrogen cars will make a presence on the SEMA Show floor.