Applying the Prius formula to bring hydrogen fuel cell technology to everyone.
– West Caldwell, New Jersey
There’s a profound adage that suggests that you can’t be everything to everyone, and for a more peaceful existence, you ought to stop trying to be. Toyota obviously rejects this theory. The 2016 Mirai fuel-cell vehicle is proof.
Eager to prove that installing hydrogen fuel cells into cars does not turn them into Hindenburg-style disaster sites, Toyota has gone ahead and built the Mirai: a four-door sedan that happens to be powered by hydrogen, a fuel that the majority of drivers aren’t using yet. Toyota tried convincing the public to try gas-electric hybrids with the same tactic almost 15 years ago, with the first Prius, which wasn’t exactly a run-of-the-mill sedan. Learning from the past, the hydrogen-powered Mirai is a follow-up attempt that’s trying to be as normal as possible.
I’ve just moved to southern California, and I’m tempted by the promise of motoring without harmful emissions – although buying a Mirai really means needing to buy a second car, too. If you can look past the Mirai’s angry, space-age shape (which you should), it’s a cogent proposition.
- Like a Tesla Model S, the Mirai proves that an alternative-fuel vehicle can act and feel like a “normal,” gasoline-powered car. It looks like a Prius. It has a familiar instrument panel and switches. You can drive it over 300 miles before needing to refuel. And at the end of the day, it’s a four-door sedan that plays down the weirdness as much as aerodynamics will allow.
- It’s comfortable inside! Alt-fuel cars like the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i-MiEV electrics, which offered ascetic levels of trim inside, set a difficult precedent to undo. The Mirai is no Lexus – that’s for the future, maybe – but its cabin is quiet, its materials high-quality, and its fit and finish as polished as any recent, mass-market Toyota. There’s plenty of room for four, and you won’t feel like you skimped by buying the Mirai in its no-options, single trim level.
- Yes, some hills will challenge your right foot, but the Mirai acts just like a Camry at highway speeds. The fuel cell stack delivers 151 horsepower, somewhere between what a Corolla and Camry offer, but the two-ton Mirai feels powerful nonetheless. In most situations, driving the Mirai is a lot like driving a Prius. Smoothness takes over as you accelerate away from a stop sign.
- It stands virtually alone (the upcoming Honda Clarity says, “Hello”). Right now, the only other way to get behind the wheel of a hydrogen fuel-cell car is to check out the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell, a converted, last-generation SUV that also runs on the stuff. Having a distinct footprint in the sand, before the sandbox becomes crowded, could work to Toyota’s advantage with the Mirai.
- It costs virtually nothing to operate. As a bonus for spending $499/month to be one of the first to lease a Mirai, Toyota is covering up to $15,000 in hydrogen fill-ups, which it estimates will last for three years – coincidentally, the length of the lease period.
- Of course, there are no emissions. Through a process that would excite a sixth-grade science teacher, the hydrogen-powered Mirai works its magic and only emits H2O: water. A button marked H2O, left of the steering wheel, empties out the water on command. I didn’t drink it, but that’s because I’m a water snob.
- It’s hard to find places to fill up the Mirai. Despite the respectable 312-mile range, you won’t be able to take it very far. Following our unscientific day of driving in New Jersey, the car was scheduled to be refueled at the nearest hydrogen filling station – in Connecticut, no less. Unless you live and work in southern California, where 16 of the United States’ 27 public hydrogen stations are located, it’s not worth the investment in a fuel cell vehicle. Further, according to Toyota, the Mirai can only be refueled at four specific stations currently open in SoCal.
- It’s weird. In situations where the Mirai should delight, it often confounds. The exterior styling projects a very Darth Vader look. The interior is very first-generation Prius, what with confusing, layered control sets and a lot of mismatched digital dashboards. The cabin is spacious, but manages to feel cramped because occupants sit high above the fuel cell stack. And the amusing sound under hard acceleration is a lot like a kitten being torn apart by a chainsaw (rrrrrrr-RAWWWWWWWWWW).
- It’s expensive. Subtract $13,000 in anticipated rebates from California and the IRS, and the Mirai still costs nearly $45,000. That’s the cost of approximately two sparely equipped Priuses. My advice: Take advantage of the $499 advertised monthly lease, and enjoy three years of hydrogen, gratis. If you can find some… Or check out the Tucson Fuel Cell, which leases for the same price per month.
- It’s impractical to own one. Despite the Mirai’s everyday livability, solid construction, spacious interior, and generous cargo hold, for all of the reasons listed above, it can’t be a primary vehicle… yet. Unlike an EV that can theoretically be refilled through a connection to a wall outlet, an FCV requires very specific infrastructure in order to run. Until a weary interstate traveler can insert a nozzle and easily refuel his car with hydrogen, cars like the Mirai will not be ready for prime time.
Photos: Jeff Jablansky / Motor1.com