First drive: 2016 Toyota Mirai

The hydrogen-fueled Toyota Mirai will change the way you think about transportation

I have just driven the future. At least, that’s what Toyota is hoping for.

Among all the obstacles ‘green energy’ vehicles must overcome, the fossil fuel-centric infrastructure that makes the world go round is clearly the biggest.

Toyota’s all-new Mirai, which uses hydrogen fuel cells for propulsion, is a forward-thinking catalyst to change the way we move about, a dramatically-envisioned leap toward a zero-emissions, carbon neutral planet.

The car’s name means ‘future’ in Japanese, and although it’s not perfect, this vehicle is one of the biggest steps toward changing that future we’ve seen in years.

Laying the groundwork

The first thing you should know is that the Mirai is much more than a car; it’s one of the highest-profile ambassadors for what Toyota calls a ‘hydrogen society.’

The bold four-door sedan does this by simply raising awareness, but Toyota is also directly involved in the proliferation of fueling stations.

At the Mirai’s first drive press event in Newport Beach, California, the automaker announced a partnership with industrial gas supplier Air Liquide to build 12 hydrogen stations across the Northeastern United States, specifically in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

In May, the brand committed financial support to FirstElement Fuel, who plans to build 19 stations in California, and the Golden State itself will fund 100 stations by 2024. To put that in perspective, the University of California Irvine’s Advanced Power and Energy Program has stated that 68 stations are needed to realistically serve 10,000 FCVs.

So why hydrogen? In simple terms, it’s a clean, sustainable, and efficient technology. In the Mirai, you pull up to the pump and refuel with a nozzle just like you’re used to in a conventional vehicle.

I have just driven the future. At least, that’s what Toyota is hoping for.

The compressed, gaseous hydrogen fills two carbon fiber-wrapped resin composite tanks under the rear seats in about five minutes, mingles with oxygen (sucked in by the car’s air intake), and through the miracle of chemistry, you have energy.

That energy powers the electric motor under the hood, and the waste product, H2O, dribbles out underneath the car. For those who are worried (or excited) about spraying the motorists around you, fret not: the Mirai produces only about half a bottle of water over its 300-mile range.

The system can be purged via the ‘H2O’ button located to the left of the steering wheel. I dare you not to press it.

On the road

Some expect the Mirai, given its 4078-pound curb weight, to drive like a bloated Prius. Personally, I found it felt like a distant relative of the game-changing hybrid, one that’s been working out, eating cleaner, gotten a high-paying job, and recently shopped for some new clothes.

The Toyota’s electric motor produces 153 horsepower, which propels the car to 60 mph in around 9.0 seconds. The powertrain’s instant torque makes it feel a fair bit quicker than that though, and the placement of the hydrogen equipment gives the car a low center of gravity and sporty feel.

On the road, the dramatically styled Mirai is quiet (outside of a slight whine from the electronics and regenerative brakes), and is quite comfortable. There are heated seats front and rear, a JBL sound system, and all the safety bells and whistles you’d expect from a modern Toyota. However, like the Chevy Volt, the Mirai only seats four.

2016-Toyota-Mirai-press-12

There’s even an optional Power Take-Off device, a trunk-mounted plug that allows owners to funnel electricity into their homes like a mobile generator. According to Toyota, the Mirai can power the average home’s essentials for up to a week.

All this does come at a price, though. The Mirai starts off at $57,500, with federal incentives potentially dropping the price down to $45,000.

As far as filling up, Ali Hoffman, CEO of Air Liquide says that hydrogen will cost about $10 per kilo to start, which equates to about $4 or $5 a gallon. However, Mirai drivers will fill up for free for the foreseeable future, and we garnered about a 50-mpg equivalent during our short drive in California.

Up in the air

Out of all the people I talked to at the first drive event, nearly all of them found the Mirai a pleasure to drive. That said, there are still a lot of criticisms and uncertainties pertaining to hydrogen fuel cells cars, some of which I’d like to (briefly) address here.

The Mirai drives like a distant relative of the game-changing Prius hybrid.

Every time FCVs come up in conversation, somebody inevitably brings up the Hindenburg, and I struggle to suppress a sarcastic groan.

The tragic explosion happened 77 years ago, and the technology has improved tenfold since then. While the hydrogen in the Hindenburg was carried in cotton bags coated in flammable cellulose acetate and aluminum powder, the fuel in the Mirai is stored in nigh bulletproof tanks that are likely stronger than the structures surrounding them.

I’d also like to kindly remind you that gasoline, something most people have no issues driving around on, is also a dangerous, flammable liquid, and one that has the tendency to catch fire. Let’s not act like we’re going from the padded room to the front lines here.

There are valid criticisms of the technology out there, one of which being the ‘moving the tailpipe upstream’ question. Steve Chalk, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Renewable Energy at the Department of Energy, admitted that Toyota’s endeavor does just that, but explained that synthesizing hydrogen from a source like natural gas creates half the carbon emissions than gasoline overall.

Moreover, it’s a domestic source of power, and ‘green’ hydrogen can be siphoned from water through electrolysis and even bio-waste. California law says that 33 percent of the fuel from state-supported fueling stations must come from renewable sources like these.

Conclusion

The Mirai, and hydrogen vehicles in general, are on the proverbial razor’s edge. If they’re a huge success, the world as we know it will undoubtedly change. If they turn out to be a dud, it was a lot of money, research, and hubbub about nothing. Realistically, I find that to be unlikely.

The ‘future’ goes on sale in California in fall 2015.

Highs

  • Environmental peace of mind
  • Comfortable interior
  • Low center of gravity/sporty handling
  • Optional Power Take-Off device can act as mobile generator

Lows

  • High starting price
  • Love it or hate it styling
  • Lack of hydrogen fueling stations available outside California
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