The Toyota Mirai answers the question of how a FCV drives, and implies a tempting gasoline-free, no CO2 future for cars
Fuji Speedway, Japan – Fuel cells may seem like a new thing but Toyota has been researching them for a long time – its first fuel cell concept, the FCEV-1, debuted in 1996, a year before the first production version of the Toyota Prius went on sale.
A hydrogen fuel cell car runs on hydrogen gas and ‘burns’ (oxidises) it, to form electricity and H2O. Thus the draw of a fuel cell hydrogen car that emits nothing but plain water from the tailpipe is understandably attractive.
That’s the key point behind the Mirai – Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell sedan – and we’re testing the car on Toyota’s own racing facility, Fuji Speedway.
We’ve tested fuel cell vehicles before, but they were experimental prototypes, modified from existing cars, and felt like it. The Mirai is a very different proposition indeed: It first appeared in concept form at the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show, and has recently gone into limited production for sale in Japan, the USA and certain regions of Europe.
The Mirai itself stands tall for a sedan, a result, says chief engineer Yoshizaku Tanaka, of the fact that it carries all its powertrain and structural components near to the ground, for a better centre of gravity like on the new TNGA-based (Toyota New Global Architecture) Prius. You could say Mirai is the forerunner of TNGA, in that sense.
Just like a Prius, it has a battery that stores energy, although the Mirai doesn’t have to contend with blending two sources of power unlike a hybrid.
The car’s looks are designed to make it appear less toppy, the distinct shoulder line in black makes the car’s visual centre lower, although in real life when you stand next to the Mirai, there’s a considerable length of sheetmetal in the height of the doors and the car’s roof comes up to eye level, much like a crossover.
Its ergonomic layout is very Prius-like – the offset central instrument display and a prominent central console for infotainment and climate control functions. It does feel more well-built and designed though, the soft touch dashboard is elegantly curved, and the climate control display is a nice touch as well.
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Just as well, since the Mirai is being sold for a considerable sum – in Germany it’s priced at 66,000 Euro. Keep in mind, the price of two other luxury eco-friendly cars: A BMW i3 is 35,000 Euro, and an i8 is 150,000 Euro.
Like a conventional EV, it starts up in silence, then you engage the stubby, Prius-like ‘gear’ shifter and the car begins to move off in dead silence. Even more so than Toyota’s hybrids, it’s extremely refined, with no engine noise and very little road or wind roar entering the cabin, even while doing 120km/h on Fuji’s main straight (controlled by pace car) the cabin feels almost the same as at 30km/h.
What’s more interesting is that unlike the first few Prius machines, the Mirai is an enjoyable drive. It’s not designed as a sports car, but the low centre of gravity makes it a very tidy handling vehicle.
Packing a 150bhp motor and 335Nm of torque means it’s very enjoyable to rocket the Mirai out of Fuji’s corners, and entering them hot isn’t the crossed-arms, sphincter-tightening experience one might expect. It’s actually quite hard to get the car out of shape.
While Fuji seems like a billiard-table smooth race track, driving a current-gen Prius around it shows up imperfections that the Mirai glosses over, indeed running over the rumble strips on the fuel-cell car shows it deals with ruts at high-speed very well.
Following another Mirai around Fuji closely means a faceful of nothing more than water, rather than the fire and fury of noxious fumes from conventional cars. As shown below, we stepped out of the car in pit lane, bent over at the rear and saw nothing but water dripping out, which is a slightly surreal experience.
Consequently, the Mirai can be summed up by its own name – it means ‘future’ in Japanese, and it surely feels like the sort of car Marty and Doc would expect of 2015. But is it like the hoverboard – an exciting idea that’s in reality, nothing but vapourware?
It’s a seductive idea – a car that’s fun to drive, yet emits nothing but water. Toyota says refuelling the car takes only three minutes, and it can run up to 700km (on Japan’s test cycle, or 500km on the US’s EPA cycle) on one 5kg charge of hydrogen.
Where and how you’d get that fuel is a problem that still needs to be solved, just like it is with EVs. Currently, hydrogen gas can be formed from methane and other fossil fuels (which itself is a polluting process), or from electrolysis (basically zapping water) which is only clean if you use renewable electricity. Toyota says it’s investigating a way of obtaining hydrogen from young or brown coal in a carbon-neutral manner.
So challenges are still there, but if Toyota is able to put its considerable resources and influence to making hydrogen FCVs like the Mirai a reality, just like it did hybrid tech and the Prius, then the future of the automobile is a lot brighter, cleaner and better for drivers – and their lungs.
Engine Electric motor
Gearbox Reduction gear
Battery 60kWh NiMh
Top Speed 170km/h (est)
0-100km/h 9.2 seconds (est)
Fuel efficiency L/100km
Tank Capacity 5.0kg hydrogen gas