The Car Connection Toyota Mirai Overview
The Toyota Mirai is a four-seat sedan powered by one of the first fuel-cell drivetrains offered for sale or lease in the U.S. New for the 2016 model year, the Mirai is the first fuel-cell car planned for mass-market production anywhere in the world. Changes for 2017 are confined to a new paint color and a lower monthly lease payment.
Those volumes are small—a few thousand for each of the next few years—but Toyota firmly believes that fuel cells, not batteries, are what will power the zero-emission vehicles of the future. In Japanese, "mirai" means "future." Just as it did with the hybrid powertrain in the very first Prius two decades ago, Toyota has placed a very large bet on commercializing fuel-cell technology.
The Mirai will be joined this year by the Honda Clarity as the only fuel-cell powered cars on U.S. roads. Hyundai also sells a fuel-cell powered Tucson in very limited quantities.
MORE: Read our 2017 Toyota Mirai review
Visually, the Mirai is something of a shock, with styling that might best be described as polarizing. It's a fastback sedan with a vestigial trunk, sharp accent lines and creases, a floating hood, and enormous gaping openings at the front to cool the various components of the powertrain. Frankly, its dissonant lines and shapes may make it the ugliest car sold in the U.S. today.
The Mirai's interior design looks rather like an updated Prius, with three display screens that say "Futuristic!", but work well once you learn the car's quirks. Front and rear seats are comfortable enough, but it has only four seating positions—to keep the weight of a fifth passenger from reducing its range. That rating, by the way, is 312 miles, which is only topped by the newly extended range of the Tesla Model S as the second-highest range for a zero emissions vehicle.
The biggest selling point of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles is that they can be refueled to provide 300 miles of range in less than 10 minutes. Even a Tesla Supercharger DC fast-charging station takes 20 to 30 minutes to provide an 80-percent recharge, for perhaps 200 miles; DC fast-charging sites for lower-range electric cars provide fewer miles in the same time.
That sounds appealing, but it's important to remember that today's lack of hydrogen fueling stations means that Mirais will effectively be limited to a 150-mile radius from those stations. California is spending $100 million over five years to build 100 hydrogen stations by 2020; meanwhile, the Mirai will only be offered to certain Northern and Southern California residents in specific areas near the operating sites. Toyota provides three years' worth of unlimited hydrogen for free as part of the car's price of $57,500. Toyota says nine of 10 Mirai buyers are expected to lease rather than buy, at a monthly rate of $499 (with a $3,649 down payment).
The Mirai's groundbreaking powertrain consists of a 114-kilowatt (153-horsepower) fuel-cell stack located under the front seats. Its output of electricity is sent to an electric motor of similar power that drives its front wheels. Additional boost under acceleration is also provided by the 1.6-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, which essentially buffers the power demand to keep the fuel cell operating at a more steady output level.
Hydrogen is supplied from two high-pressure tanks mounted crosswise between the rear wheels, under the load deck and the rear seat. They hold about 5 kg of hydrogen compressed to 10,000 psi. Toyota suggests refueling a Mirai can take as little as three minutes, but that requires optimal conditions at the very latest fueling station.
The Mirai's efficiency is rated at 67 MPGe, or Miles Per Gallon Equivalent, meaning the distance a Mirai can travel on the amount of hydrogen fuel with the same energy content as one gallon of gasoline. For reference, that's about half the efficiency of the BMW i3, the most energy-efficient electric car sold in the U.S.
On the road, the Mirai behaves just like an electric car up to about 30 mph, with strong, smooth acceleration and only a few subtle extra mechanical noises in the background. Its handling is acceptable, but numb—much like the current generation of Prius. The fuel-cell vehicle is far from a car that invites you to throw it around twisty mountain roads, but it serves as perfectly viable transportation if you're within range of a fueling station.
And that's the car's biggest challenge: The Toyota Mirai will be invisible to the vast majority of U.S. drivers, unless they see it in Toyota marketing. The Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell is already on sale—almost 100 have been delivered in about a year—and Honda will also its Clarity sometime in 2016. But all of those will be restricted to certain areas of California until the fueling infrastructure arrives to support longer trips. Those low volumes for the first several years will likely contrast with increasing volumes of battery-electric vehicles.