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2016 Toyota Mirai Preview

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The Car Connection Expert Review

The 2016 Toyota Mirai sedan, powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, is Toyota's counter to electric cars, yet it's odd-looking, not particularly fast, and limited to four seats—not to mention capable of fueling in very few places.

Toyota strongly feels that hydrogen fuel cells—not lithium-ion batteries—will power the zero-emission vehicles it plans to build between now and 2050. You can view the 2016 Mirai as the first draft of Toyota's vision of the future, just as the very first Prius in 1997 was its first effort at the hybrid technology that's now the core of its Prius lineup of several vehicles today.

The Mirai is an oddly styled, nearly mid-size sedan, and Toyota's first hydrogen fuel-cell-powered car sold in North America.

The Mirai is, to be as charitable as possible, strange-looking. Up front, it has huge corner intakes to feed air to the various radiators, compressors, and electronics associated with its powertrain. The hood appears to float above the front fenders, courtesy of a recess painted black, and the roof appears to float above the windows, using the same trick for the rear pillars.

Inside, the Mirai has three display screens and interior design that looks rather like an updated Prius. It definitely says "Futuristic!" and it functions well enough once you learn its quirks. (A round button with a "P" wasn't what we were looking for in seeking the parking brake.) The seats are comfortable enough, front and rear, but it only carries four passengers—to keep the weight of a fifth passenger from reducing its range.

On the road, the Mirai is powered by a 114-kilowatt (153-horsepower) fuel cell under the front seats, which sends power to an electric motor that drives its front wheels. Some energy can also be supplied by the 1.6-kwh lithium-ion battery pack, which essentially buffers the power demand to keep the fuel cell operating at a more steady output level.

From rest, acceleration feels strong up to about 30 mph. But performance falls off above that level, and becomes noticeably more sluggish by 55 mph. Toyota quotes a 0-to-60-mph acceleration time of just 9.1 seconds, yet at freeway speeds, its power to accelerate suddenly is very limited—reflecting motor power of just 150 hp in a car that weighs more than 4,000 pounds.

Two hydrogen fuel tanks are mounted crosswise between the rear wheels under the load deck and under the rear seat, containing up to 5 kg of hydrogen compressed to 10,000 psi. The Mirai can travel up to 312 miles on a full tank of hydrogen. Its overall efficiency hasn't been rated by the EPA, and is likely to be measured in MPGe, or Miles Per Gallon Equivalent, the distance a Mirai can travel on the amount of hydrogen fuel with the same energy content as one gallon of gasoline. That rating, however, is likely to be somewhat lower than the equivalent rating for the most energy-efficient electric cars (which would be the BMW i3, for 2015).

The 2016 Mirai is acceptable on the road but somewhat numb, much like the current generation of Toyota Prius hybrid. It's not a car that invites you to throw it around twisty mountain roads, but it handles well enough. The cabin is mostly quiet, with the dominant sounds being tire and wind noise, but there are a number of background sounds—compressors whirring and vibrating, injectors pulsing, and so forth—that indicate that despite its electric drive, the Mirai isn't a battery-powered vehicle.

There's a standard power-out socket in the trunk; this can be connected to a home power station that takes the DC current coming from the fuel cell and converts it to AC power that can be used to power a building for a day or two. Because the Mirai's only emission is water, a Mirai can stay in a closed garage to power the house—unlike a conventional gasoline-fueled generator.

Safety ratings for the 2016 Toyota Mirai haven't been released, although the armored hydrogen tanks are likely to be stronger than the rest of the car's steel structure, designed to include the usual crush zones. Undoubtedly, federal and independent safety officials will want to put the Mirai through their crash tests, although its low volumes in the first years may argue against that.

And that brings us to the major challenge for the 2016 Toyota Mirai; it will be sold in low numbers for its first several years, until a hydrogen fueling infrastructure is built out to serve it and similarly low-volume hydrogen vehicles from Hyundai and Honda. The Mirai will be launched in limited areas of California, which has embarked on a program to install several dozen hydrogen fueling stations by the end of 2015.

Toyota has set the list price of $57,500, but it said it expects nine of 10 Mirai buyers to lease the hydrogen vehicle, at a monthly rate of $499 (requiring a $3,649 down payment).

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