While auto-industry insiders, analysts, and tech-savvy early adopters are split on whether a hydrogen infrastructure is viable in the near future, several automakers are pushing forward with product—and hoping that infrastructure (and more product) will follow.
At present, those automakers making significant investment in fuel-cell vehicles are Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai (with Nissan also recently investing). For nearly a year, Hyundai has been offering the Tucson Fuel Cell vehicle for lease to those in the Los Angeles region for $499 a month ($2,999 due at signing), and they’ve placed more than 70 of these vehicles with households.
The next model to be available in Southern California, where there’s enough of a hydrogen infrastructure, is the 2016 Toyota Mirai. Unlike the Tucson Fuel Cell, the Mirai was designed and engineered around the fuel-cell powertrain.
Toyota still hopes to lease 3,000 Mirai sedans worldwide by the end of 2017. In the U.S., it will lease it also at $499 per month but with $3,649 down, with deliveries beginning in the U.S. this October.
Production over the spring and summer has been quietly ramping up, now at a rate of about three per day.
The 2016 Mirai can go more than 300 miles (312 miles officially) on a single tank of hydrogen—which, Toyota has pointed out, is farther than the longest-range versions of the Tesla Model S electric car. We haven't, of course, tested this range. Toyota argues that they’re a better solution versus battery-electric models because of their long range, and their relatively quick refueling time of as little as three minutes (but up to ten, by some accounts).
Quiet-driving, like a big, comfortable electric sedan
This past week, in Portland, we had another chance to make a quick driving loop with the Mirai—specifically, in one of just six prototypes currently in use in the U.S. And while this drive was less than five miles altogether, we did get up to about 65 mph, to confirm some earlier impressions on this car’s driving experience.
The Mirai rides like a large, comfort-oriented sedan. It’s plush and quiet inside—more like Toyota’s full-size Avalon sedan in its ride quality than a Prius—and the capacitive controls also bear some likeness to those used in the Avalon. Back-seat space is a little more limited than it would be in the Avalon, though, due to packaging of the fuel-cell hardware under the floor.
Performance is lively, provided you’re at low speed. Like some electric vehicles, the Mirai accelerates strongly up to 50 or 55 mph, then becomes more sluggish above that. Toyota claims a zero to 60 mph time of 9.1 seconds.
To simplify, you might think of a fuel cell as a battery that doesn’t ever need to be recharged, just refueled with hydrogen. It’s where that hydrogen comes from that’s long been the issue, as transporting it is tricky, and it takes considerable energy to reform hydrogen—often with natural gas as the fuel at stations.
Some recent issues, more infrastructure needed
The stations have already posed some issues recently for drivers of the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell. Toyota expects 10 to 15 stations in operation by the end of the year, and 48 stations are planned and funded.
The Mirai stores hydrogen at roughly twice the pressures (about 10,000 psi) than the previous generation of fuel-cell vehicles, which didn’t have driving ranges that were nearly as impressive. Previous iterations of fuel-cell vehicles also tended to have a loud whirring or whining (a bit like a vacuum cleaner) as the system fed hydrogen into the fuel-cell stack at the proper rate.
Newer generation fuel cells are smaller; the higher-pressure tanks are also far lighter and more compact; and the vehicles themselves are now nearly as quiet as battery electric cars.
In the Mirai, the those sounds are always in the background, rising only slightly to correspond with quicker or more aggressive driving.
As for the exterior styling and design of the Mirai, it’s different, and it's loud. But it’ll turn heads and get people talking about hydrogen fuel cells...which is part of the point.
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