Gas mark 1: Toyota Mirai driven

3 May 2016

Toyota Mirai side view

Toyota Mirai
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Good: powerful, quiet, good range between fill-ups
Bad: big, heavy, not many places to fill up
Price: from £61,000 after the plug in car grant
The Mirai is Toyota’s first production car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, the first to go on general sale after 20 years of prototypes and experimental models. However, the number likely to be actually sold is low enough to make blue moons seem intrusively common. The company expects to sell just 12 examples this year in the UK.

And the term “sell” might be a loose one – taxi firm Green Tomato Cars is an early adopter, having added a pair of Mirai to its fleet in London, but I doubt it coughed up £61,000 in cash for each one. Some sort of promotional partnership seems more likely.

Toyota Mirai front quarter view

Nonetheless, the Mirai is an impressive piece of kit. It looks much more handsome on the road than on a motor show turntable, though that’s a relative compliment. When the car was revealed as the 2014 FCV concept, I was not a fan of its tall shoulders, beady LED eyes, small wheels, long overhangs, unsubtle swoops or peculiar floating bonnet. Either I’ve mellowed in the interim or dark blue paint really helps.

Up close the Mirai feels quite a big car – tall and imposing – with an inviting interior that seems more Lexus than Toyota. There are only four seats – the rear bench is divided by the kind of armrest usually found at the front – but that’s a design decision rather than a ploy to hide some bulky lump of fuel-cell gubbins. I checked and inside the centre armrest is an empty cubby.

Toyota Mirai rear interior

Not that the car is short of bulky bits of tech under the skin. As with all hydrogen fuel-cell cars, it has to store compressed hydrogen, which is not very obliging stuff to carry around. It also needs a beefy electric motor, plus all the power electronics needed to control the ebb and flow of big slugs of electricity. A hybrid battery is also vital, for temporarily storing energy captured when braking, before feeding it back to the motor to help the car speed up again. And of course the car needs a stack of fuel cells to generate electricity from the on-board hydrogen.

Small wonder that most fuel-cell prototypes have been based on spacious off-roaders.

Toyota Mirai component locations

In the Mirai’s case, two carbon fibre hydrogen tanks are bolted at the back. One tank lives under the back seats, the other between the rear wheels. On top of the second one sits the hybrid battery, which uses nickel-metal-hydride rather than lithium-ion cells.

The position of tanks and battery has made the Mirai a very strict saloon – there’s no option to load a long item through from boot to cabin. Open the boot and you’re faced with a fixed, carpeted bulkhead.

Toyota Mirai boot

The heart of the machine, the fuel cell stack, sits low in the middle of the car under the front seats. As a result the front seats are set quite high, and don’t adjust downwards.

The stack itself is made from 370 individual fuel cells, each one cleverly combining hydrogen from the tanks with oxygen from the air to produce sparkling fresh electricity, with pure water and heat the only byproducts. The car will periodically release clean waste water from its underbelly. There’s an H2O button on the dashboard to purge the car on demand, to avoid the Mirai wetting itself in the garage.

Electricity goes forward from the fuel cell to a 113kW (152bhp) electric motor, which sits under the bonnet and propels the front wheels.

Toyota Mirai front interior

Sitting behind the wheel of Toyota’s hydrogen car will feel familiar to anyone who has driven a Prius. There’s the same kind of spring-loaded gearstick toggle, an American-style foot-operated parking brake and a blank expanse of dashboard behind the steering wheel. In place of an instrument panel there’s a wide but shallow digital strip below the windscreen, with a choice of many different info screens selected via buttons on the wheel, plus a central touchscreen for navigation and setup.

You start the car with a pushbutton and from there the Mirai has been programmed to behave like an automatic – toggle into D and it will move smartly forward unless you restrain it on the brake.

The first thing I notice, as I three-point turn outside Toyota’s UK headquarters, is that the Mirai’s lock doesn’t seem very tight. The car’s 11.4m turning circle is unlikely to be mistaken for a sixpence, making urban manoeuvring a bit of a chore. The latest Prius will U-turn in less than half the space, although the Mirai is no worse than other cars of its size, such as the VW Passat.

Toyota Mirai driving

Once pointed in the right direction there are three driving modes to choose among – Eco, Normal and Power – which provide quite different levels of throttle response. Acceleration is reasonably brisk in Power mode – 62mph can be reached in 9.6 seconds – and even at motorway speeds the Mirai can gain pace with surprising ease, given that it weighs a not very nimble 1,850kg. Top speed is 111mph.

A floored throttle produces not only a firm shove in the back but also a very odd mooing noise, unlike anything I’ve heard before. More bovine than turbine, it’s all the more peculiar because it’s artificial, piped into the cabin to “reinforce the feeling of acceleration”, according to Toyota. Another synthetic hum pipes up during regenerative braking. It’s much less agricultural and more appropriately space age in tone.

Held at a steady speed, the Mirai remains as hushed as a minute’s silence. Driving along a stretch of concrete M25, I can’t help noticing the racket made by other cars. It would make light work of a long-distance cruise and indeed Toyota positions FCEVs as a long-distance solution. The company sees battery EVs as only an urban proposition, exemplified by small vehicles like its own i-Road.

Toyota Mirai central touchscreen

It’s certainly true that the Mirai is ill-suited to a British B-road. The soft suspension lets the car lean around bends to such an extent that you naturally tend to back off and slow down before the tyres start squealing in protest.

Wherever you drive, the big elephant on board is the hydrogen fuel gauge. Where on earth do you fill up when the Mirai is nearly empty? Currently there are only a handful of forecourts in the UK that can dispense hydrogen gas at the 700 bar pressure required for a full tank, and it’s very much tough luck if you’re not near one.

Whereas an electric early adopter could always charge at home, that option is not feasible for private buyers of hydrogen cars, though a large business running a hydrogen fleet could install its own filling station relatively easily. One option, provided by a company called ITM Power, is a hydrogen station built into a standard shipping container, requiring only hook-ups to electricity and water to get going. Buy the electricity from a green provider and the hydrogen can even be zero carbon.

Toyota Mirai rear view

A fill-up takes about three minutes, and a full tank’s 5kg of hydrogen will last for about 340 miles and cost about £60.

All things considered, Toyota has done impressively well with its first hydrogen car you might actually buy. It’s a comfortable and refined vehicle that feels reasonable in an urban setting and very much at home on a motorway. It makes a decent stab at combining the convenience of conventional cars with the cleanliness of an EV.

The Mirai is not the most practical proposition, however, with the bulky hydrogen tanks taking up a lot of space, while the large saloon shape is not ideally suited to the city streets where zero emissions would be such a boon.

But it does provide a tempting taste of the future, while we await the rollout of the hydrogen filling stations that might make the Mirai, or more probably its successor, a car you could sensibly buy with your own money.

Toyota Mirai front view

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