Driving the hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai: this is the future's future
I drove it last November but I took my time to write this because I wanted to get it right.
I'm going to get straight to the point: the list of places in the world where you can actually buy this car right now is actually quite short. It will, no doubt, get longer and bigger in the future but that's what it is right now, for purely practical reasons. That's because if you buy a Mirai, you're going to have to recharge it at some point and that is going to make recharging an electric car look easy.
The Mirai is a hydrogen fuel-cell car and that, as the name suggests, means it is powered by hydrogen. Some people like to remark the fact that hydrogen is the most abundant gas in the universe but that's academic, frankly, because it's a bit like saying that you've got plenty of water to drink if you're stranded on a desert island in the middle of the ocean. Availability and usability aren't the same thing.
At the time of writing, the ***Alternative Fuels Data Center (AFDC, run by the U.S. Department of Energy) indicates 41 hydrogen stations in the whole of North America and, except for one in Ontario, Canada, they're all located in California. There are two in Sacramento, which is the capital of California, one in San Diego, one in Santa Barbara, one in a place called Truckee and the rest are located either in San Francisco or Los Angeles, which is where I've driven this car.
Let's move on to Europe where the Hydrogen Mobility Europe website, more or less the European equivalent of the AFDC, shows a total 10 active hydrogen stations and about 30 more being planned or built as we speak. There are two in Great Britain (Swindon and London), two in Iceland, one in Denmark, one in Norway, two in Sweden and the rest are in Germany.
The situation is much better in Japan, which is around the same size as California, where there are already more than 80 operating hydrogen stations and the Japanese government is aiming to double up on that number by the end of next year.
There's some good news, though. Recharging takes a lot less than it does with electric cars. You get a full "tank" in 3-5 minutes, only marginally slower than refuelling a "normal" car.
As of December 2018, 4,644 units were sold in the US, which is the biggest market for the Mirai, even ahead of Japan.
Prices for the Mirai start at €78,600 in Germany, ¥ 7,274,880 ($65,066) in Japan and the price quoted for the US is $58,500 but in reality buyers can lease it for $349 a month, with $2,499 upfront, and this is actually pretty good when you consider that the average salary in Los Angeles is $62,562 per year.
So how does it work?
It may get a little "nerdy" in here. You've been warned.
The Mirai contains 370 cells which generate electricity, and therefore mobility, by forcing hydrogen molecules through some sort of catalyst, made of platinum and cobalt, which splits the molecules into positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons. The fuel cell powertrain includes a 245V nickel-metal battery.
The Mirai has two hydrogen tanks, with a combined weight of 87.5 kg and 5 kg capacity, made of carbon fibre-reinforced plastic, which store hydrogen at 10,000 psi (pounds per square inch) of pressure.
According to Toyota, the car can go 312 miles (502 km) on a single charge. What I can tell you for sure is that I started with 182 miles left of range, that's what the computer said, and after driving the car for 30 miles in the city traffic of LA and, for a brief stretch, on the highways, the fuel range went down by... 29 miles. I'm not sure what to make of that. I'd love to drive the car for at least 1,000 miles or more to test it personally but at the moment, that's all I can say.
The Mirai generates a power output of 113 kW / 152 hp and 335 Nm of torque.
How does it feel to drive?
The Mirai gives the same feedback and has the same response as all electric cars do, even though technically this is not an electric car. It has the same instant delivery and speed, the same lack of lag as electric cars. There is no gearbox and there are fewer moving parts compared to a petrol or a diesel engine, which means that the car is very smooth and quick off the line, and it feels light even though it isn't because it weighs close to 2 tons even without any passengers. It also gives everything it has right away. All of the power, and all of the torque, all of the time. Like flicking a switch.
The car accelerates from standstill to 60 in 9 seconds and, for some reason Toyota put quite some stress on this point, it picks up speed from 25 to 40 mph in 3 seconds. In plain English, this means you can handle city traffic with ease, occasionally accelerating and getting away from bus drivers swerving from left or right and/or overtaking old people driving clunkers in a hat.
Is it a nice car?
I personally don't really like the exterior very much but I do like the way the interior has been designed. It has clean, no-frill lines and everything looks super tidy and minimalist. You could almost call it Scandinavian.
It has some dials and buttons here and there but you can control almost everything, including infotainment, with the 7'' touchscreen. There's also a separate touchscreen for climate control.
There's an interesting button marked "H20" on the left side of the steering wheel and if you push it, the car will forcibly purge the exhaust system of any stored water because, let's not forget it, this car emits nothing but water, 0.8 litre of it for every 10km driven.
Theoretically, you can actually drink the water if you want.
There are only four hydrogen cars on sale in the world, including this one, and because this car is so unique Toyota offers a little extra for their "ToyotaCare". It includes standard no cost maintenance plan and 24-hour roadside assistance and now, specifically for the Mirai, no cost scheduled maintenance for 3 years or 35,000 miles (whichever comes first) and roadside assistance for 3 years. And there's more, Toyota will also kindly provide free fuel for 3 years or $15,000 (whichever comes first).
The Mirai is interesting. It clearly represents the dawn of something, it is still fundamentally only suitable for early adopters with a bit of money on the side but it is much better than I thought it'd be.
There's something else I want to say.
When you're driving an electric car now it feels OK, you know you're driving a ready-to-use product, but when I drove the first Tesla 9 years ago it felt raw and incomplete. It was a good start but a long way from being acceptable.
This is different because while this is more or less the hydrogen equivalent of that, in the sense that we're still in the early stages of hydrogen mobility, the Mirai does not feel incomplete. You could actually buy this, were it not for the problem with finding hydrogen stations.
And that's the point. The infrastructure isn't there yet, but the car is.