I’ve finally seen enough of these uncamouflaged in the wild to know that they are real. As hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars, they certainly are unique. So are they a preview of the next big thing in alternative-energy cars, or did Toyota make a bad bet on fuel cells? Is the Mirai a future Hydro-Classic or future Deadly Sin?
The 2017 Mirai’s electric motor boasts 153 hp, 247 lb-ft of torque, and with a weight of 4,079 lbs, so it’s certainly no barnstormer. Still, CC’ers know that torque wins out for everyday driveability, so it probably doesn’t disappoint its target buyer. Toyota also claims seating for four, 67/67/67 (equivalent) mpg, a range of 312 miles, and a top speed of 111 mph. Refill takes a ‘snap-your-fingers’ five minutes. Creature comforts include, as the Brits say, “…all the mod cons,” including premium audio, heated steering wheel and seats, and every driving nanny one could hope for.
I can personally attest to the H2O-only emissions claim, as I see trickles of vapor and droplets leave the tailpipe each time a Mirai accelerates to disappear into the roving packs of Prii that it so strongly resembles. Actually, all the futuristic swoops and scoops, which Toyota says are for cooling everything, leave the Mirai at a drag deficit against its stablemate, with a coefficient of 0.29 to the Prius’ 0.25. FunFact: You can use the car to power about 60 kWh of external loads when parked.
The key hurdle to wider acceptance will be infrastructure, with hydrogen stations in-place (or planned in the near-term) covering only trips in and around Southern and Central California; essentially from San Diego, to San Francisco, to Truckee, with one lone station out along I5 for the long-haulers. The Shell Hydrogen station in my neighborhood is a vestige of Toyota’s corporate campus that opened before the automaker’s recent move to Texas.
The Mirai’s list price is some $58k, but even then it probably costs Toyota quite a lot more to make each one. They initially offered the Mirai for a $499 /mo lease with 3 years worth of free fuel and a zero-emissions sticker that earns solo drivers a pass into HOV lanes (a big selling point in California). Sales all were in the double digits per month, so Toyota dropped the lease to $349/mo., which perked things up a bit. As of a month or so ago, a grand total of 2,843 Mirai have been sold world-wide. Not exactly a brisk start.
Did Toyota take the wrong off ramp by betting heavily on fuel cells instead of battery EVs? It could take a very long time to put hydrogen fueling points in everyone’s neighborhood. Hydrogen production is three times less efficient than generating electricity for a BEV. And charging times for BEVs, once the big argument for hydrogen, are dropping dramatically, and will likely be in the single-digit minutes within a couple of years.
Toyota recently had a change of heart, and announced a priority program to develop competitive long-range BEVs. But that will take several years to come to fruition. This is coming from the company that was once the darling of the green crowd, with its pioneering hybrid Prius (1997) and RAV4 EVs, the first generation also dating back to 1997. The second one, using Tesla Model S components, was built at Tesla’s Fremont factory from 2012 to 2014, when Toyota pulled the plug. Did Toyota waste the head start and green mantle it once enjoyed? Or is hydrogen just taking its sweet time?