Toyota has learned a lot about fuel cell cars since the first Mirai was released in 2014 – and it’s showing. The new model is improved in pretty much every measurable way, and in most subjective ways too. While limited refueling options, a cramped interior space and a high purchase price mean that the Mirai is not for everyone, it is a rolling proof of concept that shows that hydrogen will play a major role in an emission-free future – just maybe not for cars .
Dare to seek out the pub monologue given by someone who confidently can bring just a few drinks and you will hear that the future of motoring does not lie in electric vehicles, but in hydrogen.
So here is the all-new Toyota Mirai, powered by the very same fuel that has apparently always been on the cusp of mainstream. It’s the sleeker, nicer second-generation model of the brand’s hydrogen fuel cell car, and proves that the world’s most abundant element can play a huge role in our zero-emission future – just not necessarily for cars.
Let’s start with how the Mirai works because this is essentially still an EV. A fuel cell works by passing hydrogen over an anode, which splits the atoms into protons and electrons. The electrons then go through a circuit to create a flow of current, which in turn charges a small lithium-ion battery that powers an electric motor like a normal electric vehicle.
A clever chemical reaction where hydrogen reacts with oxygen from the atmosphere means that the only by-product is water as a burst of steam from the exhaust gas.
All of this magic happens under the long hood of the Mirai. Advances in technology since the introduction of the first generation car mean the fuel cell is 50 percent lighter and physically smaller, but 12 percent more powerful, so the Mirai’s engine is now 180 horsepower.
Progress in the Mirai is serene. A 9 second time from 0 to 100 km / h is a world away from the jaw-dropping speed of some EVs, but the acceleration feels smooth and linear. Put your foot on the ground and there is a slight delay before the Mirai jumps forward, an act accompanied by a science fiction hum unlike any other all-electric car.
The Mirai is designed for a relaxed ride, but that doesn’t mean it feels clumsy. The handling is forgiving – even on the 20-inch wheels in the Top Design Premium Package – yet the car is neatly balanced from front to back, making it feel stable and predictable. At high speed, the only obvious sound is the muffled roar of tires.
So what are the benefits of using hydrogen as a fuel source? Well, mile after mile, it’s a lot lighter than a battery. While a Tesla Model S promises 390 miles from a roughly 500kg battery, the hydrogen that fills the Mirai’s tank weighs just 5.6kg and will get you for an official range of 400 miles. In total, the Mirai weighs 1,900 kg – on the level of a combustion vehicle of a similar size.
Toyota Says the Mirai uses 0.89 kg of hydrogen every 100 km; In the UK, a refill costs around £ 10 per kg. Our test drive included more enthusiastic driving than most, and the Mirai put in 1.17 kg per 62 miles – that’s about £ 56 for a real-world range of 300 miles. That’s a similar price to a gasoline car that hits 32mpg.
A stumbling block for the technology is of course the refueling of a hydrogen car. While EV charging stations continue to pop up at a relentless pace, the total number of hydrogen refueling stations in the UK is 14. There are a few large stations under construction, but fuel is definitely scarcer.
In order to generate hydrogen, it has to be separated from the water by electrolysis, compressed and liquefied and, if this process does not take place on site, it has to be transported to a filling station, where the fuel cell then uses more energy to generate its electrical charge. So it is not the most energy efficient method.
A fully-fledged electric vehicle effectively skips the admin and takes power from the national grid. There are of course other factors, such as the procurement of raw materials, but fuel cell vehicles also continue to require lithium.
And while 5.6 kg of hydrogen go a long way, packing the required tanks is difficult. The Mirai has three. The largest is mounted in the floor inside the back of the car, creating a high central tunnel inside. There are more tanks at the front and rear that compress the cabin from both sides. This means that the legroom in the rear is hardly better than that of most of the Superminis, and the trunk has a capacity of only 321 liters – that for a car with a similar footprint as an Audi A7.
Otherwise, the cabin is well made and packed full of technology. There’s a huge infotainment screen, digital instrument panel, and 10.1-inch head-up display. All four seats are heated and cooled, while the occupants in the rear seats have a folding center armrest with controls for entertainment and air conditioning functions.
Although more powerful, luxurious, and better equipped than before, prices now start at £ 49,995 – the best part of ten grand less than the first Mirai. This premium design package costs £ 64,995. That’s still a lot of money for performance, but there’s always a price to be paid for being an early adopter.
According to Toyota’s own statement, the Mirai is essentially a rolling research laboratory. It proves that the technology works, although its best application is likely to be found in commercial vehicles rather than cars. Petrol stations can be built at transport stations that refuel trucks and buses at a speed and range that lithium-ion batteries cannot currently keep up with. The weight saving of hydrogen compared to a large battery is already considerable in a car – if it were expanded to the size of a truck, it would be enormous.
|Model:||Toyota Mirai Design Premium Package|
|Engine:||Single electric motor|
|Energy storage:||Polymer electrolyte fuel cell plus lithium-ion battery|
|Power / torque:||180 hp / 300 Nm|
|Transmission:||Single speed, rear-wheel drive|
|0-100 km / h:||9.0 seconds|
|Top speed:||108 km / h|