Hydrogen fuel cells are a cool technology that were perfected to enable humans to go to the moon. Now that they're perfected even more, they're enabling humans to go to work or the liquor store, and, incredibly, this is progress. The Toyota Mirai is an example of this remarkable progress. Funny looking, maybe, but it works.
Let's just get the way it looks out of the way right up front: the Mirai is sort of ugly. I do appreciate that it doesn't look like everything else out there — I appreciate that a lot — but I don't think I can say the design is successful as such.
I think the profile isn't bad, and I like a number of the details — the black beltline, the handling of the C-pillar — but those massive (and mostly fake) side intakes are just so distracting and brutal-looking. In white, it makes the car look like a Stormtrooper's helmet.
Now, it's worth remembering that the Mirai is set to sell for $57,000, I think they did the right thing — just maybe not in the best way — by making the car look dramatically different. You don't want to spend nearly $60 grand on a technologically advanced car and have it just look like any old Prius. You want people to know that you live in the fucking future, people. The FUTURE.
The look is supposed to emphasize the intaking of air, and it certainly does that. And, really, this car does take in a crapload of air, some of which it uses to combine with Hydrogen to make water and electricity, and some of it is used to keep all that electricity and water making equipment cool. The Mirai has four separate radiators/condensers and cooling loops , in fact:
Technically, the Mirai is a very interesting car. The fundamental principles are the same as in other fuel-cell cars, but unlike fuel-cell vehicles like the Hyundai Tuscon, the Mirai has been designed from the ground up, on its own proprietary platform, to be a fuel-cell car.
That way, all the components can be distributed throughout the chassis for optimal packaging and weight distribution. In the Mirai, the layout has the 153 HP motor and controller units up front, the fuel cell stack under the front seats, the hydrogen tank under the back seats and the storage battery behind the rear seatback.
There's a lot of hardware all along the length of the car, but despite that the interior seems fairly roomy. The rear seat floors have a sort of strange ramp-up where they meet the bottoms of the front seats, and the back seatrest won't fold down thanks to tanks and bulkheads, but there's decent room.
All this equipment pegs the scale at 4078 lbs, so the Mirai is no lightwieight, but the even distribution of equipment ensures that the car's F/R weight distribution is really quite good.
Getting in the Mirai to drive it, you're faced with a double-decker-style dash with a digital strip of instruments up high, then a large general-purpose screen, and then a basement with a Prius-style gear selector and a bunch of capacitive touch buttons, with one last Game-Boy sized screen for climate control.
The only real novel control that reveals it's fuel-cell nature is a lone button marked H20 that lets you purge the waste-water resovoir. In essence, it's a button to make the car pee. I still can't believe they're not storing the water in some clean radiator and then providing an on-dash water tap, but they claim it doesn't taste that great. Well, what if I just want it for washing purposes? Or to make Kool-Aid? Did you think of that, Toyota?
It starts and feels like any electric car — that is, pretty quietly, with maybe a bit more whirrs and hums from the fuel-cell components. Taking off in gear, I actually managed to chirp the wheels a bit, to the surprise of myself and the Toyota people with me. So that's fun.
Driving around a little loop in downtown LA, this thing just feels like a bigger Leaf, or Plug-in Prius in EV mode. It's fine. Acceleration is decent, and sure, it's heavy, but not so much that it actually feels ponderous.
Lifting off the gas doesn't give the same dramatic regen-deceleration as most electric cars do, but the Mirai does employ regenerative braking, and can be placed in an engine braking gear like a Prius.
My drive was just around in downtown LA, so it's not like I got to slalom the big fish or anything like that, but it's absolutely just fine for general transportation use, which is really the point of the thing, anyway.
If you're worried about safety, or are planning some acts of terror, you should be aware that the hydrogen tank in the Mirai (which is made in-house by Toyota, in a process which harkens back to their loom-making days) is capable of withstanding a shot from anything less than a 50 cal bullet.
And when it comes to filling those tanks, right now some customers — Toyota doesn't really specify the criteria as to which customers they mean, but I suggest you dress in something sexy when you ask — get three years of free hydrogen. This is partially due to the fact that the method of selling hydrogen isn't really worked out, and is basically the same as what Hyundai is doing.
The hydrogen used is ISO J2719 fuel-cell grade hydrogen — that crap you get at your welding supply shop may have sulfur and/or other impurities in it, so be warned.
After my very uneventful drive I went around to the back of the car for two reasons: to see the port they give you to drive your house from the fuel-cell stack in an emergency (it's a nice, complicated-looking plug), and to taste some of the water that drips from the Mirai's water-exhaust hole.
It tastes fine, I thought. Maybe a little outdoor-hose-water-ish, but that's more the result of all the pipes and plastic and metal it's flowing through. I think the water itself is just that, pure water.
So they should still pump it into a tap on the dash. And, if they did, then that could be the only really unusual-seeming thing about driving this car, compared to almost any other electric or hybrid car. The problem of making a viable, usable hydrogen fuel-cell car is clearly solved. Now we just have to figure out the whole hydrogen distribution part, and that's a much bigger deal.