Here's a bizarre statistic for you: At the last Olympic Games in London, organizers handed out approximately 150,000 condoms to the 10,000-plus athletes who resided in the Olympic Village. Odd that we bring that up, but in Tokyo, where Toyota held its first public drive of the 2015 Hydrogen Car, we couldn’t help but think about that when company officials told us that the huge parking lot where we were driving would be home to the Olympic Village for the 2020 games.
In the heart of one of the most densely packed cities in the world, Toyota staged a short loop to drive camouflaged sedans bedecked in checkered black and white vinyl. "Three laps," we were told. We didn’t have much time to gather impressions of the new vehicle, and so scribbled furiously in a notebook in order that we wouldn't forget what we had just driven.
The sedans looked like the defunct Lexus HS250h/Japanese-market Toyota Sai because, well, they largely were, albeit with their interiors chopped up and fitted with foam and cardboard and makeshift switchgear. But we were told that the chassis tuning and running gear were largely going to remain intact for the production version of the 2015 Toyota Hydrogen Car that is debuting at the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show. That car, we're assured, will be a sedan. Given that, we can tell you what it's like to drive a car that's still two years away from daylight.
A Bunch of Hot Air
Part of the story with the 2015 Toyota Hydrogen Car is its cost. Toyota has said that the car will be priced somewhere around $50,000 when it goes on sale. Toyota is going to be losing about $50,000 on each car, which is a remarkable achievement, considering that the FCHV-adv Highlander prototypes that have been on the road for less than a decade cost about 10 times as much to build.
Comparatively speaking, Cadillac lost more money on each 1957 Biarritz it built (adjusted for inflation). How did Toyota pull off such a feat, you ask? The answer is refinement and paring the car down to the bare essentials.
Rather than starting with an all-new architecture, as Honda did with its FCX Clarity, Toyota has heavily modified the Lexus HS’s parts for duty in the Hydrogen Car. The company has taken many of the same components used in its hybrids -- electric motors, battery packs, and wiring systems -- and adapted them for the new car. Where Toyota intricately wrapped the hydrogen storage tanks in the FCHV-adv in aerospace-grade carbon fiber, the Hydrogen Car will have two tanks cloaked in layers that are as good as they need to be -- certainly of a quality to sustain 5 kg of hydrogen fuel, or nearly twice the amount of its crossover predecessor's tanks. One of the capsule-shaped cylinders will be located underneath the rear seat, and the other will be right behind it.
Toyota says that the fuel cell stack -- the hydrogen-to-electricity converter -- will be about a third smaller than the FCHV-adv's. That means fewer components and fewer precious metals. And that means a cheaper price. Toyota says to expect 500 to 600 kilometers (about 310 to 370 miles) per tank of hydrogen, with an efficiency equivalent of about one kilogram of hydrogen to a gallon of gas.
With a spritz of water rushing to the ground, the Hydrogen Car takes off, feeding what's been indicated to be about 140 to 150 horsepower to the front wheels. Weighing just a tad more than a similarly equipped HS250h -- expect about 3700 pounds -- the Hydrogen Car has enough immediate torque to chirp the tires. All you hear is some electric motor whine and a compressor pitching hydrogen into the fuel cell stack with an emphatic whir. With an electric motor feeding power to the front wheels and a somewhat stiff, taut suspension, this car feels like much more than just a tightened-up Prius. Its steering lacks any feel, but the EPS is programmed to be heavy and turns with a linear sensation that's progressive and well-weighted. We're hesitant to use the word "sporty" to describe it, but that word is only some steering programming away from being part of the conversation.
Perhaps the only part of the driving experience that feels like it comes from a Prius is the brake pedal. Still spongy like the Prius's, Toyota's brake regen is among the best when it comes to hybrids because it lacks the on-off vagueness of so many hybrids. You press the pedal, the car stops -- easy as that. There's no guessing game with Toyota's stopping pedal.
What's in a Name?
We still don't know what the 2015 Hydrogen Car will look like, nor do we have specifics on what it will be called or much of anything else. We'll get all that next month in Tokyo. Still, Toyota's engineers were eager to hear our feedback, using translators for its non-English-speaking team members when they couldn't figure out what we were trying to say.
With a Mitsubishi Evo, you pay $45,000 for a car with an interior that definitely doesn’t match up to the car’s price tag. Yet we can't recommend it enough because it's amazing to drive and has more technology than a Mac store. The Hydrogen Car is much the same, except that Toyota knows how to make a decent interior. It is the future. It drives like an EV but has the range of a conventional internal-combustion car, and it will only need about three minutes to fill from empty. If the hydrogen used to power it can be created from electrolysis, it has the potential to run without producing any carbon dioxide whatsoever. And even if the hydrogen is harvested from natural gas, it'll still be far cleaner -- and possibly cheaper to run -- than today's gasoline-powered cars.
Early estimates are pegging Toyota to sell between 5,000 and 10,000 hydrogen cars annually in California, Japan, Europe, and wherever else the infrastructure eventually crops up. California has signed on for 68 stations by 2015 and about 100 by 2020. That number could and should go up if hydrogen cars catch on.
"But it's a loss-leader for Toyota," you say. "Toyota couldn't possibly make any money on it. It's a lost cause." Well, no, it's not. Toyota didn't make any money on the Prius until halfway through its second generation. Today, it can't make the cars quickly enough. Toyota's planners never intended for the Prius to sell more than 36,000 units per year in the United States. Now, it's a bad year when the automaker doesn't sell 200,000.
With 2025 CAFE legislation on the horizon, Toyota is pushing to get its hydrogen sedan on the road by 2015 to mitigate the effects on the rest of its fleet. If it ends up behaving like the vehicle we drove at the site of the future fornication huts of thousands of athletes, it will be a good one, maybe slightly better than average. If it becomes a cultural phenomenon like the Prius, it won't matter whether or not it's a decent driver. It will sell, and it will revolutionize an industry that up until Tesla's Model S had been going for a century without much real innovation in propulsion technology. Because we're a country obsessed with high gas prices and Miley Cyrus's tongue, we're hoping Toyota’s Hydrogen Car succeeds, if only because we'd like the conversation in America to change for the better.