Newport Beach, CALIFORNIA – The 2016 Toyota Mirai is our generation’s flying car, a wacky leap ahead into a future where the air is cleaner, the sun is brighter, and all of us are taller, smarter, and way better-looking.
Where the flying car is concerned, the future has had a way of not arriving, remaining forever just over the horizon. But with the 2016 Mirai’s impending appearance in Toyota’s showrooms as the company’s first fuel-cell vehicle (FCV), it appears that the future of the hydrogen-fueled automobile is upon us at last.
It’s all about the energy, stupid
As we drove the streets of Newport Beach in this quiet battery-powered sedan, it was actually a little hard to get excited about the 2016 Toyota Mirai. Among the exotic horde of specialty cars on the local streets that included numerous examples of the Ferrari 458, McLaren MP4-12C, and Tesla Model S, the Mirai seemed like a plain old electric vehicle. Even so, we were happy that it’s not one of the fuel-cell science projects that we’ve piloted over the last 20 years. No roaring like a vacuum cleaner on drugs, no bounding across the bumps like a 5,000-pound go-kart. At the end of the day, the Toyota Mirai is just a car.
This is good news for all the futurists who have been telling us about a forthcoming change from nasty, old carbon-based fossil fuels to an energy economy based on clean-burning hydrogen. While they lectured us about forthcoming government standards for the use of sustainable clean-air fuels in every aspect of our lives (notably in California), the real question has been the availability of an affordable automotive technology to use the fuel. Every major carmaker has been working on the problem of the FCV for a couple of decades, and now the 2016 Toyota Mirai is finally here.
Packaging the natural elements
The Mirai is just as you would imagine the next-generation Toyota Prius hybrid to be, which should probably not surprise you. It’s a largely conventional car, only stretched over a long wheelbase of 109.4 inches. The trick here lies in packing all the elements of the fuel-cell drivetrain into something smaller than the Toyota Highlander with which the Mirai’s components were developed.
As we saw for ourselves in a special display prepared by Toyota, everything has become far smaller than ever before. There are two carbon-fiber fuel tanks to hold 5 kilograms of hydrogen at 10,000 psi, a fuel cell to produce electricity through the processing of hydrogen, a pack of affordable, reliable nickel-metal-hydride batteries to store the electricity, and a 113-kW (151-hp) motor to power the front-wheel-drive platform.
Everything is packaged as low in the chassis as possible, but there’s a bit less room for the payload than you might expect. Four passengers is the limit, and the trunk is small, too.
Cruising for gas
As soon as we pulled onto Pacific Coast Highway with the 2016 Mirai, we headed toward a hydrogen fueling station. Our destination had been determined by Toyota’s eagerness to show us that hydrogen fuel can be practical thanks to modern roadside refueling stations. But the truth is that any FCV carries with it the same kind of range anxiety as does any EV.
We were pretty confident about getting there, as Toyota promises that the Mirai will have a cruising range of about 300 miles. We could even get there fairly quickly as EVs go, since Toyota claims it hits 0-60 mph in 9 seconds and says it can reach 111 mph if you’re in a real hurry. Even better, it’s apparently possible to refuel the Mirai in less than five minutes.
In any case, we were impressed by the easy, natural way that the Mirai accelerates away from a stop. The electric-assist steering isn’t exactly communicative, but the action is reassuringly predictable. Even more important, the transition between regenerative braking and the action of the mechanical brakes is also very smooth. Once you factor in the calm ride motions on the freeway that come from a heavy, 4,079-pound car that rides on a long wheelbase and P215/55R-17 tires, plus fairly responsive handling thanks to a low center of gravity, the Mirai seems very much to be a next-gen EV.
The science in the production of electricity for the Mirai’s batteries shouldn’t distract you from the realization that this car is an electric vehicle and drives like one. It just happens to have the cruising range of a gas-fueled car, which is a very fine thing. Of course, it’s hard to make exact comparisons between this hydrogen-fueled car and a gas-powered car, because no official EPA calculation yet determines the hydrogen-fueled car’s mpg. We don’t even know how much hydrogen fuel will cost, although the best guess is closer to expensive gasoline than to cheap gasoline.
Living in the hydrogen world
For years the scientists and the car people have been arguing about whether the hydrogen revolution would be sparked by the chicken or the egg — cars that require hydrogen or sources from which to buy it. Now that the 2016 Toyota Mirai is here, the question seems to have been resolved, as government funding for more hydrogen stations has been announced. Of course, these stations will first be located in either California or the Northeast, since this is where regulations for air emissions are the most stringent.
Yet the key here is that Toyota has introduced a fuel-cell vehicle that anyone can buy. You can lease it for $499 per month, or you can own it for $57,500. Most important, this is a Toyota, which means a promise of quality, durability, and reliability. (The fuel-cell components are backed by a warranty of eight years/100,000 miles.) This promise still means a lot to us, and we love the way the Mirai embraces these most resonant of Toyota’s traditional corporate values.
How many people will buy the 2016 Toyota Mirai? We’ll see 200 examples from a short production run once the car goes on sale in fall 2015, and we’re told to expect 3,000 by the end of 2017 as production in Japan ramps up. Of course, it doesn’t help that the Mirai looks like a fish, some undersea horror pulled from the prehistoric depths that brought us Godzilla. The air ducts required to cool the fuel cell are largely responsible, and the rest comes from the impulse to be futuristic unaccompanied by the design talent to carry it off.
Nevertheless, enthusiasts of clean-air cars are just as competitive about their choices as the rest of us, so we’re sure that the Mirai will find its audience. (And make no mistake; they are enthusiasts.) As our colleague in the passenger seat of the Toyota Mirai said during our brief test drive, “Look, there’s a Tesla! Let’s moon him!”
2016 Toyota Mirai Specifications
- On sale: Fall 2015
- Base price: $57,500
- Motor: AC synchronous electric; 151 hp, 247 lb-ft; 60-kWh battery
- Transmission: Single-speed automatic
- Layout: 4-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan
- EPA Mileage: TBA
- Cruising range: 300 mi (est.)
- Wheelbase: 109.4 in
- Weight: 4,079 lb
- 0-60 mph: 9.0 sec
- Top speed: 111 mph