Driving the Toyota Mirai, the most futuristic car you can buy

Steve Siler
Driving the Toyota Mirai, the most futuristic car you can buy

Go ahead. Call it ugly. Toyota doesn’t care.

People called the Prius ugly, too, when it was first launched (still do, actually), and it went on to become one of America’s best-selling cars. With the Prius, Toyota knew it had a game-changing technology on its hands, and to make it noticeable to its customers — who didn’t tend to pay much attention to cars, even when 50 mpg fuel economy was on the spec chart — Toyota had to make it noticeable-looking. People noticed. Next thing we knew, the Prius’ doorstop-chic styling became a point of pride. Toyota took a risk on ugly, and it paid off.

Toyota is attempting to perform the same trick with the 2016 Mirai. Only now, it’s working with hydrogen, not hybrids. We explicated the reasons for the Mirai’s various styling elements when the Mirai was introduced last year at the Los Angeles Auto Show, so we won’t bother repeating ourselves, but even after spending time with it, we’re not sure we’ll ever find it anything but jarring. Time will tell if Toyota can do the same trick with the Mirai that it pulled off with the Prius, but Toyota is banking on it, and banking even bigger on the technology and infrastructure becoming the next revolution in driving.

2016 Toyota Mirai
2016 Toyota Mirai

At this point, not many people know how fuel cells work, and since there aren’t many moving parts — no cylinders, pistons, crankshafts, etc. — understanding the process seems like a chemistry test. But in a nutshell, here’s how it works:

In a fuel cell, electricity is produced from a reaction between hydrogen and air. First, hydrogen atoms are compressed and stored in high-pressure tanks, two of which are present in the Mirai, together holding about 11 pounds of hydrogen at 10,000 psi. The hydrogen atoms are sent through a platinum membrane that separates the electrons from the protons. Those electrons produce an electric current that powers an electric motor-generator capable of 151 hp and 247 lb-ft of torque. The newly liberated hydrogen protons are introduced to oxygen in the air on the other side of the membrane, which in turn creates water — about a half-cup per mile, says Toyota — which exits the tailpipe. And yes, it's drinkable.

To reduce costs, Toyota had to make the fuel-cell compatible with its existing hybrid system and the Prius’ nickel-metal hydride battery, so Toyota fitted a four-phase boost converter, bringing voltage to 650V. As with the Prius, this is used primarily to assist during acceleration and capture regenerative braking energy.

On our brief first drive opportunity in Newport Beach, Calif., we found that, for all of its newfangled technology and precious metal, the Murai drives no differently than a normal electric car: It feels synthesized and utterly anticlimactic. Acceleration starts out brisk, but wanes as highway speeds approach. Based on a few dozen short bursts of acceleration and short stint on the parking lot also known as the 405 freeway, Toyota’s claim that the Mirai can hit 60 mph in nine seconds flat is entirely believable, though we’ll have to take Toyota’s word that it can eventually touch 111 mph as we never saw more than 75 mph. All the while, the powertrain is utterly silent. This, in turn, makes other sounds such as tire noise, climate control operation, and coffee-slurping passengers seem even louder.

Like battery electrics, fuel cell vehicles are heavy, and the Mirai’s hefty 4,079 lbs. is nearly 600 pounds more than the similarly sized Camry hybrid — despite using carbon fiber for the storage tanks. To its credit, the densest parts are situated low and spread out within the vehicle's structure, helping to keep the Mirai’s body neutral in corners. Road feel, however, is virtually non-existent, so numbly tuned are the chassis and steering. On the other hand, the ride smoothness so velvety that it could be equally suited to the Lexus brand (and don’t think Toyota hasn’t thought of that already). Also praiseworthy are the Mirai’s brakes, which feel relatively natural, even in battery priority mode, thanks to the regenerative energy recapture system that doesn’t jerk the car down too aggressively before you actually step on the pedal.

While there are no MPGe numbers available yet — remember, we’re talking about kilograms of hydrogen, not gallons of gasoline — the Mirai promises to be comparatively efficient with its hydrogen atoms, offering more range than the recently released Hyundai Tucson fuel cell (300 miles versus 265 for the Tucson) despite having lower tank capacity (5.0 kg of hydrogen versus the Tucson’s 5.64 kg). Furthermore, while filling the Tucson’s capacity tanks takes about 10 minutes, Toyota claims that process will only cost five minutes of the Mirai driver’s lives, alas, which is comparable filling up a gas-powered car’s tank. And having performed the task many times with several different fuel cell vehicles during the last few years, I can attest that the process is far less messy.

2016 Toyota Mirai
2016 Toyota Mirai

In an effort to make the interior as futuristic as the exterior, the Mirai’s dashboard is highly expressive and unusual, with gauges located near the base of the windshield and secondary controls arranged on intersecting planes swooshing about the cabin. Many controls are capacitive touch-style on sleek black surfaces, which is good or bad, depending on your tolerance for fingerprints.

The only state in which the Mirai will be sold initially is California, with Toyota expecting most buyers to opt for a $499/month lease rather than paying the $57,500 before $13,000 in state and federal incentives. At this point, the number of hydrogen filling stations in California remains in the single digits, and sales of the 700 cars Toyota plans to import this year will be limited to customers who live near them. New state funding should help triple that number by the end of 2015, however, with another 28 appearing in 2016. Toyota has pledged to help maintain 19 of them, and hopes that other automakers will do so, too, in order to accelerate the infrastructural development.

Toyota says that for most customers to be within a six-minute drive of a refueling station, it would only take 68 refueling stations strategically located in the Bay area and the Los Angeles/San Diego corridor to adequately serve a population of 10,000 fuel cell vehicles. The next market for Mirai is the New Jersey-Connecticut corridor, where another 12 stations will appear, also partially supported by Toyota along with energy supplier Air Liquide.

Yes, the Mirai is ugly. And while no one at Toyota is claiming it is beautiful, either, they do believe, wholeheartedly, that the Mirai will help usher in the hydrogen age. No one said that process was going to be pretty.