We’ve been waiting for a mass-production fuel cell for decades, but now Toyota aims to be first to market in the UK with its strange looking Mirai (‘Future’) fuel-cell car which goes on sale at an eye-watering £63,104 next autumn in Britain. Make no mistake, this four-door saloon is where it’s at as far as futuristic transport is concerned and as Satoshi Ogiso managing officer of the fuel-cell project says; “If the name of your car is The Future it had better look futuristic.”
In spite of its eye-watering price tag the Toyota uses some pretty basic hardware from the hybrid parts bin. The company claims to have reduced the cost of the Mirai by 95 per cent compared to the last Toyota fuel cell, the 2008 FCEV SUV Highlander. So the nickel-metal hydride battery, power electronics and the electric motor comes from the Camry hybrid and most of the chassis is from the Lexus HS 250h. Only the 153bhp/335Nm fuel-cell and the twin woven-carbon hydrogen storage tanks are unique, well that and the appearance of course.
The result is a 4,890mm long car (think Insignia/Mondeo/Passat size) that is practical if a bit smaller inside than it appears on the outside. Mirai has a range of 300 miles, with a top speed of 111mph, 0-60mph in 9 seconds and an overtaking time between 25 and 44mph of 3sec. The question is, of course, where are you going to fill the thing up? In America the effort is concentrated on each coast, with California spending $200 million to get a total of 68 filling stations by 2018 and Toyota actually funding 12 hydrogen filling stations on the East coast between New York and Rhode Island to the tune of $7.2 million.
In the UK the Government has promised an £11 million grant for 15 hydrogen filling stations and London is also part of a the HyFIVE project, which involves 15 participants including Toyota, BMW, Daimler, Honda and Hyundai, which aims to put 110 fuel cell cars on the road next year in six major European cities. Toyota reckons it’ll make just 700 Mirais next year, most of which will go to Japan and California, with Europe getting between 50 and 100 next year and in 2016. The company says it will be supporting its existing programs and partners, but that the majority of models will go to Germany followed by London. So it’ll be a rare car for the moment, but the company says it wants to make “tens of thousands in the 2020s.”
It certainly looks strange, but that’s partly because of those enormous basking shark front air intakes, which cool the fuel cell. Unlike rivals Toyota doesn’t humidify its fuel cell, instead it manages the water flows within the stack to ensure maximum electricity generation, but the water can’t be allowed to boil as the cell won’t work with steam – hence the radiators. Along the side the body sculpting represents flow through water, but the rear looks surprisingly ordinary.
In the cabin the Mirai is surprisingly luxurious and futuristic with a heavily curved dashboard and lots of black screens with electrostatic touch switches. The central instrument binnacle is all digital and heavily influenced by the Prius as is the stubby gear lever on the dash. The seats are powered and heated, but there isn’t enough adjustment on the steering wheel to get completely comfortable and the artificial leather trim feels nasty. With the whole driveline under the floor, the rear seat is over a hydrogen tank and the seat is quite high which compromises head room, although there’s plenty of leg room and at 371 litres the boot space is reasonable if not outstanding.
It takes a few seconds for the car to check the systems and then you pull the little lever back into Drive and push the throttle. Like all electric drive systems the Mirai feels rapid from the get go as the electric motor has high levels of low-rev pulling power. It pulls manfully up to and beyond 70 mph and reacts quickly to the throttle. It’s also the quietest fuel cell car we have ever driven, with just a muted whine from the compressor under hard acceleration. Extra performance can be accessed with a power button which releases more hydrogen to the fuel cell to make extra electricity. There’s also an H2O button, which stores the water which is the only tailpipe emission for dumping later.
The brakes, which combine friction linings and regeneration for the battery, are very well worked and stopping is both rapid and smooth, which wasn’t a feature of previous Toyota fuel cells. With all weather tyres, the ride was fizzing and noisy on US concrete freeways, but the body control is supple and even with an all-up weight of 1.85 tonnes, the Mirai feels quite lively with well weighted and direct steering. It’s no BMW 3 Series rival, but Mirai isn’t boring to drive and it handles better than all its fuel cell rivals with the exception of Honda’s FCX Clarity.
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