Having pioneered and legitimized the hybrid electric car with the Prius 20 years ago, Toyota is aiming to do the same with hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles as it launches the 2016 Mirai (the word means “future” in Japanese). The product of 20 years of R&D, the Mirai represents the peak of Toyota technology, with a fuel cell that is 30 times more efficient than the one it made in 1994, placed in a body purpose-built for the task.
The car sits on a “much-improved” ct200h/Prius platform and makes use of "improved" suspension, brakes and steering from those cars. Yes, it looks a little goofy on the outside, but manager of product planning and product engineering Shitoshi Ogiso said the look is purposeful.
“If this is the future, it better look futuristic,” he said.
Ogiso calls it an “oxygen-in, water-out” styling theme. Whatever it is, it has a coeficient of drag of just 0.29. Inside it seats four in snug, swaddled leather luxury. This ain’t no first-gen Prius.
Fuel cells, as you probably already know, take compressed hydrogen and push it through membranes that separate the electrons from the hydrogen. The electrons go to power an electric motor that spins the front wheels. The hydrogen then mixes with oxygen in the air to form pure, harmless water, which dribbles out the tailpipe.
Top speed of the Mirai is 111 mph!PHOTO BY TOYOTA
What’s It Like To Drive?
It’s better than a Prius! As you might expect of a car focusing on energy efficiency over almost everything else, the Murai is not a particularly thrilling car to drive --unless you get a thrill out of 70 Mega Pascals of hydrogen pulsing through 370 fuel cells boxed into one of the most efficient fuel cell stacks ever made. Toyota lists 0-60 at a fairly leisurely nine seconds flat, but points out that getting from 25 to 45 mph takes just three seconds and top speed is 111 mph. That’s with 153 hp (114 kw) output from the fuel cell, or 151 hp at the electric motor.
On the road, it immediately felt more responsive than the Prius/ct200h, a quality Ogiso attributes to the stiffer version of the platform. The braking was also smoother in its transition from regenerative braking to hydraulic disc braking. There was plenty of power and torque to get onto the freeway and pass cars. Operation was serenely quiet, as you’d expect, with none of the clicking and whirring associated with earlier fuel-cell science experiment vehicles. The instruments were operated via a flat touch-screen, including a clever slider function for the climate control that worked surprisingly well.
We got to see some hydrogen refueling stations that would top off the car’s two linked carbon fiber tanks, each rated at 10,000 psi. Toyota says a fillup from empty takes five minutes, a little longer than a gasoline car at a gas station, but a lot less than an electric car.
No, that's not a Hemi.PHOTO BY TOYOTA
Do I Want It?
There will not be a lot of these on the market to want. Toyota is offering 3,000 in the next three years, starting with 200 in California then eventually transitioning to New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Price is $57,500, or you can lease it for 36 months at $499 a month.
As far as hydrogen fuel cells versus electric cars or wind-powered land sailers, you can make arguments on all sides of the alternative fuel debate until you’re blue in the face from too much CO2. If you like fuel cells, you can construct a pretty good case for them: hydrogen is really just a storage medium for energy, you could say, the same way batteries or gasoline hold energy. Looking at it that way, you can bypass the argument that battery electric cars are more efficient because they cut out the whole making-the-hydrogen loop. Since extracting hydrogen from natural gas releases some CO2, you could put fuel cell vehicles down a notch from pure battery electrics on the cleaner-than-thou scale, unless you’re getting your battery EV juice from a Chinese coal-fired power plant. But FCEVs are cleaner than natural gas vehicles and way cleaner than gas engines and diesels. And if you make your hydrogen from electrolysis powered by the sun or wind, well, you’re just about as clean an anything out there short of riding a bike naked.
Toyota believes fuel cells will become profitable sooner than electric cars, so it’s ending the Rav4EV program and going with this. It is also assisting in the construction of 19 hydrogen refueling stations in California, a state where there will eventually be 100 of them. Through its partner Air Liquide, it is helping build 12 stations in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Rhode Island. California gets them because that state’s Air Resources Board is requiring carmakers to offer ZEVs. If somehow that requirement were dropped, we can imagine all carmakers suddenly and inexplicably losing interest in battery electrics and fuel cells.
But the ZEV mandate is not going to be dropped; people want somebody to do something about pollution, "as long as that somebody’s not me," they add. So look for Mirais in your California showroom early next year, with Northeastern states (the ones that follow California’s emissions requirements) following after that.
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