Driving Impressions: Toyota Mirai

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While Herr Schmitto-san was learning about Toyota’s new Mirai fuel cell vehicle (FCV) by not driving it in Japan, I was busy learning about Mirai by driving it in sunny Southern California. The Los Angeles area is already ground zero for hydrogen-powered cars in the US, thanks to major investments by the state government and small-scale FCV deployment by Honda, Hyundai and BMW. Soon it will be the first market for Mirai, the first FCV to be offered for sale to consumers and Toyota’s first step into a long-awaited hydrogen future. Driving the Mirai past competitor FCVs and refueling at a station that pumps hydrogen extracted from local sewage, it becomes clear that the first steps towards Toyota’s vision of a “hydrogen society” have already been made in sun-soaked Orange County.

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Parked outside the Balboa Bay Resort, sandwiched between a luxury yacht tie-up and the local Ferrari and Maserati dealerships, the Mirai looks ready to stake its claim on the future. Though the bold styling hasn’t won over every comment-section arbiter of aesthetics, it certainly stands out in the Southern California automotive arms race. Though reminiscent of the Prius from some angles, the Mirai is altogether more expressively styled and won’t be mistaken for anything else on the road. In a market like Southern California’s, where cars serve as much as status signals as mere transportation, the Mirai will have no problem making drivers of more prosaic green cars wonder whether they are up on the very latest in zero emissions technology.

Though Toyota has very consciously launched its FCV technology in a practical midsized sedan in an effort to replicate the success of its Prius, there are major differences between the Mirai and Toyota’s first hybrid effort. In the years since the launch of the first hybrids it’s become clear that green cars are a luxury market, and the $57,500 Mirai is a far cry from the stripped-down, slightly dowdy first-gen Prius. The interior is equal parts high tech and high quality, featuring a slick digital console, a multi-texture soft-touch dash and some of the best seats ever to grace a Toyota. Clearly Toyota has learned that early adopters prefer green glamour to the environmentalist equivalent of a hair shirt, and as a result the Mirai feels more like a Lexus than anything else bearing a “T” badge.

Mirai Test drive -2- Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt

The Lexusian impressions continue when you silently bring the Mirai’s fuel cell stack to life, select “Drive” with its stubby shifter and pull out onto the Pacific Coast Highway. With 245 lb-ft of torque available from zero RPM, the Mirai delivers the kind of effortless acceleration that endear EVs to their owners, hitting 60 MPH in just 9 seconds in “Power” mode. “Eco” mode tones down some of the urgency for better efficiency, smoothing out torque delivery for a more “normal car” car experience. Acceleration is accompanied by the faint whine of an electric motor, but otherwise the drivetrain feels more like a super-refined gas engine than the somewhat on-off power delivery of some pure EVs. Thanks to the same hybrid components and software that helped bring down the cost of the Mirai’s fuel cell, Toyota has managed to engineer more refinement into throttle feel and power delivery than many EVs can muster.

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Indeed, if there’s a single word that best describes Mirai it would be “refinement.” The cabin muffles road noise well, and the suspension features the best balance of comfort and performance I’ve experienced in a Toyota. Though heavy at just over 4,000 lbs, the low center of gravity afforded by the under-floor fuel cell stack and carbon fiber reinforced plastic hydrogen tanks keep the Mirai from feeling the weight in its handling. Turn-in is sharp, grip is copious and the experience lives up to Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda’s campaign for improved “fun to drive” characteristics across the firm’s lineup. Some of the journalists on hand for the launch compared the Mirai’s handling to the surprisingly sharp-to-drive Chevy Volt, which seems fair. Like the Volt the under-floor energy storage does eat into interior space, and the Mirai’s rear legroom may be a bit tight for anyone over 6 foot. Otherwise, the higher-quality interior and more refined drivetrain give the Mirai distinct advantages over GM’s green halo car to justify its higher price.

Toyota also provided several interesting points of comparison for the Mirai by making two of its earlier zero-emission vehicles available for comparison: the RAV4 EV and its Highlander-based FCHV Adv. The Highlander was the testbed for Toyota’s previous generation of FCV drivetrains, featuring a larger stack and lower-pressure hydrogen tanks. Though it shares the Mirai’s refined powertrain feel, the Highlander FCHV’s older technology is immediately apparent when driven back-to-back with the Mirai. A larger and even heavier vehicle than Mirai, the Highlander feels distinctly underpowered in comparison and lacks the same ability to precisely modulate power delivery. The Mirai’s clear improvements in power and feel over the FCHV Adv are even more impressive when you realize the new FCV drivetrain costs 95% less than the older, wheezier version. If Toyota continues to make similar progress with future generations, hydrogen power has a bright future indeed.

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The contrast between the Mirai and Toyota’s only other publicly-available Zero Emissions Vehicle, the RAV4 EV, is equally dramatic. Though it costs only slightly less than Mirai at just under $50,000, the Tesla-powered CUV feels shockingly cheap by comparison. In part this is because the RAV4 on which it is based is an affordable mass-market car, giving it a more modest start in life than the all-new Mirai. The result is far more road and wind noise, a much less luxurious cabin and less sorted dynamics all conspiring to make the RAV4 EV feel like it should be $20,000 cheaper than Mirai rather than $7,000 cheaper. The Tesla drivetrain offers plenty of power, giving its accelerator a coiled-spring feel that makes forward progress feel every bit as brisk as the Mirai’s. What it lacks, however, is the tractable delivery and seamless integration of the Mirai’s performance. There’s a distinctly on-off feel to the shove and real trouble putting power down in corners compared to the Mirai, and a definite sense that the drivetrain and chassis were developed by different companies on different sides of the planet. Anyone wondering why Toyota’s relationship with Tesla seems to have soured in recent years has only to drive these two vehicles back-to-back to understand why.

Normally this would be the point at which a review would tell you if a Mirai is worth buying, but given the limitations on access to both the car and the infrastructure needed to fuel it I will forgo such judgement for now. Toyota has a ton of work to do before its FCVs can match other cars on price and refueling convenience, but for what it is right now the Mirai is deeply impressive. Well-positioned between green luxury unobtainium like Tesla’s Model S and overly-ambitious green car for the masses like the Nissan Leaf, the Mirai makes futurism feel special without compromising range, refueling speed or performance.  Of course huge challenges remain for the Mirai in the new world of refueling infrastructure that all car companies must tackle as they roll out zero emissions technology, but as a car the Mirai is impressively well thought-through. As a first step on the long road towards the “hydrogen society” that Toyota envisions for the future, the Mirai is well thought-through and deeply convincing.

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