We test the Toyota Mirai – a pioneering zero-emission car of the future… that’s here now.
Toyota led the march of the hybrids when it launched the first generation Prius in 1997. It took until 2000 before it went on sale in the UK and the rest is history. Hybrids, and now plug-in hybrids, are commonplace on our roads.
Electric cars are a familiar sight too, but now we’re witnessing the next big thing – hydrogen fuel cells. And once again, Toyota is leading the way.
Technically the Mirai wasn’t the first hydrogen car to go on sale in the UK. Hyundai’s ix35 beat it to market in 2015, but sadly it’s heavily compromised because it’s based on the ageing ix35 SUV and only available in left-hand drive.
The Mirai is a completely different concept – the result of 20 years of development.
So what is a fuel cell vehicle?
However, instead of the electric motor running off electricity stored in batteries, the hydrogen fuel cell generates electricity by mixing hydrogen with oxygen, storing it in a battery and powering the motor just like any other hybrid.
Unlike electric cars, there’s no such thing as range anxiety because just like a conventional petrol or diesel car, you can fill up (with hydrogen, in pressurised form) at a fuel station, giving a similar range of around 300 miles.
And here’s the thing – because it runs solely on hydrogen, its only emissions are water.
So far so good. I’ll come to the elephant in the room later, but for now let’s savour the Mirai.
The first thing that strikes you is that the Mirai is big – it’s about the size of the latest pumped-up Ford Mondeo.
However, it’s strictly a four-seater (there’s a big, fixed armrest thingy in the rear between the two seats), but it is a spacious, comfortable place to be, with a state-of-the-art feel up front. Not quite as minimalistic as a Tesla, but a pretty futuristic feel all the same.
It’s well put together too and most of the materials used have a quality feel. I just wish the steering wheel didn’t look and feel so bog standard.
There’s a start button to the right of the steering wheel. The car doesn’t so much fire up as switch on, then it’s just a case of moving the gear selector to drive , releasing the foot-operated ‘handbrake’ and you’re off.
From here on, the Mirai is just like any other big electric car. It feels pretty heavy and it’s not in its element being thrown around country rounds, but it is an effortless cruiser.
You’re aware of a faint whine, but other than that, it’s pretty silent.
There’s more than enough power there too, but it’s no Tesla in the acceleration stakes. For the record, it’s capable of a 0-62mph of 9.6 seconds and a 111mph top speed.
However, unlike many electric cars, deceleration seems to be smoother, whereas with some (including the Tesla), easing off the throttle can result in a dramatic loss of speed.
The Mirai drives well. The soft suspension soaks up most bumps, and thankfully, it doesn’t wallow.
The process of generating electricity using a fuel cell system is two to three times more efficient than combustion, but storing hydrogen takes up space. Toyota has done a good job concealing the two tanks, but clearly there has been some impact.
Rear boot space (it’s a saloon, not a hatchback) is a decent 361 litres, but not class leading.
Safety is paramount too. Toyota reckons the Mirai is safer than a conventional car because there are so many safeguards in place. For instance, testing of the hydrogen fuel tanks involved shooting at them with high-velocity weapons.
The Mirai takes just 3-5 minutes to refuel and the nozzle contains a mechanical lock to ensure a perfect connection with the Mirai’s filling inlet. If this lock does not click into place securely, filling will not be possible.
Ultimately, the Mirai is a quality car and it feels special. There’s also an element of exclusivity. Just 12 cars were sold in the UK in 2015 and there are 15 projected sales in 2016 – mostly corporate and leased.
But now for the elephant in the room. The Mirai is ahead of the game, because the hydrogen refuelling infrastructure is in its infancy. There are currently three hydrogen refuelling stations open (Heathrow, Hendon and Swindon) with a further three due by the end of 2016 and another three under construction.
There’s also the issue of the price of hydrogen because at the moment it works out more expensive than filling up with petrol or diesel.
Also, the Mirai may well emit zero emissions because the production process for the vast majority of hydrogen is not green.
Just like any new technology, there will be early adopters and hydrogen fuel cell cars will take off, if you’ll excuse the pun, but it ain’t going to happen overnight.
There’s a price to be paid for Mirai exclusivity. It costs £61,000 (after a £5,000 deduction for the government’s OLEV grant), which isn’t far off twice the price of an equivalent priced car of this size.
Consequently, most of the Mirais shifted so far have been leased. You can own one for £750 a month and it includes fuel costs and full maintenance.
There’s also access to Toyota’s 24/7 concierge service which is the ultimate peace of mind – including collection and delivery for maintenance, plus a loan car.
In Japanese, “mirai” means “future” – and the Mirai is the future of motoring.