By Sue Callaway
November 5, 2015

I appreciate it when car companies take big brave pills—something that doesn’t happen often enough. Ford did when it decided to make its best-selling vehicle, the F-150 pickup truck, out of aluminum. Toyota (TM) can take credit for a few such leading/bleeding-edge moments, too. The carmaker put the first production hybrid, the Prius, on Japanese roads in 1997. And now the company aspires to be a world leader in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. To that end, it is now offering U.S. consumers the ability to purchase or lease its first production FCV, the Mirai—in California only for the moment, based on the availability of hydrogen stations.

As carmakers continue a never-ending quest for the holy grail of fuel efficiency—high miles per gallon equivalent and a 100% clean output—the first element on the periodic table and most prevalent in the universe, hydrogen, has always held allure. And while hydrogen fuel cells have been around a long time, the extreme cost of the hardware has made progress slow. I drove Ford’s first version back in the late ‘90s—with care, as I was told $23 million had gone into its build. Two years ago, BMW and Toyota announced a long-term partnership on fuel cell technology in an effort to share development costs. On Toyota’s side, the Mirai is the first product to hit the mass market.

I drove a pre-production Mirai recently and was instantly impressed with several features. First, there’s nothing remotely alien about the experience. There’s a simple start/stop button, a traditional gear selector knob (which will look familiar to Prius fans), and all the normal Toyota electronic bells and whistles. Instead of a hybrid graphic showing the gas and electric systems engaging and disengaging, there’s a new one that shows the flow of air that contains oxygen coming together with hydrogen and producing water (and electricity), which is how a fuel cell works. The seats, which use a new molding system, are sleek and comfortable.

Even the refueling process, if you are lucky enough to have a hydrogen station nearby, is familiar. Just as with gasoline, you pay at the pump, release the handle and insert filler into the hydrogen port. It seals, fills, and then beeps when done. The grand plan is to build out the hydrogen highway, adding pumps to traditional gas stations to make the routine as similar to what consumers are used to doing today as possible.

With a zero to 60 of about 9 seconds, the 4,078-lb. Mirai isn’t exactly a sports car and doesn’t have the lightning acceleration of a Tesla (TSLA) Model S. But both cars have roughly a 300-mile range. The Mirai has two tanks that each hold 16 gallons of compressed hydrogen; it takes up to five minutes to fill both, while the Model S requires one hour of charging for each 58 miles of range using a 240-volt wall charger. (a Tesla supercharger can do a half-charge in 20 minutes.) Another big difference lies in the price tag: At $45,000 (after federal and California tax incentives), the Mirai costs half that of a Model S. And Toyota is offering buyers and leasers their first three years’ worth of fuel free, too, no limits. (Currently, the cost of hydrogen is $10-$12/gal, but Toyota expects that to drop to gasoline price levels within the next few years.)

Given how important it is for Toyota to help consumers have a positive ownership experience, I’d be surprised if any little (or big) problems aren’t solved quickly and quietly for early adopters. The Mirai has an eight-year, 100,000 mile warranty on the fuel cell system specifically, and a five-year, 60,000-mile warranty on the rest of the power train components.

A head-on view of the Mirai's flared nostrils.

A head-on view of the Mirai’s flared nostrils.Courtesy of Toyota

 

The Mirai’s looks are contentious, to be sure. To my eye, the car’s lines are so much more extreme than a Prius that the sharply chiseled shape becomes a positive—especially the ludicrously large “nostrils” on the front needed to inhale vast amounts of air.

Perhaps my favorite feature is a little button on the instrument panel that says “H2O.” Toyota suggests pushing it a block or two before you reach home to park. The car releases the water that’s been produced onboard—just under 1 cup per mile driven—which is a byproduct (the only one other than heat) of the Mirai’s onboard electricity production. That way, it won’t leave a puddle on your garage floor.

I think Toyota should manufacture a little watering can to fit under the tailpipe to collect the water. Then it can be used to nourish plants instead of just wetting streets—yet another green positive for this brave new technology.

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