by Ian Wright
Hydrogen-powered vehicles have been around for some time, and multiple automakers have been quietly working to bring the technology to the general public. Toyota's first-generation Mirai appeared in 2015 as an ice breaker for the mass market, and around 11,000 were sold worldwide. Now the second generation is coming to market, and Toyota intends to sell at least ten times that amount.
The first Mirai was an awkward looking vehicle, falling into the trap of trying too hard to look futuristic and make a statement. The new Mirai avoids that pitfall and could be mistaken at first glance for a large and stylish new Lexus sedan. The new car is a premium product, boasting rear-wheel-drive, multi-link front and rear suspension, and an upmarket interior. The drivetrain's power output is not earth shattering, but is a reasonable 182 horsepower and 221 lb-ft of torque. Toyota is looking to push hydrogen power into the mainstream, and the 2021 Mirai is another in a long line of steps forward. Toyota invited us to spend an afternoon with the new car to find out how big this new step is.
Based on the platform that underpins the Lexus LS, the Mirai is a big car. At first glance, you'd be forgiven for mistaking the Mirai for a Lexus model. It stretches almost five meters in length, and the long hood is necessary to stack its 330 power cells. The overall four-door coupe design is more emotional than the previous generation's nerd-heavy styling. The short overhang at the rear and long hood at the front give it sporty proportions, and both ends see Toyota's new design language put to good use. Standard features on the outside include the black satin grille, 19-inch wheels, LED taillights, LED headlights, multi-LED front and rear turn signal indicators, side marker lamps etched with the Mirai logo, and color-keyed wing mirrors with integrated puddle lights.
Toyota has taken its hydrogen fuel cell technology to a new level. Three carbon-fiber-reinforced tanks store a total of 12.3 pounds of hydrogen and give a range of 401 miles for the XLE trim Mirai and 357 miles in Limited trim. That gives the car a fuel economy rating of 76/71/74 MPGe (XLE) or 67/64/65 MPGe (Limited). A 1.24-kWh battery stores regenerative energy and can provide the electric motor a boost when it demands more than the fuel stack can deliver. The electric motor produces 182 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque.
Fueling a hydrogen car is where people have the most questions. Hydrogen is already widely used worldwide, fuelling everything from forklift trucks to submarines. Hydrogen is flammable, but so is gasoline, but automakers like Toyota are keen to point out that hydrogen cars are as safe, if not safer, than the vehicles we already drive. Infrastructure is the current limitation, but like electric charging stations, it's starting to grow. Refueling the Mirai is familiar and straightforward to anyone that's pumped gasoline into their car. It's simply a case of attaching the nozzle to the valve until it's seated, squeezing the handgrip until the latch is engaged, then letting the dispenser do the rest.
Toyota has paid a lot of attention to ride quality and driving dynamics for the new Mirai. To show it off, the automaker handed us the keys to drive from Newport Beach in California to a little candy store on the twisting and turning Ortega Highway. The multi-link front and rear suspension are firm and compliant, handling the Mirai Limited's 4,335 lbs of weight with aplomb. Freeway and city road lumps and bumps are soaked up nicely while also keeping the chassis flat through long, higher speed corners. There's little sound from the drivetrain and good insulation from road-noise, which means a quiet ride even on California's choppy freeways.
The 1.24 kWh battery powers initial acceleration and then transitions seamlessly to the fuel cell before switching seamlessly between the two. The Mirai is brisk off the line with the full 221 lb-ft of torque available immediately, and acceleration is linear. The Mirai is not fast, though, and can't boast the crazy zero to 60 mph times of upmarket electric cars. However, it doesn't need party tricks. It's not that kind of car. The Mirai is a sophisticated cruiser, whether on a freeway, through the city, or on the backroads.
When Toyota introduced its flagship hybrid model, the Prius, it arrived as an economy car. That meant it had an economy car interior, albeit with heavy styling, so people felt they were inside something different. That's not the case with Toyota's HFC. The inside matches the outside, in that it's contemporary, stylish, and genuinely premium. Our Limited trim test vehicle is the fully loaded option. Still, the XLE comes equipped with eight-way power-adjustable front seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, an eight-inch gauge cluster, a 12.3-inch infotainment screen, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay Amazon Alexa, and a 12-speaker JBL premium sound system. The materials are all of excellent quality, and it's just as comfortable in the back. There's plenty of leg and headroom for taller rear passengers, and three people won't feel squashed. The only giveaway that you're in an HFC vehicle is the gauge cluster but, even then, Toyota doesn't beat you over the head with it.
Interior storage takes advantage of the cabin's spaciousness, and as well as cubby holes and map pockets, the center consul is wide and roomy with a large storage bin. The trunk isn't huge, but there's enough room for a week's shopping or a weekend away.
If the general media is to be believed, we'll all be driving battery-electric cars in 10-20 years from now. That's optimistic, but when we do eventually move to widespread electric vehicle use, battery power storage won't be the only option. The majority of vehicles on the road may even turn out to be hydrogen-fueled. With quick fill-up times and not relying on heavy batteries that bring their own environmental issues, hydrogen is a viable fuel.
As a vehicle to help move the technology forward, Toyota has smacked it out of the park. The Mirai is a handsome, inoffensive car that drives like an EV, which means it's smoother and quieter than the majority of gasoline-powered cars. It's also a more than competent large sedan with a roomy and comfortable cabin filled with all the technology the average consumer needs. It's power figures won't grab headlines, but that's never been Toyota's way. As it stands, the Mirai makes perfect sense as a platform to build on Toyota's commitment to HFC vehicles. Think of it more as an Avalon for more forward-looking customers who want a better driving experience.
Price is where the real rubber meets the road when trying to push new technology to market. The 2021 Mirai is available in two trim levels, XLE and Limited. The XLE starts at $49,500, which is $9,050 less than the previous generation's MSRP. The loaded Limited trim then starts at $66,000. The only additional options are the 20-inch Super Chrome Alloy Wheels for $1,120 on the Limited trim, adding the Advanced Technology Package to the XLE for $1,410, or adding special color paint to either trim for $425.
To help takes the sting out of the price, Toyota is also offering $15,000/3 Years of complimentary hydrogen fuel and an extended ToyotaCare program. The ToyotaCare runs for either three years or 35,000 miles. It also comes with three years of roadside assistance and a 100,000 mile/8-year warranty for key fuel cell electric vehicle components. Toyota has also announced lease pricing, with the XLE available for $499 a month and the Limited for $549.
For those wondering about the availability of hydrogen, it's growing fast. At the time of writing, California has 43 hydrogen stations and there's one in Hawaii. Those are also the only states the Mirai will be available in for now as the rest of the country has some catching up to do. Toyota and other automakers are working with local governments to expand the number of fueling stations available.