2016 Toyota Mirai First Drive
Turning Whine into Water
If I had a dollar for every time the chicken and the egg analogy has been trooped out to describe the eternal predicament of the hydrogen fuel-cell electric car, I'd have something like $1,742,546 by now. Plus one more because here it is again: Without a practical fuel-cell car, who'll build hydrogen refueling stations? And without fueling stations, who'll build an affordable fuel-cell vehicle? Chicken-egg. Egg-chicken. Will it ever end?
It appears that it has. Half of that vexing conundrum has been cracked in the form of the Toyota Mirai, a hydrogen-inhaling tech tour de force that not only presents its skeptics with the egg half of the Catch-22, but a towel, too, to clean some of its yoke off their faces.
Despite its unconventional -- dare we say, almost-French styling (!) -- much beneath the Mirai's skin is in fact trusty hardware assembled from Toyota's decades in the EV trenches building incrementally smarter (and cheaper) hybrids. A lengthened Prius v platform serves as its foundation; power comes from a 151-hp motor that's elsewhere employed in the Lexus RX 450h hybrid; its battery (which collects regen braking energy and steps in for the laggy nature of fuel cells during acceleration) is the Camry Hybrid's 1.7 kilowatt-hour nickel-metal-hydride unit. Rejiggering the Prius v's floor allows the fuel cell itself to reside beneath the front seats (albeit limiting rear passenger footroom), and the twist beam rear suspension frees space behind the rear seat for one of the car's two compressed hydrogen tanks (the other, smaller one being tucked beneath the bottom cushion).
That's one half of the Mirai.
The other is the Moon Shot one you won't find anywhere in the Toyota parts bin catalog. Whatever you think of Toyota (Plano? Really?), its engineers think better than just about anyone else's. And a 10,000 psi example of it is the Mirai's carbon-fiber hydrogen storage tanks that are wound at unheard-of speeds by a Toyota-designed loom because commercially available ones were simply too slow (and its results, too expensive). And then there's the star of the show, the fuel cell itself.
Even now -- as I more or less understand these things -- they still remind me of those pulsing reactor cores I remember from black-and-white sci-fi rocket ship movies (in which "special effects" meant a guy in gorilla suit with huge papier-mache eyes). I don't care how many times an engineer tells me the oxygen goes in here, the hydrogen goes in there, they meet in a membrane, and out comes electricity and a trickle of water, my eternally adolescent mind still pictures a glowing, pulsating rocket reactor core. Compared to Toyota's last fuel-cell effort (the 2008 Highlander FCV-adv) the Mirai's generates 27-percent more power, packs twice the power density, doesn't need a pricey external humidifier, and costs … 5 percent of what its predecessor did. A 95-percent price plunge. More power, denser power, a nickel-on-the-dollar price; boys and girls, this here's what you call engineering. And to imagine that for $57,500 (maybe as little as $45k after all the tax credits are factored in) I could have one of these babies pulsing away (OK, I'm imagining the pulsing part) in my own driveway, waiting to whisk me off to see "Interstellar." Is this a great time to be driving cars or what?
Refilling the tanks is a cinch. Secure the now-SAE-standard dispenser, type a pass code into a keypad, goof with your smart phone for five minutes (usually less), and you'll be topped off with 5 kg of hydrogen (the energy equivalent of 5 gasoline gallons). Doesn't sound like much, but at about 60 miles per kilogram, you'll have 300 miles of range while eating 30-percent less energy than its already-efficient donor platform, the Prius v. Oh -- maybe you noticed I didn't mention how you pay for it? Because for the first three years, you won't. It'll be free because presently, there's no certified way to meter hydrogen's dispensing.
Yeah, I'm thinking what you're thinking -- road trip! Sadly, there won't be any of those for quite a while, though, as the build-out of hydrogen stations is still just creeping across California's population centers. With Toyota's financial support, First Element is now constructing 19 more stations in the Golden State (for a total of 20 by the end of 2015; 40 by 2016). Meanwhile, 12 are simultaneously planned by Air Liquide in the usual-suspect five northeastern states. Conceptually, the cross-country chain that'll eventually link these mirrors Tesla's self-built Supercharger system (presently at 135 stations and counting) but with some stylistic differences. Five-minute hydrogen stations will largely co-locate with ordinary gas stations; the 20-minute stops required for charger-hopping between Superchargers results in them being neighbored with Starbucks, In-N-Outs, and, um, ice cream parlors. What happens when the shoe drops after three years and Mirai drivers start paying for their fuel? At the moment, hydrogen is costing between $9 and $10 per kilogram; assuming it isn't subsidized, the Mirai could end up costing about twice per mile what the Prius v currently does.
OK, so I guess I've sidestepped the Mirai's elephant long enough, eh? Although the media's gurus of good looks have been tut-tutting over the car's unusual design, I've been torn. Toyota's gut impulse to give it a double-take appearance feels dead right. This is a freaking hydrogen fuel-cell-powered car, for heaven's sake. It should impact your senses, shake you up a bit. It's no time to be a wallflower. But by the end of the day a spade is still a spade: Those twin snarling-dog grills, the hood that appears dislodged by some prior engine-compartment explosion, and the dueling taillights that seem to be hedging their bets -- Toyota may be taking differentiation further than it needs to go.
Inside, it's sort of a jagged Disney Hall riff on the Prius' fluidly Mobius cabin, a jumble of shapes edgy enough to turn Frank Gehry into a grinning Cheshire Cat. But beneath it are giveaways that this is, indeed, a remodeled Prius cockpit: the digital instruments centered in the dash, the view of blank dash texture through the steering wheel spokes, the stubby toggle shifter the familiar hand span from the steering wheel. The most notable difference is the climate control system's cool-looking, touch-sensitive, swipe-able surface on the center stack that works pretty well.
All told, Toyota has now sold more than 1.5 million Priuses in the U.S., and to all of you good folks who think they drive just swell -- well, you'll really like the Mirai, too. The rest of us will notice a somewhat wooden steering feel, a squirminess to its brake effort (so common with regenerative braking, unfortunately), and a sense of heaviness while accelerating that belies its claimed 9-second 0-60 mph time (a boon to ride quality, though). This isn't a terribly powerful electric motor; the Mirai doesn't snap off the line like many EVs. But it nevertheless accelerates with an enchantingly fluid motion. Depress the pedal more deeply and you'll provoke a noticeable (but not objectionable) whine from the compressor delivering air to the fuel cell (this able to compensate for elevations up to 3,000 feet). Although the Mirai will not be at Laguna Seca for our next Best Driver's Car competition, it's greater achievement, frankly, is in taking such profoundly foreign automotive technology and engineering it into a real-world, affordable car that the vast majority of its drivers will be thoroughly delighted by.
And speaking of foreign, how will the practicalities of "driving hydrogen" compare to its gasoline and BEV alternatives? At California's current gas prices, a Prius v now costs about 8 cents per mile; Tesla's future Model 3 -- the Mirai's upcoming BEV alternative -- would need only 5; the Mirai itself would cost about 16 cents (without any H2 subsidies). And range? For typical drivers, the Prius v needs to visit a gas station every 12 days or so (not a problem as the U.S. has about 155,000 of these); if home 240-volt charging is available, the Model 3 would arguably be more convenient, as it would have 200 miles available every single morning, but refilling in the wild can be catch-as-catch-can (outside of Supercharger visits, of course); the Mirai would need to find a H2 station every seven days.
Multiplying the reach of the sparse H2-station network is a cool piece of analytical software created at UC Irvine called STREET (Spatially & Temporally Resolved Energy & Environment Tool), which targets station deployment for an optimized six-minute drive time. (It's hoped this will minimize Mirai drivers' hydrogen version of BEV-drivers' notorious "range anxiety.") And for those of us who live in hurricane or earthquake country, an optional receptacle in the Mirai's trunk can turn the car into an emergency power source, enough to support basic household needs for up to a week. (Maybe you could charge your Tesla with your Mirai!)
How people react to living with these three scenarios is going to define the future of transportation. And despite the public kumbaya that "we should embrace all of our technological options," the race -- and war, really -- between battery development and the build-out of the hydrogen infrastructure has now officially commenced. The deployment of the Mirai itself will be cautious; although limited sales in Japan are imminent, only 300 cars will be delivered to the U.S., beginning late next year.
Nineteen years ago, the original Prius debuted to skeptics who said it looked silly, drove poorly, was losing money hand over fist, and was just too complicated. They were wrong, and wrong because Toyota doesn't enter fights it intends to lose. Think of the Prius (which meant "forward") as the practice for the Mirai (which means "future").
Although on the surface Toyota's press introduction of the Mirai was similar to any other car's, the unusual sense of history that seemed to hang in the air was undeniable. Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada, father of the Prius, spoke, as did his accomplice, Satoshi Ogiso. UC Irvine's Scott Samuelson, who's been an indefatigable champion of the technology, seemed to appreciate the moment's significance more than anyone.
More than a few of us in the audience have been considerable skeptics of hydrogen fuel-cell cars (the car of the future — and it always will be). But by the time Toyota's presentations were done, I'll admit that I pantomimed wiping imaginary egg off my face.
|2016 Toyota Mirai|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-motor, FWD, 4-pass, sedan|
|MOTOR||151-hp/247-lb-ft AC permanent magnet motor|
|CURB WEIGHT||4,080 lb (mfr)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||192.5 x 71.5 x 60.4 in|
|0-60 MPH||9.0 sec (mfr est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||Not yet rated|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Fall 2015|