Like the Prius before it, could Toyota’s hydrogen-fuelled Mirai signal a new era in automotive?
Meet the 2021 Toyota Mirai FCEV, an electric vehicle that takes its power not from a wall socket, but rather generates it on board using a hydrogen fuel cell.
The technology itself may be unfamiliar to most motorists, but for Toyota this is its second ‘production’ hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle. It’s available alongside similar vehicles like the Honda Clarity in overseas markets and the Hyundai Nexo, which has entered a pilot program in Australia.
In the case of the new Mirai, while it still has a fairly modern look and doesn’t quite sit with the mainstream, Toyota has removed some of the oddball styling quirks that were hallmarks of the first-generation car, and created a much more traditional and handsome large sedan.
To give you an idea of where the Mirai sits in the motoring landscape, the new car nearly matches a Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan for size. Both sit on a 2920mm wheelbase, and at 4975mm in overall length, the Mirai is around 20mm longer.
That’s largely due to the Mirai using the Toyota group’s GA-L chassis (from the Toyota New Global Architecture family), which makes it a close relative of cars like the Lexus LC and LS.
For this new-generation Mirai, it means a switch from the previous front-wheel-drive platform to rear-wheel drive. Something Toyota says was a response to customer demands for a car that was both more dynamic and more spacious, with room for five.
Reading between the lines a little, and given this car is more or less designed to appease the need for upmarket zero-tailpipe-emissions cars in places like California, the new bones give Toyota something a bit more prestigious to offer Californian customers who might be swayed by a Tesla Model S or Lucid Air.
Beneath the svelte exterior lies a new hydrogen fuel cell. That’s the onboard generator that converts hydrogen gas into electricity.
As hydrogen gas passes through the 330-cell fuel stack, it generates up to 128kW (the previous Mirai used a 370-cell stack good for 114kW). That electricity then powers a rear electric transaxle that drives the wheels.
There’s a small onboard storage battery, but basically it holds enough ‘just in case power’ with the fuel-cell stack constantly running to keep the system topped up.
The official designation is FCEV, or fuel-cell electric vehicle. While hydrogen has been used as a combustible fuel source in the past, that’s not the case here.
As in a battery electric vehicle, the motor drives through a single-speed reduction transmission, but unlike the heroic high-power output claims of most new-generation EVs, the Mirai claims a fairly conservative 134kW and 300Nm as system outputs, and a 0–100km/h dash of 9.2 seconds.
|2021 Toyota Mirai FCEV|
|Engine||Permanent magnet synchronous motor|
|Power and torque||134kW/300Nm|
|Transmission||Single-speed reduction gear|
|Drive type||Rear-wheel-drive transaxle|
|Hydrogen fuel claim combined||0.7kg/100km|
|Hydrogen fuel use on test||0.88kg/100km|
|ANCAP safety rating||Untested|
|Warranty||Duration of the lease period|
|Main competitors||Hyundai Nexo|
|Price as tested||$63,000 over a three-year/60,000km lease term|
That’s performance softer than even Toyota’s last large rear-wheel-drive sedan offered in Australia, the Cressida, which bowed out in the early 1990s.
The first Mirai claimed a 113kW motor with 335Nm of torque, and a similar 0–97km/h (or 0–60mph) in 9.0 seconds, but despite this it doesn’t feel close to the immediacy of the new model. More on that in a moment.
With a fuel tank capacity of 5.6kg (which hardly sounds like much, though that’s more like 141L to use a more familiar measure), the new Mirai claims a reasonable 650km of driving range per fill. That fill should take something like five minutes, too, instead of the half-hour fast charge and eight-hour-plus overnight fills claimed by electric vehicles.
As the fuel cell runs, it tops up a 1.2kWh lithium-ion battery ‘similar’ to Toyota’s hybrid vehicle batteries. This keeps a buffer of electricity in store for high-demand situations. Like a hybrid, it can also regenerate power on deceleration to aid efficiency.
As an introduction to the new Mirai, Toyota hosted Australian media at its former Altona factory, which has been repurposed as a ‘centre of excellence’ and includes a hydrogen refuelling site, a solar array to feed it, and a variety of classrooms, workshops and much more.
That means there wasn’t a full road drive, but a few quick laps of Toyota’s in-house Autodrome track, which replicates a variety of road conditions, plus a lap of the suburb of Altona – at suburban speeds.
Limited though our time behind the wheel may have been, there was still plenty to learn.
Among the Autodrome loops were a full-throttle standing start, a slalom, and a run over a loose gravel surface. On top of that, a palate cleanser in the first-generation car each time revealed any changes between the two.
And the difference was night and day. Having launched in 2014, the Gen One Mirai feels more than a generation old. Underneath it’s related to the previous-generation Prius. A car that set no real dynamic benchmarks – nor did it particularly need to.
The new car, by comparison, offers better ride control, more alert steering, and possibly the slightest hint of rear-wheel-drive enthusiasm – despite its meagre outputs and substantial 1900kg kerb weight.
Whereas an uneven rope-road surface caused the first Mirai to skip and shudder, the new one is much more composed. Whereas the original car runs out of puff at about 40km/h but sneaks up to 100km/h gently, the new one pulls harder for longer, but still tapers off above 70km/h.
The new car also triggers its electronic stability control very, very early. A sign that, despite Toyota’s claims of engineering more fun into every car, some are simply too precious to take a chance on. Conversely, the previous Mirai never triggered its ESC by virtue of never carrying the same dynamic loads.
Still, Toyota repeated the word ‘dynamic’ over and over in its press presentation for the new car, and thanks to a much stiffer structure, sharper handling and the general improvements baked into TNGA platform cars, the new Mirai really does feel more entertaining.
In the cut-and-thrust of real-world traffic, the Mirai displays that always novel silent pull as it piles on speed. Once again, the first-generation car doesn’t particularly put a foot wrong, but as a benchmark its hydrogen system makes more noises and vibrations to do what it does.
The new car still has the occasional hint of pump whirr and solenoid clicks as the system feeds gas in and pulls electricity out of the fuel-cell stack, but it’s all much more distant and much more like the outright silence of a pure-electric vehicle.
That doesn’t mean everything about the new Mirai is good, though.
The car is a victim of its packaging. In order to house the hydrogen tanks under the car, Toyota has placed one longitudinally in the transmission tunnel, one ahead of the rear axle, and one behind it. That pushes the tunnel up, almost level with the seat base, and makes it uncomfortably wide. While the new Mirai may seat five, only four get to ride in comfort.
With the tanks underneath, the only place left for the traction battery is behind the rear seats. Once again, this forces a compromise with the rear seats unable to fold, and the boot pared down to just 272L of space. That’s basically the same as you get in a Yaris hatch, and smaller than the boot in some Corolla hatch models – in a car that’s 4975mm long.
Yet again, new for old that’s down on the predecessor’s 360L.
Consumption is officially rated at 0.7kg of hydrogen per 100km. After a handful of different drivers on nothing but 50–70km/h stop-start streets, the Mirai indicated a 0.88kg/100km figure, which is about 25 per cent over its claim – really no different to what we see in most petrol-powered cars against their claimed consumption. This makes it more efficient than Hyundai’s Nexo, at least.
On the surface, Toyota appears not to have left much out of the interior, however, with an 8.0-inch digital instrument cluster, and 12.3-inch infotainment system loaded with the usual sat-nav, DAB+ radio, Apple and Android connectivity, and a variety of FCEV-specific displays and readouts as headline acts.
There’s also powered driver and passenger seats, dual-zone climate control, and 14-speaker JBL audio. Not too shabby, and all wrapped in a design that’s a bit more adventurous than the usual Toyota fare – bridging the gap between something like the Camry and higher-priced Lexus products.
Dig a little deeper, though, and the Mirai’s ‘premium’ seat trim is only faux leather, there’s no heat heating or cooling, and no sunroof. It would be easy to knock the Mirai for those omissions, but head to a similarly sized prestige brand and things won’t be too different.
The new Mirai also offers a much more natural seating position, with seats mounted lower compared to the high-perch position of the first car, which feels more like driving a HiAce than a hatchback.
The new Mirai also comes up to speed on safety with all the highlights of the Toyota Safety Sense package, including autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian, cyclist detection and intersection support, adaptive cruise control, lane-centring, emergency steering, and lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and speed-sign recognition.
There’s also auto high-beam, a 360-degree camera, and seven airbags.
The great unmentioned for all of this is price. As Toyota is still more or less running these as a pilot program, rather than a full retail offering, there’s no list price yet.
Right now, interested fleet customers can apply to lease a Mirai over a 36-month/60,000km term for $1750 per month including refuelling, adding up to $63,000 over the duration of the lease.
Servicing incurs an additional one-off $2693 charge for the same duration, bringing the final tally up to $65,693. As a pioneering technology, and one that’s still largely offset by Toyota, that almost looks like a bit of a bargain.
In the USA, where the Mirai is available as a retail proposition, pricing spans from AUD$64,820 for a specification with slightly less equipment than what’s available in Australia, up to AUD$86,430 for a slightly better equipped version, with no-cost maintenance included.
Since we’re here, a note on scoring: While the Mirai isn’t available as a regular retail purchase, it has been assessed alongside large luxury sedan peers. Its technology is pioneering and worthy of praise, but its performance, equipment and packaging aren’t standouts. The Mirai’s potential is exciting, and its execution is greatly improved, but in the real world there are no hands-on high points that make this car a particular front-runner aside from its powertrain – and even that’s a bit subdued.
Most prestige cars offer a range of tailorable finance options. Toyota’s isn’t exactly wide of the mark for a comparable three-year, no-deposit term, especially considering it includes fuel whereas other lease programs don’t.
For Toyota, FCEVs like the Mirai won’t be the only way forward. The brand will continue to roll out hybrid, plug-in hybrid, battery electric and fuel-cell electric vehicles around the world in a diversification scheme to offer more options to more buyers.
For Australians, FCEVs look promising – once fuel infrastructure is in place. Long-distance and heavy-haulage users in particular will love the potential range. Five-minute fills on cross-country jaunts sound much more promising than stopping for an hour or more at a fast charger.
As a fuel, there are still some questions to be answered. Toyota makes plenty of noise about its own hydrogen filling station that uses a solar array to contribute to the energy used in the hydrogen electrolysis process to split it from oxygen in water.
There’s also plenty of discussion about using waste products and biomass as a fuel source, but right now it’s water that’s split into hydrogen, which raises the question of its sustainability in areas where potable water is scarce.
There are no controls on how future output will be managed as hydrogen processing expands. While it has the potential to be quite green, there’s equal opportunity for it to be sourced through a dirtier supply chain.
Something policy makers could possibly take a look at before the hydrogen horse bolts.
Similarly, there are some lifespan questions regarding FCEV drivetrains. The carbon-fibre hydrogen tanks are time-stamped with a 15-year lifespan and a ‘do not use after’ warning date, needless to say, replacing those high-pressure tanks after 15 years won’t come cheaply – if it comes to that. The fuel-cell is expected to provide a serviceable life beyond the life of the vehicle (that same 15 years) according to Toyota.
Right now the tech involved is still pretty fresh and real world use could paint a different picture, for all we know.
It is, in essence, the spiritual successor to the Cressida of 30 years ago – however, it enters a market where being seen running on city council fleets and as photo opportunities for forward-thinking businesses is more important than outright sales potential.
Toyota predicts wider commercial availability in two to three years, scaling up dealer support as acceptance grows in much the same way as it did with the initial launch of hybrids in the early 2000s.
While it may not be a solution suitable for every application, for a market teetering on the brink of widespread electrification, adding an option that can operate without being plugged in can be no bad thing.