One of the stars of this year’s Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) EcoRun event was undoubtedly the hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai sedan. Which is funny, considering it’s not even available in Canada yet, and even in the markets where the vehicle is available – the U.S., Europe and Japan – sales are pretty region-specific.
Until recent expansion to the New York City and Boston areas, only Californians had the chance to get one in the U.S., for example. European market availability, meanwhile, is limited to Germany, Denmark and Great Britain. As you might expect, it’s seeing more widespread use in Japan – its proprietary platform is built there, after all – where even taxi drivers are making the leap to the hydrogen Toyota.
Cab drivers would surely benefit from the Mirai’s EPA-verified 500 km (312 miles) of range. And if you’re wondering why we’re talking about range anxiety in regards to a vehicle that’s not an EV or plug-in hybrid vehicle, that’s because while hydrogen is, technically, the Mirai’s fuel source, it only works as a propellant in combination with an electric motor.
The Mirai differs from your typical EV in a few important ways, however. Canadians, for example, would likely be happy with the Mirai’s cold-weather performance; while it’s not yet available in Canada, it was here – in Yellowknife, to be precise – that the Mirai’s cold-weather testing was done in -30°C temperatures.
Toyota claims the Mirai’s performance in those adverse conditions is just as good as what you’d get from a conventional internal-combustion vehicle, which is always a concern with EVs and even with conventional hybrids. So far, so good.
Things get a little muddier, though, when it comes to discussing the process of refilling your Mirai. Right now in Canada, there is only one hydrogen fuelling station that can be used by you and me, and that’s located at Powertech Labs in Surrey, B.C. There, they have a 700-bar (about 10,000-psi) fueling system that can refuel the Mirai’s hydrogen tanks in three to five minutes (total fuel required is 122 litres).
Yes, that’s a little longer than it would take to gas up a conventional car, but a whole heck of a lot faster than it takes to charge your EV, even if you’re driving a Tesla and have access to one of that company’s Superchargers that dot the landscape here in Canada.
“People assume that because electricity is already in our infrastructure, charging EVs is easy,” said John-Paul Farag, Advanced Technology and Powertrain Manager at Toyota. “That’s simply not the case.”
Still, though, that infrastructure is an issue. But remember: the same was true when EVs started to gain popularity, and both Ontario and Quebec are reportedly on the verge of shoring up their hydrogen infrastructure.
“It’s just a matter of getting everybody on the same page, and showing them that these vehicles are ready, that their range is now at the point where it’s comparable to gasoline,” said Farag. “The challenge is to develop that infrastructure.”
Indeed, that seems to be the prevailing sentiment right now – Toyota isn’t expecting a large global shift to hydrogen power until at least 2020 – but it’s one that should be taken very seriously, especially considering the qualities the Mirai presents.
First of all, the first thing you notice – especially if you happen to be sat in the back seats – is that the car is actually quite large. It’s much closer in size to the Camry than it is to the Prius, which surprised me when I first took it in. Better still, the rear seats are thickly padded and are actually a pair of bucket seats as opposed to a full-length bench. The rear passengers even get their own seat-warmers.
The large size also helps reduce the impact of the fuel tanks, which are carbon-fibre-reinforced numbers fitted below the rear passenger seat and in the floor of the trunk. The fuel cell stacks, meanwhile, sit underhood.
Up front, the Mirai is as futuristic as its exterior styling would suggest. The centre console, for example, is one big, clean touch-surface bereft of any conventional buttons. It does get a sharp display screen, though, to complement two other screens – one for infotainment, and one for drive data – found inside the cockpit.
Usually, I’m anti-touch-surface, preferring conventional dials and knobs as they don’t require you take your eyes of the road for too long in order to operate them. The example found in the Mirai, however, is big and responsive, so it’s a good effort in bridging the gap between the two interface types.
Like the Prius, there’s nothing in front of the driver except the steering wheel (your speedometer and so forth are part of the long display atop the centre dash, which features one of the most complex powertrain energy flow displays you’ve ever seen—I still haven’t figured it out) so the view forward is a clean, unobstructed one.
Power is rated at 151 hp and 247 lb-ft of torque, and since it is sent to the front wheels via a one-speed direct-drive transmission, power delivery is instantaneous and very smooth. I won’t bore you with zero-to-100 km/h times; just know that entering the freeway and passing slower traffic on the highway was never a problem.
Underlining its good highway manners is just how quiet and solid it feels. It’s much more comfortable at higher speeds than a Prius is, and while I wouldn’t call it Lexus-like on the highway, the quiet powertrain is a step in the right direction.
Because this is technically a hybrid, many of the lessons learned by Toyota in that department are applied here. There’s regenerative braking and coasting, for example, that actually increased our range while we drove. We ended our trip with 80 km left on the range meter when we should have only had around 60 km, judging by our estimated range at the outset and distance travelled.
The infrastructure issue notwithstanding for the moment, the only other real issue I see with the Mirai in particular is the styling. Yes, it looks mighty futuristic (the all-new and much more mass-market Prius has actually borrowed some of the Mirai’s styling cues, especially when viewed from the rear) but that’s not always a good thing; let me point to Chevrolet’s toning down the styling for the second-generation Volt, for example.
Personally, I really don’t mind the Mirai’s exterior styling. It’s a hydro-powered hybrid that spews nothing but H2O particles out its tailpipe; far as I’m concerned, it looks like it should. Maybe tone down the pointy nose just a little, and reduce the wrap-around-ness of the tail lamp lenses, and Bob’s your uncle.
The real takeaway here, though, is that hydrogen power has arrived, to a degree. While BMW abandoned their efforts in that department, Honda will be releasing a for-consumers version of their FCX Clarity hatch in the not-to-distant future, and Hyundai already has hydrogen-powered versions of their popular Tucson crossover available for lease both in Canada and the U.S.
Speaking of Canada: We remain one of the leaders in hydrogen production, and while there’ll always be arguments with how much of that we keep, and how much – if any – we export, it seems fitting that we should put those stores to use in our cars.
Further, according to Toyota, we also have other untapped sources of electricity that could be put to good use here, as pressurizing the hydrogen we use for vehicle like this is an intensive electrical process.
There may be no free lunches, but at least we can switch to water instead of soda pop.