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Toyota claims another first: Europe’s first ‘ownable’ hydrogen car, whether the infrastructure to properly support it is ready for it or not

A milestone has lately been passed in the grand story of British motoring, but due to the modesty of the company whose efforts are responsible for its passing and the tiny volumes of the car that has achieved it, few have noticed.

It is now possible to walk into a Toyota showroom and walk out the owner of a fully productionised hydrogen fuel cell car.

All we need now is the infrastructure to catch up. And environmentally friendly hydrogen production. Easy, right?

The Toyota Mirai proceeds where, seven years ago, the Honda FCX Clarity feared to tread, by not only bringing fuel cell technology to Europe but also by making it available for sale rather than on short-term lease or loan.

Those few with the means and vision can now own a slice of history.

The Mirai – which translates from Japanese to English as ‘the future’ – will be available in very small numbers: 12 cars in the UK last year, 15 this year.

It is priced from £66,000 – a figure almost as ambitious-looking as the car itself – but it can, in effect, be hired at a cost representing slightly better value to the end user.

Much about its performance and function is entirely ordinary. And yet, by consuming only the compressed hydrogen gas in its tank and the oxygen in the air and emitting absolutely nothing but water, it gives its owner a preliminary stake in a totally clean and sustainable vision of the future for personal transportation – a vision free of harmful gasses and particulates and a reliance on fossil fuel, power-generating capacity or charging cables.

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The Mirai is a trail-blazer in a revolution that could ultimately give the car its innocence back.

If almost any other car maker had created a vehicle of such significance, you’d have heard more about it. But so casual is Toyota’s attitude to its capacity to innovate that the occasion is at risk of passing unrecognised.

So, this test sees the future of the car meets the oldest, most thorough assessment in the business.

DESIGN & STYLING

Toyota Mirai rear

Hydrogen fuel cell cars aren’t all that rare in experimental form. Almost every car maker worth its salt has built one during the past couple of decades.

What has prevented them from progressing past the prototype stage is principally the cost of the precious metal (typically platinum) required for the fuel cell, the cost and challenge of storing enough hydrogen in the car to run the fuel cell, the limited availability of hydrogen and concerns about the robustness of unproven technology.

Unlike earlier fuel cell prototypes that ran on liquefied hydrogen, the Mirai doesn’t suffer from boil-off

Toyota is coy about the cost of the Mirai’s 114kW polymer electrolyte fuel cell, but it arrives at a time when the technology has become vastly more affordable, plummeting from hundreds of dollars per kilowatt of generating capacity required to just tens.

The Mirai’s fuel cell is about the size of a conventional petrol tank and sits under the front seats. In durability trials, it is claimed to have powered the car to more than 60,000 miles in less than six months without any hiccups and cold-started in temperatures as low as -30deg C.

In the engine bay is a 152bhp electric motor, borrowed from a Camry hybrid and driving the front wheels via single-speed gearing. Behind it are two high-pressure hydrogen tanks (one for storage, one for expansion) and a high-voltage nickel-metal hydride drive battery, in order that the Mirai can regenerate and store energy under braking like any other Toyota hybrid.

The company took the chance to reference its corporate history (before it built cars, Toyota manufactured looms) and developed its own woven carbonfibre hydrogen tanks for the Mirai.

Although rated for 700bar, they can contain almost twice that, making them as crash-safe as possible. Gas storage capacity is five kilograms, and it turns out that a Mirai will do roughly as many miles on a kilo of compressed hydrogen as a modern petrol-fuelled hybrid will do on a gallon of unleaded.

Challenging looks aside, it is otherwise quite conventional. As a four-door saloon about the size of a Toyota Avensis or a Ford Mondeo, it’s suspended by MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam at the rear.

And weighing more than 1.8 tonnes with all that advanced powertrain technology on board, it is approaching the limit of what a beam axle can be expected to suspend without any compromise to either ride or handling – or both.

INTERIOR

Toyota Mirai interior

From inside, it’s no surprise to learn that people have queried Toyota’s decision not to badge the Mirai as a Lexus.

The interior is a cut above most other Toyotas in tactility and finish, presumably to help it to fill out the comparatively vast price tag. And while it doesn’t preclude the use of a shiny plastic fascia, in other areas the cabin is agreeably soft to the touch.

Woven carbonfibre cabin trim is a homage to Toyota’s proprietary woven carbonfibre hydrogen tanks

Toyota has taken to heart the idea that it can make a hydrogen fuel cell fit a modest-sized, practical car, and the Mirai comes across as a right-sized solution.

Visibility is hindered a little by the double-storey dashboard, which incorporates twin information displays, but otherwise the cabin is as roomy as you’d expect a small saloon’s to be.

It won’t win awards for spaciousness in the back, but the fact that it fairly comfortably seats two medium-size adults despite all the gubbins required underneath is something of a triumph.

You probably wouldn’t realise that Toyota has had to find room for a fuel cell stack and two hydrogen tanks until you looked in the boot. Even here there is a serviceable 361 litres, but the foreshortened length (compared with what you’d find in a conventionally powered car) is a fair indication that load space has been sacrificed.

While this has some impact on usability, it hardly detracts from the base-level delivery of a usable and rather pleasant interior.

There are several infotainment displays in the Mirai. The upper ones that crown the fascia give you detailed information about the state of the hybrid drive battery and the source of the power that’s driving the car at any point, while the trip computer is the same as the one you’ll find in the new Toyota Prius.

It’s pleasingly detailed, giving you a fuel economy diary running months into the past, should you really want it. You control it using the thumb consoles on the steering wheel, and the menu scrolling logic is intuitive enough.

The car gets Toyota’s Touch 2 with Go Plus multimedia and satellite navigation, working through a 7.0in VGA touchscreen display and paired with an 11-speaker JBL premium hi-fi with DAB tuner.

The touchscreen interface wouldn’t be considered the most responsive or graphically appealing on a £25,000 car, so needless to say it doesn’t do many favours to the £66,000 Mirai, either.

The navigation map display is only averagely well detailed, while the audio quality is good but not brilliant.

Like the Prius, the Mirai comes with a wireless charger for Qi-compatible smartphones, and it is to be found under the armrest.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Toyota Mirai fuel cell engine

Toyota says despite its expensive, new-fangled fuel cell, the Mirai offers a driving experience no different from that of any other electric car.

After all, it is the power source that has been replaced, not the method of driving the wheels. From behind the wheel, this rings true, the car’s filled-sails brand of amenability being little different from anything else powered by a modest-sized electric motor.

Abundant low-speed torque makes it easy to maintain a decent pace on steep climbs

The indicators of any real difference are on the peripheries of the experience. At start-up, the powertrain emits a subtle series of voltaic clicks and hums. At ‘idle’, it is audibly more active than the battery-only Tesla Model S, and it’s considerably noisier when under way.

If the dashboard display is to be believed, the fuel cell contributes energy to the motor even on part-throttle, although the noticeable whirr, graduating to a high-pitched whine, is produced by the less than cutting-edge Camry tech rather than the hydrogen-splitting bit.

The noise is chiefly a consequence of acceleration; at motorway speeds, where the fuel cell relieves the battery of all the heavy lifting, it settles back down.

Thanks to exceptional double-glazed suppression of wind noise, this helps to make the Mirai a hushed long-distance companion.

Elsewhere, it’s dutifully responsive. There’s a hint of creep, followed by the trademark EV swell that makes the Mirai feel a touch brisker than its 10.1sec showing to 60mph suggests.

Predictably, it does low speeds better than high, but there’s enough enthusiasm under the pedal to make lane changing and occasional A-road overtakes less than daunting.

That’s all very familiar, but what’s not is the durable nature of its range. Typically, a motorway journey (certainly one featuring mostly outside-lane speeds) will have an EV’s battery life taking a nose dive; the Mirai, by virtue of the fuel cell’s steady productivity, acquiesces to the extra work in much the same way as a combustion engine would.

It is this predictability, combined with the beyond-300-mile autonomy potential according to our test results, that virtually eradicates the range anxiety you might get with a like-for-like EV – despite a conspicuous shortfall in the number of places to refuel.

RIDE & HANDLING

Toyota Mirai cornering

Much like the Mirai’s performance, there isn’t anything too far out of the ordinary to report here. Anyone with experience of Toyota’s hybrid line-up will recognise the chassis dynamic on show here: a competent (if not precisely classy) mix of ease of use and quietly respectable comfort.

For the most part, the car hides its not inconsiderable weight behind relatively quick steering and the sympathetic buoyancy of its lengthy suspension travel.

Stability control was a particular and recurrent problem, leading to panic stations and slowing the car unnecessarily

It is the sort of roving body motion that can become conspicuously choppy on fast British B-roads but which otherwise serves as a respectably pliant platform for most journeys.

An occasionally bony secondary response is reminiscent of the way the Prius family used to ride and indicative of the fact that the Mirai’s architecture is less up to date than the fuel cell at its heart.

The brakes aren’t perfect, either, suffering from a brittle, regenerative numbness at the top of the pedal that turns into oversensitivity the moment you push through it.

Nevertheless, the car makes for a benign presence – as long as you keep your expectations modest.

Exploit all of the Mirai’s performance on a road less than arrow-straight and, at best, it will lean slovenly away from the nearest apex; at worst, you’ll overcome what little grip there is and activate the primitive stability control.

Still, that there are far better-handling EVs on sale is hardly the point; as an initial proof of concept, the Toyota works just fine.

The Mirai brings the 2011 Nissan Leaf into mind with the loping softness of its suspension tune. But while that set-up makes the car entirely fit for purpose and a particularly comfy ride at town speeds, it also makes it intolerant of higher speeds through twists and turns.

Grip levels are quite low and body control is rather slack, allowing a fairly sudden rate of roll and enough lean angle to pull the rug out from underneath the steered axle. The car is by no means irredeemably compromised; it just prefers being driven gently.

The underlying stability is fine, the car letting go at the front axle long before the rear one threatens to run out of purchase.

It is a shame that Toyota didn’t spend a little longer tuning the car’s electronic stability control, however. It intervenes harshly and quite unnecessarily at the merest hint of overspeed at the outside rear wheel, often slowing the car to a crawl right on the apex of a corner — or potentially in the middle of a roundabout taken in a hurry.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Toyota Mirai

Although technically you could march into a dealership and insist on purchasing a Mirai right now, Toyota would probably rather you didn’t.

Clearly, the car and its technology remain at an embryonic stage, and for now the manufacturer is focusing on finding appropriate business users in industry and government.

Refuelling requires key boxes, codes, padlocks and more codes. But the tech is easy to use and fast

If the prospect of early adoption has you chomping at the bit despite the severely limited opportunities for refuelling, Toyota would prefer you to lease the car rather than buy it outright (surely preferable, given the £66,000 price).

In reflection of its limitations and the developmental service you’ll be doing the firm, Toyota is offering the Mirai on a £750-per-month contract hire scheme that includes maintenance, tyres and all fuel.

Which brings us neatly to the rub. Filling your hydrogen fuel cell car, as we’ve alluded to more than once, is something of a bind.

There are currently only three sites open for business delivering the optimal 700bar of hydrogen pressure, one each in Heathrow, Hendon and Swindon (with six more in the pipeline this year).

The actual refuelling is, considering compressed hydrogen’s stringent storage requirements, relatively painless. You attach the rather more serious nozzle yourself, but the pump seals the connection and decides whether it is safe, then dispenses the correct tank-brimming amount automatically.

That volume, like the 5kg tank capacity, is measured by weight. Toyota’s claims are that the Mirai consumes 760g of hydrogen per 62 miles (100km) on the NEDC combined cycle.

Translated into more easily understood terms, we averaged just under 45 miles per kilogram, with 62mpkg on a gentle touring trip, which would make for a range of just over 300 miles.

That puts its ‘thirst’ about on a par with a conventionally powered equivalent model, given its size and performance.

At this fledgling point in the production, transport and storage of hydrogen for private car use, it costs around £15 per kilogram, making the cost of running a water-emitting car roughly equivalent to one burning fossil fuels. The prospect, then, of Toyota footing the bill is attractive – but one undeniably limited to the residents of the Heathrow, Hendon and Swindon areas for now.

VERDICT

4 star Toyota Mirai

It’s the job of the Autocar road test to be hard-nosed about cars like the Mirai.

Advanced technology has to make for a better car, yet in so many ways the Mirai isn’t a better take on a typical family saloon – not quite, or at least not yet.

Expensive but credible hydrogen pioneer is enormously bold and significant

It’s heavy and has soggy handling, it offers slightly restricted cabin and boot space, it’s far too expensive, it’s challenging to refuel and it holds little interest for its driver – which is the part of this template we’d seek to change first.

And yet if we could hand out a bonus star for consistently breaking down technological barriers, paving the road down which a whole industry may subsequently travel, we’d give it to Toyota.

Although £66,000 is undoubtedly a lot to ask for the Mirai, it’s a start. And putting a price on the clean slate that sustainably produced hydrogen provides for the car gives you a clear view on the bigger picture.

Toyota deserves enormous credit for sketching out that picture and making those brave early strokes – even if it is for other manufacturers to add colour and life to later on.

And as a result that is why the Toyota Mirai pips the Honda FCV Clarity, Hyundai ix35 FCV, Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell and the Riversimple Rasa.

Toyota Mirai 2014-2020 First drives