What is it?
It sounds like an industrial process when it drives by. And from inside, when you sink the throttle deep, it’s like hearing Dr Who’s Tardis on manoeuvres, although without the panting effect. Fuel cell Toyota?
We’ve driven these before, of course, in the Highlander SUVs used as mules for over a decade. This is a mule too, but with a difference: the innards of this car are virtually the same as those of the production fuel cell saloon Toyota plans to launch in Japan late next year.
What's it like?
It will be among the first series production fuel cell cars to go on sale (Honda’s admirable FCX Clarity was leased in limited numbers), although Hyundai is promising a rival. The Toyota will get a fuller preview in styling terms at next month’s Tokyo motor show, where a concept version will be unveiled. This is said to be very close to the finished article. Its design will differ hugely from the three-box you see here, which is based on the Lexus HS250h. At that point Toyota will also release more technical detail.
The system’s power output is around 130bhp, and there’s plenty of the strong, effortless torque that characterises an electrically propelled car’s step-off. The acceleration dulls once the car is moving, but it remains brisk and, with no gears to shift, the power delivery is continuous.
Braking is smooth, too. With no engine-driven servo, fuel cell cars depend on electrically generated assistance to reduce braking efforts, which in the past have felt jerkily inconsistent. But there are no such problems here.
On the small circuit around which we drove the FCV, it handled tidily and gripped well, its weight distribution no doubt aided by the fact that the stack is located beneath the front seats and the two carbonfibre hydrogen tanks are fitted under the rear seats and in the boot. This FCV is not a hugely engaging drive, but it’s certainly agile.
The source of the whooshing noise? It’s the compressor, used to push air through the fuel cell stack to purge it of the water that’s the by-product of the electricity-generating oxidising of hydrogen and oxygen. Compressors are the main NVH challenge with fuel cell cars, but the redesigned pump in this car yields far less noise.
The result is a car that’s far simpler to drive than it has been to develop, project manager Hitoshi Nomasa explaining that “a lot of work” has gone in since the Highlander prototypes. Among the many developments are the incorporation of the stack’s cell humidifiers into the unit itself, while Toyota now makes its own carbonfibre hydrogen tanks to reduce costs.
Should I buy one?
There’s some way to go before fuel cell cars become affordable, even if the £30,000-£60,000 that this production version could cost is far less than the £625,000 of a Highlander prototype. But by the end of this decade, that price will have fallen considerably. Be in no doubt, fuel cell cars are coming, including to the UK on a limited basis in 2015.