WHEN you drive around in a car that’s rarer than some supercars, you’ll inevitably get asked a bunch of questions. What is it? How much? How fast? The usual sort of thing. The Fuel Cell badging on the lower doors, however, bring some new questions.
The first one is almost always, ‘what is a fuel cell?’. Thereafter ensues a conversation explaining exactly what a hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle is, followed by looks of intrigue or bewilderment on the faces of the curious onlooker.
The situation would’ve played out in a similar fashion for the early adopters of fully electric cars like Tesla’s Model S. In our case, those questions are for the second generation Toyota Mirai. It’s a car with handsome looks and coupe-like bodywork.
If all alternatively-powered vehicles looked this good, we don’t think people would mind what was powering it. It’s that good looking that you’ll find yourself driving past buildings with big windows, just to see your reflection as you silently cruise by, we kid you not.
That look is a vast improvement on the first generation of said vehicle, which, if we’re being kind, looked a lot like a melted Prius. But the new version isn’t just good looking on the outside either, with an interior that wouldn’t look out of place in a Lexus.
High quality plastics can be found on every surface, with gloss piano black trims combined with metallic silver accents. Premium synthetic leather adorns the seats, centre armrest and dashboard accordingly.
Below the surface, there’s plenty of substance to be found in this second generation Mirai too, with a long list of safety inclusions in the form of the aptly named ‘Toyota Safety Sense’ – utilising all the latest technology.
Autonomous emergency braking, lane trace assist, lane keeping aid, adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitor, and road sign assist are all included. In addition, you’ll find the rather excellent intersection turn assist.
Now to what’s under the hood. Growing up in the 80’s, yours truly could often be found, bonnet open, pretending to know what was going on in the engine bay.
There was always plenty of space under there, you could see the road, and if you dropped something, you could just crawl under the car and get it.
That memory has long since faded, with modern cars having little to no space in the engine bay. That’s different in the case of a traditional EV, which can sometimes have a front trunk (aka the frunk), but the Mirai isn’t your normal electric vehicle.
Instead of being powered by a large bank of lithium batteries under the floor of the car that require a lengthy charge to reach full capacity, we find a very different solution in the Mirai. In this case, there’s a hydrogen fuel cell sitting where you’d find an engine.
Underneath the car sits three hydrogen tanks, and a lithium battery resides behind the rear seats. It may sound complicated, but thankfully there’s a simple explanation. It’s an electric car that you refill with hydrogen, because it creates its own electricity.
A more in-depth explanation is also easy to understand. The hydrogen is pumped from the tanks under the car to the fuel cell under the bonnet. This mixes with oxygen that comes in via the radiator at the front of the car.
When the oxygen and hydrogen mix together, a chemical reaction creates electricity, which is then fed to the electric motor on the rear axle. The lithium battery behind the rear seats adds additional power when required. It’s charged via regenerative braking.
The system emits zero emissions, with water being the only by-product of the whole process. And for anyone who has driven a fully electric car (EV) previously, the Mirai will feel very familiar.
It glides along the road silently, and the hushed ambience in the cabin make you feel like you’re in something very expensive. A quick flick of the stubby gearstick to the left of the driver engages ‘drive’ and you’re on your way.
The power steering has plenty of feel too, giving you confidence that the front wheels are obeying your every command. As your speed changes, the amount of assistance is adjusted, making slow speed manoeuvring a breeze.
By the same token, there’s a definite feeling of security as the car gathers pace. Ride and handling have not been sacrificed for maximum efficiency in the Mirai either, despite sitting on 19-inch alloy wheels.
Weight distribution, thanks to the smaller than normal lithium battery, is enhanced, making for a sportier driving experience than you might expect. It’s a very accomplished motor vehicle.
It makes short work of traffic around town, squeezing into gaps and navigating tight turns with ease; the instant power from the drivetrain was always available when needed and made overtaking and going up hills very easy.
On the freeway, the cabin remained eerily quiet, with the exception of some minor road noise when the road surface deteriorated. Every journey was a delight, and we always looked forward to each trip.
Seating is superbly comfortable, with the sports style design in both the front and back giving plenty of support without being overbearing. The rear passengers could benefit from more space, but knee and head room are adequate.
Not being able to put your feet under the seat in front of you would also make a longer journey uncomfortable. Likewise, one of the hydrogen tanks is also located where you would normally find a transmission tunnel.
As a result, the 2021 Toyota Mirai is essentially a four-seater, because the person stuck in the middle would have to straddle their feet either side of the hump, making life uncomfortable and restricting space for the other two passengers.
Here in Australia, the Mirai is on a pilot scheme, which will test its suitability for our conditions and lifestyle, and whether it could be a viable alternative to fully electric cars locally. This means, you can’t actually buy one right now.
Suitable businesses are able to lease one of the 20 cars currently in the country, at a monthly cost of $1,750, which isn’t exactly what would be considered good value. It does include the cost of fuel though (with refills recommended every 400km).
The downside at the moment is that you would need to be in close proximity to the Toyota head office in Altona, which houses Victoria’s only hydrogen refuelling pump, or make friends with Hyundai to use the one they have at Macquarie Park in NSW.
All that aside, the car itself offers a viable alternative to fully electric vehicles, and is able to be refuelled at normal service stations (once they have hydrogen pumps). It certainly looks like it would make life simpler by eliminating range anxiety.
Given Australia’s current fuel, EV, hydrogen saga, that could be a pipe dream at the moment due to lack of infrastructure, but if enough manufacturers got on board, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles like the Mirai could well be a revolution.
Our test vehicle was provided by Toyota Australia. To find out more about the 2021 Toyota Mirai, contact your local Toyota dealer.