(Pocket-lint) – In some respects the Toyota Mirai is one of the most pioneering cars that you’ll ever see. Not only does it evolve the design of the six-year-old original into something that’s far more of a feast for the eyes, it also drives down the price, and is just one of two cars available in the UK that’s a hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicle (FCEV; the Hyundai Nexo being the other).
In some other respects, however, the Toyota Mirai is one of the most hindered cars that you’ll ever see. Not through fault of its own, per se, but because hydrogen refuelling stations (HRS) are so incredibly rare in the UK and other countries. A quick Google search shows just eight existing HRS in the United Kingdom according to UKH2Mobility; other sources suggest 14 sites across the country.
So is the second-generation Toyota Mirai really anything more than a proof of concept and why would anyone consider buying one?
The argument for hydrogen
If every petrol station in the UK suddenly had a hydrogen pump appear overnight – as if by magic, which is not possible for numerous logistical reasons – then hydrogen would, for many, be the no-brainer choice over an electric vehicle (EV).
Why? Because you can refuel hydrogen much like a petrol or diesel car – it’s quick, taking just a few minutes. An EV takes anything from several dozen minutes to several dozen hours to recharge depending on the charging source.
Electric vehicle charging station infrastructure is also very poor in the UK, save for Tesla’s own SuperCharger implementation, and various providers of fast-charging stations charge a huge amount – more than even petrol or diesel – that if you’re not home-charging then EVs can be pricey in addition to inconvenient for long-haul journeys. Hydrogen, at the time of writing, costs close to current fuel equivalents (around £12/kg).
Hydrogen is also arguably a greener option. Its production could utilise various existing systems to be considered carbon negative – but that would take investment to scale up, which isn’t happening universally right now. As EVs arguably displace emissions rather than neutralising them, and there’s still big questions over battery sourcing and recycling, the all-electric future that’s being sold might not be as fool-proof as it seems.
Lastly there’s thermal consideration. Hydrogen doesn’t suffer from warming/cooling like an EV’s battery does, thus the range will remain one and the same all year round. Furthermore, as hydrogen creates some heat as it powers an electric motor, that can be used for warming purposes – EVs are rather cold inside during the winter, unless you crank up heating systems and further drain the battery and range potential.
However, with hydrogen refuelling stations so few and far between right now, realising these benefits just isn’t practical for the masses. Hence the Mirai is more signal of intent in proving the potential of this technology.
Which, if you’re still reading this far, brings us to the second-generation Mirai. Whereas the first-gen looked like a semi-melted Prius, the 2021 model is a far more sophisticated looking car.
It’s longer – now built on Toyota’s TNGA platform – and much sportier looking, kind of like a luxe-level Camry. It’s distinctive – in particular as it’ll be very rarely sighted on the road. Oh, and those 20-inch alloy wheels are particularly pretty.
Part of the new platform’s benefit is the second-gen Mirai is also larger than the original, so inside you get extra space for all occupants. Toyota has assembled the fuel-cell tanks into a tri-formation to distribute their position and weighting around the vehicle without hindering upon space.
Sat inside the driver’s seat and there’s a wealth of controls and screen real-estate – including, in this specc’d up car, a digital real-view mirror – that strikes a sensible balance between physical touch buttons and touchscreen controls. You needn’t go digging through stacks of virtual touchscreen pages, unlike with some other makers’ cars, thanks to quick-adjustment steering wheel controls and the like.
The dash-mounted screen is 12.3-inches, stretching along a good portion of the dash. The software is well integrated, though, so it’s possible to flip, say, the heating controls from driver’s side to passengers at the touch of a button if you wish.
We find Toyota’s navigation system visually rather dated and tricky to follow, but that was no bother with nicely integrated Android Auto (and Apple CarPlay) on board. We simply plugged in our phone – which prior was resting on the Qi wireless charging pad to get some extra juice – using a USB port and had our pal Google to handle navigation and Spotify instead.
A comprehensive head-up display (HUD) – which is a massive 10.1-inch expanse – adds line-of sight visuals for all the important details, such as current speed, leaving the smaller-scale driver’s display free to present select information, such as economy and drive mode selections.
It’s an easy-breezy place to be sat while driving along, delivering the right balance of comfort and practicality that helps make an argument for this FCEV being a niche but logical luxe saloon option for a select number of buyers.
Drive and range
The other thing about hydrogen is that it can deliver pretty decent range from a full tank. It’s described in kilograms (kg) rather than litres for fuel vehicles or kilowatts (kW) for EVs.
The 2021 Mirai has a 5.6kg capacity, which is said to deliver around 400 miles (640km) of range from full to empty. As hydrogen is around £12/kg that’d cost around £67 to refill the tank in the UK. This is only anticipated to fall in the future, not rise.
So does the Mirai deliver on its distance promise? In our hands we had the car returning 1.25kg/100km (62m) according to the internal display. Some quick maths and you’re talking 280 miles (450km) – if you’re driving often at pace, slapping it into sport mode, and so forth. Getting 300+ miles of range shouldn’t be an issue – but you’ll need to know where the next hydrogen station is and assess how that fits into your current and future journey.
Although the Mirai’s figures don’t make for breath-taking reading – the 0-62mph time is 9 seconds – it’s actually a rather peppy little number. Hitting the accelerator sees its electric motor whizz into action and cart you along at pace. Not bad considering it weighs about 2 tonnes.
That mass can be felt in the drive though. It’s rear-wheel drive only and a bit wallowy at times if you’re asking for a lot. Go smoother and it’s a perfectly comfortable experience – just as you’d expect of a luxury saloon.
So who is the Toyota Mirai for? Well, not very many people. Because, right now, the availability of hydrogen refuelling stations (HRS) in the UK is very limited. If your driving is built around specific routes and ranges where hydrogen is available, then decent leasing rates from Toyota could appeal (Toyota quotes “fully maintained business contract hire rates, inclusive of servicing, starting at £435 per month (excluding VAT)” in the UK). For everyone else, however, it’s simply a no-deal option.
Really, the Mirai is a showcase for hydrogen’s potential. The discussion around this is what makes the Mirai an exciting and different car. Because the argument for hydrogen fuel-cell – quicker refuelling, range that’s year-round consistent (as it’s not temperature affected), plus potential greener production credentials – could be seen as stronger than it is for pure battery electric vehicles. But it just so happens the momentum behind EVs is in full swing, whereas for hydrogen it’s in relative infancy.
Thus we finish where we start: in some respects the Toyota Mirai is one of the most pioneering cars that you’ll ever see; in another, however, it’s hindered for the majority of potential customers. That cyclical nature is exactly what’s needed though – more conversation and investment around alternative fuel options for a greener future.
Writing by Mike Lowe.