Toyota (NYSE:TM) is hoping its new Mirai fuel cell vehicle is the start of something great. Just as the Prius has dominated the hybrid category, the company believes the Mirai will lead a hydrogen-powered revolution.
As you'll see in my test-drive video below, this midsize sedan is a solid vehicle. It requires no special knowledge to drive. There's a lack of punch compared to some higher-end electric vehicles, especially in zero-to-60 times. But that's not highly relevant to the majority of prospective buyers.
When it debuts in the U.S. in a few months, the Mirai will sell for around $57,500 before incentives. However, the purchase also comes with three free years of fuel and maintenance. Combine that with tax credits, and it drives the effective cost of the car well below $50,000. If you live in California, where you have access to hydrogen fueling stations, being an early adopter might not be a bad thing -- especially since it qualifies you for a coveted white Clean Air Vehicle decal for use in HOV lanes.
Without that deal, it might be hard for consumers to get too excited about hydrogen technology in general unless the fuel costs fare a little better relative to gasoline. No official figures are available, but the Mirai is expected to get close to 60 mpg-equivalent. That's not much better than the Toyota Prius gasoline-electric hybrid, and significantly less than the Prius plug-in hybrid's 95 MPGe. And it really pales in comparison to battery EVs like the Nissan Leaf and BMW i3, which are in the 125 MPGe range.
Regardless of who pays for it, it appears -- at least for now -- driving a hydrogen vehicle is not going to save significantly more in fuel costs over a traditional gasoline-powered vehicle.
Still, I'm all for another alternative to gasoline power -- and Toyota has put out a fine first effort. If you live in California, this sedan is definitely worth considering. To hop in for a hydrogen-fueled ride, just watch the video below.
I've had my eye on the Mirai for a long time. Over a year ago, Toyota's Bob Wimmer gave me a fascinating explanation of the hydrogen-fuel-cell technology used in the car.
The fuel cell itself is a device that takes hydrogen from the two tanks that store the hydrogen onboard and with oxygen from the air combine the two to form water, and in that process you generate electricity.
The upshot is the Mirai is an electric vehicle -- getting the electricity from the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen in the fuel cell, rather than by the batteries you'd find in a Tesla Model S, or a BMW i3. The only emissions during your drive: water vapor.
I've driven both the Tesla and BMW, and was mightily impressed by their performance.
That's zero to 66!
That seemed faster than four seconds!
And so it was I climbed into the Mirai with high hopes. Toyota has excelled at alternative technology in the past, absolutely nailing the Prius hybrid. I had no doubts they'd do the same with the Mirai. And with some reservations, I'd say I was right.
Let's talk about the Mirai's exterior first. The look of the vehicle has received its fair share of criticism, and Car & Driver calls it "ugly." Even the Toyota rep driving along with us has some reservations:
What do you think?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder... There are shades of this vehicle that are robust. I feel the lights are maybe a little aggressive, the tail lamp...
Me? I think they're all crazy. I really like the look of this car. It tells you, in a sleek and futuristic way, that this is something different.
Inside, the Mirai is pretty much your typical midsize sedan. Plenty of room for my six-foot frame in front, and adequate room for two in the back... with an odd center armrest preventing the possibility of a fifth passenger.
As you'd expect with an electric car, everything is quiet at start-up.
As you can see, you can't hear anything you can't feel anything. Again, just like our hybrid, this is a hydrogen-fuel vehicle. How we know it's on? It has a "ready" on there. So that gives you piece of mind for a lot of folks that are not very, um...
Yeah, exactly. Or if this is a new technology for them that kind of gives them an idea.
Takeoffs are smooth and quick. Everything felt solid... no rattles or significant wind noise. Driving through Washington, D.C., I was somewhat limited in what I could try with the car. But throughout the ride, it handled well.
No, it's good. It's very responsive.
One disappointment is with acceleration. While I had no expectation the Mirai would match the mighty Tesla Model S, it also has nowhere near the zip of the BMW i3, for example. Toyota is claiming a lackluster zero-to-60 time of nine seconds, and it seemed to need every bit of that when trying to get up to speed on a highway merge. This is far from a deal-killer, but if you're expecting the zip of some of the other higher-end electric vehicles, you'll be disappointed.
I won't go to 60 since the speed limit's 25.
The Mirai can be set into any of three different driving modes: Normal, Eco, and Power. There's remarkably little information at this time as to exactly what the Power mode delivers, but it doesn't appear to help the zero-to-60 time. The Eco mode helps you get some more range before filling up with hydrogen, at the expense of responsiveness. Toyota is touting around 300 miles per tank, by the way, and fill-ups shouldn't take much longer than your normal gasoline pit stop.
According to Toyota executive Bob Carter, it will initially cost about $50 in hydrogen to fill the Mirai for its 300-mile range. He expects that cost to drop to about $30 over the longer term. The good news for early adopters is that you'll get your hydrogen fuel for free, for three years, courtesy of Toyota.
Bottom line: The car itself is an engineering marvel, drives well, and should satisfy most drivers. The Mirai won't have nearly the impact the Prius had, even if there were hydrogen pumps at every gas station. But it's a great first step from Toyota in a brand-new alternative fuel technology.
On the road in Washington, D.C., I'm Motley Fool analyst Rex Moore.