Toyota’s hydrogen fuel-cell Mirai gets a new, luxurious look

Roberto Baldwin
Senior Editor

Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles have a tough time out there in the real world. They have all the ecological advantages of an EV and the refueling speed of a gasoline vehicle. But there's that whole infrastructure issue. Without places to refuel, the best car in the world is essentially worthless. But that hasn't stopped Toyota from introducing a new, classier Mirai ahead of the Tokyo Motor Show.

The car looks amazing and the automaker is targeting a 30% increase in range thanks to advances in the powertrain and larger capacity hydrogen storage tanks. Toyota just hopes that it'll be able to sell this car in more places than the current locals of California and the island of Oahu (those are the only locations with hydrogen stations).

During a presentation earlier this week in North Carolina, the automaker was closed-lipped on most of the actual technical specs of the upcoming 2021 Mirai other than the car will be rear-wheel drive, quieter and more "engaging" behind the wheel. We'll have to wait for actual range numbers from the EPA, but if Toyota can pull off its 30 percent range increase that should keep the vehicle on the road for about 400 miles between refuelings. Important for a vehicle with limited locations to fill up.

The latest Mirai should be in showrooms by the end of 2020. It'll join a growing number of electrified Toyota vehicles. This past year we've seen the Carolla and Rav4 get batteries shoved into their frames for increased miles per gallon.

What we haven't seen from the automaker is a battery-electric vehicle (BEV) roadmap for the United States. The automaker has plans for BEVs in China beginning next year but is mum on when a battery-electric will hit US shores. Sticking with hybrids (including the best-selling Prius) makes sense for the company that popularized the powertrain.

Toyota BEVs are coming to the US. We just don't know when and instead the automaker will continue to rely on a hydrogen fueling infrastructure that's continued to underwhelm with its growth. "I won't deny that we've had some frustration with the build-out," said Doug Murtha, vice president of corporate strategy and planning. But the company continues to see fuel cells as the future and Murtha said that he hoped that by the time the new Mirai comes to market they'll see more stability in the network and more stations.

But it's not putting all its hopes on just one powertrain. The company announced its plan to make an electrified version of every car in its lineup by 2025.

2021 Toyota Mirai unveil

That includes adding BEVs and noting that there are customers where an electric vehicle meets their needs as a daily driver. What it's aiming for is a portfolio of automobiles that fit a wide range of use cases.

Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are great. They use a chemical reaction to power an electric motor instead of relying on a battery. Plus they only emit water. They're smooth, quiet and give you the warm fuzzy feeling of not driving a vehicle not directly powered by fossil fuels. Plus this new vehicle looks amazing.

What the 2021 Mirai may lack in fueling stations, it almost makes up for in design. The wider, longer and shorter Mirai is, in my opinion, the best looking Toyota sedan. It'll even have optional 20-inch wheels will be available at launch.

Inside, the vehicle should have a refined layout with a 12.3-inch infotainment display and a rearview mirror camera. Sadly, we've only seen pictures. The vehicle shown off had darkened windows and was likely a shell. But it's Toyota and there's very little doubt in my mind that'll deliver on time and with the targeted range increase.

2021 Toyota Mirai unveil

Toyota has been working on hydrogen fuel cell technology since the 90s. It actually started work on the tech at the same time it started working on hybrid vehicles. So it's been an interestingly long road to get to this point. When I drove the Mirai a few years back, I noted that it essentially drove like a Camry which was a compliment. But this new car looks to bring fuel cells into the luxury world in a well-designed package. It's a car to look forward too and it could be a hit if the hydrogen fueling infrastructure finally gets it together and gives folks outside of California and Hawaii a chance to try an electric car that doesn't need to plug into a wall.