It’s raining in West Sussex, which seems appropriate. Water, you see, gives life – especially to the Toyota Mirai which sits beneath the grey skies in a car park on the outskirts of Crawley. This is our first chance to drive the Mirai in undisguised, production-ready form. This second-generation car, Toyota hopes, will start to make hydrogen a very real part of our automotive future, moving the Mirai from an automotive curio to a genuine option for a much wider group of buyers.
To that end, this new car is lower and wider than the old one, with swooping four-door coupé lines that fit far more readily into the mould of a futuristic executive saloon with a premium bent.
It’s also more affordable and, crucially, has a longer range thanks to the addition of a third hydrogen tank. But is all that enough to bring the Mirai into the mainstream – especially when there are only 11 places to fill it in the UK? It’s a big ask.
Effortless to drive
The most affordable hydrogen car yet
Electric power with five-minute fill-ups
Cramped rear seats
Relatively few places to fill it up… for now.
How does it work? Well, without wanting to get too technical, the fuel cell at the heart of the Mirai uses an electrochemical reaction to convert hydrogen to water, the by-product of which is electricity that powers the electric motor. In other words, the Mirai is an electric car which uses hydrogen and its own little on-board power station to generate its own electricity.
The key difference between this Mirai and the one that went before it is that the size and weight of the fuel cell have been reduced, and as a result, Toyota’s managed to fit the fuel cell stack entirely beneath the bonnet of the car, rather than under the floor.
So it’s laid out more conventionally, with the fuel cell taking the place of an internal combustion car’s engine, and that means the floor can be lower, which is one reason the new car looks far sleeker than its predecessor.
Toyota has also managed to squeeze in one more hydrogen tank, bringing the car’s total capacity to 5.6kg, up from 4.6kg before. The new tank sits behind the middle rear seat, in front of the rear bulkhead, and joins two more that sit in the wide “transmission tunnel” that runs down the spine of the car, and the result is a range of up to 400 miles from a fill-up – though judging by our test drive, you’ll probably get a fair bit less than that in the real world.
The old car’s MacPherson strut and torsion beam suspension has been ditched in favour of a multi-link set-up all round, and the new Mirai, which sits on the GA-L platform you’ll find under the skin of the latest Lexus LS, can now boast 50:50 weight distribution.
What about its environmental credentials? Well, it’s a well-known fact that hydrogen vehicles emit nothing but water; less well known is the fact they also purify the air as they drive along. To aid this, Toyota has also fitted a catalyst air filter to the intake system of the Mirai, which filters out even more pollutants as the air is drawn into the fuel cell.
Size and space
You can’t say that about a Tesla. And be in no doubt – it’s to Tesla buyers that Toyota is pitching the Mirai.
Which Tesla, though? Well, the Mirai is more a match for a Model S in size; it’s a big car, in other words. But on price it compares more readily with the Model 3. While we’re at it, it also goes head-to-head with conventionally-powered rivals such as the BMW 5-Series and Audi A6.
And all of those rivals offer more space in the back than the Mirai. The boot, for starters, is very small, and its opening rather tight; it’ll be fine for a briefcase and an umbrella, or luggage for a weekend away, but try and fit a large pushchair in there and you might struggle.
Slide into the rear seats and there’s no hiding where they’ve positioned the fuel tanks, either; the middle seat juts forward, proud of the rest of the bench, while the wide hump in the floor means the unfortunate soul destined to occupy it has to sit legs akimbo.
Having said that, both of the outer seats are spacious enough, and Toyota has cleverly carved niches into the doors so that your elbows have somewhere to rest comfortably. Think of this, then, as a four-plus-one; unless you need to carry five people at once, it probably won’t matter too much.
What does matter is that you don’t notice any of the compromises going on at the back from the front seats. Up here, the Mirai feels as spacious as any conventional car and, thanks to the low window-line, there’s a good view out.
The dashboard swoops dramatically toward you from the passenger side of the car, and atop it sits a big Mercedes-style tranche of glossy plastic, which houses the big, 12.3-inch entertainment screen and a set of virtual dials. The materials are robust and good-quality, although they lack the wow factor you’ll find in some of the Mirai’s more premium rivals.
You get proper physical buttons for the ventilation, rather than a series of touch-pad controllers, which is the way it should be, and the entertainment system is relatively easy to navigate. Having said that, it can be a little slow to respond, and in a car which is pitched at gadget-loving early adopters, the slightly low resolution of the screen might be a turn-off.
Pounds and pence
Let’s talk money. Because where the old Mirai really fell down was its asking price of £66,000 – a tall order for a car which looked and felt like a Prius that cost less than half as much.
But while the Mirai has moved upmarket, its price has fallen dramatically, with the result that it now feels much more reasonable. In fact, you can get hold of an entry-level Mirai Design now for £49,995 only slightly more than you’ll pay for a Model 3 Long Range; the Design Plus we’re testing here will set you back £53,995, while the Design Premium will cost you £64,995, though it comes fully loaded for that figure.
All of which not only makes the Mirai look far more comparable to electric rivals, but also makes it considerably cheaper than the only other hydrogen-fuelled car on sale in the UK at the moment, the Hyundai Nexo.
What’s more, like all Toyotas, it comes with a five-year, 100,000-mile warranty, which – with the exception of the Hyundai – is more than can be said for pretty much anything it goes up against.
What’s more, Toyota has just announced business lease rates of just £450 a month, including maintenance, for Design Plus version (the Design will cost you even less), which looks very competitive. And of course, as a company car, it’ll be extremely cheap on tax, because of its lack of tailpipe CO2 emissions.
More about hydrogen
And how much does the hydrogen itself cost? Well, at the moment, about £12 a kilo, which means filling the Mirai will cost you just shy of £70 – about the same as a petrol or diesel car, and much more than something electric.
Toyota says it expects the price of hydrogen in the UK to drop as bus and truck fleets take it up, and as more hydrogen is produced renewably, it will start to qualify for credits under the Government’s Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation, which will bring the cost down further – to the point, it hopes, that it’ll sell for closer to £5/kg by the end of the decade.
Of course, it’s worth keeping in mind Toyota’s vested interest in disseminating these favourable estimates, but were that to happen, it would slash the cost of covering 400 miles in the Mirai to just £28.
Of course, filling the Mirai up is still a bone of contention too. Yes, it takes just a few minutes, rather than the hours you’ll wait to charge up an electric car – but at present there are just 11 hydrogen filling stations in the UK, and the five more in the offing won’t make much difference. So unless you happen to have one nearby and are able to plan your journeys so that you always fill near home, it’s going to be a hard car to live with.
Out and about
If you can find a way, though, you’ll want to. You really will, because the Mirai is quite special once you get it out on the road.
It isn’t the most exciting car out there; the steering is no more engaging than any other electric car’s, and when you do push on a bit, it slips into understeer earlier than a Tesla or a BMW. Given it’s rear-wheel drive, it’ll also oversteer fairly easily too, though the traction control puts an end to any such nonsense long before this becomes an issue to the unsuspecting.
Having said that, the Mirai corners flat, with excellent body control, and there’s plenty of lateral grip, so you can flow it pleasingly through gentler corners, and while the steering doesn’t serve up much feel, it is at least precise and accurate, so the car goes where you ask it to.
Smooth and refined
Where it really comes into its own, though, is when you aren’t driving hard. It’s the Mirai’s ride quality that impresses most of all; it’s no exaggeration to say that this is one of the smoothest-riding cars on sale today. Where a Tesla finds imperfections even where you can’t see them, the Mirai does the opposite, glossing over bumps you know are there without a ripple.
It’s quiet, too. This should come as no surprise given it’s electric, but so often, the lack of engine noise can show up wind and road noise instead. Not here, though; the Mirai slices through the air, so even at speed, all is tranquil within. So good is it, in fact, that it wouldn’t have come as a shock if Toyota had stuck a Lexus badge on its nose.
Granted, the Mirai does lack the quease-inducing grunt of the Model 3, but up to the national speed limit it’ll still whirr along briskly enough to keep you interested. And its controls are beautifully set up; the throttle pedal is progressive and the brakes are astonishingly good, stopping the Mirai beautifully and melding friction and regenerative braking better than almost any electric car you’d care to mention, making it incredibly easy to drive smoothly.
The result of all this is a car in which driving feels truly effortless, and whether you’re covering big distances or just bimbling around town, the Mirai feels a pleasure rather than a chore. No, it won’t keep up with one of its more thrusting rivals on a back road, but rarely has a car made such things feel less relevant. Where you really need it to be, the Mirai is blissful.
The Telegraph verdict
The last Mirai was a curio. This one, by contrast, is a car that you’d genuinely contemplate owning.
In fact, I’ll go further than that: it’s a car you’ll actually want to own. Were it not for the lack of hydrogen filling sites, the Mirai would be an instant hit, combining the smooth, silent driving experience of an electric car with the ability to add 400 miles of driving range in a matter of minutes.
But this is not a car that stands up purely on the basis of its near-unique powertrain. Remove that from consideration, and it’s still excellent; handsome to look at, a pleasure to sit in, and quieter and more comfortable than almost any modern car when it’s out on the road.
Crucially, it also now competes on price with battery-electric rivals – and can be leased for very tempting rates that include maintenance. Make no mistake; the hydrogen fuel cell car has arrived. Now, we just need the infrastructure to catch up.
Telegraph rating: Five stars out of five
On test: Toyota Mirai Design Plus
How much? £53,995 on the road
How fast? 108mph, 0-62mph in 9.0sec
How economical? 79mpkg (WLTP Combined)
The electric bits: 180bhp permanent magnet synchronous motor fed by 330-cell fuel cell stack via 4.0kWh Li-ion battery, 5.6kg total hydrogen capacity
Electric range: Up to 400 miles
CO2 emissions: 0g/km
Warranty: 5 years / 100,000 miles
Boot size: 325 litres
Spare wheel as standard: No (not available)
Tesla Model 3 Long Range
434bhp, 360 miles, £48,490 on the road
On raw numbers, this Model 3 Long Range still has the Mirai licked, and with Tesla’s Supercharger network, it beats the Mirai on usability too. Trouble is, it’s also spikier to drive and considerably less comfortable; what’s more, Tesla still has lots to do before its quality issues are resolved, which renders the Toyota’s warranty – and reputation – appealing.
118bhp, 62mpkg, £69,495 on the road
Where once the Nexo and the Mirai were equals, this latest version of the latter moves the game on so far as to make the former feel somewhat irrelevant. It’s much more expensive, much less powerful, and much less efficient – combined with the difficulty in refuelling it, it’s hard to see why you’d want one
Audi A6 TFSI e Sport
295bhp, 235.4mpg, £53,640 on the road
This A6 has almost as smooth a ride as the Mirai’s, offers more space, and of course, as it’s a plug-in hybrid, limits range anxiety while also offering you all-electric running for short distances. It’s the most palatable option at the moment for many drivers – but long-term, cars like these will have relatively little effect on reducing our carbon output.
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