It’s one of the strangest cars I've ever driven.
A cerulean luxury sedan, it feels like it rolled out of Willy Wonka’s fantastical factory — not a boring Toyota manufacturing plant.
It's the hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai, and it might be the future, or it might be a research project that will ultimately prove too weird for the public. It's the everlasting gobstopper of cars. While it’s too soon to know its future, the years ahead could be bright.
As a car, the Mirai is lovely. It's built on the same platform as the Lexus LS, and it's comfortable, roomy, quiet, and luxurious. And with a $67,420 price tag, that all makes sense.
The exterior, especially in the Hydro Blue my tester had, is sharp, with pleasing angles and a design that carries well the car's significant bulk. It's not a small vehicle, but it never seems ungainly while driving or parking.
Inside, it's a typical Toyota, which is to say it boasts easy-to-reach controls, cupholders, and a wireless phone charger in the center console. It offers lots of safety and convenience features, like adaptive cruise control and ventilated heated seats.
Bulletproof hydrogen tanks — So, you might think it's just a large luxury sedan, and leave it at that. Except it's not if you look under the hood.
That's because this car is powered by hydrogen. There are three carbon-fiber-reinforced tanks in the Mirai that hold a total of 11 pounds of hydrogen under 10,000 PSI of pressure. One is in the center tunnel between the passengers (which is why the center console is so massive), another below the rear seat, and a third beneath the battery behind the rear seats.
I heard many Hindenburg jokes during my week with the Mirai, but rest assured that the Mirai's hydrogen tanks can withstand gunfire (Toyota tested them), so I wasn't too worried. Basically, if you're in a crash severe enough to have an impact on the hydrogen tanks, those tanks are probably the least of your worries.
Driving the Mirai is an awful lot like driving any other Toyota hybrid. It has the same odd gear knob that a Prius has, and at low speeds, it's literally the same experience. A large lithium-ion battery is located in the rear and provides power at low speeds, helps with efficiency by generating electricity during braking, and gives the car a small added boost of power during acceleration.
Sitting behind the wheel, you would barely notice anything was different except for the weird, artificial "whoosh" noise that Toyota pipes in through the stereo, so you get some kind of audible feedback of what's going on under the hood.
And now we get to the weird stuff...
A hydrogen-powered car works as an electric car: a large battery and electric motors to turn the wheels. Except where a battery-electric vehicle (or BEV, as some in the industry like to call it) uses a large battery charged from the electric grid to power the motors, a hydrogen car uses something called a fuel cell to generate electricity.
It's still "green" and silent, but your energy comes from a chemical reaction in the fuel cell "stack." Hydrogen from the tank combines with oxygen in the air to produce electrical current and water. The water drips out of a small pipe beneath the car and is the only byproduct of the process.
Hydrogen molecules pass through an anode where they're split into electrons and protons. Electrons go off to a circuit to generate electrical current, while protons go through an electrolyte membrane to a cathode where they meet up with oxygen and the split electrons and turn into water molecules.
Complicated? Yes. But the net effect is that you can "fill up" an electric car with hydrogen in just a few minutes, rather than waiting much longer to charge a battery in an electric vehicle. In a way, it's all the convenience of a gas-powered car with the environmental friendliness (and clean air) of an EV.
Of course, there's a catch. Actually, several.
First, hydrogen fuel cells are expensive. They use lots of platinum, titanium, and carbon fiber between the fuel cell and hydrogen storage. Toyota sells this Mirai for $66,000 before government tax incentives knock more than $10,000 off the price.
And Toyota is probably losing money on every single one it sells.
That's partially because Toyota includes a $15,000 prepaid debit card to help cover the cost of hydrogen. Toyota also throws in 21 days of free car loans because hydrogen is difficult to source. Certainly more difficult than EV chargers or the nearest BP station.
There is a single hydrogen filling station in San Diego County, where I live, and the rest are primarily located in Orange County or the Bay Area in California. A Mirai owner told me that when the San Diego filling station was offline for a week earlier this year, Toyota gave all San Diego Mirai owners loaner cars because they couldn't fill up.
There are some new hydrogen stations in the works, but nothing close to a nationwide network. The infrastructure just isn't there yet. Many companies are investing in hydrogen technology, and Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai all sell hydrogen cars in California — but we're years, or likely decades away from it going mainstream.
My week in the Mirai is a taste of the future, sort of like Willy Wonka’s lickable wallpaper or the everlasting gobstopper. To go mainstream, there need to be mass-market improvements. Namely, the sticker price should go down and the number of filling stations should go up. There's no guarantee that either of those things will happen in a timely manner.
"This is the one that's really going to sizzle old Slugworth."
I drove a car that emits only water, makes no noise, and pumps in air cleaner than it found it thanks to various air filters. Is the Mirai a pioneer toward a hydrogen-powered future? I am not sure, but the strange delights of this car will stay with you as long as one of Wonka’s gobstoppers.
One Cool Detail:
Because hydrogen is expensive — it was $16.43 per kilogram when I filled up, and it has a 5.5kg tank that’s good for 300 miles depending on how aggressively you drive — Toyota includes a debit card preloaded with $15,000 to buy hydrogen with.
A kind Mirai owner I met at the filling station showed me his. It’s good for 913 kilograms of hydrogen or about 200 fill-ups if you aren’t totally empty. That should get you close to 40,000 miles without paying out of pocket for any fuel. Not too bad.
Hydrogen prices should drop over the next decade as infrastructure gets built out, but it’s still an expensive proposition today. That’s the price of early adoption, I guess.