Car Review: Toyota ushers in new era with Mirai, its first mass-produced fuel cell vehicle

The Mirai, which runs on electricity produced by hydrogen fuel cells, drives like a normal car.
The Mirai, which runs on electricity produced by hydrogen fuel cells, drives like a normal car.PHOTOS: TOYOTA MOTOR
The Mirai, which runs on electricity produced by hydrogen fuel cells, drives like a normal car.
The Mirai, which runs on electricity produced by hydrogen fuel cells, drives like a normal car.PHOTOS: TOYOTA MOTOR

Toyota ushers in a new era with its first mass- produced fuel cell vehicle

The future is here. No, really, it is. Because that is the name of Toyota's first mass production hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (FCV) - Mirai, which means future in Japanese.

What exactly is an FCV? Well, it takes hydrogen stored in its high-compression tank, combines it with oxygen in the air and produces electricity chemically.

The electricity powers an electric motor that drives the wheels.

Unlike conventional cars, which emit CO2 and other nasty greenhouse gases, the only thing to come out of an FCV's tailpipe is water vapour (because that is what happens when you combine hydrogen and oxygen).

The interior of the Mirai, too, is suitably space-age. As with its exterior, there is all manner of angular sculpting inside, particularly its chrome-trimmed dashboard.

The centre console is a monolithic slab of glossy black plastic and it is here that the stubby arcade game joystick-like gear lever resides, along with the climate control's LCD screen (the temperature is adjusted by sliding your finger along a touch-sensitive track).

Oddly enough, the least futuristic thing about the Mirai's interior is its white LED "calculator" readout clock.

For all its advanced nature, the Mirai is an unremarkable car to drive, inasmuch as an electric car is "normal". Granted, three laps around a makeshift test-track set up in a parking lot (Japanese laws prohibit test drives on public roads) is hardly enough time to judge a car, but initial impressions are that the Mirai is curiously undramatic.

That is not always a bad thing, though.

Select D with the "joystick", release the foot-operated parking brake and you are away. It is as easy as that.

Aside from the instant golf buggy acceleration and near-silent running endemic to all electrically powered cars, the Mirai handles exactly how you would expect a regular saloon to, which belies its advanced powertrain.

In a normal setting, the environmentally sound Toyota has a 650km cruising range, a 361-litre boot that Toyota proudly claims can hold up to three golf bags (granted, the 470-litre boot in the Corolla Altis can hold four golf bags) and a refuelling time of just three minutes.

An electric car takes half an hour to juice up, at its quickest.

In short, the future of the automobile does not feel all that different. But unfortunately, Singapore is going to have to wait for quite a while for the future to arrive because hydrogen-refuelling infrastructure does not exist here.

Even in the Mirai's home market of Japan, there are just 20 hydrogen filling stations. The United States - the carmaker's second home - has 13 stations.

Also, the Mirai is not exactly cheap. Even with generous government subsidies that take about 40 per cent off the car's 7.2 million yen (S$79,500) sticker price in Japan, it is still nearly twice the price of a Prius hybrid (which is not exactly a cheap car either).

There is no doubt the Mirai is an expensive car, and Toyota will most probably struggle to find buyers for it. In its first year of production, the company is making just 700 units, which is a paltry number when you consider it made 8.7 million cars in 2012.

So, it might seem to the cynical observer that Toyota is jumping the gun by producing a car that the world is not yet ready for - or, indeed, wants.

But it is clear that the Mirai is not meant to be a money-spinner. It is meant to showcase Toyota's technological prowess and it proves that FCVs can be mass-produced.

stlife@sph.com.sg

The writer is the associate editor of Torque, a motoring monthly published by SPH Magazines.