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Toyota Mirai: The 300-mile zero-emission vehicle

2016 Toyota Mirai
Toyota unveiled its 2016 Mirai model, which uses fuel cell technology, at the Los Angeles auto show. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

LOS ANGELES -- The odd floating hood and three big air intakes at the front of the 2016 Toyota Mirai made me think of the Prius . I wasn't making a stylistic connection between the two cars but pondering if the Mirai could be as successful. You see, the Mirai is Toyota's next big power-train gamble, on a par with the gasoline-electric hybrid system of the Prius, in this new case using a hydrogen fuel cell to generate electricity.

At an event a day before the Los Angeles auto show, the debut event for the Mirai, Toyota gave me a chance to get behind the wheel and see how this new car drives.

As for the quirky look of the Mirai's front end, I didn't find it offensive, but wouldn't call it beautiful, either. It does give the Mirai a signature look, something that benefited the Prius. As a nice techie touch, rows of LEDs make up the headlights. The rear glass looks downright mundane, but underneath the rear of the car a pair of fins help the aerodynamics.

Unlike many pure electric cars with manual seats, the Mirai flaunts its fuel cell capacity with power adjustable seats. With the Mirai measuring just a little bigger than the Prius, I found the front seat area very roomy. The Prius influenced instrumentation and controls in the Mirai's cabin, which uses an LCD mounted in a band above the dashboard to show the driver speed, power and remaining range. Likewise, the little drive mode selector on the console will be familiar to Prius owners.

A button labeled H2O sits to the left of the driver. A Toyota spokesperson advised me that it opens a gate at the rear, dumping the water vapor that forms from the hydrogen-oxygen reaction in the fuel cell.

Putting it in Drive, the Mirai smoothly and quietly set off, very similar to any electric vehicle. Toyota had obviously done some work to refine the throttle response, as I didn't feel any jerkiness from the 113-kilowatt electric motor, which puts down 247 pound-feet of torque at the front wheels.

Toyota puts out a figure of 9 seconds to get the Mirai to 60 mph, but I found no want for acceleration when driving in a suburban setting. A stab at the accelerator, and I was passing other traffic, getting ready for a merge. Waiting for an opening when coming out of a driveway, I had full confidence the Mirai would get me through the gap without making other drivers slam on the brakes.

Having driven fuel cell vehicles in the past, I was surprised not to hear the whine of a compressor motor, or any other clues to the fuel cell operation under the hood. Toyota has refined this car to production vehicle standards, even including driver assistance systems such as adaptive cruise control and comfort features such as a heated steering wheel.

The ride quality felt very competent, as good as a Camry. The Mirai shares its platform with the Toyota Avensis, a sedan sold in the European market, so benefits from that model's suspension development.

The big reason why Toyota built the Mirai, and is pushing this fuel cell technology over a pure electric, is the range. The Mirai incorporates two tanks storing hydrogen at 10,000 PSI. Filled with its 5-kilogram hydrogen capacity, the fuel cell generates enough electricity to cover about 300 miles.

Toyota didn't completely disregard its proven hybrid technology for the Mirai. A 245-volt nickel metal hydride battery pack, similar to that in the Camry Hybrid, stores surplus electricity from the fuel cell and regenerative braking, serving to smooth the energy supply needed for driving operations.

Although the Mirai felt like a production car, complete with acceptable range, there are a few compromises. Trunk space is compromised somewhat by the hydrogen storage tanks, and the rear seats don't fold down. The rear seat may look like a bench, but Toyota only rates it for two people, an effort to keep drivers from overloading the car and hurting its performance.

Most important, you are not likely to find a hydrogen fueling station anywhere near your home, unless you live in Southern California. There isn't much infrastructure for hydrogen fueling at this time, although Toyota is working with partners to get stations deployed in the Northeast. California only has nine stations, but almost 50 more are in development.

With all those caveats, when the Mirai comes out late next year, it will only be for early adopters living in the few states where Toyota will make the car available. As such, those early owners will be participating in a bit of an experiment, finding out how a hydrogen-fueled electric car dovetails with the modern driving-scape.

 

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