What is the Mirai?

The Mirai is Toyota‘s first ever hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, also representing the first fuel cell vehicle produced in the mass market. Fueled entirely by hydrogen gas stored in an impact resistant and bulletproof fuel tank, the Mirai combines oxygen from the atmosphere with hydrogen from its tank to produce safe, clean electric power.

But the Mirai isn’t a typical car. Instead, it’s a fuel-cell vehicle, a kind of eco-friendly car that’s been talked about for years but is rarely seen on regular roads.

Fuel cells are devices that use a chemical reaction to strip electrons from the hydrogen in some kind of fuel to create electricity. Because the only thing fuel cells emit is water, they’ve been touted for the past 20 years or so as an ideal eco-friendly technology to replace gasoline-powered internal combustion engines in cars.

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But the hydrogen highway is starting to see new life, at least in California. Consumers can now fuel up at some 20 hydrogen stations around the state, mostly clustered in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

The Mirai, which first went on sale last fall, is one of the first of this new generation of fuel-cell vehicles.

What’s striking about the Mirai is just how normal it seems. The first generations of Prius stood out because they looked different from other cars on the road. When it debuted, Tesla’s Model S wowed drivers with its sudden acceleration and futuristic features like pop-out door handles and a jumbo center-console screen.

The Mirai has nothing like that. Except for a small “fuel cell” badge on its side, there’s nothing on the outside and little on the inside that marks it as special. For the most part, it looks, feels and drives like a midsize sedan.

That’s not necessarily bad. To attract mainstream shoppers, it’s probably not a bad idea to have a car that seems a lot like what they currently drive. And the Mirai does offer some advantages over other varieties of eco-friendly vehicles.Mirai-fact3_tcm-3039-283948

With its 151-horsepower electric motor, the Mirai feels peppy compared with Prius. And the Mirai is wider than Prius and feels roomier on the inside.

As with other electric vehicles, the Mirai doesn’t directly contribute to greenhouse gases. Although most hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels, experts estimate that even when it is, a fuel-cell vehicle is better for the environment than burning gasoline.

The Mirai will go about 312 miles before it runs out of hydrogen.

That’s a similar range to the Model S and much farther than most other battery-powered electric vehicles. But it takes much less time to refuel the Mirai than to charge up a battery-powered car. You can fill its hydrogen tanks in about five minutes; even with a high-powered supercharger, it takes about six times as long to only partially recharge a Model S.

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But this is still an early effort when it comes to fuel-cell cars. And the Mirai, as much as it may resemble a regular car, comes up short in significant ways.

For one thing, with a more than $57,000 sticker price, it’s pricey. Federal and state tax rebates can bring the price down by about $13,000, but that’s still far above the average car price.

In California, car manufacturers are throwing in three years of hydrogen fuel with each purchase or lease of a fuel-cell car. But after that, drivers will have to pay for it, and it’s not cheap. Right now, it costs about $14 a kilogram. With 5-kilogram total capacity in the Mirai, that’s a $70 cost every time you fill up, which is right up there with a gas-guzzling S
UV.

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Even with the growing number of hydrogen stations, they still can be hard to find and fairly inconvenient.

A related problem is that the Mirai’s hydrogen tanks and batteries significantly curtail its usable space. Unlike similar-size cars, the Mirai seats only four people; instead of a fifth seat in the back, it has an armrest. And its trunk space is noticeably smaller than that of comparable cars.

Meanwhile, the infotainment system in the Mirai The menu options are confusing, and it doesn’t support Apple’s CarPlay or Android Auto.

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I’m excited about the potential for fuel-cell cars and thrilled that cars like the Mirai are finally hitting the road. But if the Mirai is any indication, they still have some miles to go before they’ll have mainstream appeal.