Toyota’s hydrogen-powered car wants to be the alternative to plug-ins, but there’s one major drawback

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Toyota Mirai.
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Bryan Logan/Business Insider

Right now, if you want an alternative-fuel vehicle, you have to pick from offerings that either require gasoline or an electrical outlet. The gas-electric hybrid and the battery-powered car – your Toyota Priuses, Chevy Volts, and Teslas – are staples in this space. There are drawbacks for drivers of both types.

You still have to buy gas for your hybrid and you have to plug in your Tesla – sometimes under less than favorable conditions – lest you be stranded someplace far away from a suitable plug. Beyond that, automakers have been out to find the next viable energy source. Plug-in vehicles are more or less proven to be the answer, but Toyota and a handful of other carmakers are investigating hydrogen.

That’s where the Toyota Mirai comes in. It’s an ambitious project for Toyota because the fueling infrastructure for this car is minimal. There are only 33 public hydrogen-filling stations in the US, according to the US Department of Energy. Twenty-six of those stations are in California, and there’s one each in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina.

If you include public and private hydrogen stations, then the total climbs to 58 – nationwide. Compare that to the more than 15,100 public electric-charging stations and the 168,000 retail gas stations in the US, and you can see the obvious drawback of hydrogen-powered cars. Despite this, the Mirai is an interesting project, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s different.

We spent three days with the Mirai in San Francisco. Here’s how it went:


We took delivery of a nautical blue metallic Mirai at a local gas station that also had a hydrogen pump on site.

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Bryan Logan/Business Insider

Here’s a walk-around of the car. The deep blue really pops under the afternoon sun.


The Mirai looks just like a traditional sedan. It doesn’t scream “I’m different!” like the latest Prius.

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“Notice me.”
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Matthew DeBord/Business Insider

Though not quite as controversial from a design standpoint, Toyota’s signature hybrid-esque angles weren’t lost on the Mirai. The bulging rear haunches give it a muscular stance.

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Not a bad look.
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Bryan Logan/Business Insider

Where the Prius appears to have been designed to stand out, the Mirai doesn’t make much noise visually. Toyota aimed for this one to be a tad more subdued.

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Not quite as loud.
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Bryan Logan/Business Insider

Of course, the Mirai’s main selling point is its source of fuel. A fill-up on hydrogen costs just about as much as regular gasoline in San Francisco. The Mirai gets an estimated 67 MPGe, according to Toyota.

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Filling up is painless.
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Toyota

That amounts to roughly 312 miles of range per tank, but we were unable to confirm this during our short three-day jaunt around the city.

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Bryan Logan/Business Insider

Here’s how all of that sweet hydrogen gets you from A to B: As you drive, the air that flows into the Mirai’s massive front air intakes is delivered to the car’s fuel-cell stack.

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As you can see, it’s hungry for air.
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Bryan Logan/Business Insider

Hydrogen moves from the Mirai’s carbon-fiber-reinforced tank to the fuel-cell stack. Combined with the oxygen in the air, a chemical reaction occurs, producing the electricity that powers the engine.

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Bryan Logan/Business Insider

Stepping on the accelerator sends that electric energy from the fuel-cell stack to the motor, and you’re on your way.

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Toyota

Toyota provided this helpful illustration to show how the process works:

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Bryan Logan/Business Insider


Here’s how things look from behind the wheel. The Mirai’s build quality was unlike anything I’ve seen in an alternative-fuel vehicle — Tesla being the exception. It felt like an entry-level luxury sedan.

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Bryan Logan/Business Insider

The Mirai’s interior center stack has all the technology you would expect from a car that retails for $57,500, including navigation, Bluetooth, and USB connectivity. It’s all accessible by touch screens and robust digital displays.

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Bryan Logan/Business Insider

This sedan is a four-seater. The front seats were comfortable and supportive.

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Bryan Logan/Business Insider

Same for the rear. The four-seat configuration is unusual for this class of car. It’s usually found in higher-end four-door grand-touring vehicles like the Porsche Panamera and the Mercedes CLS.

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Bryan Logan/Business Insider

The Mirai went on sale in California last fall. Toyota indicated that it would ramp up production to about 3,000 units by 2017. As of July, 270 have been sold in the US, according to the company.

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David Becker/Getty Images

The Mirai’s road to success might be a challenging one – not just because of a dearth of hydrogen fueling infrastructure, but because the car doesn’t provide a significant-enough range improvement over traditional plug-in hybrids and battery-powered cars.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk argued against hydrogen technology at the Automotive News World Congress in Detroit, calling the idea “extremely silly … it’s just very difficult to make hydrogen and store it and use it in a car.”

And with a base price of $57,500, it’s an expensive proposition for what you’re getting. But the car does have some redeeming qualities.

Its design is distinctive – even attractive from some angles. Its build quality is on par with an entry-level Lexus and, when you can find a filling station, you’re in and out in minutes, just like a regular gasoline-powered car.

Toyota has been working on hydrogen technology for more than 20 years. And considering that “mirai” is Japanese for “future” and Toyota is expanding hydrogen-fueling infrastructure throughout the US, it’s clear that the company remains bullish on its prospects.