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I drove the Mirai, Toyota’s massive bet on hydrogen power

The most remarkable thing about driving the Toyota Mirai is how unremarkable it is.

For this car, that’s a compliment. The Mirai represents the spearhead of Toyota’s substantial bet on hydrogen fuel cell technology becoming commercially viable in the coming years, so if it just feels like a regular car, that’s probably for the best. Early on, you’ve got to convince everyday drivers that a weird new drivetrain can look and drive like any other car on the road without compromise.

If this sounds a little familiar, that’s because this isn’t Toyota’s first rodeo: in many ways, the Mirai is hoping to replicate the exact path to success the Prius went down over 15 years ago. What started as a single model, a limited-release novelty, blossomed into a full range of vehicles and a drivetrain concept that found its way into every nook of Toyota’s (and Lexus’s) lineup. The difference this time around, though, is that the Mirai can’t just leverage the existing gasoline infrastructure to get around — it needs an entirely new network of stations. That’s no small feat. Matching the Prius’ success would be a best-case scenario.

IT NEEDS AN ENTIRELY NEW NETWORK OF STATIONS

The Mirai is launching in the US in the latter part of 2015, but it’s coming to Japan in just a few months. I had a chance to drive a Japan-spec version of the car around downtown Los Angeles this week. First, let’s just go ahead and get this out of the way: this is not an attractive car. As normally and undramatically as it drives, the Mirai makes no effort to blend in — but neither does it make an effort to be beautifullyweird, the way the hybrid BMW i8 does. It’s just weird. In the front, gaping triangular grilles rest on either side, sprinkled with chrome and enormous accent lights. The rear looks like an imagined “future car” from a ‘90s-vintage sci-fi film, but not in a good way. The sides are the least offensive angle — from here, the Mirai just looks like a smallish mid-size sedan, imbued perhaps with some Prius DNA.

Toyota Mirai

Speaking of the Prius, the Mirai’s interior feels like an upscale Prius taken to its logical extreme: it has futuristic accents, a center-mounted instrument cluster, and swoopy dashboard panels that you wouldn’t find in one of Toyota’s more conservative models. Overall, the furnishings are more luxurious and more solid than anything you’d find on a Prius; there are carbon inserts, a control panel in the rear armrest for managing seat heating, multiple color displays, and power steering wheel adjustment. If you like sitting in a Prius, you’d love sitting in a Mirai.

As I said, the car just drives like a car. Acceleration is uninspired — 60 mph comes in around 9 seconds — but it’s a serviceable electric sedan that makes no unusual sounds. It’s quiet, just as a traditional EV would be. My 15-minute jaunt around LA was a totally drama-free experience. It’ll go 300 miles on a tank.

But unlike an EV, the Mirai can be “recharged” in three to five minutes, Toyota says. That’s one of hydrogen’s benefits: there’s no multi-hour charging process, just a quick stop for a refill the same way you’d get gasoline. The only emission is water.

IT JUST DRIVES LIKE A CAR

It seems like an obvious win, but fuel cells can be problematic, which is why they’ve been in development for decades. They can be finicky in cold weather, and a tank of compressed hydrogen is quite literally a bomb — but developments from Toyota, Honda, and now Audi appear to have ironed out the kinks. (A Toyota representative told me that they’ve fired bullets at the Mirai’s tank without it being punctured.)

Still, the Mirai has enormous challenges to overcome. First is the charging infrastructure, which simply doesn’t exist at scale right now. (In fact, it barely exists at all.) Ed La Rocque, brand manager for Toyota’s fuel cell vehicles, is quick to note the chicken-and-egg nature of the problem — someone just has to pull the trigger. And to Toyota’s credit, it’s putting money into partnerships in California and the US Northeast that will get a handful of hydrogen stations built by the time the car launches here. By the end of 2016, there should be 48 stations in California, supported in part by a $7.3 million loan from Toyota.

Toyota Mirai

Even with that investment, the car is going to enter the market with limited appeal and limited range. It’s not cheap: it’ll run $499 per month on a lease or $57,500 to buy, which puts it squarely in a different market than the Prius line. And La Rocque admits it won’t be an appropriate car for a road trip, considering the limited station network at launch; in fact, he notes that the Mirai will likely be a second car for most buyers. “Trailblazers,” he calls them — people who want to get in on a new technology at any cost.

EVEN “TRAILBLAZERS” MIGHT HAVE SOME DESIGN SENSIBILITY

Of course, even trailblazers might have some design sensibility, and the Mirai’s harsh exterior doesn’t do many favors there. That’s probably just as well; La Rocque says that only a few thousand will be made between the 2015 and 2017 model years.

In other words, this isn’t the People’s Green Car, the way the Prius is. Not yet, at least. When asked if the Mirai could eventually spawn a range of hydrogen vehicles, though — affordable and attractive ones, maybe — La Rocque is unequivocal. “Absolutely,” he says.

It’s just going to take a lot of station-building to make it happen.

Author: Joe Ryder

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