The Toyota Mirai is one of only two hydrogen fuel cell cars on sale in the UK today, and aims to offer an alternative electric vehicle experience to pure EVs.
One of the regular criticisms of pure electric vehicles – rightly or wrongly – from those against EVs is the time it takes to recharge them. Only the fastest charging EVs can add a couple of hundred miles in 10-15 minutes, and even then, some naysayers will complain. There can be no such issues with the refuelling time for the Toyota Mirai, as it takes a few minutes to replenish the hydrogen tanks; a similar timescale to filling a tank up with petrol. Now in its second generation, is the Toyota Mirai the solution and an electric vehicle for everyone? Well… no, not exactly.
Toyota’s Mirai uses a battery only a little over 1 kWh in capacity, which is tiny even by plug-in hybrid standards. However, the main power comes from the fuel cell stack housed underneath the bonnet, generating electricity on demand to charge that battery from hydrogen stored in on-board tanks.
As such, that battery only needs to be small, acting as a buffer for instant throttle response, allowing the Toyota Mirai to behave more like an EV than an internal combustion engine vehicle. Those hydrogen tanks take up a fair amount of interior space in what is a large car. It’s an executive saloon in scale; think BMW 5 Series territory.
This means there is practically no room in the middle of the rear seats thanks to a ‘transmission tunnel’ filled with a hydrogen tank, and even head and leg room in the outside rear seats isn’t particularly good for a car this large. It’s usable, but not luxurious. Boot space too is inhibited a little thanks to a third tank, so it’s not as practical as you might expect. It is still a spacious enough car for a couple up front with occasional occupants in the rear.
Toyota’s engineers have strong foundations on which to build the Mirai. Using the same stiff and lightweight platform as the Lexus LS, an advanced and compact fuel cell stack, and a quiet electric powertrain, the Toyota Mirai is a relaxing car to drive. It’s as smooth and comfortable as a Lexus but doesn’t feel as though this is simply a rebadged version of one of Toyota’s premium brand models. It’s definitely a Toyota, just a very refined one.
Although the ride and handling are tailored to the comfort end of the spectrum, don’t think that the Mirai is an old barge, wallowing into corners with soggy handling. In fact, the Toyota is surprisingly good to drive, and the balance between driving dynamics and comfort is excellent. It’s ideally suited to settling down on a motorway cruise, soaking up lumps and bumps in the tarmac. However, it’s also adept at being driven along something twistier, and can provide plenty of fun in the right circumstances.
The steering is light, but gets heavier at speed, meaning the Mirai is easy to pilot around town as well. In fact, there is a definite premium feel to the whole set-up, with the Mirai comfortably competing against the likes of Audi in terms of driving experience. With a surprising agility to everything, the Toyota Mirai manages to perform well across the board, being both comfortable and nimble.
It’s no high-performance machine, with a 0-62mph time of 9.0 seconds. As is often the case with electric vehicles, it feels quicker in short bursts and from standstill, thanks to the instant response offered by the motor. Power comes from a 134 kW (180 PS) electric motor, which will push the Mirai up to 108mph where regulations allow; it’s ample performance, but don’t expect a rapid turn of pace from the Mirai.
Controls are good for Toyota, but not as premium as normal executive saloons. The infotainment system is useful but not all-singing-all-dancing which you find in rival models, though the materials used feel of a good quality. Plenty of physical switchgear helps with safe operation of functions on the move, and there is a B mode within the dash-mounted drive selector, which falls close to hand. It allows for simple use of boosted brake energy recuperation, helping extend the range where possible.
The Mirai has an official range of up to 400 miles before the need to refuel. It’s one of the greatest benefits of using hydrogen as a fuel, alongside the fast-refuelling times. There wasn’t a chance to refuel on this launch drive, but having topped-up other FCEVs, it’s effectively an identical process as filling up on LPG – quick, simple, and safe.
The Mirai’s greatest strength is also its biggest weakness. Yes, the Mirai takes just minutes to add another 300+ miles of range, but you can only refuel at a handful of sites currently. There are a few hydrogen refuelling stations in and around London, some at Swindon, Sheffield, and Aberdeen, and that’s about it. There are further planned sites at Birmingham, Derby, and Teeside, but we’re still a long way away from UK-wide infrastructure. There are usually only one or two pumps available, and they may be out of action/in use/or out of hydrogen capacity – all unlikely given how many FCEVs there are on the road currently, but possible.
As such, the Mirai will only really suit those living or working near a hydrogen refuelling station, or if they drive past one on regular routes. Unlike plug-in electric cars, there’s no chance to ‘refuel’ at home either. When the UK’s public EV charging infrastructure was in its infancy, there was at least the chance to recharge effectively from any plug socket within reach. That’s clearly not the case with FCEVs. Fuel costs mean that a tank will cost around £60 or more for 300 miles of range, so it’s not cheap to run in this regard. Tax and congestion/ULEZ zone exemptions can help recoup some day-to-day running costs however.
Because this was a launch event, there wasn’t the chance to really push the range and find out exactly how far it will go on a tank. We can work on calculations though, and the Mirai holds up fairly well in terms of real-world range. Covering more than 80 miles on a quarter of a tank, the Mirai’s calculated range is at least 330 miles from full. This is a good deal short of the official 400 mile range, but still excellent in real terms.
To get an EV with a better real-world range will see you spend considerably more, and the test route had a good mixture of motorway and fast country roads, with occasional urban driving. Most would spend more time in town, which should boost the range to about 350 miles thanks to lower speeds and greater stop/start charging aiding brake energy recuperation.
There is one powertrain on offer, so the only choices for the Mirai come down to trim level. Three specifications are available, with Toyota offering Design, Design Plus, and Design Premium. Prices start at £49,995 for Design, which represents a 20% reduction over the first generation Mirai. Design Plus costs £53,995, and Design Premium (tested) £64,995. This top specification includes just about everything on the options list, with only pearlescent paint (£925) an extra cost.
Tax rules see the Mirai follow those of pure-electric models, which means there is zero VED for the first year, and zero Standard Rate costs. It even matches EVs on the Premium Rate exemption, since the Mirai emits no CO2 from its ‘exhaust’. Company car tax follows suit, with a 1% BIK rate for 2021/22, climbing to 2% and 3% for the next two financial years respectively.
Toyota’s Mirai will have many detractors, and it’s certainly not a brilliant electric car. The relatively restricted interior space available is largely of Toyota’s doing, and looks worse because Hyundai’s Nexo – the other FCEV available new in the UK – is an SUV. Whether it’s because of clever packaging or simply using a larger car to start with, the Hyundai offers a normal level of occupant space and load area; and is far more practical. The other main downside for the Mirai is the refuelling infrastructure, which Toyota can do little about, apart from the fact that it’s pushing ahead with FCEVs alongside pure EVs. As such, the old Chicken & Egg dilemma means Toyota is doing its part in making sure there will be cars to use the refuelling stations. It will take time, but this issue will improve, and in the meantime, the Mirai will suit certain drivers – fleet or personal – that live comfortably within range of a hydrogen station.
The above point about FCEVs and EVs is a key one. This is not intended as a replacement technology for pure-electric cars, and the development we’ve seen in EVs in just the past five years has seen hydrogen fuel cell cars left behind. Despite this, and the fact that using stored hydrogen is less efficient than using a battery, there is likely to be a place for FCEVs in the passenger car market, even if it’s a small one for those longest-range models.
As such, Toyota’s efforts with the Mirai are far from perfect, but it is a good car nevertheless. It drives nicely, is comfortable, and has reasonable performance. It’s a good looking car, and meets all the regulations that pure EVs do in terms of emissions, meaning it’s just as future-proof for tax changes and charges for entering low emission zones. If the refuelling infrastructure were more widespread, the Toyota Mirai would gain an extra point or two comfortably, which is tough on Toyota. Instead, it is awarded a Green Car Guide rating of 6 out of 10.