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Andrew Chesterton road tests and reviews the hydrogen fuel cell Toyota Mirai with specs, fuel consumption and verdict at its Australian preview.
To people of a certain vintage, Toyota's hydrogen fuel-cell Mirai will make about as much sense as lead-lined baseball caps or asbestos chewing gum. And not because the technology at work is too hard to understand - though it is insanely complex - but because hydrogen has spent an awfully long time killing people.
The plentiful but hugely flammable element has been linked to some of the planet's most catastrophic disasters - from Hiroshima to the Hindenburg - and promoting a product that literally put the "H" in "H-Bomb" will surely rank as one of the world's great marketing challenges.
But it's a challenge being embraced by Toyota and others as the world's automotive manufacturers prepare for a post-petrol future. And for Toyota Australia, the arrival of three Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicles that will be showcased to government departments, businesses and even fuel companies over the next three years is the first critical step to launching the technology here.
So what's the difference between a hydrogen fuel-cell and an electric car? The key difference is that while in an electric car, you need to plug it in to charge the batteries (a process that can take hours depending on the type of charger used), in a hydrogen fuel-cell car, you fill your tank with pressurised hydrogen in the same way you would with LPG gas. When the hydrogen meets oxygen in the car's fuel cell, it acts as a kind of mini power station, creating the electricity to power the motor. Better still, the only by-product of this process is water.
Like in any conventional car, there's a fuel gauge that will slowly dip from full to empty as you run out of hydrogen. When that happens (at least in Toyota's vision of the future) you will simply pull into a hydrogen refuelling station, top up your tank - which takes about three minutes - and get back on the road.
The Mirai won't officially go on sale in Australia until there's infrastructure here to support it, and that means public or privately run hydrogen refuelling stations and, more than likely, some sort of government subsidy program. That's how it works in the USA, Japan and parts of Europe, where Toyota has sold around 2,000 vehicles.
In the meantime, though, we've tested the Mirai on the streets surrounding Toyota's Sydney headquarters to find out if this car of the future is worth waiting for.
Toyota is a long way from finalising the Mirai for Australia, let alone finalising pricing. But a glance overseas does give us a guide as to what to expect when the car officially launches here.
In Los Angeles, for example, the Mirai will set you back around US$60,000, but you can expect a US$8,000 government tax credit, and Toyota USA will then cover your hydrogen bill for the first three years of ownership. A straight conversion, then, would see an $80,000 price sticker attached to the Mirai in Australia, not including any subsidies that might be applied by our government.
While local specification obviously isn't available, the Mirai does land fairly well equipped overseas. A heated steering wheel and wing mirrors along with 17-inch alloys arrive as standard kit, as does a fairly comprehensive suite of safety equipment, but we'll come back to that in a moment.
Just the one motor on offer, and it's an electric number that will generate 113kW and 335Nm. That equates to a zero to 100km/h sprint of 9.0 seconds and a top speed of 180km/h. The power is channeled through a single-speed automatic transmission and sent to the Mirai's front wheels.
Here we arrive at the first drawback. While electric cars takes longer to refuel, electricity is cheap. Consumer advocates Choice, for example, estimate the cost of recharging a Tesla Model X will be somewhere in the vicinity of $2 if you plug it in overnight.
While hydrogen is the world's most plentiful element (it's generated from natural gas, solar panels and even sewerage - which gives new meaning to the term shitbox), someone has to capture and pressurise it for you, and that's not cheap. Toyota's mobile refueller (one of only two fuelling points in Australia) cost them more than $500,000 to set up, and the estimated cost of filling the Mirai's five-kilogram hydrogen tanks is somewhere around $60.
Fuel economy is measured not in litres but in kilograms, and the claimed fuel economy is 0.9kg per 100km, for a full range of 550 kilometres.
Like the Prius, the Mirai is built for function over form with a focus on lightweight materials, including special machined alloys that shave about 2kg off the curb weight, and an aerodynamic body style designed to slice through head winds so it uses less power. Even that plastic mesh at the front of the car has purpose, hiding a square intake grille that sucks in oxygen and pumps it into the fuel cell.
Full disclosure: we could have barely boiled an egg during our time behind the wheel of the Mirai, but on first impressions, driving the future has never felt so normal.
If you've ever driven an electric car, then life behind the wheel of the Mirai will feel instantly familiar. Expect the same eery silence from the engine bay, and the same smooth, uninterrupted flow of torque as you climb from zero to the speed limit.
Speaking of torque, there's plenty of it. While we only tested the Mirai at suburban speeds, there's plenty of punch away from traffic lights as every ounce of power arrives the moment you plant your foot. In a somewhat surprising decision, the Miria offers two driving mode choices, Eco and a more engaging Power mode that pumps up the accelerator responsiveness, squeezing all it can the of the electric motor.
We'll have to wait until we can get a more comprehensive drive to offer a definitive verdict, but the Mirai feels very, well, normal.
Safety covers the usual basics, but adds a reversing camera, rear parking sensors, blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, lane assist and eight airbags, with Toyota Australia saying the car would qualify for the maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating.
And what of all that compressed hydrogen? Will that be a case of "oh, the humanity" in an accident? Toyota says the Mirai's two hydrogen tanks are both polymer-lined and carbonfibre-wrapped, and are designed in a layered structure that it says can absorb five times the impact of steel. In a high-speed collision, the tank will automatically shut down the flow of hydrogen, and any left in the car's system is sent out into the atmosphere to disappear (before it can catch fire).
Nope, you can't. Sorry.
It was the briefest of brief dates, and we don't yet know about pricing, specification or even how the car performs on a longer test drive. Still, the technology is undeniably clever, and a car that can take solar-generated hydrogen and turn it into power, with only water as a by-product, deserves our attention.