Toyota Mirai Hydrogen Fuel Cell VEHICLE (2016 Model REVIEW)

Written By: Brittney B. 

Accelerating Toward a Fuel-Cell Future: Preview of the 2016 Toyota Mirai  

2016 Toyota Mirai (Hydrogen Fuel Cell VEHICLE)

Energy-efficient vehicles have become a virtual necessity for automakers that want to stay relevant among today's carbon-conscious consumers. Savvy manufacturers are looking ahead to the next energy innovations, but most are concentrating on fully electric vehicles. Toyota is among a handful of companies finally getting serious about other fuel alternatives.

With the 2015 arrival of the 2016 Toyota Mirai, hydrogen could soon climb the ranks as a viable fueling option for carbon-conscious drivers. The Mirai, a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (FCV), finally debuted at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November 2014. As Toyota's first FCV (and one of the first commercial FCVs in the world), it's already in such high demand that Toyota had to triple production efforts.

Harnessing the Future of Fuel

Mirai means "future" in Japanese, and it seems the model is already delivering on the promise of its name. Toyota has been working on fuel cell technologies for two decades, and they compare the Mirai to everything from generators to submarines, but this vehicle is firmly planted in the future of automotive innovation.

The 2016 Toyota Mirai owes its efficient powertrain to the Toyota Fuel Cell System (TFCS), a zero-emission innovation that converts hydrogen gas and oxygen into electricity, which it then uses to power the car's electric traction motor. This motor is supplemented by a nickel-metal hydride battery pack. Meanwhile, a pair of high-pressure carbon-fiber fuel tanks can hold up to 11 pounds of compressed hydrogen atoms.

For safety's sake, a monitoring system also senses danger and shuts off the hydrogen tanks automatically if necessary. When the tanks are completely full — a process that only takes about five minutes — the Mirai has a range of up to 300 miles. That's 35 miles better than both the Tesla Model S, a fully electric 4 door sedan (edited), and the Hyundai Tucson, a FCV that stores 2.4 extra pounds of hydrogen.

Unexpected Performance and Comfort

The Toyota Mirai's efficiency may also benefit from its aerodynamic exterior, which isn't particularly stunning but is, at least, available in four different color options: nautical metallic blue, celestial black, elemental silver or crystal white. The most visible new exterior feature is a pair of air intake grilles right below the LED headlights; these vents capture and send oxygen back into the fuel cell system.

Inside the Mirai's cabin, you'll find noise-reducing glass in the windshield and windows, an intelligent climate control and audio system, and even power-heated SofTex seats (which are also available in the 2015 Prius). The steering wheel and rearview mirrors are heated too, and the door handles can be locked or unlocked by touch.

The Mirai is quiet and comfortable inside, so it's easy to overlook the pull of the 153-horsepower motor, or the car's impressive 247 lb-ft of torque. Thanks to its state-of-the-art powertrain and lightweight design, the Mirai can even accelerate from 0 to 60 MPH in nine seconds. That doesn't measure up to most sports cars, but for an everyday sedan it's plenty of power.

To further celebrate the innovation, Toyota even includes a "first-class" maintenance plan for every forward-thinking driver who purchased one of the first Mirais. Three years' worth of free fuel is included in the sticker price, which starts at $57,500.

Tripling Production Plans

Halfway through the model's first month of sales (October 2014), almost 1,000 orders had already been placed. By the end of the month, 1500 orders were in (60 percent belonged to government agencies). Toyota hadn't accounted for this, so after warning that new orders wouldn't arrive until the following summer, Toyota decided to triple production plans with a $165 million investment in December 2014.

Finally, in January, a senior executive confirmed plans to order "substantially more" cars from Toyota's Japanese assembly plant. By then, the American release had already been pushed back to October 2015. Though the original plan was to produce 700 cars throughout 2015, they now expect 2,100 models on the road by 2016, and a total of 3,000 by the end of 2017.

Each member of the Mirai's limited production run is hand-built in a secretive Toyota City workshop, LFA Works, which is attached to the Motomachi Assembly Plant. The same workshop was used from 2010 to 2012 to produce 500 limited-edition Lexus LFA halo sports cars, and again in 2013 to fabricate carbon-fiber roofs for a concept sedan. In the months before the Mirai's official reveal, the workshop even produced a 22-speed carbon-fiber bicycle called the F Sport Roadbike, which sold for $10,000 each.

Now that the workshop is focusing on a much higher volume of new production-ready FCV's, consumers can continue to place their orders. However, North American drivers will have to keep waiting for most of 2015, because Japan and various government agencies are first in line.

Limited by a Lack of Stations

Unfortunately, global energy infrastructures haven't progressed at the same rate as market demand for fuel alternatives. A lack of specialized stations has limited the number of actual production models that can run on fuel alternatives like hydrogen. Other than hybrid options that also include combustion engines — such as Toyota's wildly popular Prius — and small electric vehicles like the Nissan LEAF®, there aren't many commercially available models that rely completely on readily accessible fuel alternatives.

Unlike fully electric vehicles that can be charged at home or on-the-go, FCV's rely on special hydrogen fueling stations that can only be found in a handful of countries and cities. Luckily, as the Mirai is moving from concept phase to production to delivery, a global push for more hydrogen filling stations is already underway. Both the United States and Japan have recently taken significant strides toward increasing drivers' access to hydrogen stations.

Pitching in to Pursue Hydrogen

In fact, on January 15, 2015, Toyota's president personally delivered the very first production-model Mirai to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The leader suggested that the "dawn of the age of hydrogen" had begun, and he might be right. Since the Mirai's inception, the automotive industry has enjoyed a significant surge in energy investments and innovations.

For example, in spring 2014, the California Energy Commission awarded $46.6 million in grants to companies that build, design and fuel hydrogen stations. As a result, 28 new stations will be installed in strategic locations throughout Northern and Southern California, effectively doubling the total number of options for FCV drivers in that state. Still, 56 stations aren't nearly enough for a state with more than 38 million residents and 840 miles of highway.

Japan still has the most viable market for fuel cell vehicles, which is why Toyota earmarked more than half of its first production run (400 of the original 700 models) for Japanese deliveries. This distribution isn't as simple as Toyota favoring its home country. Japan gets the bulk of the models for the same reason that Southern California gets all the American models: because it already has the energy infrastructure necessary to power them. 30 filling stations currently exist in the country, primarily in the major cities of Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka, and the government continues to invest in financial incentives for manufacturers and drivers alike.

The private sector is joining the push for progress too. In May 2014, Toyota made its own $7.2 million investment to a hydrogen startup called FirstElement Fuel. The goal of that collaboration is to build a refueling network of hydrogen pumps for passenger cars, including at least 19 new stations throughout California. Meanwhile, in Japan, 13 different auto and energy companies (including Toyota) are collaborating to construct a hydrogen highway across the main island.

If these efforts continue, and other governments and corporations join the quest for fuel alternatives, cars like the Toyota Mirai will become profitable enough to produce in large quantities and deliver throughout the world.

Toyota isn't resting after unveiling the Mirai. At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2015, the automaker revealed plans to release 5,680 of its patents. Because all of them are related to its proprietary fuel cell drive system, Toyota made the gesture to encourage competitors to develop their own FCV's. If the effort works and competitors pick up the pace, demand could continue to increase for hydrogen fueling stations throughout the country and world.