Updated: Apr 1
Mirai. It's the Japanese word for "future". Toyota believes the future of transportation is green. For more than 20 years, it has famously championed hybrid gasoline/electric cars from the Prius to the Lexus LS 500h. A transition to pure electric vehicles should be a natural, but apart from the limited-production RAV4 EV eight years ago (a partnership with an upstart company called Tesla), Toyota hasn't done it.
Instead, it's staked a chunk of its money, reputation and market share on a different kind of electric vehicle. A hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle named Mirai.
Six years ago this week, sales of the first-generation Mirai began in California, the only state in the union where you can buy one. The first Mirai, sold through last year, was an odd beast, looking inside and out---and driving like---a larger Prius.
Now, we have a second-generation Mirai and it's clear Toyota has re-thought the whole thing. The 2021 Mirai draws its exterior styling and its road manners from Lexus. It's a midsize sedan that has an undeniable presence.
The interior, especially in the top-trim Limited like our tester, is also decidedly upscale. You could swap out the Toyota badges for Lexus and I doubt anyone would question it.
The Mirai has 182 horsepower and 221 pounds-per-foot of torque. Sixty miles an hour from a standing start should take about seven and a half seconds.
Strictly speaking, the 2021 Toyota Mirai is an EV. It's just that instead of plugging it in, you fill it with liquid hydrogen gas. It goes through a catalyst that strips electrons from the hydrogen molecules and those electrons power the car. The only emission from the tailpipe is water vapor. Filling the tank with hydrogen takes about the same amount of time it takes to fill a gasoline-powered car's fuel tank---five minutes or so, compared with an EV's 40 minutes or more to get 80 percent charge from a DC fast charging station.
All of which is great---except for infrastructure. Despite 17 years of a plan then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called the "Hydrogen Highway", meant to create demand for hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles and development of a network of fueling stations for them, there are only 42 places in the entire state of California where you can refuel a hydrogen car, with another 15 on the drawing board.
Not only is 42 of anything not enough in a state of 40 million people, 42 is not enough to adequately cover a state that is 840 miles from north to south. So far, hydrogen refueling stations are mostly clustered in Los Angeles, The San Francisco Bay Area, San Diego and Sacramento. Here's an interactive map.
Let's take Sacramento, since that's where I live and where I drove the Mirai. There are 2.3 million people in the Sacramento metropolitan area. There are three hydrogen refueling stations currently open and one proposed in Folsom, which is the suburb where I live. It's 66 miles from the westernmost hydrogen refueling station in Sacramento to the next one, in the East Bay city of Concord. It's 83 miles from the easternmost station to the next one, in Truckee. It's 196 miles from the southernmost station to the next one, at Harris Ranch near Coalinga.
Also, most of the time, a hydrogen refueling station is not like a gas station with eight or more pumps from which to choose. In most cases, it IS a gas station, with two pumps set aside for hydrogen. As the Los Angeles Times detailed in a devastating piece this summer, that can result in long lines when there's hydrogen. And sometimes there's not hydrogen.
I asked that my week in the Mirai be delayed because of a hydrogen shortage this summer that made finding refueling stations actually in operation a very chancy proposition. This piece shows that such shortages happen from time to time and for different reasons.
Even with rescheduling, on the afternoon the Mirai was delivered from the Bay Area, the "Alt Fuel" app showed only the West Sacramento refueling station was online. So the delivery driver refueled there. That meant the car used 27 miles of its range to get to my house. It was showing 217 miles of range, a shockingly low number, given that Toyota claims up to 367 miles for the Mirai Limited (the somewhat lighter base Mirai is capable of up to 402 miles, according to Toyota).
After a 25-mile drive to the day job, it was showing 192 miles. I used the app and found that both pumps at the Fair Oaks refueling station on the way home were online.
Six minutes later, I arrived at the station to find only one of the pumps actually online. It wasn't in use. If it had been, there'd have been a wait. In fact, while I was fueling, a driver in a first-generation Mirai arrived and had to wait for me to finish.
I'll admit to ignorance. I had no idea that night what a kilogram of hydrogen was equivalent to in terms of gallons of gasoline or recoverable range. I just swiped my credit card, connected the high-pressure nozzle to the tank and pressed the green button.
The total tab: $23.87.
I regained 60 miles of range.
Now, if I were in a gasoline-powered car that got mediocre mileage---say 20 miles per gallon---that would be three gallons of gas. And even at the prevailing price today of $4.00 a gallon, I'd have paid $12. So hydrogen cost me double.
Normally, I'll drive a car until there's a quarter of a tank left, then refuel. Doing that in the Mirai would cost me $82.50 at $16.45/kg. Yikes. Now, this is something a Mirai buyer won't have to worry about for a while. Toyota gives every new Mirai buyer $15,000 worth or six years (whichever comes first) of free hydrogen fill-ups. For leases, it's $15,000 worth or three years. The test vehicle, belonging to Toyota, didn't come with a card to tap into an account like that. And that's fine. I'm not bitching about the price. I'm trying to figure out why it bought so little. At 367 miles on a full tank of hydrogen instead of 252, the range regained for the price paid would have been a better equation. Could the Mirai have been driven hard before it got to me, causing the trip computer to base an estimate on more of the same and the resulting terrible efficiency? Who knows?
But that doesn't really make sense, either. Toyota cites an EPA estimate of 67 MPGe city and 64 MPGe highway and my trip summary that night showed an average of 62, which isn't far off enough to explain a 115 mile range discrepancy on a full tank of hydrogen.
Ultimately, it's very frustrating. Especially since I'm writing this five days after the announcement that a 2021 Toyota Mirai has now won a Guiness World Record for driving 845 miles without a fill-up.
The 2021 Toyota Mirai Limited is a beautiful car with cool technology that drives nice. I like it a lot. I want to love it---even at an as-tested price of $68,540 (see window sticker below for details). But between a limited infrastructure and an unpredictable driving experience in terms of range, to say nothing of uncertain hydrogen availability nearby at any given time, it's just too hard being this type of green.