Toyota Mirai leaves nothing but clean water in its wake
Cutting-edge hydrogen fuel cell vehicle has an otherworldly presence
You expect it to be silent but it’s not. Rather, the absence of any raucous internal combustion noises in the Toyota Mirai lets you notice the wind rushing over the side mirrors, the tires thrumming on the pavement, and the clicking and whirring of electrical components – as if a tiny R2-D2 is hidden in the glovebox.
And every once in a while, a scratching sound from the centre console, where perched the hitchhiker I’d picked up along the way, claws curled over the edge of the cupholder. It’s that time of year when turtles go forth on their egg-laying quests and often wind up in places they shouldn’t be – in this case, the centre line of County Road #2. And it only seemed like an act of good karma that this car, which emits nothing but water, should be helping out something that thrives in our natural lakes and ponds.
This day begins at Toronto’s Evergreen Brick Works, a community environmental centre based in a former quarry. It’s a fitting send-off for the fifth instalment of EcoRun, an annual drive program organized by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) to promote fuel-efficiency awareness. Among a slew of various production cars, the Mirai is the only one here that runs on hydrogen.
Although Hyundai’s Tucson Fuel Cell was previously available through lease programs, the Mirai is the very first fuel cell vehicle (FCV) you can actually buy. Or rather, you could – if you lived in California or Japan. Unfortunately for us Canadians, our infrastructure for hydrogen filling stations is virtually non-existent. Toyota has made available more than 5,600 patents to help advance the development of hydro-filling stations, but the onus is on our government to make it a priority.
“Mirai” apparently means “the future” in Japanese, and indeed it has an otherworldly presence that’s rather unsettling. There have been more than enough “predatory” references to Toyota’s gnashing, familial front end, suffice it to say that the Mirai’s is even more pronounced. The style is “origami tin foil,” with overlapping steel petals, knife-sharp creases and gun-slit projector beams. The gaping, mandibular front end helps ensure that the fuel cell has an abundant flow of cool air.
The cockpit is very similar to that of the current Prius, with the same two-tiered dash, electronic shifter and Toyota’s Entune connectivity interface. Push the start button, and the Mirai moves off with the same eerie soundlessness of a typical electric vehicle. There’s the ubiquitous graphic display of outward energy flow and battery replenishment through regenerative braking, but in this case, the primary source of its electricity stems from hydrogen, one of the most plentiful elements on Earth.
Aside from the unexpected acquisition of my passenger, which has by now retreated sulkily into its shell, the trip has so far been fairly ordinary. And that’s a good thing; after all, the success of this vehicle, as with the trail-blazing Prius, will rest on its ability to fit seamlessly within the lives of the consumer.
The Mirai averages 400 kilometres on a single fill-up, and with nearly 240 km remaining so far, there’s no range anxiety. Its consumption is measured in kilograms, rather than litres, and so far I’m averaging 0.8 kg/100 km. At the end of the day, this translates to the equivalent of 3.5 L/100 km – by comparison, the electric Nissan Leaf recorded an average of 2.1 L/100 km; the Honda Civic averaged 6.7, the Smart ForTwo averaged 6.1 and the Prius averaged 4.5.
There have been some curious stares, and a couple of thumbs-up from other drivers, but the most surprising reaction was from the transport driver who refused to let me merge after a lane reduction, crawling forward with great blasts of his horn until finally relinquishing some space. Really – if you’re going to succumb to road rage, it’s probably best not to tangle with something that’s got a hydrogen bomb strapped to its rump, right?
Actually, that’s one of the most common misconceptions surrounding hydrogen fuel cells. According to John-Paul “J.P.” Farag, Toyota’s Advanced Technology and Powertrain manager, hydrogen, which is lighter than air, dissipates quickly into harmless vapour when leaked and is far safer than the highly combustible liquid fossil fuels we’ve been carrying onboard for decades.
At 10,000 psi, the Mirai’s hydrogen gas is under extreme pressure, but it’s contained within two triple-layered tanks that are reinforced with carbon fibre-reinforced plastic and glass fibre. Through an electrochemical reaction when combined with air, the hydrogen creates an electrical current that charges a battery, which then powers a synchronous A.C. motor producing 151 horsepower and 247 lb.-ft. of torque.
The resulting byproduct? Nothing but clean water. Although tempted to herald our arrival in Belleville with a celebratory glass (there’s actually a dash-located H20 button for purging), the Mirai had left a continuous dribble in our wake, and expelled only a tiny puddle upon stopping.
A quick detour to Belleville’s Moira River and our terrapin friend was returned to its element. As was the Mirai; since the nearest available source of hydrogen was in Trois-Rivieres, Que., the car was loaded into a trailer and replaced with a new, fully-fuelled Mirai – one of three on loan from Toyota U.S.
After stops in Brockville and Kingston, we eventually rolled into Ottawa, welcomed by Deputy Mayor Mark Taylor. And while the Mirai undoubtedly made a lasting impression, the non-toxic puddle of water left near the steps of city hall slowly dried up in the sun.