The Top Gear car review: 2021 Toyota Mirai FCV

By topgear, 01 December 2020

What is it?

You could be forgiven for missing the significance of this car. It looks like an ordinary – if elegant – Japanese big sedan. Inside and out. It rides and steers like one too, though extremely refined and well-sorted. The ordinariness is of course precisely the point.

This is the fuel-cell car going mainstream. It drives like a big EV, goes further on a tankful than they do on a recharge, fills up in 10 minutes, and costs less to buy than a big 480km battery car.

Is that the smell of exotic dung? Open the window, while we address the elephant in the room. There are only a dozen or so public hydrogen stations in Britain. So you won’t be getting a Mirai unless, say, you run a regional taxi or limousine company and are near a hydrogen pump. Or indeed can install your own.

There are good arguments why hydrogen can in future exist alongside and complimentary to pure-battery cars. Especially, too, why it’s a great solution for local bus and lorry fleets that do regular runs. Once those commercial fleets are established, there will be more hydrogen available for cars, and that means more cars will be sold.

Click here for Hyundai-Kia’s approach to proliferation of hydrogen. Toyota’s is similar. Those two mega-corporations’ efforts added together make quite a force.

But we’re here to talk about the Mirai itself. The outgoing Mirai looked like the science project it was. The new one is a car. And an uncontroversially pretty one, its big wheels emphasising the low shark-like front end and fastback tail.

You know the fuel-cell drill. High-pressure hydrogen is kept in cylindrical tanks in the car. The new Mirai packs one tank along the centre tunnel, one transversally under the back seat, and another under the boot. The hydrogen is admitted into a ‘stack’ of fuel-cells. Purified oxygen is pumped into the other side of each cell, separated from the hydrogen by a membrane.

The hydrogen atoms WLTM oxygen, and to do it they shed their electrons so their nucleus, a proton, can permeate through the membrane. The liberated electrons jump around the cell, via circuits that power the car’s drive motor. The hydrogen, oxygen and returning electrons combine to make pure water, the only emission.

The new-gen Mirai’s fuel-cell stack has been reduced in cost, crucially, but also in physical size. So it can live under the bonnet, along with the oxygen fans and purifiers and high-voltage electronics. The drive motor is at the back, whereas the old Mirai was FWD. Above the motor is the hybrid battery.

Yup, it’s a hybrid, because that means the fuel-cell’s output needs only be sufficient for continuous cruising, while the battery can augment that power to give the motor an extra kick during all-out acceleration. Also it gives better response, because any fuel cell is a bit laggy. But don’t worry: the Mirai sidesteps the Prius rubber-band effect because the motor drives the wheels directly through a single fixed gear ratio.

The 3D jigsaw of all these systems is fitted in a way that matches for space the components in a rear-drive petrol hybrid. So the Mirai has a rear-drive platform shared with new Lexus cars. That’s good for comfort and quietness, and proper multi-link suspension all-round gives hope for an improvement on the original Mirai’s canoe-like dynamics.

For its manufacturer, this new Mirai is a proper business, not a low-volume proof-of-concept. Toyota expects to sell 30,000 a year, which is about the same as BMW sells of the i3. Even a company as big as Toyota can’t afford to sell that many cars at a huge loss. So this shows that fuel-cells are now getting close to cost parity with those big-battery pure-electric cars the Mirai competes against.

While it’s a better and better-equipped car than the old one, it might even be  cheaper to buy or lease.

What is it like on the road?

Relax. It might be driven by an electric motor, but it’s not about a 500-horse stampede. Instead, it’s gentle and smooth, and comfy like Sunday afternoon.

The 185hp motor gives a sprightly step-off, and smooth seamless acceleration. But a 0-100 time of 9.2 seconds better suits gentle chauffeuring than chasing assertive German sedan drivers down the autobahn.

Even on a highway the Mirai’s urge will tail off above 95km/h. That’s not to say it’s incapable of swimming in the outside lane, but you need to plan your moves. Steering is mute but accurate, and it tracks nicely about the straightahead.

Lob it at a bend, and there’s a moment of slack while it asks you if your back-seat paying passenger really wants this. But then, after due consideration… around it goes, flat and pretty sure of itself. Give it the beans (admittedly only one of those little squat 150g bean tins that are no use to anyone) and you feel the rear tyres shoulder the effort and shove you through.

It’s not too much of a barge, then. It’s less than two tonnes, not bad for any 5m-long car and a whole lot less than a battery-powered equivalent.

The cornering is certainly more level than you’d expect from its lovely and supple ride. It absorbs biggish undulations and sharp hits and smaller untidiness with equanimity. There’s not a lot of road noise either. Nor the cacophony of whirring fans and pumps that were always present in the old Mirai.

Our test trip didn’t include a lot of motorway, but the driver assist worked to normal posh-car standards.

Layout, finish and space

This is a Toyota. But by the swish materials, plush furniture and sense of lux, this could be a Lexus. (Why this badge? Toyota is the mothership brand, and they want Toyota to be seen as the tech leader.)

The big screen operates by touch, not by any kind of console controller. For a Japanese car the design is clear enough and the fonts coherent. Not something Toyota can be relied on to manage. There’s phone mirroring too, and a useful head-up display. Masses of actual switches mean you don’t need to dive into menus too often, though some of them lurk down by your knee where they don’t want to be found.

The shape of the cabin isn’t at all like the flat-floored airiness of a battery EV. Instead the central tank imposes itself as a high spine down the cabin. In the front that makes you feel tucked in, though not confined.

In the back it’s a lot better for hire-and-reward work than the last Mirai, not least because the rear bench takes three people. Legroom is OK, but disappointing for a car this long. And in our sunroofed test car, rear headroom was tight. Bit of a dropped ball, that.


Running costs and reliability

Odd to call this section ‘owning’ when most of its drivers won’t in the UK. Initially at least, it will be leased only.

It isn’t just about strolling into your local Toyota dealership. To stop them - and you - looking foolish by putting you into a car you can’t fuel, all UK transactions are via Toyota’s UK HQ. They’ll be concentrating on high-profile green fleets near to hydrogen supply.

And even so, the Mirai needs to be regularly pounding long daily distances to make sense. Otherwise, an EV plugged in overnight does the job. Maybe the ideal customer is a 24-hour cab company, taking advantage of the quick refuel times to keep the car running round the clock.

They don’t need to stay that close to the pump. Range is a claimed 650km, but that’s not a WLTP figure so treat it with a degree of caution. Even so it looks better than EVs. A Hyundai Nexo has slightly more tank volume, by the way.

It’s not a money-saving car in the UK. Hydrogen is sold by mass, and it’s at least £10/kg in the UK. The Mirai’s tanks hold 5.6kg, giving fuel costs per mile close to petrol equivalents. That’s far more per mile than a pure battery car.

In some other countries, hydrogen stations are closer together than here. And they serve locally produced hydrogen from renewable energy at a fraction of the UK price. Then the Mirai would make a case for itself.

FCVs used to be unworkable in very cold weather, but this one will do a start-up in -30 degrees C, which is enough unless you’re planning a trip to the Arctic.

Final thoughts and pick of the range

The Mirai is a big, luxurious car. Luxury sedans with a PHEV powertrain are the same price. All-electric ones considerably more.

It’s a bit slow, but it makes up for that in refinement and comfort. The suspension is ideally set up for the sort of use the car will get. It’s a nice place to pass time and distance.

Which makes it an amazing achievement, the culmination of decades of obsessively detailed optimisation and cost-reduction work for Toyota. If they can sell as many as they expect, general fuel-cell prices will fall further, from which will follow more cars and more stations.

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