Tech’splaining: 2021 Toyota Mirai Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Sedan

can be reached at nkurczewski@yahoo.com
can be reached at nkurczewski@yahoo.com
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The completely redesigned 2021 Toyota Mirai is a hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle that has shed the awkward design of its predecessor. But is a sleek shape, more elegant cabin, and better driving range enough to make this hydrogen car more than a quirky automotive footnote?

  • The first-generation Mirai has been on sale in the U.S. since the 2016 model year.
  • This latest Mirai gets a more upscale exterior and premium interior dominated by touch-screen panels.
  • Toyota expects the 2021 Mirai will have 30-percent better range than the previous model.

If the future is hydrogen, then someone forgot to fax that news to the world of electric cars and trucks. Despite years of promise and a few attempts at production models, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles haven’t managed to capture the imagination of car shoppers.

More importantly, as more and more EV recharging stations pop up around the country, the chances of encountering a hydrogen filling station remains as likely as getting a Sasquatch-guided tour of Area 51. There aren’t many of them, to put it mildly. In California, the Mirai’s largest (and until now, one of its only) markets in the U.S., Toyota representatives report a total of 38 hydrogen fueling stations across the entire state.

The 2021 Toyota Mirai adopts a Lexus-like exterior design that’s dramatically different from the outgoing model. (Photo: Toyota)

Classier looking and less quirky

This hasn’t stopped Toyota from doubling down and releasing a totally redesigned version of the Mirai. Due to arrive next year as a 2021 model, the new Mirai is a striking departure from the previous version. Unless you’re a fan of awkward angles and bizarrely over-sized grilles, the change is for the better. The current Mirai stands out from a crowd, though not for any particularly positive reason. The block-shaped exterior is punctuated by huge front grilles, strangely sculpted fenders, and a cabin that’s out of place in a car costing approximately $58,000.

Honda Clarity Fuel Cell vs Toyota Mirai Rear Views Consumer acceptance of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles hasn’t been helped by the polarizing designs of cars like the Honda Clarity (top) the current version of the Mirai (bottom). (Photos: Toyota and Honda)

The 2021 Mirai is now longer, lower, and leaner-looking than before. It stretches to more than 195-inches in overall length, or about the same size as a Toyota Camry and Lexus ES sedan. A swept-back roof leads into a tapering tail, a design more some have compared to the current Audi A7 sport sedan. That’s something that could never be levied at the 2019 Mirai.

2019 Hyundai Nexo Limited in Copper PaintThe Hyundai Nexo is a fuel cell SUV offered in two trims, Blue and Limited. (Photo: Hyundai)

To its credit, Toyota isn’t alone when it comes offering a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle with a challenging design. The Honda Clarity is a similar mish-mash of intersecting lines and angles. It’s either wildly futuristic, or excessively ugly – the choice is yours. Only the Hyundai Nexo fuel cell SUV comes close to blending in with the internal combustion masses.

The cabin of the 2021 Mirai looks more in keeping with a car expected to carry a price of approximately $70,000. (Photo: Toyota)

The 2021 Mirai will also receive a substantial cabin upgrade, one more aligned with a Tesla Model 3 versus a Prius Hybrid. A high-resolution 12.3-inch touch-screen display dominates the center of the dashboard, while a 14-speaker JBL audio system is fitted. Ride was present during a preview of the Mirai, ahead of the car’s reveal during the 2019 Tokyo Motor Show. However, the concept we viewed didn’t have a finished interior, so further judgement will have to wait until we spend time inside the car.

The 2021 Toyota Mirai should have a realistic driving range of more than 400 miles per tank. (Photo: Toyota)

Hydrogen vs. electricity

So, why bother with hydrogen in the first place? To start, it’s a prevalent resource and relatively inexpensive, at least once the infrastructure is in place. In a fuel cell vehicle, hydrogen is stored in pressurized tanks located within the chassis. This hydrogen is converted to to power in an electric motor that blends hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity. Fuel cells exist in a wide variety of places, from ships and forklifts, to backup power sources for buildings. The technology is proven, though making it affordable remains another hurdle.

Arguing for or against fuel cell and electric cars is moot because, basically, they’re the same thing. The primary difference is their power source, whether it’s a lithium-ion battery pack or hydrogen-filled tanks. One of the biggest advantages to a fuel cell is that it can be refueled in less time than it takes to charge an electric car. Even some of the most advanced fast-charging systems require an EV owner to wait 20-30 minutes, or nearly five times the amount of time you’d spend filling up with gas, diesel, or hydrogen.

The 2021 Mirai will have more power and greater range than the outgoing version. (Photo: Toyota)

We know the 2021 Mirai will be rear-wheel drive and have “30-percent” more range than the current model, according to Toyota’s estimates. That would peg driving range at more than 400 miles per tank, which is nearly double what’s offered in the Chevrolet Bolt and Nissan Leaf. About the only electric vehicle that comes close to matching this figure is a Tesla Model S in Long Range trim. Starting at just over $72,000, this long-running Model S offers 373 miles of electric driving range.

The 2019 Mirai presently has the equivalent of 151 hp and, during a recent test drive, this was adequate for routine city and highway driving. Toyota hasn’t mentioned anything specific about how much power to expect in the 2021 Mirai, though you can bet the horsepower boost will be sizable. In its move towards making this fuel cell more of a premium product, the Mirai will have to provide the ride, handling, and acceleration to match a growing number of luxurious electric rivals, including the Audi e-Tron and Mercedes-Benz EQC.

Toyota plans to expand sales of the Mirai, though total output will remain small. Globally, Toyota says it expects to sell 30,000 units of its next fuel cell sedan each year. Of the present Mirai, only 1,700 were sold last year in the U.S. The vast majority of sales were lease agreements in California, where the Mirai costs approximately $389 per month, with $2,499 due at signing. Toyota expects to expand sales to northeastern states, such as Connecticut and Massachusetts. Yet, pricing details and an exact timeframe for these broader sales remains unknown at the moment.

 WHY THIS MATTERS

Toyota is convinced hydrogen has a place in the future of mobility. The 2021 is a more polished vehicle than the one it replaces, but the lack of infrastructure to support fuel cell vehicles remains a monumental challenge.


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can be reached at nkurczewski@yahoo.com
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