2019 Toyota Mirai Fuel Cell Vehicle: Race Organizer Review

Not too crazy-looking, but there’s some seriously futuristic technology under the skin.

The local hydrogen shortage meant that I could buy just two-thirds of a kilo of H2, also known as “the clear horse.”

Under the hood, a solid polymer electrolyte fuel cell with 3.1 kW/L of power density.

Toyota didn’t get too weird with the interior.

Datsun 510 wagon for scale.

I wish bright purple had become the accepted badge color for electric cars, not blue.

The placement of a huge Proposition 65 warning sticker right in the driver’s field of vision out the side glass is maddening. I’d scrape this thing off within seconds of buying the car.

The wireless phone-charging pad inside the center console is very useful.

Naturally, I photographed the Mirai with an early-1950s Michigan-made film camera (Argus Model FA).

Photographed with 1950 Argus FA film camera.

One of the good things about having both family and 24 Hours of Lemons Headquarters in the East Bay is that I get to make frequent visits to a region with exceptional junkyards and the infrastructure needed to fuel vehicles that run on the most common element in the universe: hydrogen.

A few months back, I drove a Honda Clarity Fuel Cell around that area and came away impressed by what amounts to an electric car with the range of a gasoline-powered car. Naturally, that meant that I had to see how the H2-powered Honda stacks up against its Toyota rival— in fact, its only rival— on the same streets.

Even with the space taken by the H2 tank, the trunk has useful capacity.

The first real-world car test I like to perform is the evaluation of the trunk capacity at the airport parking lot.The Clarity Fuel Cell has a significantly abbreviated trunk, presumably to make room for the hydrogen tank; the Mirai’s larger trunk does a good job holding big suitcases.

Lots of science right here.

The Mirai drives like a typical EV, with plenty of torque and lots of squeal from the low-rolling-resistance front tires if you get too aggressive with the volts. Other than the occasional muted moaning and groaning from the fuel-cell hardware up front, the driver doesn’t get much indication that anything unusual is going on under the hood.

Interior looks suitably space-age, while also retaining Toyota-grade lack of frivolity.

The interior is standard-issue Toyota stuff with a hint of science fiction. It reminds me of the way Toyota allowed a bit of Mars Base futurism to creep into its cars during the 1980s, without going gloriously tech-crazy the way Subaru or Mitsubishi did. Since this car is meant for commuting, not clipping apexes or impressing influencers on the Vegas Strip, the interior needs to be a place suitable for spending many hours in comfort, and it succeeds.

It proved nearly impossible to keep the white SofTex upholstery clean.

For real-world use, I’d avoid the light-colored SofTex seat upholstery. This stuff feels nice but appears to be optimized for extracting and holding any dirt from your hands or clothing. Get the dark SofTex and all will be well. I did my best but still managed to get some schmutz on the car’s SofTex.

Real back seats.

I’d say that adults up to about 5′ 10″ could fit comfortably enough in these back seats. However, since the Mirai qualifies for the magical HOV sticker (which allows you to drive solo in California’s HOV lanes, due to greenness), you won’t need to fill the back seats with random passengers just to beat traffic.

You can watch the molecules splittin’ and electrons swirlin’ in the Mirai’s power-system display.

While I’d give the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell the edge over the Mirai in the “fun to drive” category, I’d say the Mirai definitely has the less-frustrating vehicle-driver electronic interface. The Bluetooth connectivity worked flawlessly with my smartphone and the voice-recognition system proved very accurate. The wireless phone charger in the center console was a nice touch, too.

The old Art Deco PG&E building in Emeryville has become my go-to backdrop for photographing futuristic vehicles.

The Mirai is a lot less odd-looking than the Clarity Fuel Cell, for sure, although I think we need more odd-looking cars on the street. I’m not sure which of the two fuel-cell cars wins the highly subjective appearance battle, though the Mirai would be the better choice for drivers wishing to be more invisible. I think some wilder-looking wheels would help the Mirai’s looks, personally.

That’s a lot of H2 stations, right?

The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the few locations in the country with public H2 fueling stations in operation, and the California Fuel Cell Partnership offers this handy map for locating hydrogen when it’s time to refuel your fuel-cell car. To my dismay, however, I learned that only the green icons show active stations; the yellow ones indicate planned stations. No problem, though, since the Mirai has a factory range rating of 312 miles and you won’t have to fuel very often.

Hmmm, that’s not good.


PRICE AS TESTED: $59,495 (minus various rebates)

POWERTRAIN: Electric motor, front-wheel-drive

OUTPUT: 153 hp, 247 lb-ft

CURB WEIGHT: 4,075 lbs


PROS: Drives like an EV, long range, Toyota build quality

CONS: Hydrogen fuel might be difficult to find, H2 not always green to produce

Then I learned that Northern California was in the grip of a hydrogen shortage! Clarity Fuel Cell and Mirai owners would be lining up at 3:00 AM when word of a station with a bit of that sweet H hit the fuel-cell grapevine, just as my parents did with the family Chevy Beauville van in ’73 and ’79. Once the Mirai’s tank got too low for me to hit the junkyards I wanted to scour for interesting vehicles to photograph, I knew that I’d have to face hydrogen lines, and maybe even angry mobs of fuel-cell-car owners. I decided to show up to one of the allegedly sold-out H2 stations to see what would happen.

Not exactly like 1973 or 1979.

Disappointingly, I didn’t find angry mobs, picket signs, chants of “WE WANT H2!” or fistfights over the final kilo of the precious gas. In fact, I didn’t find anybody— my Mirai was the only car at the fueling station. The pump worked but dished out just 0.67 kilograms of hydrogen and then refused to give me more. That much hydro cost me $11.10, but not to worry— lease or buy a new Mirai in California and Toyota will pay for your first $15,000 worth of fuel.

Presumably, the Mirai’s H2 tank is good for 15 years. Also, 10,150 psi!

And that brings us to the discussion about how green a fuel-cell car really is in practice. Hydrogen, as obtained here on Earth, isn’t something you can dig out of a mine or suck out of the air— you have to spend energy to make the stuff, either by electrolysis of water or (far more commonly) by using steam to grab the hydrogen from natural gas. This means that while a fuel-cell vehicle produces no exhaust other than water while it’s driving (which is great for people who have to breathe the air nearby), energy had to be expended somewhere else to obtain the hydrogen. If the stuff came from an electrolysis plant powered by acres of solar panels, you’ll be able to pat yourself on the back for driving in no-carbon fashion (other than the carbon generated to build the car, of course). If your hydrogen comes from a chemical plant, then you can pat yourself on the back for participating in an important beta test of a technology that may become very important in the future… but your driving might not be so green right now.

Mirai ( 未来 ) is the Japanese for “future.”

Hydrogen has the advantage of being an energy-storage medium that can be moved around via truck or pipeline, which means the stuff could be generated in quantity in some coastal location with lots of solar-power potential and then shipped to consumers via many of the same systems that now move liquid fuels. I’m glad that Toyota and Honda are taking steps to test fuel-cell vehicles on real roads in large numbers, in case cheap, clean hydrogen wins the race against improvements in battery technology.

Looks a bit spaceship-like from this angle.

If you’re a commuter in a big coastal California city, leasing a Mirai makes a great deal of sense. You’d get free fuel, you’d drive solo in the HOV lanes, and you’d be doing your part to advance the knowledge of what may become a critically important transportation technology. I think I’d take the Mirai over the Clarity Fuel Cell, though not by a big margin, based on the better user interface in the Mirai and my lingering awe over the greatest motor vehicle Toyota has ever built. If my commute took me on exciting mountain roads instead of hours of stop-and-go traffic on the Bay Bridge or the 405, though, I’d want the Clarity Fuel Cell.

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