Fuel-cell vehicles like the 2020 Toyota Mirai use the lightest and most abundant element in the universe essentially as a clean fuel for producing electricity at the vehicle—by harnessing a reaction with air.
While that sounds like nirvana, the Mirai isn’t free of emissions and carbon impact. It takes energy to produce the hydrogen and pressurize it to a level (70 MPa) that can be stored away in sensibly sized tanks. Most of that comes from natural gas at present.
It all sounds a bit like a science experiment. There are some vehicles—the Hyundai Nexo is the most noteworthy—that buck that impression entirely, but the current Toyota Mirai, which has been on sale since the 2016 model year, tends to look like at least one of its parents was a mad scientist.
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It earns a 5.4 overall here, with its clean powertrain and good standard equipment offsetting its hard-to-stomach styling and unremarkable performance. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
The front-wheel-drive Mirai is powered by a 153-horsepower electric motor, with energy fed to it through the hydrogen fuel-cell “stack,” buffered through a modest battery that also helps recover energy when braking or decelerating, like a hybrid.
You won’t find particularly quick acceleration or engaging handling in the Mirai, but those really weren’t the priorities here—clean, emissions-free motoring was definitely the first aim. Much like earlier electric cars, the Mirai feels at its perkiest up to 30 mph or so. It’s in its element in the city, where it feels easy to maneuver. Steering is rather light, but Toyota’s expertise in tuning hybrid systems pays off here with a smooth, predictable brake pedal.
Four adults fit into the Mirai—and don’t even think about fitting a fifth person as fuel-cell components are wedged into an area down the middle of the vehicle. The standard upholstery is a synthetic leather, and while the Mirai shares some of its design traits inside with the Prius (including its shift lever), the interface is quite different, with touchpad-based climate controls placed lower from the line of sight. Every Mirai is equipped with 17-inch wheels, a 7.0-inch touchscreen for infotainment, and two USB ports.
The Mirai rides like a larger, cushier sedan, overall, and from a sound standpoint it’s very quiet; you just hear a whoosh and whir as the fuel-cell stack ramps up its power production. To make room for actual hydrogen storage, the rear seats don’t fold forward to allow more trunk space for larger items.
The Mirai is produced in very small numbers, and so it hasn’t been a priority for testing by either of the U.S. safety agencies. But since the Mirai is a technology flagship for all of Toyota, you can assume that the automaker took safety seriously with its engineering. Feature-wise, the Mirai includes automatic emergency braking, active lane control, and blind-spot monitors.
The 2020 Mirai is offered in small numbers, in specific areas of Northern and Southern California, plus Hawaii, that are deemed close enough to hydrogen fueling stations. Which leads to another important point: While high-pressure fills of hydrogen take much less time than fast-charging an electric vehicle, if your local hydrogen stations have downtime there really is no backup plan. That was proven this past year when an explosion at a hydrogen production facility in Santa Clara put a pinch on some Northern California stations for months.
An all-new Mirai is due later in 2020, as a 2021 model, and it will be a different kind of car—a larger rear-wheel-drive sedan with a completely new layout. The 2021 Mirai promises to be sportier than the current car, and it will be powered by a next-generation fuel-cell stack capable of producing more power with better efficiency.