You expect a certain sort of magic from a car like Toyota's Mirai, the world's first mass-market, hydrogen-powered all-electric named after the Japanese word for "future." It maxes out at 300 miles, refuels in five minutes and spits out zero emissions except for water, all for tens of thousands of dollars less than Tesla's electric Model S.
But behind the wheel of the four-door Mirai, which California drivers can buy in October for around $50,000, what you get is something much more, well, boring: a smooth, quiet, mid-size sedan you wouldn't find out of place in a school pick-up circle. And that's what makes it so fascinating.
Toyota let us test-drive one of its prototypes this week, and it became clear why one of the world's biggest automakers is making a huge bet on hydrogen as a future fuel for the world's roads. The Mirai is responsive, futuristic, fully featured and fun to drive, the kind of car you can see beating gas guzzlers at their own game.
But the Mirai's journey to automotive acceptance is already dotted with a number of potholes, not the least of which is criticism from the most notable face in electric cars, Tesla founder Elon Musk, who has called hydrogen fuel cells "extremely silly," fool cells" and "bulls--t" (more on that in a minute).
So, could the Mirai one day roll into your garage? Here are five quick points to help you find out.
The Toyota Mirai, as seen at an autoshow in Shanghai last month.
1. First, let's get all the stipulations out of the way, because there are a lot of them.
The Mirai's sole fuel source is hydrogen, which you can get in only a dozen fueling stations across the country: 10 in California, one in Connecticut and one in South Carolina. More are in development, but there's still no way this will be a road-trip car anytime soon.
It will start at $57,500 (or lease for $499 a month for 36 months, with about $3,650 up front). That could get knocked down by government incentives, like a $5,000 tax break in California. But an $8,000 federal tax credit for hydrogen cars expired last year, and it's unclear whether it will ever come back.
There are several other electric cars that are more expensive, such as the $70,000 or so Model S, and Toyota is cushioning the budgetary blow with up to three years of free hydrogen. But that price tag is still way higher than the average car buyer is looking for.
Lastly, Toyota plans to offer the Mirai nationwide after its California launch later this year, but only barely: They're expecting to sell only around 3,000 cars in America by the end of 2017. Ford sells about that many F-150 trucks in a single day. That makes the Mirai, at least for now, about as rare as you can get.
2. With a 300-mile range, it leaves Tesla’s Model S in the (clean, zero-emission) dust.
Here's how it works. The car gulps in air while it drives, mixing that oxygen with its hydrogen in a stack of fuel cells to make electricity and power the motor. It's electric in a different way than the traditional powered-by-battery "green" cars such as the Model S and the Chevrolet Volt. "Think of it as a small power plant," said Chris Santucci, a Toyota program manager.
Like the Model S, it doesn't have the big engine block you'd expect. The biggest thing under the hood is a "power control unit," which tells the car where to deliver the energy; most of the work is done in the pipes and fuel cells between the front and back wheels.
That helps get the Mirai up to a maximum driving range of around 300 miles, enough so that the typical driver wouldn't suffer "range anxiety" on a daily commute. The car's digital-indicator dashboard is designed to help the driver perform as efficiently as possible.
That range is huge because few other mass-market cars can compare. The Chevy Bolt, selling for $38,000 before tax credits, and the new Nissan Leaf, set for 2017, promise 200 miles on a single charge, and the Model S offers 265 miles.
Inside the Mirai
3. It will take only five minutes to refuel – if you can find a hydrogen station.
Unlike some all-electric cars, which need to be plugged in overnight to recharge, fueling the Mirai is about as quick as pumping a typical car's gas. That could go a long way to making cleaner, greener cars more accepted by mainstream drivers.
But first, they'll need the hydrogen. In-car navigation will guide the driver to the closest hydrogen fueling station, but that may not be close at all: Toyota representatives said there would be about 20 stations in California by the end of the year, and few others elsewhere nationwide.
One of Musk's biggest critiques of hydrogen, and there are many, is that it is difficult to efficiently produce, store and distribute as fuel, especially given there's next to no infrastructure prepared for cars needing to refuel.
Toyota senior vice president Bob Carter has defended hydrogen by criticizing Tesla's sharp focus on battery-powered cars: "If I was in a position where I had all my eggs in one basket, I would perhaps be making those same comments."
But opening up a number of hydrogen stations won't be easy, or cheap: Outfitting a single station for driver-ready hydrogen could cost about $1 million. Battery-powered, plug-in cars have a similar problem, though they can at least connect to the electric grid. There's nothing like that for hydrogen.
The car I drove had been topped off two weeks earlier at a SunHydro solar-powered hydrogen-fueling station in Connecticut. It still had plenty of miles left for a few more stops. But to get it there, Toyota workers needed to load it on a truck to get it back to the station. Not everyone will have that luxury.
4. It doesn't ride or look that different from any other car, and that’s a good thing.
I drove from jam-packed, stop-and-go downtown D.C. streets to the breezy George Washington Memorial Parkway, and the Mirai handled both like a pro, accelerating smoothly, responding quickly and braking with ease. The motor powers only the front wheels, and you won't be winning any drag races anytime soon. But it didn't struggle to get up to speed, either, and it felt like there was some good power when I pressed the gas.
The four-seater is loaded with all sorts of semi-driverless features that keep it from veering into other lanes, help it brake when needed and match the speed of the car directly ahead. It's got a nice dashboard screen for maps, music and diagnostics, and the other goodies you'd expect of new cars, like back-up cameras and a push-button start.
The design is sleek, with clean lines, light and styling that make it about as attractive as you can get for a sedan. It's got some very high-tech features — including a power take-off plug in the trunk that, on a full hydrogen tank, could fuel the average American home for a week — but they're hidden and unassuming, so drivers don't have to worry about sticking out.
The car I drove had served as the pace car recently at a NASCAR race in Richmond and was still covered with loads of "zero-emissions" stickers. That turned some heads: A motorcyclist gave us a thumbs-up and, when we stopped at a scenic overlook, an Uber driver in a Prius came over to take a look. Without the markings, though, the Mirai could easily blend in with every other Toyota on the road.
Under the hood.
5. But it's still very unclear whether the car will ever take off.
Few major automakers are as big or rich as Toyota, so the company's commitment to the technology is encouraging. The automaker is also aware of the criticism, and is responding with verve: Because Musk said the cars were "bulls--t," Toyota made an entire ad campaign, "Fueled by Bulls--t," that explains how, yes, even cow manure can be a source of hydrogen gas.
That's good, because convincing drivers that hydrogen (which many people may associate with the Hindenburg and H-bomb) is a valid fuel will take some work. But this is certainly not a one-year rollout for Toyota: The automaker — and boosters like Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who bought the first Mirai — have referred to it as the start of a "hydrogen society."
"A thousand vehicles aren't going to solve the energy issue," said William Chernicoff, a manager for Toyota's energy and environmental research, "but this is Toyota's vision for the power train in the next 100 years."
Sounds lofty, right? Especially considering the Mirai is now made by hand in a Toyota plant that cranks out only a few a day. But the automaker is quick to say that this is just a glimpse at what hydrogen fuel cells can do. If Toyota pulls it off, the Mirai could be the first step toward a huge shift for the world's roads. And there's nothing boring about that.