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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 November 2018

Road test: 2016 Toyota Mirai

We test Toyota’s potentially game-changing hydrogen-fuelled new car.
The Toyota Mirai produces 155hp and 335Nm of torque. Courtesy Newspress; Toyota

At the foot of Japan’s greatest landmark and visual icon, the active volcano Mount Fuji, lies the Fuji Speedway, formerly home to the Japanese Grand Prix. I’ve just completed four laps in a brand-new car, and have pulled into the extensive pit lane area, but instead of the sounds of ticking engines and exhausts cooling after a few furious, tyre-shredding sorties, I hear nothing at all. No think-think noises, no hissing of brakes, just the sight of water dripping from underneath the car in front.

“Can I drink it?” I ask the man from Toyota who’s just directed me to a stop. “You could,” he replies. “It’s perfectly safe, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It won’t taste very nice.”

The last time Mount Fuji spilt its guts was in 1708, and there’s no telling when it’ll happen again. When it does, though, the environmental effect is bound to be significant – something that can’t be levelled against this car. The Toyota Mirai, which looks a bit silly, but drives quite ordinarily, runs on electricity generated by a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. And as any school student who’s been paying attention in science will tell you, combine those two elements, and you get the stuff that’s dripping from the Mirai’s undertray.

The FCV (hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle) has taken its time to get here in the form of a genuine proposition for motorists. In a classic chicken-and-egg situation, none of us really knew which would come first – production cars or the necessary refuelling infrastructures – but it seems like the cars are here first, while the big fuel companies get their collective acts together with governments around the world to get hydrogen filling stations built and open for trading. When you consider the enormity of the task, it’s surprising we’ve come so far, but the world’s biggest car company isn’t exactly known for hanging around when it comes to innovative technology.

And the Mirai (which translates from Japanese into English as “future”) is Toyota’s answer to the problem of carbon emissions from driving. While Volvo is setting its sights on zero fatalities in its cars, Toyota is intent on eradicating harmful exhaust emissions, and if some dripping water is as bad as it gets, it’s a car that should be taken seriously.

What I can’t take seriously is the Mirai’s appearance. When Volkswagen designed what it thought was the future of the automobile, the tiny hybrid XL1, it made the car look like nothing else out there, but it was definitely two decades ahead of its time – sleek, cool, unique. The Mirai is unique all right, but the term “overstyled” doesn’t come close to describing it.

I’ve seen countless comments on internet forums about the Mirai’s appearance, the general consensus being that Toyota should have made it look more ordinary. Toyota’s engineering chiefs, however, are convinced it’s a thing of beauty, and my argument that while I have no problem driving an eco-friendly machine on the daily commute, I don’t necessarily want the whole world to know, is entirely lost on them. While the Prius has at last started to look less awkward, the Mirai’s lack of design cohesion is a major sticking point. I could forgive it if it was incredibly aerodynamic, but with a drag coefficient of 0.29, it isn’t.

“The novel front face underscores the vehicle’s individuality,” claims Toyota’s press material. “The elegant side profile evokes the flowing shape of a droplet of water to express the vehicle’s characteristic of drawing in air and emitting water. The roof-side rails and hood appear to pop out of the body to create the impression of a low-to-the-ground vehicle while communicating a futuristic feeling.”

But it’s a shock to the system, and that’s exactly what Toyota wants it to be. For the tens of millions of dirhams spent on its development, Toyota isn’t expecting everyone to rush to their nearest showroom with a deposit in hand, so it really doesn’t need to appeal to those with conservative dispositions. On the contrary, with just 700 examples to be built this year, it’s likely to remain rarer than most supercars for a while yet. And then there’s the price.

Although there’s no price set for the Mirai in the UAE (despite it featuring on Toyota’s stand at this year’s Dubai International ­Motor Show), consider that, in the UK, it will set you back £66,000 (Dh367,499), and you don’t need me to tell you what else you could get for that sort of money. What Mirai owners will get, however, is one of the most technically advanced cars of all time. When all’s said and done, the looks don’t matter one iota.

Underneath the body is a drivetrain that’s remarkably compact, ably demonstrated by a full-sized “cutaway” Mirai nestling within one of the pit garages at the Fuji Speedway. Up front, where an engine normally would reside, is a single electric motor, mounted transversely, which feeds power to the front wheels via a fixed ratio gearbox. At full tilt, we’re talking about 155hp and 335Nm of torque, but that twist is available from a standstill, making acceleration feel more rapid than the official 0-to-100kph time of 9.6 seconds. It’s a fairly big car, though, and weighs nearly two tonnes, so it was never going to rocket along like a Tesla.

There’s no need for exhausts – a tiny pipe for water egress notwithstanding – so the Mirai is flat-­bottomed. Its fuel cell (see the opposite page for an explanation of how it works) is mounted underneath the front seats, and produces twice the energy as that initially revealed by Toyota as a design study back in 2008. It’s housed inside a titanium case, but weighs just 57 kilograms, and is able to operate in both extremes of temperature, according to Toyota, offering longevity equivalent to a traditional engine.

For years, one of the biggest obstacles for any manufacturer when it came to launching a hydrogen-­fuelled car was the ability to securely and safely store the liquid gas itself. It’s extremely volatile at normal ambient temperatures, and difficult to contain because of its molecular structure, but Toyota has managed it rather nicely. Two individual high-­pressure tanks, formed from carbon fibre and glass fibre, are mounted underneath the front and rear seats, offering a capacity of 122.4 litres, which should give the Mirai a range of approximately 485km. The structural integrity of these tanks and the safety features in each Mirai are, according to Toyota, without equal.

If you do manage to find a hydrogen refilling station, topping up your Mirai from empty won’t take much more than four or five minutes, and this, as well as the lack of what is termed “range anxiety”, give FCVs a distinct edge over purely electric vehicles, which require lengthy recharging and a fraction of this Toyota’s range.

The Mirai’s interior is attractive, with a mix of hard and soft plastics, although it’s a bit low-rent when the car’s retail price is brought into the equation. For all the future-shock exterior design boldness, it’s all a bit ordinary inside, but it’s pleasant enough, and there’s plenty of room and comfort on offer.

On the move, it isn’t entirely silent, with synthesised whining noises emitted through the car’s speakers, which is a bit odd at first. The external noises normally drowned out by a car’s engine are efficiently dealt with by deft use of sound-deadening materials and the full sealing of all body parts, along with noise-reducing glass for the windows and windscreen. It’s serenely quiet, no matter what speed you’re doing.

As for performance, that initial blat of accelerative forward motion soon dissipates into a more sedate pace, all the way to a maximum speed of 178kph, so it isn’t exactly an exciting steer, the type you just want to drive for the sheer pleasure of it. However, the car’s weight being centred so low in the chassis does afford it excellent high levels of grip and stability, and its compliant suspension system deals with lumps and bumps with delightful aplomb. I imagine long journeys in a Mirai will be relaxing in the extreme.

But does the Mirai have a long journey ahead of it, or is it destined to become one of those curiosities we look at in museums, while scratching our chins and wondering: “What were they thinking?” Time will tell, but if you can live with a Mirai’s appearance and its purchase price, there is much to like and admire here. And I can’t fault Toyota’s commitment to reducing the pollution generated by motorists.

Have I seen and driven the future? It’s difficult to say with any certainty, but it’s definitely a future. It has been a long, rocky road getting hydrogen fuel-cell technology to this point, and I can’t see those having developed it simply hanging up their gloves without a fight – there’s far too much at stake. Like the future of our planet.

motoring@thenational.ae