First drive of Toyota Mirai: Too noisy for an electric car, screams Prius and Camry

MIRAI SEEMS OLD: The interior of Toyota's revolutionary, hydrogen-powered Mirai reminds you too much of the Prius and Camry, and the driving experience is disappointing for a car that runs on electricity, below. Mirai, which means "future" in Japanese, is available only in California for a starting MSRP of $57,500.

BEEN THERE, DONE THAT: When asked why Toyota didn't develop a battery and electric-motor powered car, a Toyota spokesman pitching the fuel-cell vehicle at the New York International Auto Show mentioned the RAV4 with a Tesla power train the company once sold only in California.


What a letdown.

As the owner of four Prius gas-electric hybrids since 2004, I had hoped Toyota's revolutionary Mirai would transform the driving experience as much as the all-electric Tesla I've owned for nearly a year.

But the Mirai reminds you too much of Toyota's conventional models, and it's, well, noisy for a car that runs solely on electricity.

I got a chance to drive the fuel-cell vehicle in Manhattan on Wednesday, the first press-preview day for the New York International Auto Show at the Jacob Javits Center.

The Mirai was initially shown at the New York show about a year ago.

PRESS CARS: Outside the convention center on 11th Avenue in Manhattan, Range Rovers, Jaguars, Mercedes-Benzes and many other vehicles were pressed into service as media shuttles. That's where I got behind the wheel of a dark-colored Toyota Mirai fuel-cell vehicle that was doubled parked and left running. A Toyota employee was in the passenger seat.

Electricity from oxygen

Often called the ultimate green car, a fuel-cell vehicle generates electricity by forcing a fuel to react with oxygen.

In the case of the Mirai, that fuel is hydrogen, and limited hydrogen fueling stations are why Toyota is only selling the car in California now.

The Mirai also carries hybrid-like batteries and an electric motor.

Generating electricity produces no harmful emissions from the Mirai, but a button on the dash must be pushed periodically to purge "pure water" through a rear pipe.

How quaint.

Refueling at a hydrogen pump gives up to 300 miles per fill, which takes about 5 minutes. The power train is far more complex than in a car like the Nissan Leaf or a BMW i3 powered by a battery and electric motor (Photo credit: Popular Science).

Torque steer, noise

I drove the Mirai around the convention center in heavy traffic, but got a chance to punch it twice, if that's even possible in a car with the equivalent of about 150 horsepower.

Unlike Tesla's one-speed transmission, you can hear the Mirai's transmission shifting, and when you accelerate too hard, you also get torque steer and more noise.

The Tesla Model S is not only quiet. It has the heft of a luxury car and a well-cushioned ride, both missing in the Toyota, as well as incredible speed with little fuss or muss.

Those same qualities are expected in the smaller Tesla Model 3 that will be unveiled on March 31.

I also missed the regenerative braking that slows an electric car once you lift off of the gas pedal.

Free hydrogen?

At the auto show, Toyota said Mirai owners will get free hydrogen for three years, in contrast to Tesla's nationwide network of free-for-life super-fast electric chargers.

The No. 1 Japanese automaker may have no choice but to pitch the Mirai as the world's most environmentally responsible vehicle.

It certainly isn't the quietest, fastest or most enjoyable.

But focusing on its green credentials will be a hard sell, given how giddy consumers are rushing out to buy SUVs and pickup trucks to take advantage of low gasoline prices.

And with the media being kept afloat by advertising revenue from automakers and oil companies, writers will continue to ignore the terrible toll of the internal-combustion engine, including climate change, air pollution, disease and death.

Next: The world doesn't need 99% of the vehicles shown to the media on Wednesday, including a 164-mph Maserati SUV.

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