The transformation of Toyota Mirai from (very) ugly duckling to beautiful swan
Something very positive has occurred within Toyota’s design department, suggests Iain Robertson, as the Japanese firm’s most recent run of models is not only stand-out attractive but also conservatively detailed and intensely market friendly.
There was a period during Toyota’s most recent 30 years, during which I felt that it had lost any desire to introduce style to its models. The most avant-garde of them seemed to be its eco-friendly cars, epitomised by the Prius and Mirai, which led me up a garden path of determined ugliness, encouraging my application of the word ‘plugly’ to describe any of the plug-in hybrid variants.
To be honest, my sole explanation of why eco-models need to be so stand-out ‘plugly’ lies largely in a desire to make their ‘owners’ stand-out from the crowd. After all, if you have ‘eco-warrior’ on your facebook CV, are a rampant vegetarian (probably vegan), name all of your children by the most obscure biblical references, wear dreadlocks even though you are Caucasian and Chinese Baptist, and attend Extinction Rebellion marches, you are unlikely to drive anything other than an EV, or a hybrid.
I know that I am being facetious but even the blue-rinsers that have evolved into using eco-friendly transport, because they can afford to, while not necessarily comprehending the technology at their disposal, understand full well the value of driving a crooked halo. At no time have they considered the real eco value of their cars, preferring to rely on the half-truths emerging from car manufacturer marketing departments, about low/zero emissions and growing fresh greenery (usually via a dashboard graphic). Yet, there must be some form of motivation in there somewhere.
While you will hardly turn to stone by looking at pictures of the original/current Mirai FCV (Fuel Cell vehicle), it is not really a thing of unrivalled attractiveness, with its jutting, angular surfaces and the total imbalance of small wheels and an overbearing body. It looks even more horrible at night-time, with its weird LED lighting pattern. Yet, completely opposite, without losing its fuel cell technology remit, the proposed latest iteration is svelte, well-balanced and verging on readiness to satisfy the eco-friendly demands to be placed on it.
Fuel efficiency remains a critical area and Toyota is targeting a 30% increase in Mirai’s driving range, which was posted originally as 300-miles, through (undisclosed) improvements to the fuel cell system and the use of larger on-board hydrogen tanks. Unsurprisingly, this does equate to a greater kerbweight than before but the car is also physically larger.
Mirai’s Chief Engineer, Yoshikazu Tanaka, informs us: “We have pursued the goal of making a car that customers will feel they want to drive all the time; a car that has an emotional and attractive design and the kind of dynamic and responsive performance that can bring a smile to a driver’s face. I want customers to say: ‘I chose the Mirai not just because it’s an FCEV, but because I simply wanted this car; it just happens to be an FCEV.’ We shall continue our development work focusing on that feeling, and we hope that with the new Mirai we shall be a leader in helping to realise a hydrogen energy society.”
It is an intriguingly different standpoint for Toyota to assume, let alone allowing one of its designers out of the office to make comments. The immediate impact of new Mirai lies in its exterior design, with low lines (not dissimilar to a Kia Stinger), elegant proportions, sleek, taut bodywork and large, 20.0-inch diameter alloy wheels that combine to present a powerful and distinctive look. The show car, destined for the annual Tokyo Motor Show, is finished in a specially developed blue paint that uses multiple layers to achieve an exceptional brightness and depth of colour. It is a new technique unlikely to be seen in production form, due to the added expense.
The Mirai’s interior has been conceived as a simple, modern space with a warm, comfortable ambience that adds to a sense of its driveability. Key elements include a 12.3-inch centre touchscreen and a driver focused instrument panel. The platform and improved packaging allow for five seats to be provided in place of the current Mirai’s four. Crafting a more emotional and head-turning design has been one of the benefits of Mirai being based on Toyota’s latest rear-wheel drive modular platform, which was engineered from the outset to accommodate different powertrains, including hydrogen fuel cell. Thanks to a higher degree of body rigidity, which contributes to greater on-road agility and responsiveness, and a lower centre of gravity, the new Mirai promises nimble and rewarding chassis dynamics, which will be interesting to experience, as the current Mirai suffers from an indifferent lack of vitality to all of its controls.
For what it is worth, Toyota states that around 10,000 examples of the current Mirai have been sold around the world. Those are numbers unlikely to amortise the cost involved in developing it as Toyota’s first Hydrogen powered motorcar. It does beg the question about Toyota’s eco plans, as the company has a resolute attitude towards hybrid cars but not EVs, which I applaud to a certain extent, because it demonstrates a sense of reality that many of its rivals appear to have forgotten.
As well as extending the potential driving range (up to 400-miles), improvements in the performance of the fuel cell system are said to deliver a more linear, smoother response, when pulling away, and an elegant driving feel, with unity between the driver’s inputs and the car’s accelerative capabilities. Its handling is light and easy on winding roads, while motorway driving produces a useful trough of power at all speeds. While the only questionable aspect is the source of the hydrogen fuel (as a by-product of the crude oil cracking process), fuel cell technology may have legs, were Toyota’s technologists to invest in the ‘cracking’ of sea water…although it remains a highly unstable fuel source.
Conclusion: While the new Toyota Mirai looks production-ready, it is just a concept at this stage and its technology and potential pricing will be announced nearer to its international launch, should Toyota management sign off the prototype.