Mention you’re driving a hydrogen-fuelled car, and you can see it on people’s faces. Their eyes narrow, their forehead furrows, and their lips silently form the phrase “Hindenburg disaster”. Or “hydrogen bomb”. That the hydrogen-fuelled car could be a safe and clean journey to the future is, to put it mildly, a difficult sell. Top Gear decides to face the matter head-on. You want explosive? We’ll give you explosive. Let’s take the Toyota Mirai and stuff its hydrogen-filled backside with fireworks, then drive down the motorway, replenish its tank to 10,000psi, then proceed into the capital to deliver the fireworks to a bonfire-night display.
Photos: Barry Hayden
This feature was originally published in issue 277 of Top Gear magazine
The Mirai is a big car but it doesn’t have a vast boot. Its carbonfibre hydrogen tanks, not to mention the hybrid battery, are bulky and slightly compromise the space. Right now, I don’t care, because while carrying a few boxes of fireworks serves to prove the point, I’m nervously reading their safety labels, and observing the no-mobiles rule at the Kimbolton Fireworks factory, and deciding there’s no sense in pushing it.
Still, I was reassured when I arrived by a brief glimpse of a kindly-looking old man in a cardigan, Kimbolton Fireworks founder, Reverend Ron Lancaster. What peril could possibly issue from him? Now in his eighties and with an MBE to his name, Ron has nursed a lifelong passion for pyro. As chaplain of Kimbolton School in Cambridgeshire, he taught divinity and chemistry, giving him free range to use the labs for his experiments. In 1964, he founded Kimbolton Fireworks. The firm grew and is now the only manufacturer of fireworks in the country, transforming more than 400 tonnes of explosives a year into the ooohs and aaahs of human wonderment. They also did the displays for the London Olympics. After we’ve loaded our boot with his products, I drop back in on the office hoping for a chat, but I’m told Ron has been called away on a parochial matter. Pastoral care still takes precedence over lighting up the heavens.
The clammy, misty light of autumnal Cambridgeshire manages to mute the Mirai’s stylistic wackiness. Its giant air intakes, bulky flanks and shapeshifted light clusters are supposed to evoke the step-ahead technology that lies beneath the tin. If so, the future’s not going to be a pretty place.
The cabin’s aesthetics have some more enjoyable flourishes. But first you have to see past the mismatched displays for climate, navigation and the car functions. Like when you choose your telly and DVD and amplifier from different manufacturers, it’s typography Babylon. But it’s well-equipped in here, and nicely finished. More Lexus than Yaris. Toyota obviously figured, and sensibly, that there was little point in bolting a punishingly expensive propulsion system into a bargain-basement car. Ha’pennyworth of tar and all that.
The Mirai drives reassuringly expensively. It proceeds down the road with a stately bearing and plush ride. Tyre roar, suspension clang and wind rustle are generally prominent in EVs, as they’re not masked by the sound of combustion and the mechanical complexity that enables it. But the Mirai subdues them well. Neither do you hear much sighing or puffing of the fans blowing air into the fuel-cell stack. Beyond the stack and tanks, most of the propulsion system is in any case well-proven and refined. The motor, transmission and hybrid battery are all adaptations of what’s in a Lexus RX450h.
Acceleration feels perkier than in a typical Toyota hybrid, though, because you don’t get confused by that dissonant relationship between engine revs and road speed. Here, the motor pitch is proportional. The Mirai will shove you solidly away from rest, giving exact and instant responses to your right foot, and a 0–62mph time of 9.6 seconds. But as the motorway flows faster (everyone’s in a hurry to put Stevenage behind them), its reserve of acceleration is a bit shallow. That’s standard stuff for what is after all a straightforward single-speed EV. It just gets its electricity from an unconventional source.
The Mirai is 1,850kg, runs on energy-saving tyres and simple suspension. It’s not a sports car. Still, the weight is low down and evenly spread, and it has no bad habits. It corners perfectly benignly. But what it does best, and it does these things very well indeed, is wafting in near-silence along a motorway or making comfortably demure progress through urban traffic.
In your Mirai, you will do a lot of driving like this, because you will be going to a filling station. There are only three of them in the country so far, which means any one of them is bound to be a lengthy detour. We go to the one tucked in behind a Sainsbury’s somewhere up the old Roman road in Hendon (you didn’t know the Romans enjoyed Taste the Difference Canary Islands cherry tomatoes?)
Quick refilling is the reason always cited by fuel-cell evangelists as to why their preferred tech will trump battery-electric cars. The Mirai is supposed to be able to take on in five minutes enough hydrogen for 250–300 real-world miles.
But for early adopters it’s a right faff. You tap in a code number to open a small metal box by the pump. Inside is a key. Use this to unlock a padlock on the pump pistol (er, why not just make that padlock a combination lock?). Then tap in a different pin on the pump controller, plug the pistol’s snap-fix nozzle onto your car, and hey presto. Wait a minute. Once we’re connected, the pump’s display says the pressure’s low and we need to call a helpline. We do, and 25 minutes later the pump resets itself. Meanwhile time for an egg sandwich from the adjacent Sainsbury’s petrol station, which tastes like it’s been pre-enjoyed by a centurion.
Finally we’re in business, and the gas is pumped in without drama, at an astonishing 700 atmospheres. By the time I’ve replaced all the locks and shackles, we’ve been here long enough to have quick-charged a Nissan Leaf.
I wonder how renewable this particular hydrogen supply is. It’s best to think of hydrogen as an energy carrier not an energy source: it doesn’t occur naturally and it can be clean or not, depending on whether it’s been electrolysed by clean electricity. It makes good sense as a buffer store for fickle wind or solar energy. But cumbersome and energy-intensive to transport if the right infrastructure isn’t in place. London’s clean fuel-cell buses, like the Mirai, emit only water and zero CO2 or NOx at vehicle level. But their hydrogen is brought on ships and trucks from Rotterdam.
We set off round the North Circular Road, expecting an easy 30-minute trip to the display site. It’s lashing down. A Fiat has been rammed up the rear, and the road is snarled up for an hour. I’m hoping the crash victims are OK, and thanking them for not driving around with a boot full of explosives.
Finally we arrive at the bonfire. Repton Park in Essex is a rather grand Victorian hospital site, redeveloped into smart houses and flats. The majority of them have big powerful SUVs parked outside. The Mirai would surely have trouble penetrating this market, though the people we meet actually rather like the look of it. Then, it’s hard not to be impressed by the technology. Fitting it into your life is something else.
Kimbolton’s pyrotechnicians, Mark Checkley and Lisa Crosby, are battling to set up and waterproof the display as the rain lashes down. Team Top Gear gloomily set up a few preparatory photographs but our heart’s not in it. Repton Park estate manager Matt Snelling is fretful that not much of a crowd will show up.
Still, aided by a goodly dousing of old-fashioned petroleum, the sodden bonfire does light. The hog roast and real-coffee stalls open up, doing a busy trade with the crowd that’s duly squelching through the gates. At the very last moment, the clouds thin and the rain clears. Mark and Lisa fire up their routine.
It catches the breath in your throat. One after another they go up, perfectly choreographed crystal fountains, flowers of rubies and emeralds, diamond brooches of sparks. Explosions, whistles and shrieks; fusillades of bangs that momentarily collapse your chest. The jewelled sky washes our Mirai in its glittering reflections and puts a melting glow on the crowd’s upturned, enchanted faces.
I’d set out today to prove a point about the future. In the end it’s ensnared by the past. It’s about the first fireworks any of us ever saw, our small-child memories of being half-transfixed by the spark trails, half-terrified by explosions. That’s what the best fireworks do. For 15 fleeting innocent minutes, they bring out the awestruck child in us all. And at the end of it, there are no exploding-Toyota disasters on the news tonight.