In November 2013, Toyota announced a new vision, one that is more ambitious, and perhaps more fraught, than any other in the company's history. Fittingly, this vision is named after the Japanese word for “future,” Mirai. If the same executives who wagered on the Camry and Prius are to be trusted, then the future is hydrogen.
I recently had the chance to take the future, as it were, for a quick spin in San Francisco. Unlike most new cars, whose computer-rendered carapaces conceal retrograde combustion technology, the Mirai’s swoopy bodywork cloaks a truly sophisticated power plant: a hydrogen fuel cell whose only emission is water vapour.
While the Mirai's fuel and powertrain are exotic, the ride borders on the unremarkable. The cabin, clad in plant-based leatherette and insulated from outside noise by acoustic glass, is sedate and uncluttered, with a slim digital dash reminiscent of the unit in a Prius. The only really striking interior feature is a touch-sensitive central console (though “slab” may be a better descriptor) housing intuitive controls for the car's climate and audio systems.
Bump the stubby shift lever into Drive, step on the pedal and, inside the fuel-cell stack, the movement of hydrogen electrons through a complex matrix of materials generates electricity. This in turn powers an electric motor that spins the front wheels. As with any electric car, all of the Mirai's 247 pound-feet of torque is available from a standstill, giving the car insistent acceleration. The only sign of effort? A distant harmonic whine. When it comes to deceleration, the Mirai blends the stopping power of discs on all four wheels with regenerative braking via the electric motor. A nickel-metal hydride battery stores the scavenged electrons for later use, boosting both acceleration and efficiency.
For a substantial car, at 192.5in (489cm) and 4,080lbs (1,850kg), the Mirai is nimble, pivoting easily round potholes on the intermittently pocked streets of San Francisco's industrial China Basin neighbourhood. When swerving was not an option, its suspension dispatched the divots with soft, satisfying thwops.
Toyota claims a range of up to 300 miles on 5kg of gaseous hydrogen, stored in two high-pressure tanks made from carbon fibre. The carmaker notes that a kilogram of hydrogen has the same energy content as a gallon of gasoline. So in broad strokes, the Mirai's fuel economy is equivalent to 60mpg, a rating which would best the Prius's 50mpg combined figure by 20%.
Futuristic appeal and drinkable emissions aside, whether the world's first mass-produced fuel-cell car succeeds is a matter of timing and infrastructure. California, the global launch market for the Mirai, currently has just 10 hydrogen filling stations, versus 10,000 conventional petrol stations and more than 1,800 electric-vehicle charging stations. Then there's the matter of where the hydrogen comes from. Most hydrogen in the US derives from natural gas, the extraction of which can pollute the environment. But hydrogen can also be extracted from water using electricity generated from solar, wind and hydropower.
While the future of hydrogen is still somewhat murky, one thing is clear. If the Mirai is to succeed in the manner of its siblings, an enormous investment in hydrogen infrastructure is necessary. That the Mirai – a fully realised and perfectly personable car – is here to force the discussion is a minor miracle.
If you would like to comment on this or anything else you have seen on BBC Autos, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.