Close Finish in Hydrogen vs. Battery Contest- 2016 Toyota Mirai Long-Term Road Test
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2016 Toyota Mirai Long-Term Road Test

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2016 Toyota Mirai: Close Finish in Hydrogen vs. Battery Contest

by Jason Kavanagh, Engineering Editor on September 30, 2016

For the return voyage on our alt-fuel road trip from Santa Monica to Lake Tahoe, Dan Edmunds and I switch cars. This time, I'll be in our long-term 2016 Toyota Mirai and he'll take the 2016 Tesla Model X.

There's a wrinkle, though.

The Tesla will be charting a different course. It will head south on I-395, a shorter route than taking I-5. It will do this because it can — there are Superchargers along I-395. There are zero hydrogen stations, however, so the Mirai can't take the shortcut. This factor will clearly give the Tesla an advantage it didn't enjoy on the inbound leg.

What's more, the Mirai won't simply be returning the way it came. It used up enough range while driving in the Lake Tahoe area (after the completion of our Santa Monica to Lake Tahoe "sprint") that it needs to be refueled in Truckee. Truckee is not on the way back to Santa Monica, but it is closer than Sacramento, home of the next-closest hydrogen station.

So, the Tesla will be taking a shorter return trip and the Mirai will be taking a longer one. This arrangement more accurately reflects the current reality of alt-fuel motoring. Moreover, the lengths of the two cars' routes differ by about 90 miles according to the map. Considering that the Mirai beat the Tesla by 90 minutes on the inbound leg, the outbound contest should be much more even.

2016 Toyota Mirai

Off we go. At 7:59 a.m., we depart Base Camp Hotel in South Lake Tahoe. Our routes diverge almost immediately as Dan peels off in town while I continue around the lake to reach Truckee.

Dan's a competitive guy, and I'm a sucker for car-related contests. I want to win. I am determined to win. It's game on. There's no stopping me now.

I have to stop almost immediately. There's been a lot of road construction in this area lately and the road goes to one lane in several areas. The road crews are doing those alternating-direction closure deals. This isn't the way I wanted to start.

2016 Toyota Mirai

Worse yet, only minutes into the trip I notice something troubling in the Mirai's instrument cluster — an illuminated tire pressure (TPMS) icon. Drat. Does the Mirai have a low tire? It sure isn't driving that way, but sometimes a few missing psi can be hard to notice. Why doesn't this thing have individual tire pressure readouts? Maybe it does and I simply can't find them. Double drat. Stupid icon. It's not angry red, but it's also not going away.

I still have about 40 miles to go before reaching my planned hydrogen stop in Truckee. Depending on how low the tire is, that distance could destroy it. Then again, maybe the lit icon is simply a consequence of the ambient temperature being somewhat cooler than when the tires were set, and everything is actually fine. Maybe.

I start to rehearse the upcoming stop in Truckee in my mind. Every minute on this trip counts. I want to check the tire pressures during refueling to minimize downtime, so I'll need a tire pressure gauge. Fortunately, I carry one in my laptop bag. I dig it out and stick it into the Mirai's cupholder so it'll be at the ready.

The hydrogen pump in Truckee is easy to find. I begin refueling and get to checking the tires. They're cool to the touch and all of them are within two psi of the doorjamb sticker pressures. Perfect. This refueling stop takes eight minutes from power off to power on, and I don't lose a single minute due to the tire scare.

With a full tank and only 100 miles between here and the Sacramento station, I am now free to cane this thing with impunity.

At speed the Mirai is undramatic. Its ride comfort is better than the Tesla's, and its relatively compact dimensions make it feel tidier on the road. Rolling on skinny all-season tires, it has nothing like the handling and braking capability of the Tesla. But the driving experience is reassuringly normal. 

I also find the Mirai's lack of gimcrackery refreshing. Its doors actually work as you expect, its windshield isn't a constant annoyance and its software isn't full of bugs. One of the few frustrations is its quaint, small touchscreen, which has Atari-like graphics compared to the Tesla's and will lawyer you into submission if you dare attempt to enter a navigation destination while moving.

2016 Toyota Mirai

Sacramento comes up swiftly, but the filling station forces me to watch the dreaded instructional video before refueling. Arrggh. Then some poor instructions result in the video playing a second time. And then a third. I didn't budget for this. I also need to use the bathroom, and leaving the car unattended at the pump (like you do at a Supercharger) doesn't feel appropriate. Still, the refueling stop consumes only 12 minutes, even with the unexpected delay.

2016 Toyota Mirai

My next fuel stop is Harris Ranch, except I miss the exit. Yep. User error. Seconds after whizzing under the overpass, I remember that I had turned the volume down on my phone a while back, effectively muting Waze's navigational prompts. The next exit is nine miles away. Eighteen superfluous miles, all because I'm a meathead. This one hurts. Refueling at Harris Ranch takes only 8 minutes, though, and that's my last stop before the finish line.

2016 Toyota Mirai

While at Harris Ranch, I check Dan's progress via the Tesla's iPhone app. There's not much space between us. This will be a close one.

When I finally I turn down the ramp to our parking garage in Santa Monica, it's 4:25 p.m. No Tesla. The Mirai has triumphed once more. But how far away is Dan? I have no signal in the parking garage, so I log a few notes, gather some items, chat with Mike Massey for a bit and head upstairs.

There, I check the app again.

2016 Toyota Mirai

Dan's really close now. I run outside and a minute or so later he rolls past.

2016 Toyota Mirai

I snap the above victory photo — timestamped 4:37 p.m. — and stroll down the parking ramp to swap stories.

Dan says he was exasperated by the numerous slow-moving vehicles he encountered heading out of Tahoe, and now he's demoralized by how close the contest was. I kindly inform him that I inadvertently added 18 miles to my trip with my Harris Ranch snafu. Hopefully he feels a bit better knowing that the win could have been even more decisive than it was.

Jason Kavanagh, Engineering Editor

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