The Toyota Mirai went from yuck to yowza, will it be enough?

James Riswick

Like a butterfly emerging from an awkward, ugly, Manga nightmare, hydrogen-powered cocoon, the second-generation 2021 Toyota Mirai made its most prominent debut at the L.A. Auto Show. It's long, low, sleek and beautiful, even when not viewed in the context of its frightful predecessor.

Practically speaking, the new and substantially bigger five-passenger Mirai will be an improvement over the cramped, four-passenger existing model. Toyota is also promising better performance (you can read more about it in our first look). However, according to Mirai chief engineer Yoshikazu Tanaka and senior fuel cell engineer Jackie Birdsall, it's the new design that will really make the biggest difference. They recognize that whatever strides they make in developing and improving hydrogen fuel cell technology won't really matter if no one wants the car or can find a place to refuel it.

The new design is intrinsic to both issues. As Birdsall explained, the hope is that more people will want one, setting off a muted version of what the Tesla Model S achieved for electric cars. More sales and more demand for the car would therefore spur demand for more infrastructure – both in terms of additional stations and urging a change in government regulations to allow hydrogen-powered cars in more places. Throughout the northeast, it's currently illegal to drive hydrogen-powered vehicles on bridges and in tunnels. Neither is going to happen if only a handful of weirdos are driving around in a handful of weird cars – the Honda Clarity included.

This market-based argument is logical enough for how hydrogen fuel-cell technology might catch on, but it still seems like a long shot. The widespread implementation of hydrogen stations might require more drastic measures. Toyota Group Vice President and General Manager Jack Hollis floated the idea that Toyota might build the infrastructure itself, much like Tesla did with its Supercharger network.

"We'd have the ability to do it," he said of the financial capability, but whether it makes sense is another matter entirely. Much like Toyota's delayed approach to offering full-electric models, Hollis is quite clear that the market will dictate further steps in the company's alternative fuel efforts. Perhaps, then, the new sleek and beautiful 2021 Mirai capturing the attention of the public could be the catalyst for Toyota to act, rather than hoping it'll spur municipalities and oil companies to build filling stations. That certainly seems like a more feasible way forward for Toyota's hydrogen plans, but again, it'll come down to that styling. If people don't want the car, it's all a moot point.