When I told Mike, a Toyota Mirai driver I bumped into at a hydrogen fuel pump in Oakland, California, that I was considering buying an off-beat, zero-emission car just like his, the first three words out of his mouth told me everything I needed to know: “Don’t do it.” 

It was deflating. For a second there, I thought I’d stumbled upon the deal of the century: Used hydrogen fuel-cell cars are weirdly cheap and, in some ways, more convenient than battery-powered EVs. They’re generally only available in my new home of California—minus some occasional mishaps—and they allow owners to skirt the state’s notoriously pricey gasoline prices. Buying a hydrogen car instead of a gas car could slash my carbon footprint

I was eager to embrace a strange, new technology and gloat about how clever I was to anyone who’d listen. It’s the California way, after all.

But after chatting with Mike and doing some digging of my own, I’m pretty sure a Mirai isn’t for me. It sucks because I found some really amazing, overlooked benefits to owning one. For example: Toyota offers $15,000 of free fuel to new owners. I think it says something when even that isn’t quite enough to convince me. 

Used Toyota Mirais Are A Bargain

Hydrogen fuel-cell cars are a niche within a niche, and I’d never even remotely considered one as a legitimate option until I moved to California and started browsing for used cars.

Some backstory, if you need it: no automaker has pushed for hydrogen fuel-cell cars more than Toyota. The automaker once believed that hydrogen cars would be the future of how we got around, once we hit peak oil and gas prices got too high. Obviously, that never happened. Instead, the world seems poised to pivot to battery-electric cars, driven by companies like Tesla and the Chinese automakers. Plus, very few companies stepped up to build the expensive fueling stations ($1.5-$2 million, generally) needed to power these things, so they barely exist outside of California. This leaves drivers of the two generations of Toyota Mirai, Hyundai Nexo and Honda Clarity with few options outside the Golden State. 

But hydrogen cars have their strengths, and I thought perhaps I could take advantage of some of them. 

For the first time in my life, I now live somewhere (the San Francisco Bay Area) where owning a car is more of an advantage than a burden. So I’m on the hunt for something relatively modern (for safety and reliability), efficient (for both my wallet and the planet), and cheap. Under $10,000 would be ideal. 

The problem is that those requirements are tough to reconcile, particularly given how the pandemic inflated used car prices. Whenever I plug my parameters into Craigslist, I get a list of high-mileage options and practically nothing from the past decade. The newish cars and hybrids are often too expensive, and the budget-friendly ones are often too old, ugly or unreliable. 

With one strange exception: the Toyota Mirai. Amid all the 200,000-mile Priuses and Civics, I kept seeing shiny Mirais from 2017 or 2019 asking something like $7,500 or $10,000. That's for a car that costs something like $60,000 new. 

So I set out to determine whether a Mirai could fit into my life. Was everyone sleeping on this deal, or was I missing something? As it turns out, it’s a little of both. 

A used Toyota Mirai for sale on Craigslist.

What’s great about hydrogen is that refueling is lightning fast compared with conventional battery-electric cars, which can take a half-hour or more to charge under the best circumstances. That much I knew. Grabbing the hydrogen necessary to power the Mirai’s electric powertrain takes a few minutes, giving it, in theory, almost the convenience of a gasoline car. And a quick Google search informed me of a hydrogen station about a mile from my apartment. Things were looking good. 

I don’t actually drive all that much or have a daily commute, which makes me more flexible than most. The last-generation Mirai’s 300-or-so miles of range would mean I could take a bunch of trips before needing to fill up. Plus, I saw a smattering of hydrogen stations across the Bay Area, where I do most of my driving. Eight-thousand bucks for one of these things was becoming increasingly appealing.

Then my plan started unraveling. 

Expensive Fuel And Shaky Infrastructure Complicate Things

Upon closer inspection using a more reliable source, the hydrogen station closest to my apartment, attached to a Shell gas station, was shut down indefinitely. Bummer. Upon even closer inspection, a whole bunch of the stations in California were out of service due to technical issues or having run out of fuel.

I also realized there were zero locations in the northernmost chunk of the state, barely any in the east, and only one on the way to Los Angeles. That would severely limit how far I could travel. And, like I said, I don’t commute, so my main use for a car would be weekend trips. 

So, hydrogen fueling is convenient, but the reliability and prevalence of the infrastructure is a weak point. That's been a persistent issue, and it's understandable for a novel technology still very much in the early-adopter phase. 

Then I learned that, due to a range of factors, hydrogen prices have skyrocketed lately. One kilogram at the (working) station closest to my apartment now costs $36 when I drove over to check. That figure means nothing to you, obviously, so let me explain. 

A Mirai takes a total of five kilograms of hydrogen. So a full tank would cost around $180 and return 312 miles of EPA-estimated range (taking the 2018 model as an example). That works out to 58 cents per mile, which is abysmal. Taking the average price of gas in California ($4.64/gallon) and a hypothetical car with decent fuel economy, let's say 25 mpg, you wind up with just 18 cents per mile. 

That makes the aforementioned $15,000 of free fuel more of a necessity than just a nice benefit. You can get that if you buy new or certified pre-owned, which costs a bit more than regular-old used. I found certified Mirais in my area going for as little as $11,000, not factoring in the used EV tax credit that lops off 30% of the purchase price, up to $4,000.

So in theory, you can get into a Mirai for well under $10,000, with thousands of miles of free hydrogen to boot. Despite all the hangups I have about infrastructure, that’s an incredible deal. 

A certified used Mirai for sale.

But what about once the money runs out? Toyota’s fuel cards for used Mirais are good for up to three years. After that, you’re stuck paying whatever hydrogen actually costs, which, as we’ve discussed, can be a lot. That’s precisely the situation Mike was in when we talked. 

He’d bought a certified Mirai, depleted his free fuel, and was now dismayed at the cost of hydrogen, which he said had roughly tripled since he bought his car. (Other than the high running cost and shaky infrastructure, he really likes his car.)

When he tried to trade it in, he told me, a dealership offered him $1,000. 

That’s a lot of depreciation to stomach, even considering all the free hydrogen. And it makes perfect sense when you think about it: Who’s going to buy some guy’s used Mirai when there are ones out there that aren’t very expensive and come with free fuel? That realization was the nail in the coffin for me. 

When I asked Toyota about all of this, a spokesperson said the automaker is continuing to work with partners to open up new fueling locations, and that it’s trying to lower the cost of hydrogen alongside California lawmakers and station operators. The spokesperson pointed out that an additional 122 fueling stations are projected to open up in California by 2026, on top of the current 54. 

Hopefully the situation improves sooner rather than later, because more viable options that wean the U.S. off of fossil fuels are always a good thing. And it's a shame that existing Mirai drivers are feeling the burn of high fuel prices, on top of other inconveniences. 

But for now, I’ll take Mike’s advice and see what my other options are. 

Contact the author: tim.levin@insideevs.com

Got a tip for us? Email: tips@insideevs.com