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OC Dealers Among Few to Unveil Toyota Mirai

Count Toyota of Orange among the few auto dealerships around the U.S. that will be able to give customers a chance to get a first look under the hood of the new Mirai hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle, kick its tires, and take it for a spin.

The dealership, ranked third in the nation in Toyota sales volume, is owned by David Wilson, a member of the OC’s Wealthiest List, the centerpiece of this week’s issue of the Business Journal (see special section pullout).

The event was one of the stops on Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.’s “Turning Point” tour, a series of experiential marketing events designed to educate consumers about the Mirai’s features. It drew a crowd of more than 60 “hand raisers,” what the dealership’s General Manager Allen Moznett calls “our trailblazers, our initial hybrid owners, people that have put their hands up and said, ‘I’m interested in learning more about the car.’ ”

Toyota of Orange is a bit of a trailblazer itself—it’s one of the eight dealerships in the country selected to be the first to offer the Mirai.

“Obviously, we sell a large number of Toyota vehicles, and they like that part of it,” Moznett said. “We are also very committed to the technology and to the process. California is the epicenter of alternative fuels … and the awareness that these vehicles are out there is very high with our customer base.”

The dealership first had to pass muster with a plan for how it will market and sell the vehicle. It also invested in retrofitting its service facility and designated one stall for maintenance and repair of hydrogen-powered vehicles. Its technicians are now taking classes to get familiar with the technology that powers the Mirai.

The “hand raisers” at last week’s event also wanted to know about the midsize sedan’s specs, such as a 312-mile estimated driving range and five-minute refueling, as well as the technology behind the water-vapor emissions.

Hydrogen gas is fed into a fuel cell stack at the front of the vehicle, where it’s combined with oxygen from ambient air to create a chemical reaction that produces the electricity used to power the vehicle.

Doubts Dispelled

Test drives dispelled doubts that Toyota focused on hydrogen fuel and forgot about speed or power—at least for Moznett.

“When I drove it for the first time, I was expecting a very sluggish car,” he said. “But the driving dynamics on this vehicle … it’s very exciting—a lot of low-end torque—and it’s fast, which you don’t associate necessarily with a hydrogen car.”

The Mirai simply is “an electric car that is powered through the use of hydrogen,” Moznett said, adding that with “5 million of the hybrid vehicles from Toyota on the road, they know how to make an electric car run and have the driving dynamics really outperform its gas brethren, and they carried this through to the hydrogen car.”

He said the first Mirai models are scheduled to arrive in October for delivery to customers who have ordered them online. The vehicle is available for purchase at $57,000 or a three-year lease at $499 a month or up to $18,000.

Toyota is offering several incentives, including a 0% interest rate, $7,500 purchase support, and three years’ worth of free fuel.

The initial allotment for the entire U.S. market will be about 400 vehicles that will be divided among the eight dealers.

“The production will ramp up slowly, but between now and the end of 2017, we plan to sell 3,000 vehicles here in California, and potentially we could be launching in the Northeast states as early as 2016,” said Ed LaRocque, national manager, fuel cell vehicles for Toyota Motor Sales.

Tustin Toyota, owned by R.J. Romero, also was selected to be part of the Mirai’s initial sales force. It hosted a Turning Point tour event on July 24 where about 150 VIP customers got to test drive the vehicle.

Apex Performance LLC, a Lake Forest-based automotive marketing agency, partnered with Toyota to organize both events, in addition to more than a dozen others throughout the state. The tour will end Nov. 1 in Sacramento.

Hyundai

Fountain Valley-based Hyundai Motor America Inc. launched its 2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell hydrogen-powered vehicle last June and so far has leased about 70.

Its customers, however, have been complaining that the supply of fuel at the existing network of stations has been scarce in recent months. A station near the University of California-Irvine has been closed for upgrades, and other locations across Orange County, including in Fountain Valley and Newport Beach, have been known to run out of fuel.

Toyota is aware of the refueling hurdles, Craig Scott, its national alternative fuel vehicle manager, noted in a recent interview with Forbes Magazine.

“Infrastructure is vastly improved this year over last year but it’s still lagging. … I often say that the infrastructure is a generation behind the vehicle,” he said. “And that’s something that’s going to have to be resolved and reconciled pretty quickly [over] these next two years as we ramp up sales and as other manufacturers come online.”

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