TOKYO, JAPAN - Toyota's Mirai hydrogen car is undergoing something of an ugly duckling to swan transformation, and chasing Tesla in the process, with this second generation model.

Although the car that you see here is technically still a concept car, the production model is likely to look almost identical to it.

The completely redesigned hydrogen-powered fuel cell sedan is Toyota's latest attempt to revive demand for a niche technology that it hopes will become mainstream.

Toyota has been developing fuel-cell vehicles for more than two decades, but the technology has been eclipsed by the rapid rise of rival battery-powered electric vehicles promoted by the likes of Tesla.

Ahead of the Tokyo Motor Show starting on October 24, Toyota unveiled a prototype of the new hydrogen sedan built on the same platform as its Lexus LS, signaling a move upmarket for the hydrogen sedan. The new Mirai model boasts a longer driving range than its predecessor and completely redesigned fuel cell stack and hydrogen tanks, the company said.

"We wanted to make a car that people really want to buy, not just because it's an eco car," Yoshikazu Tanaka, chief engineer of the new Mirai, said at the unveiling. "We wanted something that's fun to drive."

Its sporty redesign with longer wheelbase and lower-slung chassis is a marked departure from the first-generation Mirai, which looks like a bulked-up Prius hybrid - and that's putting it mildly.

The new car also has a 30% improvement in driving range over the previous iteration's approximately 700 kilometers, according to the company.

Tanaka said the latest Mirai would cost less to make than its predecessor, because of a shift to mass production. The current model is mostly assembled by hand.

Costing consumers about 5 million yen (about R700 000) after subsidies in Japan, the original Mirai is one of three fuel cell cars available to consumers. Hyundai sells the Nexo, while Honda leases out the Clarity.

Toyota has sold fewer than 10 000 of the Mirai, a fuel cell sedan it touted as a game changer at its launch five years ago. By contrast, Tesla sold 25 000 of battery-powered Model S sedans in its first year and a half.

Toyota declined to disclose a price for the model and said it would be available from late next year in Japan, North America and Europe.

IOL & Reuters