Although it remains the dominant player in the world of hybrid vehicles, Toyota is convinced the next truly meaningful step in the automotive propulsion arena will be fuel cells rather than any form of advanced battery-electric technology. To that end, it has committed to bringing its first full-production fuel cell vehicle (FCV) to market by 2015. With a representative design concept due to be revealed next month at the Tokyo Auto Show, Toyota invited us to Japan last week to test drive the latest prototype of its yet-unnamed FCV and discuss some of the opportunities and challenges that lay ahead with respect to putting it on the road in various markets, including the U.S. 

This initial encounter was brief and done under controlled, non-street conditions. Neither the full-body wrapped exterior nor the interior of the development cars we experienced were representative of what will appear in showrooms. However, the drive motor and all of the fuel cell system components were full production spec, so we were able to get a reasonably good idea of what to expect in the way of performance -- even if much of it came with little additional technical information. 

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While the next-generation Prius Hybrid that launches in a similar time window will be spun from the Toyota New Global Architecture, we were advised that the upcoming FCV - a mid-size 4-door sedan - will be based on a unique version of the platform used by the Lexus HS 250h hybrid which was replaced in the U.S. lineup last year by the new ES 300h. Like its body and passenger compartment, the FCV's chassis remains a work in progress. But even at this point, our quick drive indicated the car will be quiet, comfortable and competent with at least a hint of sportiness. 

The electric motor that drives the front wheels endows Toyota's FVC-to-be with the kind of brisk off-the-line response you'd expect from this type of vehicle. Although providing no solid output figures, Toyota hinted it will likely develop somewhere between 135-150 horsepower. We can confirm that it definitely possesses more than enough torque to chirp the car's tires on a full-throttle launch and keep it well apace of traffic. 

As for the fuel cell side of the equation, the latest stack represents a quantum leap beyond the one fitted to Toyota's current Highlander FCHV-adv research vehicle. Positioned beneath the front seat, it's barely one-quarter as large as its predecessor but has twice the power density -- which at 3kW per liter ranks it as the current world benchmark. Equally important, it costs only 10 percent as much to build as the original, although that figure remains a staggering $100,000. That said, Satoshi Ogiso, Managing Director of Toyota Motor Corporation and pioneering figure in the firm's 21st century transportation efforts, anticipates that number will be cut in half by the time the car goes on sale and reduced half again as volume numbers ramp up and generate meaningful economies of scale. Even so, the base price of this new FCV seems likely start somewhere around $50,000.  

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Rounding out the fuel cell formula are the car's new hydrogen tanks. And here too, Toyota has made great strides in packaging. Carrying gas pressurized to 70MPa (10,150psi), the system cuts tank count from four to just two -- the larger located behind the car's rear seat and the smaller under it - and scales each in a way that promises to leave a very usable back seat and trunk. Based on recently completed real-world test drives, Toyota indicates the production FCV should be able to travel at least 350 miles before needing a refill, a process that will require no more than three minutes to complete. 

While setting a final price for this new FCV is destined to remain a front-burner issue right up to its arrival in showrooms, an equally significant consideration involves getting various federal, state and local authorities to invest in creating the requisite hydrogen infrastructure in each country where the car will be sold. Expect to hear more about all aspects of the FCV's American market launch from Bob Carter, senior vice president of automotive operations for Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. when the vehicle revealed in Tokyo makes its first appearance here next January at the CES Show in Las Vegas. 

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