Imagine a smooth, quiet, comfortable largish sedan that emits nothing, with a range of 250 miles or more--one that pegs its driver as a person in the vanguard of advanced technology vehicles.
The Tesla Model S electric car, you say?
2014 Tesla Model S in ChinaEnlarge Photo
No, no, no: That would be Toyota's upcoming hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle, on sale next year.
Today, the dedicated sedan model is known only as the "Fuel Cell Sedan."
Many years in development, it will be sold in North America, Japan, and Europe, with the company projecting volumes of perhaps 25,000 a year globally after 2020.
Meanwhile, leasing began in June for the 2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell crossover. Honda is also expected to launch a next-generation hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle somewhat after Toyota.
In addition to a model name--expect a new nameplate, just as Prius was new for Toyota's first hybrid car--the sale price will be one of the most closely watched aspects of Toyota's first fuel-cell car.
Honda FCEV Concept, 2013 Los Angeles Auto ShowEnlarge Photo
In June, Toyota said the hydrogen-powered Fuel Cell Sedan will carry a price of "approximately 7 million yen" before tax (roughly $68,700) in Japan.
It will go on sale there next spring, but only in regions where hydrogen fueling infrastructure has already been installed.
Back in May 2010, Toyota said it would put its hydrogen vehicle on sale in the U.S. in 2015, for a price of $50,000.
In their early years, analysts say, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles will serve as compliance cars to let their makers meet California zero-emission vehicle sales requirements. That means volumes will be low.
But the Toyota sedan--and likely the Honda hydrogen vehicle that will follow it--seem most comparable to the Tesla Model S electric luxury sedan.
Toyota FCV hydrogen fuel cell vehicle prototype during cold-weather endurance testing in N AmericaEnlarge Photo
Tesla has already built more than 50,000 Model S cars, and is selling the zero-emission vehicles in North America, Europe, and China.
But whether the Toyota Fuel Cell Sedan proves to be a direct competitor for the Tesla Model S or is considered by entirely different buyers, it's important to understand that the two cars serve very different roles.
As it did with the early years of its Prius hybrid, Toyota will likely lose significant amounts of money on every hydrogen vehicle it sells.
So the vehicle's U.S. pricing will be based largely on where it thinks the car can sit in the market for advanced-tech cars. Losing less money would be nice, but that's likely not the driving force.
Tesla, on the other hand, has to sell its Model S cars at a profit, to fund development of its future models. Unlike Toyota, it has no base of highly profitable gasoline vehicles to subsidize its R+D.
Frame from Lexus video criticizing electric car, May 2014Enlarge Photo
So we anticipate that you may see the fuel-cell Toyota positioned considerably above the high end of the Prius range, but rather below the $69,900 starting price of a Model S.
Recent ads from Toyota and Lexus have stressed the disadvantages of diesel and plug-in electric cars. So the marketing for Toyota's hydrogen car may make comparisons to unnamed luxury battery-electric vehicles--stressing range anxiety, the length of time it takes to recharge, and so forth.
And if we had to lay money (just a small amount), we could imagine the Toyota Fuel Cell Sedan carrying a U.S. price of either $49,900.
But we'd bet the early ones will only be available for lease.
We'll likely learn the answers within six to nine months.