Toyota has announced it will begin selling fuel cell cars next month, taking a first small step into the unproven market for emissions-free, hydrogen-powered vehicles.

The sporty-looking, four-door Toyota Mirai - that runs on compressed hydrogen gas without emitting exhaust - will be available in Japan on December 15 and in the US and Europe in mid-2015, the world's largest automaker said on Tuesday.

Mitsuhisa Kato, a Toyota executive vice president, said Mirai will retail for about $57,600 before taxes. 

Besides the relatively high cost, buyers will have to contend with finding fuel. Only a few dozen hydrogen filling stations have been built worldwide, though governments are subsidising the construction of more.

In Japan, with about 30 stations, that means the regions around Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya cities in central and western Japan and the northern part of Kyushu island in the south.

A few stations have opened in California in the United States, and there are plans to build some in the Northeast. Germany and the United Kingdom are among European countries that have or plan to build them.

Limited sales

Toyota Motor Corp hopes to sell 400 in Japan and 300 in the rest of the world in the first year.

The company has about 200 pre-orders for the vehicle, mainly government agencies and companies that want to go green, the company said. Over time, Kato said, Toyota hopes to help build a "hydrogen society".

Mirai, which means future in Japanese, can travel 650 to 700 kilometres on its two tanks of hydrogen. Hydrogen may be more expensive than gas initially, because there are so few customers but, over time, Toyota expects it will be cheaper to run a car on hydrogen than with gas.

Yoshikazu Tanaka, deputy chief engineer for Toyota's next generation vehicle development, said he expects it will take 10-20 years for the Mirai to reach sales in the tens of thousands of vehicles a year.

Asked if it is a risk, he said yes, but that Toyota views it as a challenge.

Both Honda and Hyundai are also experimenting with limited sales and leases of fuel cell cars. Honda showed a fuel cell concept car on Monday.

Source: AP