New Yorkers remember Michael Bloomberg, the mayor who gave up the job last year only because he couldn’t run for office a fourth time, as a highly capable administrator and/or a tiresome do-gooder who wanted to regulate everything from trans-fats and soda pop to guns and circumcisions. When the Big Apple’s taxis came under Mayor Bloomberg’s eye, the city first demanded that its cab operators replace their big old Ford Crown Victoria sedans, New York’s iconic yellow cabs, with lean, clean hybrids.
Some taxi companies did; others squawked about the cost of buying and maintaining hybrids. Then Ford euthanized the Crown Vic, and the city launched its Taxi of Tomorrow competition. The winner would get an exclusive contract, starting in 2013, to sell and service taxicabs in NYC for 10 years. With nearly 14,000 cabs roaming the city, this would be a billion-dollar plum for whoever came up with the best, most city-, operator- and passenger-friendly clean-sheet design. Ford, Nissan and an Indian company called Karsan made it to the finals with vehicles based on small utility vans. Mayor Bloomberg ultimately awarded the prize to Nissan for its NV200 Taxi, shown here. Then he left office, and the manure hit the impeller.
Think it’s tough to ban 24-ounce sugary drinks and 30-round ammo magazines? Try locking all automakers but one out the world’s most lucrative market niche. Try telling cab companies they have no choice in what they buy. Try holding any new mayor to the old mayor’s promises. Lawyers, judges, politicians, federal, state and city agencies and the public immediately lined up on every imaginable side of the brouhaha, which is now ping-ponging through the courts.
Meanwhile, the Big Apple remains wide open, with some 39 different vehicles from nine makers approved as official yellow cabs. And Nissan—having plowed a reported $50 million into the NV200T, and plenty annoyed—is now selling its prize-winning taxi to whoever wants it.
Nissan is also letting journalists drive it, which is why the cabbies around here, 300 miles from Ground Zero, are giving me the stink-eye this week. The NV200 Taxi has a small footprint, but you can’t miss it. It’s tall and boxy and bright yellow, with a cool light bar on top and lots of logos and lettering: NYC, METERED FARE, FLAT RATE TO JFK and so on. People stare and then want to know if it’s fun to drive. Heck, no—it’s a taxi—but it’s a functional work of design, a London hack brought into the 21st Century.
Open the big doors on each side (they slide instead of swinging out, so no fear of scooping up bicyclists) and a step emerges from under the sill. There’s ample room for three passengers in the back and one up front, and luggage inside the bread-van doors at the back. The bench seat is comfortable, the huge floor is flat, and you can almost stand up in there. The seatbelt buckles are bright yellow, so drunks can find them, and there are curtain-type airbags in the headliner. (Nissan says the NV200 is the only NY cab that’s crash-tested with its taxi equipment, including the driver’s partition, installed.) The upholstery looks like leather, but it’s a breathable, anti-microbial fabric that doesn’t absorb nasty odors (those drunks again) and cleans easily. There is an enormous sunroof for gawking at Manhattan landmarks. Passengers get their own air-conditioning along with grab handles, a TV with a remote, two USB ports, a 12-volt outlet, an intercom for yelling at the driver, and of course a cash slot and a credit-car reader.
The driver gets all that’s needed for a long day on the streets, from easy steering and an overtime-worthy seat to excellent visibility, oversize mirrors and a backup camera. The fleet owner should be pleased too: The 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic play well together (24 MPG in traffic, double the Crown Vic’s efficiency), and with every option the NV200T lists for just under 30 grand. That’s two-thirds the price of a London cab.
Better taxis at better prices—exactly what Mayor Bloomberg wanted. Now let’s see how the big-city politics play out. In the meantime, I’m going to drive down to the airport and see if I can make a few bucks.
- Passenger space and comfort
- Value for price
- 15-inch wheels smaller than NYC potholes
- Backup camera view too restricted
- No stop-start (or hybrid option)