UPDATE: Not content with replacing just New York's yellow cab, Nissan is also targeting the black cabs of London, England with its NV200 taxi.
The yellow cab is as much an icon of New York City as is the Statue of Liberty. And, with but a few exceptions that include a variety of hybrids, the definitive yellow cab is a Ford Crown Victoria, built in Canada at Ford's St. Thomas, Ont., assembly plant.
But that scenario is about to change. That Ford plant will close later this year and the big Crown Vic will die with it. Which makes the quintessential New York taxi an endangered species.
The yellow cab will live on, however, albeit with a distinctly different look. Nissan has won a two-year competition to be the exclusive supplier of New York City cabs for 10 years, beginning in 2013.
The winning vehicle is a custom-designed variant of a compact Nissan commercial van called the NV200. It is currently sold in China, Europe and Japan, where it has already been used as a taxi in Tokyo.
Even before the Crown Vic's demise became imminent, work was under way in New York to develop its successor. An organization called the Design Trust for Public Space initiated a project to rethink the design of the traditional taxi, mounting an exhibit called Taxi 07 at the New York auto show. It was intended both to celebrate the 100th-aniversary of the gasoline-powered cab in the city and to help spur change in future cabs.
"Today's taxis have reached the limits of their potential," said Deborah Marton, executive-director of the organization.
In December 2009, the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission issued a request for proposals, inviting auto manufacturers and designers to submit their best ideas for a purpose-built vehicle to serve as a taxicab.
One of the goals of that process was to develop a superior taxi with specific focus on how the vehicle interacts with its passengers and operators. Not surprisingly, perhaps, all three finalists in the competition were variations on small vans, not passenger cars.
The other two finalists were a modified Ford Transit van and a purpose-built design from a Turkish company called Karsan.
As I was reminded during a recent visit to Manhattan, even conventional minivans, such as the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna, some of which are currently being used as cabs, are much roomier than cars, not to mention easier for passengers to enter and exit.
The front-wheel-drive NV200 occupies a smaller footprint than the Crown Vic — it's almost 800 mm shorter and 200 mm narrower — but it's 468 mm higher. Consequently it promises to be both more manoeuverable and roomier for passengers, as well as offering more than 2.5 times as much cargo space.
Specific design features of the winning Nissan entry, which will be powered by a 2.0L 4-cylinder gasoline engine, include:
• Easy-to-clean, antimicrobial, simulated leather seat fabric;
• Rear-seat occupant curtain airbags;
• A low-annoyance horn;
• Sliding doors with entry step and grab handles;
• Transparent roof panel (with shade);
• Independently controlled rear air conditioning;
• Overhead reading lights, floor lighting, and a mobile charging station for passengers with 12V electrical outlet and two USB plugs.
"It's going to be the safest, most comfortable and most convenient cab the city has ever had," said New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg.
With an eye to the future, Nissan and the city will also work together on a pilot program to study the use of electric vehicles as taxis. The company will provide up to six Nissan Leafs, along with charging stations, to taxi owners for testing in 2012.
The NV200 taxi is expected to cost about US$29,000 with all standard features. Nissan expects to provide up to 26,000 cabs, which will be built in Cuernavaca, Mexico, over the life of the contact.
That figure suggests there should be sufficient capacity to supply other cities as well.