Review: 2014 Nissan NV200 New York Taxi
Like Lady Liberty, the Empire State Building and wafts of ordure from subway stairwells, the taxicab is very much part of New York's identity. There are currently 13,437 active yellow cab medallions, 50,000 drivers to share them, who take on 600,000 passengers per day.
That's because owning your own car in Manhattan is insane. A car in New York is nothing but a two-ton accumulator of dents and parking tickets. Unless you're Jerry Seinfeld, you don't love your car in New York. Worse yet, neither do other New Yorkers. It is the only place in America where citizens regularly employ the Bumper Bully, usually only for the first week of ownership. After that a bike messenger will take off the side view mirror, rendering the entire idea of car care moot.
The answer to "What is the best car for New York?" is both easy and eternal: somebody else's.
And ever since the 1982 demise of the Checker Marathon, the Ford Crown Victoria has been the de facto iconic NY taxicab. However, when Ford ended civilian production of the Crown Vic's Panther platform in 2007, the writing was on the wall. A replacement was needed.
What is it?
The city held a contest to develop what it called the Taxi of Tomorrow (not to be confused with the Car of Tomorrow) while Ford continued producing commercial Crown Vics through 2011. New York chose three finalists: the Ford Transit Connect, the Turkish-made Karsan V-1, and the eventual champ, the Nissan NV200.
The first bright yellow NV200s rolled onto Gotham's avenues in 2013. Nissan estimates approximately 2,000 NV200 taxis are in use already, with the rest being phased in as older cabs are taken out of service. Since its debut, Nissan's also gotten interest from Seattle, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Texas, and is shopping it out in Chicago as well. There's even a baroque version for London.
Nissan's To'T is based on the standard NV200, a front-engined, front-wheel-drive cargo van. Currently built in five countries around the world, it's sometimes re-badged as a Mitsubishi Delica D:3 or Chevy City Express. New York's come from a plant in Cuernavaca, Mexico. However, it's more than an NV200 dipped in yellow: standard ones start at $20,720; the taxi adds nearly $9,000's worth of job-specific gear to ease the lives of both cabbie and fare.
What's it up against?
Nothing. As winners of the contest, Nissan has exclusive rights to supply New York City's non-hybrid taxis for the next 10 years. Since the average age of a New York cab is just 3.3 years, it's a rather lucrative contract worth an estimated -- pinky to mouth -- one billion dollars.
As a hailer of cabs, though, there are several reasons to choose the NV200 over the 41 other models approved by the NYC TLC (Taxi & Limousine Commission). We've witnessed die-hard New Yorkers actually let empty Camry, Escape, and Altima Hybrids go by before raising an arm for an NV200. "It's the legroom," they explained.
While Nissan has exclusivity for petrol-powered taxis, hybrids comprise 60 percent of the taxi fleet. Currently there are numerous hybrid options available, but new rules about interior volume will render only cars like the Toyota Prius V, Toyota Highlander Hybrid, Lexus RX450h and Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid eligible in the near future.
What's it look like?
Like a taxi. From 2084. Specifically, like the Mars base JohnnyCab in the 1990 Schwarzenegger flick Total Recall. It's clearly been designed for function, with a long, sweep that extends from nose to roofline and a large, boxy rear.
The roof light is a Nissan original design, a streamlined UFO set aglow with the license number and a ring of LEDs. Flanking the rear windows are LEDs spelling out "VACANT" to indicate when the cab is hailable. Below that, on either side, LED men's room stick figures let other drivers know when passengers are about to disembark.
Speaking of which, instead of folding yourself in and out of a Camry, you can now dismount as elegantly as Cinderella going to the ball. There's even a retractable step for your glass slipper. Sliding doors also eliminate the risk of cyclists and other cars getting "doored" as alighting tourists fling wantonly into bike lanes or traffic.
The downside, of course, is that both the angry taxi door slam, a staple of film and television, as well as the galant swinging open and holding of the door to impress women will soon be things of the past. Closing said door behind her will too be robbed of romance, as the fleet thud of interlocking latch and striker must now be preceded by the protracted woosh of rollers crossing ample sheetmetal. Even the quick double-pat on the roof, the universal command for "Driver, go!" as she gazes longingly up through the window, is made more awkward. Somehow, an eye-level staring contest through a porthole as you high-five the side of the van just isn't the same.
On the other hand, Nissan says that replacing traditional sedan taxis with the NV200 opens up five acres of real estate on city's streets. They declined to specify how many of those Donald Trump would attempt to purchase and name after himself.
And on the inside?
This is where the Nissan NV200 really shines. A host of thoughtful features make riding in one a treat compared to other cabs.
In most, the partition is both an afterthought and a knee-bruising flat slab. Nissan has installed well-designed contoured divider, the top half of which is a solid piece of molded bulletproof glass. Its curvature is, we dare say, beautiful, or at least preferable to a sheet of cloudy plastic inches from your face. For its part, Nissan's the only cab-maker that conducted crash tests with the barrier in place.
The partition's lower half has a touchscreen twice the size of most other cabs'. These monitors are used to display payment info, local weather and news, and an incessant stream of advertising. Most passengers pay no attention to them anyway, and you're especially unlikely to do so in the NV200 because you can re-juice your phones via three charging ports, two USB and one 12-volt. You also get to control your own climate settings, and there are two large cupholders molded into the doors.
Best of all, the legroom is simply vast. Manute Bol and Yao Ming could easily chillax without suffering any awkward physical man-contact. They could even kick back and enjoy the piÃ¨ce de rÃ©sistance, a panoramic roof through which to view New York's skyscraper canyons floating by.
When it comes time to pay, a credit card reader is integrated into the partition, but if cash is your mojo there's a pass-through bank teller slot as well.
The other side of the glass isn't a bad place to spend a 10-hour shift. Switches on the center console activate an intercom so you talk to your fare. The partition is by no means soundproof but the system helps, especially if you want to eavesdrop.
Straight-ahead visibility is great, but fat A-pillars can easily obscure New York's famously suicidal pedestrians, and triangular wing windows don't really do anything. The side windows are expansive, but the lower edge's odd curve always gives the illusion that you're not parked parallel to whatever it is you're trying to be parallel to.
The driver is treated to a comfortable seating position on a breathable suede-like surface. Even after two three-and-a-half hour stints behind the wheel, our backsides never felt fatigued. The foldable passenger seat, you may notice, is covered in a different material than the driver's. Like the rear bench, it's a puke-proof anti-microbial surface easily hosed down should your fare get too gnarly. Materials and switchgear feel durable, and there are several nicely rubberized storage areas in which to store phones, pens, and deodorant.
The main nit to pick is with the multifunction touchscreen, which lags like a three-legged husky. A passenger might get pretty miffed watching the meter run up during the GPS's "I'm thinking" spin cycle. It's a shame, since the standard touchscreen-dial combos found on Nissan and Infiniti cars are some of the best in the business. Then again, cabbies have The Knowledge.
The cargo area is cavernous compared to most cabs, even Ford's Panther platform sedans. You can fit a lot more bodies in the trunk, with the caveat that they'd be visible. Clever 60/40-split French doors have a switch that locks them in the open position, and tourists overburdened with "I [heart] NY" shot glasses and photos of Times Square Elmo will surely appreciate the low loading floor.
But how does it go?
Like the standard NV200, the taxi is powered by an inline-four capable of 131hp and 139 lb-ft of torque. Even in yellow, it is not fast. And CVTs are the devil's transmission. But you know what? It doesn't matter, because our test route between LA and Las Vegas was the exact opposite of how these will be used.
At around-town rpms, the CVT is is quiet and smooth. Its overall size belies its maneuverability and the steering never feels dead. Impressively, a standard NV200 weighs only 3,260 pounds. Figure a couple hundred more for the rear seats, divider and roof light and you're still in mid-90s Honda territory.
Lack of GT-R acceleration is probably a good thing because at some point, every rider becomes the pedestrian. You don't want a flotilla of V8s with no concern for lane markers gunning it through your city. Besides, the engine is rather thrifty, rated at 23 mpg city and 26 highway. It seems daft for thousands of vehicles that spend all day idling and never going above 40mph to come equipped with anything larger under the hood. Nissan is developing an electric e-NV200 too, but it's not (yet) available as a taxi. The average NY cab covers 70,000 miles a year. That's a lot of fuel saved.
Leftlane's Bottom Line
The iconic New York taxi is evolving. The Nissan NV200 is fine if you're a cabbie, fantastic if you're a fare. Years from now, your kids will remember it as a symbol of the Big City.
2014 Nissan NV200 Taxi base price, $29,700, same as tested; Destination $860.Photos by Ben Hsu.
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