The first thing New Yorkers notice about Nissan's so-called Taxi of Tomorrow, which continues its beleaguered quest to become Gotham's "exclusive" street-hailable yellow cab, despite numerous recent legal setbacks, is how "luxurious" it feels. This is as much a comment on the dilapidated state of the city's current fulvous fleet as it is on the bright and spacious cabin of NV200 mini-minivan. Also, the halo effect of vinyl off-gassing known as New Car Scent. "It doesn't smell like piss or vomit yet," said my first passenger.
Passenger. Though I drive cars for a living, I'm not a professional driver. But in the interest of gauging how the ToT functions on the Big Apple's mean streets, I faithfully took up that mantle, spending nine hours behind the wheel—and in front of the bubble-rounded, plastic partition—of this livery vehicle. Prevented legally from picking up fares on the fly, I put the word out to friends, offering free rides. My schedule filled quickly.
Taxis constitute something of a phantom limb in the city's transportation infrastructure, and New Yorkers—who have our nation's lowest rates of car ownership—use them the way other urbanites use their private vehicles: for everything. My riders' missions followed this gamut. I picked up magazine editors in Times Square and drove them to a film screening. I joy rode a publishing executive from his office to a nearby tile store for some quick pre-lunch shopping. I grabbed a writer from her Brooklyn apartment and took her to a doctor appointment in some other part of Brooklyn. I schlepped a visiting website owner from his tacky hotel to a meeting with reps of a more buzzy website. I helped a business consultant ferry a passel of bridesmaids' dresses to her cousin in Midtown. And I nabbed a psychiatrist at Bellevue, raced her uptown to pick up her kids from school, dumped them at the park with the nanny, and then returned her to the loony bin.
My anecdotal research determined that, in addition to the lack of malodorousness—a trait I tried to correct for mid-day by consuming a heaping portion of greasy Indian food—my cynical cohorts enjoyed many other ToT traits. They loved the panoramic glass roof, even though it didn't open. "Imagine how cool that would be in a rainstorm," said techie Jenna Matecki. They praised the twin USB charging ports, though they wished there were cords for plugging in. "Cord rental could be a lucrative side business for the driver," proposed tech exec Jon Guzik. They liked the idea of the passenger-specific ventilation controls, though Departures editor Julian Sancton remained dual-zone dissatisfied. "We don't have individual controls," he groused. They were entertained by the HAL-esque voice manipulation engendered by the electronic intercom system, and fancied the way it could be turned on or off, to no effect, by the driver or passengers. Fares also appreciated the sliding doors, though they created something of a challenge for Bellevue director of women's mental health, and mother of three, Judy Greene, whose kids ingressed and egressed from the ToT's multiple portals so often and so quickly (while we were parked), that the van started to feel like the set of some French farce. Also, everyone liked the standard navigation system, particularly my one Brooklyn pickup.
But foremost in riders' praise was the commodious and well-appointed passenger compartment, which was likened to such elegant accommodations as a fist class airline seat, a European bullet train, a London Cab, and a studio apartment. In fact, a number of riders thought the space offered was too accommodating. "It seems like there should be some more seats in here, like in a Black Cab," said freelance writer Lauren Waterman. Others took it a step further. "All of this floor space will lead to inappropriate sexual activity," quipped Flat Iron Press editorial director Colin Dickerman. Corporate communications consultant, DC Cymbalista agreed. "I've never seen any space that says more, Do lines and have sex."
Less successful were the gun-slit rear windows, which not only provided the back seat with a tomb/siege vibe, but were difficult to open, a problem blamed on the confounding arrow-based info-graphic printed on their latch. "It seems like it should slide, but it requires a pinch and a pull," Cymbalista noted. Of the pinch portion, she added, "This is a lawsuit waiting to happen." (On a similarly litigious note, we discovered that these windows are just the right size for a five year-old's head.) Dickerman also thought the door-mounted cup-holders were a bad omen. "A nice idea, but they'll soon be filled with protein bar wrappers and used condoms."
No one wanted to know what it was like to drive; New Yorkers don't really think about driving, or drivers. But here's my assessment: It's solid, and comfortable, and relatively stable given the fact that it sports wheels that wouldn't look out of place on a Lowe's shopping cart. It's smooth over broken pavement. It accelerates and stops without particular drama or alacrity. In other words, it drives like a modern economy car. This is not meant as an insult. Contemporary economy cars are very well made. They are also economical. The Crown Victoria, our Taxi of Today—and an exoskeletal relic of the Phanerozoic Era—is neither of those things. Bring on the mass extinction event!
To acquire additional perspectives on the ToT, I drove it to Curry Hill—a stretch of Lexington Avenue lined with inexpensive Indian buffet restaurants—and conducted an impromptu street-side focus group with a half-dozen cabbies gathered there on lunch break. Not surprisingly, they echoed the likes and dislikes of the riders: yes on the interior materials, the airy cabin, the legroom, the HVAC controls, the charging ports, and the well-integrated partition; nay on the intercom, the cup holders, and the overly-inviting floor-plan. "The problem here is, at nighttime," said 23-year veteran hack Rafiqul Alam, gesturing at the broad, fully flat floor. "Anything can happen back there."
Also coming in for criticism from nearly every driver—as it is from many New York City residents, and some local courthouses—is the fact that the vehicle is not currently available as a hybrid. "A hybrid is more expensive to buy," said a driver named Kalil. "But regular engines take up too much gas." Kalil knows of what he speaks. He drives a Crown Vic. Though to be fair, the tiny 4-cylinder in the ToT is expected to double that behemoth's m.p.g. numbers. Rafqul Alam best summarized the drivers' opinions. "Customers are going to like it," he said. "Driver doesn't have to like it."
But the final world on the Taxi of Tomorrow should belong to the Generation of Tomorrow. "I'll always remember you and this car," five year-old Aitan Greene-Houvras said, when I dropped him off at Central Park. Then he jumped into my arms. "I love you Uncle Taxi Driver!" he called. Tourists leaving the Metropolitan Museum stared with horror. But New Yorkers waiting for the M1 Bus on 5th Avenue just nodded along, understanding completely the affectionate relationship between locals and our cabs.