What would Travis Bickle think?

The big yellow cab has been immortalised in films such as Robert De Niro's Taxi Driver, but after a contest organised by New York authorities to design a replacement, visitors and residents will soon be able to avail themselves of the Nissan NV200 minivan.
The Nissan NV200 will eventually replace the Ford Crown Victoria. Bloomberg
The Nissan NV200 will eventually replace the Ford Crown Victoria. Bloomberg

New York taxi cabs are as much a symbol of the city as the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty.

Think of Taxi Driver and you picture Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle scowling behind the wheel of his yellow Checker cab.

Look at any present day image of New York and you expect to see those yellow Ford Crown Victorias, loved and loathed by New Yorkers since 2001, bumper to bumper along the avenues.

Different models have come and gone, but New York has had yellow saloon cabs trawling its streets for more than 70 years.

So it was a surprise to discover that after a two-year contest to select the design of New York's first ever purpose-built cab, the city's limousine commission has decided its official taxi, starting in 2013, will be a Nissan minivan.

Eventually, the Nissan NV200 will be the only cab on the streets because all 16 cab models that currently serve the city will be phased out by 2018, including more than 8,000 Ford Crown Victorias.

David Yassky, the taxi commissioner, is confident that "people are going to fall in love with this taxi once they ride in it", and the mayor Michael Bloomberg has billed the NV200 as "the safest taxi ever".

But does New York really want to be represented by a boxy, frankly banal Nissan? It is hard to imagine Bickle trawling Manhattan's concrete canyons in a minivan.

Will the Nissan become so beloved of New Yorkers that in 20 years decommissioned NV200s will be auctioned at Sotheby's for vast sums, just like the Checker? The NV200 beat two other designs in the final round of the contest - Ford's Transit Connect van and another by the Turkish car maker Karsan. None provoked a wild amount of excitement after the public comment period but some passengers are particularly upset the Nissan is destined to be an integral part of New York's future.

"The other were not much better but this design reminds me a bit of the little people carriers that they use in Yerevan, Armenia," says Alex Sarkesian, an IT professional and New York resident. "I only hope the Nissans are slightly more comfortable."

The decision to award the US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn), 10-year contract to a Japanese company that will make the new fleet in Cuernavaca, Mexico, rather than a domestic maker has also been controversial.

Even Karsan offered to make its cabs in Sunset Park, Brooklyn and employ up to 800 workers, which has led Marty Markowitz, the Brooklyn borough president, to demand the city reconsider its decision.

For a long time, it looked like Karsan was the front runner. It was also the only model that offered full wheelchair access, a panoramic glass roof and slightly more pleasing lines than its competitors.

But the city eventually rejected the Turkish bid, saying the company had no experience in manufacturing for the US market. The new Nissan cabs do offer some nice touches, including front and rear passenger airbags and sliding doors, so fewer cyclists and pedestrians are likely to be injured when they are flung open unexpectedly. Nissan's model was the most fuel efficient of the three finalists. The company says it will pilot electric-powered taxis in the city and has also promised the NV200 will be able to run on electricity alone by 2017.

Other bells and whistles include a charging station for phones, laptops and other gadgets, and a less obnoxious horn to reduce noise pollution.

Jeremy Anwyl, the chief executive of the car sales and ratings website edmunds.com, thinks the open contest worked well.

"The city could have chosen a domestic company, but their proposals just weren't good enough," Mr Anwyl says. Nissan needed the good news. Like all Japanese car makers, it is expected to reveal the negative impact of Japan's recent earthquake and tsunami when its releases earnings on Thursday.

Analysts doubt Japan's car companies will benefit from rebounding US car sales as much as their domestic competitors in the coming months because of disruptions to supply lines at home.

Mr Anwyl says the NV200 contract will give Nissan a psychological boast. "The number of vehicles sold will not be that important given the size of the American market, but the fact that Nissan has won this contest has more than just commercial implications," he says.

Mr Anwyl argues Nissan has a unique chance to redefine what a New York City taxi is and do for New York what black Hackney cabs have done for London.

Nissan is certainly hoping the NV200 will soon star on film and TV and become a new city symbol.

Mr Sarkesian says when the Nissan is the only cab on the streets, and the only cab that visitors experience, it could eventually become just that.

But it is not going to be a case of love at first sight.


Published: May 17, 2011 04:00 AM


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