For most of us, the closest we ever get to the front seat of a New York cab is when we lean forward to pay the driver. And even if we do cram four (or more) passengers into a cab, prompting at least one of us to get a front-row seat to watch the streets blur as only NYC cabbies can make happen, the left seat is always occupied by someone else.
So we jumped at the opportunity to not only ride in but drive the all-new NV200 “Taxi of Tomorrow” — which became the taxi of today when owner/operator Ranjit Singh, shown above, started taking fares this morning from JFK International Airport. Based on Nissan’s compact NV200 cargo van, the Taxi of Tomorrow was purpose-built for NYC cab duties, but will get pitched to taxicab fleets around the world soon. And while its shape lacks the iconic style of Checker Cabs from the 1960s or the dome-roof retro cabs in London, the NV200’s giant Dustbuster case proved perfect as a short-haul shuttle.
While the Ford Crown Victoria had its nostalgic fans, the NV200 offers a major upgrade for taxi drivers, with an upright seat featuring six-way adjustability, lumbar support, and special airflow-enhancing upholstery. Behind the wheel lies a simple instrument panel, while an integrated navigation screen resides a little ways to the right, with the dash-mounted shift lever sandwiched in between. Forward and side vision improves, thanks to the NV200's low windshield, small triangular quarter windows, huge side windows and big exterior mirrors. The one drawback to the scoop style: Reduced rear visibility, thanks to relatively smaller rear windows.
As a tall, heavy, front-wheel-drive minivan with a 131-hp four-cylinder engine, the NV200 taxi offers a major improvement in fuel economy at the expense of speed. The fact that throttle inputs take a little while to translate into velocity changes should be mildly reassuring to anyone caught in one of Manhattan's famed impromptu Nascar races, along with standard stability and traction control systems. Handling feels surprisingly taut and flat considering the NV200’s height, and the steering was tuned direct enough to help drivers dodge wayward pedestrians staring down at their smartphones, but not so darty as to toss heads around in the back with every minor correction.
The structure seems solid, too, though only time will tell if the NV200 will absorb the pummeling of New York's broken pavement, potholes and bridge/tunnel expansion joints without accruing a symphony of squeaks and rattles.
While paying passengers can now lay claim to a front seat separated from the driver by a center console, the back seat's where it's at. Thanks to an illuminated floor and sliding doors (chosen to reduce the risk of being sheared off in traffic or maiming passing cyclists), entry and exit take far less effort. Like the old Crown Vic, the NV200 cab can seat three average-width people in back, though in the NV200, each can be comfortably belted in with three-point seat belts in an ergonomically sound position and with a flat floor beneath their feet (no more straddling the hump!).
The rear bench comes wrapped in anti-microbial, easy-to-clean fabric; the NV200’s rear quarters also have a separate A/C system and the ceiling holds an active carbon-lined headliner — all designed to minimize New York's signature August street perfume.
As with most cabs, the NV200’s partition incorporates a large touchscreen for credit card payment and to spread the gospel of Sandy Kenyon's voice. For escape, there's a pair of USB ports at ankle height and a 12-volt plug as well.
While we were giving rides around a Nissan test track for free, cash payees in the real world can hand their coins and money through a small pass-through behind the front passenger seat while an intercom helps facilitate communication between driver and rear passengers. It's one of the many touches that's meant to make the New York taxi nicer for visitors and tourists, from the "vacant" sign in the rear window to help those who can't master the roof light codes to the huge rear sunroof that could put a serious crimp in Grey Line sightseeing tours.
All great stuff, but the NV200 stops a few blocks short of Cab-utopia. We imagine the thick, curved partition window won’t do any favors for passengers prone to carsickness. And while the smaller, manual sliding side windows ensure a hint of privacy, they make it a little hard to take in all of the great sidewalk action and/or deal with an emergency reversal of an evening's liquid revelry.
Nissan designed the cabs after a deal with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that required taxi fleets buy 15,000 NV200s over the next decade. That pact fell into limbo earlier this month when a judge ruled the city couldn't mandate the NV200, which the city has appealed. Until a final ruling, the NV200 will have to prove itself with taxi drivers and owners on the city's streets. If it can make it there, it can make it anywhere.