Welcome back to In Plain Sight, where we’re doing something a little different this week – celebrating the taxis of New York. Yesterday we dove into the history of these yellow beasts and what makes them so special to this city. Today, I present the first part of my comprehensive guide to all the models currently in service, starting with the offerings from Ford and Toyota - by and large the vast majority of the entire fleet.
Ford Crown Victoria Stretch
The Crown Victoria. Stretch! What do I need to say, really? It’s roomy, rugged, rear-wheel drive, and decidedly Amurican. You can fit at least three bodies in the trunk and five in the backseat if you’ve got an adventurous cabbie. The V8 is kind of underpowered (but still, a V8) and the fuel economy is not great, but the drivers I’ve talked to love how easy to fix and comfortable they are. It’s hard to disagree, although if you get one with worn-out shocks you’ll definitely feel the potholes. The air conditioning rarely works, but the windows go down all the way. Also, getting in and out of the back of a large sedan makes you feel like a baller, even if it is bright yellow. Don’t deny it.
The one above, however, is NOT a taxi. At least, a taxi that will take you any place other than jail. That’s right, it’s one of the fleet of undercover taxi cop cars that New York’s Finest use to thwart all kinds of street crime (and spy on Muslims, not cool). Sounds like a TV show waiting to happen! So, how can you tell from the picture? Normal people might point out that it’s parked in front of a police precinct next to a cop car, but the eagle-eyed Jalop will notice that this isn’t a Stretch model, which is the only trim eligible for real taxi service. You can tell by the shape of the rear door; it’s not as long. They also usually have a white guy driving with a buddy riding shotgun. There, you learned how to avoid prison.
We’re going to miss this one, and I’ve already noticed less on the streets as the three-year retirement rule continues to take its toll on the dwindling supply. Critics say its departure is long past due, but they said the same thing about Penn Station. AND LOOK WHAT HAPPENED.
Taxi Rating: 10/10 would buy again. And yes that includes 2 nostalgia points.
Ford Escape/Mercury Mariner Hybrid
The Ford Escape Hybrid started to hit the streets about 5 years ago as part of an ill-fated attempt to create an all-hybrid taxi fleet. But a combination of good gas mileage and cargo space has kept these babies on the road, although for some reason the redesigned 2013 Escape is not eligible for service. I personally like the Escape a lot, and though I’ve noticed a slight delay in the throttle response when driving a regular Escape, the Hybrid is pretty quick off the line and when darting through traffic thanks to the torquey electric start. These are also nice because sometimes the driver partition is only a little box around his seat, making for a less claustrophobic ride (not for him). The ride is pretty decent, if a little stiff, and it’s easier for your arthritic parents to get in and out of than the Crown Vic.
Side note – I have a friend who once paid a cabbie driving one of these to take him from Grand Central to White Plains after missing the last train, and the cab hit a deer at speed on the highway just outside the city. The front was all smashed in and leaking several different fluids, but the cabbie completed the journey. Built Ford Tough.
And yes, there are still a few Mercury Mariners puttering around. They all have pieces falling off and only sad people ride in them.
Taxi Rating: 8/10
Ford Transit Connect
Continuing our Blue Oval obsession, the Ford Transit Connect was introduced to taxi service here last year. It was actually the third finalist in Bloomberg’s taxi vote, and was reportedly the choice of most of the fleet owners. It’s easy to see why – the thing is probably just as easy to maintain as the Crown Vic. The 2.0 liter 4 cylinder has no complicated hybrid bits and it’s not hard to find a Ford mechanic or parts. The interior is, shall we say, Spartan. The doors are mostly metal on the inside, and the windows are manual. With very little interior paneling to muffle the road noise, it would be hard to have a conversation with the person next to you at highway speed.
The seat is quite possibly a piece of vinyl-wrapped plywood, probably so it’s easier to rip out at port to circumvent the chicken tax. It doesn’t help that the suspension is pretty horrible; I was riding in one on the FDR last week and it was alternatively painful and terrifying. The legroom is so-so, but obviously the headroom and cargo space are pretty ridiculous. My other observation is that using these as the Taxi of Tomorrow would’ve led to a lot of Accidents of Tomorrow, because when you’re sitting in the front seat that nose is damn near invisible. Cabbies, as a rule, are not going to let a little spatial uncertainty stop a lane change.
Taxi Rating: 6/10
Ford C-Max Hybrid
Rounding out the offerings from Ford is the C-Max Hybrid, which gets more MPG than Prius V! Fuck me, I hate that commercial. Anyway, the C-Max was introduced to taxi service here late last year, and despite the Alien-esque double grill up front, I think these little guys make very attractive and capable cabs. The rounded Kinetic styling, thin-spoked wheels, and yellow livery all come together to form a Euro-American update of the classic London Taxi. The legroom is slightly better than the Escape, and the seats are more comfortable.
I have to say, I’m a fan, which is why its exclusion from future taxi service makes no sense to me. I get that city officials have a hard-on for the Nissan NV and its anti-jizz interior surfaces, but why not at least use the C-Max, a very nice car from a company with an established relationship with the taxi industry, as one of the hybrid alternatives? Money talks, boys, that’s why. The upside is that with only the 2013 model year approved for service, these will be on the road for a while as more of those bread boxes come to town.
Taxi Rating: 8/10
Note: The Ford Fusion is also approved for use, and I could've sworn I've seen one before, but it's not on the official list of current licencees.
Toyota Camry/Camry Hybrid
It’s kind of ironic that the blandest of sedans has been entered into service en masse over the past couple years, as some of the more, shall we say, spirited taxi trips I’ve experienced have been in Camrys (Camries?). It’s inexplicable. The back seat is nothing special, although the addition of an A/C vent is welcome, if not always functional. The leg room is a little restricted with the partition installed, but it’s not as bad as the Prius or Jetta. But I have to admit, the torquey start you get with the hybrid motor (just like with the Escape) is great for beating another taxi off the stop line. You feel a surprising amount of pull from the backseat, although the driver is likely flooring it. The TLC website says that there are regular Camrys in service, but I’ve only seen hybrids.
Another feature is that like the Crown Vic the back windows go all the way down, which is always a nice touch in the middle of summer. There are so many on the road now, though, that you can’t throw a rock without hitting one, which you definitely shouldn’t do. I bet if you took someone who knew nothing about New York and plopped them in the middle of midtown and asked them to name the city’s main taxi, they’d say Camry. That’s almost as scary a thought as our mandated minivan future, although I suppose it would fit in with the corporatized, Disneyfied New York that has risen over the past decade.
Taxi Rating: 7/10
Toyota Highlander/Highlander Hybrid
The Highlander, sadly, will not be the one and only taxi. It will, however, be one of the two Hybrid alternatives when the Nissan van is finally introduced, since city law requires a hybrid alternative, and Nissan’s all like “You didn’t tell us that, so check back in three years.” BUT ON TO THE MINIREVIEWTM. The Highlander actually makes a great taxicab, and I have to wonder why Toyota didn’t lobby harder to be a part of the taxi contest. Its 28mpg city/highway is very close to the Nissan NV, the ride is quite comfortable, there’s legroom and cargo space aplenty, and its model bloat (it’s grown almost three inches longer and five inches wider since being introduced in 2007) pays a fitting tribute to the massive taxis of yesteryear (DeSoto Skyview hollaaaaaa).
I was in one a couple weeks ago that had the unlikely combination of working air conditioning, overhead reading lights, and soft classical music being piped through the cabin. It was an exceedingly nice ride, and being the only passenger in the back of a relatively large SUV is a cool VIP-like experience for the common man, even if it feels a little wasteful to the more progressive-minded.
Taxi Rating: 9/10
Toyota Prius/Prius V (pictured)
Speaking of the progressive-minded, they are just ALL ABOUT this next contender. It loves to have fun, guys! The Prius and the Prius V have also been a growing presence on city streets over the past few years, and their proliferation makes complete sense in a boring managerial way – it’s the most economic taxi in the approved fleet in a city with few convenient gas stations and sky-high fuel prices, and Toyotas still have a reputation for reliability, recent quality problems notwithstanding.
However, as the Prius is slated to be the other interim-hybrid option, I must argue against this unfortunate trend. The Prius is meant to haul large bags of granola or boxes of whatever petition you’re intent on delivering to city hall – not four friends on the way to the bar. Legroom is non-existent with the partition (though admittedly a little better in the most recent generation) and the backseat overall is laughably small. It’s also a terrible way to see the city, as the back windows are relatively tiny. The ventilation is OK if you don’t like to breathe. Despite a beefed-up suspension, the tiny overcooked donuts that Toyota keeps trying to pass off as wheels are just not designed for this city’s abusive roads. The cargo space is OK thanks to the hatchback, and the V variant offers even more room, but honestly, how many trips to the organic food co-op and hatchery do you need to make? Not enough to justify this being used as a cab, so you can put away your bespoke reclaimed-wood abacus right now. It just doesn’t fit New York.
Taxi Rating: 3/10, 4/10 (V)
The Interlocking Ovals continue their offerings with the Toyota Sienna, which comes in regular and handicap-accessible flavors. The regular Sienna has the normal captain’s chairs setup with convenient and adjustable armrests and a bench seat in the back, meaning it can technically fit 6 passengers (including the front seat), but good luck finding a cabbie who will allow that. But the Sienna would’ve been another solid contender – it has gobs and gobs of legroom and cargo space, a comfortable ride, minimal rattles from the trunk area, and massive power windows in the sliding doors that really open up the cabin. It also has overhead reading lights and AC vents and controls in the back, but the little knobs are usually missing or jammed, which is unimpressive considering they should be designed to be manhandled by your grubby children. I’ve also been in one where the seats reclined, but I think they usually remove that option.
The handicap version is marked with a little wheelchair logo and is usually riding with its ass in the air, thanks to the customized suspension and wheelchair ramp built into the back. It is slightly more comfortable than the regular Sienna, but much louder inside thanks to all the extra straps and bits in the back. Note – you should never accept a ride from a handicap one if you don’t actually need it, because the number of handicap-accessible taxis is downright laughable (I was late for a flight and it was during the dreaded afternoon shift change – EXCUSES, EXCUSES). Overall, the Sienna does a decent job. Some people will turn their noses up at these guys simply because they’re minivans, and I know I’ve mocked the new Nissan for that, but this one has been prowling the streets since the mid-90s so it gets a pass. Plus, this isn’t your hot milf neighbor’s van. Deez vans are HARD.
Taxi Rating: 8/10
Check back tomorrow for the some of the more... unusual cabs!