Nissan sees gold in a yellow taxi

NEW YORK -- Nissan will do well to sell 4,000 of them a year. But the automaker is giving its new van-shaped taxi cab all the auto show fanfare of one of its biggest products.

Models last night handed out prepaid credit cards to New Yorkers worth a free cab ride in the city as a way of advertising Nissan's entry into the taxi business.

The canary yellow cab -- a converted Nissan NV200 commercial van -- is being hawked in billboards around the New York auto show, and the only existing model of the van sits prominently on Nissan's display at the show, even though it will not appear on the streets until October 2013.

Why all the hoopla?

Three reasons, according to Nissan Motor Co. CEO Carlos Ghosn:

First, New York is only the beginning.

"Eventually, we'll see it in other markets in the world," he says. The company has received queries on the cab from cities in China, India and Britain.

Second, the so-called "Taxi of Tomorrow" will serve as a rolling advertisement for the Nissan brand for millions of New Yorkers and tourists, Ghosn says, showing off Nissan as a technology innovator.

"Six hundred thousand people a day will experience it," Ghosn says.

Among the cab's innovations: interiors made of anti-bacterial materials that neutralize odors and germs; large roof skylights to let visitors gaze at the city skyline while in traffic; rear-seat reading lights; plug-in jacks to recharge cell phones; separate passenger air conditioner controls; a driver-to-passenger intercom system; and an embedded radio-transmission feature that helps hearing-impaired passengers hear the driver.

The taxi also will come as a battery-powered electric vehicle, giving Nissan still more exposure as a maker of electric cars.

"In my opinion, the EV will be the dominant version of the taxi," Ghosn conjectured. "It's quieter, and that will be attractive."

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduce the Nissan NV200 Taxi on Tuesday. Photo credit: Bloomberg

On Tuesday night, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg helped get the ball rolling at an offsite unveiling of the taxi.

Bloomberg launched the project to award a single automaker with an exclusive contract to supply all the city's newtaxis for 10 years starting in 2013. Nissan won the bid last year, competing against Ford Motor Co. and a little-known Turkish vehicle manufacturer, Karsan Otomotiv Sanayii Ve Ticaret AS.

"It will be the most comfortable cab in the city's history," Bloomberg declared. He told the crowd the NV200 will offer cab riders more luggage room and legroom than a Ford Crown Victoria, one of the most common taxis in New York.

Finally, Ghosn expects to make money on the taxi deal.

Even with the exclusive contract, Nissan looks to sell only 30,000 to 40,000 taxis in New York over the course of the decade-long deal.

Ghosn was asked: Why bother?

"It's a big contract," he countered. "Hopefully, we'll make money."

Nissan has estimated the contract's value at $1 billion.

"This is not a marketing car," he emphasized. "It's a business car."

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