Hans Greimel
Hans Greimel
Asia Editor, Tokyo

Behind the wheel of Nissan's taxi of tomorrow

Nissan began manufacturing the taxis in August at its plant in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

Photo credit: Hans Greimel
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YOKOSUKA, Japan -- If you've ever been on a harrowing New York taxi ride, you know speed and maneuverability are key. To the drivers at least.

They push their people movers to the max on mad dashes to Kennedy airport and in impromptu Broadway drag races, darting around slower traffic.

So when I recently climbed behind the wheel of New York's next-generation "taxi of tomorrow," Nissan Motor Co.'s new NV200 minivan, there was a bit of a disconnect.

The NV200 was smooth as silk and easy to drive. The ride was soft, without being jouncy, and the handling was a breeze. The wheel almost turned itself.

The taxi gets what Nissan calls a "low-annoyance horn" -- always a good idea in the city that never sleeps. And a six-way adjustable driver's seat should make cabbies less crabby.

The vehicle was almost genteel.

Yet on the twisting course of Nissan's Oppama proving ground south of Tokyo, two other issues stood out. Acceleration seemed sluggish and rear visibility was pretty limited.

The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine -- amplified by the whine of the continuously variable transmission -- labored to make good speed.

And looking in the rearview mirror and over my shoulders, it was hard to get a full picture of what was going on behind. I wondered, as a cabbie, how easily I could check those blind spots in the frenzy of lane switching required on Manhattan's mean streets.

The giant B-pillars blocked swaths of side view, and the tiny portals in the sliding doors didn't help much. At the very rear, smallish windows again seemed to limit my view.

Fortunately, the rearview backup monitor helps greatly with visibility behind the car.

As a customer in the backseat, there is a lot to like about the NV200.

For starters, the fuel-efficient engine may act as a natural brake for lead-footed drivers, helping cut down on those white-knuckled cross-town commutes.

More important, the passenger compartment is cavernous. The legroom is practically luxurious, especially with its humpless flat floor.

It's hard to take in the sights, sounds and smells of New York through the tiny side windows. But there is a transparent roof panel that lets in plenty of light and provides a vertical view of a city in which a lot of visitors spend their time looking up.

In any event, the gigantic video screen -- complete with remote control -- will keep many riders focused on what's happening in front of them, not out the window. A driver-passenger intercom system let's you shut out overly chatty cabbies. And there is ample charging help with a prominently placed 12-volt electric outlet and two USB ports.

Independent rear-seat climate control puts comfort at your fingertips.

Nissan began manufacturing the taxis in August at its plant in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

To tailor the product, Nissan created its own "New York Avenue" test course in Arizona to replicate the harsh conditions of the Big Apple. The company also hired real taxi drivers to put the car through the paces, logging a combined 155,000 miles to fine-tune the vehicle. That's enough miles, Nissan says, to cover every street in Manhattan 300 times.

The first customer was a 12-year New York taxi veteran named Ranjit Singh. He appreciated the extra cabin space. Standing 6 feet 4 inches, he needed it.

"We spend like 10 to 12 hours in a taxi," he said, quoted in a Nissan statement. "We spend the same hours at home, so you have to be comfortable in a taxi."

You can reach Hans Greimel at hgreimel@crain.com. -- Follow Hans on Twitter

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