Krishnan M.  Anantharaman
Krishnan M. Anantharaman
News Editor

All hail the New York City taxicab

Nissan began manufacturing the NV200 taxis in August at its plant in Cuernavaca, Mexico. They hit New York streets in the fall.

Photo credit: Hans Greimel
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Over my brief tenure at Automotive News, I’ve had the privilege to test-drive a few dozen of the auto industry’s newest and finest cars.

There have been the cars that reminded me of the young man I once was: a committed mass-transit commuter who occasionally needed wheels to pop into the city after-hours, or haul more than two arms’ worth of groceries to the old apartment. Basic, reliable, easy-to-park transportation with a trunk. Toyota Corolla. Kia Rio. Good times.

There have been the cars that appeal to the planet-hugging, power-sacrificing team player I know I ought to be. Toyota Prius. Chevy Spark EV. Ford C-Max Energi.

There have been the cars that occupied my driveway for a night, and my dreams ever since. Audi S7. Porsche 911S. BMW 650i Gran Coupe. [Insert sound Roy Orbison makes.]

But when, I have long wondered, will I be offered a vehicle that truly speaks to the person I am today? Someone who must shuttle kids to school and their swim lessons and basketball games, but who is hypersensitive to distracting noise from the back seat. Someone who is always game for an airport run, and who considers it his obligation to load and unload the family’s luggage after trips. Someone who would much rather take a circuitous detour than idle in traffic; after all, time is money.

When will that vehicle come along?

It finally did this week, when Dan, guardian of our office test-car fleet, approached me with a single key on a ring and a photo of the corresponding vehicle parked in the garage. It was a Nissan NV200 -- purpose-built to be the next New York City taxicab.

Did I mention I’m an immigrant from South Asia?

Flat fare to JFK

NV200 cabs began hitting the streets of New York last fall, two years after Nissan won a bid to design the Taxi of Tomorrow under a plan that would have made it the exclusive supplier to the city’s taxi fleet.

Presumably, if the NV200 could make it there, it could make it anywhere. But why presume? Why not take this opportunity to see just how well a New York cab would fare for a day in Michigan -- not as a Detroit taxi, but as a family hauler?

The vehicle supplied by Nissan was easy to find in our garage. It was, after all, taxicab yellow, and branded with near-authentic New York details: A decal that said “Flat fare to JFK,” a fake Taxi & Limousine Commission medallion (the real ones can cost over $1 million) and even some specks of asphalt spray on the hood.

But it may as well have had my name written all over it.

The NV200 knows what it is. It is not a performance car or a luxury car. It is not a symbol of prestige or achievement. It is, at heart, a public conveyance, a way to get from Point A to Point B, possibly by way of Point L.

The infotainment system is standard-issue Nissan, with satellite radio and a utilitarian nav. Buttons are basic black plastic, except for the silver gray ones on the steering wheel. Yet it’s got enough considerate touches to make for a safe, comfortable, productive ride for a rear-seat passenger, and a not-so-shabby mobile workplace for the fellow in the driver’s seat.

This was a vehicle built for New York, so I thought I’d break it in on familiar ground. On the first leg, I detoured off a congested “expressway” and onto Woodward Avenue, a busy but free-flowing boulevard that slices diagonally across our region’s urban street grid. Consider it the Broadway of Detroit.

The New York taxi cab at a New York bagel shop in Detroit.

Here, I aimed for every pothole I could find.

Sure, the NV200 had to have been tested for pothole-worthiness at some point, but Michigan’s potholes are of such size and splendor that in New York, they might well be listed in the classifieds as garden apartments. Or you might be charged a $7.50 toll to cross the strips of road traversing them. Our potholes are geographical features.

In this regard, the NV200 just doesn’t hack it. Unlike the old boats that sailed gently over Manhattan’s undulating road surfaces, inducing just a touch of seasickness, the NV200 hits them hard, with a noise and a jerk that’ll make you wonder which side street your hubcaps just rolled down.

After a few of these, the NV200 didn’t go wobbly, but it did begin to develop the kinds of rattles and squeaks that, along with the announcers on 1010 WINS-AM, form the familiar soundtrack of a New York cab ride. The center console seemed to be shaken by the experience. It still whimpers.

Awkward moment at bus stop

Straight up Woodward lies Birmingham, an upscale suburb whose quaint downtown has pedestrian traffic and parking meters to match its Fifth Avenue pretensions. It also has a place called Brooklyn Pizza, where they serve slices New York-style -- that is, oily on flimsy paper plates. I thought about a snack, but couldn’t find a spot to park. That’s how authentic the place is.

A good cab has enough zoom under the hood to try to beat a changing traffic light, and enough stopping power to call it off when a bicycle comes out of nowhere. By that measure, the NV200 is a good cab. It won’t win any drag races. But we have cars for that in Detroit.

At one of those lights, I had to disappoint a gentleman who eyed my vehicle longingly as he shivered at a bus stop. We both knew the bus wasn’t coming, but without a functioning meter in the test vehicle, I didn’t feel I had anything to gain by picking up a stranger. And why would a commuter in Birmingham, Mich., risk hailing a New York City taxicab with Tennessee license plates?

Around the corner on Old Woodward, Birmingham’s main downtown drag, the NV200’s authoritative horn helped me avoid a collision with a Chevy pickup truck that was recklessly backing out of a parking space. Understandable mistake. Our two vehicles had perhaps never encountered each other before.

Behind the glass

When I went to pick up the kids at the pool on the south side of town, they were delighted by my tease that I would be treating them to a unique experience, and a late dinner at Brooklyn.

Pizza ended up being a no-go. At a quarter to 9, Brooklyn was closing down. Birmingham is a city that sleeps. It’s nodding off right now.

But boy did I deliver on the unique experience: a free ride home in the back of a New York taxicab, driven by their dad, who is not a cabdriver. The NV200’s sliding rear doors and running boards make for easy entry, and the bright-yellow seat-belt buckles all but glow in the dark. Once inside, my children, 8 and 10, enjoyed acres of legroom, and though the rear video screen was inoperative, they marveled at the possibilities: GPS maps. News snippets. Commercials!

Among the other thoughtful touches for the paying customer: Dual USB ports and a big sunroof for our favorite winter pastime, cloudgazing. Plus plenty of room in the easy-to-load cargo area for two backpacks and two lunchboxes, the trombone, the science-fair project, you name it.

And for the driver, there’s a rear backup camera, a massive pocket for paperwork and even a panic button, marked with an exclamation point. It activates a “Call 911” signal above the taillights.

Aside from the rattles and squeaks, there was another sound I discovered on this leg of the journey: I could actually hear myself think. This thanks to the sturdy plexiglass partition between the front and back rows. It’s a standard feature of New York cabs, there for the driver’s security -- and in my case, sanity. The barrier isn’t soundproof, but it does muffle enough of the screaming, cackling and whining that make chauffeuring children so tiresome. A handy button on the center console activates a two-way intercom, for those times when, I swear, I will turn this cab around!

And so I ask you, auto industry: Why can’t every family vehicle have a glass partition?

Where to?

Friday morning, I was up well before dawn. Though my shift doesn’t officially begin till 9, I had a fare waiting: my 16-year-old daughter, who enjoys the extra 20 minutes of sleep she gets when we ferry her to school instead of sending her on the bus. She’d rather not ride in something clunky and yellow, but on this day, she had no choice. She orbited the NV200 in the driveway with that teen-appropriate level of curiosity, or whatever, and then hopped without a word into the front passenger seat.

No, I told her. We’re going to do this right. She climbed in back and slid the door shut.

While waiting for the windshield to thaw out on a frosty Michigan morning, I tried making small talk with her over the intercom. The weather. The Yankees. Usual stuff. But I could see through the rearview that she was composing a text, so I let her be for the 15-minute ride.

At the school dropoff zone, she struggled briefly with the sliding door, then stepped out with a quick “bye,” the way teenagers do.

Moments later, as I turned out of the driveway, a text message popped up on my phone. It was from my teenager: Thanks for a memorable ride.

Hey, lady, just doin’ my job.

You can reach Krishnan M. Anantharaman at krishnan@crain.com.

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