'Bye Caprice, Hello Minivan: N.Y. Cabs Get New Makeover

'Don't forget your bags' say today's cabs, which will be safer, newer, and roomier

For nearly a century, taxis have dominated Manhattan's streets as they shuttled people across the city more than half a million times a day.

Since 1920, three carmakers have had a choke-hold on the taxi market: General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and the Checker Motors Corp.

But that is about to change. New Yorkers, fiercely loyal to their traditions, are getting - and embracing - a new version of their beloved yellow cab that will eventually change the landscape of America's biggest city.

Although Checker and its familiar, bubble-shaped cabs bowed out in the 1980s, Ford and GM have kept control of the industry. Today, four-door, utilitarian sedans are staples on New York streets: GM's Chevrolet Caprice and Ford's Crown Victoria - the same workhorses used in most police departments.

But some recent changes in taxi regulations - and Chevy's decision to stop making the Caprice after this year - have opened the door to the next generation of yellow people-movers. And in coming years, New York will see a decidedly larger, more modern version of the 100-year-old mode of transportation.

First, New York's Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) in March banned the use of used cars as taxis. Secondly, it required that all city taxis be retired after five years of service.

These new policies, and rumors that the Crown Vic will follow the Caprice to pasture in a few years, mean that the two trusty sedans will soon disappear from city streets. That has sent New York searching for suitable new vehicles that can withstand the punishing treatment meted out to taxicabs, which rack up as many as 100,000 miles a year.

Two very nontraditional candidates, approved by the TLC in May, have already begun to change the face of the city's 12,000-car fleet.

After a six-month test run proved their mettle, the Ford Explorer and the Honda Odyssey (as well as an identical Isuzu model, the Oasis) got the green light. This is the first time in years that the city has accepted new taxi models, and the Honda is the first foreign-made cab in decades. (The city briefly tried gas-saving Peugeots during the 1970s energy crisis, but the smaller cars were pummeled by potholes and abandoned after less than a year.)

The TLC also recently approved a half dozen other US-made sedans for experimental use, including the Lincoln Town Car and the Mercury Grand Marquis. But the yellow sports utilities and, especially, the minivans, have been turning many a jaded New Yorker's head.

"Oh, they love it," says Juan Matos, a dispatcher who hails cabs for people leaving the Port Authority Bus Terminal. "There's more room in there." At Penn Station, dispatcher Winston Bentwick says minivans are especially appreciated by people traveling to or from the airports and train and bus stations.

"Pretty cool," comments Nina McCarthy, a tourist from Atlanta, as she emerges from a shiny new Isuzu Oasis at Penn Station.

Minivans aren't all that's new for New York taxis. This year, the TLC required all city cabs to be fitted with tape-recorded message machines that tell departing passengers to remember their belongings and get a receipt. The move has cut the 60,000 annual lost-and-found reports.

The recorders are part of the TLC's attempt to bring the taxicab industry "into the 21st century," says TLC spokesman Lenny Kaplan.

Dumond Etienne, a taxi driver who drove a Crown Vic for 10 years, was midway through his second day in a new Isuzu minivan he bought for $24,800. Speeding up Eighth Avenue from Penn Station, he touts the new car's versatility, power, handling, and gas mileage.

"People love the ride," he says. "It's easy to get into. It's easy to get out of. And, of course, it's new. New Yorkers like anything that's new."

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