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Drivers grumble, naturally, over New York's new cabs

Nissan has unveiled New York City's "Taxi of Tomorrow" - featuring sliding doors, anitbacterial seats and outlets to charge your phone. Take a ride through taxi cab history, including the original Electrobat, horse-drawn cabs and the iconic Checker. 

Like most New York taxi drivers, Hakan Karakas has a ready opinion on everything – especially when you ask him about the “Taxi of Tomorrow.”

“It’s like the communists have taken over,” he laments.  “This is a free market, and I should be able to choose what I drive.”

But the fact is Hakkan and the rest of the Big Apple’s independent and fleet taxi owners won’t have a choice. This week they’re getting a first look at the vehicles that will replace the aging Ford Crown Victoria sedans that have long served as the majority of New York’s yellow cabs.

Slideshow: A brief history of NYC taxi cabs

The winner of a city-sponsored shoot-out for the contract was Nissan, which will begin supplying a specially modified version of its NV200 commercial van to New York hacks next year. By sometime in 2018, New York taxi regulators expect the Taxi of Tomorrow to replace all 13,000 vehicles plying the city's concrete canyons today.

At a price of $29,700 the Nissan yellow cab won’t come cheap, prompting some grumbling by operators.  But at a news conference this week to reveal the final design, Mayor Michael Bloomberg insisted the new model “was designed for those who matter most: the passengers and the hard-working drivers.”

Among the many advantages: Nissan conducted extensive safety testing with all the taxi hardware – including the glass partition between driver and passengers – in place.  It has developed special airbag systems to further enhance safety.

Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images

Marvin Wasserman (R) and Jean Ryan (L) of the Taxis for All campaign protest outside the unveiling of the Nissan NV200.

The NV200 will be powered by a modest and reasonably fuel-efficient four-cylinder engine, rather than the big V-8 in the Crown Vic. That might frustrate drivers jockeying for position on crowded streets but will save plenty of money on fuel considering the time the typical yellow cab spends stuck in midtown traffic or crawling along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway on the way to LaGuardia Airport.

The new model also will be “the most comfortable taxi ever to hit our streets,” said Bloomberg, pointing to amenities including better interior lighting, USB and 12-volt power ports for cellphones and iPads, and even carbon ceiling covers and anti-microbial floor mats to keep things cleaner and minimize odors.

The Taxi of Tomorrow will offer 10 more inches of legroom than current cabs and there will be no hump down the middle of the floor that makes it so unpleasant, today, to get stuck with the center seat.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, left, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg enjoy the roomy back seat of the new taxi prototype.

“Sounds great to me,” said Robin Milstein, a Manhattan bank clerk, as she struggled to exit gracefully from an old Crown Victoria on her way home to city's SoHo neighborhood.  “It’s such a pain getting in and out, especially when you get one of the smaller cabs they have these days.”

Not everyone is pleased.  A small group of protestors gathered outside the news conference holding hand-lettered signs criticizing Nissan for not making the NV200 handicap accessible. Nissan says it has designed the new taxi to include a rear ramp for wheelchairs, though it is unclear whether that will be a requirement or just one of the options for taxi owners to choose from.

The debut of the Taxi of Tomorrow coincides with the opening of the 2012 New York Auto Show.  For many city residents, it may be as close as they get to an automobile in day-to-day life. The Big Apple –- and Manhattan, in particular -- has the lowest per capita car ownership rate in the country. The yellow cab is the automobile for people who have no interest in cars.

Since the days when motorized hacks took over from horse-drawn carriages, the yellow cab has become an integral part of the city fabric, says New York-based writer Kate McLeod, and not just for locals.

“For many people who come to New York, riding in a yellow cab is a part of their to-do list,” she says.

That experience will be just a bit different – and notably more sightseer-friendly – starting in 2013.

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Hail to the new NYC taxi 

Slideshow: A brief history of NYC taxi cabs