Rally cry for a taxi revolution

    Consumer Reports News: May 03, 2007 09:53 AM

    What if just one city's taxi fleet could be replaced by more affordable, fuel-efficient models with cleaner emissions? The New York city taxi fleet consists largely of Ford Crown Victorias with thirsty V8 engines primed for a 21st-century update. Such a changeover of the nation's most famous squadron of cabs could reduce gasoline consumption, greenhouse gas production,  and more--maybe even start a revolution.

    At the taxi stand
    New Yorkers know a thing or two about taxi cabs. With some 13,000 distinctive yellow cabs cruising the potholed streets of the Big Apple, they're the personal transportation of choice for many city dwellers, scores of whom don't own cars. So it makes a certain amount of sense that a sizable chunk of real estate at the recent New York Auto Show was given over to Taxi 07, a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the gasoline-powered taxi in New York.

    A project of the Design Trust for Public Space, Taxi 07 was also intended as an opportunity for carmakers to show their ideas for replacements for the ubiquitous Ford Crown Victoria, which makes up 92 percent of the medallion cabs in the city.

    Suprisingly, Kia was the only major manufacturer to participate in what could be a brand-building program. Subjecting their products to this kind of tough duty could help bolster their less-than-stellar reputation for reliability.. (Kia ranks midpack in CR's latest Annual Car Reliability Survey.) The company brought two of their new mini-minivan-sized Rondos gussied up in taxi trim, right down to the meter and driver ID photo on the dash. Powered by either a four-cylinder engine or V6 (as was on display) and with more passenger volume than the Crown Vic, according to Environmental Protection Agency data, the Rondo makes an interesting alternative to the big Ford with its thirsty V8. As a bonus, the Rondo is also almost three feet shorter--making it easier to park, lessening road congestion, and enabling more cabs to queue at popular pickup locations.

    Tallying up the fares
    Any vehicle that takes up less space on city streets would seem like a good idea, even before factoring in fuel savings. But we decided to crunch a few numbers to see just how much gas could be saved if New York's cabbies traded in all their Crown Vics for Rondos.

    In our testing, the Crown Vic got 10 miles per gallon in city driving. We have yet to test a Rondo, but we have tested the Kia Optima sedan that it's based on. Our Optima equipped with the same four-cylinder engine available in the Rondo got 15 mpg in city driving. The Rondo does weigh about 400 pounds more than the Optima, so for this exercise, we estimate it'll get about one mpg less, or 14 mpg. Using the 60,000-mile per year average mileage the New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission says each of their medallion cabs racks up, every Rondo put into service could save 1,714 gallons of gas annually if ordered with the four-cylinder engine.

    Multiply that reduction by 13,000 cabs and the total fuel savings would be a significant 22,285,714 gallons. Using the current $2.97 per gallon national average price for a gallon of regular, that works out to--have a seat, please--$66,188,571. That'll buy a lot of New York pretzels. In fact, it might just buy all of them.

    And then there's the air-quality angle. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the difference in greenhouse gas emissions between 13,000 Crown Vics and Rondos would work out to a savings of about 88,400 tons of carbon dioxide per year. That would go a long way toward achieving the reduction in New York's greenhouse gas emissions Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently said he'd like to see. As part of an initiative announced on Earth Day, he called his goal of a 30-percent reduction by 2030 "... the most dramatic reduction in greenhouse gases ever achieved by an American city."

    Moving to a smaller vehicle raises the natural question of safety. In terms of passenger protection, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gave both the Ford and Kia five stars--its highest rating--in frontal crash tests. While frontal impact results only apply within the same weight class, the side-impact results can be reviewed across all vehicles. The Crown Vic did slightly better than the Rondo in side-impact tests (5 versus 4 stars for rear passenger protection), but only when equipped with optional side air bags. According to the TLC, fleet buyers as a rule do not order the optional air bags.

    The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has yet to crash test a Rondo. In the tougher IIHS side-impact test, the Crown Vic without side air bags is rated poor.

    Sizing up the yellow (cab) revolution
    Again, not all New York cabs are Crown Vics, and we're using estimated gas mileage for the Rondo. But consider this: In addition to medallion taxis, there are some 40,000 non-yellow cabs, black Lincoln Town Cars and other vehicles for hire roaming the city, too. If even a fraction of the 53,000 vehicles carrying fares in New York were exchanged for more fuel-efficient vehicles, the savings and reduced emissions in just this one fleet could add up fast.

    Once the word got out, maybe the rest of the country would think about downsizing, thereby reducing both pollution and fuel consumption nationally. Should the revolution spread, we'd all have cleaner air, and at least the taxi owners might have more money for pretzels.

    --Jim Travers

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