NEW YORK — In 2011, after a lengthy competition among automakers, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced that the Nissan NV200 would become the “Taxi of Tomorrow,” with most yellow cab owners required to purchase the boxy, bright yellow van. Eventually, the vehicle was expected to make up 80 percent of New York City’s fleet of over 13,000 cabs.
At the time, city officials touted the NV200’s increased leg room, USB charging ports and sunroof as amenities that would be attractive to riders who had long complained about cramped travel in less-than-spotless back seats.
But it turns out that tomorrow lasted only seven years.
Last week, the Taxi and Limousine Commission reversed the requirement, expanding drivers’ options beyond the Nissan NV200 to a smorgasbord of over 30 vehicles, including popular, fuel-efficient models like the Toyota Camry.
Many drivers who never grew enamored of the Nissan praised the decision, complaining about bumpy rides, frequent mechanical problems, gas-guzzling engines and the vehicle’s small interior that fits a maximum of only four passengers.
While a spokesman for the commission, Allan Fromberg, said the main purpose of the rule change was to give drivers more choices, the decision comes at a time when the yellow taxi industry is in financial free fall, decimated by the extraordinary rise of ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft.
“The ‘Taxi of Tomorrow’ was problematic from the start,” said Michael Woloz, a lobbyist who represents the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, which represents the owners of 5,500 medallions. “I think the fears that many people have about one company monopolizing the whole industry have come true in a lot of ways.”
Bloomberg granted Nissan an exclusive 10-year contract worth an estimated $1 billion, based on mandating that owners of over 12,000 taxi medallions eventually purchase an NV200. The contract is expected to remain in effect, though its ultimate value will be far less given that cab owners are no longer locked into the Nissan.
Today, there are 2,671 NV200 taxis on the streets, according to the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Each car costs about $39,000, a figure that rises to over $50,000 to make it wheelchair accessible.
Despite its many critics, the Nissan does have its fans. Malik Sarman, 23, a college student who has driven a rented cab from a garage in Queens for nearly five years, said he appreciated the modern touches the Nissan offers.
“It’s a great car,’’ Sarman said. “It’s comfortable, especially for tall people, you got more leg room and stuff, plus they have the intercom system. The driver could be listening to his own music in the front, and the passenger could be listening to their music in the back.”
As a part-time driver, however, Sarman does not have to drive the NV200 every day and instead uses whatever cars are available at the garage.
But then there are drivers like Sergio Cabrera, 60, who owns his vehicle and the expensive medallion needed to have it on the road. He said the NV200 has given him many headaches.
Cabrera, who has been driving cabs for over 20 years, said the NV200 is his fourth vehicle, after having owned three Ford Crown Victorias.
“There hasn’t been a worse car for the taxi industry than the NV200,” he said. “It’s not easy for older people to get into. Mechanically it’s one of the worst made cars I’ve ever owned.”
Cabrera complained that owning the Nissan has been expensive, in part because of regulations that he and other cabdrivers say subjects them to more maintenance rules than drivers for ride-sharing apps.
The Taxi and Limousine Commission requires yellow taxis to undergo a 200-point inspection every four months. Each time his Nissan has been inspected, Cabrera said he has had to spend at least $1,500 in repairs to pass. By comparison, the commission requires the same 200-point inspection for ride-hailing apps and other for-hire services once every two years.
The differences in how the industries are regulated have become the subject of intense debate as the yellow cab industry has seen the value of medallions crater, pushing many drivers into financial dire straits — several drivers have committed suicide in recent months.
Cabrera said he plans to get rid of his NV200 after he pays off his auto loan and is considering replacing it with a Toyota Highlander or Toyota Sienna.
After driving his last Crown Victoria over 200,000 miles, Cabrera said he sold it in 2012 for $500. He said he knows his NV200 is going to be worth even less.
“I don’t know what I’m gonna do with this one,” he said. “I’ll just give it away somewhere.”