Taxi cabs are yellow in New York City, black in London and on strike in Paris. Joke aside, cabs help define a cityscape as they stroll down main streets and back streets at all hours to make life happen.
Taxis across the world are shaped by their environment and the people who use them, so they take on vastly different forms from one country to the next. Here is a run-down of what you’re likely to hail as you travel, and what you could hail with the ability to travel back in time.
America: Checker Marathon
Popular culture elevated the Michigan-built Checker Marathon to cult status. It’s one of the most emblematic taxi cabs of all time. It continues to lend its silhouette to countless posters and decorative trinkets even though production ended in 1982.
Film and television shows forever cemented the Marathon’s reputation as New York City’s big-bumpered, chrome-grilled yellow cab. It was also a common sight in Chicago, among other major American cities. In 2015, Checker unexpectedly returned from the grave and announced plans to build its first new model of the 21st century. Don’t expect the yellow cab to make a comeback, however.
America: Ford Crown Victoria
Ford’s Crown Victoria took the torch from the Marathon. It shared its body-on-frame architecture with the Lincoln Town Car, which was popular as a limousine, and the Mercury Grand Marquis, which was prized by retirees. All three earned a reputation for truck-like toughness, and the Crown Victoria excelled as a cab on the choppy, fast-paced streets of New York City. It also served as the police car of choice all across America.
The Crown Vic, as it is colloquially known, was the last body-on-frame four-door sedan built in North America. Production stopped in 2011, and it’s not the hallmark of taxi fleets anymore, but it remains a common sight in places like New York City and Philadelphia.
America: Toyota Prius
The quest for more efficient taxi cabs led drivers to the Toyota Prius, the poster child of the hybrid car segment. The Prius posts high fuel economy figures, and even the standard hatchback model offers a generous amount of space for both passengers and luggage. Seeing the bigger Prius v with a taxi sign on the roof is becoming increasingly common, too, though Toyota just announced the end of the model’s career in America.
Australia: Ford Falcon
For years, the Ford Falcon was the darling of Australia’s taxi cab industry. It won over more drivers than the comparably-sized Holden Commodore. Ford shuttered its Australian factory last year, triggering a domino effect that took down the Holden and Toyota plants, too. Taxi drivers in the market for a new cab now tend to turn towards Toyota sedans like the Camry.
China: Volkswagen Jetta
It should come as no surprise that the car which helped put China on wheels played a deciding role in launching the nation’s taxi industry. Still popular in Shanghai and Beijing, the various evolutions of the second-generation Volkswagen Jetta are well-suited to taxi duty because they’re spacious, relatively basic and reliable.
Production of the second-generation Jetta (which made its debut in 1984) ended recently, but taxi drivers in big cities remain hooked on Volkswagen sedans. Hyundai and Kia are progressively gaining ground on their German rival, however.
Czech Republic: Skoda Octavia
Cabbies in the Czech Republic mostly drive Czech-made cars like the Skoda Superb. The sedan and wagon variants of the smaller Octavia are also popular, though don’t expect a driver to pick you up from the Prague airport in a vRS model with 230hp.
England: hackney carriage
The hackney carriage is to London what the yellow cab is to New York City. Also called black cab, its distinctive shape made it an icon all over the world, raising it to the same status as the double-decker bus, Big Ben and the red telephone box.
While the hackney carriage evolved inside and out over time, some of the basic guidelines that shaped it have remained in place for decades. These include the turning radius, which England’s Conditions of Fitness caps at 8.5m. Cabs need to have a separate compartment for the driver and the passengers, and cabbies need to memorize London’s latticework of 25,000 streets.
England: LTC TX5
London’s newest cab comes from Coventry with a little bit of help from China. Named TX5, it’s a thoroughly modern vehicle powered by a plug-in hybrid powertrain that provides up to 80 miles of electric-only range. We drove it recently and noted it delivers “a clean, prompt response.” It’s a lot less offensive to look at than the woeful Englon TXN concept of 2010, too.
The TX5 will gradually take over as TX4s reach the end of their government-mandated 15-year life cycle. Geely (which owns Volvo and now controls Lotus) has plans to expand beyond England into other markets, including China, and it wants to use the TX5 platform as the basis for a light commercial vehicle in the coming years.
France: anything goes
France is one of the few countries in the world that lets taxi drivers use the type of vehicle they want. There are no color restrictions; the only rule is that a taxi can’t have more than nine seats. Drivers like the Toyota Prius v for its spaciousness and efficiency, but many opt for luxury sedans like the BMW 5 Series and the Mercedes-Benz E-Class. We’ve even seen a few operators with a Tesla Model S.
Germany: Mercedes-Benz E-Class
The Mercedes-Benz E-Class has been Germany’s taxi of choice for decades. Always painted in a very specific and inoffensive shade of beige, the E-Class sedan with a turbodiesel engine is such a popular option among drivers that Mercedes offers taxi packages straight from the factory. They eliminate the need for operators to get their car re-painted and fitted with equipment like a fare meter before they can begin driving.
Germany’s taxi fleet is relatively recent; most E-Classes are the current- or last-generation models. However, we’ve recently ridden in 20-year old W210-generation models still earning their keep.
India: Hindustan Ambassador
The Morris Oxford wasn’t eligible for taxi duty in England, but it ruled the sector in its adoptive homeland of India, where it lived on as the Hindustan Ambassador. It was robust, easy to fix and spacious; what else could a cabbie ask for? Early ads claimed the Ambassador was “the ideal car for the chauffeur-driven,” and taxi drivers took that phrase to heart.
Production finally ended in 2014 after a 56-year long production run. Thousands of Ambassador taxis remain in India, especially in Kolkata, but newer cars built by Mahindra, Toyota and Tata are gradually replacing it.
Japan: Toyota Comfort/Crown Comfort
Toyota designed the Comfort (and the long-wheelbase Crown Comfort) specifically for taxi duty. As its name clearly implies, engineers developing the car put a major emphasis on comfort for both the driver and the passengers. The timeless, understated design hides a rear-wheel drive architecture also found under the first two generations of the Lexus IS, among other models.
In 2003, Toyota showed off the Comfort’s unexploited and unexpected potential as a sports sedan by building 59 high-performance examples with a 160hp supercharged four-cylinder engine. Even Toyota admitted it was a far-fetched concept but the production run sold out quickly. Comfort production ended this year. Its replacement, the JPN Taxi, will enter production next year. We don’t expect to see it turned into a sports car, however.
Japan: Toyota JPN Taxi
While the Toyota Crown resembled a 1980s sedan, the brand-new JPN Taxi takes the form of a tall, black cab-esque vehicle developed with an unprecedented focus on user-friendliness. Toyota carefully examined every minute detail, down to the design of the grab handles. It’s presented as modern, quiet and easy to access for every user regardless of age.
The JPN Taxi comes with a hybrid powertrain that runs on electricity and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). It also boasts six airbags plus an array of safety-enhancing electronic driving aids.
Mexico: Volkswagen Beetle
The Volkswagen Beetle became Mexico City’s standard taxi cab in 1972. It was more economical to operate than the big, V8-powered American sedans available at the time. Hundreds of thousands of locally-built Beetles have meandered through the streets of the Mexican capital since, zig-zagging through traffic and scraping their floor pans on elephantine speed bumps. The characteristic cacophony of the air-cooled flat-four became an integral part of daily life.
The Beetle’s monopoly on the Mexican taxi market began crumbling in 2002, when government officials passed a law requiring all cabs to have four doors for safety and practicality reasons. The announcement coincided with the imminent end of the model’s production run. The last Beetle taxis retired when their 10-year permits expired in late 2012. The Nissan Tsuru is now common as a taxi.
Malaysia: Proton Saga
The Proton Saga sedan has never won a beauty contest, but it doesn’t need to look good to carry passengers from A to B in relative comfort. It was immensely popular as a taxi during the 1990s and the 2000s thanks to its generously-sized cabin and trunk. Many were converted to run on natural gas.
You might not associate the image of a Saga in full taxi regalia with good memories if you’ve ever traveled or lived in Malaysia. Malaysian taxi drivers earned the dubious distinction of providing the worst service in the world, opening the door for newcomers like Uber to settle in comfortably.
Morocco: Mercedes-Benz W123
In the 1990s, Moroccan taxi drivers eagerly purchased a majority of the worn out, depreciation-suffering Mercedes-Benz W123s coughed up by the European used car market. The 240D model’s legendary longevity made it highly sought-after across the Mediterranean. Users routinely carried seven passengers; two in the front (plus the driver) and four in the back. Local taxi drivers told us mechanics rebuild 240D transmission with 190D gears and raise the rear suspension to carry more weight.
Citing glaringly obvious safety and environmental reasons, the Moroccan government recently launched a scrappage scheme to get as many W123 taxis off the road as possible. Officials instead encourage taxi drivers to buy a Dacia Lodgy because it offers seven real seats, it pollutes less than a now-classic Mercedes and it’s made locally.
Peru: Daewoo Tico
On Peruvian streets, the Daewoo Tico defied commonly-held beliefs about taxis with its tiny footprint. Pushing the rear axle as far back as possible helped clear up a usable amount of interior space, but it’s difficult to qualify a ride in a Tico as anything less than cramped. They’re often yellow, a nod to the American yellow cabs whose wheelbase they can parallel park into.
Volvos reign supreme in Sweden. In addition to crowning driveways and parking garages, they serve as police vehicles, ambulances and taxi cabs. The love affair between Swedish cabbies and Volvos started in 1930, when the firm began making purpose-built taxis, and continues today with the newest V90, which earned high praise from Autocar’s road testers. Sweden isn’t immune to SUV fever so the XC60 is growing in popularity, too.
United Arab Emirates: Toyota Camry
The Toyota Camry is so ubiquitous in Dubai’s taxi fleet that many car shoppers are wary of the taxi stigma associated with the model. About 1000 of the Camry cabs in Dubai are hybrid models, an eye-opening statistic in a nation that joined OPEC half a century ago.
Uber, anywhere: any late-model, four-door vehicle
Uber changed every aspect of the taxi industry, for better or worse. In theory, it lets anyone who downloads the application and passes a basic background check earn money as a driver, either full time or in their spare time. There are basic rules to follow, however.
To become eligible, drivers must own a four-door car built in 2008 or after. It needs to be in good enough shape to sail through a vehicle inspection. These guidelines are vague, so you’re just as likely to ride in a Toyota Hilux as you are to get picked up in a Vauxhall Astra if you select the basic service. Assuming Uber isn’t banned where you live, of course.