As someone who keeps close tabs on automotive press releases, I can't help but notice that there is a massive PR campaign running which alternates between stating how fantastically great LTI's (London Taxis International) black cabs are, and how terribly horrible all other types of taxis are.

When I first started working in the automotive news industry, I was bemused by the sheer number of news- and PR stories that get launched about taxis. After all, to most of us, taxicabs aren't actually all that interesting: Most of us are unlikely to buy one. In fact, avid car drivers try to avoid taxis as much as we can: We love driving our own vehicles too much.

Lately, however, it seems as if the taxi industry has taken a turn for the nasty. Story upon story wings its way to publications, either glorifying the merits of the London Taxis International's products, or to stomp on the performance of their competitors.

I'm happy to accept that the LTI is, probably, a better suited vehicle for passenger transportation. Sure, they are friendlier to wheelchairs. Yes, they have a surprisingly low turning circle. Yes, they have a safety barrier so the driver is safer.

On the other hand, the TX2 (the newest iteration of the London Black Cab) is also quite rubbish - they come with frighteningly inefficient diesel engines, for one thing: the 2.4 litre turbo diesel engine engine returns only 36.2 mpg on a combined cycle. For city driving (which is where many taxis spend most of their time), the figure is 29.0 miles per gallon. It weighs a mind-boggling 2520 kg, too. For some reason, the relatively large engine manages to come up with less than 90 horsepower, and only 200 NM of torque at 1700 RPM. If you know anything about Diesel engines, those figures should hurt your eyes. Buying an LTI TXII will set you back £27,000.

There are no directly comparable vehicles, but let's have a look at the Volkswagen Sharan. It has the same number of usable passenger seats, and a comparison would be relatively fair. Using a modern 1.9 litre TDI turbo diesel from Volkswagen, the Sharan develops 115ps (roughly 110 bhp), manages 42 mpg on a combined cycle (34 mpg on urban driving), and outputs a lot less soot and CO2 than the TXII, too. The price? Less than £20,000 for the entry-level model.

Still not convinced? Well, let's have a look at the Renault Espace - it is far larger than the TXII, has 6 passenger seats, and uses a larger engine than the Volkswagen. The 2.2 litre common-rail turbodiesel available on the Espace offers 147 bhp (50% more than the TXII), 320 NM of torque (60% more than TXII), and returns the same fuel consumption as the TXII. It costs £24,000.

Okay, so the TXII is antiquated - but what's the problem?

It has its advantages, but technologically, the TXII is a dinosaur. Costing 10-20% more than its competition, it's an insult.

Based on all this, it becomes all the more ironic to see how London Taxis Internationals and its PR minions are trying to lobby their way into the midst of the marketplace. The past 4 days, no fewer than 4 news releases were sent out on the wire - have a look yourself:

"LTI Vehicles welcomes the reinforcement of the original decision in June 2003 that the Conditions of Fitness for London Taxicabs will be enhanced not weakened." - basically, the press release says that LTI are happy that the laws stay strict, so nobody can compete for their business. (15/12/2005)

"In a bid to make the streets safer, licensing officers in Oldham are looking to ban any vehicles, except purpose-built taxis, from plying for hire (...) Some taxi drivers in Oldham have already hit out at the plans saying that it will be costly for them to change their vehicles and could put them out of business. (...) Others though, believe it is a positive move for Oldham and its taxi trade. It will weed out anyone attempting to pose illegally as a taxi driver." (14/12/2005) - basically, the press release says that unless you are in a black cab, you can never be safe.

"London's iconic black cab has been hailed as "the glory of London" in a House of Lords debate. (...) Lord Davies of Oldham also paid tribute to the "extraordinary and hugely admired limited turning circles". (...) Matthew Cheyne, Sales and Marketing Director with LTI Vehicles, said: "We are delighted to have such an endorsement at this level." (13/12/2005)

"Taxiwise has regularly highlighted the potential dangers of people getting into bogus mini cabs (...) The safest way is to hail a traditional style black cab or book a taxi in advance. When you get into a taxi, always look for the licence number to be sure the vehicle you are getting into is legitimate." (12/12/2005)

The well-known saturation PR campaigns run by the makers of London's black cabs aside, what is it we love about the famous London black cab? Actually, when you sit down to analyse it, it's a pretty short list:

  • The drivers' knowledge of London streets and locations (known as "The Knowledge")
  • The legroom and general space in the back (in which you can have excellent "two person" prep meetings on the way to the real meeting)
  • The limousine-like ride (something to do with the weight and the relatively low-power engine) and the truly incredible turning circle (A drunk "No! You've passed it!" doesn't phase these machines)
  • The "high-wide" profile which allows easy, mostly dry even in a downpour, umbrella-ed "step in" entry and exit. No "bum down and swing in" in these babies -- which is the only possible entry style in any sedan-based taxi, indeed into the back seat of any sedan
  • Practically the entire fleet is wheelchair friendly

And what do we hate? Also a short, but telling, list:

  • The cost. These are some of the most expensive cabs to ride in the world
  • The stink. Put ten of these smoky oilers in a poorly-ventilated inside/outside taxi annexe, and you've got instant nausea-inducing blue haze
  • The lack of proper luggage space. They're great for short biz-rides, but NEVER take one from a London airport fully laden with your alloted 20 kg -- you'd be better lugging your stuff on and off the Tube
  • The ventilation on a London summer's day

So put that all together and you'll see that talking about the "London black cab" is a conversation that's mostly NOT about the London black cab! It's a conversation about London cabbies, or about how cities should work, or how airports should be serviced.

But hidden in there are three things that no other car, be it a specialist "taxi car" like Tokyo's Toyota Crown Taxicab, or a modified production car like New York's horrible fleet of yellow Victorias, or one of Beijing's totally unmodified Citroen BXes, can do: the rain protection, the fabulous sense of space with the standard load of two besuited passengers on board, and the truly amazing turning circle for London's narrow streets.

The perfect purpose-built taxi has yet to roll off any production line. But for a great experience washed down with some truly amazing history, the London black cab, with all its flaws, comes pretty close.

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