The product of a unique development collaboration, the NV 200 Taxi reflects the input of hundreds of taxi owners and drivers, and thousands of passengers from all walks of life. (Nissan/Wieck)

The Nissan NV200 cargo/minivan is changing the face of this city, one yellow cab at a time.

If Nissan has its way, the same will be true in Chicago and Seattle — and in London, where most of the liveries are painted black.

How did this happen? How did a automobile manufacturer based in Japan get the jump on U.S. and other competitors in the highly visible, albeit not terribly lucrative, urban taxi market?

It’s simple: Nissan caught its competitors sleeping.

Ford Motor Co., for example, traditionally supplied that market with its large, lumbering, fuel-consumptive Crown Victoria sedans and Lincoln Town Cars. Those models were sufficient, especially the Town Cars frequently used for shuttling legal and financial swells about town, as long as no one who mattered complained about the amount of fuel and space consumed by large sedans.

But city officials here and elsewhere began demanding more space-and-fuel-efficient liveries that also provided improved comfort and safety for drivers and their passengers. Also of concern were taxicabs that did less damage to pedestrians in vehicle-pedestrian crashes.

In fairness, Ford responded, sort of, with its compact Transit Connect cargo/minivan, which had been winning kudos in overseas urban markets. But Nissan officials leapt at the opportunity to put their company’s stamp on the New York cab business, said Peter Bedrosian, Nissan’s East Coast director of commercial vehicle development and sales.

“We asked questions, and we listened to the city’s answers,” Bedrosian said in a recent interview at the Javits Convention Center here. The city wanted cabs that got more miles per gallon, polluted less and used space better, Bedrosian said.

Most U.S. car companies, with the notable exception of Ford, had long ago de-emphasized the cab business, if not outright abandoned it as not worth the money. Ford was hanging on and was not terribly excited about the prospect of meeting new, costly demands to make its huge sedans more city friendly.

The Ford Transit Connect was a good stopgap measure, but not enough to meet the city’s calls for something totally new. Advantage: Nissan.

“We started from scratch, listening to drivers and passengers, looking at how cabs were used in the city,” Bedrosian said. Nissan settled on the NV200 cargo/minivan, which consumes less exterior space than a traditional full-size sedan but, with its tall roof and flat load floor, provides more user-friendly interior space.

I tried out the NV200, both as a passenger and as a driver. For a passenger, it is much easier to use than large sedan-type cabs. Instead of mussing up your clothes sliding into the cab’s seats, you can step inside and sit down. The NV200 has been knocked by critics as not having as much load space as most vans. No matter. It has enough to handle the luggage of a family of five on a two-week vacation. And there is no need to lift the stuff to get it into a sedan trunk, You simply slide it in. My aging back appreciates that.

Driving the NV200 cargo/minivan is mostly unremarkable, except that it is quite maneuverable in tight urban spaces and very easy to park. The thing comes with a 2-liter, in-line four-cylinder gasoline engine (131 horsepower, 139 pound-feet of torque), with power moved through a continuously variable automatic transmission. It’s not much to hoot about. But it gets the job done. Besides, this city soon will lower its speed limit to 25 mph, from the current 30 mph.

Times are changing. Maybe a cab such as the Nissan NV200 is the right vehicle to change with them.

Nuts & Bolts
Nissan NV200

Bottom line: I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Nissan NV200 consuming more of the urban cab business. It makes sense — small enough to work well in a congested city, large enough to get people and their belongings where they want to go. I can also see it taking over more of the urban delivery business, for the same reasons.

Ride, acceleration and handling: This is a conveyance, nothing to wax eloquent about. It gets the job done in a satisfactory manner.

Head-turning quotient: It is eye-catching in New York yellow-cab yellow and black. It is totally ignorable, forgettable in anything else.

Body style/layout: The NV200 is a front-engine, front-wheel-drive compact cargo/minivan built on a small-car platform. Two models are available at this writing — S and SV.

Engine/transmission: The NV200 comes standard with a 2-liter, 16-valve in-line four-cylinder gasoline engine with variable valve timing (131 horsepower, 139 pound-feet of torque). The engine is linked to a continuously variable automatic transmission.

Capacities: Seating (in cab configuration) is for five people. Seating is for two in cargo-delivery mode. Maximum cargo capacity, as a delivery van, is 122.7 cubic feet — enough for usually small urban loads. The fuel tank holds 14.5 gallons of gasoline (regular grade is recommended).

Mileage: In combined city and highway driving, I got 24 miles per gallon.

Safety: Standard equipment includes ventilated front disc and rear drums brakes, four-wheel anti-lock brake protection, stability and traction control, and side and head air bags.

Pricing: The 2014 Nissan NV200 with onboard navigation and Bluetooth phone capability starts at $21,280, with a dealer invoice price of $20,236. Price as tested is $23,470, including $1,330 in options (Nissan technology package) and an $860 factory-to-dealer delivery charge.