We drive a lot of attention-grabbing vehicles here at CarAdvice.
But this writer is hard-pressed to recall any driving any vehicle — supercar, luxury limo or otherwise — and getting more attention from the general public than in the Chinese-made TX4, or as as it is better known, the London Taxi.
Yep. For one day only, CarAdvice is masquerading as CabAdvice too.
The shape is familiar to any Anglophile and eccentric enough to lure everyone else. The Black Cab is a bastion of British-ness in much the same way as the red double-decker bus, even if the TX4 version is owned by Chinese maker (and also owner of Volvo) Geely. Such are the times…
The car you see here is also built in China, just like your iPhone. However, the TX4 is assembled in the UK too, and the London Taxi Co. is on record as saying if its Australian experiment takes off, it wants to assemble them locally in order to forge a “connection” with the local market.
We’ll await developments on that front. Ambition is very different to execution.
For those not in the know, what we have here is a purpose-built rear-drive cab with room for five plus the driver, a fully partitioned passenger space with in-built intercom, free WiFi, glow-in-the-dark handles, wheelchair accessibility, headroom for the ironically top-hatted and a 7.4-metre turning circle that makes one think more of a forklift than a car.
After all, London taxis are required to sport a turning circle tight enough to negotiate the tiny roundabout outside the historic Savoy hotel.
This car’s design (if not ownership) is as British as a pork pie served with a warm pint of lager. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t used elsewhere too. In fact, about 30 countries worldwide have a version of their own.
Now it is Australia’s turn. More specifically, Perth, the subject of an ongoing 100-car trial commenced last year and Melbourne, which as of last month is home to a trial of one — the very car you see here. Sydney and others will follow, if the company gets its way.
The trial, London Taxi Co. Australia founder and CEO Evan Simeon told CarAdvice, has seen its Perth fleet undergo 3.75 million kilometres, in which its surveys found that 95 per cent of customers wanted to travel in the cab again and that 75 per cent said they would wait longer to get into one than a regular sedan or van-based taxi.
The fact that there will be no locally-made large cars fit-for-purpose from 2017 (though equivalents of a sort will be imported) gives London Taxi Co. an opening into the market with a vehicle produced for no other reason than to be a cab — save perhaps that one unit that serves as comic icon Stephen Fry’s daily driver.
By the end of this year, the number of cars on Melbourne’s streets and the colour they’re painted will be very different. The London Taxi Co. is shooting to have 100 on the go, all of which will be painted in the same famous black hue as the ones in London. A public survey demanded as much, and its oddball styling helps it skirt the requirement in that city that cabs be painted yellow.
The TSC (Taxi service commission) in Victoria recently approved the use of the TX4. If the proposed 100-strong trial takes off, “we’ll just keep rolling them out and make changes as needed,” said Simeon.
Think about it. You see a bright Ford Falcon or Toyota Camry hybrid in a line, followed by a black bubble that reminds you of the rain-swept Old Dart. It is partially this curiosity factor that London Taxi Co. will trade on.
It is also the fact that the TX4 is a custom-made cab with a swivelling dicky seat with wheelchair ramp, free WiFi, acres of space and a flat floor for guide dogs and the like. Like anything built-for-purpose, there are fewer compromises.
There are also the bolt-on, bolt-off panels and simple solid-frame ladder chassis that keeps repair costs down, and an engine positioned well back from the nose and thereby protected from bingles.
To handle our heat and roads, Australia’s versions have a host of local-specific tweaks to suit the local market, including new air-conditioning, revised suspension, new alloy rims, different coolant and a bigger alternator. There are still no side airbags though.
Importantly from a safety perspective, there is proper driver protection and an intercom device that separates the front and rear compartments. No cabbie need tolerate drunken buffoons, and no passenger will be exposed to dodgy driver antics. Within 30 minutes, I had a handful of cabbies on Melbourne’s streets run up and ask me all about it.
You also could not miss the crowds that gathered around the stationary TX4 as we took photos of it, or the passersby pulling out their phones and taking pictures. Quite remarkable.
From an ownership perspective, the TX4 will also be a different proposition, according to Simeon. London Taxi will set up State-based parts warehouses and will lease out its vehicles with monthly fees in exchange for ownership, servicing and warranty plans rolled into one. They ought not be pricier to run over a life-cycle, or pricier to ride in as a passenger.
“The cost of a taxi is not so much the upfront spend but the amortisation across the life of the vehicle,” Simeon said. “If you take the cost of this vehicle at $55k and space that over a life of 10 years, you’ve got a $5500 cost per annum. The current cost (of a Falcon) is 35k, with 6.5 years life.”
“We’ll maintain a solid base of parts. It’s quite unique because of the large history and 21,000 units operating in London. We have a very good history on what parts are required. If we say to the factory we’re buying 100 cars, they’ve got the data to tell us what complement of each part we need from the 394-strong part list.”
The TX4 will also have a different sort of driver to the average Silver Top of 13 CABS car, according to Simeon. It will set KPIs and monitor all its drivers with the expectation of service that goes above and beyond the minimum standards.
“The mandated standards are that, minimum standards, but not necessarily what the fare-paying public wants,” Simeon said. “They want a driver that knows how to communicate, that treats them with etiquette, that knows how to deal with children, elderly and the disabled especially.
“We have a training programs, we have the cream of the crop in WA. We’re going to go another level. In time, will train drivers to be London-style with ‘Knowledge’, driver training, people skills, driver fatigue training etc.”
With all this in mind, we figured the time was right to go and have a spin, both from the driver’s seat and from the rear. We dusted up on our street ‘Knowledge’, doffed our figurative tweed cap and hit the road.
First off, it is easy to see why this car is classified as a light commercial vehicle. It might not look like a light truck, but it sure drives like one. But then, this car is about comfort, space and reliability, three things in offers in spades.
The driving position is higher, though the cabin itself is pretty dour. Not that any fare-paying customer need see this. Storage for passengers’ bags is taken care of by a large space in place of a front passenger seat, behind a door that if necessary closes by rope accessed from the driver’s seat. It’s been that way for 60 years, so why change it?
The driver and passengers are separated from each other with a solid perspex partition save for a small space for card and cash exchange. Conversations are catered for by an intercom system that syncs up with hearing aids if necessary.
All TX4s have an integrated wheelchair ramp and a flat loading floor. There is comfortable seating for four people in two opposed rows, or room for a fifth at a pinch. One seat also swivels to aid the disabled. The passengers can control their environment, from ventilation, to windows and sound.
All grab handles are illuminated yellow, and as you’ll see in out video above, there’s enough room to swing a cat.
Under the bonnet is an old-tech Euro 4-compliant 75kW/240Nm 2.5-litre diesel engine built under license from Italian company VM Motori matched to a slurring five-speed automatic transmission. The package is not overly refined, but has proven to be a reliable unit capable of lugging about the TX4’s massive 1975kg dry weight at a stately clip. Keep away from the drag races though.
Fuel use is a combined-cycle 8.8L/100km.
Why so heavy? It irons out road corrugations despite the old-school rear coil springs with Panhard rod. Indeed, the ride is reminiscent of a luxury SUV — we drove a Range Rover last week and the similarities on that one front, if few others, were evident — and the sound-deadening from the rear is excellent.
The brakes are 278mm ventilated discs up front but cheaper drums at the rear. They’re an acquired taste with an extremely progressive bite and unnerving deadness at first impression. This has the positive side-effect of keeping things smooth for the passengers, though.
And that neatly sums the TX4 up. It’s all about passenger comfort and driver safety, other driving quirks be damned.
We will have to see if the London Taxi Co’s ambitious rollout plan and intent to train a fleet of more effective drivers takes hold, but the reaction from drivers and the general public, and the vastly superior passenger experience in the back, left us with with no doubt there is a market there waiting to be tapped.