Future Classic: 2017 Toyota JPN Taxi – The Fleet’s New Hybrid Workhorse

This taxicab becoming an ever more common sight in Tokyo, as it gradually starts to replace its esteemed predecessors, the Crown Comfort and the Nissan Cedric. If those two are anything to go by, the JPN Taxi will become a mainstay in Japanese cities for the next few decades. Let’s go for a ride – I’m buying.

Toyota produced only two bona fide taxi models before the JPN. One was the Toyopet Master, back in the ‘50s. It was soon deemed surplus to requirements and the standard Crown replaced it after about two years of production. The other was the famous Comfort / Crown Comfort, which debuted in late 1995 and was delivered up until the first weeks of 2018. It was a hard act to follow, which is why Toyota took quite a long time to initiate a replacement. The Crown Comfort outsold its direct competitor, the Nissan Cedric Y31, by a healthy margin, leading Nissan to quit the taxi trade back in 2014. This was just as Toyota unveiled a new prototype that would become the JPN.

Compared to the old Crown, the new Toyota taxi looks bulky and a tad less dignified, though it could also be said that Toyota designers took the British LTI TX4 as their inspiration, at least in terms of shape. Making a high-roofed wagon was quite a logical solution – one that the Brits certainly found to their liking for many years, going back to the Austin FX3.

However, while the JPN provides its rear passengers with a very generous amount of space, it does not compare to the British black cabs, which provide seating for five at the back, to the detriment of trunk space. The JPN has a proper cargo area at the rear; one extra passenger can be accommodated on the front seat next to the driver, just like in most normal cars, which means a maximum of four passengers can be carried.

The floor is completely flat, adding to the rear seat’s capacity. This is in marked contrast with the RWD Comfort, where legroom in the middle seat is compromised by the substantial transmission tunnel. Toyota switched to FWD for the JPN, which is based on the Sienta, a variant of the Toyota B platform.

New platform means a new drivetrain, but also a new engine. Gone are the 2-litre 4-cyl. engines that powered Crown taxis since the beginning of time (often with LPG): the future is hybrid, with a 1.5 NZ engine (aluminium block, DOHC), Ni-MH batteries and a 61hp AC motor. The only transmission option is a planetary gear CVT analogous to the one found on the Prius.

The remotely-operated sliding rear left door, low floor and high roof make ingress and egress far more convenient than the older models, and have enabled Toyota to add a built-in ramp for wheelchair users. I imagine that this would also require moving the bench seat backwards quite a bit.

Another nice feature is this little ceiling-mounted cluster, part of the higher-end “Takumi” package. Heated seats are a nice touch, though the real ace in the hole are the independent rear HVAC controls. All 21st-Centruy taxis should have that, in my opinion.

The large straps above the doors look a little too plasticky for my taste, but are most welcome all the same. These used to be a deluxe feature of the big Citroëns, from the 15-Six to the CX Prestige, so I’m all for these. Can’t say they’re much needed though, due to the JPN’s high roof. But it’s little touches like this and the passenger-operated HVAC controls that really make the difference between a car used as a taxi and a purpose-made vehicle like the JPN Taxi.

The one traditional feature that has remained are the fender-mounted mirrors older JDM cars are so famous for. It’s true that these used to be mandatory, but that law was changed in 1983, so their continued existence on a select few models (the taxis, the Toyota Century and precious few others) is really akin to stand-up hood ornaments or vinyl roofs – pure nostalgia. That’s fine as a design element, but it adds little to the car as a whole.

I’m biased of course, but I’m not a fan of this shape. While not being aggressively ugly like the pre-war Checkers, it lacks the Crown Comfort’s rather amusing over-formality. The JPN has a much more functional shape, which is good, but without the British taxi’s quirkier retro styling. I feel that if you took off the taxi light and painted it sliver, it would not look like a taxi cab – unlike the Comfort or the FX4. Maybe that’s because the JPN is so recent, though.

But in the end, these are relatively minor points. The benefit for passengers and cab drivers is probably worth the relative ugliness of the final product. I imagine the old Comforts will last another decade or so before they are overwhelmed by these. The nub will be the JPN’s durability: the Crowns can easily put on half a million miles and still run fine. How will the JPN fare in this department? That will be the big question, but perhaps not the only one.

There are very few export markets for these – Hong Kong has a few JPNs currently under evaluation, and Singapore has traditionally used the Comfort so there may be a market there too, but beyond that, the JPN is not out to conquer any new markets. However, that was not a problem with the Comfort, so it probably won’t be one either with this model.

Another issue is the fact that Toyota is currently enjoying a monopoly on taxis in Japan. That is potentially a thornier one, as monopolies are not the norm on the JDM. Are arch-rival Nissan about to unveil a competitor, possibly an all-electric car based on the Leaf? Or perhaps another carmaker has a plan to take on Toyota’s dominance of this lucrative niche? Time will tell. In the interim, the JPN fleet will continue to grow and, hopefully, prosper.