When they see each other on the streets of New York, they often honk, wave, flash their lights and sometimes even stop to trade maintenance advice. The camaraderie is owed to a shared experience: each drives a Lexus as a New York City taxi.
In a city teeming with more than 13,000 yellow taxicabs, more than half of them Ford Crown Victorias, there are exactly six cab-ready Lexus hybrids, either the RX 400h or RX 450h, driven by cabbies who paid more than $40,000 for the privilege. The Crown Victoria costs about $28,000.
Does driving a Lexus taxi mean more money in fares and tips? No, at least not measurably. But cachet? Most definitely.
“A cab driver is dying for individuality,” said Neil Newmark, a 30-year veteran taxi driver who has been driving his Lexus for two years and who says that some independent taxi drivers try to distinguish themselves through bumper stickers. (He does not have any.) “I sort of feel like a celebrity.”
But their celebrity status may be coming to an end. The Taxi and Limousine Commission recently passed regulations removing the Lexus from the approved taxicab list, arguing the cars are too powerful. In the coming years, the city will be stripping the streets of nearly all taxicab variety, as most new vehicles will be the Nissan NV200 van, the newly approved Taxi of Tomorrow.
To the Lexus cabbies, that makes little sense. They say their cars have fewer maintenance hassles and offer more comfortable rides — an attribute not to be underestimated in coping with bone-jarring potholes and sitting in Sisyphean traffic. They have seen and experienced how driving more traditional taxis can damage knees, legs and possibly even the heart. Cliff Adler, 62, worries about his heart. Mr. Newmark, 56, says he drives a Lexus because it helps him manage the pain from his aching knee.
Some drivers wonder if the Taxi and Limousine Commission might allow their Lexuses to be grandfathered into the program so that they can keep buying new ones even when the Taxi of Tomorrow comes out.
“If I’m willing to spend the money on a Lexus, why won’t they let me?” Mr. Newmark said.
Allan J. Fromberg, a spokesman for the Taxi and Limousine Commission, declined to address the issue.
The cars have all been slightly modified for taxi use: a coat of distinctive yellow paint, roof lights, a taximeter, a camera and a television screen are all required. Only one driver chose to have a partition installed between the front and rear seats.
Mr. Adler, a 36-year veteran taxi driver, was the first to buy a Lexus taxi. He inquired about buying one in 2006, when he heard that a taxi fleet was testing a Lexus. While the fleet did not adopt the Lexus, Mr. Adler encouraged his friend and fellow taxi driver, Samuel Pekoh, 56, to visit Lexus of Manhattan with him and see if they could negotiate a deal. They each received a $3,000 discount and the promise that the dealership would give them preference when they came in with maintenance problems.
Soon, contemporaries of Mr. Adler’s and Mr. Pekoh’s spotted them on the street and became envious. Sushil Maggoo coveted Mr. Adler’s Lexus before he bought his own in 2008, driving it with one leg (he was born without a right leg).
While Mr. Maggoo said he did not make more money driving a Lexus compared with the Crown Victorias he once drove, he said more than a dozen customers regularly called to ask him to drive them to the airport. He added that his daughter has grown fond of being dropped off at school in a Lexus.
After Mr. Newmark bought his Lexus in May 2009, Shmuel Poper followed. Mr. Poper said customers like the Lexus so much that they sometimes tipped him 50 to 100 percent of the fare and asked to take photographs of him and his car.
The last driver to join this Lexus club was Ilya Atanelov, 62, who traded in his Crown Victoria for a $51,000 Lexus last year. He says he loves how children enthusiastically climb into his taxi after school and call their classmates to boast they are driving home in a Lexus.
All six drivers are fiercely protective of their taxis. Mr. Adler does not let customers put their bags on his leather seats. Mr. Atanelov held his hand to his heart when he described customers slamming his car doors. The Lexus cabbies all also do without the extra income that comes from leasing their cars out to other taxi drivers, for fear that others might not care for them as well as they do.
Taxis must be retired after a prescribed amount of time — anywhere from three to seven years, depending on the type of vehicle. The Lexus hybrids have a life span of six years, so Mr. Adler will be the first to have to take his car off the road next year. Mr. Atanelov, the last driver with a Lexus, said he planned to retire when he has to take his Lexus off the road.
For now, they relish the little fame that comes with being part of this inner circle of luxury taxicab drivers. Mr. Atanelov said he sometimes runs into other Lexus drivers at an airport taxi line. There, they trade the club gossip they enjoy most, he said, recalling, “We talk about the cars and how people are impressed with us.”