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With JPN Taxi, Toyota hopes to create new iconic symbol

Murali Gopalan | Updated on March 10, 2018

Launched this week, the cab will be a key feature at the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games in Tokyo

If New York and London have their taxis as iconic symbols, Toyota Motor Corporation hopes its JPN Taxi will do the same for Japan.

Launched on Monday, the model will become a critical feature of the Olympics and Paralympic Games being held in Tokyo in 2020. “This is a rapidly ageing society and the idea is to provide mobility to all especially those with disabilities,” said a Toyota management spokesperson during a presentation in Tokyo on Tuesday.

The JPN Taxi is expected to be a big draw for global participants and visitors during the 2020 Games. In the process, it will be a fillip to tourism and showcase Japanese hospitality.

The vehicle has been positioned as a next generation package, which packages the best in design, comfort and heritage. It is an LPG hybrid and can accommodate five people including the driver with enough space for luggage.

The deep indigo for the taxi is the traditional colour of Japan, which also extends to the football team’s uniform. Design features include a low, flat floor, making it easy for customers to enter and exit, power rear sliding door and space to accommodate wheelchair users.

Marking a new era

Japan’s taxi fleet comprises 2.4 lakh vehicles and Toyota’s last offering here was 22 years ago. Its debut product in the taxi segment was the Model AA way back in 1936. To that extent, the JPN Taxi marks a new era, which is characterised by new mobility challenges as well as an acknowledgment of the changing age demographics in Japan.

Toyota aims to sell 1,000 units each month of this taxi, which has a price tag of ¥3.49 million (around ₹20 lakh). “We believe a taxi can change the scenery of a country,” said the spokesperson. “After all, it is the first object people see when they step out of a hotel.”

After all, iconic symbols like the cabs of New York and London are an integral part of a city’s landscape, which is what Toyota will hope its new offering can replicate with Tokyo too. It will be interesting to see how the JPN Taxi gains traction between now and 2020 when the Olympics and Paralympics get underway in Japan’s capital city.

Interestingly, it is a Chinese carmaker, which is now fuelling a new script for the London Taxi Company, which manufactures the iconic black cab. Geely, which owns the company (in addition to its high profile Volvo Cars), plans to have an electric fleet of these black cabs ready from a new plant in Coventry.

Indian scenario

In this backdrop, it is only natural to spare a thought for ‘what could have been’ in India’s taxi segment, which defined the cities of Kolkata and Mumbai. On one end was the Ambassador while the Premier Padmini, popularly called Fiat, was part and parcel of the country’s financial capital.

The yellow Ambassador can still be seen on Kolkata’s roads but lives with the grim reality that its manufacturer, Hindustan Motors (HM), shut shop a couple of years ago. As youngsters now increasingly prefer options such as Uber and Ola, the Amby is facing a threat of sorts though it will still be around for sometime to come.

The brand, incidentally, has been sold by HM to PSA Group of France, better known as the manufacturer of the Peugeot and Citroen brands.

There is still no clue how the company will leverage the Amby brand in its range of cars scheduled to roll out of a former HM plant near Chennai by the end of this decade.

Its Chairman, Carlos Tavares, told BusinessLine at the Geneva Motor Show early this year that ownership of the brand would perhaps translate into an opportunity in its India innings. “We have to eventually see if it makes sense to the Indian customer,” he said. “The Ambassador is an iconic brand and warms the hearts of people in India. If there is an opportunity where it brings value to the eyes of customers, we have the brand and can use it.”

Yet, it remains to be seen if PSA can leverage this acquisition to make a connect in a country where two-thirds of its population is under 35 years old. While the Ambassador is doubtless a strong brand, it can hardly be termed modern and this is where the French automaker will really have to think out of the box to use it smartly.

No such luck for the Padmini in Mumbai where there are perhaps just a few hundred taxis left in the black-and-yellow, or the better known ‘kaali peeli’, fleet of 20,000 vehicles. Its manufacturer, Premier Auto, stopped production of the Padmini nearly two decades ago simply because it was not viable, something which HM experienced more recently.

Yet, ask any cabbie in Mumbai and he will swear by the Padmini citing its low operating costs and prices of spares. Sure, many of them have moved to the Hyundai Santro, which is definitely quicker and more comfortable. Yet, it does not evoke the sense of nostalgia that the Padmini does even while harsh realities of emissions and clean air requirements make this model a clear misfit.

Can India also do a Japan and think of putting in an iconic model for taxi fleets in select cities? Unlikely given the growing preferences for the Uber and Ola coupled with the pressures of urbanisation where youngsters prefer to zip around in scooters. Till then, it makes sense to savour the few remaining Padminis and Ambys before they bid adieu.

The writer is in Tokyo at the invitation of Toyota Motor Corporation

Published on October 26, 2017

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