NEW YORK CITY – Rows of Lincoln Town Cars idling at the curbside, a scene as socially suspect as the old X-rated Times Square, will soon begin disappearing from New York City streets.
Ambitious city fuel economy rules, written to curb the thirst of black cars, will steadily sideline the big V-8 powered sedans that corporate New York has relied on for decades. The rules particularly threaten the future of the Lincoln Town Car, workhorse of a fleet that the Taxi and Limousine Commission numbers at roughly 10,000 vehicles.
Black cars are essentially small-scale limousines that serve mainly business customers who pay with vouchers or credit cards rather than cash. Under a plan introduced by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg last winter, new black cars that enter service beginning Jan. 1 must carry a fuel economy rating of at least 25 miles a gallon in the Environmental Protection Agency’s city test cycle; the requirement steps up to 30 mpg a year later. A 25 mpg rule took effect for New York’s 13,000 yellow taxis in October.
According to the city, the black cars, taxis and an additional 25,000 local car service vehicles produce 1% of the city’s total carbon dioxide emissions, and 4% of its transportation emissions. Doubling the mileage of that entire fleet, the goal by 2017, would cut the emissions by half.
There’s only one problem: no new full-size sedan comes close to 25 mpg, let alone 30 mpg, in city driving. The Lexus LS 600h L, the only large hybrid luxury sedan, is rated at just 20 mpg in the city. It costs more than $100,000, a price that makes it a non-starter for independent drivers who are used to paying $15,000 to $25,000 for a used Town Car or $40,000 for a new one.
Still, with fleet operators and drivers being hammered by wild swings in fuel prices, the mileage rules provide a powerful incentive for switching to smaller hybrid sedans and crossovers that comply with the new regulations.
The possibilities include Ford’s Escape and Mercury Mariner Hybrids, crossovers that are rated at an exceptional 34 mpg in town. Ford is promoting the Mariner as a greener alternative to the Town Car; it costs about $31,000 with a livery package that includes black-leather upholstery and a GPS navigation system. The Toyota Highlander Hybrid utility wagon and its luxury sibling, the Lexus RX 400h, can achieve 27 mpg in the city — enough to sneak past the first-year 25 mpg requirement — and would cost drivers $40,000 to $50,000.
Among midsize sedans, the Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima hybrids ace the standards at a respective 33 and 35 mpg in city driving, and each costs about $30,000 with options. The Toyota Prius sips the least fuel, at 45 mpg in the city, though some black-car drivers say the Prius is too small and bare-bones to step in for a Town Car.
With a basic design that dates to the ’70s, the Lincoln Town Car is built on a heavy steel frame, akin to old-school SUVs — one reason for its city fuel economy rating of 16 mpg. But the things that make Lincoln a dinosaur also make it a favorite of drivers and fleet operators: the Town Car is a simple, spacious and durable tank that’s inexpensive to buy and repair. Drivers say they routinely put 250,000 miles or more on a Town Car in brutal city driving before having to rebuild its V-8 engine or its transmission.
“You can buy a Town Car even with 100,000 miles on it and it will run forever if you do the maintenance,” said Salah Eldamarany, a driver with Legends Limo and Car Service in Brooklyn.
Black-car drivers say that while some customers are supportive of hybrids and would sacrifice some room or amenities to ride in one, others would not be satisfied if a Town Car stand-in was not as luxurious and roomy.
“Customers might not complain about gas prices, but they will complain if three people and their luggage can’t fit,” said Nassim Salaymeh, who also drives for the Legends service.
John Acierno, president of the city’s largest black-car company, Executive Transportation Group, has already switched about 10% of his 1,750-car fleet to hybrids. With Town Cars achieving a dispiriting 12 mpg in real-world use, hybrid adopters are saving from $125 to $175 a week in fuel, Mr. Acierno said — enough to offset the higher purchase price of the hybrids.
Part of those savings is a result of hybrids’ shutting down their gas engines when stopped, making them ideal for the lurching and crawling pace of New York streets. He has calculated that when his fleet is fully converted, the company will save 2.8 million gallons of gas each year — more than $8 million at current pump prices — and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 32,000 tons a year.
Some drivers have expressed reservations over the hybrids’ durability and safety. Mr. Acierno acknowledges that while drivers can be wary of switching, those who do become the best advertisements for hybrids.
Mr. Acierno is hopeful that the industry will develop more models that meet both economy rules and the needs of customers. Currently, his dispatchers avoid sending smaller hybrid models on airport runs to pick up multiple passengers and luggage.
Matthew W. Daus, chairman of the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, called hybrids the latest example of natural selection in the evolution of black cars.
“Both drivers and corporate passengers appreciate the hybrid effect of less fuel costs and an enhanced corporate image for environmentally responsible clients,” he wrote in an e-mail message.
For operators who are not ready to get rid of their Lincolns, the city plan includes a phase-in retirement period. Essentially, six-year-old Town Cars will be steadily removed from service, with virtually the entire fleet converted to the 30 mpg standard after 2013. Operators who license a new 2009 Town Car before Jan. 1 will be able to operate it the longest, for five years, before it is forced to retire. Several drivers said that they and colleagues are rushing to buy Town Cars before the January deadline to delay the switch as long as possible.
Doug Walczak, a limousine and livery manager for the Ford Motor Company, said that some loyal Town Car owners are leery of new technology. “It’s a challenge, because hybrids don’t have that long, proven history of durability in commercial applications,” Mr. Walczak said.
As the Town Car fades, Mr. Walczak said that Ford remains committed to its profitable black-car business. The company has pledged to continue building Town Cars through 2011 at its plant in St. Thomas, Ontario. Yet Mr. Walczak acknowledged that the clock is ticking on the venerable Lincoln.
“The writing is on the wall, and the world is changing,” he said.
Source: New York Times