When Samuel Pekoh pulls up to a red light, he always turns heads.
From the windows of their Ford Crown Victorias, cab drivers peer enviously at his Lexus taxicab, "Samantha," as if a supermodel had suddenly entered their homely midst. Pedestrians stop to offer a thumbs-up. "Looking good!" they whistle and catcall.
Eight months ago, Mr. Pekoh, a taxi owner and driver originally from Ghana, and his colleague Clifford Hammon-Adler made a trip to a Lexus dealership on Lexington Avenue and came away with a brand-new pair of hybrid RX400hs, costing them each $52,000 and change. "It's a beautiful drive," Mr. Hammon-Adler said.
"I don't smoke, I don't drink, and when I drove for a company, I didn't like getting complaints about the smell of the car," Mr. Pekoh said. Now, the back seat of "Samantha," which he named after his daughter, smells like new leather.
The Taxi & Limousine Commission approved 10 hybrid-electric car models for use as taxicabs 15 months ago, but the new hybrid cars are only catching on now. "This is the point at which people start seeing numbers," a spokesman for the Taxi & Limousine Commission, Alan Fromberg, said.
With 300 new hybrid cars on the road, New Yorkers are noticing that the look of their taxis is changing as fast as some of the neighborhoods they drive through. The Toyota Prius, the hybrid Honda Accord, the hybrid Honda Civic, the hybrid Toyota Highlander, and the hybrid Lexus are finally hitting the streets, doing a job previously reserved for less sexy car models.
The fancier vehicles are also sowing driver pride. Mr. Hammon-Adler, a rare native New York cabby, said the job he has done for 30 years changed when he traded in his Ford Explorer for the Lexus. "I get looks and stares from other cab drivers at traffic lights all day," Mr. Hammon-Adler said.
They often ask if he needs a night driver. He and Mr. Pekoh both brush off these advances. "Leasing your car, you're doubling the wear and tear," Mr. Hammon-Adler said. "And it's your baby."
Neither of the Lexus cab drivers allow food or drink in their vehicles, which are equipped with sunroofs and DVD navigation systems. They go to the car wash three or four times a week, and they refuse to install a partition in their cabs. "Anyone who's going to buy a Lexus, they'd be crazy to put a partition in," Mr. Hammon-Adler said. They use a still security camera instead, which they say is less claustrophobic for drivers and passengers alike.
Drivers have been able to choose between a partition or a still cameras since the first batch of hybridelectric cabs were authorized in October 2005, but the partition has been more popular because it's cheaper. Now, with more medallion owners replacing non-hybrids with hybrid cars in fancy models, they say they're splurging on the still camera as well because they want their cars to look and feel good.
Mr. Pekoh said that since switching to a hybrid vehicle, his daily gas expenses have dropped to about $20 from $65, but that the insurance on hybrid vehicles is costing him more. Other drivers scoff when he tells them how much money he spent on his car. "You can buy two Crown Victorias for the price of this," he said.
The Taxi & Limousine Commission increased the number of alternative fuel medallions it awards to 254 from 64 last May, and Mayor Bloomberg says he wants the commission to sell another 150 alternative fuel medallions for cars that will be wheelchair accessible, but no date has been set. Thirty-three drivers also are choosing to drive hybrid-electric cars on their standard issue medallions.