If your mental image of New York City’s streets is still dominated by the classic yellow Ford Crown Victoria taxis, it’s time for an update. These days, the for-hire car of choice, whether they’re the iconic yellow cabs or the commonly all-black vehicles for Uber and Lyft drivers, tends to be the hybrid Toyota RAV4s and Camrys. But could the all-electric Toyota bZ4x be the next contender for the NYC cab throne?
That may just be the case. Toyota’s first modern battery EV is coming off its best sales year ever in 2023, doubling from the previous year in the third quarter alone. In addition to an improved sales performance, a few more factors coalesced to make it somewhat popular in New York City. Those include the recent rideshare regulations aimed at boosting EV adoption across the five boroughs and the fact that the bZ4x adorns a Toyota badge, one that has been associated with bulletproof reliability for decades.
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Over the past few weeks, InsideEVs has noticed a high number of bZ4xs rolling silently on NYC’s streets, and many of them wear the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) plates—meaning they’re ride-hail vehicles. I even spotted one patiently waiting amidst a sea of Teslas at a Brooklyn Supercharger that supports the CCS plug, but its owner wasn’t interested in chatting.
In October 2023, the TLC passed its Green Rides Initiative, mandating all new for-hire vehicles to be electric. This led to a sudden surge in license applications, with TLC’s daily intake skyrocketing from 150 to 2,000 applications overnight, a TLC spokesperson told InsideEVs. In a month, the agency received close to 10,000 applications—an unforeseen and overwhelming response.
A lot of those drivers went for Teslas. But several of them also seem to be choosing a brand they know and trust: Toyota.
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By mid-November, the TLC had approved approximately 5,700 applications, with 88 percent belonging to individual drivers, according to a TLC spokesperson.
Coincidentally, Toyota ended 2023 on a high for its plug-in electric car sales. BZ4x sales soared by 188% in Q4 2023 compared to Q4 2022, and Toyota delivered 9,329 units during the whole year, up 663%. Toyota Motor North America confirmed to InsideEVs that within the U.S., New York State’s share of bZ4x sales had increased from 8.8% in 2022 to 15.3% in 2023—meaning a shade over 1,400 bZ4xs were sold in New York State last year.
“We have seen an uptick especially in the New York area, specifically in New York City, after the new regulation that encourages rideshare [drivers] to move towards EVs. It’s a good sign for us as a company,” Joe Moses, the vice president of marketing at Toyota Motor North America told InsideEVs. “We’re starting to produce a few more and you could see when people do get a chance to experience it, they’re picking it.”
It’s safe to say that the Toyota bZ4x isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when we think of truly great electric cars. It has some clear shortcomings: its fast-charging speed lags far behind Tesla and other rivals, it’s built on a repurposed gasoline-car platform, and its electric range is a modest 252 miles in an age when 300 miles is a kind of mandatory minimum for family-focused crossovers.
Still, Toyota as a brand is the go-to for drivers looking for bulletproof daily use, and that increasingly includes the bZ4x for cab and Uber duty. Other New Yorkers have also noticed the trend. On one Reddit thread about the bZ4x, a user said, “All I hear online about this car is how bad it is, but I see them everywhere in NYC.” Another one said, “Its creature comforts are good value for the money, and if it fits your needs it is a reasonable choice.” Others agreed that it’s an adequate EV for the city from a brand that people have trusted for decades.
One user claimed to have driven to Alabama to buy one from a Tuscaloosa dealership that offered heavy discounts. “I now have a 10-year 95% [state of charge] guarantee with my bZ4x bought at 600 miles for $35,000,” this person wrote. “The insurance is cheap. And it is manufactured in Japan. The build quality is excellent, the car’s performance is nothing new but it averages 200-240 miles.”
Toyota has added a bunch of additional features to the updated 2024 bZ4x, and they also include a year of complimentary charging at EVgo stations. The car’s popularity is obvious when you get past some of the specs: in terms of shape, design, packaging, and experience, it is essentially an all-electric RAV4—one of the best-selling SUVs in North America.
In terms of comfort, build quality and features, InsideEVs found no real complaints with the bZ4x when we reviewed it two years ago. According to our sister publication Motor1.com, “the bZ has enough going for it to attract Toyota brand loyalists.”
Some estimates suggest that rideshare drivers cover between 100-300 miles per day, and it’s obvious that many of them drive gas-powered (and hybrid) Toyotas. If the bZ4x’s range was a little over 300 miles, it could potentially draw in Toyota loyalists seeking an upgrade from the RAV4.
“Bringing the right product that meets the needs of the mass consumers is how you get to RAV4 levels of volume. But being realistic, there are still a lot of questions under work around EVs, a lot of pieces in this puzzle that everybody’s working aggressively on,” Toyota’s Moses said. “Before we get to a point where we have something [electric that sells as much as] the RAV4, which is selling over 400,000 units a year, a lot of things need to be in place to be able to do that.”
That certainly includes more fast-charging support in cities like New York, which is becoming a problem as more and more taxi and ride-hail drivers go fully electric. Much of the emphasis on fast-charger growth has been along highways to support the great American road trip, but in New York—where it’s monumentally tough to build anything—more infrastructure is needed in the five boroughs to support drivers whose cars are on the road all the time.
There’s also the ongoing conflict between New York’s established yellow cab system and the upstarts like Uber and Lyft. It’s hard to predict the bZ4x’s sales this year as the TLC is embroiled in a legal battle with the New York Taxi Workers Alliance which represents yellow cab, livery, and app-based drivers. The NYTWA has filed a lawsuit against the TLC, alleging that lifting the cap on for-hire EVs would harm the drivers who have not regained pre-pandemic levels of business. A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the TLC from issuing more for-hire licenses—which could impact all EV sales.
All said, Toyota is already working on batteries that would offer twice the range of a bZ4x. It has invested heavily in solid-state battery technology, and has a bunch of models in the pipeline that will ride on ground-up EV platforms; we saw some cool concepts at the Japan Mobility Show last year. The automaker is also unlikely to cede its hybrid crown to anyone soon, and it’s likely the electrified RAV4 and Camry will continue to be the weapon of choice for most drivers for a while—in fact, the next Camry is going all-hybrid, which is good news for emissions in the city.
But if the bZ4x’s unexpected success in NYC is any indication of consumers’ willingness to embrace all-electric Toyotas under favorable policies, one can only imagine the reception an affordable, long-range, and reliable Toyota EV built on a dedicated platform would garner under the ideal circumstances.
Moses agreed that reliability would play a role in Toyota’s future EVs. “It’s something we’re proud of as a company, having that type of reputation. I think many companies would kill to have that,” he said.