London's latest cab is better all round, greener, and yet traditional, says Philip Thornton

T"his vehicle won't light up Jeremy Clarkson's eyes but it will do its job perfectly." What better recommendation could you have for a car? The vehicle in question is the TX4, better known as the latest incarnation of the London taxi.

The speaker was Peter Shillcock, managing director of LTI, the division of the manufacturer Manganese Bronze that makes the vehicles, and the occasion was the recent launch of the TX4 in London. A lot is resting on Shillcock's shoulders and on this taxi as Manganese is Britain's last car manufacturer. If the TX4 bombs, so will the company. But, like Ian Dury, he has three reasons to be cheerful, and so do cabbies across Britain, as well as drivers looking for something different in the MPV market.

Reason one - the new black cab is green. The TX4 matches the new Euro IV emissions standards for the European Union that do not come into force until 2007. It is also ahead of the game in terms of emissions standards set by Ken Livingstone and Transport for London. It can also take 5 per cent of its fuel in the form of biodiesel - the new great green hope for sustainable motoring.

Reason two - it has a new engine made by a company that is half-owned by DaimlerChrysler. The new block, tailor-made by VM Motori, has been tested through a million gear changes and across a million miles.

Reason three - LTI has made improvements to its previous models that will enhance driveability for cabbies and commuters alike. It has one-touch locking that includes an option of locking all doors other than the driver's - pretty handy for the school run and shopping trips with kids. LTI has given all five passengers in the back a headrest. And if your kids have had an Asbo served on them, fear not - the dividing section between the front and the back can withstand a crowbar.

The centuries-old traditions of the London cab remain. It is still possible for a gentleman in a top hat to sit on the back seat, it is possible to get a bale of hay in the front empty space and the car is designed to turn around in a 25ft turning circle. In other words, the TX4 has tons of space and loads of manoeuvrability.

So it should be good as a city runaround. The cost is a bit steep. The basic model with automatic gearbox retails at £28,995. This compares with £24,000 for a Peugeot 807 but £31,800 for a top of the range Renault Espace. A brand-new cab will still be in business in 20 years' time, according to Shillcock. He said the current private market was mainly overseas both for individuals - notably Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California - as well as US hotels and golf clubs.

But he said it was a potential growth market. "Private individuals could buy them as a second car, especially if they have a disabled member of the family. " The TX4 has a full seatbelt kit for a wheelchair. Phil Davis, a cabby for 33 years, reeled off the list of notables who have bought a cab - Matthew Harding, the late Chelsea FC businessman, Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat politician, the actor Stephen Fry, and even the Duke of Edinburgh.

"It is the best bit of undercover equipment you can have," he said. Davis recalled that the former Finnish ambassador to the UK, who had fallen in love with the cab as a student, collected old taxis, which he kept in a carpeted basement garage at the embassy until he returned to Finland.

Davis praised the TX4 as a car. "It is very quiet, very powerful and very smooth. This really is a vehicle which lets you blend in with the life of London."

Of course you can spruce up your cab, if you choose. Peter Rigden, head of Mann & Overton, the UK's largest taxi dealer, said his celebrity buyers had added everything from full-leather interior and shagpile carpets to televisions and cocktail cabinets. And the cost of the most lavish model? £60,000.

So whether you want to join the jet set or simply make life more comfortable on the rat run, a London taxi could be the answer.

How they fared - ancient history and some recent contenders

The Austin FX3 of 1947, like its descendants, was purpose-built in Coventry

This is a late version of the FX4, launched in 1959. International icon.

The FX5: never made because of lack of funds. Well, it was 1976.

The 1999 TXI and TXII drew on the FX4's classic looks and underpinnings.

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