THE Hongkong taxi is as much a landmark of the territory as the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank or the floating Jumbo restaurants. The red saloons are ubiquitous and the behaviour of their drivers is a favourite complaint of residents. But no matter how much people moan about the taxis, most of us could not manage without them. Whether it's a dash to the airport to catch a flight, or a short hop home with heavy shopping bags, a taxi is the most convenient form of transport in the territory. It is a fair bet the taxi that picks you up is a Toyota Crown. Crown Motors, the Hongkong Toyota concessionaire, claims to hold a huge 95 per cent of the taxi market. So, this was the Toyota that I took for a test drive to see what it is like to earn a living behind the infamous ''out of service'' sign. Toyota has a reputation for the highest levels of build quality and the taxi is probably the toughest of the lot. The Crown taxi has a projected life of eight years and drivers work shifts to keep the car on the road for almost 24 hours a day. The upholstery is a thick vinyl designed to survive the rigours of thousands of people getting in and out; the fittings are minimal. This is a workhorse and the basic accessories are the roof pan to shield the car from sunlight, the rear door which can be operated from the driver's seat and niceties such as electric windows and an enthusiastic air-conditioner. Of course, the Crown is easy to drive. The column-mounted gearshift takes a little practice to master but works well without having to move the hand far from the wheel, and the clutch is beautifully light and easy to operate. Driving a normal car all day soon tires the arms and legs, and this Crown is built to minimise the strain. The steering is light, especially with the narrow tyres, and the four speeds of the manual gearbox are high to wring the last kilometre from a litre of fuel and cut down on gear changes. The parking brake is an awkward ''umbrella handle'' that hides beneath the dashboard. Because the front seat is a bench and the space to the left of the driver's seat is occupied by the rear door opening lever, there is nowhere else to put the parking brake. You have to lean forward to operate it and, not surprisingly, most taxi drivers become lazy and don't bother to use it, preferring to hold the car on the clutch on inclines. The Crown taxi is perhaps the ultimate city car and the cheapest car to run in Hongkong. The fuel consumption is miserly, parts and panels are plentiful and it can be parked illegally with a minimum of police attention. Unfortunately, Crown Motors will not sell you a taxi unless you have a taxi licence. and these are changing hands at a million dollars a time.