Middle seat in front to go Commuters in a group of five will be unable to squeeze into a single taxi when the trade's dominant manufacturer starts replacing the current five-seater with a four-seater in August. Crown Motors - sole distributor for Toyota, which makes 99 per cent of the 18,138 registered taxis in Hong Kong - announced yesterday that because of a realignment of the parts in car models fuelled by liquefied petroleum gas, the middle front seat immediately next to the driver would be removed. Advocates said the new model would be safer for both driver and passengers. David Lee Kai-cheung, public vehicles manager of Crown Motors, said having one fewer seat would not cost taxi drivers much business as a survey conducted by them had shown that less than 3 per cent of the 1.14 million daily passenger trips carried five passengers. 'The exterior, horsepower and durability of the two models are the same,' Mr Lee said. 'But not only will the new one be more environmental friendly, front-seat passengers will also find it more comfortable as they will have their own space.' The middle seat must be removed because, to comply with new Japanese emission standards, the gearbox would need to be relocated to the front and the shift stick would take over the place where the seat was. It was not yet known if the new model would cost more, but sources said the renewal rate of the old five-seater taxis had remained normal. 'If taxi owners believed the new models would be bad for business, they should have started buying the remaining stocks of the five-seater, but that has not happened so far,' an industry source said. Dawn Lam, who always takes taxis home from dinner with her family of five, said it was unreasonable to force them to use two taxis. 'The law allows taxis to carry up to five passengers,' she said. 'But because of Toyota's monopoly of the taxi market, we will be deprived of that option, and the government is incapable of doing anything.' The Transport Department said it was up to the market what kind of taxis were used as long as they passed safety tests and did not exceed the carriage's maximum capacity. Kwok Chi-piu, chairman of the Urban Taxi Drivers Association Joint Committee, expected the replacement process to be completed in five to six years. He said drivers might still let five passengers squeeze into the new cab - one in front and four at the back. But the department said that would amount to overloading. Dah Chong Hong, the dealer for Nissan Motors - a one-time major competitor to Toyota in the taxi trade that had dropped out of that market - said it would consult Nissan's headquarters in Japan on whether to consider resuming production of five-seater taxis. Crown Motors' Mr Lee said his company had foreseen competition but he expected a large number of LPG taxis - first introduced in 1999 - would be ready for replacement in the next two years.