When Your Plan Is a Van

Decisions, decisions — a guide to asking the right questions and choosing the best vehicle for you

by Tara Wood on March 1, 2004 - 9:32am

Quest staff writer Kathy Wechsler takes a look at accessible vans at Special Needs Vehicles, a mobility dealer in Tucson, Ariz. Melissa Pope demonstrates the features of an IMS Rampvan. Photos by James S. Wood

So you and your loved ones have places to go, people to see, events to attend and appointments to keep.

How are you going to get there?

For many people served by MDA, the answer is with a wheelchair-accessible van.

Whether you're a veteran van owner, or you anticipate such a vehicle in your future, buying an accessible van can be one of the most important and expensive purchases you'll ever make.

And whether you're the driver or a regular passenger, owning an accessible van can be the key to the ability to go where you want to go, just about any time you want.

First, the basics

If there's one thing you might already know about accessible vans, it's that they aren't cheap.

It might help to understand what's involved in a van "conversion" and why it can cost anywhere from $12,000 on up (way up if you need equipment like high-tech hand controls) to make a van accessible.

When a consumer buys an "adapted," "accessible" or "converted" van, that means a standard van produced by a major automotive manufacturer such as DaimlerChrysler, Ford, General Motors or Toyota has had modifications made. Vans aren't manufactured with accessibility features built in, since these need to be suited to the individual user.

After it comes off the assembly line, the van gets modified or converted by another company, usually a specialized mobility equipment manufacturing company or mobility dealer.

Depending on make and model year, conversions can be done on a variety of both new and used vans. Modifications can range from simply adding a seat that turns and lowers to help a person get in and out, to a complete conversion that includes installing a ramp or lift system for a wheelchair user.

A complete conversion involves several major changes to the standard minivan chassis, frame and interior.

Clarissa Sayre talks about options and financing.

For example, minivan conversions include lowering part of or the entire floor by several inches, up to 10 inches on some models. That means for some brands, the gas tank must be relocated and/or replaced to accommodate the lowered floor, and systems such as fuel and heating/cooling must be rerouted.

Many side-entry minivans also need an enhanced suspension system so the vehicle can lower itself and reduce the distance from the van floor to the ground.

Oops, I bought the wrong van

Can any minivan or full-size van transport a wheelchair user and the chair?

Not necessarily.

Can any van be converted to include a lift or ramp system?

Definitely not.

Unfortunately, getting the wrong answers to questions like these can really cost you.

For instance, conversion packages are available on some van models produced by Ford, General Motors, Toyota and DaimlerChrysler, but not on import models such as the Honda Odyssey or Nissan Quest. Other vehicles might accommodate a lift for an unoccupied scooter or wheelchair on the back of the vehicle.

"The biggest mistake people make is they go down to a car dealer and buy a vehicle which cannot fit their needs, and then they're stuck with it," said Chuck Pennington, national sales manager for Viewpoint Mobility, manufacturer of the Vision, a rear-entry minivan conversion. "We hear that horror story all the time, or a car dealer who is not in the mobility industry sells them a vehicle that can't be converted."

So, those in the industry advise, start your shopping by talking to a qualified mobility expert.

"I think a good starting point is talk to companies like ours, adaptive equipment companies that can give them the straight on what type of vehicles can be converted and what they're trying to accomplish," said Dan Delie, who works in sales for Rollx Vans. Rollx converts DaimlerChrysler minivans and Ford Econoline full-size vans.

Although the mobility industry is growing, it doesn't yet widely market its products to the general public. So finding a mobility company isn't as easy as finding your neighborhood car dealer.

You can start by checking out van companies that advertise in Quest, attending trade shows or conferences for people with disabilities, or looking in the phone book under "Van Conversions" or "Handicapped Equipment."

Another quick way to find mobility experts is through professional organizations like the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA) or the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists (ADED) (see "Van Resources" ).

These groups hold their members to certain standards for quality and service, and can help you find an expert near where you live, or one who's an e-mail or phone call away.

Find someone who is certified by as many professional groups as possible, will work to find out your specific needs, and will give you an estimate in writing, said Anita Nichols, CEO and vice president of Special Needs Vehicles-Adapt Mobility, a mobility dealer in Tucson, Ariz.

A mobility expert should ask you a variety of questions that can help determine your equipment needs, Nichols said.

For example, is the person with a disability going to be the driver or a passenger? Can the person transfer independently from a scooter or wheelchair? What other abilities or limitations does he or she have? What's the make and model of the wheelchair or scooter, and what's the person's height while seated in it?

"The whole idea is picking the proper application to meet the client's needs for the most mobility," said Nichols.

Full-size or mini?

A major decision to make early in your shopping is whether you'll be best served by a full-size van or a minivan.

The two have distinct differences in style, size and some accessibility options.

Full-size vans are, of course, bigger, and can offer more maneuverability and rear storage space than minivans. Full-size conversion companies include Vantage Mobility International, Rollx Vans, Universal Motion and Nor-Cal Mobility.

Some models can transport multiple wheelchair users at a time, and most brands can enable a person occupying a wheelchair to ride in either the passenger or driver position.

Dimensions such as height, width and weight of the person while in the wheelchair can determine if he or she can enter, exit and maneuver inside a minivan, or will need a full-size van.

A full-size van conversion usually involves raising the roof and doors or lowering the floor by several inches, and sometimes both if additional headroom is needed.

A lift is required when wheelchair accessibility is needed in a full-size van. Ramps aren't practical because the vehicle's height would make them too steep. A ramp would need to be as long as 20 feet to be at a practical angle.

Most lifts can be operated automatically with the touch of a switch or remote control, and they come with backup systems in case of power failure. Choices of lift types include models that fold up inside the van, models that lower and turn sideways when deployed, and those that are stowed underneath the vehicle.

For example, the UVL series of lifts manufactured by the Braun Corp. boasts a design that provides an obstruction-free entry to the van. The lift is then stowed under the vehicle in a weathertight compartment.

The minivan, which has become a popular option for accessibility, offers a growing number of brands, styles, levels of luxury and adaptive equipment.

Certain types of converted minivans include a suspension system that lowers the entire chassis 6 to 8 inches closer to the ground. This makes the gap between the van floor and the ground small enough to be covered by a relatively short ramp. (A rare exception is some pediatric lifts that can be installed on certain minivans.)

Side-entry or rear-entry minivan?

Maureen McGovern
Side-entry minivans allow a wheelchair user access to the driver's seat area.

If you decide on a minivan, you have a choice of models and conversion packages, and you can choose whether the wheelchair user will enter the vehicle through the side door or the rear.

Advantages of rear-entry conversion (offered by companies such as Liberty Motors, Viewpoint Mobility and Freedom Motors) include economy, simplicity and the ability to park almost anywhere.

It differs from side-entry vans in that just part of the floor is lowered, allowing wheelchair access to the middle of the vehicle by a ramp that deploys from the rear-hatch opening. Shoppers can choose from ramp systems that deploy automatically or manually, with a manual system costing less.

Since the wheelchair user enters and exits from the rear, a designated handicapped parking space (or extra room alongside the vehicle for a ramp or lift) isn't necessary with this style of van.

"It truly is a choice, and we're finding more people are choosing our products just because of the issues with parking," said Viewpoint's Pennington, who added that garage or parking space at a user's home can also dictate the need for rear entry.

Another plus is that a wheelchair user remains facing forward in rear-entry vans, said Pat Gray, marketing manager of Liberty Motors, which converts Ford minivans.

"We've heard about people who are left facing sideways because they didn't have room to maneuver their chairs around," in other vans, Gray said, and that's especially dangerous in an accident.

A rear-entry van isn't practical for wheelchair users who want to drive but can't easily transfer into the driver's seat. That's because the partially lowered floor doesn't allow wheelchair access to the driver or front passenger seat area.

Some companies include an optional transfer seat mounted on a base that will swivel and lower, usually at the touch of a button.

A similar option is for people to reach the driver/passenger area from outside the vehicle by means of an assistive seat like the Turning Automotive Seating (TAS) system by Bruno.

These limitations haven't hurt rear-entry vans' popularity.

Pennington said many of his clients use his product for a taxi or commercial transport vehicle, or are parents who are transporting children who use wheelchairs. Plus, Viewpoint's Vision (a conversion of DaimlerChrysler, Ford and GM minivans) can seat up to seven passengers, one in a wheelchair.

In fact, Gray said that Liberty markets its rear-entry van, which has a manual ramp, as a low-cost, simple option "for a family that has a need for a vehicle to get around town."

On the side

Makers of side-entry vans say their vehicles are the best choice for variety or for wheelchair users who are going to be drivers. Side-entry minivan conversion companies include Braun, Independent Mobility Systems, Rollx and Vantage Mobility International.

Side-entry conversions incorporate a variety of seating options that can carry up to six or seven passengers, including one to three wheelchair users, depending on chair size and other factors. They feature removable driver and passenger seats for more seating options.

"Side entry provides a smoother transition for one that is going to be a driver or a passenger from their chair," said Troy Schultz, division manager for Braun's Entervan sales. (The Entervan is a conversion of some DaimlerChrysler and General Motors minivans.)

"With ours you can basically have the seat removed, and you can drive in to be a driver or a passenger within seconds."

Because the floor is lowered throughout the van interior, side-entry minivans also offer the opportunity to change seating options down the road. These options can be important for someone with a progressive disability.

"I think that's why a lowered-floor minivan has become popular," Schultz said, citing the example of someone who might today be able to walk or drive a scooter up a ramp, but knows he'll likely need to use a wheelchair in a few years.

"In a progressive situation, you can continue to add modifications as you need to," said Delie of Rollx. "That's certainly something to discuss with the adaptive equipment supplier."

Side-entry vans differ among brands and conversions in areas like interior room, head clearance, storage and features.

Another choice, seen in conversions from Vantage Mobility International and Independent Mobility Systems, is an in-floor ramp instead of the standard ramp that folds up into the passenger doorway.

With this system, you can use the rear passenger door without having to deploy the ramp, and the ramp isn't visible when stowed, said David Baker, marketing manager for Independent Mobility Systems. (IMS Rampvan conversion is available on the Toyota Sienna, DaimlerChrysler and Ford minivans.)

The ramp's weight rating and the van's carrying capacity are other factors to consider.

For example, Baker said the ramp in the IMS Toyota Sienna boasts a capacity of 750 pounds. That adds up quickly if you need to factor in a power wheelchair, equipment like ventilators, and even an attendant who might accompany a user up the ramp.

Dealer or direct?

Nichols of Special Needs in Arizona is one example of a mobility dealer, but consumers also have another option when shopping for an accessible van: Buy directly from the manufacturer.

Conversion companies that only sell directly to the customer include Rollx Vans, Liberty Motors and Freedom Motors.

Rollx's Delie said that buying a van from his company is a way to cut costs and still receive great service during and after the purchase.

"We don't work through middlemen who usually mark the price up and make their profits and things like that," Delie said, adding that all aspects of van conversions take place in a large plant adjacent to his office in Savage, Minn.

Whether over the phone or in person, Delie said Rollx staff are able to determine a users needs by asking questions, and can provide services like flexible financing or trade-ins.

For service, Delie said, Rollx customers can call and have a technician dispatched to their home, usually within 24 to 48 hours. In an emergency, the company will authorize a customer to go to a local dealer.

"We make it easy for anyone in the country. If they've got a vehicle, if they're looking to buy a vehicle, we make it easy: We deliver to their home, we finance it for them, we pick up their trade, we service it right there, so they don't have to go anywhere else," Delie said.

Nichols stresses that a local mobility dealer can make the process easier by helping with paperwork, working with funding sources and offering personalized service after the sale.

For example, Special Needs Vehicles provides emergency towing service (as do, she estimates, about 70 percent of mobility dealers nationwide). That's crucial since the special equipment on a converted van can be damaged if the vehicle isn't towed properly.

"The difference is personal service," said Schultz, whose company sells only through dealers. Many converted vans need personal adjustments, or additions like hand controls or automatic tie-down systems.

Money, money, money

What about price? Thanks to the Internet, it's possible to sample dealer and manufacturer prices nationwide.

For full-size vans, we found new 2003 models with basic modifications starting as low as $30,000, but the average price was in the $38,000 to $48,000 range.

Prices for new minivans were similar. We found some 2003s as low as $20,000 for rear-entry models with manual ramps, but the prices for those with power ramps averaged about $35,000 to $48,000.

Used or "pre-owned" vehicles are a cost-saving alternative, and many consumers opt to buy a used van and then have it converted. Many companies will convert a used van if it meets certain requirements, such as make and model year, and if the frame hasn't been damaged.

Also, many dealers and manufacturers offer an inventory of vans they've reconditioned, and some even include warranties. Some businesses will also take trades toward new vehicles.

If you choose a used van, IMS's Baker has this hint: Look for a "program" vehicle, such as one from a fleet that was used briefly for a special event, or one that was used by a rental company.

Whatever your needs, mobility experts agree that the choices are only going to get better as the industry continues to flourish.

Baker advised customers not to wait until they're struggling to use their current vehicle to consider a converted van.

"I would say to buy a lowered-floor vehicle as soon as it is feasible so you have it when you need it instead of having to go look for it," Baker said.

Van shopping tips

Ask the seller if the converted van brand has been crash-tested, and for other specific safety information.

Don't hesitate to ask the dealer or seller to give you a written estimate that includes any extra features you will need.

Add it up: How much weight will a ramp or lift in your van need to support? (Don't forget to include you, your chair, extra equipment and a caregiver if necessary.)

Factor in parking at home. Is ground clearance an issue? Is there room in your garage or other parking area to deploy a lift or ramp?

How many people do you usually need to seat in your van? Find out the van's total weight capacity. Will you be able to carry everyone and all equipment?

Compare interior dimensions of different van brands. Whenever possible, try one out and see if there's enough headroom and space for you to enter, exit and maneuver.

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