A Cheat Sheet of Disability-Friendly Vehicles

auto seats
Source: Chrysler Group LLC

There are a few key features to look for when shopping for a car for the disabled, especially if that person will be driving the vehicle themselves. Ignition systems are best left keyless, the car should always have an automatic transmission, controls should be easy to see and use (touch-screens are a good option here), locks and windows need to be automatic, seats should be automatic in nature, having keyless entry helps a lot, a remote start saves battery power if a wheelchair lift is being used, and adjustable pedals all top the list when it comes to a basic line-up.

“Adaptive Equipment” is the term that applies to any aftermarket devices that are installed by a certified mobility equipment dealer specialist in order to help people with handicaps and/or disabilities drive or ride in a particular vehicle. And while they may be designed to help people with permanent physical impairments enter, exit, and/or operate a vehicle, there is way more to this equation than meets the eye. These programs now have the ability to be combined with government incentives to help offset some of the cost associated with these expensive set-ups, so be sure to ask for any necessary regional and national government contact info at the dealer prior to purchasing a vehicle.

But before even leaving the house to look over a handicap-ready vehicle, there are a few important things to know. Vehicle cabin height is extremely important for a disabled person in a wheelchair, so that he or she may have ample headroom. Having a front seat that can be removed is key for anyone wanting to wheel up to the steering column or who might want to ride shotgun instead. If the wheelchair is not going to be broken down for driving, be sure to make sure there are tie down points available on the car so that the wheelchair won’t tip over. Cars with recessed seat belt retractors and composite door extensions are a very nice addition for anyone needing an extra level of consideration.

There are a few final things that need to be known as well. First of all, when it does finally come time to buy it is always good to know that a powered mobility vehicle has an average life span of 10 years from the time of install, and a 10% annual depreciation rate is quite commonplace. Certification standards are another mandatory consideration and installers should always be certified by the National Mobility Equipment Dealers’ Association (NMEDA). Lastly, it is important to know that modifications can sometimes land a vehicle out of favor with federal safety standards, and that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) permits this only when the proper labeling and full documentation of the build checks out.

Source: Chevrolet

The award-winning Honda Odyssey is always a good place to start not just because it is reliable, affordable, and tech-savvy, but the Odyssey can also be modified to provide safe journey for almost any impaired individual. The Odyssey has seen great success with two companies in particular that specialize in mobility modifications, and reviews of these systems by Motor Trend a few years back proved to be quite favorable. The BraunAbility Entervan comes with what are called “Step & Roll” front seats, which allow the driver and passenger seat to be easily removed when a wheelchair needs to be up front. Then there is the VMI Northstar Odyssey, which also has a treasure trove of available options. And while the VMI Summit Edition offers many of the same amenities as the Northstar Edition, the Summit Edition features a fold-out ramp for easy access and storage.

Fair warning though, Honda’s rebate program is a bit on the shorter side, with all the necessary paperwork needing to be filed within six months from the completion of the install. Honda also refuses to endorse any particular aftermarket specialist, regardless of how talented the two previously mentioned companies may be. It also recently limited the used car portion of its program to “original vehicle owners/lessees whose vehicles are within the manufacturer’s warranty period and who request reimbursement for NHTSA-approved and compliant modifications to their vehicles.” These modifications will not void any Honda warranties unless the car encounters a problem that can be traced back to the equipment and/or its installation, and then owners may see their warranty coverage disappear entirely.

driving assist
Source: Chrysler

On the more rugged side of the coin sits the Chevrolet Silverado, with its tricked-out hinge doors and wheelchair lift leading the way. Now thanks to the GM Mobility Reimbursement Program, anyone with a permanent handicap who buys or leases a Silverado (or any other OnStar equipped GM car that isn’t a Cadillac) and installs the proper equipment is eligible for a reimbursement amounting to $1,000. According to GM, another perk it includes is “two extra years of OnStar service, at no additional cost on all 2014–2016 Chevrolet, Buick and GMC vehicles equipped with OnStar.” But be forewarned, anyone who thinks this deal is the right one for them had better hurry up because this offer is only valid through September of this year.

Don’t rule out the iconic Ford Mustang just because it is a fire-breathing sports car. Believe it or not, this American classic makes a great option for anyone wanting a fun car that can also offer equipment like carriers, hand controls, lifts, parking brakes, power assist seats, and steering devices. The only options we found the Mustang won’t support are wheelchair restraints and door openers, due primarily to size constraints. Ford also has in place a generous disability reimbursement program that tops out at $1,000, but unlike GM we could not find a deadline for reimbursement, and Ford’s website just says that as long as the mobility equipment gets installed within a year after purchase the car’s owner should be set to receive some cash back.

Source: MV-1

The Scion xB also has a very generous mobility program for the disabled in place, and this little commuter can be outfitted with all sorts of equipment, including wheelchair/scooter lifts, power and manual swivel seats, hand controls, wheelchair restraints, steering devices, and left foot accelerators. And while this equipment has to be installed on a newer Scion xB, anyone shopping for a used option should check out the 2004-2006 xB since that generation had the ability to be outfitted with a rear-mounted wheelchair ramp. According to Scion, upon credit approval, “Toyota Financial Services and participating Scion dealers provide flexible, extended-term financing, so that you can purchase a new Scion vehicle with installed adaptive equipment (including installation costs).”

But sometimes people need some off-road prowess, a more refined cabin, and a torque-rich EcoDiesel engine option, to get where they need to be. This makes the Jeep Grand Cherokee a real winner in our book, and we were quite impressed by the Chrysler Group’s Automobility Program as well. This company has a serious invested interest in this portion of the market, and because of this the Grand Cherokee has the ability to be outfitted with mods like lifts/hoists, running boards, driving devices, power seats, and various tie-downs for things like wheelchairs. Any conversions done to a qualified Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Ram, or Fiat vehicle immediately qualifies the owner for a maximum reimbursement of $1,000, and the addition of running boards alone can yield up to a $400 refund. Alerting devices also qualify for some cash back, and top out at $200 in returns.

Source: MV-1

Sometimes though it is best to go straight to the source and get a vehicle that has been built from the ground up to service the handicapped community. Enter the MV-1, the world’s first purpose-built universally accessible vehicle. Its super-sized interior, seating for five, a power ramp that “deploys at two different aspect ratios to address various vehicle entry and exit scenarios,” and a body-on-frame design all give the MV-1 the upper hand when it comes time roll-out. This custom car is 100% made in America, and has the best list of available options on the market today. Buyers can even opt for a unique factory-installed Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) fuel system in place of the standard Ford-sourced 4.6 liter V8.

Our favorite features we found on the MV-1 were the automatically deploying ramp with safety lights, the universal wheelchair restraint track system that is integrated into the van’s floor, the handy electronic cutoff switch that prevents vehicle operation when the ramp is deployed, and the steel-reinforced bumpers and side-impact beams that come standard on every vehicle. All MV-1 vehicles are certified by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) to meet all applicable safety and crash requirements, and the LX “luxury edition” comes wrapped in rosewood, chrome, and leather accents, while the driver’s compartment sports “an advanced double-DIN radio satellite radio with navigation, back-up camera, and Bluetooth connectivity.”

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