With thousands of disabled veterans returning from the Middle East, the wheelchair-accessible vehicle industry is booming. A report from The Detroit News suggests that the type of vehicle easiest to convert for wheelchair access -- the minivan -- doesn’t strike a chord with the influx of younger buyers.
Historically, the minivan has been the vehicle of choice for wheelchair-access conversions, as their front-drive layout allows for the floor to be lowered up to 13 inches without major modifications to the driveline. Their large sliding doors make fitting extendible ramps easier and provide easy access into the cabin. It’s also the most practical vehicle to convert cost-wise, though the process is still a $20,000 affair.
“But [young buyers] just don’t want minivans,” president and CEO of Vantage Mobility International (VMI) Doug Eaton told The Detroit News. “The problem with a minivan is just that – it’s a minivan.”
As one of the largest builders of wheelchair-accessible vehicles, VMI is now dealing with the same problem as the rest of the auto industry: appealing to younger buyers and aging baby boomers. In the past, the wheelchair-accessible vehicle industry catered to a population of mostly older customers who appreciated the many benefits of a van. Now, with this influx of newly disabled veterans, companies must adapt to their different tastes.
Eaton's attempt to respond to changing demands can be found in VMI’s “25th Anniversary” Honda Odyssey, which sports flashy wheels, leather seats, and a carbon-fiber dashboard cover. The van is aimed at Generation-Y buyers who typically prefer modified pickups, but want something that’s easier to use and more practical.
Even this style-heavy minivan or the VPG MV-1 wheelchair-accessible SUV Taxi may not be enough to sway many customers like Stephen Willoby, a veteran who returned from Afghanistan four years ago as a quadriplegic.
“[I was] already dealing with the loss of identity from the injury,” Willoby told The Detroit News. “On top of everything else, you say, ‘I’ve got to get a minivan?’”
UPDATE: Although Willoby initially purchased a modified truck, he eventually bought a Dodge-based VMI van for the bodystyle's easier access to the driver's seat.
Richard May, owner of several United Access dealerships throughout the Midwest, says it’s not just young buyers who don’t like minivans, citing the segment’s drop in annual sales from a high of 1.4 million to less than 500,000 in 2011. May suggests an SUV might be a decent alternative. But truck-based SUVs and minivans alike are quickly losing ground to the crossover, a vehicle that’s reportedly not as easy to convert.
Until the wheelchair-accessible industry can address the changing tastes of its customers, the minivan will remain its best-seller, with The Detroit News reporting sales of around 15,000 annual sales of modified minivans currently and an expected growth of 8 to 10 percent per year.
Source: The Detroit News