Living with different Abilities can mean it’s difficult to get to school or work, or out to dinner with family or friends. According to a 2008 U.S. Census Bureau report, 3.3 million non-institutionalized Americans over age 15 years use wheelchairs. The reasons for limited mobility are as wide-ranging as the people affected by it, and decades spent with the U.S. at war has dropped the average age of wheelchair users significantly enough that the mobility industry is rethinking the products it provides to support a growing demographic. With that in mind, we recently took a look at wheelchair accessible mobility vehicles from two leading industry players: Vantage Mobility International (VMI) and Braun Ability. Each has spent decades converting mostly bone-stock vans and minivans from automotive players such as Chrysler, Toyota, and Honda into wheelchair-accessible modes of transportation. It was our hope to include VPG Autos’ MV-1, in our comparison. Unfortunately, VPG ceased operations because of financial reasons during scheduling.
About the Testing
Several of the staff were wheelchair users, to offer insight from a user’s perspective. While Elias uses hand controls to drive his own vehicle, none of the vans featured such controls, so instead Elias offered his opinions on ingress/egress, ride comfort and noise as a passenger in a manual wheelchair. Jim Sanders has worked on and seen these vans from their inception in the late 80’s to what they have evolved into today. His 27+ years of hands on experience offers a unmatched practical and theoretical foundation in vehicle modifications for individuals with disabilities. All four of the vans featured side entry ramps to the passenger area, rather than lift-type systems. Because of limited time with the vehicles, and in an effort to focus more on functionality as to ingress, egress and usability. This test merely encompasses our general impressions of each vehicle with some of us as newcomers to the mobility vehicle industry and others being seasoned experts. We hope to offer a more in-depth long term look at mobility vehicles in the future.
VMI Toyota Sienna (Base MSRP: $24,995 + cost of van)
The Toyota Sienna is Phoenix, Arizona-based VMI’s bread-and-butter mobility van. VMI sells more Siennas than any other model, and, like Braun, works directly with Toyota in the conversion process. While all modifications are made at VMI’s headquarters, Toyota was a consultant on the integration of VMI’s mobility-specific features and the vehicle alterations needed to make everything fit properly. And those modifications are significant. The VMI Sienna’s rear axle and seats are moved rearward by 12 inches to extend the amount of usable passenger space inside the minivan, while the floorpan is dropped 14.75 inches to allow more headroom and a lower ramp angle for easier entry and exit. The structural revisions require a revised rear suspension, exhaust system, fuel tank placement, and the alteration of other smaller components. The modified vans have been crash tested to ensure that they maintain at least the same safety rating as they did before the conversion.
VMI is a leader in what is known in the industry as the “in-floor” ramp style, and this Toyota Sienna is equipped with such a system. In contrast to the “fold-out”-style ramp, the in-floor unit is sandwiched between the passenger floor and the bottom of the vehicle. It deploys horizontally from the vehicle and drops to the ground near the end of its extension. The chief advantage of an in-floor ramp is that it doesn’t intrude into the passenger area of the van when stowed. This leaves more room for people, doesn’t limit front passenger seat travel, and also keeps the vehicle free of debris or moisture the ramp might pick up.We found VMI’s control system very easy to use. There are three buttons that will simultaneously open the passenger-side sliding door and deploy the ramp: one on the keyfob, one near the door in the rear passenger area, and one on the vehicle’s center console. This allows the door to be operated in nearly every circumstance. One useful feature of the VMI ramp system is another button near the steering wheel that allows the passenger side door to be opened without deploying the ramp, in the event that no wheelchair needs to be loaded.
Obviously, longer ramps with lower extension points mean the wheelchair user has less of an approach angle to tackle, and means it’s easier to enter and exit the vehicle. To this end, VMI’s van is equipped with a lowering system dubbed Powerkneel that drops the passenger side a couple extra inches to allow for an 8.5-degree ramp angle, allowing our wheelchair user onboard fairly easily, even with a manual chair. Once inside, the VMI van boasts impressive interior space, with 65.5 inches of length between the front and rear seats and 61.5 inches of width between B-pillars to maneuver a wheelchair — enough room for Greg to get into riding placement, and enter and exit the vehicle fairly easily. To gather on-road impressions in each van, Greg wheeled into the space made vacant by removing the front passenger seat. In the VMI Sienna, the seat is removed by pulling a strap behind it while pushing the seat upwards to release it from the floor. The seat disengages fairly easily, but like all the seats in our test vehicles, it wasn’t particularly easy to remove from the vehicle. Not only are the seats in these vans heavy and cumbersome to move, but the wheels they roll on are small and easily halted by small surface irregularities. It took a 30-something editor in average shape a full minute or so to remove a passenger seat from any of our vans. Once the seat is removed, it must be rolled — we found the seats too heavy and awkward to carry comfortably — to a storage location. This took another couple minutes despite the van being parked just outside our vehicle workshop, because of the awkwardness of maneuvering the seat on its rollers.
Once we were strapped in, we found the VMI Sienna to be pleasant enough to drive and ride in. The van rode and performed much like a standard Sienna, with a couple notable exceptions. Despite making sure both front and rear passenger side doors were shut properly, we heard a larger-than-average amount of wind noise coming from those areas. We also heard quite a lot of exhaust noise coming from underneath the front of the vehicle, and it often was louder than the wind noise and more irritating. We suspect the former is a typical side effect of the VMI conversion, but wonder if the latter may be an abnormality. While there were a few small creaks and rattles while driving, the overall level of such noises was much lower than any other vehicle in this test. We were also most impressed with the ride quality of the VMI Sienna, because it felt the most like a stock Sienna. VMI offers a 3-year/36,000-mile warranty on its ramp equipment, along with any modified section of the van on each model it sells. Toyota’s warranty coverage remains intact for any un-modified portion of the vehicle. VMI’s recommended annual service on the in-ramp system is free of charge.
Braun Ability Toyota Sienna (Base MSRP: $26,600 + cost of van)
Though Indiana-based Braun Ability represents the fold-out school of ramp design more than the in-floor school, citing lower cost and less complexity as key advantages, we requested an in-floor version of its Sienna for a more-or-less apples-to-apples comparison to the VMI product. (More on fold-out ramps later.). We mention this in the sake of fairness — while VMI tends to favor its in-floor tech, Braun is enthusiastic about fold-out ramps, and each company’s sales of those products reflect that idea.
Like the VMI Sienna, Braun’s version features a lowered floor, though with a 12.5-inch drop it sits a quarter-inch higher than the VMI van. The rear axle remains in the same position as stock and the Braun’s suspension is largely stock as well. We found the Braun’s sideskirt styling (to improve aerodynamics and reduce visual height of the drop-floor van) a little more flashy than the VMI Sienna’s, and the gap between tire and wheel arch in the Braun was greater than that on the VMI — likely a product of unique suspension relocation after the floor drop. The Braun’s interior styling is up to par compared with the competition. The ramp-specific controls are laid out in a similar fashion to that in the VMI Sienna, though Braun sticks with OEM symbols on its door/ramp buttons, where VMI prints its brand name on the button face. The Braun loses a little bit of interior space to the VMI product: Interior height in the center of the passenger area is 58 inches versus 61.8 inches in the VMI, and because Braun retains the stock rear seat position, length of the passenger area is less, at 45 inches. The Braun’s rear-door opening width is a half-inch wider at 31 inches, but it loses out in height at just over 54 inches compared with the VMI’s 57 inches. Braun also makes a tall-roof XT version of its Sienna that ups the door opening height and rear cabin height by nearly 2 inches each.
In operation, Braun’s in-floor ramp was also slightly behind the performance of VMI product, though this might be expected given the two company’s different focuses. Speed of deployment was roughly the same, but the Braun’s ramp gave a slightly louder “clang!” as it hit the ground, seeming to drop a touch harsher. Braun’s Sienna also lacked the ability to disable ramp deployment from the door-opening function. While this isn’t a huge deal — especially given that these vans have two rear doors to exit from — it is a nice convenience feature that Braun might consider adding in future products. At 8.8 degrees, the Braun’s ramp angle is competitive with VMI, making entry and exit similar, though taller wheelchair users will have less headroom across the doorway. Braun also uses a hydraulic “kneeling” system to lower the vehicle for easier ingress.
Removing the front passenger seat was equally difficult on the Braun van as it was on the VMI product. On the road, the newest Braun Sienna had a quieter ride overall considering the lack of both excessive wind noise and exhaust noise that was annoyingly present in the VMI. Braun claims to have reduced noise suppression by 25 percent starting with its newest models. Unfortunately, we heard slightly squeaking and rattling coming from the Braun Sienna’s structure — possibly a byproduct of what felt like a much firmer ride than the VMI version. Similar to VMI, Braun also warranties all modified aspects of its vehicles for 3 years and 36,000 miles.
VMI Honda Odyssey (Base MSRP: $24,995 + cost of van)
Both VMI and Braun Ability offer mobility vehicles based off multiple platforms. Among those options are VMI’s Honda Odyssey conversion. Like the Sienna, VMI offers Odyssey conversions of any trim level that offers power doors.
Our VMI Odyssey featured the same in-floor ramp system as the Sienna, and it worked in an identical fashion, with three buttons available to open the sliding door and deploy the ramp (along with the same ramp disable switch). The Odyssey features a 12.75-inch floor drop, though headroom in the rear area is nearly two inches less than the Sienna’s, while useable floor space between the front and rear seats is nearly four inches less. Ramp angle is 8.0 degrees, comparable to the Toyota.
Though we’re generally fans of the stock Odyssey (in our last minivan comparison, the Honda finished second to the Toyota), we were impressed with VMI’s conversion. The Odyssey rode noticeably stiffer than either Sienna, even the firmer Braun version, while transmitting some light interior rattles and creaking noises on rougher patches of pavement and around turns. Passenger side wind noise was still there and we had a light rattle from the floor over rough roads. Also considering that a Honda Odyssey EX (the lowest trim level with power-sliding doors necessary for the conversion) starts at roughly $2000 more than the cheapest Sienna with the same feature (LE trim level), we’re convinced the Sienna is a better value.
Braun Ability Chrysler Town and Country (Base MSRP: $23,300 + cost of van)
Braun’s Chrysler Town and Country was the only van of our group to feature a fold-out style ramp — one of this conversion company’s specialties. In contrast to the ramp extending from underneath the floor, a fold-out system is stowed vertically, folded in half behind the front passenger seat. When the ramp is deployed, it lowers outside on a downward-angled plane, extending the folded portion before it makes contact with the ground. Braun claims that a key advantage to the system its ability to extend next to the majority of curbs. Because the ramp folds down more vertically than horizontally, the ramp theoretically will land on top of a curb, instead of hitting it on the side. Though VMI says its in-floor ramp will deploy on any surface up to 10 inches tall, Braun’s fold-out ramp would potentially be able to go taller.
The Braun fold-out ramp worked using the same types of controls as its in-floor unit and we found operation to be fairly smooth, though deployment seemed to take several seconds longer than the in-floor version. That said, in our limited testing we found the cons of the fold-out ramp to outweigh the positives. The primary con is that when folded in the van, the ramp takes up quite a bit of room that could be used for people to stretch out, or to store gear and supplies. It was also noisy, clanking and banging its folded sections against itself over road imperfections on our driving loops.
We were also unimpressed with other banging noises we heard, including a loud noise that seemed to come from the rear cargo compartment. A search of the area for the source of the noise failed to discover a cause. As we’ve found with stock Town and Country vans, our conversion was also less pleasant to drive than the Toyota or Honda vans, with a less-responsive powertrain, poorer ride quality, and a heavy, blunt feel behind the wheel. All that said, our extra-tall XT version of the Chrysler did offer the lowest ramp angle at 7.5 degrees, while offering the greatest rear passenger area height (61 inches) and width (62 inches) — both measurements 0.5 inch more than the VMI Sienna. Unfortunately, a half inch and a half degree didn’t make up for the Chrysler’s shortcomings.
Which van for you?
We encourage anyone in the market for a mobility vehicle to cross-shop several conversion companies as well as several vehicle manufactures to determine which van best meets your needs and budget. We’d also recommend comparing in-floor to fold-out ramps, taking into consideration the type of use they’ll see during your ownership. If you’re based in a rainy or snowy area, an in-floor lift might help keep your interior clean. Live in an area with lots of curbs or hills? That fold-out lift might be worthwhile despite its drawbacks. As with any vehicle purchase, the mobility van that makes the most sense for you will depend on your personal preferences. Including conversion and van purchase costs, a new mobility vehicle will often run in the $55,000-$70,000 range — not a decision to take lightly. Both Braun and VMI offer conversions on used vans to help keep costs lower, but the donor vehicle must meet mileage, age, and other conditions.
For more information: call 508-697-6006