When young, disabled war veterans come home, they face a particular challenge in choosing a vehicle. Minivans make the most sense -- they're easiest to get in and out of if you use a wheelchair -- but they're the last thing many vets want to drive.
"I joined the Air Force at 19, and I was going from high-performance cars and jets to a minivan," one 28-year-old paraplegic vet told The Detroit News
. "On top of everything else, you say, 'I've got to get a minivan?'"
Some are buying converted pickups instead, even though they're more difficult to use. But now there's a glimmer of hope in the form of an edgier new wheelchair-accessible Honda Odyssey
. It could be a precursor for good things to come in the category. The Odyssey is tricked out with a carbon-fiber dashboard cover, leather seats and flashy wheels.
"Our client base is older, and they don't mind minivans," said Doug Eaton of Vantage Mobility International, which produces wheelchair-accessible vehicles, including the new Odyssey. "But we've also got to deal with this shift to young veterans. We're trying to bring a little bling to the table."
With an increase in drivers who use wheelchairs, due both to the rise in the number of Middle East war veterans and to the aging population of baby boomers, the wheelchair-vehicle business is expected to grow by 8 to 10 percent a year from its current annual sales of 15,000 vehicles. But clearly, these two demographics aren't on the same page in terms of their tastes.
Many baby boomers are perfectly happy with minivans, which are ideal conversion vehicles because it's possible to lower their floors 10 to 14 inches without making significant changes to their powertrains, and their large doors are conducive to extendable ramps. For young vets, the only real option is pickups, which can't be reconfigured as seamlessly.
The owner of another wheelchair-vehicle business, Texas-based United Access, is thinking a bit more outside the box. "We need to develop something more like an SUV," Richard May told The Detroit News, echoing the general direction of the industry. Minivan sales dropped to less than 500,000 last year --a sign that disabled war veterans aren't the only ones who don't want to be seen in one.