Not so long ago, mobility-challenged car buyers faced a selection of vehicles that was anemic at best, but today's choices are more diverse and appealing. Those with mild to moderate mobility difficulties will find lots of vehicles offering essential comfort and convenience features. Those who are more seriously disabled can also breathe sighs of relief, since there are vehicles on the market that put the emphasis on both conversion capability and superior quality.
As far as compact and midsize sedans go, the star player is the Toyota Prius. This hybrid is adored by the green set for its excellent fuel economy (48/45 city/highway mpg), but it's also a favorite of those with upper-body mobility challenges, due to its wealth of friendly features. Arthritis is the No. 1 cause of disability in this country, affecting over 70 million Americans; this condition can make tasks like grasping and twisting a pain. The Prius comes with a push-button ignition which will save you from having to execute a potentially agonizing twist of the wrist to get the engine started. Its gear selector is just as easy to use; it may be maneuvered without the need for much pressure, which is great for those with weak hands. This Toyota is also armed with arthritis-friendly touchscreen controls, and wide door openings for easy entry and exit.
But let's not forget about the giants of the car segment. Full-size sedans woo drivers with roomy cabins that are easy to settle into, and their huge trunks effortlessly swallow mobility scooters and other equipment. With luggage capacity of 21 cubic feet, the Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable twins offer the biggest trunks in the segment; they also boast high seating positions, good visibility and smooth rides. The Toyota Avalon also has an ample trunk capacity, and its available amenities rival those of a luxury car. Toyota's sedan is a fine pick for those who place a high value on overall refinement. In addition to a nicely appointed interior, it offers a serene driving experience and easy maneuverability in tight spaces.
Budget-minded shoppers should look at the Hyundai Azera. Its meticulous build quality and high-end materials quality will have you doing a double-take at its low price tag, and it's nearly as roomy as a Taurus or Avalon. Buick's Lucerne is somewhat less polished than others in this group, but it offers one important advantage: an available front bench seat, a setup prized by mobility-challenged drivers for its unmatched comfort.
As conversion vehicles, full-size vans offer pluses and minuses. Their major advantage concerns size. These vans offer more headroom than any other type of vehicle, and can be useful for taller wheelchair-bound drivers. On the negative side, full-size vans offer poor fuel mileage; their mammoth dimensions also make these vehicles difficult to maneuver.
If you're shopping for a full-size van, your best bet is a Dodge Sprinter. The Sprinter is a bit pricier than competing models from Ford and GM. It's more than worth the extra coin, though; the Sprinter is the most maneuverable entrant in this category, and offers fuel economy that's decent for its class, thanks to its efficient turbodiesel V6. Build quality is excellent, and ergonomics are more like an SUV's than a humongous van's.
But the most practical (and popular) choice for conversion is the minivan. Though they offer less headroom than full-size vans, minivans are capacious enough to meet the needs of most mobility-challenged drivers. They're nimbler and more fuel-efficient than their full-size counterparts, and are a lot more enjoyable to drive.
In recent years, Chrysler's minivans lagged the pack in terms of quality, but the picture has changed with their 2008 redesign. Offering useful features and refined handling, the Chrysler Town and Country/Dodge Grand Caravan twins are prime candidates for conversion. Those longtime class leaders, the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna, are excellent choices as well, offering outstanding degrees of reliability and refinement.
For a long time, conversion vans were the only choice for wheelchair users who needed ramps for access. These days, buyers have more than just vans to choose from. The Scion xB offers more interior room than you'd expect from a wagon, and has become a popular choice for conversion. When converted, its ramp deploys from the rear, which allows this compact wagon to easily fit in standard parking spaces. With 22 mpg city/28 mpg highway EPA estimates when equipped with an automatic transmission, the xB also gets better gas mileage than your traditional conversion van. However, there's a price to be paid for its compact dimensions: Head clearance under the tailgate is limited. The xB works well for smaller adults, but if you're vertically gifted, you may find that the wagon isn't tall enough to accommodate you as you wheel in on your chair.
The Honda Element SUV has also emerged a favorite of those with conversion on the mind. Its clamshell doors make loading and unloading a wheelchair a snap. The SUV's available all-wheel drive makes it a great choice for those who live in intemperate climes; it also comes with a water-resistant interior that may be sponged clean when you want to spruce things up.