A Buyer’s Guide to Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles

You need to buy a wheelchair accessible vehicle, but until recently you didn’t know what one was. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. We meet with so many people who are desperately searching for the right wheelchair accessible vehicle, some have been in a fruitless search for over a year. After all, it’s not like you can just punch in the exact model you want and get a hundred results on Autotrader.

The ability to drive makes a huge difference to the lives of thousands of disabled people across the UK. Wheelchair accessible vehicles (WAVs) can be driven by carers, friends or family members, and in many cases disabled people are able to drive the vehicle themselves.

To help you, and others in a similar position to you, we have put together this handy wheelchair accessible vehicle buyer’s guide. Which we believe will be the perfect starting point in your search for the ideal car, covering everything you need to know about shopping for a WAV.

Before Shopping For A WAV

Before making a start on your search for a wheelchair accessible vehicle there are a number of considerations to ensure you drive away with a vehicle suited to your needs. It will be worthwhile making a list of what you’re looking for in a wheelchair accessible vehicle, bearing in mind the below points:

  • Affordability - think about how far your budget can stretch so you know the maximum you are prepared to spend. Most WAV dealerships, like Southern Mobility Vehicles, can offer finance options. A dealership which offers specialist wheelchair accessible vehicle finance would be beneficial as the provider will better understand your needs and the unique nature of WAVs. Our finance provider can accommodate several buyers as a group and there is always the option to defer a final payment.
  • Special adaptations - depending on your disability your vehicle may require adaptations. Adaptations are split into three main categories: access - helping you enter and exit the vehicle, driving - improving the driving experience, and storage - to accommodate mobility scooters or wheelchairs. Some will come with ramps and others will come with a lift. We cover all of these options further on in this guide.
  • Usage - consider how you are most likely to use your wheelchair accessible vehicle. Will you be driving, or will a family member or carer be driving for you? If this is the case, you will want to take them along with you to view vehicles. After all, if you aren’t driving you need to be sure your driver feels confident in the vehicle. The rule of thumb to accommodate a wheelchair user is three seats must be removed in a vehicle so if you are looking at a seven-seater vehicle generally you will be left with four seats plus a wheelchair user.
  • Space - before you start shopping we recommend that you get measured from the floor to the top of your head sitting in your wheelchair, so you know how much space you’ll need. This will eliminate certain vehicles and avoid disappointment, wasted journeys and of course a possibly injury. A good WAV dealership will be able to provide you with measurements for a vehicle. If you can supply the make and model of the wheelchair then a dealer should be able to check the dimensions online to make sure it will travel into the vehicle you are considering. We also offer a free market place check on what will work for you whether you want to buy from us or not, just ask us for more information.

What To Look For In A WAV

From converters to different WAV types, there is so much to be aware of when shopping for your first wheelchair access vehicle. It is important to remember that not all vehicles allow for adaptation. So you may well be looking at vehicles you never considered buying. This is because headroom is the most important issue for a converter next to whether the floor can be lowered. This can only be decided once a full investigation has been made of the underside of the vehicle as often wiring looms, exhaust systems and fuel tanks have to be moved or modified. So the WAV market is quite different compared to standard vehicles. We will cover the different options, sizes and advantages of wheelchair accessible vehicles so all will be revealed below.

What Converter?

All converters are the same, aren't they? The short answer is absolutely not. There are two aspects to buying a WAV that immediately make it harder for buyers to find what they are looking for; the conversion itself; the adaptations to the vehicle to make it suitable for a wheelchair user. Then there is the vehicle make and model.

So why is the conversion element of a WAV so important? Take the Renault Kangoo for example. You can buy what seems to be a great value Kangoo for £4,000 with 60,000 miles on the odometer, which isn't a lot, or you can pay £9,000 for a Kangoo which seems the same with 20,000 miles on the odometer.

Why is this?

It comes down to the quality of the conversion. When one conversion cost £2,000 and the other £8,000 it quickly becomes apparent which is the better investment. In the cheaper conversion you’re likely to see issues such as premature rust, failing parts, and creaks and clatters which will quickly become a nuisance when travelling.

These may sound like small things, but they are often very expensive to put right. It might involve you needing to travel quite far to get the repairs done and go without your vehicle for several days so it is often worth paying a little more to end up with good value.

We recommend converters such as

  • Brotherwood
  • Lewis Reed
  • Brook Miller
  • GM Coachworks
  • Gowrings
  • Lateral

There are of course others that do excellent work but produce smaller numbers of wheelchair accessible vehicles. We only stock the best converters based on many years of experience to ensure you get the maximum out of your WAV.

What size WAV?

Wheelchair accessible vehicles come in all shapes and sizes, designed to suit a huge range of needs. To help you understand what these are and what you might want to look for in your search for the perfect WAV we have offered some examples below.

Small WAV

A small WAV is a popular choice and is generally a specially converted vehicle such as the Peugeot Bipper or Fiat Qubo. These vehicles can normally fit between two or three people, as well as the wheelchair user, and often have a lowered floor to give more headroom, as well as making access that bit easier. Small WAVs are usually fitted with a ramp at the rear for wheelchair access. These are great vehicles for general use, such as commuting and small-scale shopping, with limited passengers.

a small wav peugeot bipper

Medium WAV

Medium WAVs are normally small cars and vans which have been converted, such as the Renault Kangoo, Citroen Berlingo, Peugeot Partner and the Volkswagen Caddy. These size vehicles will usually seat up to three people plus the wheelchair passenger. We would generally agree that three seats plus the wheelchair user would be the optimum in vehicles of this size with the exception of the Volkswagen Caddy which will comfortably allow four passengers plus a wheelchair user. They're great for small family outings, short breaks or hobbies requiring a little more space.

A Renault Kangoo medium WAV

Medium-large WAV

Medium-large WAVs are larger still. Medium-large WAVs are vehicles such as the Kia Sedona, Renault Espace and Volkswagen Caddy Maxi. They can have multiple interior options offering lots of flexibility inside. These vehicles would usually have up to five passenger seats plus a wheelchair user and a lowered floor with a ramp. Most often the ramp is at the rear as the ability to accommodate a wheelchair passenger is achieved by lowering the floor and removing seats from the rear of the vehicle.

A Kia Sedona medium-large WAV

Large WAV

Size is always subjective, depending on the person. We class a large WAV as vehicles such as the Volkswagen Transporter and Caravelle, Vauxhall Vivaro, Renault Trafic, and Peugeot Expert. It isn’t always the case that these vehicles would take seven or more passengers so here we are generally talking about increased luggage space, more internal space and flexibility to change the internal specifications which wouldn’t be possible in a smaller vehicle. Some large WAVs come with a minimum number of seats, maybe just the necessary number so that specialist equipment space is available for the wheelchair user or maybe for extensive travel to accommodate camping equipment. Other vehicles come with seven or even more seats, it just depends on what the initial owner’s requirements were. Here at Southern Mobility Vehicles we have specialists who can bespoke vehicles and the larger ones do offer the most flexibility to add and remove adaptations.

A Volkswagen Caravelle large WAV

Extra-large WAV

These are vehicles which fall into the largest category and would generally be vehicles such as the Peugeot Boxer, Renault Master and Fiat Ducato. These may be for specialist use, day vans, camper van conversions or care home use. They offer the most flexibility to carry multiple wheelchair users. If Unwin tracking is present in the floor then there is the ability to add or remove seats. It is important to remember that a vehicle’s laden weight and the number of seats present can affect who can drive some of these vehicles. Often the long wheelbase versions have more seats present than can be driven without an additional class being added to a driving licence. Always refer to the DVLA for clarification before you commit to a WAV of this sort.

A Renault Master extra-large WAV

Which WAV Type?

When we talk about WAV types, we mean where the wheelchair will be positioned in the vehicle. There’s a range of options out there for you to choose from, whether you want to be the driver of your WAV, or whether you plan to have someone else driving for you. To help you understand and decide which type of WAV is best for your needs we have explained the different seating positions below.

There are five options of wheelchair position:

  • Drive from
  • Transfer
  • Upfront
  • Mid
  • Rear

Drive From WAVs are perfect if you want to drive the vehicle whilst remaining in your wheelchair. This has the benefit of independence, you’ll be able to get in and out of the vehicle without any help. Using automatic doors and ramps you will be able to enter and exit the vehicle with ease. Your wheelchair will securely lock into place and pedals are turned into hand controls to ensure you can safely and comfortably drive. There are different adaptations that can be made for disabled drivers so it’s important to speak to someone who understands and can bespoke the right vehicle for you.

Transfer WAVs allow wheelchair users to do the opposite of drive from WAVs. Instead of staying in your wheelchair for the journey you will enter the vehicle in your wheelchair before transferring to the driver’s seat. In a Transfer WAV the driver’s seat will be moveable, using a Ricon 6-way seat it will move backwards, forwards and turn to allow the easiest transfer from wheelchair to seat. Before transferring to the driver’s seat your wheelchair will be secured in place, allowing for a safe transfer and this also means the wheelchair stays in place whilst you’re driving. Similarly, to the Drive From WAVs the vehicle may feature hand controls instead of pedals.

Upfront WAVs are perfect for wheelchair users who do not want to drive, but want to be seated at the front of the vehicle. In an Upfront WAV you will sit next to the driver, with your wheelchair securely fastened in place, where the passenger seat would have been. This style is often most favoured with customers as it means you are able to easily talk to whoever is driving. Entry to an upfront vehicle is often through the rear of the vehicle as well as through the side on a ramp or a lift depending on the vehicle and how it can be adapted.

Upfront WAV's

In a Rear WAV the wheelchair user is seated in the back of the vehicle, in a larger wheelchair access vehicle this could be the third row of seats. A Rear WAV means that more passengers can be accommodated. Perfect if you have a large family who are likely to be travelling with you. However it does mean that the wheelchair user is behind all the passengers, which does not suit everyone.

Rear seated WAV's

Mid seated WAV seating positions are only found in medium and upwards sized wheelchair access vehicles, often where there are more than five seats. This means that your wheelchair will be secured just behind the driver and passenger, and for the most part in the middle of the vehicle. Often this will mean the wheelchair user is between two of the rear passenger seats, which is often preferred to rear seated WAVs as the wheelchair passenger can socialise more easily. All of our wheelchair accessible vehicles have a "walk round" video and plenty of pictures so you can see exactly how each vehicle is laid out before you make the journey to our showroom.

Mid seated WAVs

Accessing Your WAV

You will find that the majority of wheelchair accessible vehicles have a lowered floor in order to easily fit a wheelchair and wheelchair user into the vehicle comfortably. However, you will need to consider what is the best way for you to access and exit the vehicle. When it comes to WAVs there are a few options on the market, we have explained these in more detail below. The below options are available at the rear of a WAV, or as a side entrance, so consider which is easier for you and your usual parking locations.

Ramps

Ramps for wheelchair access vehicles can come in two forms - automatic and manual. Automatic ramps cost more, but are useful if you are likely to be getting in and out of the vehicle unaided, or if your carer may struggle with the physical actions of unfolding a manual ramp. Manual ramps need to be physically unfolded, perfect if you’re always going to be travelling with an able carer. When you go to view a WAV it’s a good idea to bring your carer with you to ensure they can unfold and close the ramp without any issue.

WAV's with a ramp

Lifts

Buying a WAV with a lift is a good idea if you’re travelling solo, or if your carer struggles to push you and your wheelchair up a ramp. A lift is automatically operated using a control, however this type of modification tends to be the most expensive as fitting one is a specialist job. Most often vehicles fitted with rear lifts do not have a lowered floor, unless they fall into the extra-large category as they will often have more headroom. If you’re looking for a WAV with a lift instead of a ramp try looking for Volkswagen Transporters, Caravelles, Peugeot Boxers, Fiat Ducatos and Renault Masters as these tend to be fitted with ramps.

WAVs with a lift

Winches

An electric winch is an excellent addition to a WAV with a rear ramp if your carer might struggle to push a wheelchair up a ramp. A motorised cable within the vehicle attaches to your wheelchair, pulling it up the ramp and into the vehicle. Not all ramp access WAVs come with a winch so it is worth checking this information with the dealer before you commit to travelling for a viewing. We can always add winches if needed so don’t forget to ask.

WAV's with a winch

Petrol or Diesel?

A very important question to consider when WAV shopping. The type of fuel is somewhat limited by the market as petrol WAVs tend to be rarer than diesel WAVs. This is because the majority of the market is heavily driven by the Motability scheme, at a time when diesel was in much greater demand. However not all vehicles converted ended up on the Motability Scheme and we always have both diesel and petrol WAVs available. Diesel powered cars tend to be more fuel efficient than petrol cars, but that efficiency will cost you more at the pumps - with diesel tending to cost more per litre than petrol. Petrol cars are generally better for the environment too, with petrol cars emitting fewer noxious gases and CO2 per litre than diesel fuel.

Who To Take To A WAV Viewing

From experience with our customers we know that shopping for a WAV can be an overwhelming experience, it’s not like buying another car and there are lots of complications to consider. We always recommend to our customers that they bring with them their carer and potentially a trusted family member or friend. Your carer is the person who is likely to be using this vehicle with you the most, so they should be there to test the vehicle out with you, to ensure they can help you get in and out of the vehicle safely and without injury, and that they are comfortable driving the vehicle.

Before you begin your search for a WAV it could be a good idea to sit down with your carer and go through this list with them. That way when it comes to viewing a vehicle you are both on the same page about what it is you need from your WAV.

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