It's not the sleekest, or sexiest-looking ride in the world, but for people who rely on wheelchairs or scooters for their personal mobility, the MV-1 could be the most beautiful thing they've ever seen.
The Vehicle Production Group (VPG), based in Miami, bills its creation as the first vehicle specifically designed to meet the accessibility requirements laid out by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The boxy van features a large side-door opening and comes factory-equipped with an access ramp that stows under its low, curb-level floor. Unlike accessible conversion vehicles, which often lose their original crash test ratings after being fitted with hundreds of pounds of heavy aftermarket equipment, the MV-1 has been engineered to maintain its ratings in use.
The interior furnishings of the MV-1 are on the industrial side, but are laid out to accommodate comfortably a variety of assisted mobility devices, including large electric wheelchairs. It can be ordered in a number of different configurations that combine conventional seats and open areas that are fitted with Q-Straint brand tie-downs for wheelchairs. In most setups, the coveted shotgun position is reserved for the latter.
On a recent test drive in New York City, I took Chris Noel, one of the first customers to reserve an MV-1 and an unpaid advocate for the vehicle, out for a spin. He’s a 34-year-old Harlem resident who was paralyzed from the waist down seven years ago after damaging his spine in a slip and fall accident. An active, 6-foot-5, 245-pound power forward for the New York Nets wheelchair basketball team, Chris had no problem getting himself into the MV-1 and up front next to me without any assistance.
Chris, who works as an outreach manager for a non-profit organization that helps people with disabilities lead more independent lives, appreciates the MV-1 not just for its functionality, but also because it was specifically designed with people like him in mind. “That holds a lot in my heart as someone with a disability,” he says. “That someone was actually thinking about me, not just to say, oh let’s convert it to make it for you, no, we're making this vehicle just for you."
And there are more people like him than you might think. According to VPG’s CEO, Dave Schembri, U.S. Census data indicates that 14 million Americans are currently dealing with serious mobility issues and more than 4 million of them rely on a wheelchair every day. With the baby boomer generation beginning to turn 65 in 2011, Schembri expects those numbers to grow in the coming years. “This is a particular market that’s been woefully underserved forever,” he says. “The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990 and virtually every other aspect of our life is different in terms of accessibility…except for factory-direct automobiles.”
About the size of a large minivan, the MV-1 rides on a unique platform that uses body on frame construction, like a truck, for durability, and to better accommodate its weighty accessories. With a slightly more sophisticated suspension than a typical cargo van, it drives much like a traditional SUV, if not quite a car. Power comes from a Ford-sourced V-8 engine that is available in a version that runs on Compressed Natural Gas. VPG was able to leverage this alternative fuel option to get a $50 million loan from the Department of Energy to help get production off the ground.
"CNG is one of, if not the cleanest alternative fuels,” Schembri adds. “It's also 98 percent domestically-sourced. Which basically means if every car ran on natural gas, we would have no dependency on foreign oil whatsoever.”
VPG won’t be relying on a foreign workforce to build the MV-1, either. The company has contracted AM General in Mishawaka, Indiana, to produce the vehicle in the same factory once used to manufacture the Hummer H2. "We're very proud of the fact that this vehicle was engineered, designed and will be built solely in the United States," Schembri beams.
The assembly line is already in the preproduction phase, and customer vehicles are slated to begin rolling down the line in early 2011. The price for the MV-1 hasn’t been finalized, but Schembri says it will start “around $40,000,” which is less than many comparable conversion vehicles.
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Operating as an original equipment manufacturer, VPG will offer a full slate of factory-backed warrantees that includes 3 years or 36,000 miles of roadside assistance. Schembri expects early sales to be split 50/50 between private owners and fleet buyers, including taxi companies and municipal transit authorities.
One of those owners, of course, will be Chris, who plans to have hand controls installed in his MV-1 so that he can drive it himself. He even likes the way it looks, and thinks it has that SUV style that’s been disappearing in recent years.
“I’m looking forward to driving my friends to the club in it,” he says as he enjoys the unobstructed view out of the front window on our way home.