If you're a child of ?60s television, your introduction to vehicles modified for people with limited mobility was Chief of Detectives Robert Ironside's converted paddy wagon. Played by Raymond Burr, access to the ?wagon' was a liftgate attached to the vehicle's back end, and that was about the only concession made to Ironside's wheelchair-supplied mobility. Fast forward some forty years and the choices are far greater, although the end result is largely the same.

Today, conversion vans are modified by companies such as Phoenix-based Vantage Mobility International, front and center in the manufacture and distribution of wheelchair accessible van conversions.

Recently, VMI introduced their menu of modifications to Honda's updated Odyssey minivan. And while most of these mods are applicable to donor vehicles from Chrysler (Town & Country and Grand Caravan), the redesigned Odyssey provides the spaciousness and refinement synonymous with Honda's well-regarded people mover. VMI's Northstar package, with its ramp emanating from the passenger floor rather than unfolding from the side door opening, makes entrances and exits equally easy for wheelchairs or those passengers that are able-bodied. And since the ramp is concealed by the van's floor, any dirt or debris clinging to the ramp doesn't make it into the van's interior. In addition, the company's PowerKneel system reduces ramp angle, minimizing the heaving and weaving that often accompanies pushing a wheelchair into a minivan.

The modifications, of course, go beyond the ramp and modified suspension. The Odyssey's floor is removed, allowing for a replacement floor some twelve inches lower than stock. This, in combination with the PowerKneel system, makes for easier access into the van, and more vertical height once the wheelchair is positioned. And VMI assures you of maximum seating flexibility. What was previously the middle row of seating is now open, allowing for a wheelchair to be anchored to the floor via adjustable straps. And should the wheelchair's occupant care to sit in either the front passenger position or get behind the wheel, easily removable front seats can accommodate either preference.

In what is obviously a complex array of elements, access is as simple as a keyfob. With the ramp control actuated, pressing one button opens the Odyssey's side door, extends the ramp and lowers the van on the passenger (curb) side. One button gets you in, and one button retracts the ramp and closes the sliding door. And what if, for some unknown reason, electrical demons invade your Odyssey and shut down all power? VMI's Sure Deploy backup system allows you to deploy or retract the mobility ramp, even in the event of complete electrical failure.

Behind the wheel, and avoiding the hand controls (which can be overridden via conventional throttle and brake applications), the Odyssey doesn't match the on-road refinement of Honda's from-the-factory offering, but neither does it resemble the rather elementary fabrications that for so long dominated the segment. Nor, for that matter, does it recall Ironside's paddy wagon. The suspension is lifted some four inches in front and just over five inches in the rear. To that end, in profile the Odyssey looks slightly disproportionate, sitting up on its stock spec wheel and tire. Handling with the modifications is appropriately deliberate, but doesn't impart a nervous feel, only a different feel when compared to the stock Odyssey.

This is a space shuttle you could comfortably take to Home Depot, or one you could take to Des Moines. For the thousands of disabled, or the families of disabled, Vantage Mobility's $25K offering (plus the donor Odyssey) is a roundtrip ticket to independence.

author photo

David Boldt began his automotive career in BMW and Saab showrooms in the 1980s, and he moved to automotive journallismin 1993. David has written for a varity of regional and national publications, and prior to joining AutoTrader, he managed media relations for a Japanese OEM.

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