Lance Cpl. Mike Delancey is a cyclist, weight lifter, fisherman, activist, and founder of the Wounded Warriors Abilities Ranch. Like most 30-year-olds without kids, he didn't want a minivan.
"A lot of guys don't want that soccer-mom feel," Delancey said from his home in Pinellas Park, Fla.
Up until recently, there weren't many options. Now, there's the BraunAbility MXV, the first wheelchair-accessible SUV. The modified Ford Explorer has a nerf step, a tow hitch, and a charcoal digital camo wrap.
"I'm lucky I got the first one off the line; it has all the bells and whistles," Delancey said. "It looks mean from the outside. Even if you weren't paraplegic, a lot of the guys are drooling over it."
He showed his new sport-utility vehicle off at his nonprofit Wounded Warriors Abilities Ranch, nine years after a sniper bullet tore through Delancey's spine and left him medically dead in Haditha, Iraq.
Still under construction, the 10-acre sports ranch in Pinellas Park will feature a golf course, fitness stations, a wheelchair sports court, a fishing pond, and water-sports accessibility.
The MXV not only makes his work more stylish; it makes it easier for sports enthusiasts such as Delancey.
"I have a bunch of adaptive toys," he said, everything from his hand cycle to a tread-powered all-terrain wheelchair. "The MXV makes things a whole lot more convenient on my end."
Delancey added insights as part of the initial focus group involved in the MXV, which took 18 months to build. Towing capability was one of the top three reasons customers wanted an SUV, according to BraunAbility.
"We wanted to make sure the MXV would fit a wide range of customers who need it," said Jim Probst, the company's director of vehicle platforms. "We wanted the usability of a minivan, but to retain the ruggedness of an SUV."
Making life easier and more accessible is at the core of BraunAbility. Based in Winamac, Ind., it employs about 850 people and accounts for an estimated 60 percent of the consumer market share for wheelchair-accessible vehicles (WAVs).
Modifying a WAV is technologically complex. A Ford Explorer, Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, Dodge Grand Caravan, or Chrysler Town & Country comes in the same way it left the factory. Then it is gutted and modified in a manually powered production process too customized to use a traditional automated assembly line.
Once the base-model WAV is fitted, it is shipped to one of more than 200 National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association-certified dealers, who help customize it further to suit the buyer's needs.
Modifying a WAV is all about customization. Hand controls mounted on the left side of the dash enable paraplegic drivers, for example, to control throttle and brake, as on a boat. New technology now standard on some cars, such as push-button doors, is promising, but the list of cars that can help drivers with disabilities remains short.
With the Explorer, buyers choose any trim level except the Sport model, which comes with all-wheel drive. All WAVs must be front-wheel drive; otherwise, the lowered floor would cut into the drivetrain.
The MXV upcharge is $28,900 on top of the base price of a new Explorer, or about $60,000 out the door for a base-model WAV. Customizing one can cost more than $100,000.