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Automakers cater to older folks

By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News
Todd McInturf / The Detroit News

LOS ANGELES -- Against a backdrop of exotic coupes, new small cars and concept vehicles, Ford Motor Co.'s Mercury division is aiming for the growing number of American consumers with disabilities in launching a special minivan today at the Los Angeles auto show.

The 2004 Monterey mobility minivan is equipped with motorized lifts engineered, installed and sold by independent outfitters. It's designed to accommodate a population of drivers and automobile passengers who are expected to maintain active lifestyles despite the effects of age and infirmity.

The vehicle modifications are so discreet -- it looks showroom new -- Mercury hopes it will become a selling point to people with disabilities who simply want to blend in with other commuters.

There are 20 million Americans with a “walking disability” who require walkers or canes, according to the 2000 census. Including people who have permanent physical disabilities, the market for specially equipped vehicles that aid mobility could reach nearly 50 million, Ford says.

Fueling the need for specially equipped vehicles is the huge number of baby boomers entering their golden years. Automakers are moving quickly to capture the growing market, equipping vehicles with easy-to-grasp door handles as well as larger type and brighter lighting on dashboard gauges.

Last year, General Motors Corp. showed off a new motorized seat that swings out from a minivan's second-row and lowers to the ground to provide easier access.

The Monterey debuting in L.A. represents a combined breakthrough because its cargo-

area wheelchair lift does not compromise third-row seating, its higher doors allow for the installation of passenger lifts in the first and second rows, and, most significantly, its factory seating is preserved.

Among vehicles equipped with power seats that rotate, extend and retract to suit disabled users, most still require that factory seating be replaced with new products -- an expense that often tops $600 or more. It's a major nuisance for a buyer who already has paid once for seating.

“If you look at the cost of a vehicle, (seating is) more than 10 percent of the cost,” said Andrew Bayer, automotive division product manager of Wisconsin-based Bruno Independent Living Aids, which designed the Mercury minivan's equipment.

“People buy vehicles because of the comfort of the seats, the quality of the seats, the appearance of the seats. ... They want to open the door and see that they're sitting on the factory seats."

Handicapped Americans can often stand out in a crowd, but they become invisible and far more mobile once they are behind the wheel or in the passenger seat of a car or SUV, said Michele Luther-Krug, a certified driver rehabilitation specialist at Beaumont Hospital.

“They're moving along with the stream of traffic like everyone else, and that wheelchair is not getting in the way of doorways or curbs,” Luther-

Krug said.

The 2004 Monterey, however, cannot readily accommodate a lift chair for the driver's seat.

"One of the issues we have is the distance between the chair and the steering wheel," said Anna Zevelkink, Ford mobility and truck vocational manager.

The U.S. market for light vehicles equipped for disabled occupants is split evenly, said Bob Swaim, national manager of mobility programs for Toyota Motor Corp.'s North American operations.

“About 50 percent are sold to people who want to drive, and about 50 percent are sold to people who want to ride in a vehicle,” Swaim said.

Depending on a user's needs, the cost of outfitting a vehicle for mobility ranges from $1,000 to $5,000. Because of the extra costs, Ford, Toyota, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group offer up to $1,000 to new vehicle buyers who require mobility-

related aftermarket modifications.

Ford hopes to sell about 1,000 2004-model vehicles to customers with mobility needs. Toyota sold just over 1,200 vehicles to mobility customers in 2003.

While the latest efforts to address the needs of disabled motorists are winning praise, Brian Chojnacki said automakers are still failing in one area: Dealers don't have specially equipped vehicles for test drives.

“Maybe if they had a couple,” said the 30-year-old Armada resident who lost the use of his legs in July after a workplace accident.

“Then you would know if Fords run smooth, or GM."

Ford engineers, however, wear a special suit when designing certain vehicles that simulates problems some drivers cope with, including arthritis.

Despite the growing demand for specially equipped vehicles, Richard Bell, sales manager at Varsity Lincoln Mercury in Novi, said there is a risk that dealers will be unable to sell such models.

“Once I have (modified) a car, how much money do we have involved in labor?” Bell asked. “With my luck, I'd equip a silver one and (the customer) wants a blue one. You don't want to put the consumer in a position that they feel obligated.”

(Photo)The 2004 Mercury Monterey minivan features front and second-row passenger seats that rotate 90 degrees for easy access.

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