Saturday, 8 October 2011

2011 VPG Autos MV-1

A round of applause broke out as Marc Buoniconti, former linebacker for The Citadel, ascended the ramp of the very first VPG Autos MV-1 to roll off the assembly line inside AM General's plant near South Bend, Indiana. Buoniconti was rendered a quadriplegic after a gruesome tackle while playing football for his South Carolina alma mater. That was back in 1985 and Buoniconti has been wheelchair-bound for the past 26 years. Since then, he has gone on to start The Buoniconti Fund, the fundraising arm of The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, and been heavily involved in the development of what you see here – the very first purpose-built, OEM-backed vehicle designed specifically to accommodate the needs of the disabled.

The MV-1 is a strange hodgepodge of engineering, but its mission is clear: To offer a mobility solution for the disabled that costs substantially less than aftermarket minivan conversions available today. Right now, VPG says there are some 1.5 million vehicles on the road that have been converted for wheelchair access, all from third-party companies who augment a factory vehicle's chassis and interior at substantial cost. "Aftermarket means afterthought," says Buoniconti, and the team at VPG Autos aims to offer a factory-crafted solution for an otherwise overlooked segment of the automotive landscape.
January of 2009 marked the end of Hummer H2 production at AM General's facility in South Bend, and although the company continues to build and engineer Humvees for military use, the plant was largely unused until VPG Autos stepped in. Now, the facility has the capacity to build approximately 12 MV-1s each day, and soon, production will increase to a 20-unit clip as demand increases.

2011 VPG Autos MV-1 side view2011 VPG Autos MV-1 front view2011 VPG Autos MV-1 rear 3/4 view

The key feature of the MV-1 is its easy wheelchair access, and thus, the entire vehicle has been designed around its side door ramp system. That ramp, supplied by ASC, has a 1,200-pound weight capacity (600 pounds more than the Americans with Disabilities Act requires), and is available with a power rollout function on Deluxe (DE) models. The ramp is housed under the floor of the rear passenger compartment and is easily accessible for all types of wheelchairs. The rear doors offer an opening that's 36 inches wide and 56 inches tall, and inside, one wheelchair can be anchored in the front passenger position, while seating for either three or four passengers can be had in the rear. All in, the MV-1 is capable of carrying up to 6,600 pounds.

To support this sort of weight, the MV-1 uses body-on-frame architecture, with a chassis specifically designed for the application. While it's not exactly pretty, the MV-1 radiates purpose, looking like the strange lovechild of a London taxi and GMC Terrain.

As for interior amenities, the MV-1 is essentially a utility van, so you won't find soft-touch dash materials, nicely grained plastics or any optional high-tech gadgetry. Instead, you have a commanding driving position with a comfortable, air-suspended seat situated behind a steering wheel that appears to have been ripped out of a Lincoln MKS. The instrument panel, gauge cluster, audio and HVAC controls are pure Ford E-Series and the simple driver's compartment is elementary yet well-organized.

2011 VPG Autos MV-1 interior2011 VPG Autos MV-1 interior2011 VPG Autos MV-1 ramp2011 VPG Autos MV-1 rear cargo area

We had the opportunity to briefly drive the MV-1 on the roads near AM General's facility, and as you can imagine, it behaves like almost any other body-on-frame van we've ever spent time in. Power comes from a Ford-sourced 4.6-liter V8 producing 248 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque that's mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. It seems like ancient technology, yes, but it's cheap to source, cheaper to service and gets the job done. A compressed natural gas version is also available, utilizing two tanks situated under the rear seat and offering a 300-mile cruising range. VPG says that the CNG version will return approximately 13.5 miles per gallon (combined), with the gasoline-powered version netting around 15 mpg.

The MV-1 isn't all that unpleasant to steer, though we imagine the experience is vastly different when it's loaded up full of people. Acceleration is perfectly adequate for a vehicle its size and function, and we found key driving components like the steering and brakes to be tuned for ease of use uber alles. Other key drivability factors like general visibility and suspension tuning are also more than acceptable, and although its body-on-frame architecture does give it a truck-like feeling from behind the wheel, it's smooth enough to offer a comfortable ride for passengers in wheelchairs and seats alike.

2011 VPG Autos MV-1 headlight2011 VPG Autos MV-1 grille2011 VPG Autos MV-1 wheel2011 VPG Autos MV-1 taillight

Let's be clear, though – the MV-1 does not allow its wheelchair-bound occupants to drive on their own. Some aftermarket companies have created steering column-mounted hand controls to operate the throttle and brakes, but this is not the case with VPG's creation. Instead, its sole purpose is to allow easy access and maneuverability for folks in wheelchairs that will only ride as passengers.

VPG Autos plans to sell the MV-1 through a wide range of existing new car dealerships across the country, and as of this writing, 41 dealers have currently signed on, with another 15 slated to be added in the coming months. The key to spreading the word about the MV-1 will be what the company executives call "discover marketing" – the vehicle will be taken to places like hospitals and rehabilitation centers for people to check out and the company is largely relying on word of mouth within the disabled community to communicate the advantages of the MV-1.

2011 VPG Autos MV-1 rear 3/4 view

The greatest advantage, however, is the MV-1's price: $39,950 for the base SE and $41,950 for the up-market DE. For comparison's sake, a typical aftermarket conversion costs around $25,000, and when you add that to the cost of a well-equipped minivan like a Dodge Grand Caravan, the price can easily reach $55K or $60K. Even then, going the aftermarket route means you get a vehicle that's been chopped up to accommodate a purpose it was never intended to serve, and VPG Autos includes its own five-year/75,000-mile powertrain warranty. Currently, the MV-1 is already sold out for its first year of production, with initial deliveries taking place as you read this.

"Everything in our lives revolves around transportation," Buoniconti said upon exiting the black MV-1 with VIN #000001 – the vehicle that would soon be delivered to his Florida home. And by offering a mobile solution for tens of thousands of dollars less than an aftermarket upfit job, the folks at VPG, in collaboration with AM General, offer a purpose-built answer to an important question that no other OEM has even been asking.


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