New petrol- and diesel-powered cars and vans are set to be banned from sale in the UK from 2030, which means Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle (WAV) converters are rapidly trying to work out how best to bring the benefits of an electric powertrain to the WAV sector. The good news for wheelchair users and carers is that a number of proactive vehicle converters have started to bring electric WAVs to market, including new WAV specialist Volta Mobility. Laila Ali went to try one out...
As a part-time wheelchair user, I'd often wondered whether electric vehicles (EVs) would ever get to the point where they would be practical enough and engineered in a way that would allow them to be converted into a vehicle that people with a disability or mobility issues could travel in while seated in their wheelchair. Well today I was offered the opportunity to visit Volta Mobility to take a look around their brand new WAV that's based on the electric Vauxhall Vivaro-e Life.
Volta Mobility is a new WAV converter created in 2020 by mobility specialists Elap and Tripod. Based in Accrington, they specialise in 'Drive From', 'Up Front' passenger, 'Rear' passenger and now 100% electric wheelchair vehicles.
The Vauxhall Vivaro-e Life WAV is a conversion that Volta say they have designed and converted with meticulous attention to detail. I had arranged to meet with Product Specialist Andy Croston, who had agreed to show me around this ground-breaking new vehicle. Based on the Vivaro-e - which, along with the Citroen e-Dispatch and the Peugeot e-Expert picked up the WhatVan? Van of the Year award in 2021 - is a great-looking vehicle. I was looking at the long wheelbase version in the top 'Elite' specification. Finished in Moonstone Grey, this WAV is packed with premium features including luxurious heated leather seats and steering wheel, a panoramic split roof, a handy rear parking camera and a head up display system.
Inside, the Elite certainly lives up to its name with an executive look and feel. Whether driving or travelling as a passenger you cannot help but relax into your seat, with the ample head clearance and leg space making your journey comfortable as well as stylish. In fact, you would be forgiven for thinking that you were sat inside one of Lord Sugar's cars from the reality TV show 'The Apprentice'.
As far as I know, this is unlike any other vehicle Vauxhall have ever made. The designers appear to have torn up the commercial vehicle template and gone to town (with no expense spared), turning the van into a luxurious yet practical MPV for the driver and the passengers.
Volta Mobility have taken this vehicle and worked their magic to convert it into a great looking rear passenger WAV. By lowering the floor of the vehicle up to the second row of seats they've managed to create more interior space for the wheelchair user. Most wheelchairs will be able to easily access the vehicle via the ramp at the rear of the vehicle. When not in use, the access ramp folds completely flat, which really improves the available load space for luggage and other equipment.
The model I tried had a few extras fitted, including passenger side steps and a BraunAbility 'Turny Evo' seat lift to showcase just a few of the additional adaptations that are possible on this vehicle.
The middle row of seating consists of 3 full sized seats each featuring a 3-point seat belt (no small middle seat in sight!). The entrance to the middle row is via either side of the vehicle's electric sliding doors. It made my busy mum face smile just thinking back to all of those times I’ve had my hands full of shopping bags or a wriggling child and I’d to struggle to use the door handle. Sometimes it’s the little things on a vehicle that really make life easier.
Passengers in the middle row experience a split panoramic roof complete with shades, and beside those are control panels for the lights plus independent heating and air conditioning controls.
Going to the back of the vehicle the floor drops a little and it is covered in a hard-wearing non-slip surface that will also make life a little easier when cleaning the interior. The wheelchair passenger's area behind the middle row feels spacious and the view forward is sociable for interactions with fellow travellers. The all-round rear privacy glass gives the passengers privacy and dignity to travel freely without inquisitive looks. LED lights at the ramp give users better visibility and a 4-point tie down wheelchair restraint system is included with the standard Volta conversion.
The boot of the vehicle had a standard manual opening tailgate that could be closed with an assistive strap, fitted to help the user pull it down. Andy told me that an electric boot hatch opening adaptation is possible (operated via a special key fob) which was music to my ears. For those with any upper body weakness I would certainly suggest that this extra is added to the vehicle, despite the boot lid itself not being all that heavy. I’ve had a similar adaptation myself, and anything that helps make life a little easier is always a winner in my book.
After the 'walk and talk' around the Vivaro Andy asked if I’d like a drive. Brilliant, into the driver's seat I went but at 5 ft 7 I felt a bit like a kid climbing a small mountain. After a quick rejig of the electric seat I switched on the heated and massage seat function and that was me in heaven as the gentle pulsations hugged my lumbar.
Off we went for a spin around the town centre. The weather wasn’t on our side, but it gave me a chance to use the wipers and check for squeaks (none present). It handled well and didn’t feel that much different to driving a large car. The front-end slopes down sharp so there’s no long bonnet to overcome.
At one point I reverse parked into a regular-sized bay and the rear camera plus ‘bird’s eye’ view on the split screen made light work of manoeuvring. The steering wasn’t too heavy, and I felt it was manageable for someone like me who uses a steering aid day to day. The digital dash becomes something of an on-board game as you find yourself driving along trying to regenerate battery charge (using the energy lost when braking or decelerating) by going easy on the accelerator and selecting the 'B' mode to extend the EV range a little. I can see how this could easily become addictive for enthusiasts!
While we're on the subject of regeneration and battery range, the Vivaro-e Life is fitted with a 50kWh battery and has an advertised WLTP-range of around 143 miles per full charge. Although it's a little disappointing that Vauxhall didn’t opt for the larger 75kWh battery from the commercial version, it should still be adequate for its intended use. As with all EVs though, that range figure is likely to be a fair bit less in real-world driving.
On the plus side, a full charge from empty at home with a fitted 7kW wallbox would currently cost around £6 and take approximately 7 hours. When this vehicle eventually joins the Motability Scheme list, Motability will (subject to a survey) arrange for the installation of a complementary home charger which, for those who have off street parking, will make charging much easier. When out and about at public fast chargers you can fully charge it from empty in as little as one hour.
Configurations for this WAV are almost endless. Seats can be removed, split and configured for face-to-face travel (swivelling the second row). In addition, extra TriflexAIR seats can be installed in the rear which fold flat against the internal walls when not in use.
The thought of driving a large MPV like this can be daunting, especially if you are making the leap from a regular hatchback or SUV but don't worry, this vehicle handles with simplicity and precision. It certainly doesn't feel like you're driving a bus.
If you’re thinking of making the switch to a large vehicle like this, I would caution you to think about whether this vehicle will work for you. Will it fit on your driveway? Is it suitable for the places you regularly visit? Are there any height restrictions? You'll also need to think about clearance space when opening the tailgate and using the access ramp.
There's clearly going to be a market for large electric WAVs, and this Volta Mobility Vivaro-e Life conversion is a real contender. If you can live with the 143-mile range - as some city-based people with decent off-street parking and a home charger might be able to - there's a heck of a lot for wheelchair users and carers to like here.
Thanks to Volta Mobility Product Specialist Andy Croston who showed Laila around the vehicle.