We knew this day would come, but we were hoping to squeeze another year or two out of our 2008 Sienna XLE. The van, however, had other plans. After a few clues that it was about to give up, the van expired. That put me on the journey to spend about $75,000 on a Honda Odyssey.
Those of you who have been reading my posts for a while have learned that in addition to my 2015 GTI, our family car was a 2008 Toyota Sienna XLE with a BraunAbility conversion. We have that van because my wife is a wheelchair user due to a spinal cord injury she sustained in 2001. The Toyota was not her first van; prior to that, she had a 2003 Ford Windstar with a VMI conversion. The Ford gave her some freedom and independence soon after her recovery and allowed her to get back to college. But like most Fords of that vintage, its reliability became questionable when it hit the 75,000-mile mark. We replaced it with the 2008 Sienna right before we got married.
The Toyota treated us pretty well over the years, with a few exceptions mainly related to the conversion parts. Luckily we had a great technician who was a former engineer for Braun when this generation Sienna was built and converted, so he knew our car better than anyone. However, good things don’t last forever.
Somewhere around mid-July, the Sienna didn’t want to start a few times, so I replaced the battery, and even then there were a few frustrating instances where we needed a jump. We were on our way up to an appointment about 45 mins away from home when we noticed that the air-conditioning wasn’t activating. I turned the car off and back on again, and the a/c worked. Then, on the way home the dashboard lit up with the check engine light and other warning signs, though this was part of a constant issue with this car and its strangely placed wiring harness. It usually corrected itself after a bit.
However, it wasn’t until we were cruising down the Garden State Parkway that things got serious. I started to lose power and wasn’t able to maintain speed. The van barely made it up over a hill when we hear a big clunk and smoke started pouring out of the engine bay. At this point, I lost all power steering and muscle the car to the side of the highway.
We were at the top of a hill and the shoulder was fairly narrow, which meant that when I deployed the wheelchair ramp it dropped down under a guardrail. Now I had no way of getting my wife out of the car safely and easily. The other sliding door had too narrow of an opening to get her out on the driver’s side. We called the state police to tell them we were stuck, and they dispatched a trooper and a tow truck. The trooper showed up and helped me get her halfway down the ramp and then lift her sideways to get down onto the road. Then came the question of “Well, how do we get home?” Getting her into a tow truck wasn’t going to be feasible. The trooper was nice enough to pack us into his Tahoe and take us home.
I didn’t know the extent of the damage but something told me it may be time to look into a replacement for the Toyota. Over the past year or so, my wife and I talked about what the next van would be, and we figured that a replacement would be necessary soon. She came to the conclusion that she would like to go with an Odyssey the next time around.
A few days later I get a diagnosis from the mechanic: “The motor is blown.”
I don’t get much detail other than that; the estimated cost to repair it was well beyond the value of the van with 130,000 miles on it. Even as someone who shops for cars for a living, being thrown into the purchase of a new and expensive converted minivan was a bit stressful.
My wife knew she wanted an Odyssey EX-L trim, and after poring over some pictures and visiting our local Honda store to see some vans in person, she decided on a blue one. Now shopping for a handicap-converted minivan is obviously very different from your standard vehicle. Unlikely buying a regular Odyssey, in which there would be hundreds to choose from within a reasonable distance, there are only two dealer groups in the Northeast that sell converted vans. One didn’t carry any Hondas, but the other had two or three blue EX-Ls. Luckily one of those was a 2019 leftover down in Virginia that they could bring up at no cost. The dealer was nice enough to loan us a rental Odyssey for a few days so we could get a feel for the car and be able to get around while the other vehicle was transferred.
I was able to save a bit of money on what the conversion dealer calls the chassis (the Honda part), but the conversion supplied by Braun and the dealer-installed multi-way seat and hand controls essentially doubled the price.
The cost to make the van usable for my wife was around $40,000.
And that is on top of the cost of the van itself.
All said and done we were looking at around $76,000 for a Honda Odyssey. To put that in perspective, a new Porsche Cayenne starts at about $68,000 before you add any options. Now I’m not putting these numbers out there so you think that your friend McParland is Mr. Moneybags, but rather to make more people aware that it is incredibly expensive to be disabled in America.
Everything costs more, and folks in the disabled community spend an insane amount of money on out-of-pocket expenses, from wheelchair repairs to medical supplies to vehicles. And because accessible public transit is essentially a joke in most areas of the country, disabled drivers wanting to have the same freedom as the rest of us must spend a lot more on their vehicles. There are pre-owned options and other brands that are cheaper, but the cost is still greater than buying a new or used van on the conventional market.
I should also mention that the van we got is considered sort of a “standard conversion.” The $33,000 conversion is basically so expensive because Braun gets the van from the automaker and has to disassemble so much and then reassemble it all in the course of adapting it for a wheelchair user.
Here is a cool video on how that is done.
The seat and the hand controls are installed at the dealer level. Some folks, depending on their level of disability, may drive from a wheelchair and may require much more sophisticated hand controls. I have heard of conversions for quadriplegic drivers that needed a joystick set up to drive, brake, and turn the van. Those conversions can cost Ferrari money.
Since we knew this purchase was inevitable, we had been putting money aside for years, the goal being to make enough of a down payment for the monthly cost to be reasonable. But not everyone has that luxury, and we are fortunate to be able to do that. We are happy with the new van, and the kids like being able to cram more of their beach gear in the back.
The next time you see one of these vans in a parking lot I hope you’ll remember not only the interesting engineering that it takes to make one of these but the substantially increased cost of buying it.