Rear wheel drive was once the most common drive found on wheelchairs - they are "intuitive" to drive, working the same way as cars, and are also stable - offering the best outdoors performance. However, they have the biggest footprint and are the least manoeuvrable, with a large turning circle. Additionally, a 90° knee angle can be difficult due to the spacing required for the castor wheels. Many basic powered wheelchairs are made with rear wheel drive as it is what people are most familiar with - meaning they are often a cost-effective solution. They are also a good option if only use your powered wheelchair outdoors as most of their compromises are with indoor performance.
Front wheel drive powerchairs are less common, as they are not so intuitive to drive. However, once mastered they offer a "best of both worlds" with great indoor and outdoor performance. With a short footprint and a small turning circle they turn well in compact indoor locations, and allow you to get close to desks and objects without having castors in the way. Outdoors, they offer better traction than mid wheel drive, and smoother kerb climbing. Front-wheel drive is often used for bariatric powerchairs, and is also seen on Permobil's flagship models.
Mid-wheel drive offers the best indoor performance as it allows the wheelchair to literally turn on the spot. They remain intuitive to drive, and are fairly compact with a 90° knee angle possible. However, basic mid wheel drive chairs can struggle on bumpy surfaces and ramps as the middle wheels lose traction. Top of the range mid-wheel drive wheelchairs come advanced suspension that overcomes this limitation, giving excellent outdoor performance. We have found mid wheel drive to be the most popular wheel configuration due to its manoeuvrability.
Comfort, Support and Posture
Comfort is paramount in a wheelchair, especially if you are spending an extended amount of time in a wheelchair or have advanced postural needs. For those with basic needs, a standard padded canvas back or high-back captain’s style seat will offer sufficient comfort. Basic powerchairs will come in a set seat size, so be aware that they may not have a “perfect fit”.
If you have more advanced needs, for example for additional postural support or pressure relief, you will need to go for a more advanced powerchair. Higher-end configurable powerchairs will have adjustable seat sizes and can be fitted with a range of backrests and cushions that can provide postural support and pressure relief to suit your needs. Powered positioning options such as a seat riser, tilt, recline and elevating legrests are available on most of these - we detail these on our powered positioning page.
Standing wheelchairs are also available for those that wish to enjoy the health benefits associated with standing. Stand functions are only found on a few top-end powered wheelchairs designed specifically for this purpose and our profiled here.
Powerchairs also have different weight capacities; if you are a heavier user then make sure that you choose a wheelchair that can comfortably accommodate your weight. It is always best to allow some leeway - many health conditions can cause your weight to fluctuate.
Not all powered wheelchairs are easy to transport in a car - if you need to transport yours, you will need to bear that in mind when picking which model to go for. Modern folding ones are lightweight and easy to lift, and lithium batteries and auto-folding designs are available. In contrast, standard powerchairs tend to weigh in excess of 80 kg (and often double that) meaning they cannot be lifted into a car.