Types of Power Wheelchair: Front-Wheel, Mid-Wheel & Rear-Wheel

For people with disabilities, a power wheelchair can be life-changing. Power chairs are advanced electric wheelchairs which can assist someone across many areas of everyday life. For over 10 years, we’ve helped clients find their perfect power wheelchair.

Combining the right model with the right seating system and technology allows people to achieve their personal goals and live more independently.

The best type of power wheelchair

With so much customisation available, how do you choose the best type of power wheelchair for someone? That part is actually simpler than you might think…

There are three main ‘types’ of power wheelchair – rear-wheel, front-wheel, and mid-wheel drive.

Most customisation is then done by adding different accessories and components. These add-ons create a completely bespoke wheelchair to meet the individual’s care needs.

In this guide, we outline the strengths and weaknesses of each type of power wheelchair. This will help you to understand the key differences and decide which option is best for your circumstances. Let’s get started!

What is a drive wheel?

The differences between rear-wheel, mid-wheel and front-wheel power chairs all come down to the position of the drive wheels.

So, first things first, it’s important to understand what they are.

Drive wheels are the largest wheels on a power chair. They are connected to the motors – which means they’re literally the driving force for the wheelchair.

Power chairs also turn on their drive wheels. Therefore, the drive wheel configuration impacts the turning radius and manoeuvrability as well as the driving power.

Rear-wheel drive

Rear-wheel power chairs have four wheels that give traction when driving:

  • Two large drive wheels.
  • Two smaller front castors – to aid stability and manoeuvrability.
Rear-wheel drive power chairs have large back wheels
Wheel configuration on a rear-wheel drive power chair

They’re called ‘rear-wheel’ because the drive wheels are positioned at the back of the chair’s base.

That means – when driving – all the power comes from the back of the wheelchair. This helps users to propel over rough or softer terrain e.g. gravel or mud because it gives a better power transfer from the motors.

Wheelchair users often find rear-wheel models comfortable. They offer good shock absorption and handle small changes in gradient well, which results in a smoother driving experience.

However, you see fewer rear-wheel drive models nowadays. As technology has advanced, they’ve become less popular – we very rarely specify rear-wheel for our clients.

This is because they have a few key disadvantages…

The turning radius is much bigger than front/mid-wheel models. So, they aren’t the best if you want to go out to shops and cafes where you may need to turn in small spaces.

Furthermore, they don’t have very good obstacle capabilities. The small front wheels have to climb everything first. That makes it tricky to get up kerbs and other obstacles independently.

If you don’t have enough power to get the front wheels over the edge, you can get stuck. This is very frustrating for users as the rear wheels keep spinning but the front wheels can’t keep up to make the climb.

Pros and Cons of Rear-Wheel Power Chairs

ProsCons
ComfortLarge turning radius
Powerful over obstacle-free terrainPoor obstacle capabilities

If comfort is a top priority, and the wheelchair won’t be used in tight spaces or to climb obstacles, then rear-wheel drive may be suitable.

Otherwise, we’d recommend looking into front-wheel and mid-wheel options.

Front-wheel drive

Front-wheel power chairs also have four wheels that give traction when driving:

  • Two large drive wheels.
  • Two smaller rear castors– again, to aid stability and manoeuvrability.
Front-wheel drive power chairs have large front wheels
Some front-wheel drive wheelchairs, like the Permobil F3, do include two additional castors in front of the drive wheels. However, they don’t really provide traction. They just help make movements smoother at low speeds and increase stability at high speeds.

They’re called front-wheel because the drive wheels are positioned near the front of the chair’s base.

Like rear-wheel models, front-wheel power chairs offer a smooth ride. There are only four wheels on the ground, so you feel the impact of any bumps and surface changes less than in a six-wheeled power chair.

Unlike rear-wheel models, front-wheel power chairs are also great for obstacle climbing! The biggest wheel is at the front. This dramatically increases the height the chair can climb.

Power chairs cannot pass over objects higher than their axle height. The axel is at the centre of the wheel. So, as you can see in the image below, having the drive wheel at the front makes a big difference.

Axle height on a front-wheel power chair vs. a mid-wheel powerchair

Some people find it tricky to start driving a front-wheel power chair. The movements don’t feel as intuitive when you’re first learning.

However, because they drive so smoothly, front-wheel models are often easier for people with alternative controls e.g. finger or chin controls. It’s just a matter of getting used to it first!

A final thing to bear in mind is the turning radius. Front-wheel chairs have a larger 360⁰ turning radius than mid-wheel models. This can slightly reduce manoeuvrability for individuals who spend lots of time at home and benefit from that full range of movement.

Pros and Cons of Front-Wheel Power Chairs

ProsCons
ComfortLarger 360⁰ turning radius
Good obstacle capabilitiesLess user-friendly for beginners
Perform well over many terrains
Good for drivers with alternative controls

If you’re looking for a more ‘all-terrain’ power chair, then front-wheel is a popular choice.

The additional obstacle capabilities are great for getting out and about in towns and cities. You just need to be sure the user is confident operating front-wheel drive.

Mid-wheel drive

Mid-wheel power chairs have six wheels that give traction when driving:

  • Two large drive wheels
  • Four smaller wheels at the front and back.
Mid-wheel drive power chairs have large wheels in the centre of the base
Wheel configuration on a mid-wheel power chair

As you might have guessed, they’re called mid-wheel because the drive wheels are positioned in the middle of the chair’s base.

This keeps the user’s centre of gravity directly over the drive wheels, giving excellent stability.

Interestingly, this positioning also seems to make mid-wheel models easier to drive. Wheelchair users often say they find them more intuitive. It’s easier to get used to turning and manoeuvring – especially for first-time power chair users.

Having six wheels rather than four further increases stability. The front and rear castors make sure the chair won’t tip – even when going over uneven ground or bigger kerbs and slopes.

Perhaps the biggest benefit is the 360⁰ turning radius! It’s much smaller than front/rear-wheel models. So, the user can perform full turns in tighter spaces.

However, there some potential drawbacks to consider too.

To get such good stability, there’s a slight trade-off on comfort. With six wheels, the user will feel the impact of any bumps more. Purely because more wheels are passing over it. So, the drive isn’t always as smooth.

With some older models, the central drive wheels can occasionally lose traction.  When this happens, it’s tricky to travel over uneven ground. The good news is, advances in suspension and other technology has made this problem much rarer in newer mid-wheel models.

Finally, think about the kind of turns the user makes most often. Mid-wheel power chairs are great for 360⁰ turns. But front-wheel chairs can offer better manoeuvrability for smaller front turn movements e.g. pulling up to a sink or avoiding an obstacle.

Front, Mid, and Rear-wheel power wheelchairs have different turning radius

Pros and Cons of Mid-Wheel Power Chairs

ProsCons
StabilityNot always as comfortable
Small 360⁰ turning radiusLess manoeuvrability in some scenarios
User-friendly

Many people consider mid-wheel power chairs to offer the ‘best of both worlds’ from front-wheel and rear-wheel models. They are an excellent option, but they still won’t be right for everyone.

For example, they aren’t always suitable for users with vibration-sensitive conditions e.g. spasticity.

Summary

The ‘best’ type of power wheelchair varies from person to person. It all depends on someone’s personal challenges and goals.

When choosing a wheelchair, we always recommend getting an assessment. Working with a specialist ensures you get the right drive type and customisations for the user.

Finding the right powerchair for every client is what we’re all about. We’ve seen the positive impact the right support and aids have on everyday life. So, we’re passionate about connecting as many people as possible with the right chair for them.

Book a free consultation

To discuss your options and book an assessment, please get in touch: