Beginning with the 2011 model year, Ford began offering their rear seat Inflatable Seatbelt Technology as an option on their popular Explorer midsize SUV. We were intrigued from the moment we became aware of Ford’s intention to incorporate airbag technology into backseat seatbelts. Sure, it sounded like an impressive and innovative way to help manage and better distribute energy in a crash. And the benefits for kids and the elderly (who are the most vulnerable occupants wearing an adult seatbelt) were obvious. But we had tons of questions, as did everyone else in the field of child passenger safety field.

The best way for us to try to answer them was to get our hands on a vehicle with this technology. Thanks to our friends at Ford, I had a week to try to figure it all out. This review is specific to the 7-passenger 2012 Explorer Limited model with the inflatable seatbelt technology.

The model I drove had a 3.5L V6 TIV CT Engine with 6 speed selectshift transmission. Estimated MPG is 17 City / 23 HW. The exterior color was a gorgeous “Red Candy” and the interior was Charcoal Black perforated leather. In addition to everything that comes standard with the Limited trim model (too much to list), this particular vehicle was also equipped with a voice activated nav system, luxury seating package, powerfold 3rd row seats, power liftgate, blind spot monitoring system, rear inflatable belts, active park assist, adaptive cruise/collision warning, rain sensing wipers and HID projector headlamps. And as if that wasn’t enough, it also had the optional trailer tow package and 20″ aluminum rims.  :)

 

How do Ford’s Inflatable Seatbelts work?

 

Which carseat manufacturers currently allow you to install their products with Ford’s inflatable seatbelt?

Currently, only Chicco and Britax allow all of their child restraints (infant seats, harnessed seats and booster seats) to be installed with the inflatable belt *if* installing with LATCH isn’t an option. UPDATE: The new Britax Frontier 90 & Pinnacle 90 Combination seats with ClickTight installation technology are the exception. Frontier 90 & Pinnacle 90 can NOT be installed using an inflatable belt. They can be installed using LATCH instead of the seatbelt but only if the child weighs less than 40 lbs. And they can be used in booster mode with the inflatable belt if the child is over 40 lbs. BubbleBum allows their inflatable booster to be used with Ford’s inflatable seatbelts (appropriate!) but you cannot use the shoulder belt positioning clip. Graco allows all of their booster seats (and combination seats used in booster mode) to be used in seating positions with these types of belts but does not allow you to install any of their infant seats or harnessed seats with these inflatable belts. The First Years (TOMY) allows their dedicated booster seats to be used with inflatable belts but not their infant or convertible seats. Last but not least, the Ride Safer Travel Vest (RSTV) can be modified to be used with an inflatable belt but you have to call the manufacturer, Safe Traffic Systems, and order the “Euro belt guide”.

All other CR Manufacturers currently prohibit installing or using the inflatable belts with their products. Using the LATCH system (instead of the seatbelt) is the only acceptable way to install a CR in these seating positions if you have a carseat made by BabyTrend, Combi, Clek, Cybex, Diono, Dorel (Cosco, Safety 1st, Eddie Bauer, Maxi-Cosi), Evenflo, Graco, Harmony, Kiddy, Orbit Baby, Recaro or TOMY/The First Years. With the exception of those manufacturers listed above (Graco, The First Years/TOMY & BubbleBum) boosters made by these manufacturers should not be used in seating positions which have the inflatable belts.

If installing a Chicco KeyFit, KeyFit 30 or Chicco NextFit Convertible with Ford’s inflatable seatbelt, you must follow Chicco’s specific instructions which include bypassing the lockoff and locking the seatbelt according to the directions in the Explorer’s owners manual.

If installing any Britax carseat with Ford’s inflatable seatbelt you must follow the specific instructions here:   http://www.britaxusa.com/support/inflatable-seat-belt-policy

Unfortunately, Britax changed their stance on inflatable belts after my week with this vehicle so there are no pictures or comments pertaining to installation of Britax seats using the inflatable belt.

 

Is it easy for a child in a booster to buckle themselves with these inflatable belts?

Not really. Be prepared to assist a younger child in a booster with buckling. Older children may be able to accomplish the task with practice and patience.

 

Can the middle row accommodate 3 kids in carseats and/or boosters? 

Most likely the answer here will be “no” but I did not try every combination of seats on the market. If you find a 3-across that works in the middle row of this vehicle (specifically an Explorer with the inflatable belts), please let me know! The main issues in the middle row are the very narrow center seating position, the rigid and angled buckles with no buckle stalks, seatbelts that overlap and all the hard plastic. Additionally, neither the middle row nor the 3rd row can be moved fore and aft so the amount of front-to-back space that you have to work with is fixed and not particularly generous to begin with. This can pose a problem for taller parents when a rear-facing seat is installed behind them.

 

      

 

Rear-facing Cosco Scenera installed with lower LATCH anchors and using 1 pool noodle to help achieve an appropriate recline angle. Rear-facing Diono Radian installed with LATCH using the Diono Angle Adjuster to help make the seat more upright. *Note: even with the angle adjuster, the driver’s seat had to be moved up further than my normal driving position – and I’m only 5’4″! On the positive side, Swedish style tethering will be simple. There is easy access to a good location for the D-ring (aka tether connector strap) under both the driver and front passenger seat.

    

Forward-facing Radian installs well with LATCH in outboard seating positions. Cannot install Radian with inflatable belt (Diono prohibits). FF Radian NOT compatible with regular lap/shoulder belt in center seating position due to rigid, angled buckle stalks. I could not achieve a tight installation with seatbelt. Tether anchors are offset.

  

  

Chicco Strada Highback Booster (approved for use with Ford’s inflatable seatbelts) & BubbbleBum booster. Overlapping seatbelts will be a problem if you need to use all 3 belts in the middle row.

    

Smaller infant seats should allow sufficient leg room for taller drivers or front seat passengers. In seating positions with inflatable belts – always install infant seat base using lower LATCH anchors. Evenflo Embrace 35 with forward handle position pictured.

 

How is the 3rd row? Can you fit a rear-facing carseat back there? Is it roomy enough for teenagers?

Smaller rear-facing convertibles like the Cosco Scenera should fit in the 3rd row if you don’t need the max recline angle for a newborn. Forward-facing seats like the Evenflo SecureKid & Evenflo Maestro that are not particularly tall will install without too much interference from the fixed, angled head restraints that are not removable. However, only the passenger’s side seating position in the 3rd row has lower LATCH anchors. If you need to install a CR on the driver’s side of the 3rd row – you will need to use the seatbelt and top tether. The 3rd row seatbelts are NOT inflatable belts. There are top tether anchors for both 3rd row seating positions – but only the driver’s side position has lower LATCH anchors. Again, tether anchors are offset.

    

    

 

Highback boosters will install very upright in the 3rd row due to the contour of the head restraints which are not removable. The head restraints back there do flip down to improve driver visibility and to fold and stow the 3rd row seats but they must be up when anyone is seated back there, even in a carseat or booster. Pictured are the Clek Olli & Graco Turbo booster.

   

 

The legroom in the 3rd row is roomy enough for a short or average-sized teen or adult. Just don’t expect to fit 6′ tall teenage boys back there. If you recline the middle row seats, you will reduce the legroom in the 3rd row by about 2″.

 

Do the head restraints interfere with proper installation of the carseat? 

Yes and no. In the middle row, all 3 head restraints are removable so you can take them off (assuming your CR doesn’t require them) if they get in the way of a proper installation. However, the 3rd row head restraints are a different design completely. These are not removable, nor are they height adjustable. Additionally, the seatbacks in the 3rd row do not recline like the seats in the middle row, so there is no way to try to compensate for the very upright angle that will occur when you put a highback booster or tall forward-facing harnessed seat back there.

  

 

How flexible are the storage and seating options in the 7-passenger model?

Very! However, personally I would be willing to give up some of that versatility to have an interior that was more child restraint friendly. As a mom, I don’t need to fit a surf board or sheetrock panels in my vehicle. But I do need to install carseats and/or boosters properly every single day.

    

    

 

Top Likes:

  • Everything about how it drives!
  • Comfortable, supportive front seats
  • Technology
  • Inflatable Seatbelts improve crash protection for rear seat passengers & belt comfort
  • Tether anchors for all 5 rear seating positions
  • Blind spot monitoring system
  • Adaptive cruise/collision warning
  • Reverse sensing system and backup camera
  • SOS post crash alert system
  • Adjustable petals (I’m short!)
  • Power liftgate
  • Versatile seating and stowing
  • Removable head restraints in all 3 middle row seating positions
  • Easy rear-facing tether locations (to wrap tether connector strap around) under both front seats

 

Top Dislikes:

  • Inflatable belts are more difficult for children to buckle than traditional lap/shoulder belts
  • Middle row seats do not adjust fore & aft
  • Not enough front-to-back space in middle row to accommodate a larger RF seat without seriously compromising the amount of legroom for the driver or front seat passenger
  • Middle row center seating position is too narrow and full of hard plastic
  • Middle row center seating position is incompatible with most child restraints
  • Overlapping seatbelts in middle row
  • Lower anchors in middle row are recessed and surrounded by stiff leather which made it very difficult to attach hook-style lower anchor connectors (push-on connectors were easier to attach).
  • Only one full LATCH position in 3rd row
  • Head restraints in the 3rd row will create incompatibilities with taller CRs and some highback boosters
  • 3rd row seats do not recline
  • Optional perforated leather seats (luxury seating package) were so slippery that I had to place gripper material (the stuff that goes underneath area rugs) under the Chicco Strada booster just to keep it from sliding everywhere while my son tried to get himself seated. In all of my years doing this – I have never encountered leather upholstery that was this slippery.

 

Crash/Safety Ratings:  

IIHS

Top Safety Pick for 2011, 2012 & 2013 Model Year Explorer

NHTSA

2012 Explorer: 4 Stars
2013 Explorer: 5 Stars

 

The Bottom Line:

The current Ford Explorer Limited incorporates many innovative new safety technologies and it was a pleasure to drive. I thoroughly enjoyed this vehicle until I had to focus on fitting and installing a variety of child restraints in it. I completely understand that everything in a vehicle interior is a trade-off and every great concept or feature has a downside. However, the current model Explorer with inflatable belts really falls short in too many ways when it comes to the realities of families who have (or need to transport) multiple kids in child restraints and that was a disappointment.

However, with that said, improving crash protection for rear-seat passengers (who are usually kids!) is a focus that is long overdue. Ford and their engineers deserve some major kudos for this innovation. The inflatable belt technology is truly brilliant, even if it does currently make the belt more cumbersome to buckle.

I sincerely hope that more child restraint manufacturers will follow Chicco and Britax’s lead and lift their restrictions on usage of their CR products with these types of belts. Because heavier, higher-weight harness CRs combined with shrinking lower LATCH weight limits make it more likely than ever that parents and caregivers will need to utilize the seatbelt at some point to secure their CR.

Ford is expanding their Inflatable Belt offering and this option is now also available on the 2013 Ford Flex and the 2013 Lincoln MKT.

*Tips & technical info for CPS Technicians working with child restraints in a Ford Explorer with inflatable belts can be found here:  http://www.car-seat.org/showthread.php?p=2485042#post2485042