An attorney in the Washington, D.C. area, Friedman bought a 2011 Ford Explorer last February for what seemed like more practical reasons. His family evaluated seating and drivability across a cadre of SUVs: the Explorer, the Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia as well as the Honda Pilot. The Ford got the family vote for its high seating positions in the second and third rows. Space, not side airbags, won the day.
And while the Explorer’s side-curtain airbags do extend to the third-row, they aren’t universally standard and in a few cases are completely absent.
“The safety features of this car versus another didn’t really have an impact,” says Friedman, whose children are ages 8, 11 and 14. “It’s also something that’s not very visible.”
You can hardly blame him. All the SUVs the Friedmans tested have good ratings for front and side crash tests, and they come equipped with antilock brakes, electronic stability systems and six or more airbags — features limited to luxury models a decade ago.
And the improvements keep coming. Two years ago, Ford announced inflatable rear seat belts in the Explorer. Toyota followed four months later with airbags for the front-seat cushions and rear window in the pocket-sized Scion iQ. Last month, GM introduced the first front-seat center airbag for its three-row SUVs.
No protection in third row
Safety experts laud the innovation, but amid the airbag increase, a few third rows remain airbag-free — and could remain that way until the 2018 model year, when new federal standards all but require them.
Cars.com audited the market’s SUVs, minivans and wagons with three rows of seats available, and found 47 models in total. Most have curtain airbags that span all three rows. But six models stop their curtains at the second row: the BMW X5, Kia Sorento, Mitsubishi Outlander, Mercedes-Benz E-Class wagon, Subaru Tribeca and Toyota RAV4. The E-Class wagon and Tribeca include third-row seats standard; the rest offer an optional third row.