I’ve made no secret of my passion for car seat safety in the past few months, but I wasn’t always as much of a fanatic as I am now. We chose Eli’s infant seat basically at random, without almost any research, because I liked that it had high height/weight limits and a good gender-neutral pattern, but that was it. Not even a Google search to speak of before making such an important decision.
When it came time to choose a convertible car seat, I did tons of research, but I still felt so confused about what seat was best for my child and for my car. So when I was asked to test as many car seats as I could get my hands on, I jumped at the chance. This was a dream project for us, and it was one that really opened my eyes to car seat safety and the incredible number of options available on the market today.
Over the past 2 months, we have tried 15 different convertible car seats. All but 2 of these were sent to us by the companies to test, and we tried each one of them for between 10 days and 2 weeks (the total number of hours in use was roughly the same for all the seats), in at least two different vehicles with both the seatbelt and the LATCH, the system of lower anchors and tethers for children. Virtually all cars made after 2002 have a LATCH system that consists of small metal hooks in the lower part of the back seat (usually identified with a tag or a button picturing a child in a car seat) and tether hooks on the top or back of the back seat, to allow car seats to be installed with a special belt with hooks (which comes with your car seat!) instead of a seatbelt. Both LATCH and the seat belt are equally safe when used correctly, but often LATCH is an easier way to install the seat.
We also installed each seat both rear- and forward-facing to check the fit. However, we only had Eli and my niece ride rear-facing, meaning his car seat faces the back of my car, which is in line with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation to keep children rear-facing until age 2 and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommendation to continue rear-facing as close to age 4 as possible, within the height and weight limits of the car seat. After the experiment, we passed each seat along to my sister, who tried them out with my niece, who is about 5 months younger than Eli.
One quick note before we get into the list: All these seats, from the least to the most expensive, passed the same crash testing. There is no evidence that any brand or specific seat is “safer” than any other. The safest car seat is whichever seat you can install in your car, fits your child well, and that you can use correctly every single time.
Without further ado, here are the best car seats of 2013!
BEST OVERALL | Chicco Nextfit
I actually purchased this seat before beginning this experiment, and 15 car seats later, it is still my favorite of the bunch. The seat is well made, installation was by far the easiest (both with a seatbelt and LATCH), and Eli is comfortable in it. It is also going to last us a very long time rear- and forward-facing. This seat now lives in my husband's car- not because I didn't want it in mine, but because it was so overwhelmingly his favorite, that he wouldn't let me have it back when we finished our experiment.Pros:
The seat is well padded and offers good leg room while still being a good fit in compact cars; it's incredibly easy to install; it offers 9 recline options so your child can find the right one for him/her; it's got a narrow footprint so passengers can sit next to it comfortably; it has a no-rethread harness, which means that when your child gets too big for the harness level they're at, you don't need to pull the harness straps out and rethread them through the back of the seat, you just have to raise the headrest and the straps move up with it; it also has great seatbelt lock-offs, which are plastic pieces that hold the seatbelt tight, which allow you to install the seat with the seatbelt without locking the belt manually, which makes getting a tight install much easier.Cons:
The price, for one. There's also no anti-rebound bar or tethering option (I'm told there's anti-rebound technology built into the base), which is a feature that some convertibles have for rear-facing purposes. In accidents, rear-facing seats have a tendency to rebound into the back seat. Either a rebound bar or a top tether connected behind the seat helps reduce the risks associated with this. It's not a requirement, but it's a nice addition to any convertible. Lastly, harness straps are non-replaceable if damaged or saturated, so if something goes wrong with your harness, you'll need to contact Chicco and potentially purchase a new seat. Rear-facing limits:
5-40 pounds or head less than 1 inch from the top of the fully extended headrest.Forward-facing limits:
22-65 pounds or 50 inches. Get it from Amazon for $279.99
RUNNER-UP, BEST OVERALL | Graco MyRide 65
This was the dark horse of this experiment. I had few expectations for it because it's not flashy, but surprisingly, I loved it. Although it's not recommended for tall kids because of its short height limit, Eli fit comfortably in it and still had tons of room left to grow. Pros:
First, the seat is easy to install with either a seatbelt or LATCH. (One note: It doesn't have lock-offs, so be sure to lock the seat belt.) It has an easy-to-read angle indicator that shows whether the seat is oriented correctly when rear-facing, and the seat sides are curved, which provides good side-impact protection. It's also well padded, made with high-quality fabric, and has infant inserts and strap covers. It even comes with two built-in cup holders, which you can use to store just about anything.Cons:
No anti-rebound bar or rear-facing tethering allowed, which would help prevent the seat from rebounding into the back seat while installed in the rear-facing position. As much as I love it, the seat is wide (though we were able to get a passenger next to it). It has a manual rethreading harness, meaning that when it's time to move the straps up, you have to unhook them on the back, thread them out, and back through at the new level. There's only one recline option for rear-facing, regardless of age, but you can change the pressure you apply on installation to make it slightly more upright.Rear-facing limits:
4 or 5 to 40 pounds (depends on the model), or until head is within 1 inch of the top of the shell.Forward-facing limits:
20 to 65 pounds, or until 50 inches. Get it from Amazon for $119.95
BEST EXTENDED REAR-FACING | Diono Radian RXT
This seat is perfect for heavy and tall kids, which makes it stand out among other seats in the market. It's also sleek and resembles a race car seat, and it's the narrowest seat that we tested. Pros:
Its narrow design allows you to fit multiple car seats in the backseat; its sides are low (no more banging heads on the ceiling); its carrying straps make it easy to transport; and it has adjustable sides, so kids big and small can fit comfortably. It's also well padded with memory foam and the fabric is light, easy to clean, and doesn't absorb too much heat. It also allows for top tethering while rear-facing to prevent the seat from rebounding into the seat-back in the event of a collision.Cons:
It requires an Angle Adjuster in small cars to get a more upright angle rear-facing. However, the angle adjuster can only be used with children who have good head control, so if you want to use this with a newborn, you will have to deal with the full recline. Even though it's the narrowest seat we tried, when it's fully reclined rear-facing, it's pretty large front-to-back. Installation is tough with multiple parts, especially rear-facing or if using the Angle Adjuster; there are no seatbelt lock offs, so you must lock the seatbelt and pull it tight; it has a manual rethreading harness. The head wings (which stick out and cradle the head) can only be used with straps at the third slot and higher. They can come down to the child's jaw line, so younger or shorter kids (which included my son, who's 15 months old) would either have to use the infant head support, or ride without any extra side head support until they're tall enough for the head wings. This is not a safety issue, but it can be a comfort issue for some kids.
Rear-facing limits: 5 to 45 pounds or 44 inches/when head is 1.5 inches from the top of the shell.Forward-facing limits:
20 to 80 pounds or up to 57 inches/when the ears are at the top of the shell.Booster limits:
120 pounds or up to 57 inches. (Note: the booster is outgrown at the same height as forward-facing with the harness, so it's not the last car seat you'll ever need.) Get it from Amazon for $291.99
RUNNER-UP, BEST EXTENDED REAR-FACING (WEIGHT) | Clek Foonf
The most outstanding feature of this car seat is that it boasts the highest rear-facing weight limit on the market (at 50 pounds)! However, parents of infants and newborns, take note: You'll have to buy a different seat before transitioning to this model. Babies who use this seat must be able to sit independently. Pros:
Aside from its high rear-facing weight limit, this seat comes in multiple styles (including a Paul Frank version); it has strap covers and a belly pad, so the crotch buckle won't dig into bigger kids; it has seatbelt lock-offs to keep the seat secure without locking the seatbelt and ratcheting it tight; its narrow design allows passengers to comfortably sit beside it; it has 3 recline options, 2 of which can be used in rear-facing; and it comes with an anti-rebound bar.Cons:
Despite its narrow design, this seat is heavy and tall (especially rear-facing), so it doesn't fit well in small cars; rear-facing installation requires you to attach the removable base and the anti-rebound bar (both of which comes with the seat) before you can install it, and while it's not difficult, it is a bit time-consuming and, at times, frustrating. Rear-facing limits:
14-50lbs (must sit independently) or 25-43 inches.Forward-facing limits:
20-65lbs or 30-49 inches. Get it from Amazon for $449.99
BEST FOR SMALL CARS | Britax Marathon 70-g3
I've always heard good things about Britax, and, for the most part, this seat lived up to the hype! The Marathon is a nice, compact seat, but it still has the steel frame and a super-easy installation process that is common with Britax seats. My major complaints for this seat (and the Britax Advocate) are the minimal leg room when in the rear-facing orientation, as well as the short height limits. Though Britax lists a 49-inch standing height limit, most children will outgrow the seat based upon where their head (rear-facing) or ears (forward-facing) hit the shell of the seat, not the headrest, before reaching 49 inches.Pros:
It was easy to install! It also has seatbelt lock-offs, so there's no need for locking and ratcheting the seatbelt tight; a steel frame that makes it feel sturdy; HUGS pads on the straps, which help with impact absorption in a collision; a compact design that allows it to fit in small cars without adjusting the seats much; breathable fabric that doesn't contain heat; Velcro sides that secure the harness when not in use for easy in/out and reduced twisting of straps; and rear-facing tethering.Cons:
It has very minimal leg room when in the rear-facing position (my kid is pretty short but was still uncomfortable with this design). The head rest is not reinforced, resulting in shorter height limits as compared to other seats on the market, so your kid may outgrow it quickly before you need to buy a booster. The HUGS pads make the harness somewhat difficult to tighten, and the manual's directions for using the seatbelt lock-offs were a bit difficult to follow.Rear-facing limits:
5-40 pounds or seated shoulder height 9-16.5 inches (head within one inch of the top of the shell, not the headrest).Forward-facing limits:
20-70 or seated shoulder height 12-16.5 or ears even with top of shell (not top of headrest). Get it from Amazon for $349.99
BEST HIGH-TECH | The First Years True Fit c685 with iAlert
I was beyond excited to test the True Fit with iAlert, an integrated smartphone app that may just be the next innovation in car seat safety. Basically, you can set up text and phone call alerts that notify you when your child has been left in your non-moving car, or isn't properly buckled into the carseat, among other things. Cool, right?Pros:
The seat is well padded, with soft fabric and strap covers included; the headrest can be removed for a child under 22 pounds or below a certain height, which reduces the size of the seat rear-facing; it comes with an anti-rebound bar; its no-rethread harness is easy to adjust; its relatively large size allows for a good amount of leg room in rear-facing mode; and the seatbelt lock-offs allow you to secure the seat without locking the belt and ratcheting it tightly. Cons:
Rear-facing installation is tough at first — and I mean really tough. I Child Passenger Safety Technician recently said that it's best if you swear at the lock-offs a bit, and trust me, I did. A lot. The seat cover doesn't snap back on after a rear-facing seatbelt install, which doesn't impact the safety but is kind of annoying. There's no adjustment options on the headrest — it's one height and has to be on once the child is 22 pounds. The seat is very large front to back, which is not inherently a con, but if you have a small car, it'll require you to move the front seat up when it's installed rear-facing. The incline guide does a good job of showing when the seat is too reclined, but a poor job of indicating when it is too upright in rear-facing. I needed a pool noodle in my car to get the correct rear-facing angle, due to the slant of my seats and the slant of the car seat bottom. Rear-facing limits:
5 to 35 pounds or head within 1 inch of top of the headrest.Forward-facing limits:
up to 65 pounds or 50 inches or ears even with top of headrest. Get it from Amazon for $285.71
BEST SIDE-IMPACT TECHNOLOGY | Britax Advocate 70 G3
We used this seat for a road trip recently because Eli had to ride in one of the outboard seats (he typically rides in the middle), and it gave me really nice peace of mind to know that he had a little extra protection in the case of a side collision. Thankfully we didn't need it, but the thoughtful addition of the side-impact cushions is a great plus. Pros:
Its seatbelt lock-offs make for easy installation; it has a compact design; the HUGS pads on the harness can help reduce impact in the event of an accident; it has rear-facing tethering; the click-tighten system ensures the harness is tight enough with audible "clicks" when properly tightened; its no-rethread harness allows you to easily adjust the straps by pinching and lifting or lowering the headrest. Cons:
There's limited leg room rear-facing; the seat has a shorter height limit due to non-reinforced headrest, so it won't be the last seat you'll need before transitioning to a booster; the manual's lock-off directions were hard to follow; the shoulder pads are inconveniently long when used with the HUGS and push the chest clip down.Rear-facing limits:
5-40 or less than 50 inches or head less than 1 inch from the top of the shell (not the headrest!). Forward-facing limits:
20-70 or less than 50 inches or ears even with the top of the shell (not the headrest!). Get it from Amazon for $379.00
RUNNER-UP, BEST SIDE-IMPACT TECHNOLOGY | Safety First Advanced Air 70+
This seat was another one that caught me completely off guard in a great way. It was a breeze to install, fit beautifully in my small car, has an awesome air side-impact protection system, and, most of all, Eli was incredibly happy and comfortable in the seat. It doesn't have a ton of frills like some of the other seats, but it nails the important stuff.Pros:
It has top-notch side-impact protection via GCell HX technology along the sides and headrest; it offers multiple recline options for both rear- and forward-facing, depending upon the child's weight; and it has a no-rethread harness.Cons:
It doesn't have strap covers, so you'll have to pull clothing up if your child has sensitive skin/is prone to red marks; its wide design means passengers likely won't be able to fit comfortably next to it; there's no anti-rebound bar or rear-facing tethering; and it has old-style latch hooks instead of the seatbelt-like hooks with easy-to-release buttons, meaning that they're easy enough to hook on but a pain to unhook.Rear-facing limits:
5-40 pounds or 40 inches.Forward-facing limits:
22-70 pounds or 52 inches. Get it from Target for $189.99
BEST 3-in-1 | Safety First Elite 80 Air + 3-in-1
There are very few, if any, 3-in-1 combination seats on the market that truly get all 3 jobs done well, and so my expectations were low for the Elite 80. But I am beyond happy to say that this seat worked well as a rear-facing, forward-facing, and high-back booster for kids of multiple sizes. It will be the seat that lives at Eli's grandparent's house, as it will be used for him, his 3-year-old cousin, and his 5-year-old cousin, all of who have different car seat needs but fit well in this seat!Pros:
It has good side-impact protection via GCell HX technology in headrest and sides of seat; it has a no-rethread harness; it transitions to a high-back, belt-positioning booster seat that fits properly, so it can last from infancy to the elementary stage; and the seat offers multiple reclines options for rear- and forward-facing. Cons:
This seat is very wide, and when fully reclined rear-facing, it is pretty large front to back; it doesn't include strap covers, so you'll need to tuck clothing in if your child is prone to redness from the harness; it doesn't have a rebound bar or rear-facing tethering; the seat tends to lean slightly when installed in rear-facing with a locking seat belt, which isn't unsafe, but it's aesthetically obnoxious. Rear-facing limits:
5-40 pounds, 19-43 inches.Forward-facing limits:
22-80 pounds, 34-52 inches.Booster limits:
40-100 pounds, 43-57 inches. Get it from ToysRUs for $219.99
BEST LUXURY SEAT | Peg Perego Primo Viaggio SIP 5-70
I absolutely love this model. The only reason it isn't my top all-around seat is its hefty price tag and the fact that over the past few months of watching, I haven't seen a significant sale for this seat anywhere online. That said, it's now our primary car seat, and I have to admit I couldn't be happier with it. Pros:
It has rear-facing tethering, which can reduce the risk of the seat rebounding; it has Italian-made, high-quality fabric and padding, with infant insert and padded strap covers; and it has a no-rethread harness. Its compact design makes it fit nicely in small cars without needing the seats moved forward, and it has Peg Perego Shock Absorbing Foam Element (SAFE) in the base of seat to reduce crash forces in the event of a collision.Cons:
There's no cup holder, nor can one be attached; its strap covers are long and bulky and can push the chest clip down on smaller kids; it does not have lock-offs, so the seat belt has to be locked and tightened manually; and the seat can only be used rear-facing to the seventh headrest position, so it's not the best for extended rear-facing with taller kids.Rear-facing limits:
5-45 pounds or head 1 inch from top of head rest when in 7th head rest position.Forward-facing limits:
22-70 pounds or less than 49 inches. Get it from Amazon for $326.55
BEST FOR NEWBORNS | Maxi Cosi Pria with Tiny Fit
This is actually two car seats — an infant seat within a convertible — and it's really cool. Not to mention this is by far one of the most well-padded seats we tried. The Tiny Fit (the infant seat) is easy to install into the seat and relatively easy to remove, fits very small babies, and once out, the seat can hold kids up to 70 pounds, which is pretty impressive. My only complaint about this seat is the head wings are a little narrow for kids with big heads and big ears, but that seemed to bother me much more than it bothered Eli, so take that for what it's worth.Pros:
It's lightweight and well padded with soft strap covers; it has good side-impact protection in its head wings and the sides of the seat; it has a no-rethread harness; it offers multiple recline options for rear- and forward-facing; the headrest is easy to adjust and provides quality head support; and, when buying the Pria without Tiny Fit, it comes in a variety of colors, many of which are light and don't absorb too much heat.Cons:
It's prone to tilting with a rear-facing locking seatbelt installation, which isn't unsafe but doesn't look great; the head wings are pretty narrow, especially for bigger headed/eared kids; there's no anti-rebound bar or rear tethering; and the seat is pretty bulky side to side and front to back when fully reclined, so it's not ideal for smaller cars.Rear-facing limits:
4-40 pounds or 40 inches.Forward-facing limits:
22-70 pounds or 52 inches. Get it from Amazon for $289.99
MOST BUDGET-FRIENDLY | Evenflo Triumph
Evenflo has done a great job of making a reasonably priced and very unique convertible. Here's how it's different from other seats on the market: its slide harness traps allow for easy adjustment of the straps without rethreading. There isn't a tightening strap but instead a knob that turns, and the slack is taken up from the hips instead of from the shoulders. Overall, it's very user-friendly.Pros:
It's lightweight and easy to transport; despite not having lock-offs, it's easy to install; the tightening knob eliminates the tough pull strap that some convertibles have; the Infinite Slide Harness allows for easy adjustment of the straps either upward or downward, without rethreading through the back of the seat; and it has multiple recline options in rear- and forward-facing.Cons:
It doesn't have strap covers, so you'll have to tuck clothing up if your child has sensitive skin; there's no anti-rebound bar or rear-facing tethering allowed, which could reduce the risk of the seat rebounding into the backseat in the event of a collision when rear-facing; the seat is pretty big front to back, so it's not ideal for smaller cars; and although the seat seems comfortable enough, there's pretty minimal padding.Rear-facing limits:
5-40 pounds, 19-37 inches or top of head is 1 inch from top of shell.Forward facing limits:
22-65 pounds, 28-50 inches. Get it from Amazon for $144.99
RUNNER-UP, MOST BUDGET-FRIENDLY | Cosco Scenera
This seat was not one that was actually sent to me to try, but given that it is by far the most budget-friendly convertible on the market, I felt not including it here would be a disservice. I was able to test it at the store, both installing it forward- and rear-facing, and putting Eli in it to see how he fit. Although I can't tell you exactly how it works during long trips, I can give at least a brief overview of my experience using it.Pros:
Aside from the low price, it comes in a variety of color and pattern options, depending on where you buy it; it's very lightweight, making it easy to transport; it has easy-to-access belt paths for installation, so there's no weird angling of the seatbelt to try to thread it through; and its lack of frills makes it user-friendly.Cons:
It has very sparse padding and minimal impact-absorbing foam inside; it often requires a pool noodle to attain the right angle when installing rear-facing due to the shape of the base and the shape of most back seats; it has relatively low weight/height limitations, meaning it's not the last seat you'll need to buy before a booster; it has a rethread harness; and there's no anti-rebound bar or rear-facing tethering allowed. Rear-facing limits:
5-35 pounds, 19-36 inches.Forward-facing limits:
22-40 pounds, 34-43 inches. Get it from Amazon for $54.90
While there are certainly a few more convertible seats on the market, these 15 are some of the best out there and hopefully can help serve as a guide for choosing a good-quality seat that fits whatever your family’s needs are.
For pictures of these seats in various cars and with differently sized babies, check out my flickr set here. I have at least a few pictures of each of the seats listed above.
For an update on car seat changes happening in 2014, check out Parenting You Need to Know: Car Seat Changes in 2014.
All photos above courtesy of the car seat manufacturer’s website.
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