Top 5 Convertible Car Seats
When your baby outgrows her infant seat, most parents then purchase a convertible car seat.
In a Nutshell
A convertible seat is called so because it starts out rear-facing, usually for babies from 12-24 months (or more), then converts to a forward-facing seat for 2+ year olds.
There are also “all-in-one” seats, such as the Evenflo Symphony. These seats can be used rear-facing, forward-facing, or as a BPB (belt-positioning booster seat). “Well hell, why doesn’t everyone just buy an all-in-one seat?” you ask? Well, because most of them are not tall enough for bigger kids who still need to be in a booster; translation: you would still have to purchase another/taller booster seat anyway.
Some parents also opt for a convertible seat straight from birth to prevent having to buy two seats. These people need to pay special attention to lowest harness strap height (see below, “Special Situations, #3”)
Size and Weight
Compared to infant seats, convertible seats are monstrously big — they look like giant baby thrones. With a few exceptions, they are also quite heavy (20+ lbs). Unlike with infant seats, weight is not as big of a deal because you’re not going to be taking it in and out of your car every day and plopping it into a stroller.
The recent trend is to keep children in a harnessed seat (as opposed to a booster seat) for as long as possible – simply because it’s safer. You see, ten years ago, most convertible seats were rated only up to 40lbs or so; in the last few years they’ve become much taller and rated for higher weight so that young kids can stay harnessed longer. This is a good thing because the vast majority of parents have been putting their kids in booster seats far too early.
Nowadays, you’ll see many seats going up to 70 or even 80lbs. Just remember, though, that a child will almost always outgrow a seat height-wise before they hit the max weight. An 80 lb seat is… let’s just say I’d be shocked to see an 11 year old (~80lb) child riding around in a convertible car seat… gimme a break. So, unless your kid is super heavy, you’re never going to hit the upper weight limit – and if you did, your seat will have expired anyway! Hence, a 50-60lb seat should be sufficient for the vast majority of the population.
All the Hubbub about Rear-Facing
If you are good boys and girls (which I know you are, ahem), you know you should be using your convertible seat rear-facing until at least 2 year of age (or longer, if you can stand it).
- A child is 75% more likely to sustain a serious injury if he is forward facing.
Yeah, yeah, yeah – I’ve heard it -- he doesn’t fit, you say? That’s what everyone says. Remember: it doesn’t matter that his legs are touching the back seat – he’s NOT going to break his legs in an accident. If he’s front-facing, however, he’s way more likely to break his spinal cord which could kill or seriously maim him [see a great video here, cue to 1:30]. So, I don’t mean to be harsh, but please, please, don’t think you know more than the professionals who design and test these things for a living.
Having said that, here’s the deal: rear-facing car seats are reclined (usually at 30-45 degrees) and therefore, take up a lot of space (i.e. depth) in your backseat – perhaps even more than your infant seat (yikes!). Therefore, space (i.e. will the damn thing fit?) is probably the #1 consideration.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there is no “best” car seat out there. What fits into one car doesn’t fit into another… what fits one kid doesn’t fit another, blah blah bah. And if you thought choosing an infant car seat was confusing, JUST WAIT. Ha!
For simplicity sake, I picked the 5 best seats on the market (plus specialty seats), one for each price category (more or less). I chose these seats because they give you the best value for your buck, in my personal opinion, based on experiences with my own car seats, my experiences as a CPST (Child Passenger Safety Technician), and taking into account hundreds of bits of feedback and user reviews.
BTW, it was REALLY HARD to pick just five seats. There are TONS of great seats out there, so just because a seat you love/own isn’t on this list doesn’t mean it’s not great.
Also, because I feel very strongly about it, all of these seats offer at least some side-impact protection. Side-impact protection is especially important if your child is riding in one of the side or “outboard” positions (i.e. not in the middle). For more about where to put your seat, read here.
What we’re aiming for here is the safest seat that fits 1) your car 2) your kid and 3) your wallet. It may not be what your neighbor or best friend has, so try not to get caught up in keeping up with the Joneses. Also remember -- there are no guarantees that the seat you buy will fit properly into your car. Be sure to keep the tags on (the box, wrapping, etc) so you can return it if it doesn’t work. You’ll be hating life if you get stuck with a seat that doesn’t fit well.
*Note that all of the seats mentioned here are FAA approved to be brought aboard an airplane
For tips on installation, go here.
The Envelopes, Please
------- Summary -----------
*** Chicco NextFit to be added to this list -- reviewing pending...($280)
---- Seats for Special Situations ----
$ Safety 1st OnSide Air Protect ~ $80
The economy category is tough. Almost all seats under $100 are only rated for 40lbs, so compared to a 60, 70 or 80lb seat, it’s apples and oranges.
With that caveat, if you’re looking for a decent economy seat with no bells and whistles other than safety features (or you need a cheap 2nd seat), this could be just what the doctor ordered.
The OnSide Air has the chassis of the Dorel Group’s basic seat, plus the AirProtect side-impact safety feature. Dorel is a trusted name in juvenile products (Cosco, Safety 1st, Maxi-Cosi) – I’ve met their safety engineers and I feel like these guys have it dialed in.
This seat has a small footprint, so it’s great for compact cars; and weighing in at less than 12 lbs, it’s easy to schlep around. Bringing it onto an airplane is also cake.
On the downside, this seat is very hollow on the underside and some sharp edges (this also makes it easy to install if you’re using a seatbelt), so place it on top of an old towel if you’re concerned about damaging your upholstery. For rear-facing installation, it’s *highly likely* you will need to prop it to achieve the proper angle (which is the case for MANY rear-facing car seat/car combinations). You can use a rolled-up towel or something like a pool noodle. Also, the basic LATCH connectors aren’t the greatest. I’ve broken many-a-nail getting this seat in and out. But hey, it’s less than $100, what do you expect?
Like I said, this seat only goes up to 40lbs (which is *about* a 4-5 year old), but if your kid is on the heavier side for his age, in this price range, I would also look at the Evenflo Titan (50 lbs) , or the Safety 1st Chart 65 (65 lbs) .
*At $150, the luxury model of this seat is the Safety 1st Complete Air . This is also a fabulous seat that car seat techs love.
$$ Britax Roundabout 55 ~ $140
“Old Faithful” is what CPST trainers call this seat.
You see folks, the thing is… Britax makes a damn good seat. The entry-level Roundabout is no exception. The Roundabout was the first convertible seat that we ever bought and I still prefer it to my giant, very expensive high-end other seat (which shall remain unnamed).
You still get the same thick, non-twisty harness straps, the premium push-button LATCH connectors, the built-in lock-offs, the rubber anti-slip base (which is kind on your seats), the premium fabric, yada yada, as you do with other Britax car seats. You also get the velcro tabs that hold the harness straps to the side so they don’t get in the way every time when you plunk your kid in; it’s the little things like this that minimize daily frustrations (you don’t get the EZ Buckle feature, though, sorry).
The big differences in this and other higher-end Britaces (that’s plural for Britax) is that this one has a lower weight limit (55lbs vs 70lbs) and doesn’t have a “non-rethread harness”, which means to adjust the height of the harness straps, you’ll have to take the seat out, unhook the straps from the splitter plate in the back and re-thread them back through at the new height (like you do with your infant seat).
It’s not one of the taller shells on the market, so if you have a super tall kid, look elsewhere. But because it’s not very tall, this seat will fit into almost any car rear-facing, including compact cars (no guarantees, though).
* YES, Britax allows you to use the side or “outboard” LATCH anchors to install their seats in the center IF your vehicle manufacturer also allows it.
$$$ Evenflo Symphony 65 e3 ~ $175
Easy installation, a budget-friendly price and great side-impact protection make this seat a winner.
Unlike other convertible seats, this is an “all-in-one” seat, meaning it converts from a front-facing, harnessed seat to a booster (up to 100lbs). However, REMEMBER that most children outgrow car seats height-wise before they do weight-wise; this is not an incredibly tall booster shell, so it probably won’t be the last seat you’ll have to buy (it’s still pretty neat though, no?).
There are 3 cool things that make this seat stand out from the bunch:
If you’re using LATCH (instead of the seatbelt), the Symphony 65 has a really cool feature called SureLATCH, which means you simply click-in the LATCH connectors and push the seat down (hard) for a quick, self-ratcheting, snug installation each time. If you hate wrangling your seat like a wild animal to tighten it, you will really enjoy this feature. *In some cars, SureLATCH doesn’t work so well. If this is the case, you may have to use the seatbelt instead. Just make sure you understand how the seatbelt locks in your vehicle because this seat had no built-in lockoffs [OR – simply return it if it doesn’t install well with LATCH].
2. “Infinite Slide Harness”
To adjust the harness height, simply slide it up (or down); i.e. you don’t have to re-thread the harness straps. Yay!
3. Side-impact protection ~ The premium e3 version has super-awesome side impact protection in the form of deep headwings. It looks like this:
This is wide, heavy seat that offers a decent amount of leg room when your kiddo is rear-facing and surprisingly doesn’t take up as much room (depth-wise) as some of the other larger convertibles.
Once again, if your car doesn’t have LATCH connectors in the center seat, as most don’t, Evenflo allows center installation using the side “inner” LATCH anchors IF the vehicle manufacturer also permits it (check owner’s manual, call the company, or tweet them up).
- On certain models, there is a “TruTether Adjuster”, which is an indicator which turns green to signal when top tether strap is secured tightly enough. Cool beans.
- At $160ish, the cheaper version of the Symphony is the LX or DLX model. While still offering plenty of energy-absorbing EPP foam, the headwings aren’t quite as deep, so if your child is riding in the middle seat (and thus, side-impact protection isn’t quite as important), you may opt for the LX or DLX to save some money. They also have regular push-on LATCH connectors instead of the self-ratcheting SureLatch connectors.
- For a regular convertible (i.e. not a 3-in-1) version of this seat, check out the new Evenflo Momentum 65 ($140ish).
Done and done. Who’s next?
$$$ First Years True Fit Premier (c670) ~ $200
Easy to adjust, easy to install… the True Fit is a car seat technician’s wet dream. In fact, this is one of the only seats that gets 5-stars for “Ease of Use” from NHTSA.
Features include… side impact protection in the form of EPP foam lining, a sliding (i.e. “no-rethread”) harness for height adjustment, deluxe push-on style LATCH connectors (no broken nails!), non-twisty straps, easy-off cover for cleaning, and built-in lockoffs; slap my ass and call me Sally, it’s definitely worth giving this seat a look-see!
A couple of features that make this seat neato-mosquito:
1. Removable head-rest
In the rear-facing position, you can remove the head rest to make it fit mo’ better in your backseat, especially if you have a small car and/or need to push your seat back for more legroom. HOWEVER, (ahem), you can only use it without the headrest for up to 22lbs, which, as you may know, is the upper limit for many infant seats. So, for a baby who has already outgrown his infant seat (weight-wise), this will be of no use to you. So what’s the point, you might ask? This feature is really meant for people who skip the infant seat altogether and go straight to a convertible seat for their infant. In which case it’s genius.
2. The anti-rebound flip thingy
As you may (or may not) know, many people want to tether their convertible seat when its rear-facing to prevent what is called “rebounding”. Rebounding is when the seat flips up toward the seat back after the initial crash. Usually, tethering a rear-facing seat involves all kinds of shenanigans (the Swedish method, the Australian method) – ack! Seriously? Essentially, the built-in anti-rebound feature on this seat addresses this concern without having to screw with the tethering. If you are gung-ho about tethering your kid’s seat while rear-facing, this is your dogg.
Because the True Fit Premier has a tall shell and high rear-facing weight limit, it’s great for extended rear-facing (yes, some parents keep their kids rear-facing until, like… 4! Bless their hearts). Yes, parents rave that it provides ample leg room for a tall, rear-facing toddler. It also fits newborns and infants fairly well.
This seat is heavy (22lbs) and wide. It takes up quite a bit of room when rear-facing (once the headrest is added back on), so it may not fit well in a smaller car.
* Agan, if your car doesn’t have LATCH connectors in the center seat (as most don’t) First Years also allows the use of LATCH in the center seating position of the back seat if the vehicle owner’s manual says it’s okay.
- For $40- $50 less, you can get the next step down, which is the True Fit Recline (c650). The main difference is the c650 (i.e. the Recline version) doesn’t have the anti-rebound feature. Still a fabulous seat, though.
$$$$ Britax Boulevard G3 ~ $230
And finally (ahem), my favorite seat of the bunch. My rock. My go-to. The seat Lucie rides in every day… the Britax Boulevard G3.
In my opinion, it has the perfect blend of safety features and conveniences for your dollar. Yeah, it’s pricey, but I guarantee that you spend a lot more money on far more stupid and less important stuff, no?
Let’s face it, all the bells and whistles don’t mean a thang if it’s a pain to get your kid in and out of her seat each time.
Enter the Britax G3 series (released in 2012), which includes the family of Britax G3 seats: the Marathon, the Boulevard, the Pavillion and the Advocate.
G3 seats also have a long, lovely list of safety features.
- New “HUGS” pads on the harness straps that absorb more crash-energy than previous versions.
- Side-impact? Yeeah, you know you want it. The Boulevard has “True Side Impact Protection” Translation: deep sidewalls lined with energy-absorbing EPP foam. The head restraint offers a double layer of energy-absorbing foam that keeps your child's neck and spine properly aligned
- The seat base is made of SafeCells, which compress in a crash to minimize the risk of head injury
- Integrated steel bars, which strengthen the connection to the vehicle and prevent forward flexing of the seat during a crash
- The “Versa-Tether” (rear tether strap) restricts forward movement with staged-release webbing and 2-point attachment, which can be used in rear or forward-facing positions.
This family of seats also fits newborns fairly well; get the optional “infant positioning insert” if you’re using it from birth. The shell of the seat is NOT super-tall, which means it fits into smaller cars easier than many convertible seats. On the downside, it’s not the best seat for really tall kids, instead look to the Diono Radian or the Safety 1st Complete Air.
The Roundabout is super-easy to install using LATCH -- and like I said, it’s not a very big space hog compared to most other convertible seats. Many reviewers remark at how far back they were able to push their seat, even rear facing.
* YES, again [ahem] Britax allows you to use the side or “outboard” LATCH anchors to install their seats in the center IF your vehicle manufacturer also allows it.
Varations: The Members of the Britax G3 family, in a nutshell:
* For $30 less, the Marathon is the entry-level G3 seat. Essentially, it’s the Boulevard with one step down of side-impact cushioning – still a fabulous, tried and true seat.
* For $20 more, the Pavillion is the Boulevard + CS (click and safe feature), which clicks when the harness is pulled tightly enough. If you’re concerned about knowing when the harness is tight enough -- or perhaps someone in your family is notorious for leaving the straps too loose, this feature might be worth the extra cash. No excuses now!
* If you really want to go balls out in side-impact protection department, check out the Britax Advocate for $60 more. The seat offers the most side impact protection you can get on the market today, just note that it’s VERY wide and heavy. If your child rides in the outboard seating position and/or you or your spouse is a shitty driver, this may be worth the peace of mind. Seriously.
Some people have special situations that require specific seats, such as…
1. A small car
So you have a small car. Or even a sports car. Sadly, you may not have lot of options (sorry). But as my friend Mira said, it’s much easier to buy a new car seat than a new car! True that, sister.
The go-to seat for small cars is the Combi Cocorro ($170-$230). The Japanese-inspired Cocorro is specially designed for small, fuel-efficient cars. It weighs only 11 pounds and I’ll admit, it’s quite luxurious! People who own this seat love it.
Note: other colors are cheaper!!
Also note, this seat only goes up to 40lbs, so when your kid turns 4 (or so), you’ll have to figure something else out. (Who knows, maybe in 4 years, you’ll have a bigger car. Perhaps there’s a second child in your future that could use it? Ponder it.)
If the Cocorro cannot fit rear-facing in your car, you may have to accept the fact that it’s time to ditch your sports car and buy a big, lame family car. Just kidding (sort of).
If you need to fit three child restraints in one row (or 2 seats and an adult into a smallish car) the go-to seat is the Diono Radian (formerly known as the Sunshine Kids Radian).
The Radian is nifty, narrow seat that fits 3-across in nearly every car. It’s got safety features out the wazoo and is also one of the tallest seats on the market.
Being so tall also makes it quite a space-hog when rear-facing, so it’s a NOT for compact cars or for people who need lots of legroom in the front seat. If you need to do 3-across AND you have a small car, use the aforementioned Combi Cocorro for this purpose.
Another unique feature of the Radian is that it folds for easy storage or for toting around (below). You might think – “yay, perfect for flying!”. Eh – not so much. This bad boy is 24 freakin pounds. Not something I would want to lug through the airport on my back. Just sayin.
3. For Newborns
In general, the lowest harness slots on most convertibles are too high for the average newborn. However, there are a few seats that should fit the bill. The Maxi Cosi Pria 70 with TinyFit, the First Years True Fit, and the Evenflo Triumph Advance. If you have a preemie or a low birth-weight baby, I would stick with an infant seat like the Chicco KeyFit or Britax B-Safe .
4. For Flying – by the way, check out my book, Flying with Baby!
There are three seats I recommend for airline travel because they are small, lightweight (less than 10lbs) and affordable: the Cosco Scenera (<$50), the Evenflo Tribute ($60) and the Safety 1st onSide Air ($60ish). While lacking the bells and whistles of nicer seats, these budget convertibles are perfectly safe and are consistently recommended for travel by my trusted community of CPSTs (Child Passenger Safety Technicians). Did I mention they are less than 10 pounds? I promise you, there is an enormous difference between carrying a 9 lb seat and carrying a 22 lb seat on and off a plane, into the car, etc.
5. You’re rich, bee-atch!
Do you have loads of money and want a gorgeous car seat? Or perhaps you just want to impress your friends? Great, then I have just the seat for you! Check out the Peg Perego Primo Viaggio SIP 5-70 ($335)
All kidding aside, it really is a fantastic seat with luxurious fabrics. The 45 lbs. maximum rear-facing weight limit is one of the highest on the market. Other than the fact that it’s pretty difficult to install with a seatbelt rear-facing, car seat techs generally like it too. If you’re in the market for a high-end seat, definitely check it out.
Ok, well, I totally failed at keeping this short, but hopefully you got what you came for.
*Please note that nobody pays me to promote their product nor do I get free products in exchange for reviews (I like it that way, it keeps everyone honest). However, I do make a small commission if you buy your seat from Amazon from a link on my site, so please buy it here (cough).
To find an inspection station to have your seat professionally checked, go here.