We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.
5/24/17 - We replaced the Graco MyRide 65 with the Graco Contender car seat after the MyRide experienced a recall. The Graco Contender was our runner-up for Best Bang for the Buck.
Parents make numerous important decisions during their 18+ years of child rearing. Finding the best car seat for an infant and/or toddler is one of those decisions.
Here at BestReviews, we wanted to help our readers learn more about this critical piece of equipment. So we enlisted the help of Jonas Sickler, a published author of baby books and our resident expert on all things related to child safety.
Jonas currently serves as marketing director for ConsumerSafety.org.
The first thing Jonas helped us understand is that there are three types of car seats from which parents can choose:
An infant car seat includes a detachable carrier and a base that buckles into your vehicle. These models can accommodate babies up to 30 pounds.
A convertible car seat can face either the front or the back, providing a seamless transition for children as they grow. New parents set it up in a rear-facing position initially and a forward-facing position later on.
A 3-in-1 car seat has no rear-facing option. These seats are built to fit small toddlers while using a seat insert, large toddlers without an insert, and preschoolers in a backless configuration. Some will even accommodate young schoolchildren.
In this shopping guide, we will focus on convertible car seats, the best of which have passed all federally mandated safety tests and provide passengers with a secure and convenient mode of travel.
Jonas has spent more than half of his life surrounded by children's products. He published a series of baby books called Indestructibles that are designed to take everything a baby can dish out. More recently, Jonas has taken on a role as Marketing Director for ConsumerSafety.org, where he oversees safety campaigns to inform consumers about recalled products. As a father and safety expert, Jonas has a critical eye for analyzing products, and is well-versed in CPSC safety regulations for baby products.
We tested convertible car seats at our BestReviews headquarters in order to get a hands-on feel for how these devices work. Through our testing sessions, conversations with Jonas, and additional product research, we comprised a shortlist of the five best convertible car seats on the market today.
You can read about these seats in our product matrix, above.
Rest assured that we do not accept free product samples from manufacturers. Rather, we use our own funds to purchase the same “off-the-shelf” products that you do. And when we wrap up testing, we donate these products to charities and other non-profit organizations that can use them.
Please read on to learn more about our top convertible car seat recommendations.
Choosing the right car seat has a lot to do with your lifestyle. Do you prefer to maximize convenience with the snap-and-go options of an infant carrier, or do you prefer the money-saving benefits of a convertible car seat?
First and foremost, all convertible car seats in our product matrix have passed or exceeded the minimal safety standards mandated by the federal government. That said, different manufacturers go to different lengths when it comes to the quality and degree of their safety features.
The Evenflo Tribute is padded with energy absorbing foam and is specially tested for side impact stability. Some owners note that the installed seat wiggles from side to side a bit, even when latched properly, but this slight movement has no effect on the seat's federal safety rating.
Buy only those car seats that have a JPMA stamp, guaranteeing their compliance with all safety standards. Since safety standards keep changing, avoid buying second-hand car seats with outdated technologies.
We like the degree of safety you get for the low price of the Graco Contender 65. The seat is lined with EPS foam for impact absorption in the event of a crash. Like the EvenFlo, this seat is sometimes “wiggly” in spite of correct usage of the LATCH system, but this has no bearing on the product's federal safety rating. Parents of newborns appreciate the removable insert and reclining options that prevent the child's head from slumping.
The Chicco NextFit does a phenomenal job keeping the child securely anchored in the seat. Deep head-wings lined with EPS (expanded polystyrene) foam protect from side impact, and a removable infant insert provides even more protection. Our research indicates that the Chicco NextFit'x strap-tightening process requires a bit more elbow grease in rear-facing mode, but overall, we give this seat a high rating for the stability and security it provides.
The Advocate is brilliantly engineered to compress in the event of a crash, lowering the child's center of gravity to keep him/her safe. Side impact cushions reduce crash impact by up to 45 percent. This model is lined with durable, eco-friendly EPP (expanded polypropylene) foam. An Energy-Absorbing Versa Tether further restricts movement during a sudden stop. One satisfied customer remarked that using the Britax is like “surrounding your kid with airbags.”
The remarkably sturdy Diono Radian is the only convertible seat on our shortlist that comes with a full steel frame. This structure includes aluminum reinforced sidewalls and is padded throughout with shock-absorbing EPS foam. Some owners note a slight off-gassing odor emanating from the padding, and at least one owner experienced an incident in which their child ripped some of the padding and chewed on it. These issues notwithstanding, we give the Diono kudos for its strongest quality: impact protection. One customer we surveyed, who also happens to be an emergency responder, remarked that the seat seems as if it were “designed for NASCAR.”
The restraints in a rear-facing seat must be located at or below the baby’s shoulders. If they are positioned above the shoulders, they must be adjusted — or the seat should not be used. You should never place an object under your baby to make the fit more snug.
All car seat models, convertible and otherwise, are subject to state laws regarding their safe use. Before car seat installation, parents and other caregivers must understand the regulations that apply to their state. What follows is by no means a comprehensive list, but it’s a great place to start. After all, nothing is more important than the health and safety of your precious cargo.
If the child is two years old and has not reached maximum height for the seat, many experts advise parents to continue using the chair in a rear-facing position for as long as needed.
Rear-facing car seats should never be used in the front passenger seat. While it may seem convenient to have the child right next to you in the front seat, officials discourage this practice for several reasons:
The passenger side air bag is designed to deploy during a moderate to severe impact. This could be fatal for an infant in the passenger seat.
Most cars have “crumple zones” to minimize the energy of a crash. A baby or toddler in the front seat is in the middle of such a zone. Even a minor accident could severely injure the child.
Due to the longer lifespan of convertible seats, you could be using something that doesn’t meet current safety standards if new regulations are passed. Register your purchase to keep up to date on such news.
Parents should never skip the booster seat stage after convertible car seat graduation. Most states allow parents to switch from a front-facing convertible car seat to a belted booster seat after the child has outgrown the convertible seat harness or has reached age four. This booster seat phase is very important in terms of safety and seat design. It should never be skipped in favor of a regular seatbelt.
Police can and will enforce car seat laws as a secondary offense. Harried parents and other caregivers may decide that a quick trip to the grocery store or local park doesn't require bundling the child in a rear-facing car seat and harness. But in the eyes of the law, there are very few excuses for putting a child at such risk. Drivers pulled over for minor traffic infractions can also be ticketed for violating child seat laws if the officer notices an improperly restrained child.
How easy a car seat is to install, remove, and navigate inside a vehicle are all important considerations when deciding on a purchase. Other important factors include harness reliability, the weight/bulk of the seat, and how much space the seat takes up in various car models.
The Evenflo Tribute is easy to install, whether with the LATCH system of newer cars or with the seat-belt system of older cars. Although the cushioning is thinner than that of some other car seat models, most children are comfortable enough in it to fall asleep while riding. The Evenflo Tribute Sport is less bulky than the other seats we've reviewed and works well in smaller cars. This model's weight limit is lower (40 pounds) than the other seats we've reviewed which may be a drawback for some customers. However, we find that most owners who selected the Tribute for its low price are satisfied with their choice.
The Graco Contender 65 installs with the LATCH system found in newer cars and the seat-belt system found in older cars. In our customer surveys, we learned that this model can be a bit difficult to install and even more difficult to remove. The harness can be a bit tricky to tighten, especially in its rear-facing mode where it is harder to access. However, most customers indicate that these issues are minor when compared to their satisfaction with the Graco's affordable price, comfortable padding, and safety rating.
Customers love how easy the Chicco NextFit is to install. Chicco's SuperCinch LATCH system works with LATCH in newer cars for children up to 40 pounds. According to the manufacturer, children over 40 pounds are better protected by seat belt installation, but most customers find this a fairly easy task to complete. We like the fact that the NextFit does not take up as much room in rear-facing mode as many other models, making it a great choice for families with smaller cars. The seat looks stylish and sophisticated and can be easily spot cleaned/laundered as needed.
Keep the car seat rear-facing until your child outgrows the maximums given in terms of height and weight — this usually occurs around two years of age.
The Britax Advocate scores major points with us because it is one of the easiest convertible seats to install. Latch connectors make the process simple and quick, and the seat can be just as quickly uninstalled with the push of a button. The Britax is a larger seat that takes up quite a bit of space in rear-facing position; potential buyers should note the size of their backseat bench before purchasing. We give the Britax Buckle System a thumbs up for how tight and stable the seat becomes when locked in place. One owner who got in a rollover accident was surprised and pleased at how easily she was able to remove her firmly anchored child in an emergency situation.
Installation of the Diono Radian RXT is quick and easy in newer vehicles with the LATCH system but is more time-consuming in older vehicles with the seat-belt system. Parents absolutely love how the Radian sits low in its seat, making it easy for smaller children to climb aboard. Occasionally the Radian RXT harness does not tighten to its maximum potential; this is a known defect that can be resolved by uninstalling and reinstalling the seat with a factory-issued harness replacement. Because of the seat's bulk and weight, we note that moving the seat between two different vehicles can be a hassle. Before purchasing, customers should evaluate whether the dimensions of this larger seat would fit in their car.
Installing a car seat in a tight-fitting backseat can be tricky. The instruction manual supposedly helps, but many parents discover there’s still a lot of gray area when it comes to actual installation.
Because convertible car seats require a bit of “elbow grease” to install and remove, Jonas advises that if you plan to alternate driving obligations with someone, you might consider buying more than one convertible seat. This would cost you a bit more upfront, but the time and frustration you save would likely be worth it.
Before purchasing a car seat, make sure the dimensions of your chosen product will fit the backseat of your car.
Here are some tips to help your installation process run smoothly —
Push the front seat forward as much as possible to make room for the car seat. Front seat adults may be a little inconvenienced, but proper installation is much easier when you have lots of maneuvering room.
Use your full body weight to ensure a tight fit. Don’t just use your hands and arms to press the seat into position. Use a knee or your stomach to bear down on the seat before cinching up the first strap. If two people are available, put one on seat-pressing duty and the other on cinching-and-latching duty.
Use a swaying/rocking motion to wedge the car seat between the upper and lower cushions. Simply pushing the back of the car seat into this gap will not secure it. Rock the seat back and forth as you bear down on it. Some people find it useful to position themselves directly in front of the seat for this task, using their belly as leverage.
Get help if you need it. There’s no shame in asking for professional help installing a car seat. In fact, it’s quite common for parents to seek help, and it’s easy to find a technician who will help you. The searchable technician database at SafeCar.gov is a great place to start.
If your vehicle has fabric upholstery, place a towel beneath the seat to protect the fabric. For leather or faux leather interiors, put a rubber carpet slip guard beneath the seat to keep it in place and protect your upholstery.
All seats on our shortlist provide a supportive transition from rear-facing to front-facing mode as the child grows. The amount of body weight a car seat accommodates in both modes is an important consideration, as is the seat's ability to recline, its portability, and its cup holder system.
The Evenflo Tribute Sport supports 5 to 40 pounds in rear-facing position and 22 to 40 pounds in front-facing position. The Tribute's weight cap is lower than the other models on our list, but the seat's extremely low price and high safety rating make it a worthy contender. The seat comes with a separate cup holder which many owners choose not to use due to its “flimsy” nature. It doesn't offer numerous positional reclining options like some other seats on the market, but it does offer a recline for infants in rear-facing mode. Padding is on the thinner side, and our research suggests that a small percentage of riders have issues with getting comfortable/falling asleep in this seat. The Tribute Sport is more “bare bones” than luxury, but we think it's great option for those on a limited budget.
The Graco Contender 65 accommodates children 5 to 40 pounds in rear-facing mode and 20 to 65 pounds in front-facing mode. It features a removable body support that adjusts to the needs of a growing child. We absolutely love the convenience of the Contender's cup holder, and parents of fidgety toddlers appreciate the fact that the strap is situated just out of the child's sight and reach – unlike on some of the car seat other models.
Premium car seats come with additional features like cushier fabric, anti-rebound foot bars, a small "boot" space at the foot of the seat, and more.
The Chicco NextFit accommodates children from 5 to 40 pounds in rear-facing mode and 22 to 65 pounds in front-facing mode. A removable insert snuggles in newborns, protecting them from danger and keeping parents at ease. Some users note that the strap pads are too large for smaller children, but these pads come equipped with a Velcro strip for easy removal. The add-on cup holder can be conveniently attached to either side of the seat, although some owners report disappointment with its inability to hold a 12 oz. sippy cup. We give this seat high ratings for its ReclineSure 9-position Leveling System, which keeps young travelers comfortable and ensures the best fit in the backseat of the car.
The Britax Advocate accommodates children ranging from 5 to 40 pounds in rear-facing position and 20 to 65 pounds in foward-facing position. Loyal Britax customers are particularly enamored with the extra two inches of strap sported over its predecessor, the G3, as the extra material allows pre-adolescents to fit in the seat that much more easily. The Advocate does not have a built-in cup holder like some other top model car seats do, although it does come with a clip-on. Most children find this seat comfortable and “sleep-worthy,” a valuable benefit to families during longer car rides.
The Diono Radian RXT accommodates children from birth to 120 pounds and is designed to last a decade. Rear-facing, the seat holds 5 to 45 pounds. Front-facing, the car seat holds 20 to 80 pounds and then converts to a booster for kids up to 120 pounds. Users have the option of expanding the single cup holder to a four-cup holder, but owners have warned us that it is not “toddler proof” and can be prone to spills. Though this car seat is on the bulkier side, one of its greatest assets is that it folds flat for travel and fits three across in most mid-sized vehicles.
Convertible car seats are designed to give parents a single option for transporting their child from infancy to preschool age — but they have limitations. If your newborn is too small to fit safely in a convertible seat, you should use an infant car seat until he or she gets bigger.
All car seats should bear a printed expiration date for the owner’s reference. In many cases, this expiration date will be around six years from the date it left the factory.
Avoid buying a used car seat which has no visible expiration date or an expired one. Because most children are ready to switch to a booster by age four, this expiration date shouldn’t be problematic for new car seats. But it does encourage parents to upgrade to a new model for a second child.
There are child safety organization and parenting groups that provide free classes on proper car seat installation and other child-related safety issues. There are also online videos that demonstrate techniques for first time use of a car seat.
You may be wondering why a perfectly adequate seat that you paid good money for would expire. Here are the primary reasons:
Car seat materials wear down over time. The plastic and metal parts of a 10-year-old car seat aren’t as sturdy and safe as the plastic and metal parts of a brand new car seat. And since a quality car seat could potentially save your child’s life, it’s important to have the best.
Car seats are designed with “best practices” in mind, but these standards evolve over time. What was considered safe in 2000 is not necessarily what’s considered safe today. To ensure the best for your precious cargo, it’s wise to stay on top of the best technology.
If your child’s car seat has been in an accident — or even a drop or hard fall — throw the seat away. It may appear to be structurally sound, but a latch or internal mechanism could have sustained hidden damage.
Convertible car seats range in price from under $100 to over $800. Seats at the higher end tend to offer a glossier look with more bells and whistles, while seats at the lower end tend to zero in on basic functionality and safety without the extra frills.
For $47, the Evenflo Tribute Sport provides adequate protection in a bare bones package. We find this choice to be adequate for families on a budget and those who need a car seat only occasionally.
At a price of $134, the Graco Contender 65 is a step up from the EvenFlo in terms of comfort. The harness and strap require a bit of elbow grease, but customer satisfaction is high in spite of this minor inconvenience. You'll potentially get more months out of this seat than the EvenFlo due to its higher weight limit.
For a middle-of-the-road price of $299, the Chicco NextFit is a strong anchor and a reliable product with a few known peculiarities, such as the cup holder that won't accommodate a 12 oz. sippy and the mandatory seat belt installation in front-facing mode. For the price, we admire this seat's quality but wish it came with LATCH convenience in both riding modes.
For $352, the Britax Advocate ClickTight is a trusted product that has proven its worth in at least one owner's crash experience. The Britax scores major points for its easy ClickTight Installation System. We love that it comes equipped with durable and environmentally friendly EPP foam (as opposed to the less durable and less "green" foam in some of our other models) and the fact that SafeCell technology actually lowers a child's center of gravity in the event of a crash.
For a price of $231, the Diono Radian RXT has a few bothersome features we wish it didn't, like the slight off-gassing foam odor, a cup holder that is not toddler proof, and a known defect in some harnesses. Nevertheless, this steel-framed seat offers excellent impact protection and peace of mind.
It might be tempting to install your convertible car seat in the right or left car rear seats, but experts suggest that the middle section is actually safer during a crash. The front seats are less likely to penetrate this area during a crash, and parents usually have better access to the middle seat area.
As mentioned above, a convertible car seat is just one of several options you have as a parent.
You could purchase a rear-facing infant car seat for your child and later, when he or she is about two years old, switch to a front-facing seat.
But some people like convertible car seats because they follow the child from babyhood to about age four.
Retain all receipts and warranties, and register your purchase with the manufacturer to be notified of any recall. Car seats and strollers top the list of recalls due to strict safety standards.
Here are some pros and cons to consider before investing in a convertible car seat —
Rescue workers prefer to extract children from independent car seats rather than integrated car seats. That’s because the rigid outer shell of an independent car seat can serve as a temporary backboard after an accident.
Always pay attention to the manufacturer’s weight specifications. Also take note of how the car seat fits your baby’s body. If it doesn’t look safe to you, it’s probably not.
At $352, we give the Britax Advocate our “Best of the Best” award. Britax rates high with families for lots of great reasons, including SafeCell technology that lowers a child's center of gravity in the event of a crash, a buckle system that makes it incredibly easy to secure precious cargo, and the extra two inches of strap that allow children to use the seat even longer than they could with the Britax G3. This is a larger seat with an extremely impressive ability to anchor and secure young riders, granting peace of mind to adults and swaddling little ones in comfort and safety as they ride. Priced far lower than many high-end convertible car seats on the market, the Britax is a favorite among families who seek quality and scientifically engineered protection in the event of a crash. This product earns our highest marks for its moderate price, scientifically backed safety features, and laser-focused dependability.
Priced far lower than many high-end convertible car seats on the market, the Britax is a favorite among families who seek quality and scientifically engineered protection in the event of a crash.
At $134, the Graco Contender provides the same basic safety features as its competitors for a much lower price. We prefer it over the EvenFlo, our other budget contender, because it accommodates children up to 65 pounds as opposed to only 40 pounds, extending the life of the car seat that much longer.
The Contender's installation and harness-tightening procedures require a bit more elbow grease than some other models, but this is a solid, sturdy seat nonetheless, and satisfied customers find the extra effort to be worth its weight in dollar savings. Parents of newborns like the body-nestling insert offered by the Graco. We especially love the cup holder, a convenient family feature you don't find in all car seat models.
Graco is a trusted manufacturer of baby products that has received consistently high ratings over its decades-long tenure. All in all, we award the Graco Contender 65 the blue ribbon for affordability, safety, basic functionality, and price.
At BestReviews, we consider dozens of models of convertible car seats before narrowing our list down to the top five. Here are some of the other products we considered when writing this review, and why they didn't make the cut.
Graco Size4Me 65 Convertible Car Seat: This Graco car seat has great consumer reviews, but we chose the Graco Contender 65 over it for a few reasons – comfort of the seat, all-in-one straps, and lightweight form (the Size4Me 65 is especially heavy at 20 lbs).
Britax Marathon ClickTight and Britax Boulevard ClickTight Convertible Car Seats: Both the Marathon and the Boulevard earn high marks from parents, but we chose the Advocate ClickTight for it's larger feature set. The Marathon has only one layer of side impact protection and the Boulevard two, both outweighed by the Advocate's industry-record three layers. However, the extra layer of protection does add a little to the bulk and the cost of the Advocate, so if you want to save some weight – and cash – the Britax Marathon and Britax Boulevard are great options.
We also considered the Safety 1st Grow and Go 3-in-1 Convertible Car Seat for our shortlist, but some consumers felt like it lacked decent height and some users had trouble with the buckles and positioning of the car seat.
Q. I recently moved to a new state. How can I find out the laws and regulations concerning child car seats?
A. Almost all laws concerning child car seat usage are written at the state level, so you would most likely find the information you seek by searching the official state website and using the keywords “car seat laws” or “child car seats”.
Q. I bought a used convertible car seat at a thrift store. The expiration date is still good, and it looks undamaged. How can I tell if it has been recalled?
A. Jonas strongly discourages the purchase of a used car seat unless the buyer is fully aware of its history and previous ownership. “There are many items that you can and should buy pre-owned,” Jonas says, “but a car seat is not one of them. Without the instructions, you might install the seat improperly.”
Furthermore, Jonas says, “There’s no way for the company to notify you of a recall.” That’s because many companies only issue recall information directly to registered owners. Some product safety organizations may have a master list of recalled products, but it is often up to the buyer to arrange for a repair or replacement. Without proof of an original purchase, you’d likely be better off disposing of the recalled model and buying a safer seat.
Q. Why should my child face backwards while riding in a car? I would like to see his face once in awhile.
A. Rear-facing car seats are designed to protect the fragile skeletal and muscular structure of their occupants. When an infant or toddler faces forward during a crash, the head snaps forward, causing softer neck and spinal bones to separate. This is an injury worse than whiplash. A rear-facing car seat is designed to cushion the head and prevent those whiplash-like injuries. Parents may want to have face-to-face time with their children, but safety should be a larger concern when transporting a fragile young passenger in a vehicle.
Q. We’re considering purchasing a new van with an integrated child seat. Is this kind of pre-installed car seat safe for a newborn?
A. In terms of meeting safety standards for a child car seat, most integrated car seats pass the test. They are just as safe for older toddlers as a separate car seat. However, they are not designed for infants and young toddlers who need to be in a rear-facing car seat until at least the age of two.
At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.