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Less expensive car seats still have top safety features

Having a baby is expensive, and if you have more than one, you may really be taking a hit to the wallet. The good news is you don't have to pay more to keep your baby safe. Regardless of price, all U.S. infant car seats must pass the same rigorous safety standards.

The Baby Trend Flex-Loc (Est. $89) is a budget-friendly seat that accommodates babies up to 30 pounds and 30 inches tall. The seat fares well in independent crash tests and has a no-rethread harness that can be adjusted from the front for growth, a perk usually reserved for much pricier seats. Parents like the generous sun canopy, and many also praise the unique triangular handle, which they say makes the seat easier to carry. But several reviewers complain that the two-tongue buckle is difficult to use and the handle-release buttons are stiff. Also, you need to pay attention to the version you're buying. Although all Flex-Loc seats accommodate babies up to 30 pounds, the EZ Flex-Loc car seat only accommodates infants to 22 pounds. Fortunately, Baby Trend makes it easy to figure it out. The Flex-Loc infant seats on their websites all sport a large, blue "30 lbs" mark so you know which is which.

The Graco SnugRide 30 (Est. $90) has always been a top choice among experts for its combination of features and value. However, as this report went to press, Graco had just announced a recall of nearly 3.8 million convertible car seats due to an issue with the buckle that makes it difficult to remove a child from the seat, increasing the risk of injury when an emergency exit from the vehicle is required. The recall was initiated at the urging of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) following complaints from a number of parents.

The NHTSA has also recommended that Graco recall millions of its infant seats, including the SnugRide 35 due to the same buckle issue. At the time this report went to press, Graco has declined to recall any infant seats, saying that parents use infant car seats differently than they do convertible car seats. Our recommendation is to be sure your Graco car seat buckle is not of the style noted in the recall.  The improved buttons are square. You can see the old versus the new buckles by visiting www.gracobaby.com.

If you already own an older Graco infant car seat you can continue to use it as crash-worthiness is not affected, but, if you have problems with the buckle, contact Graco at 800-345-4109 or at or consumerservices@gracobaby.com for a resolution.

Assuming you do not have one of the affected car seats, or can purchase a new one with the new buckle style, there's a lot to like about the SnugRide 30. It's compatible with a wide range of strollers, has ample padding, and boasts a large canopy. It's also very lightweight at 7.5 pounds, and it fares better than other SnugRides in independent crash testing. But the seat lacks features such as newer, push-button LATCH connectors and a level indicator that ease installation. Experts also say the seat isn't a good fit for preemies despite its 4-pound weight minimum. Headroom is limited for older babies, they add.

Parents on truly tight budgets will appreciate the Cosco Comfy Carry (Est. $60) , which received the highest possible ratings in independent safety tests. The seat is lightweight and may be a good fit in smaller cars. Reviewers report few problems with installation and say it seems comfortable for their babies. But at this price, there aren't many extras to speak of -- for instance, the base isn't adjustable to obtain a better recline angle, the canopy is skimpy and the harness must be both adjusted and rethreaded from the back of the seat. The Comfy Carry also has a lower 22-pound, 29-inch capacity, making for a potentially shorter life span than seats like the Baby Trend Flex-Loc and Graco SnugRide 30.

Taking into consideration the recent recall of Graco convertible car seats and the still-possible recall of their infant car seats, the Baby Trend Flex-Loc is our top choice in the budget car seat category.

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Baby Trend Flex-Lock Infant Car Seat, Carbon
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from Amazon.com
New: $89.99   
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Graco SnugRide Classic Connect Infant Car Seat, Pasadena
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from Amazon.com
New: $89.99 $67.46   
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Graco SnugRide Classic Connect 30 LX Infant Car Seat, Metropolis
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New: $129.99 $118.90   
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Cosco Juvenile Comfy Carry Infant Seat, Jungle Parade II
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from Amazon.com
New: $94.32 $55.00   
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