Convertible car seats keep small children safe as they grow from babies to big kids
Convertible car seats bridge the gap between infant car seats, designed for the smallest babies, and booster seats that help bigger kids properly fit a vehicle's seat belts. For smaller children, convertible car seats can be installed rear-facing for additional protection in a crash. Once a child reaches the seat's rear-facing height or weight limits, parents can turn it around.
Aside from the ability to flip from rear- to forward-facing, convertible car seats share some other characteristics. They have five-point harnesses with chest chips to keep children secure, and, like most car seats, they allow for both Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) and seat-belt installation. Unlike infant car seats, which are light enough to be carried and can detach from a stay-in-car base, most convertible car seats are designed to stay put in your vehicle. It's just as well -- most convertibles are bulky and heavy, with some tipping the scales at more than 20 or even 30 pounds.
There are a few other things to consider when you're picking a convertible car seat: how long you want your child to use the seat both rear- and forward-facing, how much you want to spend and how much space you have in your vehicle.
Today's convertible car seats have higher weight limits than ever. Many convertibles can accommodate children up to around 40 pounds rear-facing and 65 or 70 pounds forward-facing. In theory, this means a convertible car seat should accommodate an average child rear-facing until age 4 and forward-facing until 9 or 10. In practice, that's rare: Most children will outgrow a convertible car seat by height before weight. Height limits vary widely among seats, and there are often additional requirements specified by a seat's manufacturer. Common rules include that rear-facing children have at least an inch of seat shell above their head and that forward-facing children's shoulders be lower than the top slot used for the harness strap. In general, seats with taller shells will have the longest life span, but they'll hog more front-to-back room in a car. In addition, seats that accommodate bigger children are among the most expensive convertibles -- but the investment may pay off if you don't need to buy another seat before your child can use a booster. Expect to pay around $150 for a basic higher-capacity convertible car seat. If you want extra bells and whistles, you may pay closer to $250 or even $300.
Less expensive convertible car seats are perfectly safe, but they lack extra frills. It's easy to assume a more expensive convertible car seat will be safer than a cheaper model. In reality, every car seat sold in the U.S. has to pass the same federal crash tests. Aside from price, there are a couple of other pros to less expensive seats: They're often smaller, which means they may be a better fit in compact cars, and they may be lighter, too -- no small consideration in the world of bulky, heavy convertible car seats. The biggest downside to less expensive car seats? They often have lower weight capacities, with some topping out at around 40 pounds forward-facing. They also may lack extras, such as head wings that protect against side-impact crashes or thicker padding to keep children comfier.
Compact convertible car seats exist, but there are trade-offs. For parents used to infant car seats, the sheer bulk of convertibles can be a shock -- especially when they end up hogging half the backseat. Compact convertible car seats are designed with more narrow frames, which is especially useful if you need to fit two or even three car seats in one row. But beware: A seat billed as compact may still take up plenty of room front-to-back when installed rear-facing. Some compact seats may have lower height and weight limits, meaning they won't last as long. They also may feel confining for kids with bigger frames.
Watch for recent recalls. In February 2014, Graco recalled 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 reports from a number of parents. We discuss this specific recall in our section on budget car seats; however, it's worth noting here that you should never buy a used car seat. Buy new and be sure to register it, and you will be notified of any recalls.
The NHTSA has also recommended that Graco recall millions of its infant seats, something that, at the time this report went to press, Graco has declined to do. For some safe alternatives to Graco, see our report on infant car seats. If your child is ready to move up to the next level, see our report on booster seats.
ConsumerSearch has analyzed expert and customer reviews to evaluate the safety, ease of use, lifestyle factors and customer service for popular convertible car seats. The result is our picks for the best convertible car seats on the market.