Convertible car seats accommodate a wide range of growing children since they can be used both rear- and forward-facing. Unfortunately, they are also bulky and can be harder to install than infant car seats (which we cover elsewhere in this report) that have convenient click-in bases. Because of that, it's particularly important for parents to find a convertible seat that they're confident they can use correctly.
First introduced in 2013, the Chicco NextFit (Est. $300) immediately made waves as one of the easiest-to-install convertible car seats. Its popularity hasn't faded in the past couple of years, with reviewers continuing to rave about the seat's safety features, versatility, and ease of use. The NextFit can accommodate children from 5 to 40 pounds rear-facing and from 20 to 65 pounds forward-facing. Children must be less than 50 inches tall.
Reviewers say it's hard to beat the NextFit on installation. Experts with CarSeatBlog.com say they ran into few issues installing the NextFit in a wide variety of vehicles, reserving particular praise for the SuperCinch straps that make it easy to get tight LATCH installations. Built-in lock-offs make seat-belt installations easy, too. The NextFit also features nine built-in recline positions that help parents achieve a proper angle without resorting to rolled towels or pool noodles. A no-rethread harness makes adjusting the seat's harness height a snap, and the cover is machine-washable. For about $20 more, the NextFit Zip lets you zip the cover off and on instead of fussing with snaps and hooks.
The NextFit has deep head wings to protect against side-impact crashes, a steel-reinforced frame and energy-absorbing foam. It receives very good marks for crash protection in independent testing. Like all convertibles, the seat has a five-point harness, chest clip, and tether for use forward-facing. It does not allow for tethering rear-facing.
Despite the NextFit's high height and weight capacities, it doesn't hog as much space rear-facing as other seats, experts say. However, it is still heavy at 25 pounds. Some parents also complain that the chest clip is too easy for a toddler to undo, while others say the harness is too difficult to tighten, particularly when the seat is rear-facing. Several reviewers also complained that the seat's original shoulder strap covers were too big, but Chicco has redesigned them and made using them optional.
For years, Britax has been a convertible car seat juggernaut, earning a reputation for easy-to-use seats with industry-leading safety features. Reviewers say the Britax Boulevard G4.1 (Est. $270) lives up to this billing. The seat can accommodate children from 5 to 40 pounds rear-facing and from 20 to 65 pounds forward-facing. Children must be less than 49 inches tall.
Car Seat Blog says the Boulevard features "one of the easiest LATCH installs on the market" and praises the front-adjust harness system, which means you don't have to uninstall the seat to rethread straps when your child grows. Seat-belt installations are also easy with color-coded belt paths, but belt lock-offs can be hard to close all the way, note experts with CarSeatsForTheLittles.org. Upgrading to the ClickTight version of the Boulevard for an extra $30 will make seat-belt installations a breeze, they say. A couple of areas where the Chicco NextFit has an edge: In some cars, rolled towels or pool noodles may be necessary to achieve a proper installation angle of the Boulevard for young babies. The Boulevard's cover is also hand-wash only.
The Boulevard features Britax SafeCell crash protection: an impact-absorbing base, top tether, harness, and steel frame. The seat also has a deep shell and beefed-up head protection. It receives very good marks for crash protection in independent testing. Like all convertibles, the Boulevard has a five-point harness, chest clip, and tether for use forward-facing. Unlike the NextFit, you can use the tether rear-facing for an additional layer of protection, or purchase an optional anti-rebound bar from Britax for $20. Note that Britax recalled some ClickTight Boulevards in August 2015 because the harness adjuster was sticking in the "release" position. This recall does not apply to non-ClickTight Boulevards, however.
Experts say the Boulevard is compact for a seat with its height and weight capacity, but warn that the short shell means a taller child could outgrow it before parents are ready to flip it forward-facing or move to a booster. If that's a concern, the ClickTight has a taller shell that should be more accommodating. The Boulevard is lighter than the NextFit at 19½ pounds, which parents appreciate. However, several say the fabric pills or snags, especially around Velcro patches meant to keep straps out of the way while putting a child in the seat. Others say it is hard to tighten the harness straps enough.
If your budget is tight, the Cosco Scenera NEXT (Est. $45) proves you don't have to spend hundreds of dollars to keep your child safe in a convertible car seat, reviewers say. An update to the original Scenera, it has a small, lightweight frame that makes it ideal for travel or smaller cars. The seat accommodates children from 5 to 40 pounds rear-facing and from 22 to 40 pounds forward-facing. Children must be less than 43 inches tall in forward-facing mode and 40 inches rear-facing.
There are no level indicators to help you achieve a proper installation angle with the Scenera NEXT -- you'll simply need to make sure a molded line is parallel to the ground. Fortunately, experts with Car Seats For The Littles say you're less likely to need rolled towels or pool noodles to achieve a good rear-facing installation than with the original Scenera. Most parents say the Scenera NEXT is not difficult to install, however. The seat does not have a no-rethread height-adjusting harness, but parents say the machine-washable seat cover is easy to remove.
Despite lacking any fancy safety extras, the original Scenera was the only seat to score the highest possible rating in recent rounds of independent crash tests. The Scenera NEXT has yet to undergo those tests, however. The seat has side impact protection, LATCH connectors, a five-point harness, and a top tether for use forward-facing. You cannot tether the Scenera NEXT rear-facing, and it does not have the energy-absorbing foam that pricier seats boast.
Experts often recommend the Scenera NEXT for second vehicles or grandparents' cars. Indeed, many parents say it is too thinly padded to be their kids' primary seat. On the flip side, the seat is so lightweight at 7 pounds -- a fraction of what the Chicco NextFit and Britax Boulevard weigh -- that it's a great option for travel. It's also narrow, so it can be a good pick if you need to fit three car seats across in your vehicle. We also discuss other options for fitting multiple car seats in your car in our separate section on the best compact convertible car seats. Just don't expect the Scenera NEXT to be long-lived for taller or heavier children, as its height and weight capacities are low compared to pricier seats.
Elsewhere in this report: