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Best Compact Convertible Car Seat

By: Kelly Burgess on October 10, 2017

Parents with several young children need compact convertible car seats

Parents who have several young children close in age, multiples, or those who carpool with many young kids may not have the luxury of picking a full-sized convertible car seat, which we discuss elsewhere in this report. Space can also be a concern for taller drivers or passengers who need to preserve their leg room in front of convertible car seats.

If you’ve got a small car and need a seat that’s both narrow and short-shelled, the compact Combi Coccoro (Est. $180) is a long-time parent favorite. At just 14 pounds, it's also a car seat that won't break your back if you have to move it. The ample padding and smaller scale also make it a good pick for parents who want a convertible that cradles small babies. The seat accommodates children from 3 to 33 pounds rear-facing, with an infant positioner to help accommodate the smallest babies, and 20 to 40 pounds forward-facing. Children must be less than 40 inches tall.

The Coccoro has push-button LATCH connectors to secure and remove the tethers to the anchors more easily, as well as seat-belt lock-offs to maintain tension around the seat. Its smaller size and lighter frame make it easier to install than bulkier seats, reviewers say, but the curved shell can make getting a tight rear-facing installation tricky when you’re not using LATCH. The harness tension is easy to adjust, but the four-position harness height adjusts from the rear. The Coccoro does not have an adjustable crotch strap. The seat cushion is machine washable, which is good since some owners have complained that the fabric stains easily.

The Coccoro gets high crash-test ratings in independent tests. It features side-impact protection and energy-absorbing foam as well as a five-point harness with a chest clip, standard on convertible car seats. In the past, users complained that the seat could flip toward the backseat in the rear-facing position. Combi has corrected this problem by updating newer models with improved seat-belt lock-offs and a rear-facing tether that stabilizes the car seat and reduces movement in a crash. The Coccoro was also recalled in 2016 over concerns about whether it transmitted too much force to a forward-facing position if installed with the seat belt; the issue has been rectified on new models.

At under 16 inches wide, the Coccoro is one of the narrowest available compact car seats. Most parents can fit three Coccoros across in their backseat, and the short shell means it also won’t hog room from front to back. Parents and experts both praise the comfortable fit that the Coccoro offers for very small infants and babies. However, the Coccoro's low weight and height limits may mean you'll have to buy a bigger car seat before your child is booster-ready.

The Diono Radian RXT (Est. $250) was originally the Best Reviewed pick in this category for this update, but a recent recall notice has prompted us to drop it to runner up status. In a nutshell, if the car seat is used without the tether, children over 65 pounds are at increased risk for a chest injury. There are no reports of injury; the issue was discovered by Diono during routine safety testing. You can get an energy absorbing pad and a new chest clip at no cost by calling Diono at (855) 463-4666.

Still, as recalls go, this is a minor issue with an easy fix, and, at only 17 inches across, the Diono Radian has won a lot of fans for its ability to fit three across in a back seat. The Radian RXT's other claim to fame is its high height and weight capacities that allow extended rear-facing, even for taller kids: up to 44 inches and 45 pounds rear-facing, and 57 inches and 80 pounds forward-facing. The seat also converts to a booster that can keep kids safe up to 120 pounds. Though it has a 5-pound minimum, experts with CarSeatBlog.com caution that this seat might not fit newborns well.

The Radian RXT offers high-end convenience features like push-button LATCH connectors, but some reviewers still complain about ease-of-use issues. The seat has a lower center of gravity and narrow path for anchoring the LATCH tethers or seat belt, which can make it difficult to route the straps and tighten them, particularly rear-facing. The seat also lacks a no-rethread harness-height adjuster, but the harness tension is adjustable from the front. The cover is machine-washable, but the harness has to be unthreaded to remove it.

The Radian RXT has received very good marks in independent crash testing when used as a harnessed seat. It has a steel-reinforced frame and side-impact protection that is bolstered with aluminum rather than plastic, which reduces seat bulk without sacrificing strength. The seat also offers side-wing head protection, and it can be tethered for greater stability both rear- and forward-facing, which is rare – most seats only allow forward-facing tethering. Like all convertible car seats, the Radian RXT has a five-point harness with a chest clip. Parents should note that the seat only gets fair crash-test marks in booster mode because of concerns over belt placement.

Because it is narrow, the Radian RXT can fit three across in the backseat. But it has a tall shell that can demand a lot of front-to-back room unless you use the Diono Radian Angle Adjuster (Est. $9). The RXT has soft foam padding that keeps kids comfortable and absorbs impact, but it doesn't have armrests. It folds up for easier traveling, but at more than 26 pounds, it might not be worth it.

If width isn’t as much of a concern as front-to-back space, the Maxi-Cosi Pria 70 (Est. $250) is another compact but long-lived convertible car seat, reviewers say. Some models come with a TinyFit insert that makes it a better bet than the Diono Radian RXT for accommodating newborns, and reviewers are big fans of its thick, comfortable padding. Children can rear-face in the Pria until 40 pounds and forward-face until 70 pounds and 52 inches, 10 pounds and 5 inches shy of the Radian. The similar Maxi-Cosi Pria 85 (Est. $300) has an 85-pound limit, but the height limit is still 52 inches.

Experts say LATCH installation of the Pria is mostly trouble-free in part because it has push-button connectors and a recline adjustment handle that is easy to access on the back of the seat. However, some reviewers do wish for a level indicator; the Pria has a simple molded line that indicates the proper installation angle. Seat-belt only installation can be tricky because the seat lacks a belt lock-off, say testers with BabyGearLab.com. The no-rethread harness can be adjusted from the front of the seat, and the seat cover can be washed and dried in the washing machine and dryer – both features reviewers love. There are some complaints that the straps can be tricky to tighten, though.

The Maxi-Cosi Pria gets very good marks for crash protection in independent testing. Safety features include air-filled side-impact head cushions and a “FlexTech” frame designed to better absorb energy in a crash. It has a tether for use in forward-facing mode only, a five-point harness and a chest clip. 

Reviewers love the Pria’s thick padding and self-wicking fabric, which is designed to keep sweat and other moisture away from the skin. Experts say the TinyFit insert makes it a good bet for fitting newborns as small as 4 pounds, but it is only suitable from 9 pounds without the insert. The seat is 19.5 inches wide, 2.5 inches wider than the Radian, so it’s not as good of a candidate for parents who need to squeeze three car seats into one row. But it is several pounds lighter at 20 pounds, and experts say its shell doesn’t hog as much front-to-back room as similar seats, making it worth a look for installation behind taller drivers or front-seat passengers.

Safety 1st makes a compact convertible car seat that's a great value

If you need a compact convertible seat on an equally compact budget, the Safety 1st Guide 65 (Est. $90) is a good value that can keep children safe a bit longer than some other lower-priced seats, reviewers say. It accommodates children rear-facing from 5 to 40 pounds and forward-facing from 22 to 65 pounds. The rear-facing height limit is 40 inches, and the forward-facing height limit is 49 inches.

Experts with CarSeatsForTheLittles.org caution that the Guide 65 is not the easiest seat to install. For example, seat-belt installations can be tricky because of a small, finger-scraping belt path. Rolled towels or pool noodles may be necessary to maintain a proper rear-facing recline. You’ll also need to rethread straps from the back when adjusting the harness height -- typical for budget seats. The seat cover can be machine-washed and dried.

However, just like seats three times its price, the Guide 65 gets very good marks in independent crash testing. It does not have a lot of safety extras like those pricier seats, however. You’ll get side impact protection, a five-point harness, LATCH connectors, and a top tether -- all standard for convertible car seats. The seat does not allow for rear-facing tethering.

The Guide 65 is 17.5 inches at its widest point, and some parents report fitting three across in a back seat. Experts also say the seat’s short shell won’t take up too much room front to back, making it a good pick for compact cars. At 14 pounds, it’s relatively light for a convertible seat. Most parents are happy with the padding for the price, saying their children seem comfortable, but some caution that their kids’ heads slump during naps. Despite the seat’s 5-pound weight minimum, experts say smaller babies will not fit properly because the lowest strap slot is too high.

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Convertible Car Seats buying guide

What every best Convertible Car Seats has:

  • Adequate height and weight limits.
  • LATCH system for easy installation.
  • Adjustable harness heights.

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