A convertible car seat will help protect your child when rear-facing or forward-facing, and will become a permanent fixture in your car. If I were buying one today, I'd get the Chicco Nextfit 65 due to its easy installation and extended rear-facing capability.
We considered 11 different seats over the course of our 28 hours of research and testing, and the Chicco Nextfit 65 was our choice as the best convertible car seat. We consulted with child passenger safety technicians, car seat bloggers and combed through the reviews, in addition to conducting our own real-world testing to determine our pick.
Who Should Buy This?
Many parents who spend most of their transit time in a car will probably end up buying a bucket-style infant car seat to start with. These tend to fit infants up until 12 months (but sometimes just until 6 or 9 months). That's because they have specific height and weight limits. Most infant car seats have a height capacity between 29 and 35 inches tall, and a weight capacity ranging from 22 to 40 lbs. It's important to note that most babies will hit the height limit before the weight limit, as 40 pound children can easily be 2 years old and much too tall for their infant car seats.
Once they've outgrown that seat, they're ready to graduate into the convertible seat. Some parents don't realize, though, that you can even bring baby home from the hospital in a convertible car seat, so long as it fits a newborn baby and as long it's installed rear-facing at the proper angle. Many of the models we tested are capable of fitting babies as small as 5 pounds, and some even include a special and removable insert for them.
How do you know if you want a convertible seat from day one or an infant seat? The key difference is portability. An infant seat pops in an out of a base secured in the back seat of your vehicle. Baby stays in the seat to be transported to and from the car. In essence, the infant seat doubles as a baby carrier. On the other hand, a convertible seat is attached directly to the car and baby must be unbuckled and lifted to exit. Parents who don't spend much time in the car, or who don't need the snap-and-go capability, may find a convertible car seat to be a more cost effective option, rather than buying several extra bases. Convertible seats are also a reasonable option for the caregiver who's not the primary baby chauffeur. For some context, a standard Chicco Keyfit 30 infant car seat will set you back $190. When your baby outgrows the infant seat, they're also leaving behind the extra base. You're investing $275 into something that will last about a year. Having a convertible car seat from the start in the car that's less often used for pickups can save you money in the long run.
Also parents who simply value well, value, over convenience may want to skip the infant seat and start off with a convertible seat, which will last several years, growing with your child from newborn to toddler. But note, Consumer Reports thinks infant seats are best for newborns.
What Makes A Good Convertible Car Seat?
The first child-car seats were designed to make it easier for the parent to see their child while driving and to prevent them from moving freely about the cabin. Since that time we've learned a lot more about child safety and best practices.
When you're buying or researching car seats you'll hear that the best car seat is one that fits your child, and that can be safely installed in your vehicle every time. It's a fact that three out of four car seats are installed incorrectly. So you'll want to make sure that you fully understand the instructions on the seat that you end up with. If you're unsure or needing some help with your seat, you can visit Safekids.org to find a Child Passenger Safety Technician in your area to assist you.
A good convertible car seat should allow maximum seating room for baby while being compact enough to fit (both forward- and rear-facing) in your backseat. Many times, front-seat passengers have to move their seats up in order to accommodate a rear-facing seat. Don't think because that because you drive a giant SUV or minivan that you're immune to this concern. Another NightLight writer's personal experience was that her convertible seats were a tight fit even in a Nissan Pathfinder.
We spoke with Jennifer Newman, a child passenger safety technician and writer at Cars.com who does car-seat checks in new vehicles: "You can pay any amount that you want to out there, from as little as $50 up to $300 or even $400. Even the most expensive seats aren't always going to fit your car well. If you can find a baby store that will allow you to try to install the seat into your car before you buy it, that would be great."
You also want a seat that will allow your child to rear-face as long as possible. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents keep their children rear-facing at least until age 2. When we interviewed Dr. Ben Hoffman a certified member of the American Academy of Pediatrics and injury prevention specialist at the OHSU Doernbecher Children's Hospital, he told us, "In a crash there's a tremendous amount of energy that is generated by the change in velocity when the car crashes. A child between the age of 1 and 2 rear-facing, is 500 percent less likely to be injured in a crash than the same child forward-facing."
Lastly, you'll want to read through a seat's height and weight capacity, as well as its minimum allowed age and size. If you have your baby with you, it's a good idea to place them in the seat to see how the harness works. Many new seats will have "no-rethread" harnesses—yup, that's the official name—as well as crotch buckles or straps that are equipped to stay out of the way when you put your child in them. These features can make securing your child much easier. You'll want to avoid seats with heavy fabrics that get hot quickly, or ones that are too bulky for your vehicle. In addition, before buying a seat, make sure that there haven't been any known issues about how they work, like reports of children undoing the buckles on their own.
In our research, convertible car seats can cost less than $100, like the Safety 1st Alpha Omega Elite, or can exceed $400 with models such as the Clek Foonf. The cost of entry for a good convertible car seat was about $200, which will get you features like adjustable headrests, and premium LATCH connectors. (LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tether for Children, which is a system used for installations without the traditional seat belt, designed to make it easier for parents to install their seats correctly each time. More on LATCH below.) Beyond that, no-rethread harnesses, lock-offs (locking clasps on the seat designed to secure the seat belt in a seat belt installation), and better materials become the norm. This includes better fabrics that won't get as hot as the thick, velour-style fabrics on budget seats, more cushion to keep baby comfy, and more rigid bodies. The seats that we tested that had exposed plastic shells, tended to be more difficult to install, and flexed a lot when we tried to tighten them. This made getting them installed much more time consuming. The more rigid seats, like the Chicco and the Clek weighed themselves down and took much less time to tighten in every vehicle we tried. When it comes to cup holders, it's a tossup: It invites a mess into your back seat but could prove useful for older kids on longer commutes. Once you exceed the $300 threshold, you're buying into extras, like premium exterior fabrics, that will look and feel nice but not actually affect the seat's performance in a crash.
Another thing to look for are so-called 3-in-1 style seats. These seats promise to deliver seating options for infants, toddlers, and even preschool age kids. In our research, we found that those seats tended to skimp in certain areas. They would either fit an infant well and not accommodate larger toddlers, or be awkward for infants and function well as a booster seat. In trying to be everything to everyone, they mostly wound up being mediocre all around.
It's important to note, that every seat that is available to purchase in the United States has to pass the same safety testing, regardless of price. It's rather difficult as a consumer to qualify one seat as the safest, however newly proposed safety testing would better inform prospective buyers. With that said, manufacturers are adding new technology and improving their seats to be even safer and easier to use. Companies like Clek have even put their testing data online, for consumers to view and analyze.
A bit on LATCH
Car manufacturers were required to include these on all passenger vehicles starting in September of 2002. Note that manufacturer's are not required to put lower anchors in every seating position, so most skip installing them in the center seat. You'll find where they're located in your vehicle by reading your owner's manual, feeling around for them in-between the seat cushions or by visually locating them by finding the button, or tag with the LATCH symbol on it. Premium LATCH connectors have push-on, push-off buttons that are usually red, as opposed to the standard LATCH connectors that are merely steel clips. The standard connectors are difficult to install, and even harder to uninstall, should you ever plan on doing so.
New regulations were put into effect this past February, that stated once your child's weight, plus the weight of your seat exceed 65 lbs, that you must discontinue using LATCH. All seats can be installed with either LATCH or a seat belt (but not both, with two exceptions), and with a tether if required. When done correctly, these are equally safe. Every seat we tested had LATCH connectors, in addition to the tether, which is designed to stabilize a seat in a crash. All Britax, Diono and Peg Perego convertible seats even allow for rear-facing tethering when a suitable position can be found in the car, an added safety feature.
How We Tested
We read through the reviews on popular websites and narrowed down our list of car seats based on what real parents actually said. We took the top five candidates out into the real-world, and tested them in three vehicles; a large SUV (Lexus RX350), a midsize sedan (Toyota Camry), and a compact car (Honda Civic). This gave us a good impression of how these seats would fit in the majority of cars. We read each manual, making sure that they were comprehensible and then installed the seats both rear-facing and forward-facing with the seat belt and then with the car's LATCH system. We made sure that none of the models we were using had been recalled, seeing as there have been over 7 million seats recalled this year alone. Those recalls involved buckles that were difficult to open to close due to debris getting inside of them. This could be life-threatening should you be in a collision and need to get your child out of the car, or need to secure them into their seat. Our top five candidates all had high rear-facing weight limits, usually exceeding 40 lbs, and a decent amount of seating space for those children, making them good choices for extended rear-facing use. We used a 10-pound infant manikin, as well as a living, breathing 35-pound 4-year-old to assess the easiness of the harness systems, and saw how each child fit into the seat.
After numerous test fits, I'm confident that the Chicco Nextfit 65 is the best convertible car seat out there, due its quick and easy installation, and a generous amount of interior seating room. It even fit our 4-year-old tester when rear-facing.
The Chicco Nextfit 65 fits into smaller back seats, plus it offers a lot of room for growing toddlers. The headrest is "no-rethread," meaning when you move it up as baby grows, the harness height adjusts simultaneously. You'll never have to rethread your harness. This feature was a veritable coup for our pick in a crowded field of car seats.
Our pick fits children rear-facing from 5 to 40 pounds and forward-facing children from 22 to 65 pounds or 49 inches tall. Taller children can stay rear-facing until their head is within 1 inch of the top of the fully-extended headrest, affording them a lot of space to grow.
When installing the seat, there are nine different recline positions. This enables the installer to achieve the proper angle, especially when rear-facing, without resorting to using pool noodles or rolled up towels like some parents have. When using LATCH, the seat is enabled with premium connectors and utilizes Chicco's Super Cinch technology. Basically this means that when you go to install your seat, you'll pull down on the Super Cinch side, instead of up. In doing so, the seat's LATCH belt will add tension, in addition to what you're doing, making it faster and easier to install the seat tightly. How tight should it be? We asked Cora Speck, a certified CPST and instructor, as well as the Trauma Injury Prevention and Research Coordinator at The Queen's Medical Center in Hawaii, and she told me that the rule is: "the seat should move no more than 1", side-to-side, at the belt pathway, when you try to move the seat with your non-dominant hand." If you need to install your car seat with the seatbelt, the Chicco Nextfit 65 comes with dedicated lock-offs, or clasps that hold the seat belt and secure it in the event of a crash.
Even though the Chicco Nextfit 65 is an excellent and long-lasting convertible seat, the seat has deep walls that, unfortunately, contain heat on a summer day. This an issue with most car seats on the market. Thankfully, the fabric Chicco uses around baby's head and shoulders is much lighter and doesn't get as hot as some of the more plasticky materials we saw on other models.
The Nextfit is easy to clean and maintain, with a removable seat cover. There are two elastic bands to undo to remove the headrest, and the seat cover comes off after unhooking two velcro straps on the inside of the shell. The fabric is machine washable on a delicate cycle, and can be line dried. The fabrics are also easy to spot treat, and cleaned up well in our time with the seat. The buckle is removable, and can be cleaned with warm, soapy water.
For the money, the Chicco Nextfit 65 is a great value at $280 They will be releasing a new version, called the Chicco Nextfit Zip for $330. This offers a completely zip-on zip-off seat cushion and will be exclusive to Babies 'R' Us. I'd stick with the original version, as the technical details and ease of use have not changed enough to merit the price increase. Another thing, and maybe this was oversight, but wouldn't you be enticed to constantly play with the zipper if it was near your feet on a long road trip?
Even though the Chicco Nextfit 65 commands a premium price, it offers features that aren't available on similarly priced models: You're getting a no-rethread harness, one of the easiest forward or rear-facing installations, premium fabrics, and a space-saving design that will fit into most vehicles.
Who Else Likes It?
The writers at Carseatblog.com recommend the Chicco Nextfit 65 as one of their top convertible car seats, and had this to say about it: "One of the easiest convertibles to install correctly with either LATCH or seatbelt. Installing with Super Cinch is so quick and easy that it's downright revolutionary. Fits newborns (even small newborns) very well. Doesn't take up a lot of space when rear-facing so it's a good option for smaller vehicles. Generous rear-facing height and weight limits. Almost all kids will be able to rear-facing in the NextFit until they reach 40 lbs."
The Car Seat Lady praised the seat's quick seat belt installation, posting on her Facebook page, "Wondering how the built-in lock-off (for shoulder/lap belt installations) compares to those found on the similarly-priced Britax seats? It isn't even close—the NextFit wins by a landslide."
On Amazon.com, the Chicco Nextfit 65 has a rating of 4.3 with over 250 reviews; 224 of the reviewers gave the seat a rating of 4 or 5 stars. A recent post said, "so easy to install" with 51 customers making a similar statement.
The Step Up
For those who want the newest technology and the best fabrics, the Clek Foonf is the logical choice. Clek is at the forefront of a new era of occupant safety, being one of the only manufacturers to share their crash test data. The seat performs exceptionally well in those tests and is very easy to install due to the seat's heavier overall weight. Little to no added force is required when tightening the seat, and even our seat-belt installations were done in a flash. The seat utilizes Rigid LATCH for forward facing installations, and can be coupled with the seat belt and tether. The star feature on the seat is the REACT system. That stands for Rapid Energy Absorbing Crumple Technology. This is an aluminum honeycomb block that compresses in a crash, reducing the amount of energy that's transferred to the seat's occupant. Other features include: an anti-rebound bar, a steel and magnesium substructure and GREENGUARD Select certified fabrics that clean up easily. It is expensive, starting at $449, but it offers new technology not found on the majority of products currently available. It's also 17 inches wide at the widest part of the seat, and only 13 inches wide at the base, making it a great fit for parents who need more than one seat in the car.
Best on a Budget
For those parents who want a less expensive alternative, or who want a second seat for their other car (and don't forget the grandparents), the Evenflo Symphony LX does a good job at only $166. This seat fits newborns well, and has a rear-facing range of 5 to 40 lbs and up to 37 inches. Forward-facing, the seat fits children 22 to 65 lbs and up to 50 inches tall. The seat also functions as a belt-positioning booster, for use with kids that are at least 4 four years old and who are between 40 and 110 lbs and 43.3 to 57 inches tall. What this seat does well, is that it doesn't take up much room front to back when rear-facing and will fit kids for several years in different but simple configurations.
There are disadvantages that may prevent you from going the 3-in-1 route. For one, you won't be able to keep a child rear facing as long as in the other seats that we tested. The seating area is on the smaller side, and wouldn't be the best choice for those who want to have rear-facing children past age 2. The seat is also fairly wide, measuring 21 inches at the widest point. This makes it hard to sit next to, and almost impossible to install a seat next door to it. Lastly, the seat overpromises on the range and specifications that it offers. Due to the large headwings, it's not uncommon to see kids move out of this seat before the maximum height or weight limits once in the booster mode. The headwings can interfere with the child's shoulders, and limit the amount of room they have in the seat. There's no lockoff for seat belt installations and there are also no strap covers to protect your child's face and neck. All that said, it's an impressive seat that does offer many good features that are not usually found in this price range.
We considered these alternatives from manufacturers, but can't recommend them.
- Britax Marathon G4 $232 — It comes in at a lower price, but lacks the better features of the brand's Pavilion and Boulevard models.
- Britax Pavillion G4 $272— Even though it improves upon the Marathon, the seat hasn't changed much in the past two years, while the competition has added easier harnesses, nicer fabrics and better infant cushions.
- Diono Rainier $360— Expensive, and takes up a lot of space when rear-facing. Awkward fit for smaller babies and a more difficult than average seat belt installation.
- Graco MyRide 65 $157— This popular model has old-school LATCH connectors and a hard-to-use harness system. And the maximum height is 45 inches.
- Maxi Cosi Pria 85 $300— This is new version of the Pria 70. The infant position takes up a lot of room when rear-facing, and the wider seat is hard to sit next to. And there are no lock-offs for seat-belt installations.
- Peg Perego Primo Viaggio Convertible-Small seating area, making for less space when rear-facing. This seat offers premium fabrics, but may require the use of a locking clip when installing, making it much more difficult to do.
- Recaro Performance Ride $250— No rear-facing lock-offs. Tall shell makes fitting this rear-facing difficult in smaller vehicles.
- Safety 1st Complete Air 65 $200— We dismissed this one because of bulky design, no lock-offs, and a large head ring that limits peripheral vision.
Care, Use, Maintenance, and Repair
Once your child starts eating solids, or drinking juice and milk in the backseat, things can get messy fast. Most seats have removable covers, and washable fabrics. The Chicco Nextfit 65 has a machine washable cover, that you can hang to dry. Spot treating is always the best thing to do, but a lot can happen in the backseat. The buckles and plastic components on the seat can be rinsed with warm soapy water to remove debris or stuck-on food.
You'll get a one year warranty on most seats, including the Chicco Nextfit 65. Their customer service is available to help you with your product (including simply how to use it) five days a week. Their online store even has replacement parts, just in case you're in need of a new buckle or a shoulder strap cover.
With all of the accessories that are available at baby super stores, many parents feel the need to add cushions and mirrors to their seats. Every car seat we looked at advised against putting 3rd party accessories onto their seats, since they're not used during testing and can affect the seat's performance. This includes but is not limited to mirrors, hanging toys, teethers, and trays. Our car seat expert Cora Speck told us, "Those cute but heavy mirrors that you put over your vehicle seat, so that you can take your eyes off the road to look in your rear-view mirror, to look in this mirror, to look at your crying baby, and get into a crash? Skip it! The best thing you can do for your baby is be an attentive driver." Any of those items in the car can become a projectile in a collision. Limiting the amount of devices and toys in the backseat can save lives and prevent injury to the vehicle's occupants.
It's important to take a step back here, and think about your child and where they're at developmentally. When we interviewed Dr. Ben Hoffman, he gave us this piece of advice, "Our society is very oriented towards milestones and progress, and each step in each child's development is generally viewed in a positive way. The principle with car seats, is that with every step up, you lose protection."
If you're buying an infant car seat first, you'll want to keep them in there as long as possible. Graduating early, and especially turning them forward-facing at the minimum age and weight requirements can put them at a much greater risk of injury, as compared to a rear-facing child.
What To Look Forward To
There's a lot of innovation and emerging technology coming to the car seat world, as manufacturers move to make their seats even safer. The next seat on the horizon is from Canadian manufacturer Clek. Their new Fllo convertible car seat will be available in August. It will be a lighter, and less expensive version of their popular Foonf model, and will start at $380. Maxi `Cosi, Graco and Britax recently refreshed their product lineups, so we aren't expecting anything new from them this summer. Further down the line, is a concept model from the Swedish automaker Volvo. An inflatable, rear-facing car seat that fits in a tote bag and collapses in 40 seconds. While the product's release may be years off into the future, it's a sign that even the big boys want a piece of the action.
Wrapping It Up
The best car seat is one that fits your child and your vehicle, and that you can install correctly every time. With the Chicco Nextfit 65, you can accomplish all of the above, and it even allows for extended rear-facing. We had no trouble installing it in different vehicles using different methods of installation, and it fit our two testers. The price is great, at only $280, and the seat will grow with your child for several years to come.
1. Dr. Ben Hoffman, Interview, American Academy of Pediatrics, July 14th, 2014
2. Jennifer Newman, Interview, Cars.com, July 14th, 2014
3. Recommended Car Seats, Carseatblog.com, 2014
4. Installation of the Chicco Nextfit rear facing using LATCH, The Car Seat Lady, April 8th, 2014
5. Melissa Jordan, History of the Car Seat, Babble.com, 2011
6. Stephanie Steinberg, Strapped In, but Still at Risk, New York Times, October 12th, 2013
7.This Volvo concept makes child car seats super-portable, cnet.com, April 11, 2014
8. Ease of Use Ratings, NHTSA.gov, 2014
9. Chicco Nextfit 65, Amazon.com Review
10. FMVSS213, Carseat.org, 2014
11. Chicco Nextfit 65 Manual, Chicco, April 12th, 2012
12. Car Seat Buying Guide, Consumer Reports, 2014
13. Rear Facing Car Seats, The Car Seat Lady
14. Car Seat Safety for Kids, Chop.edu
15. Clek Fllo product page, Clekinc.com
16. LATCH, NHTSA.gov
17. Chicco Nextfit Convertible Car Seat with Super Cinch LATCH tightening system, Carseatblog.com, October 16th, 2012
18. What Testing does Foonf Undergo?, Clekinc.com, February 13, 2013
19. NHTSA Proposes First-Ever Side Impact Test for Child Restraint Systems, NHTSA.Gov, January 22, 2014
20. NHTSA continues to investigate Evenflo and Graco car seat buckles, Autoblog.com, July 11, 2014
21. Achieving a Proper Recline Angle, Carseatsite.com, 2013
22. Latch Weight Limits, The Car Seat Lady, 2014
23. Introduction to the Foonf, Clek inc, 2013
24. Cora Speck, Interview, The Queen's Medical Center, August 1st, 2014.
Matthew Lee is certified Child Passenger Safety Technician and baby gear expert. He currently works at a specialty baby store and has helped countless parents find the right gear to navigate the suburban landscape. He spends his downtime working towards a Bachelor's Degree in communications, writing for The Nightlight, and hanging out with his five-year-old nephew on the weekend. He resides in Washington, D.C.
If you enjoyed this guide, find more at TheNightlight.com.