Following car seat safety guidelines can mean cycling through three or more different seats before a child is big enough to ride in a car without one. That makes cheap car seats a must for many parents. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration encourages parents to keep children in a rear-facing seat for as long as possible and the American Academy of Pediatrics revised its policy in 2011 to recommend that children ride facing backward until age 2. However, many children outgrow the height and weight limits on rear-facing infant seats before they turn 2. That's where a convertible car seat comes in.
Cheap Car Seat Buying Guide
The car seats that tend to appear most often on baby shower registries are rear-facing infant seats. Many are designed to combine with a stroller as part of a, so they can be moved back and forth between the car and the stroller frame or simply carried around while you go about your daily business. Convertible models do double duty by facing either backward or forward, depending on a child's age and weight and on parents' personal safety standards. The weight ranges on most convertible car seats start at about 5 pounds, making it tempting to buy a convertible seat right away and skip the infant seat entirely. However, government and medical caution that convertible car seats are rarely a good fit for newborns. Parents also favor infant seats to start out because they can simply remove the seat from the car rather than disturb a sleeping baby.
Convertible car seat prices range from less than $50 all the way up to the three-digit stratosphere. While you could lay down upward of $200 for a convertible car seat (let's face it -- how do you put a price on your child's safety?) you don't have to spend that much to get a safe, solid car seat. The market is dominated by products from Cosco, Evenflo, Graco, and Safety 1st, all of which offer many good options for less than $100. Beware of models that command higher prices simply for aesthetic appeal and a brand name. Britax is the car seat of choice among parents who are willing to spend more.
Based on scores of online reviews, parents and caregivers have found the best cheap car seats easy to install, which is crucial to ensuring safety. (The NHTSA maintains a list of inspection stations where parents can make sure they've installed a seat correctly. This is usually a free service.) Reviewers also report that their children seem comfortable in our recommended seats and seem pleased overall with the value they get for the money.
Most models now have a five-point harness, which experts recommend as the safest way to strap in a child. Most cheap car seats also use the LATCH system, which is found in most cars made since late 2002 and relies on anchors instead of a seat belt to hold the car seat in place. (LATCH stands for lower anchors and tethers for children.) Additional features to look for when purchasing a budget car seat include a sturdy, durable body and a removable, washable seat pad. Make sure the seat isn't too big to fit in your car or too heavy to move from car to car. And note the rear-facing and forward-facing weight and height limits. The higher those are, the longer your child can fit in the seat.
Safety experts warn that you shouldn't use a car seat that's been in an auto accident. More specifically, if an impact caused the air bags to deploy or damaged a door nearest the car seat, replace the seat immediately. If at all possible, spring for a new car seat rather than a secondhand one -- you don't know where or how a seat was used. Materials deteriorate and safety features and standards tend to improve over time.
Most new convertible car seats have a one-year manufacturer's warranty. Remember to fill out and mail the warranty card immediately orso you can be contacted if the seat is ever recalled for safety or durability problems.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Car Seat Reviews
Car seat reviews focus primarily on two topics: installation and comfort. Parents are busy people who often juggle work and multiple kids with crazy schedules, leaving little time to sift through complicated installation instructions. They also go to great lengths to make their children comfortable, even if it means paying more.
Car Seat Installation.A budget car seat should be easy to install and transfer from one vehicle to another. Unfortunately even high-priced models elicit gripes about installation, and some stand out as being near impossible to install. The LATCH system built into almost all vehicles today facilitates car seat installation, although the LATCH anchors on some back seats may be difficult to locate and some cars do not have anchors for the middle seat. In general, most purchasers report that installation is fairly quick and straightforward for the front-facing position, but rear-facing installation may be more of a trial, depending on the car and car seat.For the most part, car seat reviews declare the models we recommend simple to install. One parent posting on Amazon says securing and adjusting our top choice, the Evenflo SureRide DLX (starting at $85), is effortless in both the forward-facing and rear-facing positions. She bought two of the same car seat and uses it both ways: facing backward for her 11-month-old and facing front for her 4-and-a-half-year-old (who looks small in the seat, she says, and will be able to use it for some time to come).
The emphasizes the importance of proper installation and has evaluated many car seats for ease of use (the Evenflo SureRide DLX is one exception). In the case of the Safety 1st Guide 65 (starting at $78), we found that the NHTSA ratings conflicted with what we saw in reviews. Regulators rate this car seat below average for ease of use and installation in the rear-facing position and average when facing forward. Among more than 100 car seat reviews on the Walmart website, however, relatively few mention any problems installing the Safety 1st Guide 65. One parent reports that it took her less than five minutes to get a snug, secure fit in the car.
The Safety 1st OnSide Air (starting at $72) gets mostly positive feedback from consumers on Amazon and from government regulators. While most parents assert that installation is a snap -- one mother even goes so far as to say it's idiot-proof -- a handful beg to differ and report needing some creative maneuvering to get the car seat to fit properly. The NHTSA has awarded the OnSide Air an above-average rating for ease of use in the forward-facing position and an average rating when rear-facing.
Although the Graco ComfortSport car seat (starting at $80) gets decent reviews overall on Amazon, several caregivers gripe about how hard it is to install the seat. Among the complaints: The car seat doesn't fit snugly, it's reluctant to click into place, and it's hard to tighten. The Graco ComfortSport earns average ratings for ease of use from the NHTSA.
Car Seat Comfort.The consequences of an uncomfortable car seat are well-known to parents and caregivers: a crying baby, a squirming toddler, or a whining child who keeps asking when you're going to get there. The good news is you don't have to sacrifice car seat comfort for a low price tag. The recommended models on our list all win praise for comfort and cushioning -- at least from adults posting car seat reviews. Parents and caregivers comment that children easily fall asleep, sit peacefully through long car trips, and generally seem secure, comfortable, and happy. One mother writing a car seat review on the Walmart website says the Safety 1st Guide 65 reclines enough in the rear-facing position that her daughter's head stays back instead of falling forward, as it does in another seat. Other parents report that the cushioning is plentiful and comfortable and the car seat garners no complaints from their tiny passengers.A mom who posted a review of the Evenflo SureRide DLX on the Target website surmises that her daughter is more comfortable in this seat than in her previous car seat, noting that the child reaches for the seat and seems eager to get in it because has much better padding. Others posting on the site agree that the padding in this model seems superior to others in the price range and even some more expensive car seats. Likewise, a reviewer of the Graco ComfortSport posting on Amazon says a child cried every time he got in a previous seat and has been a comfortable, pleasant passenger ever since they made the switch. Others on the site also indicate that the Graco ComfortSport seems to live up to its name.
Among consumers posting car seat reviews on the Toys R Us website, only one gives the Safety 1st OnSide Air convertible car seat less than a five-star review and several specifically mention comfort. One parent comments that her daughter's head hangs when she falls asleep in a very expensive car seat, but in this cheap model the child naps with her head back in a much more comfortable position and never minds being put in the car.
Car Seat Harnesses, LATCH System, and Seat Pads
A car seat comprises three critical components: body, harness, and LATCH system connectors. The car seat harness is made up of straps that hold a child securely in place. Experts recommend choosing a car seat with a five-point harness, which fits snugly and provides the best protection for the child in the event of a car accident. It has two straps over the shoulders, two around the hips, and one between the legs. The three-point system, with two shoulder straps that come together with a buckle and fasten between the child's legs, is effective but less secure. You will not find many three-point harnesses these days.
Experts stress the importance of positioning the car seat harness so it fits your child properly -- at the shoulders or just below when facing backward and at the shoulders or just above when facing forward. Then place the chest clip at armpit level and tighten the straps. Look for a car seat with adjustable harness straps and multiple shoulder-height positions to accommodate your growing child.
Complaints about inadequate car seat harness height occasionally surface in reviews of cheap car seats, including the Graco ComfortSport. That model offers just three shoulder-strap heights. All our top picks have five-point harnesses that are more adjustable. The Evenflo SureRide DLX has six shoulder-strap heights and two buckle positions. The Safety 1st Guide 65 has five shoulder-strap positions and three buckle positions and the Safety 1st OnSide Air has four harness slots and three buckle locations.
The body of the car seat provides the support structure and is usually made of durable plastic. It should be sturdy and well-constructed. The LATCH connectors secure the seat to the back seat of a vehicle. Parents of older children and owners of older cars are surely familiar with the hassle of using a seat belt to fix a car seat in place. But most car seats and cars manufactured since Sept. 1, 2002, are equipped with the LATCH system, which relies on anchors and a tether strap to hold the seat in place. If you have an older car, you can buy a kit and install the LATCH system yourself; alternatively, you can secure the seat with a seat belt. All the inexpensive car seats we researched use the LATCH system.
Car Seat Fabric.The fabric on budget car seats affects perceptions of durability. Car seats come in a variety of fabrics and colors and are often covered with nylon or a similar easy-to-wipe material. The consensus among experienced parents is that material quality trumps pattern when deciding which car seat to buy. Because a convertible car seat should accommodate a child for several years, be sure to choose one that suits your lifestyle. If you expect to dine in your vehicle, remember that light-colored patterns show stains and spills more readily than darker fabrics. Features such as additional seat covers and seat pads that are easy to remove and wash will increase a car seat's longevity and improve its appearance. Both the Evenflo SureRide DLX and Graco ComfortSport have removable, machine-washable seat pads. The pad on the SureRide DLX model can even be tumble dried. The Safety 1st car seats have removable seat pads, but they must be washed by hand.
Car Seat Weight Limits and Size
Car Seat Weight and Height Limits.Car seat size limits restrict how long a child can ride in a convertible car seat in the safer, rear-facing position. The Evenflo SureRide DLX and the Safety 1st Guide 65 outshine the other options we researched when it comes to car seat guidelines, allowing children up to 40 pounds and 40 inches tall to ride facing backward and children 22 pounds to 65 pounds and up to 52 or 54 inches tall to ride forward facing. One father reviewing the Evenflo SureRide DLX at reports that his son weighs 41 pounds and still looks small in the seat. The Safety 1st Guide 65 also gets high marks on this front in reviews. One mom posting on writes that her son is 45 inches tall and weighs 42 pounds at 3 years old but fits comfortably with plenty of room to grow in this cheap car seat.The Safety 1st OnSide Air can accommodate 5 to 40 pounds and up to 40 inches in the rear-facing position and 19 to 40 pounds and up to 43 inches in the forward-facing position. These guidelines are somewhat lower than the height and weight limits for the Evenflo SureRide DLX and Safety 1st Guide 65, but reviewers evaluating the car seat atseem satisfied with the limits. One parent points out that her daughter is 18 months old, weighs 20 pounds, and is 35 inches tall, yet still has growing room in the seat in the rear-facing position. She's confident they'll make it to the two-year mark recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics before having to turn the seat around.
The Graco ComfortSport is another story. The size limits are as follows: 5 to 30 pounds and up to 40 inches facing the rear and 20 to 40 pounds and up to 40 inches in the forward-facing position. These car seat guidelines are stricter than any others we looked at. The 30-pound limit on the rear-facing position means a bigger child may not be able to sit that way up to the age of 2, as the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests is safest, and reviewers recognize this as a problem. One reviewer writing on the Target website reports that her 10-month-old is already too big to ride in this seat facing backward. She also observes something the product description doesn't specify: You can't use this seat in the rear-facing position with the harness in the highest slot. A certified child passenger safety technician writing at gives this seat a low rating for several related reasons. First, as the Target customer experienced, the harness strap heights are so low that she often sees children outgrow the seat entirely before they should even ride facing forward. Second, the weight limit on the rear-facing position is just too low to make this seat a good buy. There are others that accommodate much higher weights at the same price point.
Car Seat Size and Weight.The size of a car seat can vary tremendously depending on the model and features. Activity trays, cup holders, and extra padding add to a car seat's size, but many consumers seem willing to shoehorn a large seat into the car if it means greater comfort for the passenger. Just make sure the convertible car seat you choose fits into your car. Most stores will let you leave a drivers license with a clerk in order to take a seat out to your car to test for fit.Consider the weight of the seat as well. A car seat's advertised weight includes the seat unit with the attachments and padding. Parents seem to prefer a car seat that feels strong enough to support and protect a child but light enough to carry into an airport or transfer from one car to another. Although the Evenflo SureRide DLX tips the scales at 13.6 pounds, users at don't complain. In fact, most find the car seat very sturdy and one says moving it between cars for play dates is easy. On the opposite end of the weight spectrum is the (starting at $55). Weighing in at just 9.11 pounds, this is the car seat to travel with by airplane, according to user reviews on Amazon. It has a super-light, narrow frame, so lugging it through airports and onto planes is no problem. Users say the car seat easily installs facing backward in an airplane seat and leaves ample room in the seat next to it.
Users posting reviews on the Walmart website deem the Safety 1st Guide 65 ideal for compact cars. With its low weight (the lowest among our top picks), the 11.5-pound seat is easy to maneuver from car to car and easily fits in smaller cars. The Safety 1st OnSide Air and Graco ComfortSport fall in the middle at about 12 pounds.