The Best Convertible Car Seat
The best convertible car seats offer simple-to-use installation and adjustment features. To find our top picks, we talked to experts, took a close look at federal ease-of-use ratings, and surveyed over 100 parents on their favorite features. In the end, one seat stood out for its thoughtful design that puts parents and kids first.
The NextFit boasts high ease-of-use scores thanks to simple features like built-in seat belt lock-offs and a no-rethread harness. Plus, its nine recline positions help you achieve the safest angle for your child, no matter what kind of car you have.
It offers the same simple installation and adjustment features as the NextFit. It’s padding isn’t machine-washable, but its 10 year expiration date makes it a good fit for parents looking to use a seat through multiple kids.
The Best Convertible Car Seat
Our parent testers’ hands-down favorite was the Chicco NextFit. At $300, it’s on the higher side of average — but in this case, you get what you pay for. Its features make it easier to install and adjust, like built-in seat belt lock-offs and a no-rethread harness. It’s also the most likely of our picks to help you achieve the safest recline angle for your child, regardless of your car — its nine recline positions mean it stands the best chance to fit in your back seat without DIY hacks like a rolled up towel or pool noodle.
You'll still need help from the prosAll car seats on the market have been tested and certified by manufacturers to meet federal safety standards — but they’re only safe when used correctly. To make sure your car seat is correctly installed, bring your car seat to a licensed Child Passenger Safety Technician for a free inspection.
Even seemingly inconsequential touches like level indicators in uniquely readable placements and a removable cup holder live within a contained, pod-like overall design that won our parents’ hearts for its efficiency and style. And its plush (read: machine-washable) materials and removable cup holder will make kids happy, too.
The Britax Marathon ClickTight is a close runner-up. At $340, it’ll cost you $40 more than the NextFit, but if you’re looking to keep the seat through multiple children, it’s a worthwhile investment — it’s built to last ten years as opposed to the NextFit’s eight. This seat is heavier and less plush compared to the Chicco, making it look more utilitarian, but it still offers nearly the same installation and adjustment features.
How We Found the Best Convertible Car Seat
The convertible car seat you buy will be a part of your family through multiple stages of your child’s life, and maybe even through multiple children. To find the seats worthy of such an investment, we first dug through research and talked to experts to find out what makes car seats safe, then surveyed over a hundred parents about seat features that simplify daily use. Our mission: Find a convertible car seat you can learn to use correctly every time.
We learned that all car seats are safe when used correctly.
Shopping for a seat means running into lots of safety claims beyond what’s federally required and tested (“side impact protection” is a common one). Our first order of business was finding out whether or not those claims have facts to back them up.
Every car seat on the market has been rigorously tested and certified by its manufacturer to ensure it meets federal safety standards. So you can consider any of the car seats out there — provided they’re installed and adjusted correctly — to start on an even playing field in terms of safety. Dr. Benjamin Hoffman, Chairperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention told us that any extra features offering “added protection” aren’t federally regulated — though regulations for side-impact protection are in the works. While we applaud those manufacturers for trying to advance safety technology, we just can’t consider their features a bonus when comparing seats until there’s a standard.
Each seat may be safe in testing, but after a car seat leaves the manufacturer, its ability to protect a child in a crash is in the hands of parents and caretakers. And it turns out lots of well-meaning people aren’t using their car seats in ways that actually keep kids safe. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that 95% of families used their car seat incorrectly when taking their newborn home from the hospital. An earlier paper from 2002 concluded that 73% of parents using car seats were “critically misusing” them. That means most parents are doing something wrong with their car seats, the most common mistakes in both studies being installation issues and harness straps/chest clips that weren’t properly adjusted.
Luckily, the Department of Transportation has an agency that evaluates car seats, looking for just the qualities that make them easy to install and use safely: the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA). It reviews as many popular and new car seats as possible by keeping an eye on the market and revisiting car seats when the manufacturers revamp their models; with that system, they end up testing the most popular and trusted brands of seats out there.
After sifting through NHTSA’s list of 34 tested convertible seats and eliminating any discontinued models, we started narrowing down the field.
So, we looked for car seats that are easiest to use correctly.
NHTSA assigns “overall ease-of-use” ratings of one to five stars based on four categories: labeling, instructions, securing the child, and vehicle installation features. Within each of those categories, it compares them according to a five-star rating system:
- 5 = Excellent features
- 4 = Above average features
- 3 = Average features
- 2 = Below average features
- 1 = Poor features
The best car seat should function at least above average for overall ease-of-use to give parents the best chance of keeping their child safe. By requiring that all convertible seats get at least a four-star rating overall, we narrowed the list down to seven seats that are government-vetted as the easiest to use safely.
We also wanted to specifically make sure parents could easily install and adjust the seat correctly, since that’s where parents are most likely to make mistakes. So, we made sure none of the seats with overall high scores lack features in those crucial areas.
That eliminated one of the most expensive remaining seats: the Clek Fllo; though the Fllo has gotten some acclaim as an easy seat to fit into narrow areas, it earned just one star for installation features in rear-facing and three for forward-facing. Based on the details NHTSA provides and research from Consumer Reports, it seems the Fllo’s big flaw lies in its seat belt installation features. NHTSA references a difficult belt-positioning feature when rear-facing and a lack of clear labeling to help parents install the seat correctly. Similarly, Consumer Reports said its built-in seat belt lock-offs are hard to work with and break easily.
When a car seat’s correctly installed with a seat belt, you shouldn’t be able to move it more than one inch in any direction. To get the most secure installation possible, look for built-in seat belt lock-offs. Many top-rated seats have the feature, though every brand seems to do it a little differently. The basic concept stays the same: You feed the belt through the seat and clamp it tightly to the seat itself with a vice-like grip, so your child is securely strapped in. The more old-school device for cars without automatically locking seat belts is the locking clip: An H-shaped piece of metal used to keep the lap and shoulder belts clamped together after they’re pulled through the seat. Both are safe, but the consensus among car seat experts is that built-in lock-offs are more intuitive.
- Britax Advocate ClickTight (E9LT95N)
- Britax Boulevard ClickTight
- Britax Marathon ClickTight
- Chicco NextFit
- Graco Contender 65
- Graco My Ride 65
We prioritized features that would make parents’ lives easier.
We were surprised to see that our six finalists all came from just three big-name manufacturers: Three were from Britax, one from Chicco, and two from Graco. To identify which seat within each brand was best, we knew it was time to bring our parent survey results into the conversation.
Moms and dads are experts at driving while parenting — but every parent’s experience is a little bit different. We wanted to recommend a car seat that everyone could love, so we surveyed over 100 parents about what they value and what they find confusing about their car seat.
When choosing a convertible car seat, parents value ease of adjustment the most.
Almost 50% of parents we surveyed included ease of adjustment in their top-three criteria when buying a convertible seat, 48% included ease of loading/unloading their child, followed closely by how long they’ll be able to use the seat and how comfortable the padding and material of the seat are.
For Graco, the difference in price between the two remaining models on our list was in sync with what’s important to parents: the Contender 65 features a no-rethread harness, while the My Ride 65’s harness requires parents to rethread.
No-rethread harnesses, in theory, should make it easier for parents to keep their child safe as long as they remember to regularly adjust the harness. Anything that even potentially makes it easier for parents to keep their kids safe is a win in our book. We went with the Contender 65.
As a child grows, parents should adjust their car seat’s harness to maintain a safe fit; a rethread harness requires parents to take off a seat cover, pull the harness straps through the slots in the back of the seat, and then rethread the harness back through at the correct setting for their growing child. A no-rethread harness cuts out hassle by making the adjustments all external, with no clumsy threading process required.
The only major difference among the Britax Advocate, Boulevard, and Marathon ClickTight models was an advertised boost in “side impact protection.” Since that’s not a federally regulated claim and they all perform consistently well in all federal safety and NHTSA tests, we chose the cheapest option among the three for the sake of practicality: the Marathon.
Then we took a close look at our top three.
We knew our top three were the best out there for overall ease-of-use and the best within their respected brands, but we wanted to dive into the nitty-gritty with parent preferences in mind.
All three of our top car seats have similar rear- and forward-facing height and weight limits and no-rethread harnesses, so all are — in theory — easy for parents to adjust as a child grows and will keep their child in the seat for the same length of time.
To get a feel for any potential issues that might arise with loading or unloading children and the comfort of the seat, we needed help from the pros. So, we invited four parents of infants and toddlers to evaluate the seats, listening to feedback on each seat's buckles, straps, and padding. And while “ease of cleaning” wasn’t a top priority among survey respondents — testers noted a big difference in the washability and number of crumb-collecting crannies between seats.
Parents agreed: Any convertible seat will be somewhat annoying to install and that it’ll be a pain to take your kid in and out of any car seat — but some make it easier. These three seats are all hard-working partners for parents who want to keep their kids safe, but only one stood out as a clear favorite.
A quick note about compatibility.
Keep in mind that even the best car seat may not fit in your specific car or with your child. The car seats we recommend — especially the Britax and Chicco — are versatile, but you’ll need to check your specific vehicle’s owner’s manual to know if the one you want is a fit. For instance, the way your seat belts are attached to your car and the size of your vehicle seat from front to back can sometimes determine what car seats can be safely installed. You’ll also need to take into account your child’s height, weight, and developmental abilities before you shop to know if our picks will keep your child safe.
Dr. Hoffman told us that if your child is developing typically, “manufacturers’ guidelines are fine.” But if you have a child with a neuromuscular issue, a crash might affect them differently, making rear-facing the best option for them for a longer period of time than a typically developing child. If your child has any neuromuscular challenges, Dr. Hoffman suggests asking your pediatrician to refer you to the right sources for car seat advice.
Our Finalists at a Glance
|Chicco NextFit||Britax Marathon ClickTight||Graco Contender 65|
|Built-in seat belt lock-offs:|
|Number of recline positions|
|Rear-facing weight and height limits|
|Forward-facing weight and height limits||
Our Picks for Best Convertible Car Seat
Parents were immediately drawn to the NextFit’s pod-like, contained design in comparison to other, more boxy seats. But the NextFit is hands-down the most practical, too. Its nine recline positions mean that it’s most likely to help you achieve a safe angle of recline for your child, regardless of what vehicle you own.
Our parent testers latched onto one particular usability feature on every seat: the leveling system that confirms whether or not your seat is at a safe angle for your child. The NextFit was the only seat we tested with its bubble level indicator at eye-level and on both sides of the seat. Most other car seats’ levels are near the bottom — which means you’d have to bend over to check if its level every time you adjust the seat.
Something the parents didn’t know is that both the Chicco and the Britax have built-in lock-off systems that secure a seat belt — while it’s not necessarily more or less safe than any other system, it makes installation simpler and leaves less room for error. Same goes for its no-rethread harness.
That might’ve been enough to give the NextFit an edge over the other seats already, but child comfort was the priority with parents that solidified Chicco’s winning status. Parents loved the airplane-pillow-shaped headrest and memory-foam-like texture of the seat cushion, especially when compared to the other, less luxe-feeling materials on the Graco and Britax seats. Combined with the seat’s superior (machine-washable) cushioning and removable cupholder, parents walked away convinced that this seat would make their kid happiest.
In terms of weight, the Chicco is much heavier than the Graco (though not quite as heavy as the Britax); lifting it feels similar to carrying a very full bag of groceries. That’s fine if you plan to leave it in one car — nearly half of the parents we surveyed do — but if you want a seat you could bring it to the airport when traveling or just need to move it between cars in the driveway regularly, you may be better off with the Graco.
The only reservation we had about the Chicco was a lower-than-average score in NHTSA’s ease-of-installation for rear-facing. After doing some digging, we credit that to a potentially less-than-ideal experience when parents install the seat rear-facing with a seatbelt.
NHTSA reports that the person installing the seat “must move padding to route the vehicle belt,” that some “interference” is possible between the seat and the belt routing system. Despite those potential issues, it did earn a “very good” rating for rear-facing belt installation from Consumer Reports. And since the everyday usability features of the NextFit surpassed all others, we were still willing to give it the edge.
One of our parent testers owns both the Britax and the Chicco models we brought in, and he confirmed that if he made the decision again, picking the NextFit would be an easy choice. And when all was said and done, every parent who checked out our picks was convinced that the NextFit was the best option, and we agree. With nice-to-have features and a streamlined design, the seat makes keeping your kid safe as convenient as possible.
If you looked up “convertible car seat” in the encyclopedia, a photo of the Britax Marathon ClickTight is the photo you’d expect to see. It’s straightforward in its function and brings in style and creativity only in the details, like its quirky color schemes. (We couldn’t resist ordering it in “cowmooflage.”) But while the Britax didn’t blow any parents away with its looks, it stands out for its easy-to-use features and long life span.
The Britax came in with the highest NHTSA ease-of-use ratings of any of our picks, meaning this seat can be installed as easy as is possible, facing either direction using both LATCH and seat belt methods. And with seven recline positions, this one is almost as likely as our top pick to help you achieve the perfect recline angle in your car.
Why do car seats have an expiration date? The metal and plastic in seats expand and contract due to temperature changes and can crack/break down over time, and safety standards change every so often. To ensure your car seat is current in terms of safety and material integrity, keep an eye on that date — you should be able to find it on one of your seat’s labels.
Parents who want to use one seat for multiple kids should take note that the Marathon’s time-to-expiration is two years longer than either of the other seats we tested at ten years (Graco’s is seven years from when it was manufactured, Chicco’s is eight).
The drawbacks our parents found only came to light when they picked it up to move it and got their hands on its seat material. The seat itself is the bulkiest we tested, and testers noted that its slick, sporty seat fabric felt much less comfortable than the NextFit’s. Since that fabric isn’t machine-washable or tumble-dry safe and the seat doesn’t come with a cup holder or any extra child-focused accessories, we had to give the win on child comfort to Chicco.
Another Convertible Car Seat to Consider
We’ll be honest, it’s pretty easy to see that the Graco is the cheapest of our three contenders. From the get-go, its cushioning isn’t as luxe as the Chicco and its overall design doesn’t feel as seamless as the other two top picks. What’s more, the lack of recline position options means it needs to either be an exact fit with your car, or you’ll need to use home hacks like a pool noodle or rolled up towel under the base.
However, cheaper doesn’t mean less safe. We liked that the Contender has the easy-to-adjust no-rethread harness and comfortable padding to compete with our top picks — for $160 less than the Chicco. And weighing in at 10 pounds lighter than either of the other two, it could be a fit for parents who might be moving the seat among cars often or plan on traveling by plane regularly with their child.
The padding in this one is also machine washable, unlike the Britax, which our parent testers thought was a plus. The one drawback to the Graco in terms of cleanliness, though, is its cup holder. Since it’s built into the structure of the seat and can’t be removed for cleaning, it’s essentially asking for crumbs to get stuck in it. We imagine occasional vacuuming is a commitment when buying this one, and parents generally preferred the Chicco NextFit’s more convenient, removable cup holder.
We should also point out that, in a couple areas, the Contender receives some average or below ease-of-use ratings from NHTSA. Those come into play with its manual that excludes instructions for using LATCH — both rear and forward facing installation requires you to twist its LATCH attachments to remove it from the vehicle anchors, which might be harder if you have large hands.
While our other two picks certainly max out ease-of-use and offer features that may be indispensable for some parents, the Contender still makes for a safe, budget-friendly buy.
Did You Know?
For lots of parents, it’s infant vs. convertible.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends driving with your child in a rear-facing car seat until they’re at least two years old. That means every parent needs to purchase a car seat that has a rear-facing option before bringing their baby home from the hospital; but deciding which one to buy means making a series of choices. The first decision is whether your child’s first car seat will be an infant seat (rear-facing only, with a carrier that’s detachable) or convertible seat (can be installed rear-facing at first, then reinstalled forward-facing when the child is ready)?
In terms of your infant’s safety, Dr. Hoffman said there’s no difference between putting your baby in an infant seat or a rear-facing convertible seat. But there are pros and cons that amount to parents choosing one over the other.
Infant Car Seats
- Pros: Dr. Hoffman told us the first rule pediatricians always tell parents is “Never wake a sleeping baby.” The detachable carrier on an infant seat allows you to let sleeping babies lie once you’ve reached your destination. Plus, the carrier from an infant car seat is often compatible with strollers, making your car seat part of a convenient ecosystem.
- Cons: Infant car seats are limited in length since they might butt up against the seat in front of them if they get too long. That means they’re more limited in height/length limits for the babies they can accommodate. AKA: Parents typically can’t use an infant car seat for two years, so they’ll have to switch to a rear-facing convertible seat eventually anyway.
Convertible Car Seats
- Pros: Convertible car seats stay usable for longer since their weight and height limits are far beyond what an infant seat can offer.
- Cons: Because the seat isn't portable, it's harder to take a baby out of the seat without waking them. You'll also need to purchase a separate stroller.
Of the parents we surveyed, 56% said they would purchase an infant seat first if they could do it all over again. But most parents will need a convertible seat sooner or later; Dr. Hoffman said babies hit the height limits by 9 to 12 months. And if a parent wants to comply with the AAP’s recommendation of keeping their baby rear-facing for the first two years, they’ll need to buy and install a rear-facing convertible car seat as soon as they hit that limit.
Registration is key.
It may not seem like a big deal, but registering your car seat is how you’ll be alerted if there’s a recall on the seat or its parts — sometimes companies even auto-send you replacement parts, making it easier for you to keep your child safe. Already toss the postage-paid registration card that came with your car seat? You can register online with your manufacturer using its model number, serial number, and manufactured date.
Clean your seat before you store it.
Parents often choose to store their car seat when their child grows out of it, just in case they’ll want to use it for another child in the future. If you plan on storing yours, Tot Squad’s founder and CEO Jennifer Beall says cleaning it first will help you avoid having to deal with nasty, set-in stains or moldy surprises when you take it out of storage later. Sound like too much work? Beall says to, at the very least, “Vacuum or professionally clean your seat before putting a newborn in it. They have a much weaker immune system.” Follow those cleanliness rules and storing your car seat is totally cool with the experts — as long as it hasn’t been in an accident and its expiration date hasn’t passed.
Knowing when to transition seats isn’t as confusing as it seems.
The parents we surveyed said that keeping up with car seat recommendations and knowing when to transition seats were two of the most confusing parts of using a car seat. According to Dr. Hoffman, it’s pretty simple. With every step (rear-facing to forward-facing, forward-facing to booster seat, and so on), your child loses protection. So even though it might feel like your child’s ready for the next step — hey, progress always feels good — you should always keep them in the most conservative position possible as long as possible.
But that doesn’t mean you should keep your child rear-facing if they’ve gotten too tall or too heavy — our experts stressed to always follow car seat manufacturers’ guidelines on weight and length. Once they hit either of those limits, it’s time to transition. For a good guide on typical ages when children hit car seat transition times, check out NHTSA’s online resources.