The Best Convertible Car Seats

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 dug through research and talked to experts to find out what makes car seats safe, then surveyed over 100 parents about seat features that simplify daily use. Our mission: Find a convertible car seat you can learn to use correctly every time.

The 3 Best Convertible Car Seats


Easiest to Use
Chicco NextFit
Chicco
All of the features that make daily use simpler in the most streamlined, attractive package possible.
Pros
Practical design
Level indicator
Comfort
Cons
Heavy
More difficult rear-facing installation

Why we chose it

Practical design

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 the size and shape of your car's back seat.

Level indicator

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 the seat is level every time you adjust it.

Level Comparison for Covertible Car Seat

The NextFit (left) places its level indicator at eye-level instead of at the bottom like the Britax Marathon (right).

Comfort

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.

Points to consider

Heavy

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 to the airport when traveling or move between cars in the driveway regularly, you may be better off with a lighter seat.

More difficult rear-facing installation

The only reservation we had about the Chicco was a lower-than-average score in NHTSA’s ease-of-installation for rear-facing, saying that the person installing the seat “must move padding to route the vehicle belt,” and that some “interference” is possible between the seat and the belt routing system. Despite those 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 willing to forgive the potential extra difficulty.


Longest Lifespan
Britax Marathon ClickTight
Britax
It’s heavier and harder to clean than our top pick. Still, it’s a practical option with superb features and a notably long lifespan.
Pros
Easy to use
Long lifespan
Cons
Less comfortable
Not machine washable

Why we chose it

Easy to use

The Britax came in with the highest NHTSA ease-of-use ratings of any of our picks, meaning this seat can be installed as easily 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 the NextFit to help you achieve the perfect recline angle in your car.

Britax for Convertible Car Seat

Long lifespan

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 our other picks at 10 years (Graco’s is seven years from when it was manufactured, Chicco’s is eight).

Points to consider

Less comfortable

The seat's drawbacks emerged only when our parent testers picked it up. The seat itself is the bulkiest we tested, and testers noted that its slick, sporty seat fabric felt much less comfortable than the plush texture of the NextFit. Additionally, the seat doesn’t come with a cup holder or any extra child-focused accessories.

Not machine washable

In addition to being less comfortable, the Marathon’s fabric isn’t machine-washable or tumble-dry safe, making it more difficult to clean.


Best Budget Car Seat
Graco Contender 65
Graco
Far and away the lightest seat we tested. This one has a few quirks that make it trickier to install, but it's half the price of our other picks.
Pros
Comfortable padding
Lightweight
Cons
More difficult to use
Locked cup holder

Why we chose it

Comfortable padding

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. The padding is also machine-washable, unlike the Britax, which our parent testers thought was a huge plus.

Lightweight

The Contender was also the lightest car seat we tested, coming in at 10 lbs lighter than our other two top picks. This makes it a great fit for parents who might be moving the seat among cars often or plan to travel regularly by plane with their child.

Points to consider

More difficult to use

In a few areas, the Contender received average or below average ease-of-use ratings from NHTSA. Most notably, its manual 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.

Locked cup holder

The one drawback to the Graco in terms of cleanliness 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 the accumulation of crumbs. We imagine occasional vacuuming is a commitment when buying this one, and parents generally preferred the Chicco NextFit’s more convenient, removable cup holder.

Guide to Convertible Car Seats

How to safely use a car seat

Choose an infant or convertible car seat

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 that there’s no difference in putting your baby in an infant seat versus a rear-facing convertible seat. But there are pros and cons that amount to parents choosing one over the other.

Infant Car Seat
Convertible Car Seat
Pros
• Detachable carrier allows you to transport babies without waking them
• Often compatible with strollers
• Stays usable for longer thanks to higher weight and height limits
Cons
• Stricter height/length limits for babies, so not as long-lasting
• Parents will have to switch to convertible seat eventually
• Seat isn't portable
• Harder to take a baby out of the seat without waking
• Requires 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 that babies hit the height limits by nine 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.

Check your vehicle’s owner manual

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 which 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.

Get help from the pros

All 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 that your car seat is correctly installed, bring your car seat to a licensed Child Passenger Safety Technician for a free inspection.

Register your car seat

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 that cleaning it first will help you avoid having to deal with 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.”

Convertible Car Seat FAQ

What's a built-in seat belt lock-off?

When a car seat’s correctly installed with a seat belt, you shouldn’t be able to move it more than 1 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 does 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 built-in lock-offs are more straightforward.

Why does developmental ability matter with car seats?

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.

What's the difference between a rethread and no-rethread harness?

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.

Why do car seats have an expiration date?

The metal and plastic in seats expand and contract due to temperature changes and can crack or break down over time, and safety standards change every so often. To ensure that 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.

The Best Convertible Car Seats: Summed Up

Chicco NextFit
Britax Marathon ClickTight
Graco Contender 65
Easiest to use
Longest lifespan
Best budget car seat
Price
$269.99
$229.99
$104.99
Number of recline positions
9
7
2
Built-in seat belt lock-offs
No-rethread harness
Rear-facing weight and height limits
5-40 lbs
5-40 lbs
5-40 lbs
Forward-facing weight and height limits
65 lbs, up to 49 inches
65 lbs, up to 49 inches
65 lbs, up to 49 inches
Vehicle compatibility
See pages 31-33
See pages 31-32
See pages 73-76