October 16, 2008

Dad Fights The Car Seats, And The Car Seats Win

David is a new dad and one of the car guys [little c, little g, Magliozzis, relax.] at Cars.com. Well, the kid's six months old now, and Dave's care-free days of swapping the bases for his son's infant car seat between his car, his wife's car, the nanny's car, and whatever test car happens to be in the driveway at the moment are over.

Welcome to the "Find yourself buying three car seats in a week, because the first one you bought, the Britax so massive the box won't fit in the trunk, now sits like a lumpy, inoperable growth the size of a wild boar in the back of the Subaru" era.

Dave's explanation for their first car seat choice has to be music to the Britax brand manager's ears:

I don't know about any other dads out there, but in our house, if something comes with instructions and needs to be installed, it falls onto my to-do list, not my wife's.

Getting the seat for our primary car was easy. This is for my wife's Subaru Outback. We went with the biggest and baddest -- which in this arena means safest -- seat out there, the Britax Boulevard CS.

Biggest, baddest, and if that's not enough, one of the most expensive. And so it must be the best, right?

I think it's time to get off my butt and do some data digging again, but we went to extraordinary lengths to avoid getting a Britax precisely because, like the SUV's we hated, they seemed to falsely equate their gigantic size with added safety.

Dave's right to note that all car seats on the market have to meet government-mandated minimum safety standards which should make them all safe enough when installed properly. But there are a few car seats--like the Radian 80 from Sunshine Kids, which has a structural metal frame, and the Orbit Toddler seat, with its metal base system which seals like an airlock--that seem engineered to perform far beyond the government standards [not that any manufacturer's legal folks would allow them claim that explicitly, of course]. And then there's the whole issue of other governmental standards which may produce even safer designs--like the floor braces used on car seats in places like Japan and the US.

Anyway, I just get reflexively skeptical when I hear the "biggest=safest" argument--and a little defensive, too, I'll admit, since we didn't pick the same model, but went instead with a combo of a light, cheap, portable Graco ComfortSport, and an insane, immovable, and technically illegal Maxi-Cosi Priori, which required a massive cargo ship to bring it home from Europe. How about you? Any thoughts?

Car Seat Madness: A Dad's Tale [kicking the tires via dt reader dt, who sent in the tip during non-office hours, just so you know]

23 Comments

I used to think European = safest, until we lived there. Our big, ugly Graco infant SafeSeat was dragged along with us, and I'm glad. Our son was 9 months old when we moved, and my brother-in-law picked us up with a Maxi-Cosi toddler seat installed in his car. As is allowed in Europe from 9 months onward, it was forward-facing. Then we saw our newborn nephew's Maxi-Cosi infant seat with the 3-point harness.

Some European seats have nice touches - like the infant cushion in the Maxi-Cosis - but overall I wasn't impressed. When my parents came over for our son's first birthday, they schlepped over a Britax Marathon for us (and brought the Graco home, in case we ever have a 'refill' for it). When we go back to Europe to visit family, I think we'll probably still drag over the mighty big (back-breaking-in-airports) Marathon.

I agree on the Radian, though; the steel frame seems optimal. We chose the Britax, though, because the Radian didn't look as comfy for a little kid.

Now, a Swedish carseat might be worth the trouble and illegal usage!

[The following is a repost of analysis I posted in a neighborhood parents' forum last year. Note that our needs are a little different from most parents as we don't own a car.]

After doing a ton of research (on various online forums, the Baby Bargains Book, Amazon and EliteCarSeats.com user reviews, and EliteCarSeats superb comparison tools)--and taking into consideration that we don't own a car but every now and then rent or borrow one (often a small car)--our priorities were:

  • The seat had to be small enough to work rear-facing in small cars with the front seats pushed back (I'm 6'1" and learned from reading reviews that many seats require the front seats to be pulled up).

  • The seat had to be easy to install as we'd be installing it anew almost every time we use it.

  • The seat should be narrow enough to fit in a typical coach airplane seat.

  • The seat should be as light as possible as we'd be schlepping it to/from the various cars in which we'd use it.

Based on those priorities, we seriously considered 4 models: the Graco ComfortSport, Britax Roundabout, Britax Marathon and Sunshine Kids Radian 65/80. Following are the pros/cons of each from our perspective:

  • Graco Comfortsport -- pros = lightest and overall most compact, cheapest. cons = reportedly more difficult to install than Britaxes, generally inferior build quality, can only use until kid is 40lbs/40".

  • Britax Roundabout -- pros = second-lightest and almost as compact as Graco, plus reported to be among easiest to install of just about any convertible car seat out there and generally excellent build quality. cons = about twice the price of and a little bigger than the Graco, can only use until kid is 40lbs/40"

  • Britax Marathon -- pros = all the build-quality/ease-of-use pros of Roundabout plus can use to 65lbs/49". cons = big, heavy, expensive.

  • Sunshine Kids Radian 65/80 -- pros = narrowest (many people apparently buy these when they need to fit three car seats in the back seat), seat folds for easier transport, seat is lower so it works with the tray table down on the airplane, can be used until kid is 65-80lbs/53". cons = heaviest of all, height likely to make it difficult to use rear-facing in small cars, expensive.

Ultimately we decided to get the Roundabout as I confirmed with several users on other forums that it works fine on planes, and almost all the reviews are positive. If cost had been more of a consideration for us, we probably would have gone with the Comfortsport, however.

We decided against the Marathon or Radian since their main advantages were to hold bigger kids, a consideration that was trumped by the compactness and lightness of the Roundabout and Comfortsport.

One other seat that was recommended to us at BuyBuyBaby, but which we decided against after further research, was the Cosco/Safety 1st/Eddie Bauer Alpha Omega seat. The advantage of that particular seat is that it can be used rear-facing, forward-facing, and then as a booster when the kid outgrows regular 5pt harness forward facing mode. But again, longevity wasn't our main concern, and I've read reports that the Alpha Omega is too big to fit comfortably rear-facing in small cars, that it's difficult to install and use and has generally mediocre build quality. The Baby Bargains book in particular seemed to really look down on this seat, giving it a "D" rating. That said, in all its various incarnations it's apparently one of (if not the) best-selling seats in the US, so they must be doing something right.

PS - It was right around when my parents picked up our Marathon that the Canadian regulations changed to allow it to be used to 65 lbs rather than 48. We got a 48-pounder, which is fine by me. By the time my son weighs that much, I expect he won't want to be in a 'baby' seat, and we can get a smaller and/or more adaptable seat then.

I'm confused, is the Maxi-Cosi Priori not legal in the US? and if so why can one purchase it here? or is it different than the ones sold in Europe?
I like them so much, they are nice and light (bad back) and while this might not really be important in the long run, they look so much better than all the other kinds I've seen.

How come you never talk about the Recaro, Greg? We love ours, which we've had for about 18 months now. Sure, it's fairly big and heavy, but I've schlepped it back and forth between California and Hawaii a couple of times and it was fairly easy. The kid loves it, and it seems very safe and secure. The back and headrest actually adjust to the kid's height, which is a great feature.

We did a lot of headache-inducing research, with the usual utterly contradictory information in reviews, & ended up with the Britax Roundabout. It fits well in our '95 Corolla wagon, even better in my mom's old Ford Focus wagon. We can fit two adults in next to it (it's in the middle), although I wouldn't recommend it for long trips that way. And we managed to get it for $70 off because there was some clearance of Roundabouts with college covers through Amazon a while back (my alma mater, U of Arizona, happened to be one of them). I can't remember the vendor offhand but I remember there were a lot of complaints about them; we had no problems with them, got the car seat lickety split.

Oh, and we took it on the plane when the little guy was nine months old and although a pain to lug around, it made him quite comfortable while flying. We'll see if it works as well when we head out to AZ in two weeks - he's now almost 15 months and not nearly as content to sit still.

we have European-spec Maxi-Cosis from before they were for sale in the US. The US Priori is made to noticeably lower quality specifications, from the material used to the structure and finish.

I keep meaning to mention Recaro; they should totally own the premium/high performance car seat market, but I never see/hear anything about them.

We were cheap for the first kid and picked up Evenflos or Gracos. They had nice padding, good pricing. And I grew to hate them. We bought one for each car, even Grandma's. They were a pain to put in. A pain to move. The straps got twisted and refused to tighten. Ugh. So when we started trying for #3, I bought a Britax Marathon. And I love that seat. The LATCH works just the way it is supposed to. The straps tighten so smoothly.

My oldest had moved on to a Booster seat by then. My second was 3. He used the seat for a year. And still could, if the booster seat wasn't even easier.

My third was born a month ago and we bought the Baby Trends Flex Lock infant seat. I sort of hate it. I wasn't going to put the baby in the Marathon until she outgrew the infant seat, but its ease of use just calls me. We don't have an "infant" stroller, just a car seat carrier. So when she can sit up a bit and use a stroller...I think the Britax will be back in use.

(Our main complaint with the Baby Trends infant seat is that the Latch won't tighten down in our Odyssey. What car seat doesn't work with a standard minivan???)

Another brand you don't hear much about is SafeGuard. They only have two seats on the market--the SafeGuard Child Seat and the Go. We've got the Go for our 3-year-old and for an older toddler, I think it's close to the perfect seat. Installation is a breeze and it's very compact for travel. It's harness is rated for up to 60 pounds, but it can also be converted to a backless booster once the kid is 40 pounds. I like having the option of keeping my kid in a 5-point harness for a while longer. After the latest IIHS test on boosters (which the Go passed), I'm skeptical about relying on a lap/shoulder belt in such a little kid.

The bad news about the Go is that it won't work on a plane and you can't use the harness if you don't have that top anchor.

The good news? I recently rode a public school bus that had some seats with safety restraints. They were all just like the ones on the Go, because SafeGuard makes them.

I don't know how people manage to drive around with rear facing seats in smaller cars. We have the Britax Diplomat in my BMW 5 series and the driver's seat is so far forward my husband can no longer drive the car.

Installation was a horror too - won't fit in the center seat (humped seat = wobbly installation), no LATCH system, short belts, pitched seats required rolled towels, no floor tether...

Being from Europe, Britax was a no-brainer for me. But I was surprised at the safety of Euro seats when visiting with a 3 month old - we used a Mutsy seat which barely held my daughter in with its paltry 3 point harness and weird reclining mechanism. Even though the lap belt crosses the child (forming the 4th and 5th point of restraint), it doesn't look safe, nor feel it.

We now have to get a convertible seat for my husband's tiny Subaru and the options are just mind-numbing. I was hoping Dave's article might be of some help, but it wasn't.

Just get a Britax Roundabout or Graco Comfortsport. Like I said above, I definitely prefer the hardware on the Roundabout, but the Comfortsport is a notch smaller and quite a bit cheaper, so it's a better choice for some folks.

Because we don't own a car, we've installed our Roundabout rear-racing in all sorts of small rental cars, including the Prius, Elantra and Dodge Avenger, and in a bunch of mid-size cars like the Camry, Passat and Volvo 850. The only car where I couldn't push the driver's seat all the way back with the Roundabout installed was a tiny Chevy Aveo (which is a terrible car on many levels, btw).

We don't have the kids in the car too often and almost never move the seats. We were never able to justify the cost of Britax/Recaro end of the market. Every car seat seems to be "safe" and I imagine that the quality of your installation, the car you drive and the way you drive it are much bigger factors in your kids' safety than the car seat. In any case, we've been perfectly happy with our Graco Snugride for the little one and Evenflo Triumph for the toddler. I'm installing and removing a Britax Marathon (in Grandma's car) all the time and don't see any advantage that it has over the Evenflo. We do get the occasional judging look from certain other parents when the Evenflo comes up in conversation but that's about the only negative to report.

I do have my eye on the Sunshine Kids Radian with the hope that I could fit 2 seats on the 60% side of the folding rear seat in our Subaru but I think that's wishful thinking.

Thanks for the link. I guess I glossed over that I really did a lot of research on the Marathon and didn't mention that it had the highest weight rating which for our boy who was born at 10 lbs 0 ozs and at not even 8 months is 23 lbs that was very important.

We also got the new version of the Marathon which has some nifty adjustable cranks instead of fooling with straps. On the expense side I also equate everything will get used again, soon, for baby #2.

The Graco has been surprisingly nimble and easy to install in test cars though and is great for that short drive in the morning. It also helps review the cars.

Best I've tested for car seats so far are the Buick Enclave and Honda Fit.

of course I meant Boulevard. Sorry. Was reading too many comments.

We have the Radian's in a Mazda Protege and yes, you can fit them on the 60% fold down so you can fit skis and other things (or a grandparent) in the back seat with them. Our kids are 3 and 5, and whenever our older daughter is a regular booster she climbs out --- even though she KNOWS not to, she seems unable to help herself. So for those who are hoping for strapless systems with older kids, don't forget to factor in personality... I'm thinking she'll be there pretty much up to 80lbs ;)

The ComfortSport is notorious for being outgrown at around age two, and is generally considered a waste of money for that reason. There are much better seats out there that last children longer.

The ComfortSport only rear-faces to 30 pounds. That's truly a bummer, given that most seats on the market rear-face to 35 pounds. All the guidelines say to rear-face to the limit of the seat (gone are the days of 1 year/20 pounds).

You might not know this, but rear-facing convertibles can be installed more upright for older babies, typically by 9 months if not earlier. Check your manual. Britax allows a 30- to 45-degree angle. My rear-facing Marathon is at 30 degrees. I have a small car, and my front seats are all the way back. When installed rear-facing in the center, the Marathon doesn't even touch the front seats. When installed outboard, it touches, but Britax allows that.

Please consider seeing a certified CPST to learn how to properly install your car seat. A CPST can show you how to install a rear-facing seat more upright, and save you from the ComfortSport and other low-weight-limit seats that are outgrown before a child is ready for a booster. Also, car-seat.org is a great resource for car seat and installation tips.

Would you suggest that I purchase mine from a German seller, I was going to before I found them here. This whole car seat thing is so complicated. Thanks for replying your Blog is my favorite place to come, most baby site are so insipid.
Thanks again,

Michelle

I beg all of you go to get your seats checked. I promise - if it's THAT hard, you're doing something in correct (along with the other 90% of parents).

First - many models (britax/radian) can actually touch the seat in front of it - where some other models cannot - this is a BIG difference when installing a rear facing carseat.

Also - Some models take advantage of a Rear face Tether anchor - which can be a plus.

Please go to www.seatcheck.org and find a tech... it's not hard once you know what you're doing. I've had a big britax marathon rear facing in a VW bug with room for the passenger... so I know it can be done.

Caitlin, I took a Britax Boulevard or Roundabout (I've forgotten which one we finally chose, and I'm too lazy to go to the car to see) on a recent airplane trip with my 17-month-old. She's pretty patient about sitting in the car seat, especially on a plane, but trying to keep her from kicking the seat in front of us was almost impossible. The rows of seats are so close together now that her feet basically rested on the seat back of the guy in front of us. I could mostly keep her feet off the seat back by making a game of trying to get her to put one foot on the plane wall and one on the armrest of the row in front of us, but thank goodness the guy in front of us was a parent too (and very patient!). My daughter is tall for her age, but just an FYI for any of you traveling in coach in this day of zero leg room!

Greg:
I would like to echo the positive comments on the Recaro seat. K1 loves it, we use the LATCH to secure it and the thing seems absolutely bombproof. Plus it looks cool. It is a bit much to lug around airports, but we just check it at the curb so no huge deal. Cost wasn't much of a factor, it was only marginally more money than the fugly Britax/Graco models. We loved our Maxi-cosi, and now K2 is rocking it as well. I will be forever grateful for your thoughtful recommendations on that score my good man...

Anyone have more information/tips on fitting a Roundabout rear-facing in a VW Beetle (2005)?

Bobbini -
I have a 3 year old (about 32 lbs and 36"-ish) as well and just bought a smaller SUV...the land rover LR2. The Britax that I have fits behind the passenger side, but the passenger seat has to go all the way up and my husband is 6'1", so that doesnt work. I want to put the seat in the middle and the Britax doesnt fit in the middle eiher. It's huge. I am thinking of the "go" as an option b/c I like the straps in the front and it still has the LATCH system which is important to me. If the car rolls over, I know the seat, and my son, will stay in place. Other convertible/booster seats dont have the harness in the front and dont have the LATCH. So I am trusting the seatbelt to fully hold my son and the seat in place - I dont think so! Thoughts?

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