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Cheap Car Seat Buying Guide

The best cheap convertible car seat we found is the Evenflo SureRide DLX (starting at $85), which is capable of keeping young riders facing backward until they reach 40 pounds. Then it can turn around and face forward to carry children up to 65 pounds.

We also like two Safety 1st convertible car seats: the Guide 65 (starting at $78) and OnSide Air (starting at $72), which are a little lighter and less bulky. One budget car seat that we previously recommended but has dropped in our assessment is the Graco ComfortSport (starting at $80). The weight and height limits just don't compete with the other cheap car seats on our list this year, something that can make a difference for parents of fast-growing children. Graco has also recalled the harness buckle on this and other models.

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 travel system, 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 experts 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.

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Most new convertible car seats have a one-year manufacturer's warranty. Remember to fill out and mail the warranty card immediately or register online so you can be contacted if the seat is ever recalled for safety or durability problems.

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