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Cheap Car Seat Buying Guide
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.
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.
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.
Best Cheap Car Seat
Evenflo SureRide DLX
Consumers say the Evenflo SureRide DLX is easy to install and provides a comfortable ride. It can hold a child up to 65 pounds, exceeding the weight limits of other low-cost convertible car seats by 10 pounds or more. The seat comes with a removable and machine-washable seat pad.Read Full Review and Compare Prices »
Good Cheap Car Seats
Safety 1st Guide 65
With high weight and height limits, the Safety 1st Guide 65 wins praise from parents who are astonished that such a roomy car seat actually fits into compact cars. The car seat weighs a light 11.5 pounds and fits kids up to 65 pounds. The five-point harness is highly adjustable, with five shoulder-strap positions and three locations for the middle buckle.Read Full Review and Compare Prices »
Safety 1st OnSide Air
The Safety 1st OnSide Air allows children to remain facing backward -- the safest position, according to experts -- up to 40 pounds. Kids can also face forward from 22 to 40 pounds. Parents have found the car seat easy to install, easy to maneuver from car to car, and comfortable for their kids.Read Full Review and Compare Prices »
Many parents give this car seat positive reviews, but others gripe about installation issues and an expert weighs in to warn against the seat's low weight and height limits. Children can sit facing the rear of the vehicle up to only 30 pounds, which may not let many cross the 2-year-old threshold recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. UPDATE: The harness buckle on this car seat has been recalled.Read more »
Graco ComfortSport Review
Safety 1st Guide 65 Review
Safety 1st OnSide Air Review
Evenflo SureRide DLX Review
Eddie Bauer Deluxe Convertible Car Seat
Cosco Scenera Convertible Car Seat
Our reporter took the frugal month challenge and saved $328 during February by forgoing haircuts and new clothes and finding free entertainment.
Women who think they may be pregnant can choose a free test at a clinic or doctor's office or cheap at-home tests.