Cheapism: Best child car seats under $100

Sep. 7, 2011 at 7:56 AM ET

By Kara Reinhardt

Conventional wisdom holds that children should ride in a rear-facing car seat until they celebrate their first birthday and weigh at least 20 pounds. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics revised its policy this year to recommend that kids ride facing backward until the age of two, regardless of their weight. A convertible car seat lets children who’ve outgrown an infant seat continue to ride backward until they’re old enough to face forward safely.

Convertible car seats priced at $100 or less mirror more expensive car seats when it comes to basic components. Rather than being secured with a seat belt, most lock into place using the LATCH system of anchors built into most cars made in the past decade. Car seats these days also come with a five-point harness, with straps around the hips in addition to the customary straps over the shoulders and between the legs. However, some harnesses are more adjustable than others. Look for as many strap positions as possible to accommodate a growing child. Higher weight limits also let a child get more use out of a car seat and remain in the safer rear-facing position as long as possible.

Many budget models come with removable, washable seat pads for easy cleaning — keep in mind that a darker color will mask stains. Another thing to take into account is the size and weight of the seat. Features such as activity trays and cup holders add appeal, but can make a car seat too large to move easily from car to car — or too big to fit in some cars at all. You’ll also want to leave space in the back seat for other passengers.

Below are Cheapism’s top picks for convertible car seats. 

  • The Evenflo Titan Elite (starting at $100) can carry children up to 35 pounds facing backward and all the way up to 50 pounds facing forward. Its five-point harness can be adjusted to four shoulder heights and two buckle positions. The removable seat cover is machine-washable, and parents find secure installation simple. (Where to buy)
  • The Safety 1st OnSide Air (starting at $64) has an impressively high 40-pound weight limit for rear-facing passengers. It also boasts a highly adjustable five-point harness, with four shoulder-strap heights and three buckle positions. Reviews note the comfortable design and easy installation. (Where to buy)
  • The Graco ComfortSport (starting at $72) accommodates children up to 30 pounds facing backward and 40 pounds facing forward. It offers three shoulder-strap positions, although the buckle is not adjustable. The removable, machine-washable seat pad provides a comfortable ride. (Where to buy)

Be sure to register any car seat you buy in order to be notified of any recalls. One final safety note: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that only about one out of every four car seats is installed properly. As part of the agency’s upcoming Child Passenger Safety Week, certified technicians will offer free car seat inspections nationwide on Sept. 24. Visit the NHTSA web site to find an inspection station in your area.

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