The Best All-In-One Car Seat 2019
Best All-in-One Car Seat 2019
As the name implies, all-in-one car seats can be used from birth to booster seat age. The Graco 4Ever delivers on that promise with an exceptionally well-designed seat that can be used rear-facing (4 to 40 lbs.), forward-facing with five point harness (20 to 65 lbs.) and then as a booster—high back (30 to 100 lbs.) and backless (40 to 120 lbs.) for older kiddos.
The stand-out features here include a harness that adjusts without rethreading, side impact protection, six recline positions and headrest with ten height adjustments. As for safety, the Graco 4Ever scored at the top of the class in recent third-party crash tests.
(Scroll down for a detailed review of this seat).
Best All-In-One Car Seat. The all-in-one car seat is the Fountain of Youth for car seat makers—the mythical seat that works from birth to college (ok, as a belt-positioning booster to 120 lbs., or when kids age out of booster seats and can correctly fit in a regular seat belt. That’s usually around age ten or later).
Yet like Ponce De Leon, Graco’s quest for the perfect all-in-one seat has been one of frustrating missteps. Their last effort, the SmartSeat, received mixed reviews from parents, many of whom cited negatives like the seat’s bulk and a harness that was hard to use.
We’ve always been a bit skeptical of all-in-one car seats. As the saying goes, jack of all trades . . . but master of none. Many all-in-one car seats in the past had one or two great uses, but fell down when it came to a third. But there is good news: we finally have an all-in-one car seat we can recommend: Graco 4Ever.
Graco clearly has put a lot of thought into the 4Ever. Little touches like the harness that stores away in booster mode (you don’t have to remove it from the seat) are very nice. Unlike the giant SmartSeat, the 4Ever is easier to fit in a vehicle in rear-facing mode. The steel reinforced frame and EPS lined seat are pluses. You also get premium “push-on” LATCH connectors, which you would expect at this price point.
Let’s talk crash tests: the Graco 4Ever scored “Best” on Consumer Reports latest third-party crash tests—that’s impressive.
Reader feedback and online reviews are very positive about the 4Ever. Readers love how the fabric snaps off for cleaning. The 4ever is easy to install and adjust. The seat earns a Best Bet in booster mode by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
FYI: There are two versions of the 4Ever: the base model and a version that adds additional side impact protection (Safety Surround).
Flaws but not deal breakers
What’s not to love about the Graco 4Ever? Readers say in rear-facing mode, the seat’s harness can be tricky to tighten. The lack of a belt lock-off for seat belt installs is a curious omission for this price.
Minor quibble: there is a level indicator, but only on one side. And the fabric isn’t as soft to the touch as you’d expect for a $200+ seat, say some critics. The 4Ever is also quite heavy—if you are looking for a lighter weight car seat for carpooling, there are better choices out there.
Finally, let’s talk about one unspoken flaw of all-in-one car seats—wear and tear on the fabric. Graco promises you can use the 4Ever until age ten or so. That’s ten years worth of fabric use and abuse, starting with diaper blow-outs and continuing through toddler tummy troubles. Yes, you can clean the fabric . . . but we can imagine some kids reaching the point where they reject sitting in a “baby” seat that is stained/worn from years of use. Just sayin’.
On the plus side, in the past few months, the price for the Graco 4Ever has drifted downward—from $300 when it debuted. In a world of $300+ car seats, the Graco 4Ever offers very good value.
Also Great: If the Graco 4Ever is too pricey, consider the Graco Milestone—it is basically a scaled-down 4Ever priced at $50 less than the 4Ever.
As of this writing Milestone runs Check on Amazon. The big difference is the booster mode: the 4Ever converts to a backless booster for use up to 120 lbs. The Milestone works as a belt-positioning booster to 100 lbs . . . but no backless mode.
There are some other small differences as well—the 4Ever has two built-in cup holders. The Milestone has a single cup holder attached to the side of the seat.
The 4Ever has six recline positions and a headrest with ten positions that can be adjusted with one hand. The Milestone has only four recline positions. In the not too distant past, the 4Ever was $70 more than the Milestone—that gap has narrowed to about $50.
One could argue that the $50 difference for the backless booster feature would be worth the trade-off, as you can buy a backless booster for $20 today.
Bottom line: the Graco Milestone is a good bet if your budget for an all-in-one seat can’t exceed $200.
Best Budget-Friendly All-In-One. Most all-in-one seats are $200+ . . . if your budget only allows for an under $200 seat, we would recommend the Evenflo SafeMax All-in-One. Walmart sells this excellent seat for just $146.
Evenflo has moved aggressively into “all-in-one” seats in the past few years. The company’s first stab at this category was with the Symphony, which is still for sale even though it debuted way back in 2008.
The new Evenflo SafeMax is a beefed up Symphony with several additional features.
Example: the new “SafeZone” headrest with beefy side impact protection. Also new is Evenflo’s Parentlink Premier service, which offers you a live video chat with a car seat specialist to go over any questions you have on installation.
That might come in handy when you are converting this seat from convertible to booster mode. More than one reader told us how frustrating/complex this can be, since you have to remove the seat pad and make several adjustments to the seat.
(We should point out that Evenflo uses the “Safemax” name across their line, which is confusing. There is a SafeMax infant car seat, SafeMax convertible booster and so on. The seat we are referring to here is the Evenflo SafeMax All-in-One.)
As always, Evenflo makes the SafeMax in several versions, including a Platinum SafeMax which has upgraded fabrics with “OutLast Performance” technology. This is supposed to keep babies cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. We’ve heard mixed reviews on the durability of the OutLast fabric, with some readers saying it frayed after a year or so’s use. Also: it’s hard to verify the OutLast claims as accurate or just marketing hype.
Speaking of hype, Evenflo is touting its SafeMax seats as “roll-over tested” for safety. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, this sounds great . . . except there are no national roll-over safety standards for car seats. So Evenflo’s safety standard was set by—Evenflo. There is no way to independently verify the claims that this seat would be safe in a roll-over crash.
Flaws but not deal breakers
The SafeMax has one major drawback: even though the SafeMax touts a rear-facing harness limit of 40 lbs, you can only use this seat rear-facing with the headrest in the three LOWEST positions. That means kids will most likely outgrow the SafeMax rear-facing long before the 40 lbs.—so much for extended rear-facing use.
The SafeMax is a big seat: 22.5″ wide and 25+ lbs. Fitting other car seats in a back seat with the SafeMax is a challenge; and the weight means you probably won’t want to move this seat often from vehicle to vehicle.
On the plus side, we liked the premium LATCH, no rethread harness and overall plushness of the SafeMax. If you take long road trips, your kiddo will be happy in this seat. And the SafeMax All-in-One is sold in multiple stores and web sites. Compare prices for the best deals.
Bottom line: Evenflo’s SafeMax is a good seat. Yes, we are bit skeptical of the “all-in-one” seat hype—usually these seats compromise somewhere. In the SafeMax’s case, that would be extended rear-facing use, which is practically not possible in this seat for average-size kids. But this flaw is outweighed by the SafeMax’s other features . . . and sub $200 price, which is hard to find in the all-in-one category.
Why Trust Us
We’ve been rating and reviewing car seats since 1994. In addition to hands on inspections of car seats, we have also visited manufacturer facilities, watched crash tests and met with safety regulators—and when we travel, we pay our all of our own expenses.
We look to our reader feedback to give us a real world perspective on car seats—our message board on car seats has 23,000 (!) threads. We also evaluate consumer reviews posted on sites like Amazon.
Here’s another key point: we don’t take money from the brands we review. No free samples for contests, no sponsors, no “partnerships.” Baby Bargains is your independent and unbiased source for expert baby gear reviews. We’ve been writing and reviewing baby gear since 1994. Yes, that long! Learn more about our work and how to support our site.
How we picked a winner
We evaluate car seats with hands on inspections, checking seats for ease of use (installation and adjusting the seat). We also gather significant reader feedback, tracking seats on quality and durability. Besides interviewing parents, we also frequently talk with car seat “techs,” certified child passenger safety technicians who install hundreds if not thousands of seats at safety check points nationwide.
We’ve been rating and reviewing car seats since 1994. During that time, we have also visited manufacturer facilities and watched car seat crash tests. While we don’t personally crash test seats, we compare our reader feedback with crash tests done by organizations like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Consumer Reports. We also look at third-party evaluations of seats by groups like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which focuses on booster car seats.
7 Things No One Tells You About Buying An All-in-One Car Seat!
1. Pro tip: how easy is it to remove the cover for washing?
Yes, all car seats come out of the box looking fabulous. But any experienced parent will tell you how things can get ugly there in the back seat: spit up, juice spills and diaper blow outs. (Let’s not visualize. Let’s just move on). So then what? You have to remove the cover for cleaning.
That sounds simple, but the truth is some covers remove (and go back on) much easier than others. The best have zip-off or “easy remove” covers. Not so good: seats with multiple loops, snaps and other attachments.
Also: check to see if the cover is machine washable and dryable? Can you remove and wash the harness?
2. Some reclines are easier than others.
Most all-in-one seats recline for napping babies, but how EASY is it to recline? Remember that when a seat is REAR-FACING, a lever on the front of the seat will be jammed up against the back seat.
3. Twisty straps: the pain that keeps on giving.
Better quality car seats have thicker straps that don’t twist. The result: it’s easier to get a child in and out of a seat. Cheaper seats have cheaper webbing that can be a nightmare— “twisty straps” are a key reason why parents hate their car seats. Our top picks on this site avoid the twisty strap issue.
4. Give a second look at that harness buckle.
For obvious safety reasons, the harness buckle (which holds the two shoulder straps in place) shouldn’t be too easy to unclip. Only an adult should be able to do it. But each car seat brand takes a different approach to this critical piece of safety gear. When shopping, take a second to open and close the buckle yourself. Think about any caregivers who might be buckling in baby (grandparents may have less strength, etc).
Hint: “puzzle” or compound buckles can be particularly vexing! As implied by the name, a puzzle buckle must be put together in a particular order to latch. These buckles tend to be seen more on lower-price seats.
Here’s a look at how a typical puzzle buckle works:
5. The sun is not always your car seat’s friend.
That plush, black velour car seat cover may look stunning out of the box, but when installed in a car that sits in the hot summer sun . . . you’ve got a recipe for Sweaty Baby Syndrome. If you have a choice between a dark color and one that is somewhat lighter, we’d go for the latter.
Another related issue: some car seats have exposed metal buckles and hardware. In the hot sun, these buckles can get toasty and possibly burn a child. Pro tip: look for a seat that has buckle clips or holders that keep metal away from direct sun.
6. All-in-one car seats does not necessarily equal portable.
All-in-one car seats vary widely in weight, but most are 20+ lbs.
While you shouldn’t base your entire car seat decision on weight, it may be an important factor for some parents. If you live an urban city center and don’t own a car, then you’ll need a lightweight seat when using Uber or a cab (see our convertible car seats for urban parents). If you see yourself moving a seat between multiple vehicles on a frequent basis, buying an all-in-one car seat may not be the best bet.
7. There is no crash test standard for side impact protection—yet!
As you car seat shop, you’ll see lots of seats promoting “side impact protection” with various headrests, cushions and gadgets. But remember this: as of this writing, there is NO federal side impact safety standard that car seat makers are required to pass. Hence, we have little information to verify which seats are best. (Manufacturers do their own internal side impact crash testing, but aren’t required to share those results with the public).
We should note that there is a PROPOSED side impact car seat safety standard that was published back in 2014. But that rule isn’t final yet and it isn’t clear when that will take effect. We’ll update this tip in the future when that happens.
Certifications to look for when convertible car seat shopping:
NHTSA Ease of Use Rating: The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTS) publishes Ease-of-Use Ratings that cover four areas:
- Evaluation of Instructions: Content and clarity of the instructions manual for the child restraint.
- Vehicle Installation Features: Features that pertain to installing the child restraint in a vehicle.
- Evaluation of Labels: Content and clarity of the labeling attached to the child restraint.
- Securing the Child: Ease in securing a child correctly in the restraint.
Seats are ranked on a one to five star scale. While you can find these ratings here, we have also included NHTSA rankings in each of our reviews (see below).
Textile Certifications: Orbit (now discontinued) is the only car seat to have its fabric certified by OEKO-TEX.
OEKO-TEX is a German organization that offers a Standard 100 certification program for textiles at all steps in the manufacturing process.
“Products marked with the label ‘Confidence in textiles (Standard 100)’ provide effective protection against allergenic substances, formaldehyde, heavy metals such as nickel or for example forbidden plasticizers (phthalates) in baby textiles,” say the organization.
OEKO-TEX offers a second certification called Green by OEKO-TEX, which means the “materials (were) tested for harmful substances,” the product was “made in environmentally friendly facilities” and it was “made in safe and socially responsible workplaces.”
FYI: Despite claims to the contrary, no car seat makers currently use OEKO-TEX certificated flame retardant foam in their car seats.
Reviews of 15 convertible car seats
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