2016 Holiday Gift Guide: Car Seats for Christmas!

Santa's looking for parents who've nicely rear-faced their <5 kids this year!
Santa’s looking for parents who’ve nicely rear-faced their <5 year-olds this year!

The holidays are my favorite time of the year, hands down. I love winter, sledding, spending time with my wife and kids, putting on the snow tires, and yes, gifting car seats to friends and family!

Yup. If you’re wondering what to do for your loved ones as we approach the holidays and Christmas gift-giving, my top recommendation would be a good car seat. I know, it sounds strange in a world full of tablets and big screen TVs. However, even though you might not think of car safety as the holidays approach, the truth is that car accidents are the number one killers of children between 1 and 13, and if there’s anything we can do to keep our children safe, as well as the children of our dear friends and extended family members safe, it’s worth doing. To me, that means being open to new car seats when necessary, and it means being aware of the mistakes we make too often with our car seat installations, especially with the miles so many families will put on their vehicles in the next few weeks.

The holidays are a time when we should be joyful and celebrating time with our loved ones. However, there are many families around the country who will sadly lose loved ones, including children, to preventable car accidents. Each year there are more stories, but the one that comes to mind was one from some years ago that took the life of an infant while her family drove home from a Christmas party on Christmas day.  Her father reportedly fell asleep at the wheel and crossed the center line. However, every occupant in both vehicles survived, except for the 13-month old baby.

If there’s anything we can do to reduce the likelihood of our children being injured or worse this Christmas, we should do it, and do it gladly.

These are my favorite car seats currently on the market. I chose them based on how well they fit a range of children, how easy they are to safely and correctly install, and most importantly, how long they allow children to rear-face. Each of these seats will make a great holiday gift that will give the gift of safety whenever children are in cars for the next several years. In order to learn why these kinds of seats are important, be sure to read my guides to extended rear-facing, extended harnessing, and boostering.

Because I’ve spent years writing about car seats and child safety, I’m always up for scouring the safest seats on the market at all price points. Here are a range of the best convertible car seats, combination, infant, and booster seats that I find myself recommending repeatedly when parents ask me for safe and affordable car seats that fit in most vehicles. Check out my 3 across vehicle guides for additional suggestions for your particular vehicle.

I’ve included my personal evaluations of each seats, links to reviews I’ve written, and direct links to Amazon pages for when you’re ready to make a purchasing decision.

Good luck shopping and I wish you the safest of travels and family times as we approach the end of the year. Please remember to rear-face until 4 if possible, forward-face until 8 if possible, and booster until your child passes the 5 step test. It takes a bit of work to do so, but the rewards in keeping your kids safer for longer are worth it.

Looking for more car seat reviews, recommendations, and tips on best practices? You can read all of my reviews of recommended car seats here. Friends in Canada, your recommended list is here.

The 5 Top Convertible Seats that Rear-Face to 50 pounds

extend2fit - 1    pacifica

The Graco Extend2Fit – Review Here, Buy Here.
The Clek Fllo – Review Here, Buy Here.
The Diono Rainier – Review Here, Buy Here.
The Clek Foonf – Review Here, Buy Here.
The Diono Pacifica – Review Here, Buy Here.

These are the five best car seats available today in the United States when it comes to extended rear-facing. Any of these seats will allow you to rear-face just about any child from birth until age 5, and any of these seats will also allow you to forward your face afterward for some amount of time.

The Graco Extend2Fit is the best value for your money if you’re purely interested in rear-facing for the longest amount of time, as it features the highest effective height limit when rear-facing. The Dionos are the best value for the money if you’re looking to maximize the time you spend between buying car seats, as both offer longer forward-facing usable times than the Clek seats, and also include booster modes, even though those modes aren’t going to be useful for some kids. The advantage of the Clek seats is that they’re as narrow as convertible car seats get, which means it’s possible to fit them 3 across in just about any vehicle.

My favorite seat of the five is the Fllo, followed by the Rainier and Extend2Fit, but you can’t go wrong with any of them. No seats on the market will allow you to rear-face longer than these 4, and since rear-facing is the safest position we can place our children in whenever traveling with them in a vehicle, this is where you want to be if you can afford it in terms of child safety.

Remember to pick up the infant insert as well if you’re buying one of the Cleks and want to use them from the day you leave the hospital, otherwise you’ll need to wait until your child has head control and can sit up independently. Similarly, if you’re buying one of the Dionos, make sure to pick up an angle adjuster so you’ll have a reasonable amount of room when driving or sitting as a passenger in the front row of your vehicle.

The 4 Best Convertible Seats for Rear-Facing to 40 pounds

   

The Britax Advocate ClickTight – Review Here, Buy Here.
The Britax Boulevard ClickTight – Review Here, Buy Here.
The Britax Marathon ClickTight – Review Here, Buy Here.
The Chicco NextFit – Review Here, Buy Here.

The 40 pound convertible seat market is packed, but these seats stand out time and time again. They all have astronomically high seat backs, which means that your children are all but guaranteed to reach the 40 pound weight limit before they need to be forward-faced. Of the seats, the Advocate offers the best side impact protection, while I think the Boulevard or NextFit are the best value.

3 Great Convertible Seats on a Budget (i.e., at or under $150)

graco-mysize-65  contender - 1

The Graco MySize 65 – Review Here, Buy Here.
The Graco Size4Me 65 – Review Here, Buy Here.
The Graco Contender – Review Here, Buy Here.

When it comes to absolute value for rear-facing, you can’t get any better than the Graco clones, including the MySize 65 (which is almost exactly the same seat as the Head Wise 65), the Size4Me 65, and the Contender. In fact, these are my three favorite convertibles, bar none, under $150. I have all three seats installed in family vehicles right now, and between the three, the main differences are that the MySize 65 has more side impact protection and head support, while the Size4Me feels a bit bony in comparison due to the thinner fabrics used. The Contender only comes with one set of LATCH anchors and takes up a bit more space when rear-facing. As a result, I’d choose the MySize or Size4Me over the Contender if you can afford it. All three seats are great, however, and come with exactly the same height and weight limits.

3 of the Best Infant Seats that Rear-Face to 35 pounds
  

The UPPAbaby MESA – Review Here, Buy Here.
The Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 – Review Here, Buy Here.
The Cybex Aton 2 – Review Here, Buy Here.

When it comes to infant seats, I’m looking for ease of installation and ease of use, and these three seats are the best in the market when it comes to both of those factors, as well as when it comes to stroller compatibility in the case of the UPPAbaby MESA. Of the three seats, my favorite is the MESA, but all three are solid choices and are among the best in the market in rear-facing weight limits for infant seats.

The 2 Top Infant Seats on a Budget (i.e., under $200)

 clickconnect40-1

The Chicco KeyFit 30 – Review Here, Buy Here.
The Graco Snugride Click Connect 40 – Review Here, Buy Here.

If you’re interested in infant seats below $200, Chicco and Graco are doing excellent jobs with the KeyFit 30 and the Click Connect 40. The KeyFit 30 is very user friendly and compatible with a range of strollers, including the Bravo, while the Click Connect 40 will allow many children to rear-face well past 1 without needing to switch seats due to its additional height.

Personally, I’m a fan of just starting out with a great convertible so you don’t have to switch later on in order to keep rear-facing, so if I had $200 and a baby on the way, I’d go with either the Head Size 70, Size4Me, or Contender and skip the infant seat stage. However, if that’s not an option or if you need to be able to transport your infant in and out of a vehicle without waking him or her, then these are two great infant seats that won’t break the bank.

The 2 Top Combination / Booster Seats that Forward-Face to 90 pounds and Booster to 120 pounds
 

The Britax Frontier G1.1 – Review Here, Buy Here.
The Britax Pinnacle G1.1 – Review Here, Buy Here.

The Frontier and the Pinnacle are combination seats, which means they can both be used as forward-facing harnessed seats and as booster seats. Often seats that do one thing well do something else poorly. However, in this case, you’re looking at the two best forward-facing seats and the two best booster seats available in the United States as of this writing. I think that’s pretty cool.

There isn’t another car seat that does either of these jobs (forward-facing or boostering) better than these two seats. I love the Frontier and Pinnacle because if you buy either, it’s pretty much guaranteed to last your child until s/he no longer needs a car seat any more (i.e., when s/he can pass the 5-step test). That’s pretty awesome in my books.

Best3 Booster Seats with More than 20″ of Shoulder Height
  

The Clek Oobr – Review Here, Buy Here.
The Maxi-Cosi RodiFix – Review Here, Buy Here.
The Kiddy Cruiserfix Pro – Review Here, Buy Here.

Although the Frontier and Pinnacle are my favorite boosters, if you’re not able to pick either of them up or are on a shorter budget, then your best best will involve the Oobr, RodiFix, and CruisterFix pro. Of these, the Oobr is my favorite; it has a long history of quality and is a solid choice for belt positioning and keeping kids safe until they’re old enough to use the adult seat belt.

If you find the information on car safety, recommended car seats, and car seat reviews on this car seat blog helpful, you can bookmark and shop through this Amazon link. Canadians can bookmark and shop through this link.

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Side Impact Crash Protection: The Safest Small Cars in 2016

The Golf / GTI is still the safest small car you can buy for side impact protection.
The 2015+ Golf / GTI is still the safest small car you can buy for side impact protection.

Side impact collisions are among the most dangerous kinds of collisions we ever face in a passenger-sized vehicle. In order to keep our loved ones safe if we’re ever unfortunate enough to be involved in a t-bone, it helps to have some of the latest technology on our side. To that end, I’ve spent the last several years compiling lists of vehicles in various classes with the best crash test performance in side impacts to help parents and families make better new and used buying decisions. Previous articles in this series are below:

Side Impact Safety in 2015

The safest cars for side impact survival.

The safest minivans for side impact survival.

The safest small cars for side impact survival.

The safest SUVs and crossovers for side impact survival.

Side Impact Safety in 2016

The safest small SUVs and crossovers for side impact survival.

The safest family cars for side impact survival.

The safest minivans for side impact survival.

How dangerous are side impact collisions compared to frontal or rear collisions?

To put it simply, side impact collisions are the collisions that are most likely to take your life or the life of a loved one, when compared with front-, and rear-end collisions. From doing the math in an earlier post on side impact collisions, we know that even though only around 1 out of every 5 collisions involve side impacts, they lead to 1 out of every 3 vehicle occupant deaths in multiple vehicle collisions. In comparison, basically 1 out of 2 collisions involve frontal impacts, which lead to around 1 out of every 2 multiple collision deaths. Even more dramatically, while more than 1 out of every 4 collisions are rear enders, they only result in around 1 out of every 12 multiple collision deaths.

Looking at the numbers shows us side impacts are the collisions most likely to be fatal, even though they’re the least common. Knowing this, it’s worth figuring out how to reduce our risks of dying from one.

How to keep from dying in a side impact collision – what options do we have?

Unfortunately, if you live in the United States, you live in a country that isn’t the most willing to make changes to make our roads safer for everyone. In the US, you can drink much, much more before you’re considered drunk than you would in many parts of Europe (where the driver death rates are lower). Similarly, you don’t really have restrictions on how big your vehicle can be, regardless of how little experience you have as a driver. This isn’t the case in a number of other countries. You also live in a country that turns a blind eye toward many speed limits and is vehemently opposed to traffic cameras, despite their prevalence in countries with lower crash death rates. And of course, you’re also in a country where it’s hard to travel long (or short) distances inexpensively without driving.

I’ve written about some of these issues in past articles, such as one on why Swedish roads are among the safest in the world, and another on why driving in Europe is safer than driving in the US. I’ll have more articles soon about the things we can learn from other countries when it comes to driving safely (e.g., learning from Norway when it comes to child safety, looking into why Iceland has so few traffic deaths per year, and what Norway does differently to make its roads among the safest in the world for all drivers).

However, until we’re willing to make a number of necessary changes, if you’re invested in keeping your family safe from death in t-bone collisions, I’d recommend you:

1.) Avoid driving (e.g., by using public transportation or by cycling or walking…eventually this leads to a critical mass where everyone is safer).

2.) Limit driving (by the same measures above and by combining trips).

3.) Drive the  most side-impact-resistant vehicles possible.

Ultimately, to truly bring an end to side impact collisions, as well as to all collisions, we’re going to need to be forced to invest in the first two measures. I’d consider self-driving or autonomous vehicles to be part of “avoiding driving,” even though those aren’t going to eliminate collisions completely until the vast majority of vehicles on the road are no longer being driven by humans (the critical mass argument).

However, unless you’re in a position to completely follow step 1, you’ll need to focus on 2 and 3. Step 2 isn’t always feasible either, so this post focuses on Step 3, and deals specifically with choosing the safest small cars available for side impact protection in the US in 2016. I realize 2016 is close to an end, but this is also means this is the best time of the year to get discounts on current year models if you’re interested in the latest technology. Fortunately, as you’ll see below, you don’t always need the newest vehicles to be as safe as currently possible. You just need to know who’s doing the best job.

This post focuses on small cars and the best ones to be in if you’re unfortunate enough to be in a side impact collision. There are plenty of reasons to choose small cars over larger ones, whether due to a desire to save on purchase costs, save fuel, save the planet, save parking space, save maintenance costs, or simply because they can help us live more minimally. Whatever your reasons for driving one, the decision to use one shouldn’t accompany a decision to sacrifice significant amounts of safety.

Calculating which small cars are the safest for side impact collisions by structural integrity (crush distance)

I’ve written about the math behind these calculations in previous posts, such as in the relevant articles on surviving side impacts in cars, minivans, and SUVs and crossovers, so hop back to those articles to read about this in detail. The short version is that the IIHS runs a side impact test. It simulates a 3300 lb SUV crashing into the side of a vehicle at 31 mph, or 143.7KJ of kinetic energy. Every vehicle deforms somewhat at the B-pillar when absorbing such an impact, and there’s a subscore in the IIHS test known as the “structure and safety cage” looks into how close the B-pillar intrudes into the center of the driver’s seat during the collision. Less intrusion is better. Let’s see who has the least intrusion right now in the family car market.

I searched through the test scores of every small car currently available in the US to make this best-of list. I’m defining small cars as any car capable of transporting at least five individuals while being classified as a small (compact) or mini (subcompact) car. I also made the lower threshold for inclusion in the list 20 cm of intrusion resistance, which knocked out a lot of vehicles that were present the last time I made this list. These are the best of the best.

Keep in mind that the IIHS continually updates their side impact information while gathering additional information, so in a few months, it’s likely that these numbers may be slightly different, and I’ll have another article to reflect those changes. All data is accurate as of late November 2016, and all images are either from yours truly or courtesy of Wikipedia.

The 5 safest small cars for side impact collisions in 2016

golf - mk7 - publicdomain22 cm – 2015-2016 Volkswagen Golf / GTI.

Two model years later, the Volkswagen Golf and GTI are still the most side-impact resistant small cars you can buy, and only trail the Mercedes-Benz E-Class among all cars capable of seating 5 people. Considering that the Golf costs much, much less than an E-Class sedan, it’s well worth considering as a safe and affordable small family car.

The Golf is available in several flavors, but all feature good safety scores, including the side impact frontal crash test score, and all feature a class-leading 22 cm of side impact intrusion protection.

You can read my full 3 across car seat guide to the Golf / GTI here.

500l - 2014 - publicdomain21 cm – 2014-2016 Fiat 500L

The Fiat 500L continues to hold its own as one of the most structurally sound cars on the market for side impacts. However, it’s disappointing to see that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles continue to sit on their hands regarding the poor small overlap score that the 500L received in 2014. Three years later, with nothing changed, it looks like this simply isn’t a priority for FCA. That said, it’s impressive to see it close to the top of the list when it comes to side impact protection, especially considering its placement as the second-best small family car you can currently buy.

You can read my full 3 across car seat guide to the 500L here.

dart - 2013 - publicdomain19 cm – 2013-2016 Dodge Dart.

I was happy to write about the Dodge Dart in previous rankings for safe small cars, and am disappointed to see FCA discontinue it after the 2016 model year, as it was a well-designed small car from a safety standpoint. Fortunately, this does mean that there will be a healthy used market for the Dart for individuals and families on a budget. Unfortunately, it means that the options for great new small cars are a little slimmer this year than they were last year.

You can read my full 3 across car seat guide to the Dart here.

2016-demio-ia-pd18.5 cm – 2016 Scion iA / Toyota Yaris iA.

The iA is a Mazda 2 that was rebranded in the US as the Scion iA before being rebranded again as the Toyota Yaris iA. Regardless of what it’s called, it’s a good car. The first minicar on the list, it features good safety scores in every area, including in the small overlap test, and even features some level of automated front crash prevention. I’m looking forward to learning more about how the iA performs in real-world conditions under the ultimate metric: the driver death rate.

2016-civic-pd18.5 cm – 2016 Honda Civic.

Honda makes its first appearance in a car-based side impact resistance list with the new Civic. It features great safety scores all around and rounds out the top 5 by tying the iA with 18.5 cm of crush resistance. All signs point to this being the safest Civic yet, and as with every other vehicle on this list, I’m looking forward to seeing how it performs in actual driver death rate statistics.

You can read my full 3 across car seat guide to the Civic here.

How to choose a car to keep you safe in side impact crashes

In conclusion, what does this all mean? Should you sell your current car and buy one of the above immediately? Is every other car on the road just not good enough?

Well, not exactly. There are a number of other great vehicles that I didn’t include on the list to save time that were literally only a centimeter or two away from appearing on the list. The Toyota Prius, for example, was recently estimated to have been the small car with the lowest driver death rate by the IIHS, beating out a number of huge SUVs and pickup trucks. It is by all accounts one of the safest cars you can currently buy. However, the current generation didn’t make the list because it had an intrusion score of 17.0 cm the last time I checked, and I cut the list off at  18.5 cm. And to be precise, the version of the Prius that did very well was the 2010-2011 Prius, which had an intrusion score of 11-11.5 cm and wouldn’t have been anywhere near this list even if I’d extended it significantly.

There are also a number of additional vehicles that didn’t make the cutoff simply because I was only interested in the top vehicles for this post. This doesn’t mean there aren’t other safe choices out there. It just means I focused on the very best-performing ones. The 2016 Toyota Corolla, for example, wasn’t included even though it featured 18.5 cm of side impact crush resistance because its overlapping seat belt design effectively prohibits the safe transport of more than 4 passengers (or 2 car seats) at a time.

The takeaway message is that it’s worth looking beyond the overall “good” score and diving into the structural integrity subscore when searching for safe cars for this particular kind of crash. Of course, you’ll start with looking for airbags and the overall “good” score, but beyond that, if you’re choosing between two vehicles that seem good on paper, dive into this subscore and you might be surprised at what you find. And remember that just because a car isn’t anywhere near the top numbers on this list doesn’t mean it’s not safe.

We can’t control everything. The safest option is still not driving at all, followed by driving as little as possible. But if you’ve got to drive, drive safely, and do your best to choose a safe vehicle. To that end, my safe family vehicle analyses for cars and SUVs are worth reading.

I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. It’s exciting to see where we’re headed in vehicle safety these days. I’ll have followup articles soon comparing comparing car and SUV safety along the same metrics. Stay tuned, remember to avoid common mistakes parents make with car seats, and check out some 3 across car seat guides while you’re here.

If you find the information on car safety, recommended car seats, and car seat reviews on this car seat blog helpful, you can bookmark and shop through this Amazon link. Canadians can bookmark and shop through this link.

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35,000 Americans will die this year on the road. You don't have to be one of them. A car seat and car safety blog to promote best practices for families.