I bought my first child safety seat made by Dorel back around 1999, before I became involved in child passenger safety.  It was the original Cosco High Back combo booster.  Consumer Reports had given it a top rating.  Who was I to disagree?  While it was a good value, it was difficult to use, from the tricky installation to the harness straps that quickly twisted into ropes to the obnoxious tether adjustment.  Well, something good did come of that.  Between that seat and the Century Smartmove, my frustration with child seats became great enough that I began to have an interest in carseat safety advocacy.

Flash forward over a decade.  Earlier this year, Dorel released the Safety 1st onBoard 35 Air.  We originally saw it at the ABC Kids Expo last fall and it’s been on the market for a couple months now.  Dorel has come a long way.  In my opinion, the onBoard 35 Air is the nicest child safety seat made by Dorel to date and also ranks among my favorite few infant seats made by any manufacturer.

Where to begin?  It fits babies 4-35 pounds, up to 32″ tall.  And those are not just random numbers made by marketing to impress parents.  Many infant seats that claim they start at 4-5 pounds, but simply don’t fit small newborns and preemies all that well.  The onBoard 35 Air is one of the exceptions.  With its nice assortment of inserts and low bottom harness strap slots, the Huggable Images 4-pound preemie doll fits quite well, as you can see in the photo (right) and video (below).  I would almost guess that it was designed with preemies and perhaps even this doll in mind.  Kudos to Dorel!  As for 35 pounds, I don’t have a big baby to test that, but the shell is quite large.  They claim 17% more leg room than most infant car seats and that looks to be the case.  I suspect that even if a baby doesn’t make it to 35 pounds because they get too tall (when their head gets within an inch of the top of the plastic shell), they will still be able to use the onBoard 35 Air longer than some other infant carriers.

Just as impressive is the base.  This premium base is an upgrade from the basic base that comes with some of the standard onBoard models.  The belt guide has a nice built-in lockoff mechanism that is relatively easy to use and I find that it works quite well for both seatbelt and LATCH installations.   When using a seatbelt, there is a handy LATCH storage compartment that gets the LATCH straps and connectors completely out of the way.   There is an easy-to-use lever under the base that adjusts the recline angle and is much less effort than some other designs.  The LATCH hardware has been upgraded from basic hooks found on entry level models to the nice mini-connectors with push-button releases that are found on many higher-end child seats.  If you purchase a second base for another vehicle, both the standard and premium bases are compatible with all Safety 1st and Bertini “onBoard” infant car seats.   The carrier can be installed without the base, too.

Speaking of the carrier, it is equally impressive.  Adjustments are very generous with four harness slot positions and three crotch strap positions.  To fit the tiniest babies, the nearest crotch buckle slot has an alternate routing to make it fit even better. The harness itself tightens easily with an adjustment strap and push-button release in front.  The chest clip has a nice logo showing its correct position.  The lack of comfort pads around the straps for the neck is a minor omission.  On the other hand, many times such pads push the chest clip too far down on small newborns so there is no worry about that if you have a tiny baby.  While the fashions are not exciting, the styling is very nice.  The gray and black of my Silverleaf cover looks sharp with our gray leather interior.  The cover attaches securely to the shell and looks well made.  Everything fits well and seems to be very well padded and comfortable.  The infant inserts can be customized, with the main section going around the head and smaller cushions that help support the side of the head and torso for the smallest infants and preemies.

The handle seems comfortable to hold, with a narrow rubberized grip in the center.  The mechanism works well and can be locked in any position while in a vehicle, with an indicator that shows green when the handle is locked.  The release lever to separate the carrier from the base is located in back.  It sometimes sticks, but seems to work best if you squeeze the lever fully, then pull straight up on the handle or front of the base with your other hand.  An easy-to-read glass bubble shows you the correct recline for smaller infants and also for older babies.  This is a great feature compared to other designs, as being a little more upright is safer for older babies.  On the other hand, preemies, newborns and young infants must be as close to a 45 degree recline as possible.  This reduces the risk of an airway obstruction, should their heads flop forward because they are too upright.  This design accommodates both situations very nicely.

Another standout feature is the “Air Protect” cushions that we first saw in the Complete Air convertible.  Here, there are two sets of plastic-encased open cell foam pillows that manage energy in a crash by limiting compression as they allow air to escape gradually.  These are used on the sides, in place of energy absorbing EPS or EPP foam found in most other child restraints.   EPS foam does cover the rest of the area around and behind the head.   The Complete Air convertible seat did not fit small babies well and the Air Protect cushions did not extend low enough, either.   Fortunately, this is not the case with the onBoard 35 Air.  With this infant seat, there is a thicker Air Protect cushion up high for bigger babies with heavier heads and a smaller cushion extending down low enough to protect newborns and preemies.  You can see them in the photo (left) and video (below).

One of the potential drawbacks of the Air Protect feature is that it is internal to the shell.  With a front-facing convertible in a typical side impact, the child’s head is often thrown forward of the shell, meaning that any internal energy absorbing material may not help at all.  On the other hand, rear-facing seats tend to contain a baby’s head very well in both frontal and side impacts, due to the way they are installed and due to the typical forces in the most common and severe types of impacts.  In the case of an infant carrier like the onBoard 35 Air, that means those Air Protect cushions will almost always be there to absorb some energy and protect the baby’s head.  As rear-facing child seats are inherently very safe if used correctly, it’s hard to say how much of an improvement this feature may offer compared to other materials, but I expect there is at least some advantage.  The Dorel crash tests certainly look impressive!

Installation?  No issues at all in our 2010 Toyota Prius or 2006 Honda Odyssey, though with the Prius (below) we had to move the front seat forward a notch.  With either LATCH or a lap/shoulder belt, it works quite nicely.  I expect it will fit in many vehicles fairly well.  The videos above demonstrate a quick installation.

Disadvantages?  It’s not inexpensive.  The onBoard 35 Air retails around $179, but often sells for less than that online.   Given how long it can be used and the great features, I still consider this a good value.  While a standard base without lock-off will set you back $40, an extra “premium” base like the one that comes with the onBoard 35 Air is about $65 if purchased on Amazon (MSRP is $80).  Another confusing thing is that there are various versions of the onBoard 35.  Versions not labeled as “Air” will, of course, be missing the Air Protect feature.  These models also lack the premium base noted in this review and instead have the standard base that is missing the lock-off and only has 2 recline options (all or nothing).  One physical issue with the onBoard 35 Air is that the canopy isn’t as robust as I’d prefer and gives only an average amount of coverage.  The onBoard 35 Air seems a bit longer than some infant seats, so that could be an issue in smaller cars where it might limit legroom for an adult in front if you have to move the front seats forward.  Finally, as seems to be the trend with almost all infant seats these days, the seat is made in China, including the harness system and cover.  This is an ongoing concern in my reviews, not only because of the economic issues, but also potential safety issues that have plagued many children’s products in recent years.  Unfortunately, it is very difficult to find any current infant seat in the USA or Canada that is not made in the far east.

As I don’t have a baby, I haven’t been using the onBoard 35 Air daily.  I can’t really comment on it’s ease of use or comfort in terms of carrying it around.  So, for a more complete review, I will be passing it along to one of our moderators at Car-Seat.Org who has a baby and can put it through its paces for a followup!  Until then, I can highly recommend the Safety 1st onBoard Air.  As always, the safest child safety seat for you is one that fits your child and your vehicle correctly, and one that you can use properly on each trip!  Make sure to try any carseat before you buy it or make sure to get a good return policy.  If you have problems, please visit a local child passenger safety technician before you return it!

Thank you to Dorel/Safety 1st and their team at 360 Public Relations for providing our review sample, model 22395AIN!  You may visit the Safety 1st onBoard 35 Air product page for more details!