Posted Under: Reviews
Since we now have two well-received 3-in-1 (aka All-in-One) carseat models on the market, I thought it would be fun and informative to have a little friendly competition between them. Hence the 3-in-1 throwdown! Seats will be judged on ease of installation, ease of use, comfort, realistic usage range, lifespan, features and pros & cons.
There are now 3 separate models of the Symphony 65. The original with SureLATCH connectors, the premium Symphony 65 e3 model with deeper head wings for enhanced side-impact protection (pictured right) and the lower price point Symphony 65 DLX model with nice push-on style LATCH connectors instead of the self-ratcheting SureLATCH connectors.
Ease of Installation – Evenflo’s SureLATCH self-ratcheting lower LATCH connectors will likely be very helpful to the average carseat consumer who struggles to achieve an acceptably tight installation. However, due to numerous carseat/vehicle compatibility variables, the self-ratcheting connectors don’t always work as well as intended. It’s definitely not a fool-proof installation system in every vehicle. Still, SureLATCH is an innovative feature that is bound to make proper installation easier in many vehicles. If you’re not interested in the self-ratcheting SureLATCH connectors, the new DLX model offers premium push-on lower LATCH connectors instead. Overall, the Symphony 65 is relatively easy to install both rear-facing and forward-facing with either LATCH or seatbelt. I personally like the X-style LATCH attachment straps which makes switching the LATCH connectors from the rear-facing beltpath to the forward-facing beltpath clear and straight-forward.
Ease of Use - The Symphony 65 is extremely easy to use correctly. The harness straps tighten and loosen easily with a central front adjuster mechanism. The only difference here is that the straps tighten and loosen at the hips rather than at the shoulders. The infinite slide harness adjustment system allows you to set the harness height correctly, and quickly adjust it whenever the child has a growth spurt. The shell height (head support) can be increased or decreased with a simple, one-hand adjustment. There is nothing difficult or awkward about the buckle or the chest clip. Really, when it comes to ease of use – it just doesn’t get much easier than this.
Comfort - The Symphony 65 has a padded cover that should be sufficient for keeping kids comfortable even on long trips. It is wide enough that older kids with broad shoulders will not feel squished. The single crotch strap position is about 7″ which should be adequate for most kids – even those in bulky cloth diapers.
Weight & Height Limits:
- Rear-facing 5-35 lbs (new e3 model is 5-40 lbs); top of head must be at least 1″ below top of headrest in either of the 2 lowest headrest positions
- Forward-facing 20-65 lbs; at least 1 year old, 50″ tall or less
- Booster 30-100 lbs; at least 3 years old, less than 57″ tall
Realistic Usage Range - With bottom harness slots that measure about 8″ it’s likely that a full-term, average-to-large sized newborn baby would fit well in this seat. On the opposite end, with top harness slots that measure around 16″, the vast majority of kids will outgrow the 5-point harness by height before reaching the 65 lb weight limit. However, the Symphony 65 is wide enough to comfortably accommodate shorter, stockier kids who may need the higher weight limit more than the height room. The harness height is also reasonably tall enough to get a majority of kids to the point where using the seat in booster mode would be appropriate (generally over 40 lbs and at least 4-5 years old). In the first two pictures below my son was getting very close to outgrowing the harness by height. At the time he was 5 years old, 46 lbs and 46″ tall. In booster mode, it’s probably not tall enough to be the last booster your child will ever need but again, it’s reasonably tall. My son is now 6.5 years old, 53 lbs and 48″ tall. As you can see in the third photo, he still has ample growing room left in booster mode although he would probably still need a backless booster after this seat is outgrown. All in all, I think it’s reasonable to expect that this seat could fit an average-sized child for the full 8 years of its lifespan before it expires. Long-torsoed children will always be the exception.
Lifespan - 8 years. There is a “Do NOT Use After _” date stamped into the back of the shell
Additional Features - EPP energy-absorbing foam, FAA certified for use on an aircraft in harnessed mode, brand new Symphony 65 e3 model (pictured left) has extended headwings and extra energy-absorbing foam for enhanced side impact protection. Note – none of the current Symphony models have a lock-off device for seatbelt installation.
Pros & Cons - Easy to use and generally easy to install both rear-facing and forward-facing. Doesn’t require too much room in the rear-facing position which makes it a good candidate for smaller or mid-sized vehicles (or parents with really long legs). Can be used both rear-facing and forward-facing on an aircraft (with 5-pt harness – NOT in booster mode). On the flip side - no lockoff device to simplify seatbelt installations, only rated to 35 lbs rear-facing, SureLATCH attachments may not work optimally in every vehicle, harness is not removable and therefore not replaceable. Also, does not come with harness pads (and you cannot use aftermarket harness cover pads because they could interfere with the infinite slide harness adjuster mechanism). *Update: The new Symphony 65 models are rated to 40 lbs in the rear-facing position! This is good news for parents with kids in 90th percentile for weight but the vast majority of average-sized kids will outgrow the seat rear-facing by height before reaching 40 lbs.
Ease of Installation- Base is easily installed with seatbelt using the lock-off device. Ease of installation with the heavy-duty, hook-style lower LATCH connectors will vary depending on the accessibility of the lower anchors in your vehicle. Attaching the seat to the base involves a bit of a learning curve but isn’t overly difficult or complicated. The seat is just really heavy and bulky so hoisting it up, getting it inside the vehicle and lining it up correctly so that it locks into place on the base can be a challenge the first few times you do it.
Ease of Use – Once attached to the base, the Smart Seat is very easy to use correctly. The harness straps tighten and loosen easily with a central front-adjuster mechanism. The one-hand harness height adjustment allows you to move the harness into one of the 6 height positions without rethreading it or uninstalling the seat. I thought the buckle required more pressure than usual to lock and unlock but it wasn’t unreasonably difficult. My 6.5 year old could NOT buckle or unbuckle himself in this seat which could be a blessing or a curse depending on your situation. For the record, he couldn’t buckle or unbuckle himself in booster mode either - which isn’t a deal breaker for me but it might be for someone else if you want a booster seat that your older child is likely to be able to use correctly without needing your assistance – every. single. time. FWIW, there are other highback boosters that he can buckle himself in (under my close supervision) in my van.
Comfort – The Smart Seat has a padded cover that should be sufficient for keeping kids comfortable even on long trips. It is wide enough that older kids with broad shoulders will not feel squished. The two crotch strap positions measure about 4 1/4″ and 5 1/2″ which might be a little tight (especially for older boys) but not necessarily an issue for every kid. The head rest may push a child’s head forward a little bit which could be an issue for some kids (and for some parents who hate to see head-slump).
Weight & Height Limits
- Rear-facing 5-40 lbs; top of head must be at least 1″ below top of headrest in either of the 3 lowest headrest positions
- Forward-facing 20-65 lbs; at least 1 year old, 50″ tall or less
- Booster 30-100 lbs; approx 3-10 years old, 38-57″ tall
Realistic Usage Range- With the infant insert and the harness strap covers that are required for rear-facing usage, the 8 1/2″ bottom harness slots should be low enough for a full-term, average-to-large sized newborn baby. On the opposite end, with tall top harness slots that measure around 18″, the vast majority of kids will fit in the 5-pt harness until at least Kindergarten age (and many for longer than that). In booster mode, it may be tall enough to be the last booster your child will ever need. In the pictures below, the forward-facing child is 5 years old, 41 lbs and 45″ tall. It’s possible that this seat could fit an average-sized child for the full 10 years of its lifespan before it expires. Again, long-torsoed children will always be the exception.
Lifespan - 10 years. There is a “Do Not Use After _” date stamped on the bottom of the shell
Additional Features – steel reinforced frame, energy-absorbing EPS foam, lock-off device to simplify base installation when using the vehicle’s seatbelt instead of LATCH
Pros & Cons- The weight limits and harness height range, combined with the 10 year lifespan, should translate into extended usage for many children. Seat offers great leg room in the rear-facing position but the mandatory recline angle may be an issue for older rear-facing children who prefer to sit more upright. Seat is very easy to use properly once installed and the unique base attachment with the lock-off device should be a bonus for parents who want to install it once and not have to worry about the whole reinstallation process once their child goes forward-facing. May also be a good choice for child care providers or agencies who transport several children of different sizes (some rear-facing and some forward-facing). Additional bases can be purchased for alternate vehicles which could provide some of the conveniences of an infant seat but the sheer size and weight of this seat would make switching it from vehicle to vehicle an unpleasant chore. The seat does take up quite a bit of space in the rear-facing position so it wouldn’t be my first choice for a smaller or mid-sized vehicle (or parents with long legs) but don’t dismiss it on this assumption alone. You never know for sure until you try! Unfortunately, it is NOT FAA approved (probably because it’s too wide to fit in a standard coach aircraft seat) so even if you wanted to lug it with you when you travel by plane, you wouldn’t be able to use it in flight. Thick, stiff harness pads are mandatory for rear-facing usage and must be removed once the child weighs 40 lbs which may be an issue if your kid loves them or hates them. I noted very good belt fit in booster mode with both of my models but each child/vehicle combination is different so make sure the seatbelt fits your child optimally in your vehicle when using this, or any other, booster seat.
Smart Seat vs. Symphony 65 comparison photos:
Rear-facing growing room comparison (note: headrests are NOT adjusted correctly for this child but are positioned in the top RF position on both seats to show the amount of growing room height-wise in both seats)
Height growing room forward-facing
Booster belt fit & growing room
Rear-facing space room comparison (vehicle seat was NOT moved between installs)
Deliberation time. <me, talking to myself>
Both seats will probably fit an average-sized child in the rear-facing position until about 3 years old. Heavier kids will benefit from the 40 lb RF weight limit of the Smart Seat but for many kids the 35 lb RF limit of the Sym65 will be enough. The Smart Seat does have more rear-facing height room and will provide more leg room for older RF kids but the Sym65 can be installed more upright and takes up less room in the vehicle. The headrest on the Sym65 is wider and little kids may appear to swim in it. Perhaps the new Symphony 65 e3 model with enhanced SIP will provide more side-to-side stability for floppy little heads but I haven’t compared the two models so I can’t say for sure at this time.
Both seats are rated to 65 lbs with the 5-pt harness but the Smart Seat has top harness slots that are about 2″ taller than the top harness height position on the Sym65. Both seats must be used in the fully upright position once the child weighs more than 40 lbs. The headrest on the Symphony does not angle forward so it is less likely to cause head-slump however the angled headrest on the Smart Seat makes it more likely to be compatible with vehicle headrests that can’t be adjusted or removed. In my Freestar I had to remove the headrest to get the Sym65 to be flush against the vehicle seatback but the Smart Seat fit fine with the headrest in place.
In booster mode both seats did a good job of positioning the seatbelt properly on my 2 models. Again, the Smart Seat offered more growing room height-wise than the Sym65, however, my 6.5 year old could buckle himself in the Sym65 but not in the Smart Seat. When asked to chose between the two based on comfort alone, he had a preference for the Symphony 65. Take that for whatever it’s worth.
The Smart Seat has a longer lifespan (10 years vs. 8 years on the Sym65) but does an extra two years really make much of a difference in this case? Obviously there’s a big difference between 5 years and 7 years but have you ever seen what a seat used for 6, 7, or 8 consecutive years looks like??? Generally, unless it’s a grandparent seat that is stored in the attic 90% of the time it’s pretty disgusting. I get that Graco is trying to make the Smart Seat ”the only seat you’ll ever need for one child” but personally I’m not sure I really want to use the same seat on a daily basis for that amount of time (regardless of whether it’s used by 1 kid or passed down to younger siblings). Anyhow, this is just me talking to myself so feel free to form your own opinions on the matter.
Verdict time. The winner of the 3-in-1 throwdown is….
…only you can decide!