There has been buzz for a while about the new Prodigy car seat from Summer Infant. Darren wrote a bit about it after the ABC show last year, but now it’s closer to being a reality (it should hit shelves this summer). I had a chance to play with it at Lifesavers this past weekend, and I definitely got a better feel for the seat.

First, I do like the concept of the electronic display to help parents know what their seat is doing. When the seat is level, a green smiley face pops up. If it’s not level, you get a red exclamation point. Same goes for the tightness of the seat.

I suppose, as with anything, there’s room for an error on the seat’s part, so a modicum of common sense will always come in handy.

One of the biggest concerns people have expressed about this seat is the ratcheting adjuster that tightens the LATCH strap or seat belt. I talked to the Summer Infant representative about it, and she assured me that although the device is similar to the Mighty Tite, it’s different enough to not be a problem.

So, how does it all work?

If you’re using LATCH, first you take the connectors out of their handy storage space and connect them to your anchors. The prototype connectors have an indicator that turns from red to green when they’re properly secured, although the rep said that the first batch of seats will not have the indicator (the later ones will).

If you’re using a lap belt, you have to wiggle the LATCH belt out of the mechanism and route the lap belt through.

If using a lap-shoulder belt, it’s just a bit more complicated. As you can see from this photo, there is a small metal bar in the center of the mechanism, then two gray tabs to the left of it.

For a lap-shoulder belt, you need to place the lap portion under the metal bar (the tightener), but then thread both the lap and shoulder portions under the gray tabs (the tension sensors). I can see that causing confusion for a lot of parents, and I’m not sure what effect doing it wrong would have.

If you’re using a seat belt, you must also make sure the belt is locked, either at the latchplate, the retractor, or by using a locking clip. The tightening mechanism does not act as a lockoff. The representative did say that they’re working on a model that will include a lockoff, but it’s still in the development phase.

Once you have the belt routed, you start cranking the handle.

As I watched a few people do it with LATCH, I wondered whether this method really simplified anything. It took about ten full cranks before the green smiley face appeared, and, being the impatient person that I am, I wondered if it wouldn’t just be easier to pull a LATCH strap tight.

My friend Erin commented that it would be good for frail grandparents or other people who might have physical difficulty pulling a LATCH strap, and I had to agree. Until I tried it myself:

The first few cranks are easy enough (though a bit time-consuming), but the last few are really difficult to do. In the video, it looks rather effortless, but by the last crank I had to switch to my right hand and put nearly all my weight into it.

On the plus side, I figured that it would be very difficult to overtighten. After all, if it took that much effort just to get the green smiley, surely it would be nearly impossible to go beyond that.

But then I started thinking about it and I wondered if maybe the difficulty indicated that it was already too tight. So Erin and I went back and did an experiment.

First, we routed the lap-shoulder belt through the base, but bypassed the tightening mechanism. (Summer Infant allows for that, although they recommend the tightener’s use.) I “locked” the retractor (their demo retractor wasn’t working, so Erin held the belt in place) and pulled the belt tight as one normally would. Erin then marked a spot on the shoulder belt relative to a point on the demo vehicle seat.

Then we undid the installation and rerouted the belt through the tightener. I cranked until the smily face appeared, and we checked where our marked point on the seatbelt was in relation to the designated point on the vehicle seat. We found that the ratcheting mechanism had tightened an extra 6 to 7 inches of webbing. That concerned me a lot, because that’s exactly what people have been concerned about: overtightening that could potentially damage the seat belt.

On a positive note, the carrier itself is quite nice. It’s relatively lightweight, and the harness adjuster is a breeze. It’s very smooth, and it automatically adjusts to the height of the baby so rethreading is never necessary.

But no matter how innovative the electronic display, or how nice the carrier, the ratcheting tightener is enough to give me major pause about the seat. I look forward to more people playing with it and giving their thoughts in the future.