Oh, the pun possibilities running through my mind right now are almost endless but I’m not going to go there, I promise! This will be a good, clean, safe-for-work, safe-for-kids-over-your-shoulder, comparative review by the time Darren and Heather have finished their editing and it’s finally published!
With that out of the way let’s get down to the business of your back seat. Specifically, your vehicle’s back seat. Is your vehicle’s front-to-back space limited? Are you and/or your partner tall or just leggy? Or maybe you just want the ability to stretch out a little bit more on a long ride. Regardless of why you need more leg room up front, the reality is that you’re not alone. The rear-facing carseat/space issue comes up over and over again here at CarseatBlog, on our blog’s Facebook page and on the Car-Seat.org forums. Everyone, it seems, is looking for a good quality, higher-weight-harness convertible that will keep their child happy and comfortably seated in the rear-facing position while still allowing the front seat driver and/or passenger to be safe and comfortable too. Because let’s face it, you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your comfort or safety just to accommodate junior who is optimally seated rear-facing in a convertible behind you!
Additionally, as a mom and a Child Passenger Safety Technician-Instructor, I know that space factors play an important role for many parents in their decision on when to make that “demotion” in safety from rear-facing to forward-facing. Ideally that switch from RF to FF shouldn’t occur until the child has maxed out their convertible seat by either height or weight, but that’s rarely the reality. The reality is that the vast majority of parents in this country are still turning their toddlers forward-facing before the recommended minimum age of 2 and, in most cases, way before the RF weight or height limits of their convertible seat are actually reached. I know space issues play a role in many of those decisions. Hopefully this blog can help reduce some of those occurrences by giving parents some useful info on which popular convertible models take up the least amount of room when installed in the RF position.
Since there are too many variables from vehicle to vehicle and even from one seating position to the next (within the same vehicle), I can’t and won’t tell you that seat X or seat Y is going to be the best choice for your child in your vehicle. But I can tell you that seat X takes up 3″ less room when rear-facing than seat Y when installed properly and in accordance with the manufacturer’s directions in the same seating position. The rest of the factors (specs, features, price, etc.) are going to be up to you to take into account. Because even though size matters, it’s not the only thing that matters!
With that in mind, I chose convertibles from my collection of demo/training seats that are either on our list of Recommended Seats or just popular higher-weight-harness convertibles. I did not include very compact seats like the Combi Coccoro or Cosco Scenera, because I know that most of our readers are looking for convertibles that last longer and can be used for extended rear-facing. For example, the Coccoro is a great little seat that doesn’t take up much room when rear-facing and is fairly narrow, too. That’s a huge bonus in compact cars. The trade-off is that it’s more quickly outgrown by height and weight in the RF position. Average size models, like the Britax convertibles and Peg Perego Primo Viaggio SIP 5-70, have modest rear-facing height limits but can still accommodate many kids rear-facing past 2-years old AND fit easily in your small car!
While this list does include 15 current convertible models, it is NOT an all-inclusive list and I was limited to what I had available or had access to during the project period.
Seats have been given letter grades for simplicity. This grade relates only to the amount of room that the seat takes up when rear-facing as compared with the other seats on this list. Keep in mind that even seats with an “A” rating aren’t guaranteed to fit rear-facing or install properly in the back seat of your vehicle but they’re a good place to start if you’re on a quest to find a good rear-facing convertible that doesn’t take up a lot of room. By the same token, just because a seat has a “C” or “D” rating doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed not to fit well rear-facing in a smaller vehicle. There are just so many variables in each specific situation that it’s impossible to know for sure. You really never know for sure until you try it.
For the record, my installation method for each seat was pretty basic. I didn’t use any tricks to try to get the seats more upright or anything like that. I also didn’t attach the rear-facing tether in cases where that was specifically an option (Britax, Diono). I used the lower LATCH anchors for each install just to be consistent, and because it was easier in most cases. Each seat was installed properly and in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. I did not use any pool noodles to increase the recline angle because it wasn’t necessary. The only exception was the Safety 1st Complete Air, which needed noodles to achieve even the most upright RF recline angle. Since I was installing just for the sake of measuring, I took the lazy way out and just wedged the edge of the CR into the vehicle seat cushion and it stayed tight. Normally, I like to get behind the rear-facing convertible and use my hips or mid-section to compress the seat down and into the vehicle seat cushion, leaving both hands free to tighten the seatbelt or latch strap. However, I couldn’t do that with these installs because that would have required moving the front seat forward to get my body back there, and that wasn’t an option. The front passenger seat stayed in its precise position throughout the project period.
I set the front passenger’s seat in a specific fixed position with the seatback angle neither too reclined nor too upright for an adult to sit comfortably. Then, in each case I measured the distance between the convertible and the point on the back of the front seat or head restraint that was likely to make first contact. That “contact point” varied depending on the height and contour of the CR. So, this means that these measurements and grades could vary somewhat in a different vehicle that has a different contour of vehicle seats, different geometry of head restraints or is simply installed somewhat differently. For example…
YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY! (Don’t try this at home)
In cases where the convertible had a height-adjustable headrest (HR), I took separate measurements with the HR flush with the shell and also with the HR extended to the max RF height limit. If the convertible allowed more than one recline position to be used for RF then I installed the seat using the different recline positions as long as it installed within the acceptable recline angle range. There was one exception I made and that was for the Maxi-Cosi Pria 70 installed in the semi-reclined position. I was just so blown away by the amount of room that I gained with that seat in the #2 recline position that I couldn’t throw it out just because the level line wasn’t level with the ground. More specific details on that installation and those results can be found in the Maxi-Cosi Pria 70 notes below.
Okay, enough rambling… this is what you’re here for! Below is a table comparing the various convertibles and listing their grade, the amount of space gained in relation to the most space-consuming convertibles tested and the seat’s RF seated height limits.
Note: CR Interior Height Measurement refers to the measurement of the Child Restraint (CR) from the bottom of the seated area to the top of the restraint in its maximum rear-facing height position (picture below). This measurement may range from 23″ to 27.5″. The overall “Child Height”, or standing height limit is also stated for seats that list one in their owner’s manual. The “1 Inch Rule” states that the child has outgrown the CR by height if there is only 1″ of shell or headwing structure (this varies from seat to seat so check the notes in the chart above) left above the child’s head. In other words, you always want more than 1″ of shell or structure above your child’s head. Once they get to the point where there is only 1″ left above their head – the seat is outgrown in the rear-facing position.
Here is a breakdown of each convertible tested with a few additional details and pics of the installation: