Convertible car seats are a great (and economical) choice for new parents, but they’re not without their challenges if you drive a compact car.
The problem is with all of the latches and thingamajigs to help that car seat convert from a rear-facing infant car seat to a forward-facing toddler or preschooler car seat (or a booster seat) take space, making convertible seats bulkier on the whole.
But just because you have a small vehicle doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of all the benefits of a convertible car seat. Several of these car seat models are specially designed to fit your small car without sacrificing safety or functionality.
With that said, it is difficult to choose the best convertible car seat for your baby and your car without trying it first or knowing much about car seats in general.
This is why I’ve done all the research for you, and put it right here.
In this article, I’ll point you to the top three convertible car seats for small cars, but first, I’ll cover how to choose the best one for you from that list, so let’s dive in.
Things Do Before Shopping for a Compact Car Seat
Though all the convertible car seats I’ve listed here are for small cars, not all small cars are the same. You may want to take the extra step of measuring your car to make sure it’s compatible with the seat you’re considering.
To do this, measure the space between the back seat and the back of the passenger’s seat, and the general width of a single seat in the back to give you some hard constraints to keep in mind when shopping.
When measuring, remember all the other things you’ll need to fit into that back seat, like strollers, diaper bags, other children, and passengers. A car seat can make the Tetris game that is packing a small car tougher; no one wants to make the front passenger hug the dash because the seat is pushed forward too far.
Important Features to Note When Choosing a Car Seat
Over and above size, there are some other needs you’ll need to note when choosing your convertible car seat, including:
- Recline angle: Since you’re going to be using this convertible seat in a small car, you’ll want to consider the seat’s recline angle carefully. Some car seats have a very steep or upright recline that might make it difficult to get your child in and out of their car seat, especially when they’re older.
- High rear-facing weight limit: The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) updated their car seat safety guidelines in 2018 to state that, Children should use a rear-facing car safety seat for as long as possible, up to the limits of their car safety seat. This includes virtually all children under two years of age and most children up to age four (Hoffman, Benjamin D., 2018). For this reason, it makes sense when deciding between two seats for your baby, to always choose the convertible seat that has a high rear-facing weight limit.
- High forward-facing weight limit: Once again, looking at the AAP car seat safety guidelines, once your baby has been turned around, they should remain in a forward-facing car safety seat up to that seat’s weight and length limits. Most seats can accommodate children up to 60 pounds or more. (Hoffman, Benjamin D., 2018). Choosing a convertible seat with a higher weight limit will of course allow you to keep your child safe in one for longer before having to shop for a booster seat. I’ll add here that if you’re anything like myself, a constantly worried mom, you’ll want to keep them in the big, 5-point harness seat for as long as possible because of the safety benefit.
Nice to Have Features to Look for When Comparing Car Seats
The good news is that all car seats on the market must meet minimum government safety standards. However, some car seats have extras you may be looking for, such as:
- Easy-to-adjust strap style: As your baby grows the position of the seat’s straps will need to be adjusted many times. Depending on the seat you choose this can be easy, or the worst half-hour of your week. A few seats will have innovative slide-to-adjust straps that are wonderful when compared to the steps of other traditional strap systems — uninstalling the seat, removing the cover, and struggling to move the seat strap from one slot to another. So make sure to look for that feature!
- Built-in cup holders: This may seem frivolous, but a built-in bottle holder can be a safety feature in my eyes once baby is older and can grab their own drink from it. It will prevent you from reaching back and trying to pass it to them while driving, which we know is unsafe, but we all end up doing it once or twice when a tantrum starts.
- Lightweight construction: This one is huge if you’re going to be moving it from vehicle to vehicle often.
- Ease of installation: Most convertible car seats can be installed using a seat belt or a latch system, or both. Easy installation and good installation instructions, are going to be a lifesaver if you have to change vehicles often.
- Safety indicators: Some car seats have built-in leveling systems and indicators to indicate that they have been installed correctly. This will not only save your sanity when installing the car seat while contorting yourself in your small car’s backseat, but it will also ensure it meets the child passenger safety needs.
- Material: Besides looking for a fabric style that looks nice, consider its durability and how easy it’ll be to wash. There’s a good chance you’ll be cleaning some sort of food or bodily fluids from it at least once or twice, so having the fabric be easy to remove and machine washable is important.
- Comfort: Some convertible car seats are cushier and have more padding and other features that ensure your baby is comfortable.
- Extra safety features: Some convertible car seats have safety extras, such as shock absorption, extra side impact protection, energy-absorbing foam, a steel frame, and other higher-quality materials. The more of these it showcases, the more secure you can feel in your baby’s safety.
Best Convertible Car Seat for Small Cars
With all those features and needs in mind, here’s a quick look at how the top three best convertible car seats for your small car stack up, with more information about each below:
Diono Radian 3RXT
Britax Boulevard ClickTight
Chicco NextFit Zip
Graco SlimFit 3 in 1
Best Budget Option
Slimmest And Longest Lasting
Easiest to Clean
5 - 40 lbs
Best Overall: Britax Boulevard ClickTight Convertible Car Seat
While it’s not the slimmest option, or the lightest, or even the cheapest, I chose the Britax Boulevard as the best convertible car seat for small cars because it hits a lot of boxes the other seats miss, and it’s still fairly slim.
With that said, it was a tight race, and it was neck-and-neck with the Diono Radian, so check both out for sure.
The first thing that ultimately made me fall in love with the Britax is that it can accommodate a front-facing position earlier (at a lower weight) than the other seats. I know, that I just mentioned above that the AAP recommends rear-facing as long as possible, and that is certainly ideal… but….
Some babies, like my daughter, and many of my friend’s children, hated the rear-facing position to the point of crying and screaming during most car trips unless there was an adult in the backseat with them. Being able to turn around these kids as soon as they meet the requirements is going to save some parents their sanity, especially in smaller vehicles where those backseat mirrors don’t really work well.
Also really impressive on the Britax car seat is all of the added safety features, specifically a steel frame and two layers of side-impact protection. While you do noticeably pay for the extra protection, if you’re a worry-wart like me, it is vital.
I was also impressed with how easy it was to fasten the seat with the clicktight system. Though it was tricky to understand where the indicator should be on the level when it is rear vs. front-facing. Once I figured it out though it was smooth sailing, especially since I don’t move this one often since it weighs a ton. So if you’re moving this one from car to car you may want to go with the much lighter Evenflo (see below).
This seat is also super adjustable with 7 recline positions & 14 harness slot positions. So you can adjust it well to your seat and your baby. The shoulder belt insert moves up and down easily, so it’s not difficult to adjust, which is great.
Finally, the cover removes easily enough but it does come apart in pieces.
- Able to change to front-facing at 20lbs (and required height)
- Very easy installation with “Clicktight”
- Steel frame and two layers of side-impact protection
- Very adjustable with 7 recline positions & 14 harness slot positions
- Removable/washable cover
- Very comfortable and plush for baby
- On the expensive side
- Heavy to lift and move
- No cup holders
Slimmest And Longest Lasting Seat: Diono Radian 3RXT
As I mentioned earlier, choosing the Britax as the top recommendation here was tough because the Diono Radian 3RXT has some big pluses when it comes to using it in small cars that the Britax doesn’t.
First and foremost, the Radian 3RXT is the narrowest option available. In most small cars you can actually fit three of these car seats across. And while a lot of car seats say that, the Radian 3RXT is actually narrow enough to do it.
If you’re driving a Fiat, or another very small car, and space is your priority, get this seat.
This car seat is also a true one-and-done car seat option, with the highest weight range out of all the seats on this list. In fact, this car seat can accommodate kids from 5 lbs to 120 lbs; that’s amazing.
There are definitely a few drawbacks to this seat though, which allowed the Britax to take the top spot. First of all, is that the newborn travel high wedge system of this seat does make it a bit less comfortable and cradling for newborns than the other options on this list. I feel like the focus of this seat really is for larger babies, toddlers, and kids. Don’t get me wrong, it can still accommodate infants, just not with the same comfort and cradling you see in infant car seats and that some of the other seats provide.
Installing the Radian3RXT, in general, is also a bit tougher than the other seats on this list and you’ll need to find good instructions online.
The Radian feels very safe and has a steel core, which does make it on the heavy side (I couldn’t find an official weight, but it’s far more than the 4 lbs weight you find online). And it comes with a cup holder.
All-in-all the Radian 3RXT is a fantastic choice, especially if you’re moving up from your infant seat and don’t want to purchase a third seat, or if space is your main problem.
- Slimmest car seat available
- Fits kids from 5 to 120 lbs!
- Reinforced steel core
- Cup holder
- Removable/washable cover
- On the expensive side
- Heavy to lift and move
- Harder to install than other seats
Best Budget Option: Evenflo Sonus
The Evenflow Sonus is a solid choice if your budget is your priority.
While this seat doesn’t have a lot of extras (though it does have two drink holders), it makes up for it with roominess and lots of cushioning to keep your little one comfortable. This is great if you have a kiddo like mine who will instantly fall asleep in the car if given a chance.
Though it’s nice and roomy for your baby, it’s still a nice and slim seat for small cars.
The Evenflo Sonus is also very light and easy to install making it a great option for those looking to move it from vehicle to vehicle often.
Finally, the neoprene material is removable for washing, but if you have a sensory-sensitive kiddo you’ll want to note that it’s a bit on the “scratchy” side.
- Good value for the price
- Easy installation
- Well padded and roomy
- Removable/washable cover
- Two drink holders
- Not many extra safety features or functionality
- Fabric is a bit on the “scratchy” side
Easy to Clean Option: Chicco NextFit Zip
One of my good friends has a son who would get so car sick he would vomit in the car on almost any long or short trip. It was a nightmare for her to go anywhere at one point. He’s much better now (and my daughter is the one who gets car sick now), but it’s him I’m thinking about when I put forward the Chicco NextFit Zip as an ideal seat for small cars.
The absolute best feature about this Chicco NextFit Zip is how easy it is to clean well. The padding of this seat literally just zips off and is soft and machine washable. And it also comes with a dishwasher-safe, space-saving “CupFolder.” The rest is easily wipable. Easy peasy.
This car seat is also super easy to install. There are also bubble levels on both sides of the seat making it very clear, and once installed it is easy to adjust and change the recline with their “ReclineSure leveling system.”
The whole seat is nice and soft and cozy, especially for tiny ones, and I like it overall, but unless you’re looking for easy cleaning above all, I’d look at the other options around the same price.
- Moveable cup holder
- Very easy to removable and wash the cover
- Very easy to install
- Easy to use 9-position “ReclineSure leveling system” to fit small cars
- Button to change headrest position a bit stiff and difficult to use
- A bit pricey
Honorable Mention: Graco SlimFit 3 in 1 Car Seat
While it’s not the best at any one thing, we couldn’t leave the Graco SlimFit 3 in 1 off this list because it’s a great seat all around, checking off many of the boxes we have for a great seat for a compact car.
If you’re shopping for just a great, comfy, easy to install, adjustable, well-priced, slim, and just all-around great seat for a small car, this one should be on the list when making a decision.
Really the only downside of this seat is that it doesn’t excel in any one area, it’s just generally good, but not amazing, in most ways.
- Not over-priced
- Flip out cup holders
- Easy harness and headrest adjustment
- Easy installation
- All of the padding is removable and machine washable
- Steel-Reinforced Frame
- Doesn’t offer many recline positions, especially for rear-facing (and proper installation)
- The seat itself a bit hard to clean
Devitt, Michael. (2018, September 21). AAP Updates Car Safety Seat Recommendations for Children: Family Physician Offers Tips for Sharing Information With Parents, Caregivers. American Academy of Family Physicians Foundation. Retrieved June 13, 2021 from: https://www.aafp.org/news/health-of-the-public/20180921kidscarsafety.html
Hoffman, Benjamin D. (2018, August 30). New child passenger safety seat guidance advises kids to ride rear-facing as long as possible; drops age criterion. AAP News. Retrieved June 13, 2021 from: https://www.aappublications.org/news/2018/08/30/passengersafety083018