We conducted three focus groups with moms to reveal their favorite booster car seats for 4-8 year olds (usually about 40 to 80 lbs). We identified some of the best booster car seats in terms of ease of use, price, safety, reliability, and its ability to accomodate a wide range of weights and heights. The results revealed four primary brands to focus on: Britax, Graco, Evenflo, and Recaro. If you're interested in our reviews of infant car seats instead, click here, and for convertible car seats click here (convertible car seats under $150 are here). Before we tell you the results, let's list a few things to pay attention to when finding the perfect booster car seat for your child:
Why Use a Booster Car Seat? Though many parents do skip from a car seat directly to seat belts, this is not recommended by the NHTSA because the booster seat positions the child correctly for using the lap and shoulder belts. Without the booster car seat, the child's lap and shoulders will be too low and the seat belt will not fit properly, posing a substantial safety risk. For example, if the lap belt is too high it can cause abdominal injury during a crash, and if the shoulder belt is too high it will be on the neck instead of shoulder. The booster car seats do a great job of reducing injury risk due to improper seat belt positioning.
Ease of Use: Now that your child will be expected to buckle and unbuckle him/herself, ease of use becomes very important. The easier the latching mechanisms and reach-over to the buckle, the less frustrating of a transition this will be to a booster car seat. For our focus groups, we got together a total of 23 moms and brought in 10 different booster car seats. For the ease of use portion of our ratings, we focused on how easily kids could manage any buckles and latches, and how well the booster positioned the car's shoulder belt in a way that made it easy for kids to reach. All of our below options scored very well in this category. Some of them provide their own buckle positioning mechanisms, ensuring ease of use and safety. Some also provide a LATCH system to secure the seat to the car; this is not for child safety, this is to keep the booster secure in the car when it's not in use. For instance, if you have an accident without your child in the car, you don't want the booster flying toward you. Many parents thought that relying on the car's shoulder and lap belt is great because you can be more confident regarding safety standards of the vehicle manufacturer, and it teaches your child how to use and correctly position a regular seat belt (a skill they will use throughout life!).
Price: Now that your child is graduating from a conventional car seat (see our list of the best ones here), you will be happy to find out that booster car seats are substantially less expensive. We suggest spending about $50-100 on a high quality booster seat, though you will notice that our most expensive option is about $130. We don't think it's necessary to spend that much to get a great booster car seat, but if you really like the features there are some very comfortable and high quality options. Of course, the most expensive booster car seats also tend to be plusher, with softer fabrics, and use higher quality and lighter parts. It is important to mention, though, that more expensive booster car seats are not necessarily safer. When used correctly, all booster seats meet safety requirements of the NHTSA. Some of the less expensive brands may meet NHTSA minimum requirements whereas others go beyond those standards. A good example of going beyond NHTSA requirements to increase safety is using an anti-rebound bar to reduce rotational forces due to accident impact. But that's not relevant to booster car seats.
Child Weight and Height: The U.S. federal government recommends booster car seats from as early as 4 years old (and a minimum of 40 lbs) to as late as 12 years old. Typically parents switch to just the vehicle's seat and seat belt at around 8-9 years old. Most booster car seats are for children from about 40 to 100 lbs, though some go up over 100 lbs. In terms of height, they are usually made for kids 38" to 60" tall (that's 3'2" to 5' tall). But always check the details on the box or label because even within a single brand, different models have different specifications. We do our best to list those below along with each review.
Here are the Reviews for 2016!
#1. Britax Parkway SGL Belt-Positioning Booster (multiple colors/patterns). This is the best we could find. In our testing, this booster was really fantastic, and moms raved about its Secure Guard belt-positioner which makes sure that the lap belt is properly positioned for safety and reduces the risk of abdominal injury during an accident. The seat comes with the famous Britax Safe Cell impact absorbing base and side impact protection. The side impact protection is unique for booster car seats, absorbing crash forces and shielding your child from debris. The fit and finish are excellent, the fabric is soft yet easy to clean, and the colors and designs are subtle and not overwhelming. This booster fits children from 40 to 120 pounds, and only weighs about 15 pounds itself making it easy to pull in and out of the car. If your child still takes naps in the car, this is a great booster car seat, providing ample head and neck support and preventing the head from flopping down during a nap. Moms also noted that the dual cup holders that fold into the seat are a nice touch, allowing you to tuck them away when not in use (or if you're carting it through an airport!). This booster car seat retails for about $120-150, and includes the ISOFLEX latch system, meaning that you can use the latch system to secure it into the car, and then use the car's seat belt to secure the child into the booster. Though the latch system isn't necessary, it's quite a bit easier to secure firmly into the vehicle, and it also prevents an empty booster seat from flying around in the car in the event of an accident or sudden braking (because the shoulder belt isn't holding it in when there's no kid in it).
#2. Graco Affix Booster with Latch System (multiple colors/patterns). This booster option by Graco was a very close second place to the Britax. The Graco has everything the Britax offers: high quality and soft fabrics that are easy to clean, one cup holder and one "stuff" holder, and color/design options that are subtle and not overwhelming. It has a couple advantages relative to the Britax. First, it has the LATCH system to secure the booster into you car. Second, it has a convenient LATCH tightener on the front that you can pull on to make the booster fit snugly in your car. Third, it is only about $60-80. Finally, it is only 9 pounds, making it 6 pounds lighter than the Britax. So why is it #2 instead of #1? Just some small things. First, it has no lap belt positioning system to reduce the chance of abdominal injury during an accident. Second, it supports kids from 40 to 100 pounds, which is 20 pounds less than the Britax can manage. Finally, the feel of the fabric isn't quite as soft (and high quality feeling) as the Britax. Really, you can't go wrong with the Britax or the Graco; it really just depends on if you want to spend the extra $40 to get something a bit more versatile, higher quality, and possibly safer in terms of abdominal injury.
#3. Graco Highback TurboBooster without Latch System (multiple colors and patterns). This booster is very similar to the Graco Affix: high quality, soft easy-clean fabrics, two shallow holders (we were able to fit a narrow cup, or a snack), and several color/design options to choose from. The critical difference between the Affix versus Highback TurboBooster is that the Affix has the LATCH system but the Graco TurboBooster does not. But because it doesn't have the LATCH system, it is a bit cheaper than the Graco, coming in at about $50. It supports kids from 30 to 100 pounds (40 to 100 when the back is removed). Finally, it is only just over 8 pounds, making it lighter than every other option on our list except for the Evenflo (#5, below). You can't go wrong with these two Graco options, and it really just depends on whether you want the LATCH system. In our household, with two kids and two cars, we find it much easier to use the seat without a LATCH system to quickly swap the booster between the two vehicles. And no, the LATCH system is supposedly not any safer for the child, but it does secure the seat in the car when it isn't being used so it won't fly around in the event of heavy braking or an accident. So if you want the LATCH, go with the Graco Affix, but if you don't need it, go with this model.
#4. Recaro Performance High Back Booster Car Seat (tons of different colors/patterns!).This is an awesome booster seat, totally cool looking, with tons of great features. It is much better than the Evenflo and nearly as good as the Graco and Britax. The primary difference is that it's about $130 or so (twice the price of the Gracos), and doesn't include the lap belt positioning system. This booster has memory foam for high comfort, nice soft fabrics with air ventilation (moms report this helps a lot with odor and sweat on long car rides), full body side-impact protection (torso, neck, head, face, pelvis), and LATCH connectors to secure to the vehicle in case of an accident while the child is not in the car. It has two built in cupholders, and an awesome feature that holds the vehicle car seat buckle upright in the correct position - this little feature sets the booster apart, and helps children get things buckled on their own. Note that this doesn't work for all vehicles. For instance, in a RAV4, the buckle doesn't pull up out of the seat enough to go into the holder. This seat also has the adjustable back to accomodate a growing child (up to 61 inches tall). The weight range is 30-120 pounds, and height range is 37-61". Most sources suggest only using a booster after your child is at least 40 pounds, and many states require this by law. This booster has an easy installation process, and kids love the racing colors and feel! It is a bit bigger, wider, and heavier (15+ pounds) than the other options, making it difficult if you need to squeeze in 3 seats in a row.
#5. Evenflo Big Kid AMP Booster Car Seat (two colors and patterns). This is the most basic booster car seat option we have in our rankings. It provides a lot of basic features, and comes in at the lowest cost of the bunch (less than $40!). Evenflo is known for providing low cost baby products with reliable quality, but without the fancy features, multiple pattern options, or high quality fabrics. This booster has a lot of things that the Britax and Graco offer: easily cleaned fabrics, two cup holders, some side impact and head/neck support, and height adjustment. It is lightweight at only 8 pounds, and the manufacturer states it can support children from 30 to 110 pounds. It is very low in price, and that shows in some of the features. First, the cup holders are small and awkward, holding contents with stretchy elastic straps. In a lot of cases, this requires 2 hands to get working, and things smaller than a cup tend to fall out. Second, the head and neck support aren't as substantial as the Britax and Graco options, making it more likely for you child to bob their head down during a nap. Third, it has thin foam padding that isn't as comfortable as the other options. Finally, the fabric softness and overall quality aren't on par with the other options. Overall, we give this a #5 because it has some good basic features, comes from a reliable manufacturer of children products, and sells for less than $40. That's enough to get it on our list of the best booster car seats of 2016. But if that low price point isn't enough to get you excited, we suggest one of the pricier options!