Pros: Convenience of all-in-one carseat/carrier, base & stroller; mid-range price; attractive; lots of features.
Cons: Heavy; lots of moving parts to remember; storage basket hard to reach using some functions.
Important Update: Graco has issued a safety notification regarding this carseat and base. Please be sure and visit Graco's website to find out what to do if you own this or any of the similar models that may be covered in the announcement.
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If you've read any of my previous baby gear reviews, you probably remember that my husband and I stumbled blindly into Babies R Us one day during my fifth month of pregnancy and randomly began zapping things to add to our baby registry, blissfully unaware of what we were getting ourselves into in some instances. Had I been in my right mind at the time, I'd have carefully researched each potential purchase here at ePinions before picking up that nifty wand, but hey, I had an excuse. Pregnant brain does strange things to people.
A Well-Thought Out Purchase (Right)
So we knew we needed a carseat and we knew we needed a stroller, and I had a pretty good idea from the get-go that I wanted an all-inclusive travel system. There were definitely no shortage of them on the showroom floor, so we began bickering over which one would become ours. Being that all of them were pretty much the same - stroller, infant carseat and base - we began eliminating based primarily on their appearance (pea green stroller, anyway?) We had no idea at the time whether we were expecting a pink or a blue bundle, and wanted a travel system that wouldn't be too girly for a boy or too boyish for a girl. Our only options, color-wise, seemed to be navy, gray or tan - none of which screamed 'female' to us, so we picked two or three that we liked and whipped them out into the aisle for a test drive.
ALL of them were heavy. This seems to be the most consistent complaint among travel system reviews, but it seems pretty unavoidable - there wasn't one in the group that made me smile at the thought of heaving it up and over into the trunk of my Grand Am. But considering that I wouldn't have to buy another stroller (just another carseat) until my baby weighed forty pounds, the extra weight was actually a bit reassuring. After all, I didn't want an incredibly lightweight stroller that would unceremoniously dump my baby on the pavement when he or she got a little heavier...
After deciding that they all handled pretty much the same as well, we finally fell back on looks. The Graco CoachRider Chauffeur that we chose was primarily navy with a navy/light blue/white ABC block pattern on the carseat cover and interior of the canopy - safe for either gender (although everyone now sees only the blue and immediately assumes 'boy' despite the pink blanket and frilly headband on the baby's head.) The navy fabric on the carseat's canopy and boot are almost velvety in texture, which I assume is all it takes to make this one of the more 'elite' travel systems - at $229.99, it was toward the high end of the price scale on the travel systems available to us then. (However, we put off making the purchase for a few more months and bought the same travel system for $180 - apparently Graco decided to discontinue the only fabric pattern I truly liked, and we managed to snag the last one in the store. Hooray!)
This travel system came with the same three things every travel system is comprised of - an infant carseat/carrier, a carseat/carrier base which is installed permanently in your vehicle, and a convertible stroller which is both compatible with the carseat/carrier and still functional when the child outgrows it. Here's a rundown on each individual component...
Perhaps the most important function of the travel system is that of carseat and carrier - after all, you can't even check out of the hospital with your newborn unless you have a properly installed carseat to take him or her home in!
My only must-have feature for an infant carseat (which faces the rear of the vehicle and should be used until the child is twenty pounds) was a five-point harness, and this carseat met that criteria. Although this makes the seat more secure, it doesn't make getting baby in and out of the seat any easier - one shoulder strap is placed over each shoulder, an oblong plastic clip is snapped together across the infant's chest, and one buckle on each strap is placed into the harness buckle (much like a seatbelt) between the child's legs. When adjusted properly, a baby in this seat is not going anywhere, and that was my goal. Adjusting the straps is a piece of cake thanks to an adjustment button located just underneath the fabric near the harness buckle - simply press the button and tug on the shoulder straps to adjust as needed.
The handle is easily adjusted by pressing two buttons located on each side of the seat. It may be positioned upright for carrying, horizontal for reclining or rocking, and in a downward position to allow the seat to sit securely on a level surface. Adjusting the handle, however, is hindered a bit by the canopy - whether raised or lowered, the fabric gets in the way of the moving handle and must be carefully maneuvered around, especially when placed in a vehicle. Should the canopy be too much in the way, it is removable - but I've found mine to be a great asset to the carseat as my daughter hates to have sun in her eyes. Thank goodness for a feature that I'd never even considered!
This particular carseat came with an infant head support, wonderful for keeping tiny newborn necks from flopping about in transit. Also included was a thick fabric 'boot', much like a sleeping bag that attaches easily over the bottom half of the carseat to keep baby warm in cold weather. Although it was a nice gesture, this is the one feature of our travel system that we have yet to use - even with its handy elastic straps that slip over the base of the carrier, throwing a warm blanket over our (usually overdressed for cold weather) daughter is easier still.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in its first child safety seat ratings (http://www.nhtsa.gov/cps/cssrating) gave this carseat an A for overall ease of use (to include assembly, evaluation of labels and instructions, installation features and ease of securing the child).
The navy plastic base included with this travel system is designed to be installed and left in a vehicle; the carseat snaps onto the base and is removable so that you don't have to disturb baby to get her out of the vehicle. (Although some people may think that an infant carseat/carrier is a waste of money because the child will outgrow it in about a year, mine is an absolute necessity - I shudder at the thought of trying to maneuver a peacefully sleeping baby out of a standard stays-in-the-car seat.)
Installing a carseat base is nerve-wracking for any parent - after all, some 80% of all child safety seats in the U.S. are not properly installed, even though parents may diligently follow the manufacturer's directions. Needless to say, I hovered anxiously over my husband's shoulder as he tightened and adjusted on the base for nearly twenty minutes - the base itself was simple to install with the provided instructions, but extra care should always be given to be sure the carseat base is level and will not move more than an inch in any direction.
We were pleased to note at first that this base is designed to work well with the LATCH system, an anchoring feature standard in most vehicles manufactured since 2002. Having just purchased a 2002 Grand Am over the summer, we knew that it was LATCH equipped, but had not taken a close look prior to purchasing the travel system - for some reason, Pontiac saw fit to put not one but TWO LATCH restraints in the backseat of the Grand Am - one on each side rather than in the middle, the safest place for carseat installation. We had a good grumble over that safety faux pas, then moved on and installed the base in the center using the seatbelt instead. Just to err on the side of caution, I stopped by state police headquarters for a safety inspection before our baby arrived - and my husband's head swelled three sizes when we were told it was one of the best installations that officer had seen.
Graco also sells these bases individually for $34.99, which has been very nice for our two-car family. With a base in both vehicles, we can take off in either one without the hassle of moving the carseat base from one car to the other before we go.
The biggest bulk of this travel system is, of course, the stroller. It also requires the most assembly, which was at first a daunting task. Thankfully, Graco included very well-written instructions with lots of pictures and diagrams and, once again, I put it together myself while Daddy-to-be hid from his rightful duties in another room. Even so, with all the parts and screws and interesting little plastic caps, assembly took me about an hour - and getting acquainted with the stroller's multiple personalities took even longer.
The seat reclines in five different positions for maximum comfort to children of any age - this is easily done by lifting up on a handle at the back of the seat and moving it to the desired location. Laid completely flat, the stroller makes a very nice looking baby carriage with the velvety canopy and the cold weather boot that came with the system. Also with the seat laid flat, the carseat/carrier snaps onto the top of the stroller, so that baby may go from car to stroller without being disturbed. Since there is a canopy both on the stroller and on the carseat, a small baby can be very nearly cocooned in the stroller to keep hands of interested passers-by away from your little one.
The footrest also raises and lowers; it must be in the raised, upright position for use with the carrier and lowered later on when the child is able to sit upright in the stroller seat. A metal bar underneath the footrest holds it in place - to adjust, simply lift the footrest and fold the bar back down. A plastic child's tray on the front of the stroller may also be extended as needed by squeezing two latches underneath each side of the tray.
You're probably starting to understand a frazzled new parent's biggest problem with this travel system. Although all the parts move and fold smoothly, it's remembering which parts to move and when and how that quickly becomes confusing...
Aside from mastering the moving parts, I have very few other complaints about this stroller. While the handle height does not adjust, my husband and I are both 5'10" and are able to push the stroller comfortably - my mother, at 5'5", also controls the stroller easily. The removable parent's tray that fastens flush to the handle is nice for keeping keys and cell phones handy, and even has a cup holder (although I'd be afraid of dumping my drink on baby's head if I hit a bump.) A generous sized cargo basket is mounted underneath the seat, although with the seat fully reclined to hold the infant carrier, it's next to impossible to get anything into or out of the basket. It would be nice if it were more accessible - I think my diaper bag would fit down there, but until my daughter outgrows her carrier, I probably won't know for sure.
Maneuverability is average - the front wheels swivel for smoother, easier turning and may be locked for use on uneven surfaces (grass, gravel, etc.) Brakes are located beside the rear wheels and are easily engaged with one foot, although to ensure the stroller's stability you should always use the brakes on each side of the stroller. Weight, yes, is the big issue - at about 25 pounds, this stroller is no lightweight. I don't have too much trouble getting it into and out of my trunk, but I'm a bit larger than some parents - a very petite person may want to consider a lighter stroller.
Collapsing the stroller is a trick that takes a few uses to master - although the folding mechanism is located on the handle and easily engaged with one hand (slide red button with thumb, twist handle, push down on stroller), it's the speed at which the stroller collapses that first caught me off guard. When gravity catches hold of that big, heavy frame, it goes down in a hurry - and if you're not prepared to hang on and help smooth the ride, it can make an attention-getting and rather embarrassing CRASH as it hits the ground at your feet. I try very hard to ease the fall - in parking lots especially, the loose gravel could scratch up the shiny plastic on the frame in a hurry.
Hey, Nobody's Perfect
In spite of it's flaws, I'm rather happy with our decision to purchase this particular travel system - after all, the things I have the most problem with (such as weight) would be an issue with any travel system we could have chosen. The convenience of having a carseat that can be easily removed from the car and carried around or snapped onto the stroller we'll use for years far outweighs the minor inconveniences we've experienced thus far.
As with any major purchase, a new parent would be wise to familiarize themselves as much as possible with the various features before leaving the store - that is, after you weed out the ugly ones.
Visit Graco's website at www.gracobaby.com, call 1-800-345-4109, or write to:
Graco Children's Products Inc.
Customer Service Department
P.O. Box 100, Main Street
Elverson, PA 19520
Thinking of Purchasing a Used Carseat?
Check for recall information first by calling the U.S. Government's Auto Safety Hotline at 1-800-424-9393 or visiting http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov .