Friday, October 02, 2009

The Safety 1st Complete Air Convertible Review (or, how I got 3 rear-facing car seats in our Corolla)

Most of you reading this probably know that I'm a CPST. Most of you have probably also heard that rear-facing is the safest way to ride. If you haven't, check out this video:

Rear Facing is Safer

While EVERYONE is safer rear-facing, evidence (real life statistics as well as crash tests) shows a significant decrease in injuries and deaths when children under the age of 4 are properly secured rear-facing rather than forward-facing. Nor is 4 the limit; the benefit just becomes less and less significant after that-- but it's still there, and still the safest way to ride as long as the child is within the limits of the seat (in the US that means has one inch of shell above the head in most seats, though in some it's even with the shell, and is under the rear-facing weight limit.) The American Academy of Pediatricians has recommended since 2002 that all children should ride rear-facing to the limits of the convertible seat, and also recommended that manufacturers make seats large enough to accomodate the average 4 year old (40-45 lbs.) Seats are just starting to be released that can actually do this in the U.S. (If friends in Europe are reading this, in Sweden seats are available that rear-face even longer by weight, though about the same length of time by height-- since Swedish seats can typically be used rear-facing until the ears are even with the top of the shell. These seats are approved for use anywhere in the EU. If you'd like more information on them, please check out this site:

Bridget is under 4, so there is a clear benefit to her rear-facing. While the benefit is not as clear for Emma, she really really really wanted to. And it is safer, though not as measurably so (part of that is that we don't have much data on rear-facing past the age of 4, as it's an age when even Swedish seats are often outgrown.) When one of my Radians' rear-facing limits was retroactively raised to 40 lbs. (applies to all Radians manufactured 9/08 or later) I turned Bridget back rear-facing. Emma got very jealous. She said it was "so comfy" (I let her ride in it one day) and "so safe" and she cried every time she had to get in forward facing.

Now, I'm not advocating giving in to a child's tears ( ;) ) but it's safer; we had the means to get a Complete Air (used the 20% trade in deal at Babies R Us to recycle a near-expired, unknown history seat we had been given and Jeff had a big check) and, well, it made my life easier... Emma loves being rear-facing, is "comfy", takes naps in the car again (which she had quit when forward-facing, for the most part), and loves the expanded view she has out the rear as well as the side windows.

The Complete Air is currently a Babies R Us exclusive (though also available at some Toys R Us stores that have a Babies R Us section.) We got the "Harvest" cover, which is an awesome orange and brown (the other cover currently available is a rather meh grey.)

I put the Complete Air behind the driver's seat in our Corolla. It was not very easy to get all three in and independently tight, and they have a slight tilt from the retractor I used to lock the belts (but not enough that it bothers my kids or that I worry about it.) The Complete Air needed a chunk of pool noodle under it in order to get even the maximum upright allowed angle of 30 degrees from vertical. (I didn't mind, I keep pool noodle chunks with me... And I rather expect that of most seats in our Corolla-- an '03, by the way. Be aware that newer models have prohibitions on car seats, or anything else, touching the back of the front seat.) I had to pull the cover up to access the belt path in order to tighten adequately, and it was difficult to get it back down. I scraped my knuckles a bit too (not uncommon with Dorel seats, unfortunately.) But the end result was that it was in, and all seats were independently tight (less than one inch of movement at the belt path if you remove the seats next to them and tug where the belt goes through.)

Emma, at 5 1/2 years old, has tons of room to grow by height (the Complete Air allows use until the head reaches the top of the headwings-- which go two inches higher than the shell!) She is on the third of five sets of harness slots rear-facing (straps come from at or below the shoulders rear-facing, at or above forward-facing.) She is above the stated height "maximum" of 40 inches. However, manufacturers put a height maximum on because they have to, not because there really is one. Every child will fit a seat differently at the same standing height. That is why these "maximums" are really more guidelines than set in stone-- and while the company will, for liability reasons, stand behind them, well, they're not really important, safety-wise. (Weight limits, on the other hand, should be followed exactly.) Where the head and shoulders hit is the important thing, and by those guidelines, she has a ton of room to grow. (Dorel is ALSO well-known for their idiotic height maximums which really have nothing to do with reality of how a child will fit the seat.) As a technician and as a mother, I am very comfortable using her in this seat to the maximum weight limit despite her being over the "maximum" height guideline. She currently has about 2 lbs. to gain before she will outgrow it by weight (well before height.) This is an excellent choice of seat for tall and skinny kids!

Emma loves the colors of the cover. I like that the seat is easy to wipe clean, though the quality could be better (especially for the price tag!) I prefer a seat that allows rear-facing tethering or has an anti-rebound bar-- this one does not. However I would choose it again anyway, because right now it is our only practical available seat to rear-face behind the driver's seat (the Radian installs too reclined to allow the seat back as far as my husband needs it in our car.) The headwings move with the harness, and are easy to adjust when installed. I have not had problems reaching the tightening mechanism. The tightening mechanism is also very smooth (though I don't have to use it much because of the continual loop routing of the harness strap.)

There are a few drawbacks. The straps tend to twist and need to be untangled every time. The crotch buckle falls under Emma's bottom and has to be fished out. There are no strap covers-- not a problem for her but might be for less narrow kids (if so, you can cut the toes off of baby socks and put them on the harness for neck protection and comfort.) Most significantly, it is not the easiest seat to install, and the bottom harness slots are amazingly high. It shouldn't have been too much trouble to put one more, lower set in. As it is I fear we will see many babies in this seat who have just outgrown a 22 lb. infant seat with a shorter shell, and do not yet fit it by height, especially if installed less reclined (as mine is.) That is something I hope to see remedied in future redesigns (as well as a reconsideration of the idiotic 40 inch height "limit" for rear-facing.) Also, the forward-facing harness weight is only 50 lbs.; while this should be more than adequate if Emma still needs harnessing once outgrowing it rear-facing by weight, a heavier child might reach that weight much earlier. It has tall enough top slots that I would love to see a 60 or 65 lb. weight limit on it.

Overall, though, I'm pleased with the seat, would recommend it, and would buy it again.

Here is our three across.

Our long term (okay, in the next few weeks) plan is to get a new Radian XTSL seat, which will rear-face to 45 lbs., and have that over where Bridget's current seat is (and move hers to the middle for Maggie.) The way Bridey and Emma gain weight, I'm thinking that Emma should be able to rear-face at least until 6-- at which point, provided she demonstrates that she can sit properly, I will be comfortable boostering her (if she wants to use a booster, and as I said if she is behaviorally ready. I'm thinking the Britax Parkway Slide Guard...) For now, we are quite happy with this setup, and the safety and comfort it affords our children.


Mean Mommy said...

That just doesn't look comfy to me to have their legs all squished in with knees bent, but if they like it, good for you...

Anne/kq said...

That's not how they usually sit, they were wiggling for the picture. :) They usually frog out their legs, and are very comfortable.

I don't know why people worry so much about kids' legs. Have you ever watched kids play? They bend their legs all kinds of weird ways and sit there for hours at a time sometimes bent in weird positions. Besides, if for some reason there was intrusion where the legs are-- think of what would be there if they were forward-facing! Their heads and necks.

Rear-facing actually decreases the incidence of leg injuries in children, as well as being much more protective for the head and neck. In a crash where a child is forward-facing, the legs and arms fly all over. In a crash where the child is rear-facing, they are supported and contained in the seat, along with the spine and head being cradled and protected.

Anonymous said...

What are the other two car seats? We have an '03 Volkswagen Jetta and our baby is needing to go from his carrier to a convertible car seat. We have a 4 year old and a 2.5 year old. We also need a new seat for the 2.5 year old because she is in a borrowed one and while cleaning it today I noticed it was manufactured in 2002 so I assume it is expired. What can we fit back there?

alpaca said...

Hi Anne -

Thank you for sharing your car seat arrangements! I couldn't believe my good luck when I found your post. Could you offer your experience and insight into my situation?

I have a '03 Corolla and is struggling to figure out what I can do to put a 3 year old and a 5 month old in the center and behind the driver. This is crucial in my car as I need to take two passengers in my car to get on HOV-3. It looks like we definitely need a radian, and that would probably be the 65.

I have a couple of questions -
(1) Do you know if a Graco My Ride or Graco Nautilus would fit next to the Radian in the Corolla?

(2) Eventually, we would probably install the Complete Air FF behind the driver, would it fit in with the Radian RF in the center?

Thanks in advance for your insights!

Anne/kq said...

Anonymous: those are 2 Radians. :)

Katia: I'll come talk to you on your blog!

Anne/kq said...

...or not!

Katia, a MyRide would for sure not fit. I'm thinking a Nautilus would not either.

The Complete Air should fit forward-facing next to a rear-facing Radian, though it would be difficult, as well. And you might consider continuing to use the Complete Air rear-facing on the side, moving the younger child to it, and putting the forward-facing Radian in the middle. This has 2 purposes: the Radian has a higher forward-facing weight limit, and the least protected child (the forward-facer) then moves to the most protected position (the center.) Also, because of the way the base on the Radian is contructed, I believe that you would have a bit more installation room using the Radian forward-facing instead of the Complete Air, and they would "puzzle" better that way. Good luck!

alpaca said...


Thank you so much for your advice! (sorry we no longer have a blog...but i thought I left my email address...?!) We actually just ordered a Radian XTSL for $240, which is a great deal!

I like your idea of putting the forward facing child in the center. In addition to safety considerations, it is much easier to carry the baby and buckle her in without getting in the car.

I can't wait until the Radian gets here to try it out. We ordered it in the green fabric - and our little girl is very excited about the new chair!

Thanks again for your thoughtful advice and your time -

Anne/kq said...

Good luck! If you need talking through a FF Radian install, I know all the tricks! ;)

Jenny Schick said...

Left a message for you on the forum but not sure it went through. I need help getting 3 seats in a '03 Corolla!
Email me, please!

Anne/kq said...

FYI: I can't send an e-mail if you don't leave your address. Thanks. :)

Andy said...

I know this is an old post, but I just had to say... Wow!! I have a '99 Corolla and basically gave up on ever being able to fit 3 seats in it. Good thing I only have two kids right now! I am very impressed.

I have a question though. I just bought the Radian XTSL and I'm worried about how much it reclines. Do you happen to know if it can touch the seat back?? I'd love to have it more upright, it's for my tiny almost 5yr old (still 31lbs soaking wet). Any advice would be great.

Anne/kq said...

Andy, it may touch and even brace, if your vehicle does not prohibit it (a 99 Toyota does not.) However, bracing the seat may NOT be used to change the angle. If you want help getting your Radian in more upright, I'd urge you to go to and, using the google search feature, search for the thread on "Radian install with forward of the bight belts" which contains good tips for getting a more upright install in many cars. :)

BOLTs SEO said...

Just saying thanks will not just be sufficient, for the fantasti c lucidity in your writing. I will instantly grab your rss feed to stay informed of any updates. 5 point harness booster seat over 60 pounds