What they don’t tell you about installing car seats

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Ian-baby-seatI had it easy. Compared to what my sister-in-law would be doing — flying with her 10-month-old son from Mexico City to Baltimore, an ordeal on top of diaper changes, breast feeding, carrying suitcases and dealing with a tiny human being grabbing everything in sight — I was tasked with securing a big car with a car seat.

Whenever my wife’s family comes to town, I try scheduling the biggest car in the local press fleet. For this task, I grabbed a 2014 Range Rover Supercharged, the fastest and most luxurious baby buggy there is. Range Rovers are the finest luxury vehicles in the entire world because they seal passengers from all hells of the outside world, whether the setting is a mountain rock-crawl or a midtown rumble through Manhattan. I don’t prefer SUVs in the slightest, yet I bow down to Range Rovers. My wife loves them so much I ordered a white one from Land Rover’s press fleet for our wedding last year. I suppose I like them, too.

For new mothers, there’s nothing more secure than sitting upright on that gliding air suspension, towering over traffic and knowing the vehicle’s bulk will check any idiot who comes rushing past. This has been proven. If anyone tangos with a family in a Range Rover — as those miscreant New York City motorcyclists found out after they tried attacking a couple and their infant child — they’re making a grave mistake. That’s why Prince William and Kate Middleton took their firstborn son home in one.

Because the Rover is about as large as a glacial floe, in the city it’s about as ponderous as a polar bear. And this is the new version that’s apparently dropped several hundred pounds. You’d never know it, from its bobbing and diving, slow steering and a roof that city parking garages always threaten to shave off. Actually, you can tell it’s lighter. With 550 hp from its supercharged V8, the big Rover is much too quick than it ought to be. Plus, it gets 13 mpg instead of the previous model’s 11 mpg. Progress!


What isn’t so successful is my attempt at fitting a car seat. I head to Target and buy the cheapest rear-facing car seat I can find, a Cosco Apt 40RF for $53 with tax. Contrary to what you’d think, a $53 child seat doesn’t offer less crash protection than a $153 child seat. They all have to meet minimum federal crash standards, and all of them have a flexible plastic base and backing, five-point harness, side bolsters and LATCH belts that clamp into almost every new car built since 2002. The critical difference, beyond the extra padding, cupholders and whatever dopey text is printed on the box, is how easily the seat can be installed.

That’s the difference between my sister’s (in-law is such a tiresome legality, so let’s drop it) car seat, which has a miraculous cinching mechanism that tightens the LATCH belt in a single tug, My Cosco seat requires two people. One of them has to push down on the seat with all his weight, while the other pulls up on the belt. That information was curiously not in any documentation that came with the seat. It often requires several tries and varies depending on the vehicle’s seat cushion angle and how far apart the LATCH anchors are located. (Also, since I didn’t check the Rover’s manual first, I wasted considerable energy installing the car seat in the rear middle position — considered the safest place in the entire car — only to find out you weren’t supposed to install it this way. The Rover was designed to fit car seats only in the outboard positions. Progress, not so much.)

Car seats have to be completely level with the vehicle’s seat cushion, and to this end, you’ll sometimes need to wedge a towel or a similar item between the car seat’s front lip and the vehicle’s cushion. After all that, the car seat isn’t supposed to move more than an inch in any direction, and even that feels too loose, so you’ll need to push down harder and make the other person pull the belt like a dockhand. When the car seat is new, you can’t forget to rethread the seat belt in three ends (bottom and two top sides) so that it properly restrains the baby’s shoulders and groin.

Then, if you’ve been a safe driver, he grows up and weighs more than 40 pounds. You’ll then need to have the seat facing forward, at which point a LATCH tether anchor, mounted behind the rear headrests, will also be necessary. Or, if you don’t have LATCH, you’ll continue using your vehicle’s seat belt and need to make sure your belt locks properly or you’ll need a special metal locking clip to tighten it. At which point, you’ll always be struggling and will want a newer car so that you don’t consider suicide every time you install the seat. Children, ideally, need at least one living parent.

So, I’ve learned that when I have a kid, I’ll be buying a more expensive seat to make installation a breeze without requiring the services of another adult (Jump starting a car requires two people. Installing a car seat shouldn’t be so intimate an experience.) I will not be buying a Range Rover, but likely a Porsche 911 since it has a back seat. Everyone has needs. My nephew may one day thank me.

Clifford Atiyeh

Clifford Atiyeh

Clifford Atiyeh has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own. Based in Connecticut, he writes for BestRide, Car and Driver, The Boston Globe and other publications.

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