Graco Contender Review

Graco Contender: a well-featured convertible car seat at a reasonable price point

Graco Contender: a well-featured convertible car seat at a reasonable price

Graco has a few convertible seats that we find ourselves recommending on a fairly regular basis.  They’re all basically the same seat: The Size4Me, MySize and Fit4Me and the similar Head Wise.   These seats all have a long-lasting range of fit to child; they rear face until the child’s head is within one inch of the top of the red handle at the headrest — when that headrest is fully extended.  The maximum rear facing weight is 40 lbs. Forward facing, these seats have a generous 17.5  inch top shoulder slot.

In addition to all of those great height and weight limits, this group of seats is fairly easy to install and use properly.  As CPSTs, this is always a big plus for us so it’s easy to suggest any of these seats to caregivers.

While all of these seats are terrific options for extended rear facing,  and are easy-to-use in forward facing mode, Graco has added an additional option at a slightly lower price: the Contender.  Cue all the jokes about how this seat would’ve been a contender, than dismiss them because it most certainly is one!

At CSFTL, we welcome this type of option since it offers one more way to help caregivers keep their kiddos rear facing and harnessed longer at a lower price than the more featured Size4Me/Head Wise/MySize/Fit4Me.  The Contender was originally only available at Wal-Mart but now can be found in some fun colors on Amazon.com as well.

 

 

CSFTL Quick Stats

  • Rear facing weight range: 5-40 lbs
  • Rear facing height range: 1″ below adjuster button on headrest when fully extended
  • Forward facing weight range: 20-65 lbs
  • Forward facing height range: <49″
  • Shell height: 28″
  • Lowest harness position: 7″ with infant insert
  • Highest harness position: 17.5″
  • Expiration: 7 years
  • Lower anchor weight limit: 45 lbs.  This lower anchor weight limit only applies to seats that were made after early 2014.  Seats made before then: 42 pounds.  Check your seat’s manual to confirm your particular seat’s lower anchor weight limits.

Features

  • 2 crotch buckle positions — 4.5″ and 6″ from the back of the seat
  • 8 headrest positions
  • No-rethread harness

 

Differences between the Contender and the Size4Me/Head Wise/MySize/Fit4Me

Size4Me/Head Wise/Fit4MeContender
Early models had separate lower anchor connectors for rear facing and forward facing; newer models have one set.One set of lower anchor connectors.They switch easily between rear and forward facing modes via the handy bar on the side of the seat.
Graco’s In Right™ lower anchor connectors, which has an easy to use push-button release for quick installationStandard lower anchor connectors
Padded harness strap coversNone
A handle to switch between rear and forward facing.A block that flips to switch between rear and forward facing.  I found this as easy to use as the handle!

These options could make the higher priced models a bit easier to install, which might make these seats a better option for some families. However, for use in cars that do not have lower anchors (generally older than 2001 models), for children who are too heavy to use the lower anchors (in this case, 45 lbs or more), or for families looking for a lightweight seat, the Contender is an excellent option.

 

Installation

Graco Contender LATCH Storage Bar

Graco Contender LATCH Storage Bar

On the Contender, there is one set of lower anchor connectors.  They’re attached to the seat with this innovative bar on the side of the seat.  To switch between modes, unthread the webbing and anchors from the current position, slide it along the bar and thread it through the other position.

The engineers at Graco have made the lower anchor strap too short to install with the strap in the wrong belt path.  This small change is critical: it eliminates a common misuse.  The Contender allows LATCH borrowing from other seating positions if the vehicle allows it as well.

 

Graco Contender belt paths are clearly labelled

Graco Contender belt paths are clearly labelled

The recline block has two positions: rear facing or forward facing.  There’s no guesswork involved in figuring out which to use — if you can read it, then it’s in the right position.  If it’s upside down, then it’s in the wrong position for that direction.  This simple, clear labeling takes the ease of use on this seat to a very high level.
Both the rear facing and forward facing belt paths (where you’d thread the lower anchors or thread the seat belt, depending on your installation method) are clearly marked.

Graco earns an A from the CSFTL team for this consistent, clear labeling!

Rear Facing

Graco Contender

Graco Contender

 

Installing the Contender rear facing was fairly straightforward.  The seat is light enough that pressure from my non-dominant hand was sufficient to achieve a snug install without a lot of grunting or sweating.  The recline angle ranges from 30-45 degrees and the seat has a bubble on the side so you can see where the angle lies.

Fit to Child

Rear Facing

Infant

Graco Contender fits the newborn doll reasonably well

Graco Contender- 7 lbs., 17 inches

The Contender fits our newborn Huggable Images doll fairly well.  At the lowest shoulder height setting, the infant padding helps to improve fit. This model is 7 lbs and 17″ long.  The bottom slot is 7″ when using the infant padding.

The infant recline is suitable for newborns when the seat was installed on the relatively flat seats in my Mazda 5.  In my car, it’s unlikely that the Contender would require a pool noodle to achieve the proper angle.

The infant insert has the following rules:

  • Never allow body support to bunch or fold behind child.
  • Only use body support in rear-facing mode.
  • Body support MUST be used if shoulders are below lowest harness setting.

Older Infant

Graco Contender fit this 8 month old model well

Graco Contender- 8 months, 19 lbs., 27 inches

This little guy was pleased as punch to check out the Contender.  At 8 months, he weighs 19 lbs and is 27 inches tall.  He’s got plenty of growing room in terms of height and weight in this seat!

Toddler

Graco Contender has plenty of room to grow for this model!

Graco Contender- 2.5 years, 35 lbs., 37 inches

This happy little girl regularly rides rear-facing in a Graco Size4Me so she felt right at home in the Contender!  The seating area is identical and offers plenty of leg room.  Loading her into the seat presented no challenge at all.

She’s 2.5 years old, 37 inches tall, and weighs 35 lbs.

Forward Facing

Installation

Installing the Contender in forward facing mode is as straightforward as installing it in rear facing mode. When using the lower anchors, pull the webbing straight up from the connector and use the top tether to get a solid install. The seat belt install is also fairly simple — in my Mazda 5, which features a rigid buckle stalk, I tend to buckle the seat belt, then remove the slack from the lap portion of the seat belt, and lock the belt. The final step in my car is to carefully unbuckle the seat belt, feed it slowly back into the retractor for about 2 clicks, then push down on the Contender and re buckle the seat belt. This is easier than it sounds, I swear!

Preschooler

Graco Contender in forward facing mode

Graco Contender- 4 years, 43 lbs., 42 inches

Like the other Graco seats that feature no-rethread harnesses that we’ve reviewed, fitting the Contender to the child is a pretty simple task.  With 8 harness positions, the Contender has enough options that finding the right fit was just a matter of grabbing the big red handle, squeezing it, then pulling it up or down.  This feature is also handy when the seat has more than one rider using it for different trips.

This model is 4 years old, weighs 43 lbs and stands 42 inches tall.  She was able to climb into the seat easily and I was able to adjust the harness while she was sitting in the seat.  I did foolishly decide to lower the harness a click while she was strapped in — she found that uncomfortable.  Of course, right in the manual it says not to do this: “BEFORE adjusting the head support height, have your child lean forward slightly.”

The built-in cupholder made a nice spot for her stuffed dolphin and later, for her bunny tail.  From the front seat, I like the fit — she’s got enough leg room that she’s comfortable and the sides, though a bit high, still allowed me to reach her to buckle her in.

Graco Size4Me also fit this model rear facing when she was younger

Graco Size4Me also fit this model rear facing when she was younger

When this model was younger, she rode rear facing in a Graco Size 4 Me.  The seat fit her fine, but I found that the higher sides made loading this particular kiddo (who at the time had some pretty substantial thighs given her overall size) in and out a bit of a challenge.  Forward facing, and having grown quite a bit, the Contender doesn’t have the same issue for her.

She was 3 years old in this picture, weighed 36 pounds and was 37 inches tall.  That buckle was part of the recall.

5 Years Old

Graco Contender, 5 years, 4 months old, 45 pounds and 45 inches tall

This model is 5 years, 4 months old, 45 pounds and 45 inches tall

Here, our model from earlier has grown.  She’s now 5 years, 4 months old.  She weighs 45 pounds and stands 45 inches tall.  She still has about an inch and a half of harness height left in this seat.  She finds the seat very comfortable and she’s got a bit of room left to grow in it!

Almost 6 years old

This model is 5 years, 10 months old, 49 inches tall and 52lbs

This model is 5 years, 10 months old, 49 inches tall and 52lbs

 

This model is at the very top of the size range for the Contender.  She’s 5 years, 10 months old.  She’s 49 inches tall and weighs 52 pounds.

While she fits in the seat and the harness has enough slack for her to be strapped in properly, she finds the crotch buckle very uncomfortable.

Usage

Crotch Buckle Adjustment and Use

The crotch buckle should be in the position closest to, but not underneath the child.  The crotch buckle has two slots — 4.5″ and 6″ from the back of the seat.  Adjusting the buckle is not quite as easy as on the more-featured Graco Milestone or 4Ever multimode seats, but it wasn’t too difficult.  With the seat uninstalled, I flipped the recline block to the forward facing position to access the bottom of the seat, unthreaded the buckle and moved it to the other slot.

I mention this because adjusting the buckles on other Graco seats in my past (the Nautilus and the Argos) was a challenge.  It’s nice to see another Graco buckle that’s easily moved between positions!

Weight of the Seat

Because the Contender lacks the premium lower anchor connectors, extra set of lower anchor connectors, and the recline mechanism of the Size4Me/Fit4Me/MySize/Head Wise, it not only costs less than these seats, it weighs quite a bit less as well!  The Contender has been an exclusive to Wal-Mart but will soon be available in wider distribution.

For anyone who needs to move seats around a fair bit, the Contender would be a great option for weight alone.  It’s so light that I’m considering using ours as a travel seat.  At 43 pounds, my model is too heavy for the lower anchor installation so I was thrilled to see the lighter weight lower anchor connectors — I wouldn’t be using lower anchors for this kiddo anyway.   We always use the top tether with forward facing harnessed seats.

Air Travel

Graco Contender's forward facing belt path is closed

Graco Contender’s forward facing belt path is enclosed

Because the Contender is so lightweight, it’s an excellent option for travel.  The forward facing belt path is enclosed, which means that the seat belt is threaded through a separate space from the child’s back.

Other seats that I’ve traveled with have open belt paths, where the belt runs just under the cover and behind the child.  While this is not an issue in the car, it’s an issue on the plane where the lap belt buckle can end up right behind the child’s back.  This wasn’t a problem with the Contender!

FAA Approval

Graco Contender's FAA Approval sticker is on the back of the seat shell

Graco Contender’s FAA Approval sticker is on the back of the seat shell

The Graco Contender’s FAA approval is on a sticker that’s tucked in the back of she shell of the seat, right behind where many popular travel carts attach to the seat.  This makes it almost impossible to see the sticker if you’re asked to show it while boarding an airplane.

Ask me how I know this.  In fact, you could ask everyone who was waiting to board behind me that day.

Travel Cart

Gogo Kidz Travelmate attached to the Graco Contender

Gogo Kidz Travelmate attached to the Graco Contender

Attaching the Gogo Kidz Travelmate to the Contender was fairly simple.  The only tricky part was that the recline block doesn’t quite sit level with the ground.  So I had to attach the strap from the Travelmate to the bottom of the shell of the seat.

I think this picture explains it better than I can using words.

On The Airplane

Graco Contender was an excellent seat for airplane use!

Graco Contender was an excellent seat for airplane use!

The Contender’s closed belt path and light weight made it an excellent travel seat for my kiddo.  The airplane lap belt’s buckle didn’t dig into her back and she was able to extend the tray table far enough that she could balance a tablet and watch her shows.

From my perspective, it was also great.  The Contender is just narrow enough to fit ALL THE WAY on the Southwest airplane seat.  This meant that for the first time in many moons, I could leave my armrest down while sitting next to my kiddo.  And I didn’t have to contort myself to install or uninstall the seat.

Similar Seats

Similar seats in this category (lightweight, budget-friendly, convertible seats)

 

Pros

  • Tall shell with no standing height limit for rear facing
  • No re-thread harness
  • Fits average sized newborns
  • Two crotch buckle positions

Cons

  • Standard lower anchor connectors
  • Recline block to switch between rear and forward facing modes
  • Some parents have experienced trouble with tightening and loosening the harness properly

Overall Thoughts

The Contender is a terrific, versatile, long-lasting addition to their lineup of car seats. The 4Ever and Milestone multimode  (rear facing, forward facing, and booster all in one) seats are revolutionizing that space in the market and  their updated clear labeling is helping to reduce misuse.  These reasonably priced seats have a lot to offer and CSFTL is thrilled to call the Contender one of our favorite recommended convertibles!

On a personal note, my family has used the Contender since this review was first published. Our model just celebrated her sixth birthday and still has a bit of room to grow in her beloved Contender.

The Contender is available at Amazon and other retailers. Graco graciously provided the Contender used in this review.  As always, the opinions are our own.

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