SQUEALS-ON-WHEELS

With such a vast array of baby transport in the shops, it's easy to get taken for a ride. Our panel gets pushy

Prior to the invention of the Victorian perambulator, the only children who enjoyed their own wheeled transport were the offspring of wealthy parents, who rode about in miniature carriages pulled by dogs, goats or hapless servants. Ordinary mothers carried their babies in their arms or in slings, and it may either encourage or depress readers of this column to hear that many of the parents questioned in our trial of baby transport insisted that, at least for very small infants, these seemingly primitive methods were still preferable to the expensive modern pushchairs/carrycots et al.

General comments on the subject ranged from, "none of them lasts longer than a year," and "all pushchair handles are too low for anyone over 5ft 5in - why can't they be adjustable?" to "people say men tend to walk at the side of a pram rather than behind it, because they want to disassociate themselves from an activity perceived to be feminine, but it's really because their long legs kick the base with every step."

THE PANEL

Our testers - all eager to discover improved versions of what they normally use - consisted of eight mothers with children aged between a few months and four years. They were Philippa Stannard, Debbie Kaplan, Magdalen Maguire, Fiona Stocker, Judy Jenkin, Andrea Mladjen-ovic, Nicola Scicluna-Warren and Mala Gole.

THE TEST

Each parent was asked to award each product points for ease of use, durability, attractive design, cost and versatility. The biggest challenge to manufacturers is the differing physical needs of small babies and toddlers, for while the former can only lie flat, the latter prefer to sit upright and enjoy the ride. How each design coped with this transition was thought crucial.

****MACLAREN SUPER DREAMER XL

Pushchair pounds 129, carrycot pounds 129

Mala and Andrea both had long-term experience of the Maclaren Super Dreamer, which they thought "an excellent choice". The brand benefits from an illustrious history known to many of the mothers on the panel; Owen Maclaren was the aeronautical engineer partly responsible for designing the spitfire undercarriage, who in retirement turned his attention to inventing a strong, but lightweight and foldable pushchair. The modern baby buggy was born. The Super Dreamer is described by the trade as a "two-in-one", with a robust, blue, aluminium chassis that carries either a carrycot for newborns or a pushchair for toddlers. Its flowery fabric went down well and testers reported easy manoeuvrability, good steering, easy folding and a comfortable ride. It lost points for not having a footrest, which many children like, and for being slightly heavier than some - even if the latter turns out to be the manufacturers' Catch 22. Too light, and mothers think it's fragile; too heavy, and they complain it's hard to lift.

**MAMAS AND PAPAS PRIMO NIDO

pounds 465

Any prospective parents are shocked by the price of baby transport - and who can blame them, when outfits like the Primo Nido cost as much as a second-hand car? Unfortunately, our panel was also of the opinion that, rather than wheel this large plaid and bow-covered pushchair up and down steps and through narrow doorways, they would be "better off buying an old banger and stuffing the baby in that". In the way of features, the Primo Nido has a separate carrycot for its "freedom chassis", which rocks gently, and has 23 backrest positions. Both these were dismissed by the practical mums. "It's totally unnecessary," said Fiona Stocker. "You only need two positions: upright and lying down." Debbie Kaplan pointed out that any pram with suspension can be rocked with the handle or pushed back and forth. You're supposed to be able to collapse the ensemble "with one hand" (while you hold the baby with the other), but this proved tricky. With appellations like "Sloaney" and "a real nannies' pram for walks in the park" being bandied about, the kindest things that could be said for this product were that it had "a great shopping tray" and that it would make new mothers feel "terribly proud" as they walked down the street.

****BEBE CONFORT TURBO

pounds 176.99

Pursuing a fashion for giving baby transport names which derive from cars, this French pushchair isn't suitable for a newborn, it was decided, as it doesn't recline to a completely flat position and lacked adequate padding and wind protection. But it does benefit from a very attractive design and a sturdy structure, with fixed or swivel balloon wheels (swivel wheels are deemed essential for city pavements and crowds where, like a taxi driver, the turbo-mother has to be able to turn on a sixpence). You really can collapse it with one hand and haul it onto a bus. Judy Jenkin liked this model the best, even while agreeing with most other panellists that it was "quite expensive".

*HAUCK SHOP'N'DRIVE

Pushchair/travel seat, pounds 165

This German ensemble brings a combined pushchair and travel seat to these shores for the first time, which the mothers found "very exciting" initially, since the transfer of a baby from one mode of transport to another without waking is quite an art. Unfortunately, Teutonic logic didn't win the hearts of testers, who quickly realised that the pushchair doesn't lie flat and the travel seat will only fit a baby up to nine months "so it's entirely the wrong combination" as Fiona Stocker reported. Its high handles were praised and the price seemed very reasonable, but Debbie Kaplan was not the only one to call it "a bit tacky looking" and she pointed out that it doesn't stand up when folded - hopeless at the bus stop. Plastic "retaining clips" (pounds 10 for replacements) are supposed to correct this design fault. Of course, it could be said that this misses the point of the product, which is to drive, dah-ling, not wait for public transport.

*JOJO BACKPACK WITH WHEELS

pounds 59.99

Another unusual design which was hailed as "a good idea" but which fell at the first hurdle, was this wheeled French backpack, consisting of a very pretty fabric pouch with holes for the child's legs, padded shoulder straps and a click-up or down handle which can be screwed into position as a sort of baby trolley. Most panellists thought it would be "good for short walks when your back is tired", but then complained it was uncomfortable as a backpack anyway. Debbie Kaplan compared it unfavourably with her own Karrimor, which has a padded hip strap, where weight is better supported than on the waist. Fiona Stocker was correct in saying the JoJo's skimpy waist slip was no doubt adequate for svelte French women, but would never go round a man. Other testers reported that, without internal straps to hold the baby in, their offspring immediately tried to climb out in transit.

*****SILVER CROSS WAYFARER PLUS

Pushchair pounds 149, combination 3-in-1, pounds 300

"A sound buy for someone who wants a vehicle to last through several babies," was the way Magdalen Maguire summed up the Wayfarer Plus, which was notable for its sturdy, if heavy, construction. Like many of the combination forms of baby transport, it offers its passenger the option of facing the driver rather than the direction of travel. Fiona Stocker praised its carrycot feature and "very nice padded back" of the pushchair, while Andrea Mladjenovic approved of the pushchair's detachable, washable cover and the simple style. Nicola Scicluna-Warren described it as "very classic" and easy to steer. Several testers coveted the substantial shopping basket. In fact, all the mothers approved of this model, which didn't look the most exciting, but turned out to be the best value, if you can cope with its width and weight. It was narrowly voted the winner in our survey, showing that, despite the pram manufacturers' claims to be in "a very fashion-conscious market", most parents prefer comfort over style.

STOCKISTS

Silver Cross, Maclaren Super Dreamer, Mamas and Papas and Bebe Confort, all available from branches of John Lewis; JoJo backpack, by mail order, tel 0171 352 5156; Hauck Shop'n'Drive, tel 0116 253 7737 for stockists. !

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