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Strollers Turn the Corner

New designs and features have ushered in the golden age of the baby buggy.

This seems to be the golden age of the stroller.

No longer are new parents condemned to pushing their child in one of those dinky umbrella strollers. Now parents have their pick of everything from classic pram buggies to three-wheeled jogging strollers.

At the top of the line these days are two European imports: the

Bugaboo Frog

and the

Stokke Xplory

. The

Bertini Shuttle TS Energy

, an Australian offering, aims for similarly discriminating customers, albeit at a more modest price. While each of the strollers has its own strengths, only the Bugaboo made me consider buying another stroller.

Features and Options Galore

Except among stroller aficionados, the Frog, which retails for about $730, doesn't turn many heads. That's because, aside from its oversized back wheels, it looks much like an ordinary stroller. But its underwhelming appearance hides the fact that in the Frog, Bugaboo effectively gives you several strollers in one package.

The two oversized wheels are inflatable and, along with the Frog's flexible metal frame, help to offer a smooth ride. They also allow you to navigate bumps in the road fairly easily without major jolts.

Bugaboo Frog
A stroller you can grow into.

In fact, one of the interesting features about the Frog is that you can move the handlebar from one side to the other so that the oversized wheels can be in back or in front. Bugaboo suggests putting the big wheels in front when going over rough terrain. That flexibility means you can use the stroller both on city sidewalks and on rough, open-space trails. (You'll want to make sure to lock the smaller swivel wheels when you put the big wheels in front, however, or else the stroller will constantly fishtail as you push it along.)

Bugaboo also gives you a stroller that your child can grow into. Included with the Frog are both a bassinet and a stroller seat. So, for the first several months after your child is born, you can use the Frog as a pram -- or even as a baby bed -- then convert it into a standard stroller.

But, unlike a standard stroller, the Frog -- like the Xplory -- allows you to reverse the direction of the seat. So your child can face you or face away.

All of this comes in a frame that's fairly narrow and easy to maneuver and weighs around 20 pounds. The stroller is also easy to fold in and take apart, requiring only the push of a pair of buttons and the pull of a pair of levers.

To be sure, the Frog isn't perfect. Even though the frame itself folds down, the seat attachment doesn't. That means the stroller can take up a substantial amount of room in your vehicle.

And while you can move the handle from one side to another, you can't change its angle or its length. That wasn't a problem for me, but it might make the stroller difficult to push for much taller or shorter people.

Additionally, the Frog's brake is located on the handlebar, but the brake release can only be depressed from one side. That makes releasing the brake difficult when you've got the handle reversed.

Killer Design, Funky Functions

While the Frog's nice features hide behind a pedestrian package, the Xplory's design is the main thing going for it. With its X-shaped frame, the Xplory, which has a retail price of about $750, looks like it might have been designed by NASA engineers. In fact, while taking the Xplory out for test drives, I was stopped numerous times by neighbors wanting to know what it was and where to get one.

The point of the design is the ability to raise and lower the stroller seat from a little less than 20 inches off the ground to nearly 28 inches off the ground. Stokke touts this feature as a way to ensure that your child isn't choking on vehicle exhaust fumes but is able to see and interact with the world. Also, the company suggests that the stroller makes for a nice high chair at a restaurant. Like the seat on the Frog, the Xplory's seat is reversible.

With the child up high, you might expect the stroller to tip over easily, but the Xplory is surprisingly stable. Even when I took it on inclines, with one side raised a foot or so higher than the other, I never felt that the stroller was in danger of toppling over. What's interesting is that the Xplory is able to attain this stability despite having a footprint that is only slightly bigger than that of the Frog.

That said, the height of the Xplory makes it feel far less nimble than the Frog or other strollers. And with the seat in its top position, I had a difficult time seeing the road in front me well enough to avoid potholes.

That's a problem, because the Xplory's stiff plastic frame isn't particularly forgiving of bumps. Although Stokke says it built in a shock absorber and included noninflatable rubber wheels to give a smoother ride, this is not a stroller you want to take on a dirt trail -- or even on rough pavement.

Stokke Xplory
A design that turns heads.

Worse yet, a number of the stroller's features were difficult to use or adjust. My wife and I, for instance, both struggled at times to lock the brake.

One of the features that Stokke highlights on the Xplory is the ability to fold the back axle into the front one. You're supposed to do this in order to collapse the frame to fit into a car's trunk. But Stokke also suggests that you can do this on the fly, so that you can take the stroller down a staircase with your baby still in it.

For me, this was one of those "don't try this at home" tricks. Nearly every time I tried to unfold the Xplory after collapsing it, I had to fight with the stroller for minutes on end to get it to unlock. And when I returned the stroller to the store that lent it to me, I was completely unable to unfold it all; I ended up wheeling it into the store on two wheels, fed up with it.

Power Steering, Smooth Ride

At least initially, I had similar frustrations with the Bertini Shuttle TS. The distinguishing feature of several Bertini strollers is that they include four-wheel steering. Like the Xplory, the Shuttle TS, with a suggested retail price of about $370, is a bigger-than-average stroller. But with its four-wheel steering, the Shuttle TS is as maneuverable as its much smaller rivals.

At least when you are going forward, this can be a neat feature. But when you back up the stroller, it can be an endless frustration. In reverse, the four-wheel steering works counterintuitively. So when you try to back up to the right, the stroller tries to turn left. When you try to go back to the left, the stroller pulls right. Because the turning mechanism is fairly sensitive to your movements, backing out of an elevator or even out of the house can be a real challenge.

Bertini does allow you to lock out the turning mechanism by pressing down on a pedal. But the pedal is located behind the brake bar, making it difficult to get to. And who wants to have to press a button to have to reverse a stroller anyway?

That annoyance aside, the Shuttle TS is not a bad stroller. Unlike its pricier rivals, the Shuttle TS has inflatable tires on all four wheels, making for a smooth ride. With the steering locked, the stroller even did well on a dirt road near my house.

Also, the stroller has a nice-sized basket underneath its seat. While both the Frog and the Xplory included storage areas, the Shuttle TS's basket was far larger, with the ability to hold groceries or even a diaper bag.