The Graco Nautilus is one of the best sellers through our affiliate store.  We have been remiss in not having an actual review of it, even though it does appear on our recommended seats list.  We will make up for this with two reviews of the new and improved Graco Nautilus Elite, starting with my brief First Look.  The Nautilus Elite distinguishes itself with shoulder belt lock-offs to aid seatbelt installations.  It also has adjustable width side wings on the head restraint section.

The Graco Nautilus is a very popular combination seat that converts from a front-facing child safety seat with a 5-point harness to a booster, either high-back or backless.  Because of these three modes, Graco calls it a “3-in-1″, though parents should be aware that it does not install rear-facing like some other “3-in-1″ products.  The Nautilus accommodates kids front-facing with harness from 20 to 65 pounds, from 27 to 52 inches tall, subject to other height restrictions.  It can also be used as a high-back booster from 30 to 100 pounds for kids 37 to 57 inches tall.  Finally, it can be used as a backless booster from 40 to 100 pounds for kids 40 to 57 inches tall.

The Nautilus Elite is packed with great features.  It starts with a steel reinforced frame.  Pivoting side wings around the head are lined with energy-absorbing EPS foam.  Graco claims it is side impact tested for occupant retention with the 5-point harness.  In addition to the required federal crash testing, they have also tested to the NCAP crash test pulse, one thought to be more severe than the minimum standard.  The box also notes that it is tested to the federal standard at extreme hot and cold temperatures.  There is an easily adjustable 3-position recline setting.  The cover is soft, but not plush, and seems well padded and comfortable.  There are a couple of storage compartments and a cupholder.  The belly pad, used to keep a hot buckle from touching the child, is perhaps the best one I’ve seen on any model as it always seems to stay in place.

As you can see in the video above, the shoulder belt lock-offs are a nice addition.  Though the standard Nautilus usually installs fine in most newer cars without lock-offs, the Elite can save some time and hassle in some situations.  That includes vehicles that do not have the LATCH system, models that do not allow you to use LATCH in the center seat and for kids above 48 pounds (see owners manuals for more information).

My son is 5 years and 4 months old and somewhere just over 45 pounds and 45 inches tall.  My daughter has long outgrown the harness, as her shoulders are above the top slots that I measure to be about 18.25″ for seated torso height.  She is also near the limit of the high back booster mode, as you can see below.  She just turned 10 years old, is 55 inches tall and weighs 79 pounds.  Both the shoulder belt and the lap belt fit her well.  The shoulder belt guides appear open enough so as not to catch the seatbelt in most vehicles.

Disadvantages?  For an Elite version, it lacks premium LATCH hardware with push-button adjusters and releases that would have been a great improvement over the basic hooks and tilt-lock adjuster provided.  As I mentioned in the video, it may not work in some vehicles with fixed head restraints or short seat cushions.  It did work fine with the head restraints in my 2006 Honda Odyssey (above), but I had to remove the head restraint in our 2010 Toyota Prius to keep it from pushing the Nautilus away from the vehicle seat.  The Nautilus is a heavy seat: about 26 pounds.  As I have mentioned in other reviews, I am disappointed to see models like the Nautilus Elite continue the trend of manufacturing in China, especially since it is not a budget model.  Finally, we don’t suggest that you use a combination seat starting at the 20 pound minimum allowed by Graco.  We prefer to see kids remain rear-facing well beyond 20 pounds and to at least 2 years old, preferably longer!

Overall, the Graco Nautilus is a very nice combination seat.  We continue to recommend it for older kids who are no longer rear-facing.  As for whether to buy the Elite version or not? That is up to you!  The shoulder belt lock-offs can be very handy for seatbelt installs and the adjustable headwings are a nice feature, too.  Whether you choose the Elite version for the extra features or the standard Nautilus to save some money, you can’t go wrong either way!  The Graco Nautilus Elite is currently exclusive to Babies R Us and retails for $199.99.

This review sample was provided by Graco Baby (thank you!).  Stay tuned for another opinion in a full review!