How to Go: Car Navigation Options

Garmin Nuvi 800
AP Graphics
On my recent vacation, the car I rented came with a navigation system, Hertz' Neverlost. It was an unexpected freebie, as I had also brought along the two-year-old portable navigation system I already own, a Garmin Nuvi 360.

Since the Garmin took time to set up (sticking a suction mount onto the windshield, running cables), for a few days I left it in my luggage and relied on the Neverlost. Big mistake.

The Neverlost system I had in my car was diabolically bad. It was hard to use, hard to read, and no fun. After a few days of frustration, I took the time to set up the Nuvi alongside the Nerverlost, and on one 150-mile leg, I found that the Nuvi's route took 20 minutes less than the Neverlost. So the Nuvi got stuck on the windshield for good, the Neverlost was powered down, and I started thinking about the best navigation options for cars. Having a computerized navigation companion is a huge help when you're driving, even if you know your route (read on to see why), but there are several different ways to get the route guidance. What's best?


Let's start with the built-in navigation units you can get on most cars now. I've used a bunch. I love them. Not because they are easy to use (many are decidedly not - my father bought a used 2001 Lexus and its nav system is so perplexing he just leaves it off) but because they are always there, they're hard to steal, and because they're usually integrated with the car's other systems. A built-in navigation screen might double as a back-up camera screen, an audio controller, and so on. And speaking of audio, a built-in system will pipe its directions through your car's sound system, mutes the radio when it needs to say something, and generally acts in concert with your car.

Also, many new in-car systems have voice recognition, steering wheel-mounted controls, and other frills available. For example, some navigation systems (Acura comes to mind) interact with the car's climate control system to adjust heating and cooling based on where they know the sun to be, given your location, direction, and the time of day. Others project symbolic instructions onto your windshield or into the instrument cluster so you don't have to move your eyes far from the road. One nav feature that commuters are sure to love: the capability to route around traffic jams, either automatically or on command.

Our car tech experts at CNET like the new hard-disk-based navigation systems in BMWs, which have gorgeous displays and enough data to show lush topographical information.

But I cannot in good conscience recommend a car-based nav system to new car buyers, due to the cost. On some high-end cars, navigation is a standard feature, but on many cars it's an option - and it's expensive, as I said. The going price for an integrated navigation system now is about $2,000. An aftermarket navigation system that you get built into your dash will run about $1,200, not including installation. And that, my friends, is highway robbery.

(Speaking of robbery, here's a security tip: Don't program your exact home address into your navigator. If your car is stolen from a parking lot, you don't want to provide a map to your empty home to the thief.)

Dash-top navigators

Furthermore, a built-in navigation system that looks state-of-the-art is quite likely to feel hopelessly obsolete in five or 10 years. This may not be an issue for people leasing cars, but if you're the buy-and-hold type, a better option, even though you give up some integration features and convenience, may be to spring for a dash-mount navigator like a Garmin Nuvi. Good models, like the new Nuvi 760, are now only about $200.

For one-tenth the price of a built-in navigator, what do you get? Way more than 10 percent of a built-in system. A dash-mount navigation device may have a super-friendly interface, clear voice directions, traffic data (although it might need a subscription to get the info), and maybe even extras like a Bluetooth speaker for your mobile phone. My three-year-old Nuvi has the entire United States road system (city streets and highways) as well as restaurants and other attractions programmed into it. On the vacation I just took, it correctly routed me to a tiny drive-up coffee stand in a small town on the Oregon coast.

Plus, a portable navigation device can go with you car-to-car, which is a very nice feature if you use a lot of rental cars. My wife took our Nuvi with her on a European business trip (I had to download the Europe map data, which cost about $70), and it was a life-saver, she says.

The downside: The dashtop devices are theft magnets. And it's not enough to pop the device out of the windshield mount. Thieves will break into your car and look in your glovebox if they see an empty mount. There are even reports that your car may be targeted by a hoodlum who sees the telltale suction cup ring on the windshield when walking by. Setting up the device in the car, taking it out, and the snaking power wires in your cabin are all big pains in the neck.

But $2000 vs $200? That's real money.

Phone-based navigation

The other viable solution for navigators: Smart phones. Many mobile phones, like the iPhone, have map apps built in. These aren't always real driving navigation apps: They don't re-route you when you make a wrong turn, for example. Nav apps can cost extra and they have limitations. The newest iPhone nav apps are either too expensive or have other functional issues.

Many Blackberry phones have better solutions, but few mobile phone navigators have interfaces as easy to use as a dedicated navigator, nor big enough screens to be as useful as one. And then there's the issue of what happens when you want to make a call while the navigator is on. It can be a dangerous juggle while you're figuring it all out. Most carriers offer the full-featured navigation apps with a monthly fee ($10 a month is common), which is a bit of a rip-off, since you can get a basic dash-top navigator for $120, the cost of a year of service. A daily option may be available, which is much better for the very occasional user.

The phone-based services have the advantage of convenience. The phone is probably always with you, and you probably don't leave it in the car to get stolen. Another big plus: The phone systems get their data over the cellular network, so they're always up-to-date. For most car and dash-top systems, you have to manually download map updates from time to time (and sometimes at an extra cost).

New directions

There's a new development in car navigation devices that I quite like. Some manufacturers - so far, Nissan, Volvo, and Suzuki - are offering built-in docks for Garmin Nuvi navigators that they are selling. These docks let you take your navigator with you when you leave the car, so you can program in your route when you're in your home, take the unit with you into other cars, or even, theoretically, upgrade the hardware down the line. The Garmin options are much less expensive than the typical built-in units, although if you go this route you will likely pay a several-hundred-dollar premium for a $200 navigation device. Think of it as the price of a custom mount for your portable navigator, if you must. It's a good solution.

Other cars, like some Fords, now also offer a voice-based navigation system that uses the car's own GPS antenna data in conjunction with your Bluetooth-connected mobile phone to speak directions to you as you need them. It's similar to the OnStar system in concept, but automated. Personally, I prefer the richer information I get from a screen with a map in front of me, but the voice-only directions may appeal to some.

Finally, I'm hopeful for Neverlost. After I complained about my experiences with the Hertz navigator, a Neverlost spokesperson told me a new version of the product is rolling out soon that will have a much better interface and more data, including flight departure times, a cool idea for rental cars. Also, he told me about a potentially useful feature that lets you program in your route from your home computer, store it on a USB memory stick, and then plug that into the navigator in your rental.

The bottom line: For most people, a low-cost dash-top navigator is the easiest, most functional, most economical, and most flexible solution.
By Rafe Needleman