What's The Best Nav System?
Why The Mounted GPS Unit May Not Be Dead
Santa has his preferred method for getting around this Christmas—but what about those of us who lack the benefit of a bulb-nosed skydancer to lead the way?
Chances are, if you plan getting a Fair car this holiday season—or are making a New Year’s resolution to update your current car’s tech options—you’ll be faced with a singular decision: should you rely on your car’s built-in navigation or that routing app on your phone?
Your in-dash nav has the benefit of being as big as an iPad and is conveniently located right within eyeshot—but its analog brain might have you trying to pick up lunch at the new massage parlor that used to be your go-to Chinese food place. And while the real-time traffic and addresses on your favorite nav app are pretty great, they don’t do much good when your phone is left rattling around in your cupholder.
The good news? There are solid options in both categories—and even for the freestanding, aftermarket GPS systems that you only thought were extinct.
Below, we break down the top navigational offerings that will allow last-minute shoppers like you to continue to stunt your native directional abilities for many blissful, digitally dependent years to come.
Built-In Nav Systems
Onboard navigation systems have gone from a fancy and futuristic offering on expensive import cars to a nearly standard feature on all but the most austere new vehicles. Even some of the more affordable vehicles available on Fair and elsewhere now feature built-in navigation, allowing you to plot a route, find gas stations or even find an alternate way around congested traffic. Just remember that electronic navigation is not 100 percent foolproof. However, it sure beats digging out a map or asking for directions at the gas station.
Every automaker has taken their own approach to navigation, with varying levels of success. Some continue to offer a mix of in-dash technology and phone-based assistance—whether it’s the OnStar system from General Motors or the optional help available through Subaru’s Starlink or Toyota’s Entune systems.
Nissan offers some very pleasant and efficient navigation options on the smaller screens made for vehicles such as the Rogue, but the tiny screens and extremely limited data and visuals can make you think you’re looking at an old GameBoy.
Ford has come a long way since its first SYNC and MyFordTouch navigation products, which were notoriously buggy and required users to accurately poke on-screen buttons they could never (and should never) hit at 75 MPH. A recent third generation of the system offers much more intuitive controls (especially voice) alongside decidedly stripped-down graphics.
Higher-end Uconnect systems found on Fiat Chrysler America products like the Jeep Grand Cherokee or Dodge Charger muscle cars also pack a lot of punch into their screens, allowing you to pass directions from your phone, or even remotely unlock your car if you’ve forgotten your keys.
General Motors’ navigation options are as varied as its products, from the once-finicky touchscreens of Cadillac’s CUE system (largely ironed out in newer models) to the bright and helpful systems found in Buick and Chevrolet products. And GM is still sticking with its company-owned OnStar system, whose call center advisors can download turn-by-turn directions to the many newer GM vehicles featuring infotainment screens without built-in navigation.
That navigation screen-without-navigation option may seem crazy, but you’ll find it on models from Chrysler to Volkswagen as car companies realize more and more of their owners would rather use their phone than invest in a more expensive, built-in nav system.
Not everyone is a fan, however. Despite all that technology, Tim Esterdahl, editor of Pickup Truck and SUV Talk says he’s mostly had enough with the manufacturers’ mixed bag of quirky and obsolescence-prone systems.
“I think carmakers should just simply give up on their own systems, and make Apple CarPlay and Android Auto the standard option instead,” he says.
The reality, of course, is that your smartphone offers some of the most intuitive and comprehensive navigation help available, with constant updates to keep it ahead of the curve – though it will still occasionally provide incredibly bad advice to drivers.
Unfortunately, unless you live in one of very few states or cities which has not yet made the use of handheld devices while driving an illegal act, keeping an eye on your phone while trying to drive at the same time is still a dangerous and awkward proposition. Many drivers try to skirt the law by securing their phones on a window- or dash-mounted holder, with varying levels of success.
That’s made Apple CarPlay and Android Auto a welcome solution. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto each allow your smartphone to effectively (and entirely legally) serve as your key navigation advice, connecting through Bluetooth to feed map and directional data into your car’s navigational system.
The connection also means that music and messages can also be handled hands-free, using your phone’s data and onboard media. Apple CarPlay is currently standard in more than 400 new cars, including a wide range of Chinese and European companies we’ll guarantee you’ve never heard of before.
In its most recent update, Apple CarPlay now allows users the option to also use third-party mapping apps including Google Maps and Waze, rather than being limited to Apple’s default Maps.
If you’ve used CarPlay in the past, you know the visuals—including the level of detail and the ability to scale and resize maps as you move—don’t entirely translate from the version you’ll find on your phone. Apple has also placed some limitations on Google Maps and Waze when accessed through CarPlay: all three end up looking very similar on your car’s infotainment screen, and Siri voice control can’t be used with the non-Apple apps.
Portable GPS Units
If your phone is simply not an option, Garmin and TomTom still dominate the portable GPS market, and offer smartphone- or larger-sized units (often with built-in cameras, as well), starting at under $100.
For many drivers, those systems have plenty of advantages. They’re inexpensive compared to the optional, built-in navigation system. And unlike your smartphone, they won’t use cellular data, which means they also won’t stop working if you’re in the middle of nowhere and can’t get a signal. Many also include map updates in their purchase price, so you won’t be lost when trying to find a new subdivision.
You’ll also find some crossover between the two worlds. Smaller Jeep products such as the Renegade and the Wrangler feature built-in TomTom navigation, while the now defunct (at least in the U.S. market) Suzuki brilliantly used a Velcro-attached Garmin as its cost-saving solution. Maybe that’s the kind of low-cost option that might be right for you—and you can even take it with you when you turn in your Fair car.