Best GPS Navigation For Cars: Find Your Way Around With These Top Picks
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While a smartphone may be a reliable option for directions, sometimes it's better for drivers to rely on a system specifically designed for navigation. And no, we're not talking about the built-in systems on new cars. The best GPS units for cars allow drivers to see the route ahead and receive accurate directions, even in remote locations with limited cell phone reception.
Car GPSes are an extremely versatile product, and they often come loaded with a number of special features, including large screens, Bluetooth hands-free settings, voice prompts, off-road mapping capabilities, an internal compass, and more. Whether you are looking for reliability, durability, versatility, great value, or a user-friendly option, we took a look at the best GPS systems for cars available on the market today. Read on to see which GPS is the best fit for your next road trip.
Garmin DriveCam 76
- The display is clear, bright, and easy to read.
- Dash cam with forward collision and lane departure warnings.
- Directions are easy to follow, and it's easy to program via touch screen or voice.
- Downloading updates can take a while, and to use traffic alerts you need to download an app.
- It offers much more than navigation and priced accordingly.
Garmin DriveSmart 86
- Ability to use in portrait mode may be more intuitive to iPhone generation
- Great navigation functionality, but also adds Bluetooth and voice control to older vehicles.
- National Parks and points of interest databases preloaded
- To get traffic updates, you must pair it to your phone.
- Phone nav apps are constantly updated, these definitely not as often
Rand McNally TND550 V2
- A SatNav focused on getting you to your destination efficiently
- Lifetime map updates means your lifetime, not some fly-by-night comany's
- The driving log is useful for business travelers for tax purposes
- Some owners report upgrading to a better USB charger is a necessity
- You will need to come up with a cool trucker handle to use instead of your given name
As is typical for The Drive's Guides, I started out with my own experience using GPS navigation systems, including in-dash systems, smartphone-based, and stand-alone like you see here. Admittedly, I haven't been paying all that much attention to units like this in quite some time. Like most people, my smartphone has become my go-to for everything, including navigation, but a road trip last summer taught me a lesson about google maps and being outside cell service.
I dove back in, reading user reviews on forums and brushing up on hands-on reviews both written and video. It turns out, most of the big players have given up on stand-alone. The market now is populated by Garmin, the dominant brand for consumers, Rand McNally is focused on professional drivers, and countless companies who are selling the same electronic units with different plastic cases, or sometimes the same case just a different logo. Although some of the prices make these GPS' very attractive, almost to the point of single-use, the idea of it shutting down in the middle of nowhere seems to miss the point of having it. So, my focus is on the best systems offered by reputable players.
Reviews & Recommendations
The benchmark in consumer navigation with integration of weather, traffic, points of interest, all preloaded
Includes a dashcam with forward collision and lane departure warnings
Maps and associated information update over Wifi
This is a high-end system that offers much more than navigation and it's reflected in the price
Updates aren't necessarily fast, but can be accomplished overnight with the car in the garage
It isn't often that the most expensive product in one of our guides receives the nod for Best Overall. The DriveCam 76 offers so much functionality that I just couldn't pass it up. Presumably, if you want a dedicated navigation system it's because you spend a lot of time on the road and your car is either an older or base model that doesn't have the latest infotainment conveniences. This unit not only gives you top-of-the-line navigation but adds things like Bluetooth connectivity for communication and entertainment.
The navigation comes with maps, points of interest, and other non-real-time info preloaded so all of it functions without the need for a cellular connection. With connectivity, via your cell phone, it adds live traffic, weather, gas prices, and even traffic cameras. The user interface is easy to use, as well as allowing voice control.
What really sets this unit apart is the addition of a dash cam. Not only will it record while you drive in case you need a detailed account of an incident in traffic, but it also gives you forward collision and lane departure warning. There's also a version of this navigation system available that allows you to bundle a backup camera with it. Or, if you decide, you can add the backup camera later. This isn't necessarily an inexpensive piece of electronics, but the value is certainly there.
Provides all the information and research functionality you expect from a smartphone but in a package designed to be used while driving
Switching between horizontal or vertical orientation allows better fitment in a variety of cars
Bluetooth connectivity adds calling and texting features to older cars
Full functionality requires linking with an app you must install on your phone
You won't want to leave that big 8-inch screen in your car when it's parked in public
If all the extra camera functionality of the DriveCam isn't for you, Garmin still has you covered. The DriveSmart I've selected here is a fair bit less expensive than our Overall pick but has an even larger screen with the bonus feature of operating in either landscape or portrait orientation. The screen is eight inches, diagonally with 1280x800 resolution. That's a little bit better than half the resolution of a comparably sized iPad, but you aren't going to be watching Star Trek: Strange New Worlds on this screen.
The DriveSmart line comes in 5-, 6-, 7-, and 8-inch versions with a considerable price drop with each decrease in size. They will all get you a History Database of things to see along your route, a National Parks Directory, use of TripAdvisor, points of interest for food, shopping, services, and live fuel prices. Other live data includes traffic, construction, closures, and even traffic cameras.
The system includes North American maps preloaded along with updates available for download over Wifi connection. While the DriveSmart systems don't include a dashcam, they can be used with a backup camera, available separately. As mentioned earlier, there isn't a lot of choice in the navigation market these days, but Garmin isn't using that an excuse. These systems are still reliable, easy to use, and are continually updated.
Functions like a navigation system made by a legendary map company should, no nonsense
The extra tools for logging mileage, fuel usage and even maintenance schedules is a great tool for business travelers
Lifetime map updates from a company that's been making maps for 150 years
Being a focused tool means it's not meant for the average consumer
Some routing and points of interest are going to be geared towards professional over the road drivers
Those of us who have been driving since before the advent of GPS know the name Rand McNally from the old school form of navigation, a paper map. Rand McNally makes a number of different systems for professional drivers and even systems for fleet management. For its customers, time really is money, so everything involved with navigating efficiently is a priority. With that in mind, you can probably guess that this Rand McNally GPS system is a little more focused than your average consumer unit.
You will still find an easy-to-use interface that allows for quick programming whether pre-planning a route or having to figure it out on the fly. You will also get points of interest to help you find food and services along the route, but unlike the consumer-focused Garmin, you won't get National Parks or historical landmarks. What you will get are software tools that help you track mileage and fuel usage to help with expensing trips. The TND550 also lets you keep track of maintenance based on mileage and time.
This model is only a 5-inch screen. Rand McNally offers larger versions, but the price is considerably higher than a comparably sized Garmin. But users aren't choosing this because of a pretty screen, it's all about utility. You still get Bluetooth connectivity with your smartphone, and you still get weather data. The kind of person who will enjoy this unit is the kind of person who has an iPhone with only one screen full of apps.
The Best Overall Award goes to the Garmin DriveCam 76 simply because it does so much while still offering a great GPS navigation system as well. If you are a fan of paper maps or are the type of person who enjoys tracking things like average speed, fuel economy, and the science of traveling, then please consider our Honorable Mention, the Rand McNally TND550. I feel like both of these units have their ideal customers, even if the TND550 are far fewer amongst the non-professionals out there.
Features To Consider
One of the main reasons for buying a GPS unit is it will have preloaded maps allowing you to use the device without cellular service. Many will also enable you to download maps for other countries, such as Canada and Mexico. Some even have microSD card slots where you can add even more maps. Yes, you can preload maps on your smartphone, but how many of us do that?
Voice activation is a major feature because it is much quicker and safer to tell a GPS unit where to go versus manually typing in your destination. It can take several minutes to type in an address before you leave the driveway. With the best voice-activated GPS, you can dictate a location while driving.
The best voice-activated GPS will audibly tell you what lane you need to be in when you're making a turn or exiting a highway. It will also provide an image on the screen of the action you need to take so you have enough warning to shift into the proper lane.
You've got questions. The Drive has answers.
Do GPS units come in other languages besides English?
Many GPS devices have several language options, allowing users to change from English to German, Chinese, Spanish or Arabic, for example. You can also download maps for other countries, but there may be a fee.
Can you use a GPS device as an odometer and speedometer?
Most modern GPS systems will not only give you your current speed, many will also give you the speed limit for the road you're on. Systems like the Rand McNally above will help you keep track of your mileage and even have tools for calculating fuel economy.
Can a GPS device map a 2,800-mile route from New York City to Los Angeles?
Many devices should be able to handle a trip that long. However, it will depend on your route settings and any stops you program into it. If the device cannot calculate the entire route, you should separate it into smaller segments.
When should I update my GPS device?
Most GPS units should be ready to use right out of the box. However, even if they’re relatively current, there will likely be updates available.
Does the GPS unit drain the car battery when the car is off?
It depends on your vehicle. Some accessory ports remain on when the vehicle's ignition is turned off. A GPS device may slightly drain your battery if you keep the device plugged in and don’t use your vehicle.