It's no contest, experts say: The Garmin nuvi 3597LMTHD (Est. $350) is absolutely the best portable car GPS navigator you can buy. But is it worth the luxury price? That's a tougher call.
You'll find unique features on the nuvi 3597LMTHD you simply can't get on other GPS systems -- like a brilliantly sharp, 5-inch, dual-orientation, multi-touch glass screen (it rivals an Apple Retina display, reviews say); a slick powered, magnetic mount (no more fiddling with cords or clasps); and Garmin's fastest, most advanced, ad-free traffic feature, called HD Traffic (it's free for the life of the unit, by the way). 3D View shows buildings and intersections in a lifelike way. An intuitive Search box lets you just type in "movie theaters," for example, and the nearest ones will pop up. "I love that I can just tell the Nuvi what I want and it will figure out the best way to get me there," says Antuan Goodwin at CNET.
Those extras really do make navigation smooth, seamless and stress-free, reviews say. But if you can live without them, the step-down Garmin nuvi 2597LMT (Est. $220) inherits the bulk of its big brother's features -- for $130 less.
Like all of the latest upper-tier Garmin car GPS systems, the nuvi 3597LMTHD and nuvi 2597LMT both understand voice commands and speak directions in a natural, conversational voice. Both are packed with Garmin's most advanced mapping and routing features, like Active Lane Guidance (which gives you a big, bright arrow on the map and a voice prompt as you approach your exit); trafficTrends (which calculates routes to avoid heavy traffic); auto sort multiple destinations (calculating the most direct route to hit them all); a Trip Planner (which lets you select your own order for multiple destinations, departure and arrival times, etc.); route avoidance (avoid highways, tolls, etc.); and custom POIs (you can add your own points of interest). Like all Garmins, navigation itself is outstanding, and everything is dead-simple to use -- strengths that help Garmin annihilate its rivals in tests, year after year.
The nuvi 2597LMT has a plastic 5-inch dual-orientation touch screen, but you can't pinch or zoom on it (at least it doesn't glare in the sun like the pricier nuvi 3597LMTHD's glass screen, though, testers say). Its free (and ad-free) Garmin Traffic feature works just about as well as the step-up HD Traffic in real-world tests. Its windshield mount isn't powered (so you'll have to plug and unplug the cord from the unit itself if you want to take it out of the car), and it uses a plastic locking ring instead of a magnet (which works just fine, reviews say). "Considering that you are saving $130, this is probably worth the trade-off for many customers," PCMag.com says.
Need a bigger screen? The Garmin nuvi 2797LMT (Est. $285) car GPS is pretty much the nuvi 2597LMT with a 7-inch touch screen. That's almost as big as an iPad mini -- and it really is easier to see at a glance, reviews say, especially if you've got bad eyesight or a big vehicle. Still, "Seven inches makes for a big navigator," says Rich Owings at GPSTracklog.com, who tested the big-screen nuvi for a month. "It didn't overwhelm my Honda Accord, but I sure wouldn't want it in anything smaller."
Bottom line: Pick whichever of the above Garmin car GPS devices suits your needs, and you'll probably be happy. All of these Garmin nuvis are equal favorites of customers at Amazon.com and BestBuy.com.
TomTom and Magellan -- Garmin's two top rivals -- perennially fall short in reviews. The TomTom Via 1605 TM (Est. $160) packs a big, sharp 6-inch screen into its reasonably priced frame. It drops some important features, though (you can't command it by voice, for example), and it doesn't always navigate smoothly for experts or owners. One-third of Amazon.com reviewers rate it mediocre or worse.
The Magellan SmartGPS (Est. $200) catches critics' eyes with its "smart" features: It piggybacks on your smartphone's data connection to grab real-time info (Yelp reviews, Foursquare locations, live traffic and more) and place it at your fingertips, so you won't be tempted to fiddle with your phone behind the wheel. Unfortunately -- and ironically -- testers wind up with "a bizarrely complicated home screen," Engadget.com's Darren Murph says. "In theory, it's awesome to have all of this information at your fingertips. In practice, you'll probably kill yourself and a handful of others if you try to use it while motoring."