What the best car GPS has

  • Quick, accurate navigation. Fancy features won't help, if your car GPS system can't give you the right directions (and yes, some GPS units struggle with this basic task in tests).
  • Easy-to-use maps and menus. Complicated GPS systems are not only frustrating -- they can be downright dangerous while you're driving. The best car GPS navigators are easy and intuitive to use.
  • Spoken directions. Cheap GPS systems announce street names (e.g., "Turn left on Elm Street in 100 feet), while pricey units can give you landmarks (e.g., "Make a hard left at the Honda dealership").
  • A touch screen. Budget models are tap-only, but some upscale GPS navigators let you pinch, zoom and swipe.
  • Lane assist. Even the cheapest car GPS navigators will guide you into the proper lane at an interchange, showing you a realistic view of the actual road signs you need to follow.
  • Millions of preloaded points of interest (POIs). Step-up models also let you add your own custom POIs.
  • A windshield mount. Basic models come with a suction-cup windshield mount, and some also have a dashboard mounting disk.
  • A vehicle power cord. With most car GPS systems, you'll plug the cord directly into the navigator itself. Some let you plug the cord into the mount, making it easier to take the navigator in and out of the car.

Know before you go

How big should you go? For years, 4.3-inch GPS screens were the standard, and some cheap GPS navigators still have them. However, most car GPS systems now have 5-inch screens that are easier to read at a glance. Bigger 6- and 7-inch screens are available, but experts say these can block a sizable chunk of the windshield; they're best suited to very large vehicles like full-size pickups.

Voice commands can make navigation safer. This is one frill that's really helpful. Upper-tier car GPS systems work by voice commands, so you won't have to take your hands off the wheel. Expect to pay about $200 for a voice-command navigator, though.

What maps do you need? Basic car GPS systems come with preloaded maps of the lower 48 states. Step-up models add maps of Alaska, Hawaii, Canada, etc., and they usually don't cost much more -- but the model numbers are always similar, so double-check that you're getting the right maps.

Are map updates included? It's smart to buy a car GPS system that includes free map updates for the life of the unit, experts say. It'll add maybe $20 to the price -- but a map update costs $30 to $50 otherwise.

Do you need traffic alerts? Free traffic alerts usually cost just a little extra on budget navigators (high-end units automatically include them). These work well in tests, steering users clear of traffic jams -- but only on major highways. On city streets (even in major cities like New York) and side roads, GPS systems usually have little traffic information. If you don't drive in well-covered areas -- or you rely on a smartphone app like Waze for your traffic info -- you may be able to skip this feature.

Will you use fancy routing features? These really can be timesavers, but you'll only find them on $150-plus navigators. For example, Auto Sort can take a bunch of stops (dry cleaners, day care, Chinese takeout) and sort them into one efficient route. Trip Planner lets you sort stops manually, setting your own departure and arrival times. Budget car GPS systems give you less control over your route -- but they'll still get you from Point A to Point B, and some owners prefer that kind of simplicity.

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