Garmin DriveSmart 50LMT
Garmin DriveSmart 50LMT

Best car GPS

Striking the best balance between value and performance, the Garmin DriveSmart 50LMT offers the features most people want in a car GPS -- without breaking the bank on fancy extras. Its 5-inch color touch screen, voice command compatibility and free lifetime map and traffic updates all help you navigate, and Garmin's new driver alerts (warnings for upcoming sharp curves, speed changes, school zones and more) boost safety.

$210.00
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Garmin DriveSmart 70LMT
Garmin DriveSmart 70LMT

Best big-screen car GPS

If you are tired of squinting to see your GPS display, the giant 7-inch screen on the Garmin DriveSmart 70LMT is a refreshing alternative. It's easy to type on and read, especially if you've got bad eyesight or a big vehicle. This auto GPS system comes loaded with every feature from the top-rated Garmin DriveSmart 50LMT (including voice commands and Garmin's new driver alerts).

$349.99
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Garmin Drive 50
Garmin Drive 50

Best cheap car GPS

Despite its cheap price, the Garmin Drive 50 has the important features experts say you really need. Navigation is quick and accurate. It has a 5-inch touch screen, speaks directions aloud (with landmarks), and the lane-assist feature holds your hand through tricky interchanges. There's no traffic information, though, and map updates cost $60 extra on this base model auto GPS.

$129.99
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What's the best way to navigate?

Car GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers are designed for in-car navigation. You can spend anywhere from $100 to more than $350 on an auto GPS navigator -- and they'll all get you from point A to point B reliably. Pricey models add some extras that can really make navigation easier, though.

For example, you can get an auto GPS system that understands voice commands (so you never have to take your hands off the wheel), boasts an enormous 7-inch screen (no more squinting) and predicts traffic tie-ups (and routes you around them). Those little luxuries can make getting from place to place less stressful -- but they'll cost you. At the lower end of the price spectrum you get a car GPS with few niceties, but one that can still help you reliably find your way. But if you've got a smartphone with a free navigation app, do you really need a separate GPS navigator at all?

Should you skip the GPS unit and just navigate with your smartphone?

What to look for:
  • Quick, accurate navigation
  • Easy-to-use maps and menus
  • Spoken directions
Read More

For years, car GPS sales have dropped as more and more people get smartphones, which offer spoken turn-by-turn directions for free. Free navigation apps like Google Maps were once pretty bare-bones, but not anymore. Now, they're just as good as standalone auto GPS units in most ways. Both can:

  • Work without a data signal. Smartphone navigation used to conk out every time you lost your data signal. But now, many apps can work offline. That means you can always navigate with your smartphone, even if you lose your signal (or don't have a data plan at all).
  • Automatically reroute if you take a wrong turn.
  • Speak loudly and clearly. Standalone car GPS units have good speakers. If your smartphone doesn't, apps like Google Maps will use Bluetooth to speak through your car's speakers instead.
  • Understand voice commands, so you don't have to type.
  • Provide lane guidance, telling you which lane you'll need to be in at an upcoming intersection.
  • Detect traffic snarls and route you around them.
  • Automatically dim the screen (or switch into night view) when it gets dark to make it easier to view.
  • Navigate walking, bike and public transit routes.

If you already have a smartphone, you're already paying a monthly bill for voice, data, etc. But if not, the one-time cost of a stand-alone auto GPS system can be a better bargain, and there are other pluses, such as:

  • Bigger screens. Sure, you could use a tablet with a free app to navigate -- but not everybody has a tablet or wants to haul one back and forth to their car. If you tend to squint at your phone's little screen, you can buy a 7-inch big-screen GPS navigator and just leave it in the car if you want. (Beware of hot/freezing weather and thieves, though.)
  • Battery life. Navigating can quickly drain your smartphone's battery.
  • No data gobbling. Navigating with your smartphone devours precious megabytes.
  • No phone interruptions. If you answer a phone call while navigating with your smartphone, your GPS session will minimize or pause. To call it back up while talking, you'll have to tap around on your phone -- hardly safe (and in many areas, illegal) to do while driving.
  • One-box solution. Car GPS units come with a windshield/dashboard mount and cigarette-lighter power cable. If you want these items to use with your smartphone or mini-tablet, you'll need to buy them separately.
  • Easy -- no tech know-how required. Maybe you've got an older relative who wants nothing to do with smartphones. Or maybe you just hate messing around with apps, figuring out how to turn on voice commands and spoken directions. Unlike smartphone apps, car GPS units are truly plug-and-play.

Bottom line: "If you think your smartphone is enough, it is," says Eric Adams at TheWirecutter.com. But if you find smartphone GPS confusing, irritating, distracting or battery/data-hogging, "having a dedicated device on your dash still makes a ton of sense."

Garmin makes the best car GPS

If you've decided that a stand-alone auto GPS is right for you, it's no contest, experts and owners say: Garmin auto GPS is simply the best. In one major car GPS test, all top 10 winners are Garmins (a Magellan navigator squeaks into 11th place, trailed by a bunch of Magellans and TomToms).

In another test, at TheWirecutter.com, Garmins swept the awards (beating Magellans and TomToms here, too). Magellan doesn't navigate as quickly or as well as Garmin, and TomTom relies on your smartphone (and its data, and its battery) for traffic info, TheWirecutter.com's Eric Adams points out.

Garmin auto GPS is judged to be easier to use, too: "They're basically idiot-proof," Adams says. "And if you spend any time at all on the road, you know there are plenty of idiots out there."

In January 2016, Garmin renamed its car GPS lineup. We say "renamed," not "replaced," because the new Garmin Drive navigators are simply last year's Garmin nuvis with a few driver-safety features tacked on. Only a handful of users have reviewed the Garmin Drive units so far, but we can get a good idea regarding owner satisfaction by reading the hundreds of reviews of last year's nuvis.

For most drivers, the Garmin DriveSmart 50LMT (Est. $230) hits the sweet spot in terms of value and performance. It includes all of the features most people want -- a 5-inch color touch screen, free map and traffic updates for the life of the unit, voice commands (so you don't have to type) and Bluetooth (so the Garmin can pair with your smartphone; you can receive calls, texts and calendar reminders on your Garmin). It also includes Garmin's new DriveSmart features: warnings for sharp curves, speed changes, railroad and animal crossings, school zones, wrong-way driving on a one-way street, and driver fatigue (this warning kicks in when you've been driving a long time without stopping).

Otherwise, it's identical to the model it replaces, the Garmin nuvi 2589LMT (Est. $200), except the Garmin DriveSmart 50LMT's screen lacks multi-touch gestures (so you can't pinch to zoom out, for example), and its estimated battery life is shorter -- up to 1 hour for the DriveSmart 50LMT, instead of 2 hours for the old nuvi (which isn't a problem, if you usually keep your GPS unit plugged in while you're driving). Both the old nuvi 2589LMT (which was still available at retail at the time of this report) and the new Garmin DriveSmart 50LMT can pair with the Garmin BC 30 Wireless Backup Camera (Est. $170) and the Garmin babyCam (Est. $200), which lets you see what's going on in the backseat.

Bigger, fancier car GPS units cost extra

If you need or want a bigger screen, the Garmin DriveSmart 70LMT (Est. $350) car GPS is pretty much the DriveSmart 50LMT with a 7-inch, higher-resolution 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.

Users at Amazon.com and BestBuy.com overwhelmingly loved last year's model, the still available (for now) Garmin nuvi 2789LMT (Est. $300). Some felt the giant screen overwhelmed their cars, blocked their view or hogged the dashboard, but others were happy with the big, easy-to-type, easy-to-see display.

Although they weren't yet for sale as of this update, Garmin has announced two more high-end auto GPS models for 2016. The Garmin DriveLuxe 50LMTHD (Est. $350) builds on the DriveSmart 50LMT, adding a slimmer design, higher-resolution multi-touch screen, powered mount and ad-free lifetime HD Digital Traffic. The Garmin DriveAssist 50LMT (Est. $300) skips these goodies in favor of a built-in dash cam that continuously videotapes your drive (providing valuable evidence in case of a crash) and provides camera-assisted driving help, such as forward collision and lane departure warnings.

Best cheap auto GPS

If you're looking for a reliable car GPS that won't break the bank, experts and owners recommend Garmin's base models. These auto GPS units have few frills, but they're dead-on accurate in tests.

The Garmin Drive 50 (Est. $130) is just about as basic as they come these days. It boasts the same, bright, easy-to-use, 5-inch touch screen as pricier Garmin models, and the same impeccable navigation. It speaks directions using landmarks, and it issues all of Garmin's new driver warnings (sharp curves, driver fatigue, school zones, etc.) It has lane assist to guide you into the correct lane for an upcoming turn, and you can hook it up to Garmin's backup and baby cameras (sold separately).

What's missing? Bluetooth and voice commands, for starters. Also, you'll notice the lack of "LMT" at the end of the Garmin Drive 50's name. That means no free lifetime map updates after the first 90 days of ownership (they're $60 to $80 after that), and it's not traffic compatible (so there's no way to get traffic alerts). If these features matter to you, spend a bit more for the Garmin Drive 50LM (Est. $150) with free map updates for the life of the unit, Garmin Drive 50LMT (Est. $170) with lifetime maps and traffic, or the Garmin DriveSmart 50LMT with both, plus Bluetooth and voice commandability -- our pick for the best overall auto GPS for most users.

Expert & User Review Sources

Garmin's 2016 car GPS navigators had just hit stores at the time of this update; no experts (and very few owners) had yet reviewed them, but they're so similar to the 2015 models that reviews of those car GPS models are helpful. ConsumerReports.org conducts the most comprehensive auto GPS test, ranking 22 car GPS units from Garmin, TomTom and Magellan from best to worst. Editors rate the navigators' ease of use, routing options, driving guidance, mount design, display quality and traffic interface, and they also take price into account to pick their Best Buys. TheWirecutter.com tests six auto GPS units from Garmin, TomTom and Magellan, putting them through their paces in areas ranging from New York City to deeply rural Pennsylvania over the course of a month. We also studied owner-written reviews at Amazon.com and BestBuy.com; real-world users can judge signal strength, navigation prowess and long-term reliability in ways that even the most hard-core expert test can't.

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