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?
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:
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:
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.