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Best Car GPS

By: Tara Tuckwiller on April 18, 2017

Editor's Note:
If you need the power and convenience of a dedicated car GPS system, our research reveals that nothing beats a Garmin. Period. Our report looks at the options, from barebones, sans-traffic models, to big-screen navigators that are packed to the brim with features.

Garmin DriveSmart 51 LMT-S Review
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Display size -- 5" Traffic updates -- Yes Map updates -- Free

Best car GPS

Striking the best balance between value, features and performance, the Garmin DriveSmart 51 LMT-S offers what most people want in a car GPS -- without breaking the bank on too many fancy extras. Its 5-inch color touch screen, voice command compatibility, multi-touch display, traffic data and free lifetime map updates all help you navigate, and Garmin's driver alerts (warnings for upcoming sharp curves, speed changes, school zones and more) boost safety.

Buy for $149.99
Garmin DriveSmart 61 LMT-S Review
Runners Up
Specs that Matter Display size -- 6.95" Traffic updates -- Yes Map updates -- Free

Big-screen car GPS

If you are tired of squinting to see your GPS display, the giant 6.95-inch screen on the Garmin DriveSmart 61 LMT-S 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 found in the top-rated Garmin DriveSmart 51 LMT-S (including voice commands and Garmin's driver alerts).

Buy for $199.95
Garmin Drive 51 LMT-S Review
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Display size -- 5" Traffic updates -- Yes Map updates -- Free

Best cheap GPS for your car

Despite its relatively low price, the Garmin Drive 51 LMT-S 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. Traffic data is available, too, though some extras, such as voice commands and a multi-touch display, are missing.

Buy for $169.99

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 $300 on an auto GPS navigator -- and they'll all get you from point A to point B reliably.

Pricey models add some useful extras. For example, you can get an auto GPS system that understands voice commands (so you never have to take your hands off the wheel) and boasts larger screen sizes, up to 7 inches, so there's no more squinting to see routing. Some models include extras that, while also useful, have little to do with navigation -- for example lane departure warning systems and dash cameras.

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, not even traffic information in the least-expensive options, 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?

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 what you'll find in 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. So do most smartphones, and if your car is Bluetooth compatible, your smartphone and navigation app can speak through your car's speakers instead.
  • Understand voice commands, so you don't have to type. However, voice recognition is often omitted in lower priced car GPS units.
  • 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 -- as long as you are in an area where traffic information is available. Again, some cheaper stand-alone GPS systems lack traffic capability altogether.
  • 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.

However, dedicated GPS systems do have some advantages:

  • 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 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: The experts at TheWirecutter.com say that "the best GPS devices can still make it easier to navigate to your destination," but add that, "For day-to-day navigation, however, a smartphone can work well for most people, especially if you have a car charger and a car mount to keep it where you can easily see it."

Finding The Best Car GPS

Experts don't spend tons of time testing GPS units, but TheWirecutter.com does put the 2017 models to the test. Other than that, we looked at reviews of predecessor models, which offer many of the same features and similar performance to those currently offered. Ditto for user reviews; feedback for current models is limited, but reviews from older -- and in some cases still available -- models help guide us in our picks.

Garmin still 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, the top six winners are Garmins (a Magellan navigator squeaks into seventh place, trailed by a bunch of other Magellan as well as TomTom models). In the most recent test at TheWirecutter.com, Garmin GPS models again nearly sweep the awards (a cheap TomTom is the budget pick).

Our research indicates that for most drivers, the Garmin DriveSmart 51 LMT-S (Est. $230) offers the best combination of features and performance. TheWirecutter.com likes it very much despite some questions over the value of some features -- such as voice control -- compared to a basic model. Its predecessor model (see below) also scored very highly with experts and users.

The DriveSmart 51 LMT-S includes all of the features most people want -- a 5-inch color multi-touch screen, free map 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 via the unit). Wi-Fi has also been added to this year's model for easy map and software updates. The unit also includes Garmin's 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).

There are two options for traffic data. The 51-LMT-S is compatible with Garmin Live Traffic, which is delivered via the Garmin Smartphone Link (Free), an app available in both the Google Play and Apple App Store. Other pluses include weather updates and even parking prices and availability trends for on-street parking -- a real plus in busy cities. The app is free to download and use, though a few features, such as access to live traffic camera feeds, require a one-time fee to access.

The other option is Garmin's more basic Garmin Traffic service. It's a free service, and uses no wireless data so a smartphone isn't required, but Garmin has removed the formerly built-in receiver for that from its 2017 models. That means that those that want use Garmin Traffic instead of Garmin Traffic Live will need to buy the Garmin GTM 36 Traffic Receiver (Est. $70). The GTM 36, which also includes a car power cord, has been on the market for several years as a "fix" for otherwise functional Garmin GPS models with traffic receivers that had ceased to work and has relatively good user feedback for its performance. It's a one-time purchase, with no fees or subscription required.

But, as TheWirecutter.com notes, using Garmin Live Traffic does offer some significant advantages. Traffic information delivered through Smartphone Link covers a wider area than that delivered through Garmin Traffic, though neither is as comprehensive as what you'll find using some smartphone apps, such as Google Maps or Waze. In addition, Garmin Live Traffic information via the app updates every minute, while the more basic Garmin Traffic service updates every five minutes. You also miss out on some of the other goodies, such as parking information.

The 51 LMT-S's predecessor model, the Garmin DriveSmart 50LMT (Est. $195), remains available at retail at the time this report was prepared. It has an onboard traffic receiver for the more basic Garmin Traffic service, but lacks Wi-Fi; otherwise it is nearly identical to the new model, including compatibility with the Garmin Smartphone Link. Both Garmins can also pair with the Garmin BC 30 Wireless Backup Camera (Est. $150).

Bigger, fancier car GPS units cost extra

If you need or want a bigger screen, the Garmin DriveSmart 61 LMT-S (Est. $270) car GPS is pretty much the DriveSmart 51 LMT-S with a 6.95-inch, higher-resolution touch screen. That's almost as big as an iPad mini -- and it really is easier to see at a glance than the 51 LMT-S, reviews say, especially if you've got bad eyesight or a big vehicle.

Users at Amazon.com and BestBuy.com liked last year's model, the Garmin DriveSmart 70LMT, which is no longer for sale at major retailers. Some felt the giant screen overwhelmed their cars, blocked their view, hogged the dashboard or reflected too much glare, but others were happy with the big display.

Garmin offers two more high-end auto GPS models for 2017. The Garmin DriveLuxe 51 LMT-S (Est. $330) builds on the DriveSmart 51 LMT-S, adding a slimmer design, higher-resolution multi-touch screen and powered mount.

However, TheWirecutter.com thinks that the Garmin DriveAssist 51 LMT-S (Est. $300) is a more compelling upgrade pick. It skips DriveLuxe 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. "These active safety features are becoming common in new cars, and the DriveAssist offers an easy, affordable way to add them to an older or more basic car," TheWirecutter.com says. In addition, like the Garmin DriveSmart 51 LMT-S, it's compatible with Garmin's wireless back up camera.

Neither of these upscale GPS models has amassed enough owner reviews to be helpful, but the models they replace -- the Garmin DriveLuxe 50LMTHD (Est. $300) and Garmin DriveAssist 50LMT (Est. $230) -- both earned 4.2 out of 5 stars from owners at Amazon.com, with 85 to 100 reviews posted. Both of these older models are Garmin Smartphone Link compatible, but also have built-in traffic receivers. Both still had at least limited availability at retail at the time this report was created.

Best cheap auto GPS

If you can do without some of the niceties in the GPS models profiled above, the Garmin Drive 51 LMT-S (Est. $170) is a great lower-priced option. It includes most of the features found in Garmin's more upscale models, including Garmin Live Traffic compatibility.

Fans include TheWireCutter.com, which names it the best car GPS (on the basis of performance and value) in its latest update. "The Drive 51 LMT-S is the least expensive Garmin model we tested, but it has a clear 5-inch screen and all of the essential features we expect in a good GPS device, without the extras that many people can do without," Eric Adams and Rik Paul say.

You do give up a few features, however. The Drive 51 LMT-S lacks voice commands, for example, and the touch screen is not multi-touch, so you can't pinch to zoom in. The GPS system is a little less sophisticated, as well -- you can only program 100 waypoints versus the 1,000 waypoints you can program into the DriveSmart 51 LMT-S -- though it is otherwise just as functional and reliable. The Drive 51 LMT-S is compatible with a wireless back up camera, however, and if you want to skip using Garmin Smartphone Link and a smartphone for traffic data, it's compatible with the Garmin GTM 36 Traffic Receiver.

If you don't care about traffic at all, you can save a little bit more by opting for the Garmin Drive 51 LM (Est. $150). This very basic GPS unit has the same core functionality as pricier models. It boasts the same, bright, easy-to-use, 5-inch touch screen, and the same impeccable navigation. It speaks directions using landmarks, and it issues all of Garmin's 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 camera (sold separately). However, while lifetime map updates are free, there's no way to add traffic data, and the unit is not compatible with the GTM 36.

Expert & User Review Sources

Among credible experts, only TheWirecutter.com has, to date, reviewed the latest GPS models. Its test is comprehensive, including driving over 1,200 miles of roads of all types. Otherwise, we looked to reviews of earlier generation GPS systems, which is helpful as those are very similar to the latest models. ConsumerReports.org conducts the most comprehensive of those, ranking 14 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. 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. Where available, we considered feedback on current models first, but also relied heavily on reviews of their predecessors as those are more plentiful and reflect much longer usage.

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