Blasting down Sunrise Boulevard circa 1981 in Gregg Yardley's Mercury Capri II listening to Candy-O on the eight-track, we thought in-car gadgets could never be better. Similar feelings arose years later after the installation of a Sony 10-disc (!!!) CD changer in a buddy's '89 Honda Accord LXi Coupe. Every generation has its cutting-edge, must-have in-car technology. For some it was a four-cam V8, others self-dimming headlights and others safety features like antilock brakes. Today, the pinnacle of must-have automotive technology is clearly a GPS navigation unit with real-time traffic information.
That's Billion, With a B
According to Frost and Sullivan, an automotive technology consulting firm, sales of in-car and portable navigation systems topped $2.5 billion in 2007. Of those dollars spent, factory-installed systems accounted for roughly 75 percent. That's not because people buy more in-car systems; they don't. It's just that the original equipment navigation systems cost a lot more than aftermarket units (sometimes triple the cost) and therefore bring in more money.
Veerender Kaul, director of research, automotive and transportation for Frost and Sullivan, says the average price of an in-car GPS navigation system is $1,200-$1,500. Plus, many units are combined with expensive option packages costing in excess of $3,000. No matter how you crunch the numbers, adding a factory nav system to a new car requires a significant chunk of change.
Some Are Better Than Others
To help you spend your money wisely, we set out to find the best of the best when it comes to in-car navigation systems. While researching the top nav systems, we found many were quite good but don't offer live traffic information, as in the Honda Accord, for example. Only a few brands currently have live traffic, although for 2009 many more will be added, including 22 GM vehicles and many offerings from Ford and Lincoln/Mercury. Having an in-car nav system is great but what good is a navigation aide if it can't help you navigate around the thing that's always in your way?
(For more on how real-time traffic works, read our "Avoid the Jam with Real-Time Traffic Reports" article.)
There's a common misconception that all GPS navigation systems are basically the same. This stems from the fact that there are essentially just two companies that provide the electronic map data that drives modern navigation aides. While that does make the basic road and address information the same (unfortunately errors are often the same, too), it's the controls, screen size and overall user interface that vary widely from car to car. The same is true for traffic data. Two companies provide the traffic info for factory-installed nav systems (XM and Sirius), yet each vehicle brand has a unique interface and way of displaying the data — some work well, others are confusing and hard to understand.
Here are the vehicles that get it right:
2009 Cadillac CTS Grade: A
Let's just say right up front: No nav system is perfect. But this one comes very close. Every aspect of the Cadillac CTS's optional system is excellent. The 8-inch display has bright colors, sharp graphics and retracts into the dash when you're not using it. XM NavTraffic and weather are also included. "Weather" means a five-day forecast on a screen that looks especially slick. Traffic info is displayed right on the map screen and is simply the best of all live traffic systems currently available. The color coding for freeways is easy to read at a glance, and extra information is available if you need it. There's also an "avoid" button if you want to be routed around a certain incident.
In addition to being comprehensive, the Caddy's nav system is one of the easiest to use. It has a nice combination of touchscreen, hard buttons and voice controls; it also calculates and recalculates quicker than many other systems. Order the navigation system and you'll also get a 40-gig hard drive for storing music, although the nav system itself takes up more than 30 gigs. This system is not cheap. It's included in several option packages like the $8,165 Premium Luxury Collection package. If you don't need features like the included wood trim and oversized sunroof, opt for the clumsily named AM/FM radio with CD/DVD player and Navigation package. And it's still pricey at $3,145. XM Radio and NavTraffic cost $16.94 per month, although Cadillac gives you the first three months free.
2008 Infiniti G35 Grade: B+
Many Nissan and Infiniti products have the same nav system. For example, the Nissan Altima uses the same screen and software as the G35 but the interface is a little different. In the G35, it actually works quite well thanks to a central control wheel. Zooming in and out or scanning the map is super easy thanks to that wheel. However, the zoom levels are too broad: Zoom in one click and it's too close; zoom out and it's too far. Also, the images aren't as sharp as we'd like; both the Lexus and Cadillac nav screens offer sharper images. The Infiniti system is also a little slow to recalculate and update traffic info when compared to the CTS.
Where this system really shines is the XM NavTraffic. It uses color-coded lines and arrows that make it very easy to see which side of the highway is jammed and which is clear. When traffic is really bad, that stretch of road is highlighted in red and it flashes, making it even easier to see trouble spots at a glance. (You can turn this feature off.) The system also routes you around traffic jams or accidents. The G35's navigation package costs $2,100, making it a relative bargain. The package includes XM NavTraffic, XM Radio, voice recognition, 9.5 gigs of hard drive space for storing music, a trunk-mounted six-disc CD changer, compact flash card slot and a rearview monitor. XM Radio and NavTraffic cost $16.94 per month, but Infiniti gives you the first three months free.
2008 Acura MDX Grade: B-
Acura was one of the first automakers to include real-time traffic information beginning with the 2005 RL. Now, all Acura models offer the invaluable feature. The MDX boasts an 8-inch screen, but it's not a touchscreen. Instead, there are lots of hard buttons on the center stack, which can be confusing at first. The screen is large enough and provides sharp maps and graphics. In addition to the usual map screen, the MDX has an easy-to-read turn-by-turn list that you can call up. This works out very well for those who find the normal "live" map confusing.
Acura's traffic information is powered by XM. It uses colored lines to mark traffic flow but the lines are too narrow and aren't easy to read from the driver seat. It partially makes up for this shortcoming by giving the driver the option of having trouble spots and accidents read out loud thanks to Acura's text-to-speech feature. Unfortunately, the MDX's system doesn't recalculate or reroute you around traffic incidents. In densely populated areas, an easy work-around is to select "avoid freeways" and that nets a similar result. On repeated trips we found this to be almost as effective as an auto-reroute feature. Newer versions of the Acura system have automatic rerouting — the 2009 Acura TSX is just one example.
2008 Lexus LS 600h L Grade: C
Currently only three Lexus and two Toyota vehicles offer a GPS navigation system with real-time traffic: the Lexus LS 460 , LS 600h and LX 570 as well as the Corolla and Matrix. The navigation system in the Lexus LS 600h has the potential to be brilliant. However, Lexus' interface combines features that are both excellent and frustrating. For example, the color coding for traffic flow is great and the lines that border highways are nice and thick. The Lexus system, like the Infiniti, can be programmed to navigate around obstructions.
Now, the bad part; when there's slow traffic, an icon shaped like a caution sign appears near the trouble spot. Similar icons are used for construction sites, road closures and accidents. The problem comes in if you're one of those drivers who uses traffic info as a reference so you can pick your own route. When you're zoomed out far enough to see the whole region, the icons are so numerous that they cover the colored lines indicating traffic flow.
There's more good and bad news. Each of those icons can be selected on the touchscreen to access additional information including average traffic speed — it'll even give you the cross streets. Nice! Unfortunately, much of this extra information cannot be accessed when the car is moving. Lame.
Lexus offers a GPS navigation system with real-time traffic (XM) as standard equipment in the LS 600h L and the LS 460 L. In the base LS 460 it's a $3,100 option but the price includes Bluetooth, a voice recognition system, a rearview camera, XM Satellite Radio and three months of XM NavTraffic. After that, the real-time traffic feature costs $16.94 per month and includes the regular XM Radio channels, too.
2008 Chrysler Town and Country Grade: C
Chrysler's nav system is basically all-new; it's called MyGiG. The system uses a 6.5-inch screen and features many non-nav-related features. Depending on how you get your Chrysler (Dodge and Jeep products offer the same option) configured, you also get a DVD player, photo viewer, hard drive for storing music and comprehensive controls for Sirius Satellite Radio, plus the ability to watch select TV programming in the car. The addition of real-time traffic comes through Sirius Satellite Radio.
Sirius nav traffic is essentially a list of traffic incidents, not color coding on the live map — this is very similar to the way portable Magellan nav systems incorporate traffic info. With the Chrysler system, you can press a button and see a map view of the exact location of an accident or incident. That map is a stationary graphic depiction of the area, not a portion of the moving, animated map. The problem with this is that it's not very good for getting traffic info with just a quick look. Also, unlike the color-coding method, you can't see when traffic is just slow. There has to be an incident or accident for a certain highway to be listed. Still, if you really want a Chrysler minivan, the feature is better than relying on AM radio traffic reports alone.
In the span of about one year, Ford has gone from the tech cellar to league leader. The new Sirius Travel Link system is just one example of how the company is now offering useful, cutting-edge electronics. For 2009, Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles get the company's next-generation GPS navigation systems as part of that upgrade, and Travel Link will be offered on most of those cars and trucks. We weren't able to use Travel Link in the real world but saw how it works at the Consumer Electronics Show and can say for certain it will be one of the best available.
Travel Link is amazingly thorough. It includes real-time traffic information, weather, fuel prices, sports scores and movie listings. Maps and graphics are clear and bright, plus the interface is logical and easy to use. Traffic information shows up on the main map screen, and you can opt for a split screen to view a text explanation of each incident right alongside the map.
The Future Has Arrived
Real-time traffic has been available with portable navigation systems for a few years now, but it's just now making its way into factory-installed systems in large numbers. As good as these systems are, there's one thing that's certain about any technology — something better, faster, cooler and cheaper is already on the way. So don't get too attached. Truth is, those who have just started driving will eventually be viewing in-car hard drives and satellite-driven maps as quaint gadgets from a simpler era, kind of the way we see eight-track tape.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.