Car Tech 101: How to Test Drive a Navigation System

Car Tech 101: How to Test Drive a Navigation System

Features and Functions To Look for in a Factory Nav System

Inexpensive portable navigation systems and even cheaper smartphone nav applications are making the pricey in-dash systems offered by automakers less attractive to many consumers. But some people prefer in-dash systems because of their larger screens and because they offer more features. Plus, you never have to worry about forgetting an in-dash system at home. Finally, prices for in-dash systems are starting to drop.

Before you pay for an in-dash navigation system for your next car, you'll want to ask the questions you see below to make sure it has the features and capability that you want. If you require more detailed information, check out our story about In-Dash Navigation Basics. And once you're at a dealer, use our Navigation Tech Checklist to make sure that the system meets your needs. Finally, "How To Tech Test-Drive — Without Dealer Interference," gives tips about the way to avoid any hassles you might get from a dealership while you're testing technology in a vehicle.

Screen and Interface

  • Is the screen large enough for easy viewing? Is it easy to see even in bright sunlight?
  • Does the system use a touchscreen, knobs and buttons, or some combination of these?
  • Is the interface easy and intuitive to use? How quickly does it respond to inputs?
  • Does the system have voice activation? If so, how well does it work to input a navigation destination or find other information you need?

Mapping Software and Graphics

  • Where does the mapping software reside: DVD, hard disk or SD card?
  • What's the process for purchasing updated mapping software and how much does the software cost?
  • How realistic and detailed are the map graphics?
  • Does the map offer a 3-D view?
  • Does the map offer an aerial bird's-eye perspective? If so, is the angle adjustable?
  • Does the system have color-coded maps to show details such as parks, shopping malls and water features such as lakes and rivers?

Destination and Point of Interest Input

  • How many ways does the system allow you to input a destination: by address, intersection, point of interest (POI), phone number, point on the map or other?
  • Does the system include an address book?
  • Is there a "home" button to allow quick routing to a preferred destination?
  • Can the system quickly find and route you to emergency services such as hospitals or police stations, and does it include phone numbers for these?
  • Does the system allow you to set multiple destinations for a trip, and does it allow you to set waypoints if you plan to make stops during a planned route?
  • How many POIs does the system offer, and are phone numbers included with the entries?


  • How accurate are the system's turn-by-turn directions and its ability to reroute you if you go off route?
  • Does the system give you a choice between various routes to a destination, such as quickest or shortest?
  • Does it offer you the ability to choose a route that avoids freeways, toll roads, ferries and such?
  • Does the system let you preview a route and, if so, in what level of detail?
  • Is it quick and easy to cancel a route if you choose to do so?
  • Does the system give you clear instructions on where and when to turn via voice guidance through the audio system and map graphics on a screen?
  • Does the system offer a split-screen view when approaching a turn, showing the upcoming maneuver on one side and a routing screen on the other?
  • Does the system provide lane guidance to show you the exact lane you need to be in when negotiating a complex freeway interchange?

General Features

  • Does the system have "geo-fencing" to allow you to avoid an area?
  • Does the system supply traffic information? Is it subscription-based?
  • How is the traffic information displayed: Does it use color-coded maps and symbols showing traffic flow on a map?
  • Does the system actively warn you of traffic along a chosen route, and can you view information on all traffic incidents in your area?
  • Does the system provide weather reports, forecasts and warnings? Is it subscription-based and what's the cost?
  • Does the system have a fuel-finder feature showing stations nearby and the latest gas prices?
  • Does the system supply restaurant ratings and recommendations?
  • Does the system offer a "send-to" function that allows you to transfer destinations found online to the car? If so, can you send multiple destinations at once?
  • Does the system allow you to call a dedicated operator to obtain POI info and send it to the car?
  • Does the system allow for off-road routing?
  • Does it include topographical maps showing the physical features of the landscape?
  • Does the system include a "bread-crumbing" feature that marks where you've been on the map screen in case you want to retrace your steps?

A Big Investment
Most in-dash navigation systems cost as much as $1,000. That's a big investment to make without doing your homework first. By asking the questions above and finding out firsthand if a system has the capability and features you're looking for, you can avoid going the wrong direction on an in-dash navigation system.

To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.

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