In their infancy, navigation systems were an expensive option reserved for luxury cars. Today, navigation systems are nearly ubiquitous, even on economy cars. Furthermore, there are now lots of alternatives, ranging from portable systems to smartphones to aftermarket stereo systems with nav.
Which one should you buy? What are the advantages of each setup? Which is less expensive? Here are a few things to consider so you can choose the system that's right for you.
Factory Navigation Systems
Integration: The factory-installed navigation system will appeal to the car buyer who likes a clean, high-tech, integrated look. These systems typically have larger screens that are mounted in well-thought-out locations and are designed to work seamlessly with the vehicle. This means that you can use such factory features as voice activation and other interface methods like control knobs or on-screen buttons.
Warranty Coverage: Since the factory navigation system is part of the vehicle, it is covered by the bumper-to-bumper warranty. If anything goes wrong with the system, you can take it to any factory dealership for free repair within the warranty period. Extended warranties might or might not include the navigation system.
Theft-Resistant: Unlike with a portable navigation system, which can draw the attention of thieves, you don't have to worry as much about someone walking away with a factory system. Thieves will have a much harder time stealing a factory navigation system than they will a portable unit that's stuck to the windshield with a suction cup.
Resale Value: Factory navigation systems may improve a car's resale value, but only within a few years. After three to five years, our analysts say, used-car shoppers are less interested in high-tech features, especially if they look dated and lack the capabilities of newer cars.
Price: Prices for factory navigation are all over the map, and there doesn't seem to be any logic to them. À la carte navigation systems start around $500 in new cars. But in many cases, automakers bundle navigation with other accessories and call it a "Tech" or "Premium" package, which can cost more than $4,000 in some luxury vehicles. In some cases, you cannot get a navigation system unless you buy the vehicle's higher, more expensive trim levels.
Updates: The maps on factory systems are typically as current as the year of your vehicle. If you want to update the maps, you typically need to purchase a DVD or memory card. These can cost roughly $75-$200.
Use Limitations: Some factory navigation systems do not let you input directions while the car is moving. This is meant to be a safety feature, but could be frustrating if you want your passenger to press the buttons. Most portable systems do not have these restrictions.
Smartphone Navigation Systems
Price: Factory-navigation skeptics argue that smartphones are an alternative to an expensive factory system, noting that phones already have a map application, and that's all you really need. Given the quality of the apps from Apple and Google, we're inclined to agree that they are good enough for most people. That said, there are still a few things to keep in mind. More about those later.
Traffic Data: In many cities, the fastest way to get from A to B isn't necessarily the shortest path; it's the one with the least traffic. Smartphone apps have excellent traffic data and access to Waze, the community-based traffic app. Factory nav systems have live traffic, but you have to pay for a subscription once the trial has ended.
Current Maps and POIs: Smartphone maps will never be out of date, and any updates are included. The same goes for the names and addresses of any points of interest you want to visit.
Convenience: Smartphones offer the convenience of inputting an address as you walk to the car, leveraging your contacts for their addresses, having a calendar invite remind you that you need to leave at a certain time and then routing you there. All those things happen in a faster interface with typing that's easier than the input offered by other systems.
Integrated Smartphone Systems: Apple CarPlay and Android Auto offer the convenience of smartphone navigation with the integration and safety of a built-in system. Just a small number of new vehicles and aftermarket stereos offer the systems now, but we expect more to be available in the coming years.
Distraction: Unless you purchase a car mount for the phone, it will most likely sit in a cupholder and you'll have to take your eyes off the road to check the directions. This can be just as much of a distraction as texting while driving. The mount itself can cost from $20 for a basic unit to $100 for a do-it-all mount that will charge the phone and boost the audio and GPS signal.
Signal Issues: Most of the native map applications rely on a cell signal for their map data. If you lose cellular coverage, you may find yourself unable to use the maps and directions. The more fully featured navigation applications have stored maps, which could alleviate this issue, but those cost $30-$50 and the reviews seem to be negative across the board. Google now offers the ability to download certain maps for offline use, but without a cellular signal, you won't know your exact position.
Battery Drain: Running a navigation application on a smartphone can sometimes take a toll on the smartphone's battery. This makes carrying a phone car charger more important and can be an added cost if you don't already have one.
Portable Navigation Systems
Price: A portable navigation system is significantly less expensive than a factory system. Prices can range from $50 for a basic unit to more than $200 for a fully featured model with Bluetooth and live traffic.
Cheaper Updating: Many current portable navigation system providers offer models with lifetime updates. These cost a bit more initially, but they are less expensive to update in the long run.
Mounting: Portable units are usually mounted on the windshield or the dashboard. That's not as tidy as a factory-installed system, and some people may not like the way they look. More importantly, these easy-to-remove devices can attract thieves, so you'll have to make sure to hide yours or take it with you when you park the car. On the other hand, this portability can be useful for people who drive multiple vehicles.
Limited Warranty: If your portable navigation unit malfunctions, you'll only be covered for about a year or however long the limited factory warranty lasts. On the other hand, you could buy another one and still have spent less than you would have on a factory navigation system.
In-Dash Aftermarket Navigation Systems
More Features: In-dash aftermarket navigation systems are geared toward techies and audiophiles who want additional features while maintaining the sleek appearance of the factory unit. These aftermarket navigation systems have entertainment features that are not found on most factory systems, such as DVD video playback, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Pandora streaming.
Better Screen: Since many aftermarket navigation systems have DVD playback, they typically have higher-resolution screens with animated menus and flashy colors.
Customizable: An aftermarket navigation system is designed to be the centerpiece of an upgraded audio system that allows for user customization. Some models allow the user to customize the menu icons, colors and backgrounds. You can also add extra equipment, such as a back-up camera.
Price: A system can sometimes cost as much as the factory unit. The prices can range from $300-$1,300, plus at least another $250 for the installation.
Theft-Prone: After the portable navigation system, an aftermarket stereo with navigation is the second most likely to get stolen. (A smartphone left inside the car comes in third.) Thieves know how much these units cost and how easily they can be removed.
Not Fully Integrated: Although the system sits in the dash and is thereby more integrated than a portable unit, it will never look exactly as if it were part of the car's original design. This may or may not be a good thing, depending on your point of view. And while you've gained a bunch of new features, you will lose steering-wheel functions such as music volume and track controls. Some companies sell a special adapter that can restore that functionality. The part costs about $40, plus installation.
Which Is the Best?
The answer all depends on how you use navigation. A smartphone works great if you're always within cell coverage. The factory system works everywhere and is for those who like the integrated look. The aftermarket stereo with nav is the pricier option for those who want better audio and customization. Finally, the portable navigation systems are an inexpensive alternative, work everywhere and can be moved easily into other vehicles.