Having one of the best car navigation systems on board will take the stress out of your car journeys, whether you’re beating the traffic to work or taking a long-haul trip cross country. The top rated GPS navigation devices provide the quickest routes and clearest directions, helping to avoid traffic hotspots, accidents, and construction work, and guiding you towards the traffic lanes that you need to be in. They also usually come with a multitude of points of interest preloaded, including gas stations, hotels and restaurants, along with other places that you might like to visit, such as malls, parks and museums.
While all car navigation systems are designed primarily to get you from A to B in as fast a time as possible, many come with features aimed at making your life behind the wheel as easy and enjoyable as possible. With a feature-heavy car navigation GPS you can expect to find voice activated navigation, smartphone connectivity, and hands-free calling and texting, all with the aim of enhancing your driving experience. Of course, some people will simply want their route mapped out in easy-to-follow instructions, and there are many straightforward car navigation systems in the market today that will do just that, and little else.
Whatever your priorities, this guide to the best car navigation systems should include a GPS device to suit you. As well as revealing the best car GPS overall, we also highlight the top-rated car navigation systems for ease of use, premium features, or if you’re shopping to a budget, and more besides. And if you want some extra help with your parking once you’ve arrived at your destination, you’ll probably want to find the best backup camera for your vehicle as well.
1. Garmin DriveSmart 61 LMT-S: Best car navigation system overall
The Garmin DriveSmart 61 LMT-S has everything you could ever want in the best car navigation system and more. The navigation system is deep, up-to-date and responsive, and is perfectly complemented by its simple and easy to use interface. At the same time, the device itself has a sleek and modern design that will enhance any dashboard, but it’s the abundance of essential and premium features that will make your driving more enjoyable.
The maps of the United States, Canada and Mexico that come preloaded in the Garmin DriveSmart 61 LMT-S can be updated for free, and there’s space for a microSD card onto which maps other countries can be loaded should you need navigation assistance elsewhere. Wherever you’re heading, the giant 6.95-inch capacitive touchscreen, which has a resolution of 1024 x 600 pixels and an edge-to-edge display, will relay all the directions you need with the minimum of fuss and eye strain.
Built-in Wi-Fi paves the way for live traffic alerts, and map and software updates to be delivered straight to the device, while you’ll also be made aware of upcoming turns, toll roads and changes in speed limits. The Garmin DriveSmart 61 LMT-S will even tell you when it’s time to take a rest if you’ve been going for a while, and with millions of points of interest marked on the map, you’ll always be able to find a gas station, hotel or perhaps something more inspiring to break up your trip.
- Read our full Garmin DriveSmart 61 LMT-S review
2. TomTom GO 620: Best car navigation system for features
The TomTom GO 620 is where to look if you like your car navigation system laden with features. For as long as you have the GO 620, you’ll enjoy lifetime access to maps, speed cameras, and intelligent traffic alerts that tailor your route to avoid the worst jams and accidents.
Voice control activation means you can plan journeys and alter settings without letting go of the wheel, while the TomTom GO 620 is so interested in you that it’ll learn your driving style and determine arrival times based on your behavior behind the wheel.
Then there’s in-built Wi-Fi, hands-free calling, smart messages, and Siri and Google Now compatibility to get you excited too. If your vehicle is a little behind the time, the TomTom GO 620 will bring it bang up to date. It costs a little more than some car navigation systems that you can find, but few others include the range of premium driving aids and in-car options that you get here.
- Read our full TomTom GO 620 review
3. Rand McNally OverDryve 7 Pro: Best car navigation system for versatility
The Rand McNally OverDryve 7 Pro is one of the largest car navigation systems on the market, and also one of the most versatile. It’s packed with features designed to help you enjoy a smooth, pleasurable trip, and will enhance your entertainment and connectivity while you drive.
This car GPS device is great for both short drives to work or for pleasure, or for the long cross country hauls made by truckers. It has a robust, and up to date library of maps that will streamline your travel time, and includes 10 million points of interest to help your navigation and highlight time-out options when you need them.
All of the usual navigation aids are present, such as live traffic alerts, lane guidance, and speed notifications, but where the OverDryve 7 Pro really comes into its own is with the extras that it provides. Two cameras are integrated into the device so that you can record your journey, and take photos if you’ve left your camera at home, while it also doubles up as a fully functioning tablet compatible with both Android and iOS, making the very most of the high-resolution 8-inch screen. It’s a little pricier than a traditional car navigation system, but if you’re not paying out on a separate tablet to have with you in the car, the Rand McNally OverDryve 7 Pro can still represent good value for money.
- Read our full Rand McNally OverDryve 7 Pro review
4. Garmin Drive 52: Best car navigation system for ease of use
The Garmin Drive 52 is ideal if you want a straightforward car navigation system to simplify your journeys. Everything about the Garmin Drive 52 screams simplicity, from installing and setting up the device to programming it with where you wish to go.
All the navigation essentials are right there, such as speed and bend alerts, and traffic data to steer you clear of disruption up ahead. And so you absolutely know where to turn, the instructions refer to streets, shops and other landmarks that are nearby.
Other features include countless points of interest and TripAdvisor reviews, but if you want the kind of add-ons that you get with the most tech-laden car navigation devices, you’ll need to look elsewhere. There’s no voice activation, WiFi updates, or hands-free calling, but it’s the absence of such options that helps keep the Garmin Drive 52 simple.
- Read our full Garmin Drive 52 review
5. TomTom VIA 1515M: Best car navigation system for points of interest
The TomTom VIA 1515M is ideal if you want an affordable car navigation system with a little something extra up its sleeve. Actually, we’re referring to 10 million extras, as that’s the number of points of interest that the VIA 1515M has preloaded, ready to keep you informed about the service stations, hospitality venues, parks, shopping malls and countless other areas you might like to explore in the local vicinity. Contact details of the various venues are also on hand, making it easy to book yourself into a hotel or restaurant at short notice too.
What the TomTom VIA 1515M also delivers is a good range of driving assistance features, including split screen views, lane change advice and landmark recognition to help you identify where you need to turn. Speed limits and details of blocked routes are also flagged on a car GPS that covers the US, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Mexico and Canada. There may be slightly better touchscreen tech available and clearer displays, but this helps preserve the battery stamina to a hugely impressive three hours if you need to unplug. And it also helps to keep the price of this excellent fuss-free car navigation system down as well.
- Read our full TomTom VIA 1515M review
6. AROVA GPS Navigation: Best budget car navigation system
The AROVA GPS Navigation is a great choice if you want some car navigation assistance on a budget. In a world dominated by TomToms and Garmins, AROVA has quietly carved out a decent reputation for its car GPS devices, and this one will cost you little more than $70.
For this super low price, you get all the standard car navigation features that you’d expect, such as lane guidance, and speed and camera alerts. The AROVA GPS Navigation system also has a generously sized 7-inch touchscreen and will provide map updates and additional map downloads for over 40 other countries for free.
As you might expect, premium end car GPS functions such as live travel alerts, voice activation and smartphone connectivity are absent. But if it’s value for money that you’re after, and a reliable, no fuss car navigation system that will get you where you wish to go, the AROVA GPS Navigation device should do just fine.
- Read our full AROVA GPS Navigation review
How we found the best car navigation system
The two most important things we evaluated throughout our testing were accuracy and ease of use. For the applied portion of our testing, we drove around on a variety of roads – from small rural roads to busy city streets to the highway during rush hour, some of which had heavy delays and big detours due to construction work. We drove in familiar locales as well as areas we were unfamiliar with, noting whether the routes provided by the devices were accurate and efficient. We also verified if 2D and 3D landmarks – for the applicable devices – were accurately represented on the screen.
We looked for car navigation devices that gave clear directions with plenty of notice before a turn. We also looked for clear on-screen visuals, updated traffic alerts and a variety of points of interest such as gas stations, hotels, restaurants and stores. We also noted how easy it was to navigate the device interface, along with how easy it was to input an address and start navigating. The best car navigation systems were easy to set up and use, provided helpful instructions, and allowed for extensive smartphone compatibility for enhanced one-touch navigation and entertainment.
Essential features of a car navigation system
The best GPS devices deliver detailed step by step directions, and will alert you as to which lane you need to be in at any given time. Instructions will be delivered audibly, and on the screen.
The average screen size for car navigation systems is between 3 and 7 inches, measured diagonally across the screen just like a TV. While smaller devices can be easily stored in your glovebox or a bag, devices with larger screens make it easier to see instructions and other on-screen options. A larger screen is also better if your device allows for split screen when approaching a junction or for other alerts.
The best car GPS screens have a resolution of at least 480 x 272 pixels, although GPS devices with higher resolutions – such as those above 800 x 480 pixels – give you a crisper picture that is easier to view at a glance.
Top-end GPS devices tend to have capacitive screens. These are highly accurate and sensitive, and allow for pinch-to-zoom gestures, similar to a smartphone. Such gestures are not possible on a resistive touchscreen, which are usually found on lower priced or budget devices. These screens also typically have slower reaction times, along with lower resolutions and a smaller capacity for brightness. However, resistive screens do allow you to use any object to touch the screen, such as a stylus or a gloved finger.
Every GPS navigation system in our comparison is preloaded with maps of the United States, ready for use when you power on the device. Most also have built-in microSD card slots to allow you to download and store maps of other countries. Having preloaded maps ready to go means you have reliable navigation even when you’re in an area with little or no signal.
Look for a car navigation system with free lifetime map updates to make sure the latest road layouts, buildings and landmarks will show on your device. Updates may happen automatically in the background or require a manual download.
Speed limit alert system
Most GPS navigation systems will display the speed you’re travelling in relation to the road’s actual speed limit, and let you know if you're going too fast.
If you need to use your car’s DC outlet to charge your phone, you'll want to know how long your navigation system can run unplugged. Most will last for at least an hour without charge, but some will stay powered for up to six hours.
Premium car navigation system features
Along with all the essential features, the very best car navigation GPS systems have a myriad of other options designed to make your time behind the wheel easier and more enjoyable.
It's faster to tell you car navigation system where you need to go than type it, and safer too, if you need to change destinations while driving.
3D map function
By recreating landmarks such as buildings, bridges and monuments in 3D, navigation devices with this feature make it easier to recognise where you are when travelling in large cities or unfamiliar locations.
Traffic alert systems
Roads are unpredictable, accidents happen, roadworks breakout randomly, and sheep gather. Having a traffic alert system is a good way of keeping up to date on the current road conditions, without having to find your smartphone.
Smartphones vs. dedicated car GPS devices
Most smartphones now come with inbuilt GPS trackers and are capable of providing an accurate navigation system. There are pros and cons to using either your smartphone or a dedicated car navigation device to get around, but which is better for you will depend on personal preference.
Advantages of a dedicated car navigation system
By far, the biggest perk to using a dedicated GPS device is just that – it is dedicated to the task of providing navigational assistance. You won’t have to worry about a phone call cutting in and blocking your directions, or your cell battery dying. Higher-end models offer additional functionality, including 3D map rendering, speed limit notifications, speed trap alerts and free regular map updates. Budget GPS devices can represent a decent option, but be aware of smaller, non-responsive touchscreens, and muddy interfaces, which taken all together may diminish your experience.
The best car GPS devices allow for voice-activated navigation so you can keep your eyes on the road, and they give you the option to pair your smartphone with it so you can take a call without having to fumble for your phone in rush hour traffic. Most dedicated car navigation systems also rely on multiple data sources, including satellites, so you’ll most likely have navigation even when you’re in areas with sparse or no cell signal. You can also save offline versions of your map for these scenarios.
Advantages of using a smartphone to navigate
If you already own a smartphone and don’t have the budget for a dedicated car GPS, you can still survive your next road trip with just your phone. Smartphone GPS apps – like Google Maps and Apple Maps – offer comparable functionality to dedicated navigation units, and can show on-screen maps, tell you what lane to be in and provide step-by-step navigation.
Smartphone navigation apps also allow you to download maps for offline use. However, there are downsides to using your phone as your GPS. Map apps burn through battery power, and they won’t work when there isn’t any cell signal.