The best car GPS system takes the stress out of driving. If you can get the best sat nav for your needs then you may find that it not only gives your smartphone a rest but also lets you enjoy clearer directions and faster journeys.
Smartphones can be excellent GPS guides but there are features that are still only found on car GPS systems, or those with that built-in like in some dash cams. The larger touchscreen is a big appeal initially as you can see clearly the directions being given – ideal if you like the audio guidance turned off. Some look after you too, suggesting a break if you've been on the road too long. From dodging traffic on your commute to finding a new spot, these are built for those specific tasks. Plus, with fastening systems that are easier to use than ever, they work in nearly any vehicle.
It's worth noting that some brands require subscriptions for the best features while others don't. So keep an eye on that and factor it into the cost when you consider what you're paying up front. This is especially important when getting a Black Friday deal as you may find that subscription is thrown in, representing a big saving.
If you're going out of the States, to Mexico or Canada, say, then you'll want a model packing in those maps. We also suggest getting one of the best roadside assistance plans for true peace-of-mind driving.
1. Garmin DriveSmart 61 LMT-S: Best car GPS overall
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The Garmin DriveSmart 61 LMT-S has everything you could ever want in the best car gps system, and more. This GPS system is feature rich, 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 WiFi 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.
2. TomTom GO Supreme: Best car GPS system for features
The TomTom GO Supreme is, as the name suggests, a premium car navigation device that packs in all the features you could need. But above all else this is TomTom so you know you're getting specialized maps, traffic data and safety camera alerts – and these all come included.
Aside from avoiding traffic and always being in the right lane this offers Last Mile Navigation, meaning the app on your phone will show you where you car is based on where you parked. You also have intelligent trip planning, with lots of preference options and the ability to share your ETA and location as you drive. This will even learn your driving style and better estimate arrival times based on that.
Voice controls with Siri and Google Assistant as well as IFTTT support mean you can integrate your smart life with your car. From making calls and reading out your messages to syncing addresses from your calendar events and setting locations – it can all be done with hands-free voice controls. The built-in WiFi also means you're always up to date with the latest maps, safety cameras and app information.
3. Rand McNally OverDryve 7: Best car GPS system for versatility
The Rand McNally OverDryve 7 is a stand out option as it does this literally, with that huge 7-inch display, but also with features like doubling as a tablet. That means this works as a dash cam, music player as well as a powerful navigation system.
The tablet lets you play music directly from its stereo speakers – or via a Bluetooth connected headset – using other MP3 files, via apps or using the built-in FM radio. Voice controls are also onboard, meaning you can make calls, navigate and more, hands-free.
With over 10 million points of interest it should be easy to find whatever you need. Keep in mind this is built with truckers in mind so even more remote long-haul journeys are going to be covered by this navigation system. All that as well as lifetime maps and traffic, plus a magnetic powered mounting system, make this a very attractive big-size navigation system.
4. Garmin Drive 52 & Traffic: Best car navigation system for ease of use
The Garmin Drive 52 & Traffic is ideal if you want a straightforward car navigation system to simplify your journeys. Everything about the Garmin Drive 52 & Traffic 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. Then there's that live traffic data, pulled in from a connected phone, so you always get the fastest possible route no matter what happens up ahead.
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 & Traffic simple.
5. TomTom VIA 1525M: Best car GPS for points of interest
The TomTom VIA 1525M 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 1525M 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 1525M also delivers is a good range of driving assistance features, including split screen views, lane change advice, lifetime map updates 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, but this saves you money here while keeping plenty of features onboard.
6. LTTRBX GPS Navigation: Best budget car GPS
The LTTRBX GPS Navigation is a super affordable option for anyone that still wants a large and clear resolution display but without the price tag you'd expect. As such this gets you a 7-inch touchscreen with 800 x 480 resolution and 500cd brightness for day and night clarity.
The nav comes with maps for the US, Mexico and Canada onboard but others can be loaded if you need. As can updates which help with the latest safety camera information as well as speed limit reminders. The downside here is that you have to email the company to get the new maps or updates sent over. An effort, but that explains the price saving here.
There are over 50 languages onboard so it can read turn-by-turn directions how you need. It will also auto reroute if you go the wrong way or run into issues. Just be warned, at this price it's not as smart as the higher end systems.
7. TomTom Go Comfort: Best for smartphone basics
The TomTom Go Comfort offers lots of the smart navigation features you'd expect from the company, including 10 million points of interest, but also smartphone connectivity. As such you can get live traffic and map updates over WiFi and via your smartphone, so you're always on the most up to date route which reacts to changes as they happen.
Not so great is that the safety camera alerts are limited to three months as a trial only. But it is nice to pick your price based on the size screen you need with 5-inch and 6-inch models available. Either way this will learn your driving style and make predictions to more quickly and easily navigate you from the get go.
Road Trips by TomTom is another nice addition that lets you plan a route, or pick one already laid out, and have that on your sat nav so you can take a scenic road trip, for example, without having to plan.
8. Garmin DriveSmart 65 with Amazon Alexa: Best for integrated voice controls
The Garmin DriveSmart 65 with Amazon Alexa is crammed full of features in an otherwise minimal looking tiny bezeled and high resolution display. Multitouch controls are responsive while navigation is genuinely smart with live traffic updates and even TripAdvisor ratings for hotels and restaurants along the way. The National Parks directory search is another nice addition here as is the "real" directions that say things like "turn left after the next McDonalds".
Alexa built-in means you can control your music onboard, read messages, check your calendar, even control smart devices like pre-heating your home – all using your voice alone. You also have the option to add Garmin devices like smart backup cameras and more.
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.