Get Lost Easily? Argue with Your Man About Directions? Consider a Nav System

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“Turn right in two miles,” says the friendly voice with a calm British accent.


My wife, sitting in the passenger seat of the Land Rover LR3 test vehicle, smiles and nods in agreement.


She knows I won’t ask for directions unless I’m lost. And I haven’t been lost. Ever.


The voice is from the Land Rover’s in-dash navigation system, standard equipment on the $56,100 luxury sport utility vehicle—a hefty price for sure, but probably worth every penny in marital peace.


Navigation systems are more popular than ever. Premium brands like Land Rover and Lexus now offer them as standard equipment in some models. When they are optional, about 75 percent of buyers are choosing the systems, says Lexus spokesman, Sam Butto.


Most systems keep track of where you are and tell you where to go with a combination of DVD-based maps and Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites. Some systems use a hard drive instead of DVDs. The results usually are displayed on a 7-inch screen in the middle of the dash. It’s common for the screens also to show settings for your audio system, pictures from your back-up camera, or the workings of your hybrid engine system.


They still aren’t found very often on little economy cars, though they are becoming more common. For example, a nav system is a $1,200 option in the Toyota Camry.


Most navigation units will show you where you are on a map and give directions—both on screen and by voice—to a destination you enter into the system. Many databases also list gas stations, restaurants, lodgings, and points of interest. When linked with a cell phone or subscription service like General Motors’ OnStar, you can even make reservations en route.


In vehicles sold in North America, you can program the systems in English, French, or Spanish. Some high-end vehicles, especially European models, give you a larger language menu.


Frills include the ability to play MP3 music or use your cell phone with the system.


For bargain hunters, or folks who want to move the nav system from car to car, or even take it hiking in the backwoods, there are portable units.


Garmin, which made a name for itself with handheld GPS units, sells a multitude of DVD-based navigation systems that work as well as the automakers’ factory-installed units. The screen is usually smaller, though—three and one half–four and one half inches versus seven inches—and you have to find a place for it on top of the dash or on a center console.


The portable units sell for a few hundred dollars and up, and Garmin just reached a deal with Ford to sell its units in auto dealerships. Here’s how a navigation system works: Twenty-four GPS satellites look down on nearly every square inch of the Earth’s surface and transmit signal information back from space. GPS receivers, like the ones in nav systems, take this information from several satellites at once to calculate the exact position, usually within about fifty feet. The system also calculates direction, speed, trip distance, and distance to destination.


The information is displayed on a map screen, which can be adjusted from a street-level map out to the whole country. Depending on your system, it also will display a variety of other information.


Often the map can be adjusted so north is always at the top, with the arrow marking your vehicle turning as you turn, or with the arrow always pointed straight ahead, with the map rotating as you turn.


There can be problems, however. Consumer Reports points out that technology and real estate development both speed along, leaving units obsolete and maps outdated. Before 2003, maps were stored on low-storage space CDs, rather than DVDs, so they often covered only urban areas or Interstate corridors and only part of the country. Many of them are no longer supported and can’t be updated. If you buy a used vehicle with a nav system, it may be impossible to get an update.


Updating is not a do-it-yourself operation, either. In most systems, only the dealer can provide the latest software.


Worse, the screens can be distracting for the driver who is trying to follow the route or make changes. And depending on the vehicle, some can cast a bright reflection on the windshield at night.


But you can use the system to entertain and educate the kids, too. For fun, try a different language for directions to a familiar location. It won’t be long before they figure out their gauche from their droit.

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