The 8 Best Car GPS Systems of 2020

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The Rundown
"If you’re looking for the absolute best GPS system that combines ease of use and reliable results, the Garmin DriveSmart 61 is the answer."
"The TomTom VIA 1425M uses advanced lane guidance to help you maneuver into the right position for exits and intersections."
Best Hands-Free:
Garmin Speak Plus at Amazon
"The Speak Plus is what you’d get if you married your favorite GPS with one of the industry’s best digital personal assistants."
Best for Off-Road Adventures:
Magellan TR5 Trail and Street GPS at Amazon
"With over 115,000 preloaded trail routes (and 6.6 million POI), there’s something here for four-wheel driving, ATVs, and snowmobiles."
Best for International Travel:
TomTom Go 520 at Amazon
"The TomTom Go 520 is the globe-trotters friend and comes preloaded with maps of the entire world."
Best for Motorcycles:
Garmin zumo 396 LMT-S at Amazon
"The rugged, glove-friendly Garmin zumo resists damage from fuel vapors, UV rays, and weather, and remains easy to read in bright sunlight."
"The Roadmate RV9365T-LMB lets you program your vehicle’s dimensions in and plots a route that caters to those considerations."
Best Dash Cam GPS:
Garmin Dash Cam 65W at Amazon
"The Garmin Dash Cam lets you capture 1080p-resolution video footage with 180-degree coverage and automatically saves footage on impact."

Best Overall: Garmin DriveSmart 61

If you’re looking for the absolute best GPS system that combines ease of use and reliable results, you won’t do any better than the Garmin DriveSmart 61. The unit immediately stands out with a 6.95-inch capacitive touch display. Larger than most smartphone displays, the edge-to-edge display is clear and delivers navigation information at a glance. With custom waypoints such as home or office, Garmin also adds millions of points of interest. Finding the nearest gas station, Starbucks, or airport is as easy as a few button presses.

Even with all of its dedicated GPS features, the DriveSmart is much more than just a GPS unit. Bluetooth compatibility allows it to connect directly to your smartphone. From there, the Garmin can facilitate hands-free calls and text notifications as well as calendar reminders for your next appointment. It also has a voice-activated navigation feature so you can tell it your next destination without having to type in any addresses.

Best Budget: TomTom VIA 1425M

A 4.3-inch touchscreen makes it easy to follow directions on the TomTom VIA 1425M—or to tell the system where you want to go by simply tapping the desired destination. TomTom uses advanced lane guidance to help you maneuver into the right position for exits and intersections by highlighting the optimal route, with an easy-to-assemble reversible dashboard mount. It runs for one hour per charge, with both USB and car charger options, as well as a micro SD card slot if you want to supplement the onboard 8MB internal memory. Out of the box, you get maps for the United States, Mexico, and Canada, with free updates for the life of the navigation device, and the spoken instructions can be configured to more than 30 different languages.

Best Hands-Free: Garmin Speak Plus

The Speak Plus is what you’d get if you married your favorite GPS with one of the industry’s best digital personal assistants. This device uses Amazon Alexa as its core AI, allowing you to play music from Amazon Music, Pandora, IHeartRadio, and other apps—and you can also control your smart devices at home, ask about the weather, or order up just about anything. Garmin’s stellar legacy with GPS tech handles the navigation, including turn-by-turn audible directions (with screen prompts) that you can trigger just by pinging Alexa to ask Garmin to get you home, to work, or to the Empire State Building.

A built-in dash cam adds a layer of comfort in the unlikely event that you’re in an accident, along with driver assist features to fight off those chances, including forward collision and lane departure warnings. The GPS also works with Bluetooth-enable devices for hands-free calls and integrates with your car stereo wirelessly or via a standard AUX cable.

Best for Off-Road Adventures: Magellan TR5 Trail and Street GPS

If sticking to main roads isn’t your thing, then you need the Magellan TR5 trail and street GPS on your next off-road adventure. With over 115,000 preloaded trail routes, there’s something here for four-wheel driving, ATVs, and snowmobiles. Magellan also adds more than 6.6 million points of interest. Finding a POI or setting up is easy using the TR5’s five-inch touchscreen display. The unit itself is ideal for off-road vehicles because it is shock, dust, and water resistant.

It won’t come as any surprise to previous GPS users that the TR5 is packed with audio and visual navigation assistance. If you’re busy keeping your eyes on the trail, the audio will keep you safely on track. In the event that you need to make a quick return home, hit the Backtrack button and it returns you to the initial starting point. Beyond navigation, the unit can also sync to a smartphone via Bluetooth for incoming call notifications as well as text and calendar alerts. 

Best for International Travel: TomTom Go 520

Most GPS units come with pre-loaded maps of North America, but the TomTom Go 520 has a more global point of view and comes with maps of the entire world pre-loaded. Best of all, with built-in W-iFi connectivity, the device will notify you whenever new updates are available, so you can update without a computer. The device also communicates with your smartphone; it can read out text messages upon request, or find contacts and dial for hands-free calling. You can also trigger Siri and Google Now with the tap of a button on the device.

Maps update for the lifetime of the device, and it uses real-time traffic data to plot out your optimal route. When back from exploring the world, the Go 520 can also learn your driving habits to predict when and where you most drive to help carve out your ideal route. The only (potential) drawback: the five-inch screen isn’t as massive as some of the others on this list, but it’s still plenty big, especially if you’re driving a Euro mini sports car.

Best for Motorcycles: Garmin zumo 396 LMT-S

GPS devices geared toward helping motorcyclists face a mountain of considerations that car-friendly devices don’t, and the zumo 396 LMT-S has all those variables covered. The rugged, glove-friendly 4.3-inch device resists damage from fuel vapors, UV rays, and harsh weather, and remains easy to read in bright sunlight. As with most devices, you also get real-time traffic notification and hands-free calling via Bluetooth, and you can control your music and playlists from the GPS screen.

Embracing the fun nature of motorcycling, the device includes a choose-your-own-adventure-style Adventurous Routing navigation feature that lets you modify the route by preferring curves and hills, and avoiding the dull drone of major highways. For group rides, you can dial your preferred route and share it via GPX files with fellow riders, and when you sync the device to a smartphone, you can share your whereabouts in real time. Alerts include traffic and weather updates as well as speed and red-light camera notification as well as when sharp turns are approaching. The device utilizes a built-in trip computer that tracks every important stat on your bike, including gas, air filters, brake pads, and fluids—and will tell you when to stop for fuel by providing options for nearby gas stations. The only thing the zumo 396 doesn’t do is drive your bike — but you’ve got that part covered.

Best for RVs: Magellan Roadmate RV9365T-LMB

The open road carries a whole host of hazards when you’re driving a big rig of an RV or dragging your camper or rec vehicle behind you on a trailer. No tight turns, please, and definitely no cobblestones. But other factors are equally important to avoid, including streets that restrict U-turns or are dodgy and unpaved. The Roadmate RV9365T-LMB lets you program your vehicle’s dimensions into the device, along with other driver preferences, and then plots a route that caters to those considerations.

The Magellan Roadmate also comes pre-loaded with a Good Sam RV Travel Guide and Campground Directory (including info on each site like whether they have Wi-Fi or are pet-friendly), along with a list of RV Sani-Dump Station Locations. The 7-inch touchscreen adjusts for day or night viewing, and works with real-time traffic updates to dodge delays, and includes other navigation tips like nearby gas stations, traffic cam alerts, lane-assist guidance, and a personalized favorites menu. Map updates are good for the life of the device, and it also tracks your speed as well as the speed limit.

Best Dash Cam GPS: Garmin Dash Cam 65W

Get into one controversial accident and you’ll understand the implicit value of reliable evidence to help support your side of the story. While the Dash Cam 65W is GPS-enabled, it’s not focused on navigation. Instead, this device lets you capture 1080p-resolution video footage with 180-degree coverage via voice command. It’ll also automatically save footage on impact thanks to GPS-enabled Incident Detection, which captures both the when and the where of what happened to supplement the video.

The Garmin Dash cam also delivers useful navigation alerts like forward-collision and lane-departure warnings and notifications on red-light and speed cameras. It's not all about bad news, though; the device offers fun ways to capture the highlights of a stellar road trip. Simply command the device to take a photo, record video or audio, or activate the Travelapse feature, which condenses hours of driving into a minutes-long stream of the road trip highlights. Naturally, it syncs with your smartphone thanks to built-in Wi-Fi, so you can wirelessly add videos to your device after downloading the VIRB Mobile app, making it easy to share footage with friends, family, insurance companies, and legal authorities.

The Ultimate Car GPS Buying Guide

If you’re in the market for a car GPS unit, there are a lot of important factors to consider. Built-in GPS units are convenient, but portable GPS units are more practical for anyone whose car didn't come with built-in GPS.

There are also dozens of different features to look at, and an enormous gulf, in terms of price, between the cheapest and most expensive GPS units.

Here are some of the most important factors that may influence your decision:

Budgeting for In-Car GPS

Unless money is no object, it’s a good idea to start off by setting a general price range. If you’re looking to spend less than a hundred dollars, you’re probably going to have to settle for a small screen and scrimp a little on the features. You can also look for a bargain on an older model, but make sure that you don’t end up with outdated maps that are either costly or impossible to update.

Your budget will also inform your decision to go for an integrated unit or a standalone device. Head units that include built-in GPS navigation are typically quite expensive, so you may want to steer away from them unless your existing head unit is begging for an upgrade. In that case, there are some head units that include integrated GPS navigation that can boast some pretty impressive features.

Integrated GPS Navigation

Built-in GPS head unit in car
Built-in GPS navigation is convenient, but not all vehicles have the feature. Peter Dazeley / Photographer's Choice / Getty

Many OEM infotainment systems come with integrated GPS navigation, but it’s also an option in some higher-end aftermarket head units. While these in-dash GPS navigation units tend to be quite expensive, they’re also pretty slick.

If you’re opposed to sticking a blocky device to your dash or windshield, but you aren't ready to buy a brand new car, then upgrading your radio to a navigation head unit could be a good way to go.

Some of these head units that include built-in navigation are also full-fledged carputers, so that’s something else to keep in mind. There are a lot of factors to consider when comparing in-dash head units to standalone GPS devices.

Standalone Car GPS Devices

A standalone GPS unit on a map
Choosing a standalone GPS unit means you can use it outside of your car. Creativ Studio Heinemann / Getty 

These GPS units are typically the less expensive option, but that doesn’t mean they’re all cheap. Standalone units span the full range of sub-$100 budget models to feature-packed units that commonly have price tags of over $300.

Other than price, the main benefit of standalone GPS devices is portability. Since they aren’t built into the dash of any one vehicle, you have the option of using one device in more than one vehicle. This is even easier if you pick up an extra mount and power supply.

Core GPS Navigation Features

There are a handful of features that you should look for regardless of your budget or any other concerns. The most important ones include:

  • Screen size and resolution - Larger screens are easier to see at a glance, which is important since you don't have to take your eyes off the road too much. Resolution is also important since low-resolution images can be tough to read at a distance.
  • Type of receiver - This isn't an exciting feature, but the overall quality of a GPS unit is highly depended on how well its receiver works. If a GPS unit has poor sensitivity, it won't accurately show the position of your vehicle on the road.
  • Audible directions - Spoken directions, or text-to-speech, is tremendously important from a safety perspective. Most GPS units offer this, but some are difficult to understand. You absolutely want to be able to understand your GPS unit from a safety perspective.
  • Automatic routing - Automatic routing is a feature that automatically recalculates your route if you deviate from it. This is extremely important since reality includes things like accidents and construction that you may need to drive around.

Screen size and resolution are typically tied very closely to price. Budget models tend to have smaller screens with lower resolutions, and you can expect to pay a lot more for units that come with big, detailed touchscreens.

If you’re not familiar with GPS screen sizes, you may want to check out a few in person before you buy. In order to determine whether a screen is big enough, you can stand back a few feet and try glancing at it. If you have trouble making it out, then you might want to step up to a larger screen.

As far as receivers go, some are more sensitive than others. GPS units that have low sensitivity receivers fall into the budget category, but not every budget model has a poor receiver. If you want to make sure that your GPS unit actually knows what road you’re on, look for a unit that has a high sensitivity receiver.

And while most car GPS devices include audible directions, they aren’t all created equal. Some units include text-to-speech technology that allows them to read out actual street names, which can come in handy when you’re driving in an unfamiliar area.

Other devices are nearly unintelligible, so it’s vital to take the quality of the audible directions into account when shopping for a car GPS unit.

Other less important features that can come in handy include:

  • Traffic - Some GPS units and apps are capable of displaying traffic data, which can help you gets where you're going without getting stuck in traffic jams.
  • Lane assist - This feature shows some type of infographic every time you approach an exit or interchange on a freeway. This is tremendously useful when driving in an unfamiliar area since it can help you avoid dangerously late lane changes.
  • Voice input - Some GPS units and apps allow you to set your route, and make alterations, with voice commands. This is useful if you don't have a co-pilot and need to make changes to your route on the fly.
  • 3D map view - This feature allows you to view a 3D map of the area, which can help you orientate yourself in an unfamiliar area.
  • Points of interest - This is useful on road trips, and when driving in unfamiliar areas, since it can help you locate gas stations, motels, restaurants, rest stops, parks, and other local businesses and landmarks.

There are also a handful of non-core features that you may find, such as:

  • Built-in MP3 player - Plays your digital music files either through a built-in speaker, or a wired or wireless connection to your car audio system.
  • Digital picture viewer - Usually allows you to view images, and sometimes videos, by inserting a memory car.
  • Hands-free calling - Usually ties into your phone, and sometimes your car audio system, to provide hands-free calling.

While these features may be useful in limited circumstances, they’re mainly useless fluff. Rather than looking for a Swiss army knife that can do a lot of unrelated stuff, it’s a much better idea to zero in on a device that does one thing really well.

Map Availability

Before you buy a car GPS unit, you should also look into availability and timeliness of map updates.

This is especially important if you’re buying a discounted unit that’s a little long in the tooth. While it’s possible to find some incredible deals by shopping for old stock and factory refurbished car GPS units, it’s vital to make sure that you don’t get stuck with old map data.

If the map updates are expensive — or the company isn’t putting out updates anymore — it might be wise to take a pass.

Alternatives

Due to the prevalence of devices like smartphones, the days of the dedicated car GPS unit may be numbered. These devices used to be the only game in town, but you now have a variety of other options like:

  • Smartphone - If you own a modern smartphone, there's a good chance that you can use it as a portable GPS unit. There are benefits and drawbacks to this, but both Android and Apple include in-car options that make it easier to use your phone for GPS navigation.
  • Tablet - Tablets make better GPS units because they have larger screens than phones, but not all tablets have built-in GPS functionality. If your tablet doesn't have GPS, you may be able to buy a dongle that adds a GPS receiver.
  • Carputer - If you build your own carputer, adding GPS functionality is pretty trivial compared to the overall amount of work required for this type of project.
  • GPS-enabled feature phone - Some cheap feature phones include GPS functionality, but it's typically much more limited than you get from smartphones.

If you already have any of those devices, you might want to check into the navigation options before dropping any money on a new car GPS unit. Most smartphones come with built-in GPS navigation, and some cheap feature phones even offer some type of GPS functionality.

Tablets and carputers can do an even better job of replacing a standalone car GPS unit. And while your multimedia non-smartphone might not be a great choice for heavy usage, it may do the trick in a pinch.