Frugal Shopper: Want To Save Thousands? Skip The Nav System

July 6, 2010
If you're trying to pinch pennies with your next vehicle purchase and not sure about the extra cost of a factory-option in-car nav system, don't get it.

Especially if you don’t intend to splurge and get a completely loaded vehicle, skipping a nav system makes sense. Cross off the requirement that your next vehicle needs a screen-based system, and you'll likely reduce what you pay for your next vehicle by more than just a few dollars a payment. We're talking thousands less.

The reasons? In short, 1) There are plenty of affordable options that are nearly as good; 2) Navigation systems dig deep in your pockets and won’t add much value in the long run; 3) In-dash nav systems are quickly being replaced by smartphone-based systems and, as soon as five years from now, they could become embarrassing ever-present relics.

Affordable plug-and-play options abound

Browse through any big-box electronics store, discount store, or auto-supply store, and you’ll find lots of aftermarket alternatives. Options range from inexpensive, very basic units costing less than $100, to affordable portable units from brands like Garmin, Magellan, or TomTom—some of which announce street names, automatically upgrade, and sell for as little as $100—all the way up to premium units that allow services like Google Search, live traffic and fuel-price data, and Bluetooth hands-free calling, much like an OEM system but at a fraction of the cost.

From my experience with a few of these aftermarket units, they’re plug-and-play simple to use, and address input is often easier than with factory systems. Plus, it’s your choice whether you want to use a simple suction-cup mount, secure dash mount, or console cradle—or whether you want to take it out only for summer road trips or finding your way to that promising weekend estate sale.

CoPilot Live USA

CoPilot Live USA

Have a smartphone already? Less than $5 could get you a nav system

To those who have been keeping tabs, like the reviewers over at CNET, the price of ALK Technologies' CoPilot navigation application for the iPhone has dropped from $35 down to just $4.99.

For less than the price, in most places, of a couple of gallons of regular, you could get turn-by-turn navigation features on your iPhone, including lifetime updates.

CoPilot Live USA

CoPilot Live USA

CoPilot Live USA

CoPilot Live USA

ALK says that street-level maps are stored locally on the iPhone, so there's no need to have constant access to the mobile network for navigation. Just like OEM systems, CoPilot Live includes Lane Assist arrows to prompt you for proper lane positioning, and you can select between 2D and 3D maps or do multi-stop trips.

Map updates are provided monthly and downloaded automatically, though the price doesn't include spoken street names, real-time traffic, or fuel prices. But you can get all that for a modest additional fee.

Meanwhile, over the past several weeks, AT&T has begun offering its comparable ‘Navigator for iPhone’ service for just $6.99 per month.

Got an Android handset or just about any other smartphone? There are plenty of other inexpensive mapping or navigation apps that also might fit the bill.

Avoid the ‘Sell Up’ and save thousands

If you’re keeping the vehicle more than a few years, you should be aware that navigation systems won’t add much value to a used vehicle. You sure wouldn’t think that in the new-car lot, though, where salespeople will be especially eager to get you to consider nav. That’s because many automakers have positioned it so that you have to step up to more expensive options to even consider it.

For example, take a best-seller like the 2010 Honda Accord. The Accord LX, with an automatic transmission, costs just $22,605, including destination. But if you want the so-called Satellite Linked Navigation with voice recognition, you’ll have to move all the way up to the top EX-L model and pay $29,580. Of course, that model includes a vastly upgraded interior, with leather seats (heated in front), upgraded trim, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated power mirrors, Bluetooth, XM Satellite Radio, and a 270-watt premium sound system. But if you just want the nav system, not all those other items, you’re out nearly $7,000—or paying more than 30 percent more on the vehicle.

And on the 2010 Dodge Grand Caravan, if you really must have the nav system, you’ll need to skip the $24,095 SE model as well as the $25,795 Hero; it’s offered on the $27,995 SXT, though, as part of a $1,675 Media Center option package.

On luxury cars, the hit isn’t nearly as bad. If you want a nav system on a 2010 Lexus ES 350, for instance, it’s just a $2,085 standalone option, on top of a total that’s already $36,050 before options.

Some vehicles really are better without it

Besides, the navigation systems in some vehicles are obstinate and difficult to use; the interface, quality, and user-friendliness varies widely, even within models from the same automaker.

2001 Honda Odyssey instrument panel

2001 Honda Odyssey instrument panel

Also over time, navigation systems become burdensome pieces of dashboard real estate, either malfunctioning, difficult to upgrade, or glaring showpieces of old tech. Screens fade with sun exposure, and with computers advancing so quickly, they can look obsolete and outdated much faster than the vehicle itself.

If you’re unsure, ask to see a vehicle at the dealership that does have the nav-system option, test it out, and then go to a store and test out aftermarket units. On some vehicles you might find the in-dash system flawlessly integrated and worth it, while on others it could seem obstinate and already outdated in design.

Smartphones are already replacing in-car nav systems

The future of nav systems appears to be through our phones anyway. According to the telematics market intelligence firm iSuppli, the number of smartphone-based OEM and aftermarket nav solutions will rise from eight million in 2009 to 81 million this year and 297 million by 2014.

In fact, the industry is betting that in just a few years, we might have screens in our vehicles, but they’ll be more monitors than computers. Our smartphones will hold both the navigation applications and the communications and location-based services capabilities.

MyFord Touch

MyFord Touch

We’re already seeing that with Ford’s new MyFord Touch system, offered in the 2010 Lincoln MKX and Ford Edge, with other models on the way. It allows smartphone apps to be controlled remotely via a sophisticated touch-screen system.

The concept makes sense, as we update our handset apps constantly and get better handsets every couple of years or so, while vehicle interiors are difficult to configure for vehicles, which take several years to design and have a lifespan of ten years or more.

So choose carefully. If you frequently travel new routes and want a well-integrated system, or simply need to impress clients with a nav system that’s stylish and perfectly fits the car, go with the factory system. But for everyone else, you’ve got options, and you could save thousands.

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