The Best Car GPS

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After spending more than 70 hours researching the latest car GPS models and testing the top contenders over 1,200 miles of rural, suburban, and urban orienteering, we recommend the new Garmin Drive 51 LMT-S as the best in-car navigation device for most people. It’s easier to use and more driver-friendly than the competition. For a reasonable price, you get Garmin’s highly rated interface, more precise voice directions, excellent navigation tools, and the ability to connect with your smartphone via Bluetooth to get extra trip info or to share your location so other people can track your progress.

Last Updated: March 30, 2017
After testing the latest models from Garmin and Magellan, we’ve made the Garmin Drive 51 LMT-S our top pick for most drivers, in place of the Garmin Drive 50LMT. Our new runner-up and upgrade picks are the Garmin DriveSmart 51 LMT-S and the Garmin DriveAssist 51 LMT-S, respectively, both of which are updated versions of our previous picks. All of our previous Garmin picks are still available at discounted prices while supplies last.
Expand Most Recent Updates
January 6, 2017: Garmin introduced an upgraded series of car GPS models at CES 2017, including the 51 LMT-S, a new version of our top pick. We’ve added the 51 LMT-S to the What to look forward to section below.
November 30, 2016: After Garmin rebooted its model line and TomTom released new models, we did a fresh round of testing. The Garmin Drive 50LMT is now our top pick for most drivers, replacing the Garmin Nüvi 2539LMT (which is still available through some retailers). Our new runner-up is the Garmin DriveSmart 50LMT, and the TomTom Go 50 S and Garmin DriveAssist 50LMT are our new budget and upgrade picks.
June 25, 2015: We tested the most promising GPS units across 1,000 brutal miles of rural, suburban, and urban orienteering and the Garmin Nüvi 2539LMT is our new pick for best car GPS. If the 2539LMT is unavailable, we recommend the Garmin Nüvi 58LMT, which offers identical features but has a cheaper resistive touchscreen. Our budget pick is the Garmin Nüvi 55LM, a basic navigator that doesn’t feature traffic or maps for Canada and Alaska. The Garmin Nüvi 2798LMT is our upgrade pick, a 7-inch unit that has a Bluetooth speakerphone and wireless backup camera in addition to the same features as our top pick.
June 2, 2015: After spending more than 40 hours surveying the latest automotive navigation devices—and testing our front-runners via 1,000 brutal miles of rural, suburban, and urban orienteering—we’re anointing Garmin’s $200 Nüvi 2539LMT as the best car GPS. Garmin’s driving interface is easier to follow than anything else available, thanks to the smoothness and precision of the automatic zoom and the nature of the information presented both on the map itself and on the periphery (trip data, street names, points-of-interest, etc.). It's also the most affordable Garmin GPS that has all the important features: a 5-inch multitouch glass touchscreen, a snappy interface, and lifetime access to traffic data and map updates. More to come in our fully updated guide, soon.
January 7, 2015: At CES 2015 in January, Garmin released a number of new in-car GPS devices. Their $180 Nüvi 58LMT looks like the best contender to take on our current pick, offering similar features as the Nüvi 2597LMT but with the added ability to pair it with a wireless backup camera. Additionally, Magellan’s back with three new additions to their RoadMate lineup of in-car GPS hardware. While details on the new devices are still sketchy, initial reports suggest they may have software features comparable to those found in current-generation Garmin devices. We're planning an update of this guide this year, so we'll consider these new Garmin and Magellan models in our next round of testing.
December 15, 2014: Added the Garmin Nüvi 2689LMT to the What to Look Forward to section. We'll be considering it along with new units introduced at CES 2015 when we ramp up testing for the revision of this guide early next year.
January 7, 2014: Garmin has upgraded its Nüvi line, and we'll be testing them as soon as they become available.
Our pick
Garmin Drive 51 LMT-S
The Drive 51 LMT-S hits the sweet spot in affordability, features, and usability. It gives you everything you need for easy navigation without costly extras.

In addition to being easy to use, the Garmin Drive 51 LMT-S includes free lifetime map updates and traffic alerts, new TripAdvisor ratings for points of interest, and—like all the models in Garmin’s Drive series—a suite of safety-oriented driver alerts. These alerts include warnings about upcoming speed-limit changes, red-light and speed cameras, school zones, railroad and animal crossings, and sharp curves. They even tell you if you’re going the wrong way on a one-way street. When connected to Garmin’s smartphone app, the Drive 51 LMT-S can give you more frequent traffic and weather updates, and it can show you parking prices and availability in many cities. We also like that the Drive GPS units can double as a display for an optional wireless backup camera or rear-seat baby cam. No other GPS model provides such an attractive balance of features, value, and usability.

You can still buy our previous top pick, the Garmin Drive 50LMT, until stock runs out. It’s essentially the same as the Drive 51 but without Bluetooth and TripAdvisor ratings.

Garmin DriveSmart 51 LMT-S
Everything we like about our pick, plus voice control, a multitouch display, and built-in Wi-Fi support, for a bit more money.

If you can’t find our main pick or just want more convenience features, you can get the pricier Garmin DriveSmart 51 LMT-S. Voice controls let you easily input a destination without having to type a name or address on the screen. We typically didn’t have to repeat things to make it understand. (It didn’t miss a beat, for example, when we requested directions to Monsignor Drive in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, or Steuben Street in Schenectady, New York.) The multitouch display makes it simpler to zoom in and out by pinching the screen instead of using the + and – buttons. And onboard Wi-Fi support lets you quickly update the device’s maps and software without having to plug the device into a computer.

While supplies last, you can also still buy our previous runner-up pick, the Garmin DriveSmart 50LMT, which lacks the built-in Wi-Fi, TripAdvisor ratings, parking info, and location sharing.

Budget pick
TomTom Go 50 S
This TomTom model will get you from point A to point B for less money, but it isn’t as driver-friendly as the Garmin models.

If you need to watch your budget as closely as you watch your directions, the TomTom Go 50 S may be all you want. It comes with free lifetime map updates and traffic alerts (when you connect it to your smartphone and use TomTom’s app). It includes maps for the US, Canada, and Mexico, and in many metro areas a 3D display mode shows nearby buildings and landmarks as recognizable three-dimensional images on the map. The Go 50 S also provides twice the battery life of the Garmin Drive 51 LMT-S. But although this TomTom model alerts you to safety-camera locations, it can’t match the breadth of alerts that the Garmin units provide. It also can’t pair with a smartphone or a backup camera. And, more important, we didn’t find the screen information to be quite as informative or as easy to access as Garmin’s, nor did we find the voice directions as driver-friendly. While the TomTom model typically told us to turn at a specific street name, for example, the Garmin units’ voice directions referenced easily identifiable landmarks such as a traffic light, a stop sign, or even “the red building.” Even so, the Go 50 S works fine as a basic navigator for everyday use.

Upgrade pick
Garmin DriveAssist 51 LMT-S
This model provides all of the navigation benefits of our top pick and runner-up, along with a dash cam that enables modern safety features like lane-departure warnings.

The Garmin DriveAssist 51 LMT-S has all the features and easy usability of our top pick and runner-up, plus a built-in dash cam that continuously records what’s happening in front of the vehicle and automatically saves the video if it detects an impact. The built-in camera also enables some impressive safety features. For example, it will display a forward-collision warning if you’re driving too close to a vehicle in front, and a lane-departure alert if you begin to drift out of your lane. It can also detect a crash and automatically send a text and map link to a preselected contact. These active safety features are becoming common in new cars, and the DriveAssist offers an easy, affordable way to add them to an older or more basic car. As with all new Garmin units, you can pair the DriveAssist 51 with a wireless backup camera, which means it can potentially take the place of three separate devices.

For now, you can also still buy our previous upgrade pick, the Garmin DriveAssist 50LMT, which lacks the auto-texting feature as well as the built-in Wi-Fi, TripAdvisor ratings, parking info, and location sharing.

Table of contents

Why you should trust us

For more than a decade, Eric Adams has been a personal tech reporter and automotive critic for Gear Patrol, Men’s Health, Popular Science, Wired, and other outlets. He has spent countless hours tinkering with portable electronics, including GPS devices and smartphones, and he has used navigation technology since the early 2000s, covering in-dash variants, stand-alone devices, and now smartphone apps. While using them constantly, Eric has been led astray by faulty directions as often as he’s had his bacon saved while running late to a destination. For this guide, Eric spoke with engineers at GPS-navigation device manufacturers, fielded an in-depth reader survey, and read reviews of the devices in key publications. Then, he spent hours experimenting with the GPS units, both in his office—to understand all the functions and settings without the “distraction” of actually trying to drive somewhere—and on the road.

Rik Paul was the automotive editor for Consumer Reports for 14 years, where he edited the publication’s car reviews and auto-accessory tests, including those for GPS navigators. Prior to that, he was the senior feature editor for Motor Trend, where he organized and wrote the publication’s (and possibly the industry’s) first comparison test of in-car GPS systems in 1996. He still proudly shows off the first “affordable” add-on car-nav system in the US—the $3,000 Sony NVX-F160—which came in 1994, was about the size of a small desktop computer, and could track your car on a digital map, but left it up to you to plot your own route. He has been a devotee of the technology ever since, watching it progress from rudimentary systems that were sometimes more of a hassle than a help to its current role as a vital part of everyday driving.

Who this is for—or when a phone isn’t enough

While many people now rely on their smartphones for turn-by-turn directions, the best GPS devices can still make it easier to navigate to your destination, thanks to handy features such as built-in databases, displays that clearly show what lane to be in at interchanges and which highway signs to follow, points of interest with TripAdvisor and Foursquare integration, a speed-limit display for the road you’re on, a variety of driver and safety alerts, and more natural, landmark-specific voice directions (“turn right at the [traffic light, stop sign, movie theater, red building]”).

For day-to-day navigation, however, a smartphone can work well for most people, especially if you have a car charger and a car mount to keep it where you can easily see it. Google Maps, Waze, Apple Maps, and other good nav apps will typically get you to your destination just fine. And their crowdsourced, up-to-the-minute traffic information is hard to beat. Also, the ease with which you can search for something on your device (a restaurant, a park, the office of a personal contact) and then make it your destination with a simple tap—or a copy-and-paste—makes phones hugely convenient.

Though people may reach for their smartphones for a short jaunt, stand-alone GPS units are better, especially for longer trips.

But smartphone apps have their limits. Most need a data connection to calculate a route, so if you find yourself in a rural area or other dead zone with limited connectivity, you may wind up hunting around for the right road or asking for directions at a local gas station. Yes, some apps let you download maps to the phone to avoid this problem. But that can use up your phone’s storage, and you have to remember to do it before you leave. And many people like to keep their phones free for calls and music. There’s nothing more frustrating than having your phone’s screen switch from the nav display to an incoming call just as you’re reaching a tricky interchange (yes, we missed the turn).

As a result, though people may reach for their smartphones for a short jaunt, we think stand-alone GPS units are better, especially for longer trips. And so do many of our readers. When we polled readers in 2015 about car GPS devices, a majority (58 percent) said they wanted something that could still guide them through cell-service dead spots and wouldn’t drain their smartphone’s battery too fast (54 percent). About a third (29 percent) told us that using navigation apps on their phone used too much of their data plan. Notably, most respondents (53 percent) said they wouldn’t want to use a smartphone app, even if it had all of the same features they wanted in a dedicated GPS device.

car gps garmin gps interface

The better GPS devices, such as Garmin’s, are great at guiding you through interchanges with 3D views that show you what lane to be in and which highway sign to follow.

Many people like to keep their phones free for easily handling calls, music, and other things.

It’s important to realize that this isn’t an either-or scenario—a smartphone and a dedicated GPS unit can benefit from each other. Many GPS models can now connect to a smartphone via Bluetooth, to get better traffic info, weather updates, and alerts to calls, texts, and so on. These days you can also search destinations and plan routes on your desktop or smartphone and send them directly to your GPS device.

How we picked and tested

To get the big picture of this category, we compared the specs and features of all current models. We also looked for published reviews and roundups (although we couldn’t find any that covered the latest models). We did a survey of several hundred Wirecutter readers to see what their preferences were (most of the respondents said they preferred a 5-inch screen, for example). And we looked at customer reviews on Amazon and Best Buy’s site to see what the consensus was on specific models and manufacturers.

car gps group testing

For this update, we tested eight car GPS models, including four from Garmin, three from TomTom, and one from Magellan.

For our newest update, we got the latest models from the major brands and put them through our thorough hands-on testing, logging hundreds of miles on highways and backroads to check out the latest features and assess their overall ease of use. We looked at how accessible the settings were, and how quickly we could input a destination and get a route. We tinkered with the screen settings, explored the various route-preference options, and gauged how quickly we could make the device do our bidding.

The key differences that made us prefer one model over another often came down to human factors.

We drove with them in environments ranging from deeply rural Pennsylvania—far from any cell signals—to the urban jungle of New York City. We drove through rush-hour traffic, had the devices reroute us around trouble spots, and entered distant destinations to gauge variances in routing strategies. Over the miles, we found that virtually all of them are capable of getting you to your destination. But the key differences that made us prefer one model over another often came down to human factors. How clear is the screen, what information does it present, and how quickly can you access it? How easy are the voice directions to follow? How well do the devices help navigate tricky intersections? And how easy are they to mount securely on the windshield or dash?

Our pick

car gps garmin drive 50lmt

The Garmin Drive 51 LMT-S provides the best blend of usability, features, and value of any of the models we looked at.

Our pick
Garmin Drive 51 LMT-S
The Drive 51 LMT-S hits the sweet spot in affordability, features, and usability. It gives you everything you need for easy navigation without costly extras.

All of the devices we looked at performed very well during our testing, but none could match the Garmin Drive 51 LMT-S in its combination of features, value, and usability. It retains Garmin’s great user interface and broad feature set, which together have kept the company’s models among our picks and historically at the top of Consumer Reports ratings (subscription required), making it easier for drivers to quickly access the information they need. The Drive 51 LMT-S is the least expensive Garmin model we tested, but it has a clear 5-inch screen and all of the essential features we expect in a good GPS device, without the extras that many people can do without. It’s effortless to use and instantaneous in its responsiveness.

It will tell you if you’re going the wrong way on a one-way street.

In addition to providing free lifetime map updates and traffic alerts, the Drive 51 LMT-S, like all of the models in Garmin’s Drive series, comes with a variety of key features. They include integration of millions of preloaded Foursquare-sourced destinations to supplement its own points-of-interest (POI) database; its Real Directions feature, which generates more-natural voice instructions (for instance, “turn right at the movie theater”); and compatibility with Garmin’s BC 30 wireless backup camera and babyCam. Like all current Garmin GPS devices, it also provides a suite of safety and driver alerts that give you a heads-up to such things as an upcoming sharp curve, a speed-limit change, a railroad or animal crossing, school zones, and red-light and speed cameras. It will tell you if you’re going the wrong way on a one-way street. And it will even politely inquire as to your fatigue level on a long trip and let you know if any rest areas lie ahead. Each alert is accompanied by a light chime, which you can turn off individually in the settings. Our area, for example, has a lot of winding roads, which in our tests caused the sharp-curve alert to come on fairly regularly. We turned off the chime for that one, so we’d get audio notifications only for alerts that we considered more important. In general, though, we found them to be unobtrusive pop-ups that we could take note of or easily ignore.

The main differences between the Drive 51 LMT-S and our previous top pick, the Drive 50LMT, are the integration of TripAdvisor ratings for hotels, restaurants, and other points of interest, and the ability to connect with a smartphone via Bluetooth. When paired with Garmin’s Smartphone Link app, the Drive 51 LMT-S can display more timely traffic alerts, weather updates, and parking prices and availability in many cities. It also lets you share your car’s location with other people, so they can track your whereabouts.

The Drive 51 LMT-S uses a 5-inch-diagonal TFT touchscreen that permits swiping but not multitouch inputs such as pinching to zoom. It comes preloaded with US maps, though you can also purchase it with Canadian maps. And its lithium-ion battery can keep it going for an hour, which is nice if you need to unplug the unit so you can use your car’s power port for another device.

The Drive 51 LMT-S is the least expensive Garmin model we tested, but it has all of the essential features we expect in a good GPS device.

On its own, the Drive 51 LMT-S provides traffic alerts through the Garmin Traffic service, which it receives through its built-in FM receiver and is the most basic of Garmin’s three levels of traffic info. Alerts pop up on the side of the map, accompanied by spoken warnings (announcing, for instance, that traffic is causing a five-minute delay along your route). Keep in mind that traffic alerts are available only near major metro areas; in our tests, we did have a few occasions when it failed to warn us about traffic jams we ended up getting stuck in.

When connected to the Smartphone Link app, the Drive 51 LMT-S can access Garmin’s Live Traffic service. This service updates every minute, rather than in the five-minute intervals of Garmin Traffic, and is provided by the Here traffic service, which is available for about 50 cities within the US. Overall, neither traffic service is as comprehensive as what you’ll find in Google Maps or Waze, the latter of which is available in less populated areas and can be uncanny in its accuracy thanks to its crowdsourced input coming from drivers’ smartphones.

car gps garmin start screen

The start screen is reflective of Garmin’s overall interface: simple, nicely designed, and easy to access.

Within the search menu on the Drive 51 LMT-S, you can enter addresses, search for specific points of interest, or browse by category, including restaurants, shopping, “everyday life,” and entertainment. The results contain both Garmin-suggested POIs and any relevant Foursquare entries, which are based on popularity and quality. It’s nice to have this degree of oversight and endorsement in the database, rather than just a bunch of seemingly rote inclusions.

Two different Garmin models shown side-by-side.

Garmin integrates Foursquare destination information (left) in a natural and useful way. The latest Garmin models also show TripAdvisor ratings for many points of interest.

As mentioned, a new feature in all of Garmin’s latest models offers TripAdvisor ratings, which we’ve found really helpful in choosing hotels, restaurants, and other places. When the Drive 51 LMT-S is paired with your smartphone—and Garmin’s Smartphone Link app—via Bluetooth, you’ll also get parking info near your destination when you’re driving in major cities. In New York, for example, it gave us the location of available parking lots and the price for the first one or two hours. If you tap on one, it directs you to that location.

car gps keyboard compare

The Garmin keyboard (left) includes numbers, which makes it easier to use than TomTom’s design.

The keyboard has both letters and numbers on the same screen, which other manufacturers’ keyboards don’t provide.

Additional nav tools include a trip planner for entering multiple destinations, the ability to enter intersections as your destinations, and a tool for adding shortcuts to different categories, favorite searches, or saved places. You can program the device to look for more fuel-efficient roads or the fastest route, and also program custom avoidances, such as toll roads, ferries, or even entire roads or areas.

Garmin’s Direct Access feature routes you to specific locations within larger destinations, including stores within shopping malls, airport terminals, and car-rental dropoffs. Direct Access will tell you where to park and then where the location is within the destination. It worked beautifully on several occasions.

Garmin’s display makes it easy to navigate interchanges by showing you which lane to be in and the highway sign you need to follow.

Once you’ve entered your destination, the Drive 51 LMT-S presents the directions clearly on the screen and audibly via its voice function. You can set the map to either a 3D-like bird’s-eye view or a two-dimensional view with either the direction of travel or north facing up. We liked that Garmin’s voice directions were more specific about landmarks than those of the TomTom and Magellan models we tested. In various situations, it told us to “get in the right lane” or “turn at the traffic light,” the “stop sign,” or even the “red building” (instead of just saying “turn ahead” or to turn at a specific road). Such directions make it easier to gauge your turn when you can’t readily see a street sign.

car gps garmin navigation screen

Garmin’s nav screen provides the essential information you need for navigating and presents it in a clear, easy-to-access way.

Though the navigational screens of all three brands work well, we found Garmin’s to be a little cleaner and more communicative, with everything super-easy to locate at a quick glance. The distance to your next turn and the name of the road, for example, clearly appear in large type across the top.

car gps garmin tomtom split screen

When you approach an interchange, Garmin’s display (left) switches to a split screen that clearly shows the lane you should be in and the highway sign to follow. TomTom’s display shows the lane, but the sign information isn’t as easy to read.

Garmin’s display also makes it easy to navigate interchanges and other complex maneuvers by showing you exactly which lane to be in and, when possible, the highway sign you need to follow. The other devices we tested also provide lane guidance, but the TomTom units didn’t show signs. In contrast, the Magellan unit showed all signs at a given interchange, highlighting the one to follow, but this sometimes seemed like a bit of info overload.

car gps garmin tomtom alert comparison

Garmin’s display (left) and TomTom’s display both show red alerts when you go over the speed limit. But in our tests the TomTom unit’s speed-limit alert tended to disappear on smaller roads, when we often needed it most.

The speed-limit readout on the TomTom and Magellan devices disappeared on smaller roads, where we often needed it most.

All of the models we tested also displayed the speed limit for the road we were on, a really handy feature when you see a patrol car and haven’t noticed a sign in a while. But on one trip we made through the small towns and backroads of rural New Jersey, only the Garmin Drive kept showing this info. The readout on the TomTom and Magellan devices disappeared on smaller roads, where we often needed it most (yes, small-town cops have been known to use speed-limit changes to help fill a town’s coffers). When their readouts finally came back, the TomTom read “25 mph” in a 45 mph zone; the Garmin and Magellan had it right.

car gps garmin settings

Pressing the settings icon in the lower right brings up a helpful menu that lets you take quick action on several functions. Cancelling a route takes just one more tap.

This Garmin device is quick at recalculating if you miss a turn, which helps ensure you won’t miss the next one.

The Drive 51 LMT-S’s screen is nicely customizable, and it gives you easy access to the settings menu via a tap on the wrench icon at the bottom right of the screen. There you can quickly stop the route, preview turns, adjust volume and screen brightness, and gauge how far you are from gas stations, rest stops, or food. Some other GPS models require multiple additional menu taps to reach the same information.

As for the routing, we encountered few problems in any of the tests we conducted. When using models from all three brands simultaneously (don’t try this at home), we found that they usually gave similar directions, although we noticed that Garmin’s directions were more inclined to take us on smaller backroads at times if doing so cut corners and got us more directly to a destination. By contrast, Magellan’s navigation seemed to be weighted more toward following major highways, even if that sometimes meant more miles or driving time. This Garmin device is also quick at recalculating if you miss a turn, which helps ensure you won’t miss the next one.

The Drive 51 LMT-S hits the sweet spot with a feature set that no other unit in this price range currently matches.

The graphics are clean and comprehensible, and the display is big enough not to strain your eyes (if you need a larger display, the Drive 61 LMT-S is basically the same model with an extra-large, 6.95-inch screen). The TFT screen isn’t affected by polarized sunglasses, which can dim your view of certain LCD screens if you tilt your head the wrong way.

Overall, the Garmin Drive 51 LMT-S is a handy travel companion that will feed you the right information as you need it, without distracting you from your driving. Of all the GPS models we tested, it hits the sweet spot in terms of functionality, ease of use, affordability, and a feature set that no other unit in this price range currently matches.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

The Garmin Drive 51 LMT-S has a few quirks that we’re not fond of. For one thing, the TFT screen—which the unit has instead of a capacitive touchscreen similar to what you find on a smartphone—lacks real sensitivity, so you have to get used to tapping with a bit of oomph, and scrolling with your finger through menus is far from smooth. We often accidentally activated whatever menu option our finger landed on rather than successfully scrolling. Fortunately, the unit has big up/down arrows to the left that you can use if you don’t like the finger scrolling.

In addition, the Drive 51 LMT-S provides traffic alerts within major metro areas, but if you’re looking for the same kind of precise traffic-flow data that you get from Google Maps or Waze—with the clearly marked, color-coded traffic status of roads, even in less-populated areas—you may be disappointed.


A close-up of the ”Runner-up” GPS.

The DriveSmart 51 LMT-S has a multitouch screen with pinch-to-zoom capability.

Garmin DriveSmart 51 LMT-S
Everything we like about our pick, plus voice control, a multitouch display, and built-in Wi-Fi support, for a bit more money.

Our top pick gives you everything you need for easy navigation for under $200. But if you don’t mind spending more, you can get what we’ve found to be some handy extras with the Garmin DriveSmart 51 LMT-S. It offers all the functionality of the Drive 51 LMT-S, along with a nicer display, voice-activated navigation, and the ability to easily update the device’s maps and software through its built-in Wi-Fi support. When connected via Bluetooth to your smartphone, the DriveSmart 51 LMT-S also lets you conduct hands-free phone calls and receive incoming text messages and calendar reminders, something our top pick can’t do. While road-testing the DriveSmart 51 LMT-S, we found these extra features worth the extra money. So if you appreciate a little nudge in convenience and your budget allows, skip straight to this model.

Two different GPS displays mounted on a car windshield.

The DriveSmart 51 LMT-S (left) sports a 5-inch screen, while the DriveSmart 61 LMT-S gives you a huge, 6.95-inch display.

Once you get accustomed to using a GPS device with voice controls, it’s hard to do without them.

Once you get accustomed to using a GPS device with voice controls, it’s hard to do without them. They’re especially handy if you want to find the nearest Starbucks while you’re driving, for example, or if you need to find a nearby gas station or ATM, or a specific address. (It didn’t miss a beat when we requested directions to Monsignor Drive in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, or Steuben Street in Schenectady, New York.) You simply speak the destination, rather than having to stop and type it in on the screen. (By default, Garmin blocks you from inputting destinations or changing settings while the car is moving. You can turn that safeguard off in the settings, but we don’t recommend doing so unless you have a passenger to help.) That said, Garmin’s voice control isn’t as seamless as, say, Google’s. You can’t just say “Take me to JFK airport” and have it plot a route; you have to go through a command menu that can sometimes be annoying.

The multitouch screen on the DriveSmart 51 LMT-S lets you zoom in and out by pinching, which is quicker than using the + and – buttons on the screen. And the built-in Wi-Fi support means you don’t have to connect the device to your computer to update the maps and software. When connected to your home network, the DriveSmart 51 LMT-S will automatically notify you when an update is available. We were even able to update the software while sitting in the car in the driveway. Easy peasy.

Like the Drive 51 LMT-S, the DriveSmart 51 LMT-S can connect to Garmin’s Smartphone Link app via Bluetooth to receive extra trip info, such as parking prices and locations, weather updates, and more frequently updated traffic alerts. Unlike with the Drive, however, you can also use the DriveSmart’s Bluetooth connection to conduct hands-free calls, which is convenient if you don’t already have Bluetooth capability in your car. (As you probably know, holding a phone not only handicaps your driving ability but is also illegal in several states.) It can display texts and calendar events, too, a nice feature if you need to stay on top of those messages but don’t want to have your phone also mounted on the dash (or to have to fish it out of the cup holder and divert your gaze and occupy your hands while driving).

Budget pick

car gps tomtom go 50 s

The TomTom Go 50 S is a good basic navigator that will get you to your destination. Though it doesn’t provide as much on-screen info as the Garmin models, it does let you know when you’re going over the speed limit with a bright red speed display.

Budget pick
TomTom Go 50 S
This TomTom model will get you from point A to point B for less money, but it isn’t as driver-friendly as the Garmin models.

If you want reliable navigation for considerably less cash, we recommend the TomTom Go 50 S. It’s a fully functional, if basic, navigator that has many of the hallmarks of modern devices, including lane guidance, traffic (through a smartphone connection), and free lifetime maps of the US, Canada, and Mexico. The Go 50 S also has the same 5 inches of screen real estate as our top pick, and in many metro areas it will display familiar landmarks in 3D mode so you can more easily orient yourself with the map.

Though it will alert you to safety-camera locations (speed and red lights), the Go 50 S doesn’t provide the array of alerts the new Garmin devices do. It’s slightly bulkier than the Garmin models, and for us its processor was a bit sluggish in response time when we tapped on the screen. And overall, we didn’t find TomTom’s interface to be quite as driver-friendly or helpful as Garmin’s. But the TomTom Go 50 S will reliably take you where you need to go for less money.

Upgrade for safety features

car gps garmin driveassist

When you’ve navigated to an address, the Garmin DriveAssist 51 LMT-S switches to a real-life view of the street with your destination marked. When the pink circle reaches all the way around, you’re there.

Upgrade pick
Garmin DriveAssist 51 LMT-S
This model provides all of the navigation benefits of our top pick and runner-up, along with a dash cam that enables modern safety features like lane-departure warnings.

With more drivers choosing to add a dash cam to their car, we’re now starting to see more combo devices that serve both as a GPS device and as a dash cam. For our latest update, we tested two such models: the Garmin DriveAssist 51 LMT-S and the Magellan RoadMate 6630T-LM. Of those two, we prefer the Garmin, mostly for the same reasons we’ve described for the company’s other models, namely the more refined interface and better overall navigational experience. Both models also provide a couple of camera-based safety features—forward-collision and lane-departure warnings—that give you an extra hedge against distracted or drowsy driving without your having to install additional sensors. These are the type of active safety features that are common in new cars but are only beginning to become available as add-on accessories. And with these features, too, we prefer Garmin’s execution over Magellan’s.

The dash cam can detect the motion and distance of vehicles in front.

In addition to functioning as a dash camera for continuously recording what’s happening in front of your car, the DriveAssist 51 LMT-S can also read lane markers and alert you—with attention-getting visual and audible warnings—if your car begins to drift out of its lane at speeds over 40 mph. The alerts can be pretty effective at grabbing your attention, although they aren’t as consistent as those of more expensive built-in systems in new cars. We found this feature to be most effective when the road had clear solid lines, less so with weathered or intermittent lines.

Another useful function is that the dash cam can detect the motion and distance of vehicles in front, so it can give you a forward-collision alert (with a bright red band across the top of the screen) if you’re going over 30 miles per hour and driving too close to a vehicle in front of you. It also gives you a heads-up if you’re, well, lost in thought at a red light, and the cars in front of you start to move. We tried both functions, and they worked as described. Fortunately, the forward-collision alert has three sensitivity settings, and its highest setting allowed us to check it out without too much risk; we found the low setting better for everyday use, because it didn’t go off as often. Again, the forward-collision warning isn’t as effective or consistent as on the more sophisticated systems in newer cars, but it can definitely help in situations where your attention may not be fully on your driving. And you can turn each alert off independently.

By contrast, in our tests the Magellan unit activated its lane-departure and forward-collision alerts more frequently, and both functions were so sensitive that they came on way too often. The forward-collision warning would come on even when we were just coasting up to another car at a traffic light. This behavior made the alerts easy for us to mentally tune out after a while (and tempting to turn off). And, unlike the DriveAssist 51 LMT-S, the RoadMate 6630T-LM has no sensitivity settings for those alerts, so you can’t dial them back. Plus, Magellan’s alerts aren’t as attention-grabbing as Garmin’s—with smaller icons and quicker, less-pronounced sounds—which is an important consideration when the driver needs to respond quickly. Overall, Garmin’s safety alerts just work better.

The DriveAssist 51 LMT-S has a couple of other nifty tricks: When you’ve navigated to a destination, it shows a real-life view of the street with your destination marked on the screen to help you more easily identify what you’re looking for. And when the device is connected to a cell phone via Garmin’s Smartphone Link app, it can automatically text a preselected contact and provide the vehicle’s location if its G-sensor detects a crash.

True, you can get both our top car GPS and dash cam picks for about the same price as the DriveAssist 51 LMT-S, but it provides some extra features a combo wouldn’t and eliminates the hassle of two separate devices (with power cords) crowding your dash.

The competition

If you want to save a few bucks and don’t need Garmin’s newest features, our previous Garmin picks—the Drive 50LMT, DriveSmart 50LMT, and DriveAssist 50LMT—are discounted while supplies last. They’re essentially the same as the newer 51 LMT-S models, with some exceptions. The Drive 50LMT lacks the ability to connect to Garmin’s Smartphone Link app via Bluetooth for live traffic, weather alerts, and parking info. The DriveSmart 50LMT doesn’t have the DriveSmart 51 LMT-S’s built-in Wi-Fi. The DriveAssist 50LMT also lacks Wi-Fi, as well as the ability to automatically text a contact if it detects a crash. And all omit the 51 LMT-S line’s TripAdvisor ratings, parking info, and location-sharing features.

If you want all of the features of our top pick and runner-up, the Drive 51 LMT-S and the DriveSmart 51 LMT-S, with a larger display, look for the Drive 61 LMT-S and DriveSmart 61 LMT-S, for about $30 and $40 more, respectively. They each give you a huge, 6.95-inch screen, with larger maps, buttons, and text, but take up more room in the dash and windshield area. On the other hand, if you’re not interested in linking your GPS device to your smartphone for traffic alerts and parking info, you can save a few bucks by getting Garmin’s lowest-priced model, the Drive 51 LM.

Garmin’s DriveLuxe 51 LMT-S is the highest-priced 5-inch model we looked at, and though it offers some features that aren’t available on other Garmin models, we don’t think they are compelling enough to recommend the DriveLuxe as a pick. It has the same functionality as our top pick and runner-up, as well as a higher-resolution display, a handy powered magnetic mount (just hold the DriveLuxe close to it, and the mount will snap the unit into place), and, like the Garmin DriveAssist 51 LMT-S, the ability to automatically text a contact if it detects a crash. The DriveLuxe also has a sleek metal housing (rather than plastic), which is elegant looking; some owners, however, complain that it gets pretty toasty while sitting in the sun.

The Magellan GPS device mounted on a windshield.

Magellan’s forward-collision and lane-departure warnings use smaller icons and less attention-getting sounds than Garmin’s alerts, which reduces their effectiveness.

If you want a GPS/dash-cam combo model and don’t care about the extra features, the Magellan RoadMate 6630T-LM could be a good choice over the more expensive Garmin DriveAssist 51 LMT-S. It has a higher-resolution screen, longer battery life (2 hours versus the Garmin’s 30 minutes), built-in Wi-Fi, similar forward-collision and lane-departure alerts, and a handy pause button for suspending the navigation when you make a stop or a side trip (something we think all GPS devices should have). It lacks the DriveAssist 51 LMT-S’s voice control, Bluetooth capability, and ability to connect with a backup camera or to send an emergency text in the event of a crash. It can provide driver alerts similar to Garmin’s, but the full service (via PhantomALERT) costs $30 annually. Overall, the 6630T-LM worked well as a navigator and dash cam during our testing, but we prefer the DriveAssist 51 LMT-S’s more driver-friendly interface, nav features, and active safety functions (as described above).

The Magellan RoadMate 6230-LM Dashcam Navigator is an older GPS/dash-cam combo model that we previously tested, but it’s still available through some retailers. As with the newer 6630T-LM, above, we didn’t think this Magellan unit had quite the same navigational chops as the Garmin models, and its screen wasn’t as bright as its competitors’, even when set at max illumination. That lower brightness, combined with the normal reflective glare of driving on a sunny day, could make the display hard to read at times. As with the TomTom Go 50 S, the speed limit sometimes disappeared from this model’s screen on smaller roads.

TomTom will be introducing some new models soon and phasing out older ones, including our budget pick, the Go 50 S, and its larger sibling, the Go 60 S. For now, both models are discounted and still available through some outlets.

An outgoing model we tested is the TomTom Go 500, which is still available at a discounted price. Its features are similar to those of our top pick, and it has a multitouch capacitive screen that permits pinch-to-zoom, which makes exploring the map easier. The Go 500’s traffic data is available only when you tether the unit to a smartphone, however, and we didn’t find its screen info and voice directions as driver-friendly as the Garmin models’.

The TomTom Via 1515M was the least expensive model we tested, but currently it is only slightly cheaper than the Go 50 S we chose as our budget pick. The Via 1515M does give you up to three hours of battery life (an hour more than the Go 50 S), but it doesn’t allow you to receive traffic alerts, which is a critical feature for many drivers.

What to look forward to

At the CES 2017 trade show, TomTom introduced several new GPS models, including the Go 520 and 620, and the Via 1425, 1525, and 1625. The new 5- and 6-inch Go models have built-in Wi-Fi support for easier updates, capacitive pinch-to-zoom touchscreens, and Bluetooth capability, which when linked to a smartphone allows hands-free calls, the ability to have texts read aloud, and the use of a smartphone’s personal assistant. The Via models, available with 4-, 5-, and 6-inch screens, respectively, are lower-priced, budget navigators. We’ll test the new models when they’re released and let you know how they stack up in a future update.

(Photos by Rik Paul and Nathan Paul.)

Garmin Drive 51 LMT-S

The best car GPS

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  1. Rich Owings, GPS Tracklog, email interview, August 23, 2013
  2. Jamie Lendino, PCMag, email interview, August 27, 2013
  3. Johan-Till Broer, Garmin, email interview, October 2, 2013
  4. Car GPS ratings (subscription required), Consumer Reports

Originally published: March 30, 2017

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