Should You Update Your In-Car Nav System for the Holidays?

There are several routes to choose from on the upgrade road

Last updated: December 04, 2015 09:00 AM
Nav in a GMC Yukon Denali.

Photo: Alan Vanderkaay

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Built-in navigation systems have improved in recent years, and they now offer more features for less money. (Some systems now cost as little as $500.) Compared with portable GPS, factory-installed systems are well-integrated into your car’s operation and controls. They work seamlessly with the entertainment system, respond to voice commands, and can readily access your smartphone’s contact list. But keeping those maps up to date can be much more expensive and take more work than updating a portable unit or a smartphone.

Unlike Google Maps on your phone, most built-in systems don’t continually update themselves over the air with new roads, lanes, interchanges, and businesses, or even traffic laws, such as speed limits and left-turn restrictions. Nor do they offer periodic one-click updates like leading navigation apps.

Instead, updates must be purchased at a cost of $129 to $299, either through the automaker, dealership, or online. Plus, there can be an extra charge for installation. For that much money, you could buy a very nice portable GPS unit with lifetime map and traffic updates. (Check out the Garmin Nuvi 58LMT, for example.)

Check Consumer Reports' 2015 Holiday Guide for our picks of the best gifts, details on the latest deals, time-saving tips, and much more. And see our countdown calendar for top gift ideas for everyone on your list.

Apple CarPlay & Android Auto
Smartphone integration is making in-car updates a thing of the past.

According to navigation-system maker TomTom, 18 percent of roads in maps need updating every year. Unless you have updated your maps recently, you could be relying on really old maps. Navigating to a point of interest, such as a restaurant? Be prepared to improvise. Navteq says more than 230,000 points of interest may be added to their database in a year. So it pays to have the latest maps in your car, and the holidays are a good time to think about getting an update.

We suggest starting with Navteq’s website, where the electronic mapmaker posts links to updates for more than 30 automotive brands. Some updates can be downloaded directly from Navteq and installed yourself. Others make you enter the year and model of your car and may take you to your automaker’s website, where you can download the software or make an appointment at a local dealer to have your maps updated. The updated map software comes either on a DVD or an SD card, depending on what your car requires. Having a professional handle the installation costs extra, of course.

A Navteq spokesperson explained that maps are updated for each automaker every 12 to 18 months. At over $100 a pop, updating maps at that frequency is hard to justify for most drivers. But, if you routinely use a built-in navigator and/or count on it for periodic travel, best budget for at least one, if not two, map updates during your ownership period. During the holiday season, we've seen discounts offered on maps from several brands.

If you’re road tripping for the holidays this year, you probably don’t want to risk heading out with a map that’s more than a few years old. Plus, upgrading maps for a family member can be a kind gift, as they not be familiar with how to do it. And if you have an older car, whose system can no longer be readily updated, take solace in knowing that the touch screen can be a great place to suction-cup-mount a new portable GPS device.

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