Luxury-Car Navigation Systems: Best Bets

Automakers have offered factory navigation systems for the U.S. market since the mid-1990s — early purveyors include the Acura RL and BMW 5 Series — but modern examples go far beyond the pixilated originals. Real-time traffic, voice recognition and a bevy of customizable settings are de rigueur these days, and most systems also integrate the car's stereo setup. Some even incorporate climate controls and other configurable aspects of the car's features.

Not surprisingly, buyers are less impressed with the frills than with simple usability. Last fall's Navigation Usage and Satisfaction Study, an annual report issued by J.D. Power and Associates, pegged ease of use and routing quality as the two most important contributors to overall driver satisfaction. Extras like real-time traffic and voice recognition were met with acceptance but frustration, the survey found, and 60 percent of owners reported problems with their systems, most often with routing and address inaccuracies.

"Having a system that's easier to use is going to have more of an impact on a consumer's satisfaction than if it's simply attractive," J.D. Power research manager Jennifer Amell said. "You may have a system that rates great in how it looks or how the pieces are put together, but at the end of the day the biggest chunk [of overall satisfaction] is, 'Am I able to use it, and if so, how easy is it to use?' "

We know the feeling: Frills are nice, but give us a navigation system that just plain works. With that in mind, we set out to nominate some of our favorite luxury-car navigation systems, from knob-controller setups to touch-screen systems and everything in between. Here are our picks:

Navigation unit in the 2009 Infiniti EX35

Navigation unit in the 2009 Infiniti EX35

  • Best examples: EX35, FX35/50, G37
  • Why we like it: Usability, usability, usability. Infiniti's system combines a touch-screen interface with a full array of shortcut keys, and the results are impressive. Zooming in and out or changing the brightness of the screen requires no submenus; the controls are all there on the dashboard. So is a circular control pad with eight directional keys that make scrolling about the map painless. The audio interface allows you to program AM, FM and satellite radio stations into the same list of presets, something every stereo ought to do. It's no surprise that in the J.D. Power study, the system in the G35 (now G37) ranked first among 68 contenders in overall satisfaction.
  • Notable details: Infiniti's most recent models — the EX, FX and G — have the latest interface. The M sedan and QX SUV have a similar setup but lack shortcut keys to adjust screen brightness. Sister brand Nissan has a similar interface in its navigation-equipped cars. The Altima has a differently packaged interface that we don't find as user-friendly, but spokesman Kyle Bazemore said the system itself is the same. Even if you don't get navigation, many Infiniti models integrate audio and climate controls within the same interface.
  • Room for improvement: The navigation controls in most Infiniti models are close to the screen itself, a location some drivers may find too far away for them to reach. (If the point of having a separate controller is to allow the screen to be high and out of reach, the controller itself should be easier to reach.) There are also a lot of buttons — between 15 and 17, depending on the model, plus the control pad — which can be a bit overwhelming at first. The graphics are mediocre; they're better than the stuff you'll see from most Honda/Acura models and a number of non-luxury automakers, but they lack the clarity of the luxury competition.
An optional navigation unit in the 2009 Lexus RX 350

An optional navigation unit in the 2009 Lexus RX 350

  • Best examples: ES, GS, GX, IS, LS, LX, RX
  • Why we like it: Though not as flashy as the others, Lexus' navigation system strikes a good balance between usability and attractiveness. Most models arrange ample shortcut buttons around the screen, and major touch-screen controls don't require delving through extra menus to access. The colorful graphics are first-rate, with silhouettes showing the footprint of specific buildings when you zoom in on the map. The route guidance shows where to turn in tricky intersections, too.
  • Notable details: Lexus says the current system is in its fifth generation, which debuted on the '06 IS sedan and has since migrated across the lineup. The aging SC convertible still uses a fourth-gen system, which Lexus says couldn't easily be upgraded because of limited space in the dashboard.
  • Room for improvement: Many models still place major audio controls down the dash and away from the screen, and zooming in or out requires pushing the touch-screen; if you miss, it can annoyingly re-center the map. Physical zoom buttons, which Infiniti has, would work easier. To change the fan speed, you have to access a climate-control menu within the navigation system, which gets annoying over time.
Navigation system in 2009 Lincoln MKS

Navigation system in 2009 Lincoln MKS

  • Best examples: MKS
  • Why we like it: Ford's latest navigation system, available in three Lincoln and 10 Ford/Mercury products for 2009, is a vast improvement over its predecessor. Crisp graphics, intuitive menus and touch-screen access — with shortcut keys for radio presets and major menus — make it easy to learn. But what really stands out are the slick extras: Ford and Microsoft's Sync system allows you to dial up songs off your iPod simply by saying them, while Sirius Travel Link displays weather info, movie listings, sports scores and even nearby service stations with regularly updated gas prices. In our brief experience with the gas-price feature, the data proved fairly accurate, and the system was able to easily route us to the cheapest nearby station. That's news we can use.
  • Notable details: The MKZ sedan still has Ford's previous-generation system, but spokesman Alan Hall said the Sync system will be in the entire Ford, Lincoln and Mercury lineup within two years.
  • Room for improvement: One editor found the map and button fonts too small for easy readability, and like Lexus' system there are no physical zoom buttons. Also, Sync won't recognize songs that lack proper metadata — which includes most of the tracks you downloaded in the Napster days.
The C-Class navigation unit has a pop-out style design

The C-Class navigation unit has a pop-out style design

  • Best examples: C-Class, CL-Class, S-Class
  • Why we like it: Mercedes-Benz is one of several automakers that give the driver a knob controller to sort through its navigation system. With this type of setup, shortcut buttons that take you back to the previous screen or patch you through to audio or destination menus are essential. Mercedes' Cockpit Management and Data system, or Comand, does it best. There's just the right number of shortcuts — most versions of BMW's iDrive provide virtually none, and Audi's MMI has so many it's hard to know where to start. Comand arranges stereo and destination menus intuitively, and the screen boasts PC-quality graphics. Punch in a route, and the guidance voice is uncommonly polite: "Please turn left in 800 feet." Yes, ma'am.
  • Notable details: Earlier versions of Comand had low-rent graphics and required too many intermediary steps to accomplish simple tasks. Mercedes-Benz spokesman Dan Barile said nearly all 2009 models have been upgraded to the system's latest generation, though only the S-Class and C-Class sedans and the CL-Class coupe place a knob ahead of the center armrest.
  • Room for improvement: Cars without the armrest knob place Comand's dial next to the navigation screen, which is harder to use than a touch-screen. Scrolling about the map is still an issue, as you have to move the cursor north/south and then east/west with separate inputs. The knob lacks a joystick function that might make this easier. So would a touch-screen, but alas, Mercedes-Benz and other European automakers have largely gone the no-touch route.
Posted on 10/2/08