Navigation Systems Put to the Test: The Results

On Wednesday, we laid out plans to take several navigation systems — the pricey factory systems in an Acura TSX, a BMW 3 Series and an Infiniti G37, plus a $180 handheld Garmin Nuvi 255W — and see how they dealt with a range of simple and challenging routes. We started easy, then threw in everything from pit stops and missed exits to recently constructed highways and brand-new housing developments.

The results were illuminating. By day’s end, each of the systems had stumbled at least once. But when we tallied the evaluation, BMW’s Harman-supplied system won the day.

We’ll explain.

Leg 1: Easy downtown route

Winners: G37, Garmin
The G37 and Garmin emerged strong. Both made quick work of the first leg, which took us from our Chicago offices to U.S. Cellular Field — downtown to the Dan Ryan Expressway, exiting near 35th Street, turning right to the stadium. The 3 Series and TSX struggled: The TSX’s navigation system couldn’t locate the stadium’s address (333 W. 35th St.), and the 3 Series needed its ZIP code. We procured the destination from a smart phone, thus satisfying the BMW, and found it in the TSX under the point-of-interest finder. But the Bimmer’s problems weren’t over. Stymied by the loops of the downtown parking garage, the BMW took us on a six-block parade of right turns before finally tracking down a highway on-ramp. Arriving southbound at 35th St., BMW’s female navigation voice instructed a left turn. The Sox played, in fact, on the right.

Leg 2: Suburbs, missed exits

Winner: 3 Series
From the ballpark to Elmhurst, Ill., the G37 and 3 Series found expedient routes that put us immediately back on the highway — the same routing Google Maps would have us take. The TSX and the Garmin, however, routed editors down 2.5 miles of surface streets before finally merging onto the highway. (That jaunt would cost four extra minutes, according to Google Maps.)

Upon staging a missed exit near our destination — Elmhurst Memorial Hospital — the TSX, Garmin and G37 routed us to the next exit down the highway. (Our intrepid editors in the BMW ended up taking the exit everyone else remembered to skip, so we can’t evaluate how it would have fared. Yarg.) All but the TSX used a four-lane avenue just north of the hospital to reach it; the TSX picked a stop-sign-ridden two-laner west of the hospital to arrive. It costs an extra minute, according to Google Maps.

More concerning: Upon inputting “Elmhurst Memorial Hospital” into the point-of-interest finder, the G37 routed us to the hospital’s business center, some three miles away. (We arrived, found Audis instead of ambulances, and backtracked.) The Acura gave us the option of both locations — specifying that one was a business center — while the BMW and Garmin defaulted to the actual hospital.

“If you don’t know the hospital’s address and are in need of medical care, this would be a very annoying detour,” editor Amanda Wegrzyn noted. That’s putting it lightly.

Leg 3: Detours, New Roads

Winner: 3 Series
Our third leg took us south to New Lenox, Ill. The G37 chose a westbound highway that would eventually join our southbound route. It would’ve cost three extra minutes, Google Maps says. No matter; we ignored it. We had a pit stop to simulate, and it required sticking to the southbound route — the route the TSX, 3 Series and Garmin had automatically plotted. The pit stop landed us right off the interstate at a well-worn Arby’s, with no immediate entrance back onto the highway’s southbound lanes.

After a few moments’ recalculations, the G37, TSX and Garmin had us on a 3.5-mile loop to get to the next on-ramp south. The BMW, meanwhile, instructed a U-turn to head west, back under the freeway and away from Arby’s, and onto a second westbound highway. It joined up with our original southbound route, incurred minimal surface streets and got us to New Lenox with time to spare. Editor Joe Bruzek, who travels the area often, says the BMW took the route he’d choose.

The Garmin-toting TSX group arrived second, having both taken the 3.5-mile detour toward the next on-ramp south of Arby’s. The systems differed near the end: The Acura wanted editors to exit the highway some four miles early to take rural roads to New Lennox. It would have added about six minutes, Google Maps says. We stuck with the Garmin’s highway route, which had the TSX arriving 10 minutes after Team BMW.

Alas, the G37 had a mind of its own. Like the TSX, it directed us toward the next on-ramp south of Arby’s, followed by directions for the next highway interchange — but toward the northbound off-ramp, the opposite direction of New Lenox. It had editors driving a mile north, exiting an overpass and re-entering on the southbound side.

Naturally, the G37 was last to arrive.

The Winner: BMW 3 Series

All four systems took recently completed sections of the I-355, and all four found a new subdivision in Plainfield, Ill., though the BMW’s showed a few more roads than the others. In the end, the 3 Series’ system put us on the most expedient routes, even lopping off some time at the end. After a rough start, it completed the evaluation with few of the G37’s wrong-headed instructions and none of the smaller routing issues the TSX and Garmin incurred. It’s not the cheapest or most feature-packed system, but for simply getting the job done, BMW’s system won the day.

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