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.



I have a 2010 328i w/ nav and while I love the car I find the nav sys to be so bad that I recently bought a TomTom Ease.


I enjoy my Lexus factory nav. Thanks for testing that one too. I cannot stand ones that are NOT touch screen. It makes it so much more complicated. I would surely crash and die. I do not see how the BMW won because it instructed a U-turn and save a few minutes. As if traffic conditions couldn't cause that.


Prior to getting a company car I had a 2008 Acura TL with voice activated navigation that was simply outstanding. It also had touch screen operation in case you prefer that method. For the past two years I've been using a Garmin Nuvi and have noticed that the Acura unit was equally reliable and more robust. The navigation system in my wife's A6 on the other hand is so poor that it's essentially useless.


The reason for the I-drive is because you're able to use it while driving. Touch screen panels are disabled when you drive. For me.. I have a lexus RX and its navigation SUCKS compared to a BMW's. Only because it takes forever to type in the address via touch screen while bmw's autofills your destination.. so instead of typing "mediterranean" on a lexus you would type "medi" on a bmw. This to me is a life saver in itself.


I don't need the "I" drive. My Lexus has voice activation. So even though some of the touch screen options are unavailable while driving, it's easier to just say it anyway.


Well I have two BMW's and both of them also have Voice activation that Lexus has. However, Lexus touch screens that I have seen are full of ugly oily finger prints where as BMW I-drive is not messy at all. Also, touch screen systems lose their sensitivity over time due to the combo of dust and oil stains with i-drive you have no such issues. I would take i-drive over touch screen systems any day.

BMW have made a better improvement in its production. However your BMW 3 series is looking nice. But I"m hopefully interested to see some more designed and colorful BMW.
Really your post tells something different to the car owners. Thanks to


I have a BMW 2010 5 series with the latest I-drive. I have to say that in Texas the routing is horrible. Driving from Downtown Austin to downtown Houston - the "quick" route often wantsto take me trough San Antonio -- about 100 miles longer!! Driving in Houston, the routing is usually trying to take me down the slower streets, etc. I'm not impressed.

Dave S

I recently took Euro delivery of a 2011 BMW 3 series. Nav system performance in Germany and Italy was all I could ask for. Here in the States it performs about as well as my Garmin 1400 but with better graphics. And the latest iDrive version is finally an asset instead of a liability.


My wife and I own a BMW and an Infiniti and I can say that the Infiniti system is better. It offers access via easily accessible buttons, voice commands or touchscreen. It doesn't require knowing the zip code to enter an address and we've never had a problem finding a local hospital. The BMW iDrive doesn't suck anymore but it's still not as intuitive as the Infiniti.

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