Hitting the road with Hertz's NeverLost GPS

Now in its fifth generation, the Hertz NeverLost system has evolved to include features such as a touch-screen interface and Internet-connectivity. We were tossed the keys to a Hertz rental vehicle and given the task of seeing if the system meets our expectations for a modern GPS device.

The fifth generation of Hertz's NeverLost system has been substantially upgraded, but still sports an old-school aesthetic.
The fifth generation of Hertz's NeverLost system has been substantially upgraded, but still sports an old-school aesthetic. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Hertz vehicle rental has offered its NeverLost GPS rental service since the late 1990s. The first few generations were a bit clunky; now in its fifth generation, the NeverLost system has evolved into a much more usable device with features such as a touch-screen interface and Internet-connectivity. But as the NeverLost system has been evolving, so has the world of standalone portable navigation devices. We were tossed the keys to a Hertz rental vehicle equipped with NeverLost and given the task of seeing if the system meets our expectations for a modern GPS device.

The NeverLost Gen 5 system consists of a touch-screen navigation device that is mounted to the rental vehicle's dashboard. The unit features a 4-inch color touch screen with a resolution of 320 by 240 pixels. Just below the screen is a bank of rubber buttons for power, view, back, enter, info, and volume, along with a small directional pad. The inclusion of the directional pad and the enter button seem a bit redundant considering the screen's touch sensitivity, but we can accept that some users may prefer physical controls. Between the smallish screen size, thick rubber buttons, and chunky design (about 1.5 inches thick), the NeverLost's aesthetic feels like a holdover from an era past, more DynaTAC than Droid. Everything about the NeverLost screams, "I'm a useful tool, not a sexy gadget."

The NeverLost system didn't really make a good first impression with its chunky design, but over a few days use, it won us over with its utility and functionality.

The interface is rather basic, but also fairly clear and easy to understand without much of a learning curve. Upon booting the NeverLost, users are immediately taken to the main menu where they are given a handful of options, most of which relate to the selection of a destination, including address/intersection, previous destinations, Yellow Pages points of interest (POI), and a dedicated Hertz vehicle return locations. Buttons for Airline Information and Local Weather prompt the NeverLost to connect to the Internet via an integrated wireless data connection to access up-to-the-minute information about upcoming flights and forecasts, which is useful information for travelers to have at their fingertips. Users can also use Hertz's NeverLost Web site to plan trips online and save points of interest for later retrieval. This data can be saved to a portable USB storage device and uploaded to the NeverLost unit via its USB port, or sent wirelessly to the device using a download code and the unit's data connection using a feature called OTP Destinations in the device's menu. While on the road, users can call Hertz's customer service for help locating a destination--for example a particular restaurant--and have the operator push the location to the device in a manner similar to GM's OnStar service.

Users can upload destinations to the NeverLost using this USB connection or the unit's wireless data connection.
Users can upload destinations to the NeverLost using this USB connection or the unit's wireless data connection. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Users can also search for locally stored POIs and addresses, a process that is streamlined thanks to the device's auto-complete feature that grays out invalid letters on the onscreen keyboard, making it easier to quickly input a name, and automatically displays a list of possible entries once the user has input enough letters to sufficiently narrow down the choices. Once a destination is selected, the NeverLost unit gives users a final choice of routing options (fastest trip and least and most use of freeways) before beginning the turn-by-turn directions.

With navigation underway, users are taken to the map screen. The map features one flat, two-dimensional view with large buttons for zooming in and out. The map can be browsed by touching to recenter the view port or scrolling using the physical directional pad. Tapping the view button cycles between the map, a listing of upcoming directions, and the detailed view of the next turn. Hitting back returns the user to the main menu, but also warns that doing so will cancel the current trip; the NeverLost is no multitasker, but that's probably a good thing.

While navigating, the NeverLost speaks turn-by-turn directions aloud and utilizes text-to-speech (TTS) technology to read street names aloud. Unfortunately, the TTS is only used for the proper noun portion of each direction and doesn't use the same voice as the prerecorded portions. This results in schizophrenic spoken directions where you'll hear "In 500 feet turn right at..." in one voice and "Jackson Street" in a different voice. It's disconcerting and not an elegant implementation of the technology, but at least it works. Although the unit's internal speaker was quite audible over the road noise, we were disappointed to learn that, despite being hardwired to the vehicle, the NeverLost system doesn't utilize the car's speakers for spoken directions. However, we expect that such an functionality would be difficult to implement considering the array of vehicles offered with NeverLost installations.

The NeverLost unit is mounted on the vehicle's dashboard with a heavy-duty bracket and ball joint that allows users a few degrees of freedom in aiming the screen at the driver or passenger. In our test vehicle, a Chevrolet Equinox, the mounting position was at mid-height on the center stack, right next to the audio source display and controls. This low-mounting position keeps the screen from complying with obstructed windshield laws, but also means that glancing at the map requires taking your eyes fully off of the road for a second or two.

The manner in which the unit is mounted renders it irremovable from the vehicle, leaving the GPS device visible and tempting to would-be thieves. Exercise caution when parking your rental car in remote or unfamiliar places. On the other hand, being permanently mounted in the vehicle does have its benefits. The NeverLost unit is hardwired to the host vehicle for power, so there are no cables draped across the cabin and all of the vehicle's 12V outlets are left free to charge your other mobile devices.

Earlier, we noted that the NeverLost Gen 5 is a useful tool and not a sexy device. That about sums up our impression of the unit at the end of our testing. Our qualms with the industrial design of the device aside, it always got us where we were trying to go without incident. However at $12.99 per day for use of the system, it's only really cost effective for occasional use. For the sort of travelers who find themselves in a rental vehicle at least once a month, it may work out to be more cost effective to just purchase and pack your own entry-level GPS device.

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