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Culture

The Rescue survey: Car navigation systems

Is convenience worth a 10x premium?

Is this Audi navigation system worth $2,000? CBS Interactive

One of the things I hate about modern car technology (after the now-standard automatic transmission) is that getting one of the most useful options in a new car, a navigation system, often costs $2,000 or more, while an off-the-shelf navigation unit for one-tenth the price will do as much or more than the built-in nav package.

Compare the navigation systems on a two of my favorite cars, the Acura TL and the Audi A3. On the Acura, you can get navigation only as part of a $3,500 package (which, granted, also includes leather seats). On the A3, navigation is for $2,000 (it comes with a CD changer).

Now, these built-in nav systems have large screens, and the systems in many cars also replace standard audio and climate buttons with fancy touchscreen controls. But for only $300 street, you can get, for example, a Garmin 1490T, which has free traffic reporting, a good user interface, a Bluetooth speakphone for your mobile, and a few other high-value features thrown in for free. First, Garmins and other aftermarket navigation units are portable, so you can move them from car to car (say you rent a car and don't want to use one of their awful and extra-cost units).

Also, you can upgrade your navigation system every few years and still spend a lot less, all told, than you would for the built-in unit. And if you plan on keeping you car for more than a few years, just imagine how that $2,000 nav unit is going to look down the line. It'll be old-fashioned, and you certainly won't get your money's worth out if at resale.

Some manufacturers, like Volvo, are now offering cars with portable navigation systems as factory options. They generally give you a decent portable nav unit as well as a nice in-car dock for it, but you'll still pay a lot for the privilege: the Volvo V50 can be configured with a Garmin portable navigator at $885. It looks like the navigator is a Garmin 700 series unit, available at well under $300 retail. Volvo also has a built-in navigation option for the V50, for $1,800.

Of course, you do have to worry about theft of a portable device, and you may give up slick integration with the rest of your car's systems. And, to be fair, some cars, like the Acura TL, seem to have been designed around their nav systems, so much so that one wonders why they even offer a non-nav version for sale. But they do, which is an opportunity for the tech enthusiast. If you want to have the latest technology in you car and save a ton of money, one way to do it is to skip the navigation option when you spec your new car.