/ Motoring

Has the sat nav been outmuscled by protein powder?

Sat nav in car

Have you fallen out of love with the standalone sat nav and rely instead on a phone app or a built-in system to get around? The answer seems to be yes, judging by an annual look at what shoppers typically buy.

Each year the Office for National Statistics makes up a virtual shopping basket that it uses to calculate consumer price inflation (CPI).

This year’s shopping list has 703 items including, for the first time, sweet potatoes, e-cigarettes, craft beer and protein powder.

But apparently frozen pizzas and yoghurt drinks no longer have a place in your hearts – or rather your basket. And neither it seems does the standalone sat nav. The ONS says that sat navs were removed partly due to people using smartphone apps, but also because so many new cars have built-in sat nav units. But is that right?

Sat nav: standalone or all alone?

So have you removed the sat nav’s rubber sucker from your car for the last time? Well, perhaps not. Our recent survey found that standalone sat navs are still popular with Which? members.

When we asked more than 1,300 Which? members, 49% owned a standalone sat nav. Far ahead of the 30% that have a smartphone app and 28% with a built-in system.

My Waze or the highway

I’ve just joined the Which? cars team and now find myself hopping in and out of different cars all the time. So it was a question of which of the three options to use. On my first trip into Which? HQ in London, I trusted the built-in sat nav (that didn’t have live traffic) to take me to work.

The result? Inching through East Croydon at rush hour, crawling past the Houses of Parliament and up Oxford Street at an achingly glacial pace. Journey taking an hour longer than usual.

I admit it, the next thing I tried wasn’t the standalone, but an app called Waze – it gave me several en-route amendments to miss traffic and it cut loads of time off the journey.

Having a sat nav on my phone suits me because I don’t need to carry round extra kit (other than the small holder I use to attach my phone to the air vent in different cars).

So which are you using: standalone, smartphones or a built-in sat nav?

What type of sat nav do you use?

Standalone sat nav (42%, 442 Votes)

What’s wrong with a normal map? (24%, 250 Votes)

Built-in sat nav (18%, 194 Votes)

Smartphone app (16%, 167 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,053

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The area where I’d like to see big improvements is built-in sat-navs. It’s great having the sat-nav linked to the car’s wheels (in addition to GPS) when driving through tunnels with multiple underground junctions. This is particularly advantageous in places like Monaco for example.

However, car manufacturers are behind the times. They force you to use their choice of map data provider and then charge hundreds of pounds for map updates which are released only several times per year, unlike Google which provides continuous updates for free. Built-in sat-navs also lack the ability to superimpose real-time traffic speeds on maps, unlike Google Maps. Car manufacturers need to stop seeing sat-nav as a revenue earner on top of the price of a car and instead keep up to speed with the free map and traffic data provided by smartphones.

Of course, there’s the issue of Google maps requiring a mobile data connection, but a car’s sat-nav could cache map data for a large area in the same way that Android phones can, so that map data doesn’t need to be constantly loaded via mobile data.

Unlike other GPS-enabled devices, my BMW doesn’t even obtain the time from GPS. On a GPS-enabled device, it is necessary only to choose one’s time zone and not the time itself. This results in a clock that is constantly wrong, even though a free time source is constantly available from the car’s hardware. This goes to show how little effort car manufacturers put into the design of their built-in sat-navs, despite charging thousands of pounds for them as optional extras.


I have a couple of standalone sat navs, one about three year old and the other about six. Either will sit nicely in the ashtray of my car, so I don’t bother about rubber suckers. One stays on charge in the boot and on a longer journey I swap over when I stop for a break, so no trailing wires to cope with.

My sat navs have not been updated since I bought them, but using road signs and my limited sense of direction, I can cope. I try to avoid driving at rush hours.


Wavechange, it is dangerous to position a sat-nav at such a low level as the ashtray. A sat-nav should be positioned as close as possible to your line of sight (but not actually obstructing your line of sight). The optimal position is at the top of the dashboard, which where most car manufacturers position built-in sat-navs. If you position it at a low level, you have to look down and take your eyes off the road. Even if you look at your sat-nav only while stationary, for example at traffic lights, you are still taking your eyes off the road and can miss events around you, such as the lights going green.


I’ve had a basic TomTom now for over 12 years sitting on its arm suckered to the drivers quarter light. It plugs in to the cigarette lighter socket, but when I forget the internal battery still has plenty of life in it. I can move it to another car easily. I’ve never updated the maps and sometimes end up apparently travelling across fields but with faith we always arrive. So why spend hundreds on a built in device?

We should all still learn to read maps and direction signs though. Total reliance on something electronic is not good – what happens when you lose the signal or the satellites as happens to me from time to time? And planning the basic leisure journey from a paper map, showing places of interest whether scenic or historic, makes it more interesting. Then put it in your satnav using the “travel via and “avoid” options.


Having built-in sat navs in the centre of the dashboard is often criticised for the same reason, though I don’t know whether they result in more accidents. I’ve never had an accident except when someone drove into the side of the car when I was a teenager, so I hope I can manage risk. I don’t think I even move my head to glance at my sat nav.


Oops. That was a reply to NFH. I really should not make coffee in the middle of composing a post. 🙁

Like Malcolm, I plan routes using maps. I doubt that I would learn much about places, distances and roads if I just relied on a sat nav.


I have observed many people who don’t look at the satnav but just listen to the voice instructions so the ashtray might be a good place to put it to avoid being distracted. I expect there are others who just look at the satnav and not at the road ahead.


I do rely heavily on the voice commands and passengers are sometimes amused when I say NO to Jane TomTom at new junctions. 🙂

I wonder if having a sat nav close to the line of sight could distract us from safe driving. There must be a reason why so many built-in sat navs are in the centre of the dashboard.