What is sat-nav?

Looking for a new or used car and wondering about the ins and outs of sat-nav? Our handy explainer will tell you everything there is to know

Simon Ostler
Aug 28, 2020

Chances are, if you’ve ever driven a car before, you’ll have had to travel to somewhere you’ve never been before. Pre-21st-century you would’ve consulted a map and probably required somebody to sit next to you and argue about which turn you should’ve taken five minutes ago.

Luckily, nowadays, satellite navigation has become a prevalent aspect of our day-to-day lives, with more and more devices being equipped with the technology - including cars.

Now, even the age of the Tom-Tom sat-nav feels like a distant memory, as built-in dashboard displays have become the norm, and virtually every car manufacturer offers an in-built navigation system within its range.

If you're keen to find a car with its own built in sat-nav system, read on to find out everything there is to know about this ever-useful technology, then check out our list of cheap used cars with sat-nav to find yourself the perfect model.

How does sat-nav work?

The technology itself relies on GPS - a system of 20 satellites that orbit the Earth and are able to communicate with receivers on ground level.

These receivers can be found in devices we use everyday - such as mobile phones and cars - and the information they er... receive from those satellites provides a pin-point of their current location pretty much anywhere on the planet.

So when you’re driving, the sat-nav in your car will be constantly receiving GPS signals to update its current position, which is then shown visually on the digital map and coupled with up-to-date road networks - making it possible to follow a route from one location to another. 

Sat-navs have become so advanced in the last few years that features such as live traffic updates will also help you to complete a journey via the quickest route - they have become more than just a virtual map. 

Do I need sat-nav?

In terms of general convenience, it’s hard to argue against a car that offers sat-nav - you never know when it might be needed.

Drivers of electric cars have found the technology useful when it comes to searching for a place to charge. Some sat-nav systems are capable of pin-pointing specific locations equipped with suitable charging equipment which is very handy in a pinch.

However, if you have no intention of driving anywhere other than the local shops, then its uses will be limited.

What about touchscreen sat-nav?

This is where it comes down to personal choice. Touchscreens are everywhere now, they’re pretty much impossible to avoid in day-to-day life - and you tend to find them in a growing number of cars too - even relatively cheap ones. If you find that using a touchscreen just isn’t your thing, there are other options out there.

BMW's x-Drive system makes use of a rotary dial to control the various functions of it’s media system. Mazda and Lexus use a similar idea, while Mercedes uses a touch sensitive track-pad similar to what you’d find on your laptop.

We at BuyaCar often question the safety aspect of using a touchscreen while at the wheel - a consideration that might also play a role in your decision.

How does sat-nav work with Android Auto?

If you have an Android smartphone, and your car is Android Auto compatible, you can override your car's standard media software with Google’s own.

This means you can get Google maps as your primary navigation app in your car, and this tends to be a better quality and more up-to-date experience than the standard software offered by the manufacturer.

And Apple CarPlay?

Those of us with an Apple device, such as an iPhone, will find that Apple CarPlay works in virtually the same way as Android Auto - except, instead of Google maps, you’ll be looking at Apple maps instead.

Which cars have sat-nav?

If we’re talking about new cars, it would be much easier to list the cars without sat-nav. It has become such a standard feature in current-generation models that even at the most basic level most cars will have it in some form or another - that includes smartphone connectivity.

If you’re browsing the used market however, it’s important to have a read of spec sheets for the particular model you’re looking at before you take the plunge. Where sat-nav is listed as an optional extra, the exact model you’re looking at may not have it equipped.


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