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I spent the dog days of August playing in traffic. Literally. I was behind the wheel, searching for enough traffic in normally gridlocked Los Angeles to prove out a half-dozen new global positioning system (GPS) satellite navigation systems that claim to get you out of traffic jams.
The concept is compelling and widely used in Europe and Asia. If you take a navigation system that can calculate the best route to your destination and give it information about accidents and congestion, it should be able to figure out a way around them.
In practice, it's not that simple. The U.S. and Canada are playing catch-up because they have no national network of sensors to monitor roads. Instead, the traffic data signal must be pieced together from a mishmash of public and private sources, including news helicopters and police reports. And for the driver, systems that can handle traffic data are still relatively expensive, and some can be devilishly difficult to set up and run.
My travel mates could calculate the fastest or shortest route to a destination, display that route in color on a map, and prompt me with spoken directions. In addition, they all can receive and decode traffic data where available and overlay that information on the map.
Typically, traffic flow is shown as a color outline on or alongside your route: For example, a red line means traffic is moving at less than 20 miles per hour; green, over 45 mph; and yellow, something in between. Traffic incidents, such as stalled cars or construction zones, show up as diamond- or triangle-shaped caution signs, or sometimes simply colored dots.
ITS MASTER'S VOICE
I tried out two kinds of systems: those that come with or can be built into cars, and portable ones that stick to the windshield and plug into the cigarette lighter. I ended up with a favorite in each category. One is the navigation system that comes standard in the Acura RL, the $50,000 flagship of Honda's luxury brand. The other is a big-screen portable from Cobra, (COBR ) a relative newcomer to the navigation business.
The Acura system recognizes more than 500 voice commands, plus every city and street name in the U.S. That means you can enter your destination, for example, by saying "Two-Oh-Three North Broadway." The others require you to touch a keyboard shown on the liquid-crystal-display screen, or worse, pick out numbers and letters by turning a knob.
Acura's was the first to incorporate traffic data when it came out last fall, and it's even better in this month's 2006 model. Acura changed the colors that indicate roads and traffic flow to better distinguish the two. (Earlier, it used a red outline next to a red road.) One quibble: To avoid traffic, you have to call up a separate menu and locate the "detour" button.
Pioneer's (PIO ) AVIC-N2, an entertainment and navigation system designed to replace the radio in your car, comes in a close second. It lists for $2,200 but you can find it for as little as $1,300 at some Internet retailers. You'll also need to buy a $300 Pioneer satellite receiver to get the traffic data and pay several hundred dollars to have everything installed. But it's cool: The wide-screen, 6.5-inch display pops out of the dashboard at the push of a button. (You can also play DVDs on it.) You can store and call up to 100 destinations by voice, and when it encounters congestion or a traffic incident, the system asks if you want it to offer an alternate route.
I also drove a 2005 Cadillac CTS, the only other new car that comes with a traffic-capable navigation package, a $3,125 option. But, with dials and buttons instead of a touch screen, entering new addresses is a chore. Another problem: It displays yellow caution icons where traffic is moving less than 45 mph. During rush hours, the icons can obscure the major highways.
All three systems get traffic data from XM Satellite Radio (XMSR ). It costs $4 on top of the $13 monthly subscription for audio channels, or $10 a month for the traffic alone. Get the salesman or an installer to set up the system for you.
The portable models from Cobra, Garmin (GRMN ), and TomTom work much like the on-board car systems, but they're cheaper and can be moved from car to car. The traffic service costs around $50 or $60 a year, about the same as XM's $4 monthly add-on. It comes from giant Clear Channel (CCU ), which owns nearly 1,200 radio stations across the U.S.
I liked the idea of TomTom's GO 300, which usually sells for $550 to $600. With a 3.5-inch LCD screen, it's small, and it runs on batteries, so you don't need to plug it in except to recharge it. But I can't recommend it. The display washed out in bright sunlight, so you'll have to rely solely on its voice during the day.
Worse, it was a nightmare to set up. For traffic, you have to own certain models of cell phones that can fetch updates and transmit them via Bluetooth to the GO 300. I struggled on and off for three days. Finally, a TomTom techie told me that I had to subscribe to a specific data package from my cell company; for Cingular, that's an extra $20 a month. Oh, yes, you can't make phone calls and get traffic updates at the same time.
Cobra's NAV ONE 4500 and Garmin's StreetPilot 2720, which each sell for $800 to $1,000, use a more straightforward approach. The traffic info travels along with FM radio broadcasts from Clear Channel stations in 48 of the top 50 markets. An FM antenna and receiver pick it off the air and feed it to the navigation system.
I preferred the Cobra, mostly for its big, bright 5-inch screen and its built-in radio receiver. (The Garmin receiver is $200 extra and needs to be installed between your car antenna and radio.) When you encounter traffic, a pop-up on the screen and a voice give you three options: Keep driving, reroute me, or give me a couple of new routes and let me pick one.
Either would be a good choice if you're tired of being stuck in traffic -- and not in the market for a new Acura right now.
By Larry Armstrong