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
Sep 28, 2021

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

Luckily, satellite navigation arrived to take a lot of this driving pain out of our day-to-day lives, with an increasing number of cars now featuring either a built-in sat-nav, or the capacity for you to make use of your phone's sat-nav systems.

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. And those that don't are often found to be featuring Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.

Read on to find out everything there is to know about this ever-useful sat-nav technology, or if you're keen to get stuck into finding a used car with its own built-in sat-nav system, check out our list of cheap used cars with sat-nav to find yourself the perfect model. Alternatively you can head to our BuyaCar search page and kick-start your used car journey.

How does sat-nav work?

The technology itself relies on GPS - a system of 20 satellites that orbit the Earth and 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 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 road map making it possible to follow a route from one location to another. This GPS data is often coupled with other useful information such as up-to-date road works to help your journey run as smooth as possible.

Sat-navs have become so advanced over the past few years that features such as live traffic updates will also help you to complete a journey via the quickest route - they have become much more than just a virtual road 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 everyday life - and you tend to find them in a growing number of cars too - even relatively cheap ones. If you find using a touchscreen just isn’t your thing, there are other options out there.

BMW's i-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. These can be useful for keeping your eyes on the road - hunting for the right button on a touchscreen can prove distracting.

We at BuyaCar often question the safety aspect of using a touchscreen while driving - 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, although many manufacturers are now implementing 'over-the-air' updates, which means things like the sat-nav remain up-to-date.

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 only the most basic will be without it. Helpfully, some car manufacturers will incorporate 'Nav' into their trim names so you can easily identify which models will be equipped with sat-nav.

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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