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Rental Car’s GPS Unit May Give Bum Steer

Special to The Times

“Turn right on North Water,” said the disembodied voice emanating from a little electronic box affixed to the windshield of my rented Chevy Suburban.

The voice was coming from a portable navigation device, and it was steering me 19 miles from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to within feet of my hotel in downtown Chicago.

Called Where2 by Avis, it operates with the help of a satellite-guided global positioning system, or GPS. It got me through detours, around traffic and missed turns, only to miss the mark at the last minute. My hotel was not to the right but to the left.

I know because I saw it standing there.

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GPS devices in rental cars have become popular add-ons for many car rental agencies in the last two years.

* Avis (along with Budget, both of Avis Budget Car Rental) is updating its GPS system. It is going from a small cellphone device made by Motorola it called Avis Assist to the new Where2. It is a customized version of the commercially available Garmin StreetPilot c550.

* Enterprise, Dollar and Thrifty offer their own versions of the StreetPilot.

* Hertz has the NeverLost system, manufactured by Magellan.

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* National and Alamo (both owned by Vanguard Car Rental USA) offer a modified cellphone from Motorola, similar to what is being replaced by Avis.

Generally, these devices cost an additional $8 to $10 per day to rent. Hertz’s device is permanently installed in select models. All the other companies’ units are portable and can be rented with any type of vehicle.

They have proved popular with business travelers because they offer many advantages over printed maps and directions, but they do come with caveats.

In mid-July, Courtenay Turner of Long Beach rented an Avis car at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport equipped with the old-style Motorola device. (Avis and Budget plan to roll out the new Where2 devices this month.)

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Turner, an account manager for Fullerton-based Stauber Performance Ingredients, which sells to the health and sports nutrition industry, had recently been assigned new accounts on the East Coast. She was visiting them for the first time and thought the GPS navigational aid would be useful in strange territory.

And because her flight landed at 10:30 p.m., reading maps would have been problematic in the dark. It was her first time using a GPS.

Her trouble began as soon as she tried to enter her hotel address, 600 Campus Drive in Collegeville, Pa., into the device. The Motorola device requires calling a live agent, who sets it up remotely. The agent said there was no such address in Collegeville, but found it in another city “in the general area.”

Turner pulled up a couple of hours later in front of the address the agent had programmed.

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“I was in a residential area in front of a really beautiful 4,000-square-foot house,” she said. But it was not a Marriott.

A phone call to the Avis Assist operator did not help. Turner called the Marriott, which said her predicament was common. The hotel opened in September and surmised that the street address hadn’t made it into the GPS databases. (When I checked Yahoo Maps, which uses much of the same data as the GPS devices, it also failed to locate the address.)

The Marriott provided a nearby address to program into Avis Assist and Turner drove 35 more miles before arriving at her hotel at 3:30 a.m.

Despite that inauspicious beginning, Turner was glad to have the device if for no other reason than its ability to put her back on track.

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With a printed map, she said, “if you get lost and off your route, there’s no rerouting.”

Other shortcomings she noted included the small, hard-to-read black-and-white display, the difficult-to-understand voice and a GPS signal that kept going in and out. Told that Avis was upgrading its devices, Turner was pleased, but it won’t happen soon enough.

On her next trip, she’s switching to Hertz for its NeverLost system.

Last year, I did a test comparison of the old Avis Assist (like what Turner used) and the Hertz NeverLost. That’s why I was eager to test Avis’ latest effort when I was in Chicago.

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With the help of Avis spokeswoman Susan McGowan, I was able to watch the device and take notes while she drove. Another Avis representative demonstrated how it worked. What I saw was a big improvement over Hertz’s NeverLost and especially over Avis Assist.

Programming is all done on touch screen. With a few taps of my finger on the colorful screen, I pulled up “lodging” and quickly found the Sheraton where I would be staying. The device automatically plotted the route, and we were on our way.

Where2 also comes with a traffic feature that will alert you to any upcoming trouble and ask whether you’d like a detour. And heading into town on the interstate, we encountered backed-up traffic.

So we pulled off at the first exit and put Where2 to the test. It recalculated our route and put us on a parallel major thoroughfare. By the time we reached the interstate again, the traffic was clear.

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Where2 quickly recalculated our routes if we missed a turn. Its spoken directions were clear and detailed, to the point of saying, “Turn right in 30 feet.”

It comes with options for several languages, including British English (“Turn right on the four hundred and five freeway” as opposed to the American “4-oh-5").

It has all sorts of bells and whistles such as Bluetooth wireless connectivity, which allows you to use it as a speakerphone with your Bluetooth-equipped cellphone. It also calculates an approximate arrival time. Mine was 3:12 p.m.

By the time we reached the hotel, it was 3:38. Not bad, considering we had detoured, tested and recalculated our way from the airport. The Where2 performed flawlessly en route, until we were right across the street from the hotel.

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By then, I didn’t need fancy technology to tell me where I was. I just had to look up.

James Gilden can be reached at james.gilden@latimes.com.


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