Remember the early ’90s when it was the rare rental car in Germany that had air-conditioning? These days ‘air’ is standard on all cars except subcompacts like the Opel Corsa and the VW Lupo.

Now there’s a new gadget that’s almost as sought-after as air-conditioning was 15 years ago. It’s the GPS (Global Positioning System), and as of right now, many European rental cars above the compact category have it.

Here’s how it works: a satellite tracks your vehicle’s location and, based on maps that have been loaded via CD into the car’s factory-installed GPS unit, the device guides the driver via both visual and voice prompts to whatever address the driver has selected—be it a small town, an airport, or a specific street address.

Because there are still cars in their fleets without them, rental companies are reluctant to guarantee a GPS, but your next rental is very likely to come with this feature mounted into the vehicle’s dashboard.

So is it time to throw away your 1:200,000 scale maps for Germany, Austria, and Switzerland? Based on a December experience involving two vehicles with GPS devices, absolutely not.

Let me begin by saying, while I’m not a technical whiz, I’m not a klutz either and am probably a bit above average for my age group when it comes to electronic gear, such as mobile phones and laptop computers.

The first car we picked up last December, an `E’ series Mercedes, at least had a section in its GPS instructional manual in English. Still, getting it to do its stuff was mostly trial and error. But despite the poor documentation and the fact that we had never operated a GPS before, we had it up and running about 20 minutes after picking up the car. It got us out of Munich in darkness and to our apartment in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

At one point we came upon a Munich intersection where the traffic was backed up for several blocks and not moving. I turned down a side street in the general direction of our destination and immediately the GPS plotted a new route. Of course, it wasn’t aware of the traffic jam (that’s no doubt the next generation of these devices), but once we were on a different street it apparently no longer saw the bad intersection.

That’s the good news. The problem with this GPS was route selection, at least in the countryside. The next day we drove to Murnau from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and when it came time to return, we punched in the address of our apartment back in Garmisch. Somewhat overconfident of the device’s ability to get us back, we paid little attention to where we were going until we realized it was taking us miles out of our way. Instead of straight south, it directed us east, by way of Oberammergau. Take a look at a map and you’ll see just how misguided we were. A wandering drive the following day to Füssen yielded similar results; on the return the GPS insisted on a route that was obviously not the most direct.

The second car was a garden-variety Opel Astra. Its GPS had no instruction manual and was quite different than the Mercedes’ device, but with the previous car’s experience behind us, we soon got it going. (Hint: first get the device to talk to you in English.) This one was a bit more intuitive and seemed to have more features, though perhaps we just hadn't known enough to take full advantage of the Mercedes GPS. For a while, all went well, and the device deftly guided us east through the Bavarian countryside toward Appenzell in Switzerland. At the border, however, it all came to an end. Though the GPS continued to tell us how many kilometers remained to our destination, it ceased providing directions. But instead of owning up to its limitations, it kept offering up bogus directions: “Prepare to make a U-turn in 100 meters.” We later learned, of course, that most rental car with GPS have maps only for the country in which the car is rented. Thus if you plan to visit more than one country in your rental car, it's best to bring your own hand-held GPS that's equipped with maps for all of Europe.

So don’t leave home without your maps. You’ll always need them for perspective and, for now at least, their wealth of information, such as which roads are scenic and which towns are interesting and historic. You can also fall back on good maps when your GPS tells you to do something stupid.

March, 2005

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