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Directions With Dignity

By Craig Stoltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 1998; Page E04

By reputation, guys are reluctant to ask for directions.

So I felt just a bit proud when, during a recent trip to Arizona, I rented a Hertz Ford Contour equipped with a Magellan PathMaster, which Hertz markets under the NeverLost name. It's a device the size of a pack of Camels mounted on a flexible metal arm mounted between the front seats. By means of a tiny computer, some pretty impressive software and a hidden unit that communicates (really!) with a network of orbiting satellites, the NeverLost is said to pinpoint your car on the globe, place it on an ever-updating road map and guide you to a selected destination. Given the fact that it gives spoken directions, too, I figured it would pay off its $6 daily cost in entertainment value alone.

Like any new techtoy, it wasn't fast out of the gate. I had to idle in Hertz's parking lot for 10 minutes just to read the warnings, figure out the tiny rubberized buttons and scroll fruitlessly through the database for the name of our hotel or at least its town. Soon my unruly brood was agitating for forward motion. Humbled, harried and annoyed, I pulled up to the exit gate, got a printed Hertz map and asked the friendly attendant which way to go. We were headed in the correct direction in seconds.

Much to my delight, as we motored along the device suddenly displayed a grid of Phoenix streets, our Contour represented by a tiny purple arrow moving silently along. The streets, yes, bore numbers and names, and the map, yes, moved seamlessly as we traveled. This was impressive enough to make our car erupt in wows and hurrahs.

We eventually determined that the small town we were visiting was not included in the NeverLost database. But, with the help of our "analog" map, we chose some along-the-way points to see how the system would guide us there. Once again we were cheering and hooting, especially when, for the first time, the little box spoke. "Stay on the current road," it announced in a fuzzmouth digitized drone. The map now displayed a blue ribbon illustrating the recommended route, and when major turns approached, the box coached me along with fat arrows and advice.

At length, the NeverLost began to reveal some odd habits and flaws. If you want generous advance warning for a turn, you have to adjust the scale of the display to a point where the roads are not named. To get the names back, you must zoom in to a point where you lose the big picture again. When you miss a turn, however, you can just punch the "recalculate" option and the gizmo, with little hesitation, recomputes how to get there from here. When you leave terra cognita (Arizona's dirt roads, say), your vehicle becomes an aimless, moving arrow on a blank background. A perfect metaphor not only for needing directions, but for pre-millennial alienation to boot!

In the end, the two groups of travelers likely to value NeverLost are: 1) toy hounds who explore emerging consumer technologies as blood sport, and 2) those who rent cars to rove among major addresses in major cities often enough to amortize the learning curve. A serious road warrior could develop an attachment to the chatty little fuzzmouth.

Even -- or maybe especially -- if the driver's a guy.

Hertz (1-800-654-3131) offers NeverLost units with rental cars in 35 U.S. cities. Magellan sells the PathMaster system to consumers for about $2,000 (1-800-823-2547 or

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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