New hope for macho drivers?

Like most other male drivers, I rely on instinct and occasionally, a map, to reach my driving destination. Sometimes it works, but sometimes I get hopelessly lost along the way.

Fortunately, there’s help on the way. Hertz is installing a second-generation Global Positioning System called NeverLost in its vehicles this fall that promises to liberate travelers from the crumply paper directions that take up every extra inch of room on the passenger side. It may even spare a male ego or two along the way.

The handheld computer, which is available on many new Ford, Mercury and Lincoln rentals, is about as intuitive to use as a calculator. You select your destination from a pull-down menu that you navigate with a mouse-like pad at the base of the unit. NeverLost then calculates distance, time and directions to your goal. It offers the directions in a friendly and very non-threatening, female voice, available in one of six languages. It also “shows” you upcoming turns graphically, with a big arrow, and displays a large electronic map of your area.

But is NeverLost worth the additional $6 a day? That depends. In South Florida, where I evaluated the first-generation NeverLost this summer, the console steered me to the Loews Miami Beach Hotel without so much as an electronic hiccup. My friend, who is used to shouting instructions just before the appropriate freeway exit – “turn left now” – was rendered obsolete as a navigator. We were free to appreciate the scenery, to talk about the weather and to not argue about directions.

For peace of mind on that 10-mile drive between the airport and hotel, I’d say the $6 was a sound investment.

To be sure, version I of NeverLost wasn’t without its problems. Chief among them: Certain geographical sections, such as the entire Florida Keys, weren’t on the map, and the volume controls jumped from very quiet to too loud without much in-between. If I had planned another trip to the islands, I would have gone without the guidance system.

But Paula Stifter, a spokeswoman at Hertz, insisted that I try the new NeverLost, and made me promise I wouldn’t review the gadget until I’d experienced the upgraded system. So last month, I rented a Ford Taurus with NeverLost II and drove it about 120 miles from Annapolis, Md., to Pennsylvania. This time, there were fewer gaps in the map (only a couple of side streets failed to show up) and the volume controls worked well. I also made it a point to take the same friend with me, and as before, there was the same conspicuous absence of debate.

The newer NeverLost is a forgiving system. When I veered off the route to use a shortcut, the computer calculated new directions and gently guided me back to the designated path. My biggest complaint is that it wouldn’t let me input a new street address while driving. The car had to come to a complete stop before I could change coordinates – an understandable precaution for solo drivers, but when there are two passengers, what’s the problem? Also, the system maps are only updated once a year, and they don’t include construction or detours.

As fine a system as NeverLost is, I’m afraid it will fall short of its expectations unless Hertz faces the biggest roadblock of them all: Motorists who refuse to take directions. Not to point the finger at a particular gender here, but as a guy, I consider my directional instincts to be second only to that of a homing pigeon.

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