Buying & Leasing a Car

Best Apps for Autos

See which car gadgets can make your drive a whole lot easier.

Technology is changing everything from how we shop for an automobile to what we do while we drive. Now smart phones offer an exploding number of applications that promise to make the journey even more high-tech. Phone apps are well suited for on-the-go tasks, such as directing you to your destination. But some functions – comparison shopping for a new vehicle, for example -- are nearly impossible on a phone. So which tool is best for which purpose?

Buying and leasing.

The Web -- via a PC with a generous-size screen -- is the best way to shop for a car. Your first stop should be TrueCar.com for its new-vehicle price report, which gives you the dealer’s true cost, the average transaction price and guidance on what your target price should be. Edmunds.com offers current transaction prices for used cars as well as new cars.

Then try the car finder on AutoTrader.com. You can search new- and used-car listings from both dealers and individual sellers. For new cars, also check out dealer inventory with Kelley Blue Book’s dealer search on KBB.com.

Looking to lease? Try LeaseCompare.com’s tool to compare payments based on deals from several banks. Whether you buy or lease, check Kiplinger.com to help you choose a vehicle based on our value criteria. Our March issue will update rankings for the 2010 models.

Getting around.

Phone apps shine when you need directions to your destination and want to know whether there are traffic tie-ups along the way. You can download maps to your smart phone, and most cell providers offer subscription services. For example, AT&T Navigator offers navigation for the iPhone and other smart phones for $10 a month plus data charges (the download, which includes a 30-day trial, is free). If you have an iPhone, you can also use the TomTom app -- it costs $100, with no subscription fee. But unlike AT&T Navigator, it doesn’t announce street names or provide live traffic reports. MotionX-GPS Drive for the iPhone is less pricey ($25 a year) and offers live traffic reports, but it doesn’t announce street names, either. Plus, you have to load the maps each time you start a route. You can download the 30-day trial package for $3.

The Car Home application on Verizon’s Android-powered Motorola Droid (free and preloaded on the phone) lets you search for locations, view maps and enter a destination to get turn-by-turn directions. (With other Verizon smart phones, you can subscribe to VZ Navigator for $10 a month.) Sprint Navigation works the same way on Sprint’s smart phones; it costs $10 a month if not included in your data plan. Verizon’s and Sprint’s offerings feature spoken directions and live traffic alerts.

For all Android phone users, Real Time Traffic (free) can help you spot traffic jams. And you’ll never have a “Dude, where’s my car?” moment again with Android’s free CarDar Lite. It lets you mark your parking spot and directs you back later. The iPhone app G-Park ($1) records where you parked and gives you turn-by-turn directions back to your car.

Cheap gas and more.

Fuel-price app iGasUp (iPhone, $3) locates the cheapest gasoline in your area. Gas Cubby (iPhone, $7) helps you track fuel economy and maintenance, but you must enter your mileage, how much gas you put in at fill-up and maintenance details.

Trapster, available free for Android phones and the iPhone, alerts you to speed traps and cameras that record drivers speeding and running red lights. It relies on user input and cautions you with voice alerts.

There are even apps for accidents. You can exchange driver information, take photos and connect to roadside assistance at the scene with Nationwide (iPhone, free). Roadside Assistance Lite (Android phones, free) provides a checklist for accidents and lets you e-mail the accident report.

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