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Navigating the options for navigation

March 3, 2010 1 comment
Sanyo Gorilla Navi

The Sanyo Gorilla portable navigation system

This is a story about navigation systems. But more than that, it’s a story about maps. So if you’re not in the mood for introspection, feel free to skip the first two paragraphs

I’ve always been intrigued by maps. They’re powerful things: they offer a form of vision unlimited by the context of our limited point of view. They help us conquer landscapes, divide territories and find our way in unfamiliar lands. When I was a child, I would pore over the Thomas Guides which resided in our family cars, soaking up the local geography and drawing the mental connections between what I could see peering out the back seat window and what was so orderly written and recorded in them. On road trips, I would track our progress, past each exit, for hundreds of miles, and announce our location with glee to my parents that they were hard pressed to restrain their exasperation. For me, knowing where I was, in the middle of what I took for nowhere at all, was all the power I had as a tiny kid in a great big world.

The point of this story is that in California, roads are orderly, broad affairs, with names clearly displayed. They were planned by someone, and they were the precondition for the development that followed. I could know where I was because there was a sense to the way they worked that even a seven year old could understand. Such is not the case in Japan.

Why you need it

By and large, Japan’s roads were not laid out in vast cartesian grids, carefully aligned by surveyors and cut into virgin land. They have grown organically with a country that had vast cities and trade networks when the only means of conveyance in my homeland were the feet of the people of the native tribes. They were not laid down by municipalities, but by farmers, local landowners and merchants, and as such, are as disjointed and confounding as anywhere you’ll find; thus is their charm and their curse. Combined with Japan’s weak eminent domain laws and some challenging topography, and Japan is not a country to be easily mastered by a boy with a guidebook. It takes some serious maps, and a lot more processing power than I can easily muster. It takes a navigation system.

Navi, as they’re called here, are as essential to the motoring experience as gasoline. One will get nowhere fast without one, as proven by Jeremy Clarkson in his race across the country in a GT-R. Even locals will pull down a road only to see that it goes precisely nowhere, or is blocked for seemingly no reason. The lack of names for roads in most of Japan – only the largest are named, along with major intersections – adds another dimension of challenge. Finding anything on a map from it’s address is nigh impossible, due to the unconventional system used here.

So with this in mind, you’ll be needing navi if you plan to do any motoring in these parts. There are three basic forms these take, each with tradeoffs to be considered.

What’s out there

Nissan Fuga

The 2010 Nissan Fuga with factory integrated navigation

The first option is to buy a car with factory integrated navigation. Generally found only on luxury cars, these systems are completely integrated into the vehicle’s dashboard design, often with separate mechanical controls in lieu of a touch screen. These designs have the advantage of being aesthetically more a part of the interior’s design, and they often have usability benefits from this integration, with steering wheel mounted controls, multifunction displays with climate control or vehicle notices, and improved sight lines afforded by placing the display high and out of reach.

The trade off of this integration is that the navigation is forever a part of the car. There is little potential for upgradability (other than by updating the map version), and you’ll be reinvesting in a navigation system each time you upgrade your car. The specs on these systems also often lag those of the in-dash units designed by major electronics manufacturers as well, so while you benefit from great looks, you may not have the best functionality.

Pioneer Carrozzeria Cyber Navi

The Pioneer Carrozzeria Cyber Navi AVIC-ZH9900

The next option, and traditionally the most popular, is the in dash navigation system. Most Japanese cars of the past 15 years have been designed around a 2DIN audio unit, and the majority of them will allow the simple exchange of that audio unit for the kind of in-dash navigation seen above. These systems serve as the car’s stereo receiver, with CD player, AM/FM tuner and amplifier, but even the most simple far surpass a factory stereo in media capability. Nearly all function as DVD players, using their integrated display or an external one if desired. They feature hard disk drives or internal flash memory, and can extract and store CD audio internally, and many have SD card slots to allow you to bring music and video directly from your computer. Most models also have TV tuning functionality – basic models decoding 1seg digital broadcast (as is used by mobile phones) and higher end models with full 12 segment high definition decoders. Coupled with wide VGA displays, they are fully fledged HDTVs as well. As for navigation, these systems generally have the most detailed maps and most advanced and responsive rendering capabilities. Finally, their design allows them to be removed when you choose to sell your car, and installed into the next car you buy.

As a downside, to maximize the display size (most feature 7 inch displays), touch screen controls are always used, however, and while remote controls are sometimes supplied, these must be clipped obtrusively to the steering wheel or kept in a nearby pocket. In addition, they suffer from a general lack of integration with vehicle systems, and often require bespoke accessories – a Sanyo unit will need to be equipped with a Sanyo rear camera and a Sanyo ETC unit, and so on – which can push installation prices to the astronomical, should you choose to add a number of options, by necessitating the installation of wires throughout the car. The final downside is price – these units start at over ¥100,000 and can easily push into the ¥300,000 range. Buying one is clearly a long term investment.

Sony nav-u

the Sony nav-u NV-U3C

The final option is to go portable. With the miniaturization of components and affordability of flash storage, portable navigation systems have grown in popularity immensely in the past few years, and the prices they command have fallen significantly. These devices are not designed to be permanently installed in any vehicle – by and large, they feature suction-cup feet for their cradles and internal battery power, with the option to supplement with a 12v charger when necessary. Their display sizes vary from full size 7 to 8 inch models on one hand to tiny 3.5 inch turn-by-turn designs on the other. They generally feature 4 to 8GB of internal flash memory, and have maps and databases which can be just as detailed as in in-dash units. Generally, however, the feature lower resolution displays, simplified menus and lack ETC integration.

Higher end units may retain some of the media capabilities of in-dash units, such as 1seg television and MP3/WMA/AAC playback. Also, select models feature VICS – the Japanese FM broadcast traffic data reporting system – and can reroute you to avoid traffic just as a larger system would.

The downsides to these systems are clear – they are not integrated into the vehicle at all, cluttering the dashboard, and can be difficult to access on the go. Their displays tend to be smaller and lower resolution than permanent units, making them harder to read on the go. They are also an easy target for thieves in a country where car theft is rare, but break-ins are increasingly common, and should be removed from the vehicle when parked.

The upside is of course price – many models can be purchased for as little as ¥20,000, making them barely more expensive than a collection of road atlases.

What to look for

Here are a few things to keep in mind when considering your navigation options.

How long are you going to keep the car? If you plan to sell it quickly, opt for the factory navigation or purchase a portable. Installation of an aftermarket navigation and accessories can drive down the resale value of a car, while factory navigation is generally desirable, as it’s covered under the vehicle’s warranty and provides the cleanest look. If you plan to keep your car for a long time, or if you’re purchasing used, these consequences could be outweighed by the increased feature set of a high-end in dash navigation system.

How much time are you likely to spend in your car? If visions of family road trips are dancing in your head, installing a high end aftermarket navigation system with supplementary rear display may be just the ticket. Improved legibility is a boon on long trips and the entertainment options will keep you and your family entertained for days. If you’re mostly commuting, or poking around town on familiar roads, a portable navigation would be more than adequate for your needs.

Does your new car carry factory options for park distance sensors, rear or corner cameras? These goodies are always less expensive to order from the factory than to purchase separately and install, and if they come integrated (along with the GPS antenna and ETC) with the purchase of a factory-installed navigation system, end your debate now: you can’t do better than get it all up front. When available, factory systems are usually the way to go.

Finally, be wary of dealer options. What comes from the factory is good value for money; what the dealer will sell you is generally second rate and overpriced. If you’re going for an aftermarket option, decide what you want, find a reasonably priced audio shop and have it installed – you could save tens or even hundreds of thousands.

Who makes them?

Portable systems have a fairly limited lineup. Three makers dominate the scene.

Sanyo offers their Gorilla Navi series, which in my opinion offers the best user experience, with a “just right” touch screen and lots of interesting extras. Geared primarily toward in car use, they have great readability and clear menus as well.

Sony is also a player only in the portable market, with their “nav-u” line. These tend to emphasize portability – for walking, cycling and other functions – over large displays, and their feature set is geared toward hybrid use, in the car and at your destination. Their displays are bright and clear, though the touch screens are too sensitive to minor bumps.

Panasonic also offers portable models in their Strada brand. Heavy on multimedia capabilities, they bridge the gap between in-dash and portable.

In-dash systems are available from more makers, many of whom are focused solely on automotive products.

These include Alpine and Clarion. These makers offer the best options for seamless integration of high quality audio with external amplifier control, but lag in the quality of their interface.

Big name products include Fujitsu’s Eclipse range, Sanyo’s Gorilla AV series, Panasonic’s Strada and Pioneer’s Carrozzeria.

With so many options available, multiple form factors, HDD or SSD memory, WQVGA or WVGA displays, bluetooth integration, accessory displays, SD slots and media formats, it’s best to select one by going to a large shop, playing with what’s on display, and figuring out what works for you.

My personal opinion is that the Carrozzeria Raku-Navi and Cyber-Navi are the best of what’s around in their price points, but everyone’s needs are different. So here a few things to look for:

HDD vs. SSD: An HDD offers greater storage options, but at the price of added heat, mechanical complexity and the chance of failure (and an expensive repair). If you want to store all your music in the car, it’s an option, but if you already have an iPod, or don’t mind using an SD slot to store your music, SSD systems feature faster load times, better reliability and a lower price point.

WQVGA vs. WVGA displays: With four times the resolution and a resultant increase in legibility, I wholeheartedly recommend spring for a full WVGA display. You won’t regret it if you do.

1seg vs. 地デジ (12 seg HD): If you plan to have kids in the car, or you spend a lot of time in parking lots, opting for a full digital tuner might be worth your while. I personally don’t feel that I need either…

iPod integration: Most makers offer it, so if you need it, check how much they charge for their accessory cable, and be sure it supports charging. Be careful as well if you have an iPhone, as not all systems support it.

SD slot: This ought to be a must-have for any system – it offers significant memory expandability at a minimal cost. Look for it.

Bluetooth: The capabilities and integration varies by maker, so be on the lookout, decide what you need (if anything) and buy accordingly.

VICS: Traffic data is another must have, but check the cost of accessory antennas, as some require an external beacon which can add a lot to the cost of installation. Since VICS is offered free as a public service, take advantage of it. Pioneer offers a competing service, Smart Loop, based on Willcom’s PHS service, which greatly increases the number of areas covered, but requires a monthly fee. Opting in also allows the system to obtain real-time map updates when new roads open or for temporary closures.

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A-O-Kei Part 2

October 17, 2009 1 comment

In my last post on the subject, we looked at why kei cars exist. Today, we’ll try to get an idea of what exactly these things are.

The stringent requirements placed on kei’s dimensions define the configuration of these vehicles. Most manufacturers take a subtractive approach to their designs: cutting away at the box that defines the maximum dimensions. Boxy forms are not only a stylistic choice, but a rational approach to maximize space within the constrints provided.

The wheels are pushed, literally, to the corners, at the expense of useful bumpers or just about anything else. The wheelbase of, say, a Suzuki Wagon R, for example, is 94.5 inches, less than for inches shy of the Honda Fit, while the 133.5 inch length is almost a full 30 inches – more than two feet – shorter. It’s also nearly six inches taller, despite having a lower floor.

Narrow, small diameter wheels and tires and a compact suspension configuration minimize intrusion into the passenger cabin, and the compact powertrain preserves foot room. But despite these accommodations, the driving position of a kei is startlingly upright – a bit more like driving in a phone booth than any proper cockpit.

Suzuki Palette (Image courtesy Suzuki)

Suzuki Palette (Image courtesy Suzuki)

The windscreen is near vertical and placed closer to the driver than in a traditional car, and the dashboard shallower. The front bumper is impossibly close, and visibility excellent (things are arrayed vertically under a kei’s hood to minimize the length of the engine compartment), such that the uninitiated driver will feel remarkably exposed.

interior arrangement

interior arrangement

Rear seat passengers are afforded plenty of leg room and an exceptional view due to staggered seating height. The exceptionally low floor plays a significant role in making this spaciousness possible. The extra inches rear passengers are afforded comes at the expense of utility – one would struggle to put anything larger than shopping bags in the rear hatch with all four seats occupied. Fold them down, and usable space becomes available. Buy a kei, and you’re presented with a choice: your stuff or your friends.

Unless, of course, you buy a kei van. Mid- or rear-engined cabover designs, they put the driver over the front axle and sit on a shorter wheelbase than kei cars for even greater agility. With the driver’s feet inches from the front bumper, these are not vehicles for the timid.

Subaru Sambar

Subaru Sambar

They do offer massive cargo capacity, and are the near exclusive domain of the business customer. The Daihatsu Hijet may be the best known example of the genre overseas, but the Subaru Sambar is the progenitor of the species, entering production in 1961. Honda’s Acty and Suzuki’s Every have found significant market share as well.

In the coming post, I’ll go through a who’s who of the kei market, and share some information on the different segments which populate it. Stay tuned!

Categories: Features

A-O-Kei part 1

October 6, 2009 1 comment

Japan has its fair share of automotive oddities. Mitsuoka comes to mind. But if you’re looking for mass market strange, look no further than the letter K.

軽自動車 (kei-jidōsha) or “kei cars” as they’re known, are an entirely different class of vehicle from, well, anything else on the road. They even wear a different shade of license plate.

photo credit Suzuki Motors

photo credit Suzuki Motors

The name signifies them as “light vehicles,” but the epithet “light” doesn’t quite appropriately characterize these cars. Diminutive would be more like it. Miniature. The dimensions are dictated by law – 3,400 mm in length, 1480 mm in width, and most dramatically, 660 cc of displacement. Even output is restricted to 64 ps (roughly the same horsepower), and that from forced induction variants. In the olden days, these cars were barely able to exceed 100 km/h. Clearly not destined for the interstate or the autobahn; even on city streets, earlier models were not going to get you anywhere in a hurry.

What the Japanese government has done, then, is to legislate a market where none would otherwise exist. So tiny cars, cheap to operate. Which means you’re now thinking Smart ForTwo. Or maybe Tata Nano. Niche market, razor thin margins – you’d have to be looking to make a loss to build these things, right? Well, no, not exactly. Certainly not in Japan. Because the government has also been sure to incentivize kei so significantly that demand has been created from the ether.

What incentives, you say? 50% lower registration and taxes would be a start. Reduced expressway tolls and looser parking demands round it out. To those of you who wonder what parking demands mean, an owner of a standard vehicle must furnish proof of an owned or leased parking space before any car can be registered. In many areas, kei are exempt from that requirement.

For the companies that trade in kei, therein lies the briliance. Because they are so heavily incentivized, the lifetime costs of ownership – everything after the moment you pay for it – could be two-thirds to half that of a traditional car. For Japanese, who tend to pay cash for cars, that’s money in the bank, and a down payment on the next, without even having to consider the purchase price.

Manufacturers have responded by using option packages to boost the equipment level while keeping the price right around what one would pay for a more spartanly equipped compact. And when price and content are both in your favor, what’s a fifth seat and passing power between friends?

So that’s why kei. So what’s kei, who’s who and what are they like to drive? Stay tuned, there’s much more to follow.

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How Not to Get a License in Japan

September 29, 2009 1 comment

There is, scattered over the web, quite a large amount of information which can assist the resident alien in procuring a Japanese license. From many sources too – I’ve found gems from JET, prefectural governments, JAF (Japan’s FIA affiliated auto federation) and even a few blogs.

Much of it has helped, but it hasn’t saved me from missteps.

There are a startling number of hoops through which one must jump before obtaining that little plastic card. But these are not an obstacle for the organized, thoughtful person.

The obstacle is that nobody has told you what not to do. And thus, an abbreviated list of ways not to get your license:

Don’t be American. Or be from outside Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or Korea. Those blessed few have the luxury of exchanging their license in a straightorward manner. Yanks and the like go through a lot more.

Don’t decide not to buy the book. JAF’s “Rules of the Road” is officially unsanctioned, but in reality, the questions on the “knowledge check” and indeed many of the illustrations come right out of the book. And you’ll need to know them. Just buy it, even if someone said you won’t need it.

Don’t believe it when people tell you the written test is a no-brainer. It is short, but what you may find, depending on the version, that it’s filled with trick questions. The format is true-false, and some questions are written to be as confusing as possible. Which means you doubt yourself on the easy ones. A guide: if it seems reasonable, but involves a specific detail, it MAY be false. If it’s obviously true, it really is true. Don’t overthink anything, and do your research.

Don’t be late. Check the reception hours, and go early: even if you’re on time, they may have already reached the limit of the number of people they’ll take for that day.

Here’s some do’s:

Get your picture taken there while you wait. It’s the same price as at photo booths, and you’ll have plenty of time.

Bring a friend to translate the first time you go. Once you get your application in, it will be more or less smooth sailing, but before they give it to you, you may have to answer some tough questions.

Save your money. Pass the knowledge check on the first time, or you’ll pay the ¥2,400 processing fee again. Tale a weekend driving course there as a walk in, and you may wait, but you’ll get solid instruction for ¥5,000. If you can’t understand some Japanese, look elsewhere – Koyama driving school offers English, but at ten times the price.

Forget everything you know about driving: Ride the lane lines. Turn slowly, accelerate quickly once you’ve completed your turn, brake stongly and deliberately. Don’t use your mirrors: Move your head. Smooth is not the object – you want to show the instructor your thought process. Most important: Be methodical, and keep your hands moving on the wheel.

Since my appointment us due to be rained out by typhoon, it will be a while before I cam say how it wen’t. But don’t be surprised if I tell you I need to drive it twice!

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