The Garmin Catalyst made a huge splash when it was introduced to the track enthusiast market. A year later, is it still a revolution?

Staff
By Staff Writer
Jul 23, 2021 | Garmin, Catalyst | Posted in Features | Never miss an article

Photography by J.G. Pasterjak

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The response has been fantastic. Through our own use we felt like we had a great product, but it has been extremely rewarding to see how many people it has helped and the positive reception.”

That revelation comes from Adam Spence, product manager for Garmin’s Catalyst™ Driving Performance Optimizer, the seemingly revolutionary data gizmo that Garmin dropped on the market last year—to great anticipation.

We’ve now had a year to spend with one of the first Catalysts released into the wild, and we thought this would be a great chance to look back on our experiences with the $999 device to see if the hype was justified.

The first positive sign that the Catalyst really is a better mousetrap is the frequency with which we pack it in our test day kits. Since we make our living testing cars on track, we have access to plenty of test gear, and the Catalyst is increasingly being included among–or even replacing some of–that gear.

A lot of this is due to its ease of use—we can get a lot of information for not a lot of effort. By hooking up just a few cables, we have a one-box solution for in-car video, easy-to-read real-time predictive lap timing, and some curated data analysis functions.

Those data analysis functions–while still existing mostly in the proprietary universe of the Catalyst–have actually improved over the last year with software updates from Garmin that are based heavily on customer feedback.

For example, the braking data available in the Opportunities section of the interface now features a deeper dive into the available information, including snapshots of ideal braking points from the video, helping drivers create a better sight picture on corner entry.

So the Catalyst passes, or even exceeds, our expectations for ease of use. But what about the most-hyped feature: the real-time and post-session feedback on how to drive faster?

The best compliment we can give is that the device has yet to give us bad advice. We even learned a thing or two about our official test track, the Florida International Rally & Motorsport Park in Keystone Heights.

Even though we’ve run probably thousands of laps around that track, the Catalyst is still on point with its specific tips for each car we test there.

And, showing how real algorithms are powering the Catalyst’s recommendation models, those tips vary from car to car and test day to test day. For example, underpowered but stable front-drive cars with understeer on corner entry will sometimes be encouraged to turn in earlier in sweepers to quickly build those cornering forces and let the car concentrate on what it does best. More powerful cars will be encouraged to apex later, straightening the line on exit to use the engine to maximize speed down the next straight.

The Catalyst is certainly not drawing from a one-size-fits-all database of suggestions. It’s crafting feedback based on real-time conditions and performance.

We’re also really enjoying the ideal lap function. Many data systems out there will calculate your ideal lap time based on adding your best segment times into a single, theoretical best lap. But only the Catalyst will automatically edit together a video of that theoretical best lap. It’s one thing to tell you how fast you could be going, but it’s another thing altogether to actually show you.

The real-time suggestions are also extremely handy for learning a new track—or getting reacquainted with one you haven’t visited in a while. Within about three laps, the friendly in-unit assistant is providing voice feedback in several corners, adjusting your lines and braking points, and dialing you into the flow of unfamiliar territory. The Catalyst is a must-have accessory for whenever a driver is learning a new track.

The post-session feedback has also been both streamlined and expanded through software updates over the first year. We mentioned the deeper dives into braking performance, but most aspects also got a similar treatment.

Seeing recommendations for specific techniques in each track segment—from braking to cornering speed to the actual distance you’re covering—and being able to quickly and intuitively scroll through them is highly valuable for both our testing and competition endeavors.

Our early criticisms of the Catalyst centered around how different it felt from other data systems. Its output was highly proprietary, really being only viewable within the Catalyst architecture.

But then we started looking at how we actually use data during track or time trial weekends, and we realized that the Catalyst wasn’t giving up any usefulness because of its proprietary workflow. In fact, while we found ourselves COLLECTING more data with more open-architecture systems, we found ourselves DIGESTING more data from the Catalyst.

Collecting all the data in the world is useless if you aren’t examining it, and the Catalyst makes that extremely simple and intuitive. An extensive data review, complete with keys to focus on in the next session, can be performed with just a few clicks before you even exit the car in the paddock.

This was our method at the recent SCCA Time Trials Nationals, where we reviewed the Catalyst data and recommendations before even unbuckling our harness. The ease and simplicity with which that function can be performed, even amid a hectic schedule and multiple responsibilities, means real gains on track in real time, not when you finally get around to analyzing data on a laptop.

And our positive experience with the Catalyst seems to be echoed by other users. We spoke with a former SCCA Solo National champ at TTN who was just getting into track activities, and he told us that the Catalyst was really helping him make the jump from autocross to high-speed competition much more comfortably.

The real-time, on-track recommendation function is now fully selectable, so you can add or delete segments from the recommendation list. So if you just want to focus on one area of the track, or the whole thing, you can easily select or deselect those segments. The Solo Nats champ was using this function extensively to focus on specific skills and corners during the test sessions, and he found the friendly robot voice quite helpful and encouraging as the weekend continued on.

While the Catalyst is helping drivers with advanced skills improve and hone, its true sweet spot seems to be with the intermediate and casual crowd—those who maybe have never used data acquisition to try to improve their driving.

Amazon reviews are full of comments like, “This is a game changer,” and, “With only one track day with this in my car, it has dramatically improved my track experience.”

Many of the online reviewers, as well as novice and intermediate drivers we’ve spoken to at the track, echo that sentiment: Previous experiences with data acquisition may have showed them what they were doing wrong, but not how to fix it. Or they were too intimidated or overwhelmed by data acquisition to properly integrate it into their track days in the first place. The Catalyst solves both these problems, democratizing and demystifying the analysis of data and specifically offering feedback based on that data to improve performance.

Between the simple, intuitive user interface and the wealth of data available in an easily digestible format—regardless of your skill level—the Catalyst will continue to be a valuable inclusion in our testing and track day gear.

If you’re looking to enter the world of data acquisition but have been intimidated by more complex offerings, or if you want to streamline your existing approach to data analysis while maintaining high-quality information input, the Catalyst might be a great addition to your kit.

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Comments
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WonkoTheSane
WonkoTheSane GRM+ Memberand SuperDork
7/23/21 9:45 a.m.

I've been using one this year, and I'm still in love.  All of the fast drivers I know are using them as well now.  I love having that voice in my ear to tell me to apex later or carry more speed :)

Rick O'Shea
Rick O'Shea New Reader
7/23/21 11:34 a.m.

I still really wish it had CAN or OBD2 integration to fully analyze the driver's inputs (braking pressure, steering angle, throttle position) and car data (RPM) to further optimize those aspects too. 

Imagine it being able to tell you to shift sooner/later or hold a different gear through a corner. Or imagine it offering advise on steering input rate, or brake pressure release in the critical trail braking phase.

If that was offered, even at a slightly higher price, I would have bought one 12 months ago.

fatallightning
fatallightning Reader
7/23/21 12:48 p.m.
Rick O'Shea said:

I still really wish it had CAN or OBD2 integration to fully analyze the driver's inputs (braking pressure, steering angle, throttle position) and car data (RPM) to further optimize those aspects too. 

Imagine it being able to tell you to shift sooner/later or hold a different gear through a corner. Or imagine it offering advise on steering input rate, or brake pressure release in the critical trail braking phase.

If that was offered, even at a slightly higher price, I would have bought one 12 months ago.

I thought it was a bit odd too. The functionality seems inexpensive to add. Cheap BT dongle and app. Trackaddicts can do it.

ClearWaterMS
ClearWaterMS New Reader
7/23/21 12:54 p.m.

Does it work for Autocross?  Is that planned?  Lastly, does anybody know if Santa claus and the little elves make this so I can put it on my Christmas list for next year?  

docwyte
docwyte PowerDork
7/23/21 1:11 p.m.

It doesn't work for auto-x.  Given the variable course designs and it not knowing where the start/finish lines are, it can't handle it.  Not sure if Garmin is working on that or not.

I wouldn't be surprised if they do add the ability to incorporate a BT OBD2 dongle to grab more information.  Right now it does everything I want it to do, very happy they figured out the audio/video export feature. 

Brake_L8 (Forum Supporter)
Brake_L8 (Forum Supporter) Reader
7/23/21 4:45 p.m.

They sent me one to test and review, it showed up broken, and I never got another one to try out. 

Everyone I know with one seems to like it, though.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
7/23/21 5:12 p.m.
fatallightning said:
Rick O'Shea said:

I still really wish it had CAN or OBD2 integration to fully analyze the driver's inputs (braking pressure, steering angle, throttle position) and car data (RPM) to further optimize those aspects too. 

Imagine it being able to tell you to shift sooner/later or hold a different gear through a corner. Or imagine it offering advise on steering input rate, or brake pressure release in the critical trail braking phase.

If that was offered, even at a slightly higher price, I would have bought one 12 months ago.

I thought it was a bit odd too. The functionality seems inexpensive to add. Cheap BT dongle and app. Trackaddicts can do it.

It's a little more complex than that, Garmin would have to generate and maintain CAN translation files for every application. Easy for Corvettes and Cameros, less easy for Miatas, impossible for older cars and unlikely for weirdos. 

OBD-II wouldn't get you brake pressure and even throttle position might be a bit laggy. I'm cool with it being a standalone, after dealing with what it takes to move an AIM Solo from car to car. Besides, it's showing you the actual effect of the acceleration and braking which is what really counts.

A local track guy has one and will happily proselytize at length about it. If I was still chasing track times, I'd probably have to pick one up.

malibuguy
malibuguy GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
7/24/21 7:00 a.m.

sounds like an awesome piece.  Ill never be able to afford one

jerel77494
jerel77494 New Reader
8/3/21 9:10 a.m.

Careful what you wish for with OBD2 compatibility.  I've got a 2014 BMW X3 and was told adding a dongle for the car insurance company to see how I'm driving drives the ECU crazy.

ganseg
ganseg New Reader
9/25/21 3:23 p.m.

I have two friends just getting started.  How do you think it would deal with a car problem like a tire cording or a trailing arm bushing that is weak on an E46 BMW (Toes out)?   

docwyte
docwyte PowerDork
9/26/21 9:08 a.m.

In reply to ganseg :

That's a driver thing, not an electronic thing.  It's up to the driver to know they have a bad tire or suspension bushing.

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