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    FTC to DirecTV: Stop the deceptive advertising

    The ubiquitous ads for DirecTV featuring Rob Lowe are ever-changing. In the wake a recent Federal Trade Commission action against DrecTV, we can imagine yet another commercial, with the famous former Brat Packer uttering these lines: 'I'm Rob Lowe, and here's the price you'll pay for DirecTV. And I'm Hidden-in-the-Fine-Print Rob Lowe, and we're actually going to jack up your bill.”

    Earlier this month, the FTC filed a complaint against DirecTV, the country’s biggest provider of satellite television, for deceptive advertising. Regulators told reporters they are seeking "many millions of dollars" in refunds for a large portion of DirecTV’s 20 million subscribers. The FTC has accused the company of promoting discounted prices, while the real costs and obligations are hidden in the fine print.

    The complaint details how DirecTV advertises monthly prices that are good for one year. But it’s actually a two-year commitment, and the price goes up dramatically in year two. If a subscriber tries to cancel service before the two years are up, she gets hit with hefty penalties.

    And the complaint doesn’t stop there. DirecTV is also accused of failing to adequately disclose that its offer of free premium channels such as HBO and Showtime for three months has a big catch—you have to proactively cancel the channels, or you can expect your credit or debit card to be charged automatically, the FTC said.

    After the FTC filed its complaint, a DirecTV spokesperson told reporters, "The FTC's decision is flat-out wrong, and we will vigorously defend ourselves for as long as it takes.”

    At Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, we think this story is all too familiar. Consumers are told they’ll pay one price, only to find unexpected fees and rate hikes over the course of their relationship with a service provider.

    We're glad the FTC is going after these kinds of abuses. This action comes on the heels of FTC actions against T-Mobile and AT&T for cramming unauthorized third-party charges on customers’ wireless phone bills.

    When you sign up for satellite TV or another service, you deserve to know exactly what you’re going to be charged in the future before you get your first bill. The price you see in ads ought to be the price you pay, and if the real price isn’t clearly disclosed, the company should be the one that gets penalized, not the customer.

    This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

    Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Do I need a shingles vaccine booster?

    Q. I got the shingles vaccine five years ago. Should I consider a booster shot at some point?

    A. It's not currently recommended. Shingles (also known as herpes zoster, or just zoster) is caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox, varicella-zoster. Unfortunately, a bout of chicken pox as a youth doesn't provide any immunity to shingles, as the virus lies dormant in nerve cells until it’s triggered into action again many years later.

    The major symptom of shingles is a painful, itchy rash that typically first appears as a strip of blisters on one side of the torso, face, or legs. About 25 percent of people develop shingles at some point, and about half of cases are found in adults over age 60, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Those most at risk are people with compromised immune systems and people under prolonged stress.

    Approved in 2006, the shingles vaccine cuts the risk of developing shingles by about half. But even more important, it reduces the odds of lingering nerve pain (“postherpetic neu­ralgia,” or PHN) by 59 percent. PHN can be a painful nuisance well after the rash from shingles is gone.

    The vaccine’s effectiveness begins to wane after five years, but it still lowers the risk of shingles by 21 percent and PHN risk by 35 percent after seven to 10 years. The vaccine is approved for people older than age 50, but the risk for PHN rises with age, so the CDC advises waiting until after age 60 to be vaccinated.

    Learn more about which vaccines you should get, and when.

    A version of this article also appeared in the December 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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  • 03/21/15--05:59: Best safety add-ons for cars
  • Best safety add-ons for cars

    Most cars on the road today were made before cutting-edge electronic crash-avoidance technologies were introduced, but the automotive aftermarket offers a few opportunities to upgrade almost any passenger vehicle. (Read: “Cars that can save your life.”)

    Below are some a la carte safety systems you might want to consider:

    Radars, cameras, or other sensors are used by forward-collision warning systems to scan the area in front of your car and then warn if they calculate that you’re closing in too fast on a car. The leading aftermarket purveyor is Mobileye. We tried the $850 Mobileye 560, a device that combines numerous functions.

    Using a miniature camera installed behind the inside mirror and a small display with a built in speaker that mounts to the dash, the Mobileye 560 gives audible and visual warnings if you are following too closely, begin leaving your lane without signaling, or are approaching a pedestrian or bicyclist. It can even read speed-limit signs, monitoring your speed, and dip your high beams automatically. You can also use a smart phone as the display for its various warning functions. Professional installation is strongly recommended.

    What you don’t get with typical aftermarket set ups is the automatic braking function that comes with the more advanced forward-collision systems found in more and more new cars. (See our list of new cars offering advanced safety features.)

    Learn more about car safety.

    Looking where the driver may struggle to see, blind-spot warning (BSW) systems provide alert when vehicles are lurking in the blind zones in adjacent lanes. Several aftermarket kits are available to add this useful feature, complete with sensors, electronics, and LED warning lights that are installed near the outside mirrors. When the system detects a vehicle in one of the blind zones, it lights up LEDs mounted near your side mirrors. An audible warning chirps if you start changing lanes into the path of a vehicle or some other obstruction alongside.

    One we tried, the Goshers Blind Spot Detection system ($250 retail) worked well, but we found it a bit trigger-happy at times, even when we adjusted its sensitivity to the minimum setting. Installation involves boring holes in the rear bumper for the two ultrasonic sensors, as well as running wiring into the cabin and splicing into the car’s electrical system. That means professional installation is practically a must.

    Backup cameras are both a safety and a convenience item. With their bumper-level view aft they can help prevent back-over accidents, and they’re also very handy for parking in tight spaces and for lining up a trailer with your hitch. Prices start at around $100, with many name-brand systems available in the $300 to $500 range. Professional installation is strongly recommended, which can add $100 to $150. Some of the same manufacturers also make backup sensors, and lane-departure and forward-collision warning systems. Some tie-in with specific portable GPS navigators, while others include their own monitor.

    The easiest to install are wireless systems, which use a small transmitter to beam a signal from the rear-mounted camera to a display screen on or near the dashboard. That’s simpler to install than a wired system, which involves running concealed cable from trunk to cabin. Features to look for include a wide angle of view, night-vision capabilities, and guide lines that overlay the video image, showing the car’s path. To minimize interference from other devices, look for a system that uses a digital rather than analog signal.

    Some systems use a display that clips over and substitutes for the inside mirror. It shows the camera image when you shift into Reverse and becomes a mirror again when you shift into Drive. Other designs go on the sun visor or attach to the dash or windshield like a portable navigation unit does. You may have to contend with a power cord dangling down toward a lighter socket, which isn’t very discreet, or route the cord under the windshield-surround trim.

    If your car already has a built-in video screen, say for a navigation system, and there’s a video input provision available, some backup cameras can use that for their camera display.

    If you’re not comfortable tinkering with a car’s wiring and removing interior panels, consider using a professional installer. They have the tools and accessories that may be necessary to complete the installation. For Mobileye, the technician should have a credential as a Mobile Electronics Certified Professional.  

    Upgrade or replace? Read “Do you really need a new car?” to walk through the pros and cons.

    Gordon Hard

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Don't take Benadryl every day for allergies

    Q. Is it OK to take Benadryl every day to treat my allergies?

    A. It’s not a good idea. Benadryl Allergy (diphenhydramine and generic) and similar first-generation antihistamines used to treat allergy symptoms, such as chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton Allergy and generic), shouldn’t be taken for long periods of time. Besides having side effects including drowsiness, confusion, and urinary retention, a new study shows that frequent, long-term use of older antihistamines are associated with an increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

    The study found that also to be true for certain drugs used to treat depression, asthma, overactive bladder, and Parkinson’s. Those types of drugs are known as anticholinergics, and they block the substance acetylcholine, which is involved in learning, memory, and muscle contractions.

    The study, published online in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in January, looked at 10 years' worth of pharmacy data, including prescription and over-the-counter drugs, taken by 3,434 adults age 65 or older who didn’t have dementia at the beginning of the study. Researchers at the University of Washington School of Pharmacy then tracked them for about seven years. During that time, 797 participants (23 percent) developed dementia.

    Researchers found that people who had regularly taken any type of anticholinergic, including the older antihistamines like chlorpheniramine and diphenhydramine, were more likely to develop the disease than those who had not, and those who’d taken the drugs for three years or more had an even higher risk.

    Learn more about allergy treatments in our CR Best Buy Drugs Antihistamines Report.

    While additional research is needed, the study’s findings and several previous studies suggest an association between taking older antihistamines over a period of time and cognitive decline, particularly in older adults.

    If you need an allergy medicine, consider a newer, “second-generation” antihistamine like our Best Buy picks loratadine (Claritin and generic), or cetirizine (Zyrtec and generic)—though don't take either for longer than you need to. Those newer antihistamines, our analysis shows, are equally as effective at reducing allergy symptoms than the older ones, and have fewer side effects, namely drowsiness. They also appear to have a lower risk of causing memory problems.

    Some people respond better to one of the newer antihistamines over others, so some trial and error may be necessary. Preventive measures, such as staying indoors when the pollen count is high and washing your hands and face after spending time outdoors, can also help.

    —Ginger Skinner

    These materials were made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by a multistate settlement of consumer fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Don't rush to expensive drugs for an enlarged prostate

    If you’re a man of a certain age and find yourself running to the bathroom often, there’s a good chance you’re suffering from benign prostatic hyperplasia, or BPH.

    An enlarged prostate gland can lead to a weak or sputtering urine stream by pressing against the urethra or by triggering spasms in the muscle that surrounds it. But you don’t always need a drug to solve the problem, because lifestyle changes can often help. And when you do need drugs, you probably don’t need one of the expensive medications often pitched on TV ads. Our Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs recommendation is the generic drug doxazosin, which you can get for around $4 per month at CVS, Walgreens, and other chains. It often works just as well and is just as safe as more expensive medications, including tamsulosin (Flomax and generic).

    See why we say you should skip saw palmetto for enlarged prostates.

    Another advantage of doxazosin is that you can split higher-dose tablets in half, with the approval of your doctor or pharmacist, lowering your costs even more. Extended-release pills such as tamsulosin can’t be split.

    Before you turn to any drug, try these lifestyle changes first:

    • Cut back on drinks between dinner and bedtime, especially alcoholic and caffeinated beverages.
    • Limit the use of antihistamines and decongestants, which can prevent muscles around the bladder from relaxing.
    • If you take a diuretic for high blood pressure, ask your doctor about changing the time you take it, reducing the dose, or trying a different drug.
    • Wait a minute after urinating and then try again, pressing a finger behind the scrotum and pulling up to the base of the penis, to expel any remaining urine.

    This article also appeared in the April 2015 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.  

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How to turn off snooping smart TV features

    A few weeks ago, I investigated automatic content recognition (ACR) systems found on televisions from Samsung, LG, and Vizio. This technology, which has been deeply integrated into many smart TVs since 2012, is designed to identify what viewers are watching, then send that information in real time to the TV manufacturers' third-party vendors. Those vendors are generally companies that most consumers have never heard of, such as Enswers and Cognitive Networks, which hope to use customer viewing habits for marketing or analytics purposes.

    The feedback I've gotten from most readers is: "I don't want my TV tracking me. How can I turn this stuff off?" If you pay close attention when you first set up your television, all three manufacturers give you a chance to opt out of these technologies while reviewing their privacy policies. But if you're like most people, you didn't scrutinize the lengthy legalese when you were trying to get your new TV up and running. And that's okay, because all of these smart TVs have menu settings you can use to shut the content-sniffing features down later. Here's where to look.

    Samsung

    Samsung's ACR controls are found under its TVs' "Smart Hub" menu. Look for a submenu titled "Terms & Policy," then select "SyncPlus and Marketing." There you'll be given the option to disable the feature. By the way, while you're in the Terms & Policy menu, you might want to consider turning off "Voice Recognition Services" (which will disable voice control—another controversial feature that sends your voice commands to a third-party vendor for processing), and you may want to disagree with the "Yahoo Privacy Policy" as well ( Yahoo is an interactive content partner of Samsung's).
    Want to learn more about how to protect your privacy? Check out our Paranoid's guide to digital security.

    LG

    During our investigation, LG stated that ACR technology is not currently enabled on some of its newer WebOS sets. However, plenty of LG TVs still run its earlier smart TV interface, and those televisions use a version of ACR called "Live Plus." You can disable Live Plus by looking in the settings for the "Options" menu, then opening the "Live Plus" submenu. There you can toggle the feature on and off.

    Vizio

    Vizio calls its content recognition system "Smart Interactivity." You can find it under the System settings. The controls for Smart Interactivity can be found in a menu called "Reset & Admin."  Set the feature to "off" and it should disable the ACR.
     
    —Glenn Derene

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    3 things to do at the car dealership

    Buying a car is an entire process, beginning with dreaming and research, moving on to test drives, and finally negotiation and purchase. Doing your homework up front, creating a smart shopping list factoring road test performance, reliability, and safety can ensure you’re targeting the best vehicles in your class. Then you have to determine which among these vehicles is best for you.

    To help with the vital dealership experience, we have distilled tips from our extensive new-car buying guide.

    All the research and ratings in the world don’t matter if the car isn’t comfortable for you, nor satisfy the family’s needs. Make your intentions clear to the salesperson: You’re at the dealership to check out a car and take a test drive. Sales staff are generally very knowledgeable about the products and can provide a good walk-around, highlighting key features.

    Do take the time to sit in the driver’s seat, adjusting the seat, headrest, steering wheel, and mirrors, and assessing the driving position. Is it comfortable? Good visibility? Adequate leg and head room?

    Check out the controls. Are they easy to reach and understand? Does the system pair with your smart phone easily? Are connected features intuitive? (Of course, don’t import your personal phone data into the car.) Try the back seat to ensure it meets your needs, based on how you would have the front seats configured. Is there enough cabin storage? Rear cargo space?

    Learn more about car fit.

    You’ve already done a big part of the vehicle evaluation without even leaving the dealership’s lot. Now it’s time to get the feel of the vehicle in motion. The best way to do that is to eliminate as many distractions as possible. Many dealers will let you do the test drive by yourself, but some will insist on sending a salesperson along.  Because the last thing you need is someone jabbering in your ear while you’re trying to concentrate on the vehicle, a companion can help by engaging the salesperson in conversation—or simply ask for some quiet time to review the vehicle.

    Methodically focus on each element of the vehicle dynamics. Does it accelerate briskly and easily? How is the car under part throttle, like on a typical drive?

    Is the ride soft, harsh, or somewhere in-between? Does the suspension isolate you from the road or do you feel every bump and ripple?

    Do the brakes feel responsive without being too jerky? Feel how the vehicle responds when you depress the brake pedal, both softly and with more force. Braking should be smooth and progressive, and it should be easy to get just the right amount of whoa power without stopping too quickly or not quickly enough.

    Does the car respond well to quick steering maneuvers? Does it track well when driving straight ahead on the highway or do you need to make small, continual corrections with the steering wheel? Does the car feel relaxed or too darty to be comfortable? And does it stay relatively composed on rough roads? (During a test drive, don’t try to test a vehicle at its handling and braking limits to see how it would respond when you’re trying to avoid an accident.)

    And finally, listen. Is there excessive engine, road, or wind noise?

    Learn how to plan your test drive.

    Although you may have fallen in love on the drive, do not be swayed into buying the same day. Do your diligence. Check out all of the cars on your list, then make the final decision at home, referring to notes and checking latest transaction pricing. Sales staff will often add an element of urgency, citing sales, rebates, and inventory issues to drive a deal. Buying a new car is a major purchase; take your time and do it on your terms.

    Since you did your homework, you’re familiar with your budget, current interest rates, latest incentives, and even what transaction prices are in your area. (This information and much more is available via the ConsumerReports.org car model pages.)

    Once you and your family choose the right car, then sharpen your pencil on figures, including fair trade-in values. Negotiation is an art the sales staff practices daily. Best keep this phase for another day, when you’re properly prepared and not giddy from your first test drive.

    If you’re close to a decision, but not sure, take another test drive in a similar car at another dealership. The different venue may bring a new experience and insights, and you might open the door to an even better deal.

    Learn more about buying a new or used car.

    Jeff Bartlett

     

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Try over-the-counter allergy medicine first

    Q. I know that some allergy medications are sold over the counter and some are prescription only. What’s the difference?

    A. In terms of effectiveness, not much. The antihistamines loratadine (Claritin and generic), cetirizine (Zyrtec and generic), and fexofenadine (Allegra and generic) are all approved for over-the-counter sales. Two others, desloratadine (Clarinex and generic) and levocetirizine (Xyzal and generic), are prescription-only.

    Find out why you shouldn't take Benadryl every day to treat seasonal allergies.

    Generally, all of those antihistamines are equally effective at relieving symptoms. But different allergy meds work better for different people, so you may need to try more than one. Our advice: Start with OTC generic cetirizine or lor­a­tadine, which were the lowest-priced when we last checked.

    If you don’t get relief from antihistamines, you may want to try (or add) a steroid nasal spray. One, triamcinolone, is now available OTC as Nasacort Allergy 24HR. And it’s just as effective as prescription nasal steroids.

    Learn more about allergy treatments in our CR Best Buy Drugs Antihistamines Report.

    This article also appeared in the April 2015 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.  

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Find a kitchen remodeling plan that fits your budget

    Kitchen remodels come in all shapes and sizes, from the mostly DIY cosmetic update to a full-scale multi-month renovation, with price tags ranging from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands. Fortunately, wherever you fall on the scope-and-spending spectrum, creating a do-it-all kitchen is easier than you may think: Prices have plummeted for premium features like detailing on cabinetry, induction on ranges and cooktops, and energy-saving insulation in refrigerators. You’ll also see a veritable explosion of products that blend performance and value.  Here are some tips and budgets from the experts at Consumer Reports.

    Make your wish list early. Take the time—anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on your project’s scope—to talk with and vet contractors and other pros, browse online, and check out showrooms and home centers. Try not to make design changes midstream. “Change orders,” as contractors and builders call them, can add significantly to the cost of the job.

    Sidestep supersizing. In addition to being expensive, huge kitchens can be exhausting to work in. You need only about 4 to 9 feet of space between the sink and the refrigerator or between the sink and the stove, according to the National Kitchen & Bath Association. Islands should be only 3 to 4 feet deep and 3 to 10 feet wide. Anything bigger than that can be hard to use and to reach across to clean.

    Avoid budget busters. “While we’re at it ...” are words that can break any budget. Unexpected structural repairs are one thing (in fact, you should leave a 10 to 15 percent cushion in your budget for just that). But it’s another to ask your skilled carpenter to pile on decorative flourishes as he handles the essentials. Also avoid the temptation to “save” with shoddy choices now, assuming that you’ll replace them with what you really want later. You probably won’t.

    Get it in writing. Whenever you hire a professional the written contract should list each phase of the project, every product, and include copies of each contractor’s license as well as his workers compensation and liability insurance to confirm that they’re in effect. Call the contractor’s references and, if possible, ask to visit recent jobs.

    What you get for your money

    Costs vary, but here’s a snapshot of three budgets, based on the Remodeling Cost vs. Value Report (costvsvalue.com) and our own analysis of what you might get.

    Budget DIY: $5,000

    If you have a small kitchen and are willing to do most of the work yourself, you can transform your space on a budget. You can’t replace cabinets for that price but you can paint them and add new hardware. This budget accounts for new appliances, laminate counters, vinyl flooring, sink, faucet, lighting, and a new paint job.

    • Appliances: About $2,300
    • Countertops, floors, walls: About $2,000
    • Cabinets: About $350
    • Sink, faucet, lighting: About $320
    • Time it takes: One month
    • Return on investment: Depends on what your time is worth.

    Minor midrange: $19,000

    With more to spend and if you stick to the same footprint, you can afford to hire pros to help you plan as well as do such things as remove a wall or build an island. This budget includes refacing but not replacing the cabinets as well as new appliances, countertop, backsplash, floor, sink, faucet, lighting, and paint.

    • Appliances: About $3,250
    • Counters, backsplash, floors: About $5,000
    • Cabinets: About $4,000
    • Sink, faucet, lighting: About $1,000
    • Labor: About $3,000
    • Unexpected expenses: $2,750
    • Time it takes: Three months
    • Return on investment: About 83 percent

    Major midrange: $55,000+

    Even if you have well over $50,000 to spend, the sky is not the limit. This budget accounts for hiring a general contractor and replacing your cabinets as well as all your appliances, surfaces, and fixtures. The budget assumes higher-end appliances and materials and semi-custom cabinets.

    • Appliances: About $5,000
    • Counters, backsplash, floors: About $8,000
    • Cabinets: About $13,000
    • Sinks, faucet, and lighting: About $2,000
    • Labor: About $18,750
    • Unexpected expenses: $8,250
    • Time it takes: Six months
    • Return on investment: About 74 percent

    —Adapted from Consumer Reports Kitchen Planning & Buying Guide

    Kitchen Planning Guide

    Planning a kitchen remodel? Here's everything you need to know to get the kitchen you want at a price you can afford including how to hire the right contractor. Plus:

    Full appliance Ratings and recommendations

    Full Ratings and recommendations of surfaces and materials

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    5 top vacuum cleaners for allergy sufferers

    With the spring comes tough times for anyone who suffers from allergies. Vacuuming is one of the best ways to clear the air in your home, right up there with banning smoking indoors, minimizing use of candles and wood fires, and using exhaust fans in kitchen, bath, and laundry areas. But if your vacuum is spewing out much of the dust and debris it collects, you could be doing more harm than good by stirring up the dust that has settled on surfaces. Here are several vacuums from Consumer Reports' vacuum Ratings, both bagged and bagless, that minimize emissions while cleaning up—and at reasonable prices:

    Eureka Boss Smart Vac 4870

    Moderately priced at $160, this bagged upright is a smart pick if you have carpets and pets, though other models had better airflow for attachments. In addition to top-notch carpet and bare-floor cleaning, pluses include manual carpet pile-height adjustment, which is more precise than automatic systems at matching the brush to the surface, and a brush on/off switch to safeguard bare floors and prevent scattered dust and debris. One feature you don’t get: suction control to help protect drapes when using tools.  

    Hoover WindTunnel T-Series Rewind Bagless UH70120

    Impressive cleaning and superb pet-hair pickup helped put this $130 bagless upright on our winner's list. The Hoover delivered lots of suction for tools and includes manual carpet pile-height adjustment and a retractable cord. Another plus: This relatively light machine weighs just 18 pounds. Two things this value-priced model doesn't include are suction control and a brush on/off switch.

    Panasonic MC-CG902

    Consider this $230 bagged canister if you want capable cleaning and airflow for tools at a moderate price—and don't have a dog or cat. Strengths include impressive carpet and bare-floor cleaning, along with strong suction for tools. And even though this machine is heavy at 23 pounds, we found handling to be relatively easy. You get manual carpet pile-height adjustment, suction control, a brush on/off switch, and the retractable cord found on many canisters. But pet-hair pickup was only so-so.

    Kenmore 22614

    Impressive cleaning, lots of airflow for tools, and fairly quiet running helped make this bagless canister a top pick. The $350 Kenmore, priced in the ballpark of most bagless canisters, is also a great choice for picking up after cats or dogs. Key features include manual carpet pile-height adjustment, suction control, a brush on/off switch, and a retractable cord. But handling this vacuum's 23 pounds takes some muscle.

    Shark Pet Perfect II SV780

    We don’t test hand and stick vacuums as comprehensively as full-size vacuums, since they’re primarily for spills and other quick tasks. But impressive surface cleaning on carpets, with even better performance with bare floors and edges, are chief strengths of this 18-volt hand vacuum from Shark. The $60 battery-powered model is also adept at picking up pet hair. In fact, it’s the only recommended hand vacuum that keeps its emissions low. Helpful features include a replaceable battery, a fairly spacious dust bin, and an electric rotating brush that adapts for vertical surfaces. The vacuum can also stand on its wall-mountable charging base for easy placement on a counter.

    Need a new vacuum?

    Our vacuum cleaner Ratings of upright, canister, hand, and stick vacuums currently has more than 140 models, and we’re prepping results of new robotic vacs as well. (Alongside our performance Ratings are survey-based brand-reliability Ratings.) Be sure to see our buying guide for vacuums before you narrow down your choices.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The disappointing dozen: Cars that fail to measure up

    Look no further than our annual Top Picks list and you’ll see there are many great cars on the market today. At the other end of the spectrum are models that fall well short of being competitive. Here, we highlight our disappointing dozen—the cars Consumer Reports has recently tested with the lowest test scores.

    In perusing these models, you'll find a wide range of car types—small cars, luxury cars, SUVs, and pickups. Likewise, there are several brands represented, with Fiat, Jeep, and Toyota each having more than one model to capture this undesirable distinction. At the corporate level, both Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Toyota Motor Sales each have four models on the list.

    Our criticisms of these vehicles are often similar, with common shortcomings being poor ride, sloppy handling, tepid acceleration, too much engine noise, and an uncomfortable driving position. Sure, these models may be better than the old jalopy you're looking to trade in, but they do not hold up against the latest competition.

    Whatever your car-buying budget might be, the key is to make an informed purchase decision, and we're here to tell you, there are better choices than these models.

    Below, we present this year's disappointing dozen, ranked by overall test score, with accompanying highlights where they came up short. Overall score is based on a 0-to-100 scale.

    Click the car names to read the full road test and to check reliability, owner satisfaction, and other key data.

    Jeff Bartlett

    Mitsubishi Mirage: 29 overall score

    Base MSRP price range: $12,995 - $15,395

    Lows: Clumsy handling, noise, vibration, acceleration, feels really cheap and insubstantial.

    The Mitsubishi Mirage lives up to its name. While its low sticker price and good fuel economy of 37 mpg overall may conjure up an inviting image of an enticing, economical runabout, that illusion quickly dissipates into the haze when you drive this regrettable car.

    Built in Thailand, this little hatchback is powered by a tiny and vibrating three-cylinder engine. To make it saleable, Mitsubishi primed the pump with a rather impressive list of standard features. But the car is way too slow and noisy, even for a cheap subcompact, to effectively compete in this competitive class. Further lowering its standing is its Poor score in the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety small-overlap crash test.

    Mitsubishi i-MiEV: 35 overall score

    Base MSRP price (with tax rebate): $22,995

    Lows: Short range, long charging time, weak cabin heat, Spartan accommodations, acceleration, ride, agility, seats only four, complicated radio, headlights.

    The i-MiEV is one of the cheapest all-electric cars available. But the trade-off is that it's slow, clumsy, stiff-riding, and quite utilitarian inside. It takes between 6 and 7 hours to charge on a 240-volt, Level 2 charger, or 21 hours on a standard 110-volt charger. Its range is EPA-rated at 62 miles, although we generally got around 56 miles. We measured its energy consumption at 111 mpg equivalent. The motor puts out a meager 66 hp. The i-MiEV fulfills its mission of being a very efficient and basic city transportation, costing less than 3 cents per mile, developing no tailpipe emissions, and making parking easy. But those attributes aren't enough to outweigh the considerable shortcomings.

    Chevrolet Spark: 42 overall score

    Base MSRP price range: $12,270 - $27,210

    Lows: Noise, ride, acceleration, transmission, agility, front-seat comfort, complicated radio.

    The Spark is a tiny car that's smaller than Chevy's subcompact Sonic and intended primarily to provide easy urban maneuverability and parking. But while its low price and rich feature list might be tempting for some entry-level buyers, the Spark's drawbacks can grate on your nerves in daily driving. It's painfully slow, relentlessly noisy, rides uncomfortably, and feels Spartan and insubstantial. You'd expect such a tiny car to deliver fabulous fuel economy, but we measured only 31 mpg overall, which is less than several larger, quicker, more substantial cars. Forget zippy or enjoyable handling in the Spark, too. Handling is secure enough, but it's neither agile nor engaging, especially for such a diminutive car.

    Scion tC: 44 overall score

    Base MSRP price range: $19,210 - $20,360

    Lows: Ride, noise, visibility, lackluster handling, cheap interior, no rear wiper.

    When we got beyond the surface appeal, we found the Scion tC to be a loud, cheap-feeling, uncomfortable car that doesn't really deliver anything notable beyond its convenient hatchback versatility. The tC's sporty looks write a check that the car's performance capabilities just can't cash. Handling is mundane at best and the ride is stiff and jittery. The transmission is poorly calibrated, forcing the engine to sometimes scream along after you're done accelerating. And it has a rev-matching feature that roars the engine on downshifts. Again, it may seem sporty at first, but it gets as tiresome as a kid endlessly shouting, "Vroom, vroom, VROOM!" Moreover, its loud exhaust boom also tries to imbue a sporty character, but it ends up creating a constant drone that also gets old quickly.And while fuel economy of 27 mpg overall isn't bad, plenty of larger midsized sedans with four-cylinder engines are more efficient. Add it all up, and the tC scores too low for us to recommend it.

    Toyota Yaris: 47 overall score

    Base MSRP price range: $14,845 - $17,620

    Lows: Noise, ride, agility, driving position, front seat comfort, fit and finish, radio controls, rear visibility.

    The Toyota Yaris, the company's impressively fuel-efficient and least expensive car, falls short of making the cut as a Consumer Reports-recommended model. Way short. For 2015, Toyota freshened the front appearance but that can’t hide the shortcomings. The powertrain remains a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine making 106 horsepower and hooked up to either a five-speed manual or vastly outdated four-speed automatic. But ultimately the Yaris remains barebones in an age of increasingly refined subcompacts. The Yaris is noisy, its ride is choppy, and its driving position is awkward with stretched arms and bent knees and the front seats are uncomfortable. Plus, handling lacks agility and acceleration is slow.

    Toyota Tacoma: 49 overall score

    Base MSRP price range: $20,965 - $37,615

    Lows: Ride, handling, driving position, high step-in, low rear seat.

    With a punchy powertrain, the Toyota Tacoma excels for hauling, towing, and off-road use. But for everyday driving or commuting, the Tacoma feels dated and is uncomfortable. Clumsy handling makes it a chore to drive, and the rough ride is fatiguing, with constant jiggling and a rubbery feel over even small imperfections. The cabin's high floor and low roof make access tricky and compromise the driving position. The rust-free composite bed is a handy and practical feature. Options can easily drive up the price well into full-sized truck territory. Fair cornering capabilities and long stopping distances contributed to a low score in our testing. A redesigned Tacoma launches in the fall.

    Fiat 500L: 50 overall score

    Base MSRP price range: $19,295 - $24,595

    Lows: Jerky transmission, stiff ride, touchy brake pedal, uncomfortable front seats, poor view of instruments, IIHS small overlap crash-test results, reliability.

    Built on a different platform from the cute little 500, the two-foot longer 500L looks good on paper but is let down by a jerky "dual clutch" automatic, a stiff ride, flat seats, and odd driving position. Around town, the 500L feels sluggish and hesitant. Fortunately, choosing the new conventional automatic eliminates that problem. This quasi-wagon responds eagerly in turns and handles securely at its limits. But the driving position is odd, with a buslike steering-wheel rake and windshield pillars that hamper the view. A tiny 5-inch screen is used for the simple UConnect system. We like the 500L's easy access, commodious interior, and spacious backseat. But there are too many compromises, including reliability that is well below average and a Poor score in the IIHS small-overlap crash test.

    Jeep Compass: 52 overall score

    Base MSRP price range: $18,995 - $28,495

    Lows: Engine noise, acceleration, driving position, front-seat comfort, rear visibility, cornering limits, braking, reliability.

    In 2014 the Compass received a freshening that replaced the CVT with a six-speed automatic for most versions. But it remains outdated and uncompetitive. Its low-speed ride is composed, and handling is secure but not agile. The sluggish 2.4-liter four-cylinder returned 22-mpg overall. The upright front seats are narrow and are not particularly comfortable, and the cabin is cramped. Controls are straightforward, and the basic interior is austere. The high rear window makes the cabin feel claustrophobic, though, and the styling restricts visibility to the rear. Reliability has dropped to well below average.

    Fiat 500: 52 overall score

    Base MSRP price range: $16,745 - $31,800

    Lows: Ride, noise, acceleration, front seat comfort, driving position, rear seat, controls, IIHS small-overlap crash-test results, reliability.

    The retro-styled Fiat 500 has agile go-kart-like handling and a rev-happy engine—all adding up to make it fun to drive. Zippy around town and easy to park, this two-door subcompact seems the ideal urban runabout. However, its slow acceleration, choppy ride and noisy cabin detract from the fun. The two rear seats are very tight and hard to reach and the cargo area is tight. The 33 mpg overall we recorded looks terrific, but considering this car's minuscule size—more than three feet shorter and 400 pounds lighter than a 32-mpg Toyota Corolla—that fuel economy isn't so extraordinary. Although it's a fun city car, its flaws stack up against it and the 500 ultimately scores too low to be recommended. Plus, the 500 scored a poor in the IIHS small-overlap crash test.

    Nissan Versa sedan: 56 overall score

    Base MSRP price range: $11,990 - $15,530

    Lows: Agility, engine noise, front-seat comfort, fit and finish, IIHS small-overlap crash-test results.

    Nissan's subcompact Versa sedan is unimpressive, with a noisy and cheap interior. The engine drones as the car gathers speed, and the continuously variable transmission exacerbates engine noise. Handling, though secure, lacks agility. The ride is compliant but jumpy. To its credit, the rear cabin is relatively roomy and fuel economy is commendable at 32-mpg overall. The Versa sedan scored a Poor in the IIHS small-overlap crash test. It also received one of the lowest scores in our Owner Satisfaction Survey.

    Jeep Patriot: 56 overall score

    Base MSRP price range: $16,795 - $26,695

    Lows: Engine noise, acceleration, driving position, front-seat comfort, complicated optional radio, IIHS small overlap crash-test result.

    Although the small Patriot SUV has a compliant ride and mostly simple controls, little else stands out. Even with its 2014 freshening, which included replacing the CVT with a six-speed automatic for most versions, it's pretty much outdated and outclassed. Handling lacks agility, and the sluggish 2.4-liter four-cylinder returned just 21-mpg overall. Once inside, passengers will notice the narrow cabin, wide center console, low-rent interior, and small windows, which give the car a closed-in feeling. On top of all that, the cargo area is small. Reliability has been average, but the Patriot scores too low for us to recommend it.

    Lexus IS: 58 overall score

    Base MSRP price range: $36,550 - $47,640

    Lows: Acceleration, ride, road noise, lackluster handling, fuel economy, driving position, controls, tight quarters, access.

    The IS fails as a sports sedan. Though the 250's small V6 is refined, performance is rather pokey, and its 21-mpg overall is unreasonably thirsty. The IS 350 is punchier but also underwhelming to drive. Handling is secure but not engaging enough to run with true sports sedans. Ride comfort is neither tied down nor plush. Even by the class's minimal standards, the IS interior is extremely cramped. Getting into and out of the vehicle is an ungraceful chore. Fit and finish is OK but not a standout. Controls use a mouselike controller, which takes too much attention away from driving. Reliability of the IS 350 is well above average; the IS 250 is average, but it scores too low to be recommended.

    2015 Autos Spotlight

    Visit the 2015 Autos Spotlight special section for our 2015 Top Picks, Car Brand Report Cards, best and worst new cars, best and worst used cars, used-car reliability, new-car Ratings and road tests, and much more.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    You and Amazon Fire TV can now get a hotel room

    Ever think your Amazon Fire TV or Amazon Fire TV Stick would make a great traveling companion? Thanks to an upcoming software update, according to Amazon, both devices will be the first streaming media devices you can connect to Wi-Fi that requires Web authentication, which includes Wi-Fi at most hotels and some universities.

    The update to the Fire TV settop box offers a few additional advantages. These include being able to connect a USB hard drive for expanded storage for downloaded games and apps, and the ability to listen to shows, movies, and music privately thanks to support for Bluetooth headphones. (The private-listening feature on the current Roku 3 and Roku 2 players is something we've liked, though those boxes do it via a headphone jack on the remote control rather than through Bluetooth.)

    If you take advantage of the Amazon Prime Music service, you can now tap into one of a number of curated playlists directly from both the Fire TV and Fire TV Stick.

    And good news for parents with tech-savvy kids with good eyesight: A new "hidden PIN" feature hides the numbers you select when entering a PIN onscreen to confirm purchases on Fire TV or Fire TV Stick. Plus, new shortcuts can put the players to sleep or enable display mirroring using a single button on the remote.

    —James K.Willcox

    Find the right streaming media player with our buying guide and Ratings.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Talking Cars podcast tackles Tesla and the self-driving car

    Despite demonstrations of self-driving cars by Google and Audi, it’s easy to think of this technology as being years in the future. But once again, Tesla shakes up the status quo, announcing a software update for the Model S that will give it significant automated driving capability, shrinking the time scale to market from years to months. We discuss the impact of this move in the latest episode of  the “Talking Cars with Consumer Reports” video podcast.

    Some manufacturers also advocate using “deep learning” to aid self-driving, allowing the system to learn from its mistakes, and the mistakes of others in the vehicle fleet. Interestingly enough, Tesla hopes to use the cars to gather data to prove that self-driving cars are actually safer than having a human behind the wheel. (Related: "Heavy traffic on the road to the self-driving car" and "The road to self-driving cars.")

    For driving enthusiasts like us, that raises the big questions: What will the driver’s role be in the future? Will it eventually be legal to even drive our own cars? And will driving be fun anymore?

    Tune in for all this and more in the latest “Talking Cars with Consumer Reports” video podcast.

    As with the other shows, this episode is also available free through the iTunes store. Subscribe to the video or audio. You'll also find the video on YouTube.

    Also view:
    Ford Edge, Lexus NX - Talking Cars, episode 63
    Behind the scenes of 2015 Top Picks - Talking Cars, episode 62
    Chevrolet Trax, Kia Sorento - Talking Cars, episode 61
    Cadillac Escalade, Lincoln Navigator - Talking Cars, episode 60
    Detroit auto show - Talking Cars, episode 59

    Tom Mutchler

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Get money back for energy-efficient upgrades

    Typically, energy-efficient home improvements involve spending money now so you can save on your energy bills later. And for some upgrades such as solar panels, the payback time can be years. But there are ways to recoup money sooner through federal tax credits, rebates from your state, local government, and utility among other incentives. Here are the details.

    Tax credits

    As Consumer Reports wrote earlier, federal tax credits for a number of energy upgrades were extended through the end of 2014 so if you replaced your windows, added insulation, or made other improvements you can claim a tax credit and it will be subtracted from the amount you owe Uncle Sam. You can find the full details on the Energy Star website, but in brief, here’s what’s eligible. Keep in mind that if you claimed a tax credit in the earlier years of this program that you may have already hit your $500 limit. You'll need to file IRS form 5695 with your 2014 taxes.

    Windows, doors and skylights
    What: Replacement or new windows, doors or skylights that meet Energy Star standards.
    Tax credit: 10 percent of the cost, up to $500, but windows are capped at $200. Does not include installation.

    Roofs (metal and asphalt)
    What: Metal roofs with pigmented coatings and asphalt roofs with cooling granules that meet Energy Star requirements..
    Tax credit: 10 percent of the cost, not including installation, up to $500.

    Non-solar water heaters
    What: Gas, oil, or propane water heaters with an Energy Factor (overall efficiency) of 0.82 or more or a thermal efficiency of at least 90 percent. Electric heat pump water heaters with an energy factor of 2.0.
    Tax credit: $300

    Insulation
    What: Bulk insulation products such as batts, rolls, blow-in fibers, rigid boards, expanding spray, and pour-in-place. Products that seal air leaks also qualify, as long as they come with a Manufacturer’s Certification Statement, including weather stripping, spray foam in a can, caulk and house wrap.
    Tax credit: 10 percent of the cost, up to $500. Does not include installation but you can install the insulation/home sealing yourself and get the credit.

    Biomass stoves
    What: Biomass fuel includes agricultural crops and trees, wood and wood waste, and residues (including wood pellets), plants (including aquatic plants), grasses, residues, and fibers. Stoves must have a thermal efficiency rating of at least 75 percent.
    Tax credit: $300

    Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning
    What: The following heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment.

    • Central air conditioning, $300 tax credit.
    • Advanced main air circulating fan, $50 tax credit.
    •  Air source heat pumps, $300 tax credit.
    • Gas, propane or oil hot water boiler, $150 tax credit, including installation.
    •  Natural gas, propane or oil furnace, $150 tax credit.

    Rebates

    Rebates are a little trickier to find but you’ll probably get the cash back quicker and they are available for a wider range of products and upgrades. According to the Department of Energy, at the moment there are no federal rebates for energy improvements but some state and local governments reward you for making energy-saving upgrades. You can also check the website of your utility provider as well as that of the manufacturer of the product you’re buying.

    Rebates are not dependent on tax credits so with a little luck you can collect both. Rebates are available for many large appliances including washers, dryers, and refrigerators; building products including windows, doors, roofing, and insulation; heating and cooling equipment including furnaces, and room and central air conditioners; electronics including televisions and computers; lighting and fans; and water heaters, among many other products.

    Rebate finders: You can search for rebates on the DOE’s website, energy.gov, and the Energy Star website.

    Incentives

    Your utility may also offer incentives that can benefit you. For example, they may pay you to recycle your old refrigerator or freezer or offer you a free or discounted energy audit to help you identify the energy upgrades that will save you the most.

    Incentive finders: To find incentives, check your utility's website as well as the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency to see what’s available in your area.

    Tax credits available through 2016

    Several federal tax credits for energy upgrades will be available until the end of 2016. The projects tend to cost more but you can recoup 30 percent of the cost with no upper limit and credits include installation costs. Plus, unlike many of the other tax credits, they’re available for your primary residence as well as a second home. The upgrades include:

    Geothermal heat pumps
    Geothermal heat pumps use the ground instead of outside air to provide heating, air conditioning and, in many cases, hot water.  Must meet Energy Star requirements.

    Small wind turbines
    A wind turbine converts energy from the wind into electricity that’s compatible with your home’s electrical system. To qualify, the turbine must have a maximum output rating of no more than 100 kilowatts.

    Solar energy systems
    Both solar water heaters and solar panels are eligible for tax credits. For solar water heaters, the water must be used in the dwelling and at least half of the energy generated should come from the sun. The heater must be certified by the Solar Rating and Certification Corporation or a similar entity. Qualifying photovoltaic systems must provide electricity for the residence and meet applicable fire and electrical code requirements. Check the Energy Star website for more details.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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  • 03/24/15--13:14: Best deals on small cars
  • Best deals on small cars

    Low gas prices favor shoppers looking for small, fuel-efficient cars, but the market trend shows many buyers are looking to bigger models. If history has taught us one thing, it is that gas prices will inevitably increase, and buying a small car now can be a smart long-term investment. A subcompact or small car will save at the pump compared to larger, thirstier vehicle, and the benefits can only increase when gas prices rise.

    As is often the case, those vehicles with the deepest discounts tend to be older models, due for imminent replacement. The biggest deals are on the Hyundai Elantra, with total savings available being nearly $4,000. We expected to see the next-generation Elantra unveiled at the New York International Auto Show next week.

    This list is strictly based on dollars saved. (Our Best New Car Deals list routinely covers just models that meet the stringent performance, reliability, and safety criteria to be Consumer Reports recommended.) Although we highlight one specific configuration, all of these models offer similar savings on other variations.

    Each vehicle highlighted below is available with a 5- to 20-percent discount off the retail price in national incentives. Some may also carry additional regional or other special incentives. Specific pricing details on these and other trim variations are available on the model pages, along with complete road tests, reliability, owner cost, and other key information. The vehicles are listed in alphabetical order.

    Consumer Reports Build & Buy

    When buying a car, in addition to research and reviews, Consumer Reports offers subscribers access to the Build & Buy Car Buying Service at no additional cost. Through this service, a nationwide network of more than 9,000 participating dealers provide upfront pricing information and a certificate to receive guaranteed savings off MSRP (in most states). The pricing information and guaranteed savings includes eligible incentives. Consumer Reports subscribers have saved an average of $2,919 off MSRP with the Build & Buy Car Buying Service.

    Chevrolet Cruze

    The Cruze is a solid and substantial-feeling compact car. Its taut, steady, and controlled ride makes it one of the best-riding small sedans, even more comfortable than some larger models. Inside it's also one of the quietest small sedans we've tested. While gasoline-powered models have lackluster fuel economy, an efficient turbodiesel engine is also available. Inside is a nicely-finished cabin, with roomy front seats; even taller drivers have plenty of space, which is surprising for a small sedan. But the Cruze is very tight in the rear. Upright styling provides good driver visibility and controls are mostly easy to use. Reliability has been below average.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Chevrolet Cruze LTZ (auto) 3/31/15 $25,095 $24,488 $1,728

    Chevrolet Sonic

    With the Sonic, Chevrolet offers one of the best cars in the class. The Sonic offers a relatively quiet cabin, responsive handling, and excellent braking performance. The ride is smooth for a small car, but the steering can be darty. Acceleration is relatively quick for the category, but the 28-mpg overall fuel economy is on the low side. Rear-seat room is tight and the front seats are uncomfortable, but there is a large trunk. Buyers can choose from either four-door sedan or hatchback models. We tested a sedan with the base 1.8-liter engine and a hatchback model with the turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder; both produce 138 hp. The Sonic's price is a bit on the high side relative to the competition, before factoring incentives. A sporty RS hatchback is also available. A forward-collision and lane-departure warning system are available.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Chevrolet Sonic RS hatch (auto) 3/31/15 $22,770 $22,112 $1,158

    Dodge Dart

    The Dodge Dart has a solid feel and a relatively quiet interior, and it offers certain upscale features that aren't usually found in a compact sedan. But the Dart's Achilles' heel is its powertrains; none of the three available delivers the refinement, performance, or fuel economy of higher-rated competitors. The Dart corners responsively and securely, whether cruising on a two-lane backcountry road or being pushed to its limits at our track. The ride is steady, if firm. And you can get a wide variety of optional features that aren't available on many competitors, including a blind-spot warning system, automatic high beams, and a heated steering wheel. Controls are mostly simple, and the easy-to-use Uconnect 8.4 infotainment system is among the best.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Dodge Dart Limited 3/31/15 $24,090 $23,514 $1,693

    Hyundai Accent

    The Accent scores near the top of our subcompact Ratings in both sedan and hatchback versions. There's nothing fancy about this car but it hits the mark well for basic, sensible transportation. It's economical to buy and run—we got 31 mpg with the GLS sedan with an automatic and 32 mpg for the stick-shift Sport hatchback. The 138-hp four-cylinder engine provides adequate power and handling is responsive, somewhat more so in the Sport model. The well-constructed cabin offers plenty of room up front. As is normal for this class, the ride is jittery and the rear seats are somewhat cramped. The cabin is fairly noisy, but not offensively so.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Hyundai Accent Sport (auto) 3/31/15
    $18,320 $17,976 $1,025

    Hyundai Elantra

    The Elantra sedan combines nimble and secure handling with a fairly comfortable ride. The 1.8-liter four-cylinder and six-speed automatic deliver solid performance and a very good 29 mpg overall. Some versions get a more powerful 2.0-liter four-cylinder. The car is well-equipped for the price, the controls and features are logically laid out, and rear-seat room is fine for two adults. Our major gripe is the pronounced road and engine noise. The GT hatchback has more adventurous styling and is competent enough. Fuel economy of 27 mpg overall is nothing special, and the hatchback suffers from a loud cabin and stiff ride. Both the sedan and hatchback have potential savings of 20 percent off MSRP.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Hyundai Elantra Limited 3/31/15 $22,525 $21,816 $3,901

    Kia Forte

    Kia's Forte provides generous interior room and a wide assortment of amenities. Our tested base LX sedan got 28-mpg overall with the smooth 1.8-liter four-cylinder and six-speed automatic. Though the ride is absorbent, it tends to feel somewhat buoyant over highway undulations. Handling is very secure but not particularly agile. All EX versions get a stronger 2.0-liter four-cylinder, and the SX coupe and hatch use a 1.6-liter turbo. The spacious interior is quiet for a compact car, and the controls are logically arranged. This car is available with features not usually found in the class, such as front/rear heated and ventilated seats. Kia claims that the 2015 models get better fuel economy with enhanced engines. Reliability has been average.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Kia Forte EX (auto) 5/4/15 $20,215 $19,441 $2,082

    Kia Rio

    This corporate cousin of the Hyundai Accent is available as a sedan or hatchback. Power comes from a 138-hp, 1.6-liter four-cylinder mated to a six-speed automatic. Fuel economy of 29-mpg overall with our automatic-equipped hatchback and 30 for the sedan is pretty unimpressive for a subcompact. The Rio feels solid compared with some other subcompacts. Its stiff ride and noisy cabin are typical of the genre and can get annoying during long trips, but they aren't unbearable. Handling is a strong suit, with the car feeling responsive in corners. Higher-trim models offer amenities such as heated seats and a rear-view camera, but they can push up the price steeply. Reliability has been above average, but owner satisfaction ranks among lowest in the category.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Kia Rio EX hatch (auto) 5/4/15 $18,015 $17,382 $1,016

    Kia Soul

    The Soul brings more to the table than quirky styling. There's abundant interior space, with the chairlike seats and big windows providing an excellent view out. Though fundamentally a budget hatchback, the Soul can be an SUV alternative, functionality-wise. The driving experience isn't special: The ride is stiff and handling is sound but unexceptional. Power delivery from the 2.0-liter four-cylinder feels just adequate, and its 26-mpg overall is not outstanding. An extensive options list includes heated seats, touch-screen navigation, and a backup camera. An electric version is available in California. First-year reliability of the redesign has been above average.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Kia Soul ! (auto)
    5/4/15 $21,615 $20,709 $1,124

    Mitsubishi Lancer

    While it's an improvement over the old model, the redesigned Lancer still scores only midpack in its class. The Mitsubishi's handling is quite agile and the steering is responsive, lending the car a sporty feel. But the ride borders on being too stiff, the engine is noisy, and the brakes were disappointing. The Lancer also had subpar fit and finish, tight rear-seat head room, and mediocre fuel economy. Drab, cheap-looking plastics and uneven panel gaps dominate the Lancer's interior. The doors and trunk lid sound tinny when shut, seats are covered in fabric that is basic at best, and seat adjustment levers are flimsy.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart AWD (auto)
    3/31/15 $30,305 $29,060 $2,090

    Nissan Versa Note

    The Versa Note offers amazing space and versatility for a little subcompact. It's also quieter and more relaxed to drive than most competitors. Its tall stance and wide doors make it easy to maneuver, park, and hop into and out of. The rear seat is really roomy, and the ride feels comfortable and relaxed. Handling is more responsive than the Versa sedan. Our main gripes are its awkward driving position, squishy front seats, and lack of interior storage. The CVT can magnify coarse engine noise when accelerating, but its 31-mpg overall is respectable. Changes for 2015 include standard Bluetooth, available heated seats, and new interior refinements. First-year reliability has been average.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Nissan Versa Note SL (auto)
    3/31/15 $18,785 $18,505 $1,025
    2015 Autos Spotlight

    Visit the 2015 Autos Spotlight special section for our 2015 Top PicksCar Brand Report Cardsbest and worst new carsbest and worst used carsused-car reliabilitynew-car Ratings and road tests, and much more.

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    Tackle retirement health costs early

    Would you happen to have a spare $220,000 on you? That lofty sum is what Fidelity estimates the average husband and wife, both age 65 and retiring this year, would need in current dollars to afford medical expenses for the rest of their lives. It’s a figure that gets mentioned in the news a lot, underscoring the fact that those planning for retirement may want to ramp up their savings. (I’d wager that Fidelity executives hope those savings will be invested with the company.)

    But which estimate of health care costs is realistic for you? And how do you ensure that you’ll have enough?

    Let’s look at how Fidelity arrived at its estimates for the couple above. The company used actuarial tables to assume that the husband would live until age 82 and the wife until 85. It projected what they might spend by extrapolating from a Medicare database of medical claims.

    But the $220,000 benchmark may actually be too low because it doesn’t include dental costs, notes Sunit Patel, the senior vice president for Fidelity’s benefits consulting group. It also doesn’t take into account long-term care or Medigap. On the other hand, Fidelity doesn’t figure in the cost savings that some retirees get because of employer-provided coverage. “It’s just to give people a starting point,” Patel explains.

    For a more personalized estimate, try AARP's free Health Care Costs Calculator. I found the tool to be simple and enlightening. On the first page, I plugged in some personal information, though nothing that identified me. On a second page, I input health conditions I might have now or later in life. The third page projected how much I—and Medicare—would pay. I'm 57 and in good health, but my estimate for a 30-year retirement starting at age 67 showed a scary $218,501 total. When I gave my current age as 67, the figure dropped to $174,658.

    AARP's Calculator has limitations. For instance, it asks for your state of residence, but average health care costs can vary within a state. Still, it gave me more to hang my hat on and reminded me to ask my financial planner how he figures out health care costs.

    Leonard Wright, a CPA and Personal Financial Specialist in the Las Vegas area, says he queries clients about their health, their parents' health, and future concerns. Using software to make projections, he applies a hefty 7 percent inflation rate to current estimated costs. He also expects that discretionary spending will drop with age. "This allows for greater funding of medical expenses," he notes. 

    To research out-of-pocket costs for a Medicare Advantage plan, go to Medicare's Plan Finder. Entering some information, including your medications, will yield available plans and detailed estimates. (For Medigap, out-of-pocket costs are determined by a specific plan's design. Plan "F" requires nothing out of pocket if you don't choose the high-deductible version.)

    Consumer Reports' Retirement Planning Guide can help you make your second act fulfilling and financially secure. 

    Aside from finding the right insurance and upping retirement savings, another option to help fund medical costs is a health savings account. To be eligible, employees and self-employed workers must have a high-deductible health insurance plan (currently with annual deductibles of at least $1,300 for single people and $2,600 per family).

    You and your employer can put money into your HSA. The maximum contribution is $3,350 in 2015 if you’re paying for single insurance coverage and $6,650 if you’re maintaining family coverage. (If you were at least 55 last year and haven’t yet enrolled in Medicare, that maximum is $1,000 higher.) The money can be invested as in a 401(k). Employer contributions are tax-free; your contributions are tax-deductible even if you don’t itemize. You can take the balance with you when you leave your job, and you pay no tax on withdrawals used for “qualifying” expenses (sorry, no tummy tucks).

    But depending on your family’s medical costs, you might not have much left in an HSA by retirement. That’s because the accompanying high-deductible health plan can charge singles up to $6,450 per year in out-of-pocket expenses, excluding premiums; for families, it’s up to $12,900 per year.

    One way to save is to delay retirement. Fidelity says that its hypothetical couple would save $20,000 by waiting until age 67.

    And, of course, healthy habits can prevent or mitigate costly, chronic conditions. According to AARP’s tool, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and an unhealthy weight would cost me $27,763 more during my lifetime.

    Time to hit the gym! 

    —Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger on Twitter)

    This article first appeared in Consumer Reports Money Adviser.

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    8 tips to help you sell your own home

    With real estate agents’ commissions often as high as 6 percent of a home’s sale price, it’s tempting to hang out a “For Sale by Owner” sign and save the commission. After all, FSBO would put an additional $16,800 in your pocket if you sell your house for $280,900, the recent median single-family home sale price.

    But selling your own home is hard work. It requires time, energy, market knowledge, and some up-front money, says Jim Remley, a Medford, Ore., real estate agent and the author of “Sell Your Home in Any Market” (Amacom, 2008). That may be why only 9 percent of today’s sellers attempt to do the job without an agent, down from 12 percent in 2006. If you plan to join that minority, use these tips for greater success.

    Be sure you’re up for the job.

    You must have plenty of time to show your home, have no problem negotiating, and enjoy the challenge of marketing your own house, says Brendon DeSimone, a real estate agent and the author of “Next Generation Real Estate: New Rules for Smarter Home Buying & Faster Selling” (Changing Lives Press, 2014).

    Price it right.

    An online appraisal service can help. A free tool on ForSaleByOwner.com, for example, can determine a price range based on public-record information. Also, enter your address on Zillow’s website to find your estimated home value and see what similar nearby homes sold for recently. Check newspaper ads and real estate blogs for a read on the market, and spend several weekends going to open houses near you, and track their final selling prices.

    Declutter and clean up.

    Store the family photos, fix the loose doorknob, clean every surface, and slap a fresh coat of neutral-colored paint on the walls. To present your home in its best light, you can arrange a 2-hour consultation with a professional stager for about $300. Search for a stager on the International Association of Home Staging Professionals’ website.

    Use online tools to advertise.

    A mini industry has sprung up to help For Sale by Owner sellers for a fraction of commission charges. Among the services are advertising in magazines and websites, and providing disclosure and contract forms and other sale documents, weatherproof information boxes and flyers, seminars, and educational booklets and materials.

    Realflyer, for example, lets you create professional-looking brochures starting at 32 cents each. Owners.com will list your home (including photos) free for 30 days. For $295, it will list your home for six months on its site as well as on Realtor.com, Trulia, and Zillow. For an additional $100 it will add your listing to the Multiple Listing Service for six months, where you’ll get the most exposure, but you have to commit to paying a buyer’s agent’s commission if one represents your buyer (generally 2 to 3 percent of your sale price).

    Feature pictures and a video tour in your listings, and make sure you also include driving directions, heating and cooling sources, and your school district.

    In addition, publicize your listing on free sites such as Craigslist, Facebook, Google Plus, and Twitter. Don’t waste money on newspaper ads and local real estate guides; only 1 percent of people find their home through those print ads, the NAR says.

    These four problems can ruin a home sale. Watch out for these home sale mistakes that cost you money. Plus the best way to finance home repairs.

    Don’t skip the sign.

    A “For Sale” sign, after the Internet and a real estate agent, is the most effective tool for attracting buyers, according to NAR surveys. Place it as close to the road as possible, unobstructed and with a phone number that’s easy to read and that someone will answer day and night.

    Show like a pro.

    When you show people your home, ask them to sign in and provide you with their e-mail address and a phone number. (See samples of open-house registers or purchase kits for $22 to $30 at Britton Products.) Let potential buyers lead the way as they explore your home, and point out special features. Make sure they leave with a copy of your sales brochure. Follow up with an e-mail or a call thanking them for looking at your home, and use the opportunity to ask whether they have additional questions. For safety’s sake, have someone else in the home during showings.

    Look for buyers with commitment.

    A potential buyer with a mortgage commitment (which means a lender has verified all of the information on a loan application) is further along in the borrowing process than one who has prequalified for a mortgage (which just means a lender has checked a buyer’s credit). A deal with a buyer holding a commitment is less likely to collapse.

    Hire a real estate attorney.

    Many states don’t require a lawyer for a sale, but hiring one familiar with sales by owner is crucial. He or she can field offers, help execute contracts, and arrange a closing date.

    ––Mandy Walker (@MandyWalker on Twitter)

    This article also appeared in the March issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    10 great gas grills for $300 or less

    Most gas grills sold cost less than $300. If that’s what you’re planning to spend then consider these 10 grills from Consumer Reports’ latest tests. They’re impressive and better than the $1,700 and $1,800 midsized grills we tested. 

    But first, a reality check. How long do you expect a new gas grill to last? The average is around three years, according to the Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association, a trade group. If you’re hoping for longer, then check the construction of the grill when shopping—nudge it from several points to test its sturdiness. The more stable, the better. Note the burner warranty (we point this out in the Features & Specs information for each grill we test). Burners are the most replaced part and a short warranty is a hint that this grill may not last many years. If you keep it maintained, that is. Keeping your grill clean and in tip-top shape not only improves the flavor of grilled food but also helps extend the life of the grill.

    We measure each grill’s usable cooking space so you can match it to the number of people typically gathered around your table. Grills in our small category fit 18 burgers or less. Midsized can hold 18 to 28 burgers, and large, 28 or more. Of the dozens of gas grills tested here are some impressive grills that cost $300 or less.

    Small gas grills

    Broilmate 165154, $200, a recommended model
    Nexgrill 720-0864, $200

    Midsized grills

    Char-Broil TRU-Infrared 463435115 (Walmart), $260, recommended
    Char-Broil Advantage 463240015 (Lowe’s), $300, recommended
    Brinkmann 810-6420-S (Home Depot), $170, recommended
    Brinkmann 810-6630-S (Home Depot), $300, recommended
    Kenmore 16142 (Sears), $300
    Char-Broil 4634322215 (Walmart), $170
    Brinkmann 810-2512-S (Home Depot), $200
    Char-Broil Advantage 463344015 (Lowe's), $200

    More choices. Our gas grill Ratings give you all the details. Use the compare-tool to do just that and the buying guide for information on features. Any questions? E-mail me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

    Kimberly Janeway 

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    5 small HDTVs from 2014 are good bargains in 2015

    While there's nothing like a giant-screen TV for watching movies and TV shows in the main viewing room of your house, many of us are looking for smaller sets for bedrooms, home offices, and maybe even the kitchen.

    Since we already provided a list of some of the best leftover 2014 TVs with larger screens, it's time to turn our attention to sets with screens 32 inches or smaller. (Read: Why buy a 2014 HDTV model?)

    Here are five smaller 2014 sets worth considering.

    —James K. Willcox

    Check our TV buying guide and Ratings for details on more than 180 models.

    Samsung UN32H6350, $600

    We saw this 32-inch 1080p TV at a few retailers, including Crutchfield, B&H Photo, and Target. Like its 40-inch sibling, also in our Ratings, it's a fine choice for anyone looking for a smaller, top-performing, fully featured LCD TV. This set has excellent high-definition picture quality, better-than average motion blur performance, and a lot of features, including a quad-core processor, a Web browser, and Samsung's updated Smart Hub smart TV platform.

    It also has the company's S-Recommendation feature that will suggest programs based on your viewing history, and it comes with a universal remote control for controlling other gear. This model has four HDMI inputs, more than most sets this size.

    Samsung UN32EH5000, $250 to $300

    If you don't need all those bells and whistles, consider this 32-inch 1080p set, $250 at Amazon, and $300 at Best Buy and Target. This model, in the company's entry-level 1080p LCD TV series, has excellent high-definition picture quality. It's a relatively basic set that doesn't have a lot of features though it does have ConnectShare Movie, which lets you directly play videos, music, or photos stored on a device or flash drive when connected to the TV's USB connection.

    LG 32LB5800, $380

    You can find this 32-inch 1080p LCD TV at Amazon, Dell, and PC Richard. Like its 42-inch sibling, also in our Ratings, this set combines very good high-definition picture quality and a wider-than-average viewing angle with LG's updated smart TV platform for 2014, with access to streaming online services. It also has LG's On Now recommendation feature that will suggest programs. It has three HDMI inputs.

    Vizio E280i-B1, $200

    This full-featured 28-inch set is still available at several retailers, including Amazon, Dell, and Target, all within a dollar or two of each other. The TV, a lower-priced 720p model in Vizio's entry-level E series for 2014, offers very good high-definition picture quality, though it does have a fairly narrow viewing angle, and like many other sets this size, it has only fair sound quality. The TV has a full-array LED backlight and Vizio's smart TV platform with access to online content, including streaming movies and TV shows from several services. Otherwise the TV is a fairly basic 60Hz set with two HDMI inputs.

    LG 24LB4510, $180

    If you're looking for an even smaller set, this 24-inch 720p model from LG is available at Best Buy and some third-party sellers on Amazon. Though the TV is a 720p (1366x768) model, it delivers excellent high-definition picture quality, though like many sets this size it has both a fairly narrow viewing angle and only fair sound. Also note that it has just a single HDMI input.

    You don't care about snazzy features

    Most of the new features that we saw at CES, such as quantum-dot technology and high dynamic range, are being implemented only in pricier UHD TVs with larger screen sizes. So if you're in the market for a regular 720p or 1080p set you won't miss out on much with a 2014 leftover, especially at a closeout price.

    You don't need built-in streaming

    Many TV models in these smaller screen sizes don't have built-in online capabilities. But you can easily adding a streaming media player, such as an Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, or Roku, or even one of the small stick-style players such as Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV Stick, or the Roku Streaming Stick. Prices range from about $35 to $100.

    You want to save lots of money

    Last year's HDTVs could be even cheaper in the next week or two, given that the first 2015 sets should be arriving any day and dealers are looking to clear their inventories. If you decide to buy one, see whether the dealer will give you a 30-day price-match guarantee should the set become available for less at that store or at another retailer in the area.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    BMW releases important software update for i3 electric car

    The BMW i3 earned one of the highest scores of any electric car when we tested it. But it gave us a few disconcerting moments when we were driving it this past fall. Fortunately, a software fix became available on March 10.

    The i3 is an electric car with an electric motor that puts out 127 kW (170-hp), and a 22 kWh battery pack. We chose to buy the version with the optional range extender, a 34 hp (25-kW) two-cylinder gas engine that generates electricity when the battery runs dry; it’s not connected to the wheels so can’t drive the car directly. It kicks in to extend the range and keeps the battery level at 6 percent. That works fine in most situations, when you have regenerated electricity from coasting and braking to add to the battery charge, but when you need sustained power such as for climbing a hill, it’s a different story.

    Read our complete BMW i3 road test.

    Here’s the scenario one of our test drivers experienced on the way into the office: When pulling out to pass a slower vehicle after climbing a long hill, the reserve power ran out, and the car cut power while he was out in the oncoming traffic lane. That was disconcerting, to say the least.  

    After we contacted BMW, the company promised a software update this spring.

    After making the update on our i3, we noted the addition of a state of charge (SOC) function in the onboard computer. As long as you’re in electric mode, and given the fact that you have a range left indicator, an SOC display doesn’t seem all that critical. But when you are in range-extending mode, relying on the little gas engine to act as a generator, this information becomes more useful. In that mode, the car aims to keep the SOC at 6 percent, but it can fall below that, such as on a sustained hill climb. When state of charge drops to 2 percent, the i3 now gives you an audible chime and an exclamation mark with the a notice “Low battery, power reduction possible.”

    An advanced warning is a good thing. Drivers should heed the warning but the new software doesn’t address the power reduction itself as BMW said it would back in the fall.

    Eric Evarts and Gabe Shenhar

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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