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Consumer Reports

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    New 2016 Scion iM hatchback aims to be fun and frugal

    After its splashy debut at the LA Auto Show in concept form, the production Scion iM hatchback was unveiled at the New York International Auto Show. The brand makes no bones about its ongoing attempt to draw a younger audience, evidenced by the car’s sporty FR-S-inspired styling, hands-free Bluetooth connectivity, and a starting price of under $20,000.

    Sized like a Mazda3, the iM gets a 137-hp, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine hooked up to either a six-speed manual or continuously variable transmission. Those feeling timid about getting a stick will be relieved that the DIY model comes with Hill Start Assist, which helps prevent the car from rolling back when you’re starting on an incline. The CVT has a Sport mode, as well as manual shifting capability with seven stepped shift points. EPA fuel economy estimates are 30 mpg in the city, 37 on the highway, and 32 overall with the CVT. The manual’s fuel economy is slightly less.

    Handling hardware includes a double-wishbone rear suspension and standard 17-inch alloy wheels.

    Inside, iM buyers are treated to bolstered front sport seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel (with buttons for audio, multi-info display and phone operation), and a 60/40-split fold-down rear seat. There is also an auxiliary audio jack and USB port with iPod connectivity. The cabin also gets an acoustic layer windshield, foam-type insulation and floor silencer sheets in an attempt to keep noise at bay—an issue we’ve had with just about every Scion we’ve tested.

    Pet lovers can buy accessories especially fitted to the iM, such a dog harness with tether, door guards, seat pet barrier, and even a grass pad designed to discourage your pooch from standing on center console.

    Music fans can bask in a six-speaker Pioneer stereo that can stream content from a smartphone. We can only hope the large display screen, controls and operation are better than on past models. In particular, the FR-S we tested came with a head unit that had no tuning knob and inscrutable small buttons and labels that are difficult to see and use.

    Standard safety equipment includes a backup camera and eight airbags, including a driver’s knee airbag and a front passenger seat cushion airbag.

    As with other Scions, numerous accessories will be available to personalize the iM and improve performance.

    The iM arrives in dealerships this fall and shares the spotlight with the new iA sedan.

    See our complete 2015 New York auto show coverage.

    —Mike Quincy

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

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    All-new 2016 Scion iA is brand’s first sedan

    After years of selling quirky hatchbacks and sport coupes, the division’s first ever four-door sedan, the Scion iA, debuts at the New York auto show. This car is the result of a partnership between Mazda and Toyota, with Mazda producing the iA.

    The mechanics of the iA include a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine with 106 hp hooked up to either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission.

    Company officials peg the car’s fuel economy estimates at 33 mpg city, 42 mpg highway, and 37 mpg combined. Befitting a small, budget car, the suspension components include MacPherson struts up front and torsion beam in back. Scion claims that the iA is aimed at finding the right balance of “sporty handling and comfortable ride not normally associated with this segment.” Sounds promising.

    On the safety front, the Scion iA comes with a standard low-speed pre-collision system that uses a laser sensor to help the driver avoid collisions. A back-up camera is also standard.

    Inside, the iA gets chrome accents and soft-touch trim and surfaces, 10-inch fore-aft slide seat adjustment, and standard height adjuster. The steering wheel also tilts and telescopes. The steering wheel has controls for the audio and standard Bluetooth (with voice commands). The audio system comes with a standard seven-inch touch screen display and six speakers. Techies will like the two USB ports and an auxiliary input. A navigation system is a dealer-installed option.

    Other standard equipment includes 16-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry, push-button start, and a 60/40-split rear folding seatback.

    The Scion iA sedan joins the all-new 2016 Scion iM hatchback for one of the most significant model-year transformations in the brand’s relatively short history.

    The new Scion will arrive in dealerships this fall with an estimated MSRP in the $16,000-range.

    See our complete 2015 New York auto show coverage.

    —Mike Quincy

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

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    Flagship 2016 Cadillac CT6 is gunning for German luxury sedans

    Cadillac is setting its sails to conquer the old world with its new flagship, the CT6.

    Aimed squarely at the slow-selling BMW 7 Series, the CT6 is a little longer than the current range-topping XTS sedan and about 6-inches longer than the sporty, midsized CTS. In a press release, Cadillac indicated it sees a hole in the market for a large luxury car that truly feels sporty to drive. Sounds like BMW is being challenged to a duel...

    To fill that niche, Cadillac has loaded the CT6 artillery with a new twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 that cranks out 400 hp and 400 lb.-ft. of torque. Buyers who don’t feel the need to be on the front lines of the performance wars can opt for either a 265-hp single-turbo Four or a new non-turbo 3.6-liter V6 that makes 335 hp. Both V6 powerplants come with all-wheel drive, while the four-cylinder comes with rear-wheel drive.

    No matter how big or luxurious it is, a car won't be fun to drive unless it feels light on its feet. The CT6 strives for a fighting weight by using aluminum for doors, hood, trunk, and other elements. All told, Cadillac estimates the CT6 will weigh less than 3,700 pounds—about 700 pounds less than other large competitors and about 200 pounds less than the smaller CTS.

    And it uses the latest state-of-the art suspension design, with short- and long arms up front and a five-link system in the rear. Buyers who want even more control can opt for the Active Chassis System, which consists of rear wheel steering and Magnetic Ride Control active dampers.

    And the CT6 keeps its sailors comfortable and well rested, with a quad-zone climate control system and an articulating rear seat that can recline up to 3.3 inches. Premium Opus leather front seats have five massage programs and woven-in seat heating elements. The Bose Panaray  audio system’s 34 speakers pump up the volume whether you’re listening to Mozart or amplifying programming from either of the two rear seat entertainment screens.

    A new iteration of Cadillac’s CUE infotainment system uses a 10.2-inch touch screen with 1280x720 resolution that recognizes handwriting. Cadillac says it reacts and scrolls faster than the laggy old system. If you don’t want to reach all the way to the screen, the CUE now has a new touchpad down on the center console where you can scribe to your heart’s content.

    Building a luxurious frigate with real sporting intent is difficult. And whether the CT6 lives up to that promise remains to be seen. But carries impressive credentials.

    The battle for sporting luxury supremacy begins next spring.

    See our complete 2015 New York auto show coverage.

    —Eric Evarts

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

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    All-new 2016 Chevrolet Malibu rights past wrongs

    Introduced at the New York International Auto Show, the all-new 2016 Chevrolet Malibu aims to correct past shortcomings, including rear passenger room and fuel economy.

    The new car is longer, with a 3.6-inch longer wheelbase to give it more backseat legroom. That should bring it closer in line with other midsized sedans that have adult-scale space in back. It is 2.3 inches longer overall, yet Chevrolet says it weighs 300 pounds less than the old car, which may aid efficiency and overall performance.  

    The new Malibu will also introduce a new full-hybrid option that piggybacks on parts and engineering used in the Chevrolet Volt. The Malibu Hybrid won’t plug in, but Chevrolet says it can go up to 55 mph for short distances in electric mode. A 1.5-kWh lithium-ion battery, downsized from the one in the Volt, takes up some trunk space. The electric motor is connected to a 1.8-liter gas engine that gives it a combined 182 hp. Chevrolet says it expects an EPA rating better than 45 mpg for the hybrid.

    Like its midsized sedan competitors, the Malibu is otherwise going to an all-turbocharged four-cylinder engine lineup, except for the hybrid. The standard engine is a 160-hp, 1.5-liter turbo, with the same optional 250-hp, 2.0-liter upgrade as the outgoing Malibu. We’ve found that such small turbocharged engines often don't deliver on their fuel economy promises.

    For parents who have teen drivers in their household, Chevrolet is introducing software in the new car called Teen Driver. The aptly named system monitors where and how teens drive, and it lets parents see their teen’s highest speed on their latest drive, how far they went, and how many times forward-collision warning, electronic stability control, and emergency braking were activated. It will also mute any audio input if the seat belts aren’t buckled. Parents set the guidelines using a private PIN in the car’s infotainment touch screen, and the system is activated whenever the teen uses their key fob to drive the car.

    To aid all drivers, the 2016 Malibu is available with blind-spot monitoring, lane-keeping assistance with lane-departure warning, forward-collision alert with a following distance indicator, rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control with automatic braking, parking assistance, and automatic high-beams. Forward-collision warning and automatic braking have proven effective at reducing accidents, and lane-departure warning and automatic high beams are among our testers’ favorite new features.

    Inside, the Malibu gets wireless charging and a Wi-Fi hotspot. A seven-inch touch screen is standard, and an optional eight-inch screen comes with the navigation and Teen Driver systems.

    With sleek new styling, a comfortable backseat, and finally a real hybrid system, it looks like the Malibu may be following in the footsteps of its impressive big brother, the Impala, which went from a rental-lot-special to the top of our ratings with its last redesign. We’ll find out when we test one, after the 2016 Malibu goes on sale in the fall.

    See our complete 2015 New York auto show coverage.

    —Eric Evarts

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

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    Are you getting enough vitamin D?

    If you’ve been reading about the health problems supposedly linked to vitamin D deficiency—from heart disease to cancer—getting your levels tested might seem wise. But here, common myths and real­ities about D testing:

    MYTH: Tests reveal whether your levels are healthy

    Reality: Some doctors, such as vitamin D expert Michael F. Holick, Ph.D., M.D., author of “The Vitamin D Solution” (Hud­son Street Press, 2010), consider vita­min D deficiency epidemic in the U.S. Others dispute that because, they say, there’s widespread disagreement about what optimal and insufficient levels are. (The Institute of Medicine says 20 nano­­grams per milli­liter or more is adequate; several other organizations consider 30 ng/ml optimal.)

    Levels of D below 20 ng/ml are known to interfere with bone health, but no firm evidence links other health problems to low D. Certain studies show a link between low levels and obesity and type 2 diabetes, but “we don’t know if the condition caused levels to fall or vice versa, or if they’re even related,” says Clifford J. Rosen, M.D., director of clinical and translational research at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute in Scarborough.

    Find out why you can't always rely on the SPF number on your sunscreen and which vitamin D supplements met their claimed levels of the vitamin in Consumer Reports' tests.

    MYTH: We all need screening

    Reality: Testing makes sense if you have osteoporosis (D helps us absorb bone-friendly calcium) or a disorder that affects your ability to make the active form of vitamin D, such as kidney disease. You should also be tested if you have intestinal problems such as celiac disease, which can affect absorption, or take a drug that can do the same, such as cholestyramine (Prevalite, Questran, and generic), phenytoin (Dilantin and generic), prednisone, or orlistat (Alli and Xenical).

    But the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an independent panel of health experts, says there’s not enough evidence that testing healthy adults leads to better health. In 2014 the panel opted not to recommend routine screening.

    MYTH: Testing tells you whether you need supplements

    Reality: There’s no conclusive evidence that healthy people benefit from supplements or that extra D solves health woes. “Depression and fatigue are common reasons for ordering tests,” Rosen says. “There’s no data D supplements have any impact on these.”

    Prescription-level supplements may be helpful for those with osteoporosis, or who have a disease or use medicine that interferes with D absorption, says Consumer Reports’ chief medical ad­vis­er, Marvin M. Lipman, M.D. And “an over-the-counter supplement of 1,000 IU (international units) is reasonable even without testing if you spend most of your time indoors, rarely eat fatty fish or drink milk, or are over 65.”

    MYTH: Test results are always accurate

    Reality: The task force found that test results can vary 10 to 20 percent, depending on the lab or method of analysis. So some people may be told that they’re deficient when they’re not and vice versa. Genetics may also play a role. For example, research published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2013 found that most of the study’s African-American subjects had low levels of vitamin D. But they actually had plenty of vitamin D; it just didn’t show up in the test results.  

    This article also appeared in the February 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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    Cars you’d be foolish to buy

    When you're in the market for your next car, there's a dizzying array of factors to consider. Road-test performance, fuel economy, safety, reliability, and price and owner costs are chief among them. These objective measures can help winnow down a field of prospects rather quickly, identifying a select few standout models. Here, we present the castaways—those models that you should filter out due to their exceptional shortcomings.

    Based on our research and test drives, these are the 10 cars that you’d be a fool to buy.

    Explore our various best and worst car lists and use our new-car selector interactive tool to see what other low-scoring models you can identify and check out the impressive models that top the lists.

    Jeff Bartlett

    Least reliable: Fiat 500L

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

    Fiat-Chrysler sits at the bottom of the pack, with four of its brands—Dodge, Ram, Jeep, and Fiat—sweeping our least-reliable rankings. The Fiat 500L is currently the least reliable new car, with a predicted reliability score that is 219 percent worse than average. Looked at another way, the 500L has about 16 times the problem rate of the most reliable car, the long-in-the tooth but ironclad Scion xB. (The smaller Fiat 500 is better, but it still scores poor for reliability.) In case you’re still tempted by this unique Italian hatchback, a 50-point overall road test score should further discourage you from adding this model to your shopping list.

    Read the complete Fiat 500L road test.

    Lowest owner satisfaction: Jeep Compass

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

    Despite a recent freshening, the Jeep Compass remains outdated and uncompetitive. But don’t just take our word for it: Owners have given the Compass the lowest satisfaction rating of all current cars, with just 43 percent stating that they would get this same car if they had to do it all over again. The satisfaction details show the areas that disappointed most are comfort and fuel economy, followed by drive experience, features, and cargo space. (Key lesson here: Most of those elements could be readily evaluated on a test drive.) The fuel economy is understandable, as that is likely a key draw for an affordable four-cylinder SUV and the real-world performance is far from stellar. In our tests, the Compass returned 22 mpg overall, putting it at the thirsty end for its class, while also being among the slowest small SUVs with a 0-60 mph crawl at 10.3 seconds. Not a satisfying combination. To top it off, Compass reliability has dropped to well below average.

    Read the complete Jeep Compass road test.

    Lowest-scoring car: 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, vibrating three-cylinder engine. Its handling is so clumsy, it leans in corners like a drunken sailor. 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.

    Read the complete Mitsubishi Mirage road test.

    Lowest-scoring SUV: 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.

    Despite the front face mimicking the look of the impressive Grand Cherokee, the Compass is a mediocre car. The engine is noisy and lacks punch. Handling is unimpressive, the seats are second-rate, and the driving position is flawed. The cabin feels claustrophobic, visibility is problematic, and access is hampered by a tall sill. On the credit side, road noise is low, the ride is absorbent, and controls are simple and straightforward. However, at 52 points out of 100 in our battery of tests, the Compass scores too low to be recommended. (Technically, the lowest SUV score belongs to the Jeep Wrangler at a mere 20 points. But given that most potential buyers would be drawn to the off-road ability or nostalgia factor, we realize it has some redeeming factors. So we awarded the dubious distinction to the lowest-scoring conventional crossover or SUV.)

    Read the complete Jeep Compass road test.

    Lowest-scoring truck: 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.

    Read the complete Toyota Tacoma road test.

    Most expensive to own midsized sedan: Volkswagen Passat (V6)

    Base MSRP price range: $21,340 - $35,995

    The midsized Passat sedan has a lot going for it, including generous interior space, responsive handling, and a comfortable, quiet ride. The primary powertrain is an energetic 1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder and a six-speed automatic. High-end versions use a powerful 3.6-liter V6. Front seats are accommodating but very firm. Extra-spacious rear seats are a big plus, and the trunk is huge. But, this appealing package comes at a price. The owner costs (factoring depreciation, interest, insurance, sales tax, fuel, maintenance, and repair) make it the most expensive midsized sedan to own, costing an estimated $44,750 to own for five years. The best in the class is the Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE at $31,250. This is a clear reminder to look beyond the purchase price in figuring out if a car fits your budget.

    Read the complete Volkswagen Passat road test.

    Worst value midsized sedan: Nissan Altima V6

    Base MSRP price range: $22,300 - $31,950

    The well-rounded, roomy Altima delivers excellent fuel economy. But it is a poor value, ranking dead last among midsized sedans. To assess value, we factor overall road-test scores, predicted reliability, and five-year cost ownership. This results in a value score relative to the average value for all vehicles. Among midsized sedans, the Altima V6 is the only model ranked below average. Simply put: All competitors deliver more for the money. A key element in this calculation, the Altima V6 is the only model in the class with much-worse-than-average predicted reliability.

    Read the complete Nissan Altima road test.

    Worst value small SUV: Jeep Cherokee

    Base MSRP price range: $22,995 - $30,795

    This small SUV could be a contender, but the Dodge Dart-based Cherokee is too underdeveloped and unrefined. If you have your heart set on one, get the 3.2-liter V6 in Limited trim. It has a much higher overall road test score, and it is all around more pleasant. However, it ranks at the bottom of the class for value. The bottom four small SUVs are (in descending order) the Jeep Patriot, Cherokee V6, Compass, and Cherokee 4-cyl. Feels like a pattern. The Cherokee four-cylinder is slow and gets lousy fuel economy for the class. Factor in a lowly 58-point test score and much-worse-than-average predicted reliability, and the value tale is a sad one. At least owner costs are better than average, but that can’t make up for the shortcomings. Owners agree, giving the Cherokee a below-average satisfaction score.

    Read the complete Jeep Cherokee road test.

     

    Worst fuel economy: Nissan Armada—13 mpg overall

    Base MSRP price range: $38,060 - $53,330

    As the name implies, the Nissan Armada is a massive vehicle that requires an entire fleet to service is fuel needs. Ancient in its class, the Armada’s 5.6-liter V8 ingests regular gasoline at a rate of 13 mpg overall. Around town, expect just 9 mpg. Yes, single digits. It is as if this peculiarly styled behemoth were on a singular mission to extract every last drop of dino juice from the ground. Fortunately, the Armada has a generous 28-gallon fuel tank, giving it a 370-mile cruising range. For a typical driver, the Armada will gulp 905 gallons a year. By contrast, the Chevrolet Tahoe is relatively frugal at 16 mpg overall and an annual consumption of 755 gallons. Looking at the bigger picture, the Armada has a five-year owner cost of $67,250, which translates to $1.12 per mile. Plan your errands accordingly…

    Read the complete Nissan Armada road test.

    Worst used car: Mini Cooper S

    When it comes to choosing a used car, you can put the odds on your side by choosing a model that performed well when new and has a great reliability track record. Of course, reliability hiccups can happen with any used car, but the Mini Cooper S has the worst history among all cars we have tracked over the past decade. Sure, the car is cute and delightfully entertaining, but year after year, the likelihood of having a problem that requires a repair is heartbreaking. And among the 17 trouble spots we track, engine major, engine minor, engine cooling, fuel system, body integrity, and body hardware have issues at an alarming rate. Although Consumer Reports often recommends skipping an extended warranty, the Mini Cooper S is a case where the investment would be a good hedge against potential problems. Joining the Mini Cooper S as among the worst used cars are the Chevrolet Cruze 1.4T and Ford Fiesta—although these models have fewer model years to anchor their position among the worst of the worst.

    Read the complete Mini Cooper road test.

    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.

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

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    Redesigned 2016 Lexus RX SUV oozes luxury

    The hugely popular RX 350 gets a complete makeover at the New York auto show with a completely new interior and exterior, more safety features, and boasts of better on-road performance.

    Lexus knows that a lot is riding on this new version, as the RX the top-selling model in the brand’s 26-year history—with global sales of more than 2.1 million units. A first blush, it is clear they took the pressure seriously.

    Outside, the new RX’s styling is revved up by jazzy LED light treatments for the headlamps, fog lights, and daytime running lights. The exterior design’s aerodynamics are said to reduce wind noise.

    Tech tidbits inside include an optional head-up display (HUD), as well as an available 12.3-inch monitor with full-screen map, situated atop the center stack. Rear-seat passengers get more leg and knee room, plus optional heated outboard rear seats and a 60/40-split power-folding feature to improve cargo access and convenience. Usual high-end accoutrements will be available, such as a panoramic moonroof, and a rear seat entertainment system (with 11.6-inch dual screens integrated into the back of the front headrests).

    The RX 350 is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 “aiming to deliver 300 hp.” It runs through a new eight-speed automatic transmission. The fuel-thrifty RX 450h hybrid will also be offered and attains a similar 300 hp. While fuel economy estimates weren’t released, our last tested RX 350 returned 21 mpg overall; the hybrid got and excellent 26 mpg. (Read our current Lexus RX road test.)

    Suspension details include a fully independent system, with MacPherson struts up front and a double-wishbone setup in back. New to the RX is an available “Adaptive Variable Suspension” that electronically monitors and adapts the shock absorber settings and steering to the driving conditions. The driver can adjust the suspension between Eco, Normal, and Sport settings via a center console-mounted button. The RX is also available with special Michelin tires that are designed with rain grooves that “widen over time and emerging grooves which open as the tire wears.”

    The new RX is also filled to the rim with safety gear, such forward-collision warning with automatic braking; lane-departure warning; and automatic high beams. Optional equipment includes blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and radar cruise control.

    Those looking to combine luxury and sport can check the F Sport version.  Details include unique 20-inch wheels, a custom instrument cluster, sport steering wheel, and paddle shifters. Mechanically, the sporty RX gets an “active stabilizer system” to lessen body lean in corners.

    It’s likely that this luxurious SUV will continue to attract legions of buyers. We’ll be eager to test one and find out if this latest RX lives up to its legacy and promise.

    See our complete 2015 New York auto show coverage.

    —Mike Quincy

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

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    Striking Infiniti QX30 SUV concept

    The Infiniti QX30, shown in concept form at the New York International Auto Show, joins the ever-growing population of luxury compact SUVs, already represented by the Audi Q3BMW X1, Lexus NX, and Mercedes-Benz GLA, among others.

    Unlike previous Infiniti SUVs, the QX30 will use a front-wheel-drive platform adaptable for all-wheel drive. It shares underpinnings with Mercedes’ GLA crossover, thanks to a deal between Infiniti’s corporate owner, Renault, and Germany’s Daimler. Also common is the GLA’s 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine.

    The QX30 is specifically aimed at millennials, that younger generation that marketers of all things luxury believe to have bottomless pockets. Expect a full load of high-tech connectivity features along with the overt styling touches.

    Infiniti is long overdue for a more credible alternative to its current small SUV, the QX50. That car, basically a raised wagon version of the old G37 sedan with an overly cramped interior, has sold poorly of late, but for 2016 it has been lengthened and modestly updated.  

    We see the four-door, four-seat QX30 as essentially a raised hatchback version of the new Q30, itself headed for production mid-year 2015. It shows off Infiniti’s newest design themes, with deeply contoured body lines above and below. The roof slopes down toward the back while the rear quarter slopes up, making for what could be an excessively pinched view out. Following the coupe-like styling theme, you have to look twice to notice that this is a four-door vehicle.

    Other eye-catching elements in the concept include huge 21-inch wheels and a prominent aluminum rear skid plate visible beneath the rear bumper—features that may not appear on the production version.

    We estimate that the QX30 will retail in the mid to high $30s when it reaches showrooms early next year. 

    See our complete 2015 New York auto show coverage.

    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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    2016 Jaguar XF sport sedan evolves

    This week at the New York International Auto Show, Jaguar took the wraps off the redesigned XF sport sedan. In addition to a whole new look, the XF gets a lightweight architecture and new engine and transmission options for 2016.

    It appears Jaguar designers opted not to rock the boat too much, as the latest XF is dressed in evolutionary styling. The real changes come under the hood and inside the XF sedan.

    The new aluminum construction contributes to cutting 132 pounds from the rear-wheel drive model and 265 pounds from models equipped with all-wheel drive. Under hood, you will find one of two supercharged V6 engines, making either 340 horsepower or 380 horsepower depending on model. Power is routed through an eight-speed automatic transmission. According to Jaguar, the 380-hp model with all-wheel drive can claw its way 0-60 mph in 5.0 seconds.

    The cabin features a clean, refined aesthetic, capped off with Jaguar’s new InControl Touch infotainment system. In base form, the system is centered around an eight-inch touchscreen, featuring a new user interface. Also available is InControl Touch Pro, which features either a 10.2-inch touchscreen or available 12.3-inch touchscreen. The navigation system also features door-to-door route planning, which uses memory of past drives and real-time traffic information to offer alternate routes.

    The pricing will be announced closer to when the Jaguar XF goes on sale, late 2015.

    See our complete 2015 New York auto show coverage.

    George Kennedy

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    More zero-turn-radius mowers get safer steering

    Consumer Reports has been singing the praises of steering wheels on zero-turn-radius riding mowers since outdoor power-equipment manufacturer MTD first introduced them five years ago for select Cub Cadet and Troy-Bilt riders. But now another company, Toro, has gotten into the act with models of its own that dispense with the mowers' usual tiller bars and lightweight casters.

    The 42-inch Toro TimeCutter SW4200 74784, $2,900, is one of two models Toro began offering this year; 32- and 50-inch versions are also expected this season. As with the MTD models, the Toro’s steering wheel and steerable front wheels—rather than levers and casters—allow more intuitive control, especially on slopes, and automatically slow down on sharp turns. In addition to requiring fewer passes around a tree or other obstruction, the speed reduction also results in fewer patches of grass that are essentially scraped bare.

    While other recommended zero-turn-radius riders did better overall, the Toro SW4200 74784 cut as well in the side-discharge mode (the most common among tractor and rider mowers), as higher-scoring riders with steering wheels. There are other pluses. In addition to the twin-cylinder engine, you get an infinitely variable drive system, which lets you vary ground speeds smoothly without shifting. You also get electric power takeoff, which engages the blades with a switch instead of a lever, and a high-back seat—with the ability to check the fuel level without leaving that comfy seat.

    Another feature we liked in the Toro is how this machine automatically stops the deck and sets the parking brake when you need to jump off the seat while the engine is running. Husqvarna offered its own variation on that theme with a parking brake built into the steering levers of its $2,700 Husqvarna RZ246 23/46. This zero-turn-radius rider offered impressive cutting in all modes but didn’t make our list of picks because Husqvarna, like Cub Cadet, is among the more repair-prone brands of zero-turn-radius riders.

    We’ll be telling you about what else we found in our latest mower tests over the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, check out our buying guide for lawn mowers and riders before viewing our mower Ratings of almost 190 walk-behind mowers, lawn tractors, zero-turn-radius riders, and rear-engine riders. See also our survey-based brand-reliability scores.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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    All-new 2016 Honda Civic concept surprises

    In what could have been dismissed as an April Fool’s Day prank, Honda introduced a Civic Coupe Concept at the New York auto show, ahead of when most would have predicted a replacement for the popular small car line. No joke. It’s the real deal.

    Production models are due to begin arriving this fall. Designed and engineered in the United States, the concept sports a more aggressive, chiseled look than the current model, something the carmaker says will carry over to the production version. That visual attitude is said to translate to performance, as well.

    Honda is promising class-leading performance, along with much improved refinement and a more spacious, upgraded cabin with a high level of connectivity and near-luxury levels of quiet.

    The base engine will be a DOHC four-cylinder, while upmarket models will get a 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. Transmission choices will include a short-throw six-speed manual or a CVT automatic.

    Said to be the most comprehensive redesign in Civic history, the 10th-generation Civic will be built on an all-new lightweight (yet stiffer) platform for more responsive handling, and it will ride on a three-inch longer wheelbase. Slightly longer overall, the new Civic gets LED lighting front and rear, and a more sophisticated look. The redesign will include more body styles and variants than before, including a four-door hatchback and sporty Type R performance model.

    The rollout begins later this year with the launch of the sedan in the fall, followed by a coupe and other models. Don’t expect the Type R before next year.

    See our complete 2015 New York auto show coverage.

    Jim Travers

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    Subaru STI Performance Concept is a meaner BRZ

    When the Subaru BRZ, and sister car Scion FR-S, came on the scene, it was a blessing to those who enjoyed spirited rear-wheel drive coupes on a budget. Many enthusiasts hoped Subaru would follow the 200-horsepower standard BRZ with a higher-performance STI model. Well, the BRZ STI Concept is here, and it has a whole host of upgrades.

    STI stands for Subaru Tecnica International, and those three letters have long been affixed to the highest-performance Subaru models—namely the WRX STI. In the case of the BRZ STI Concept, the moniker means upgrades to the chassis and suspension, as well as the engine intake and exhaust systems. Those familiar with the stock BRZ will notice the addition of wide body kit, carbon-fiber rear diffuser, and carbon-fiber rear spoiler.

    The STI Performance Concept is part of a promotional push for the U.S. expansion of STI. Subaru’s STI division currently sells aftermarket parts and STI-tuned cars in Japan, and wants to bring that business to North America, as well as expanding its motorsports involvement.

    According to Subaru, cars upgraded and tuned by STI will be available through dealerships. The upgrades can include anything from suspension and brakes to aerodynamic and chassis enhancements.

    One subject that was not touched on was the prospect of a turbocharged engine. The four-door Subaru WRX STI features a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, and the hope from many was that an STI-tuned BRZ would include the addition of a turbocharger. No such mention with this concept, but we can still hold out hope, right?

    See our complete 2015 New York auto show coverage.

    George Kennedy

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    Sling TV adds HBO in time for new 'Game of Thrones' season

    Would-be cord-cutters, pay attention: Sling TV says it will be offering HBO—both the regular live programming from the main HBO channel and video-on-demand—this month in time for the premiere of "Game of Thrones" on April 12. Like the standalone HBO Now streaming service, which is not part of this deal, HBO will be priced at $15 per month as an add-on to Sling TV's $20-a-month Best of Live TV package.  

    With this deal, Sling TV becomes the first live online TV service to offer HBO. Sling TV is supported on a number of streaming devices, including Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick and several Roku players and Roku TVs. Of course you'll have to pay a total of $35 to get HBO, since you have to subscribe to Sling TV's core package too. 

    When we tested Sling TV in January, we felt it was promising, though not without issues, such as poorer image quality than we get with cable or satellite TV and significantly more latency. We also noted that you don't get broadcast channels. The service has continued to add content, and the option of HBO will certainly increase Sling TV's appeal, especially among those looking for alternatives to traditional pay TV services.

    Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this announcement is that it seemingly mitigates the impact of the exclusive HBO Now deal with Apple. Cablevision has also said it will offer HBO Now. Other cable companies could follow suit since there doesn't appear to be any exclusivity with pay-TV services.

    —James K. Willcox

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    2016 Infiniti QX50 crossover stretches but doesn’t reinvent

    Infiniti’s QX50, formerly known as the EX35, has been a bit of a place-holder of late—an undistinguished small-SUV entry plugging a hole in the lineup. Sales have been dismal the last few years. That may be about to change.

    For 2016, the QX50 has been stretched about three inches at the wheelbase, granting more than four additional inches to rear-seat leg and knee room. That will be welcome news to anyone who’s been confined to that punishment cell in previous versions.

    In other respects, the “new” QX50, due to go on sale this fall, seems little changed. It’s still essentially a raised wagon version of the old G37 sedan, a car we liked very much for its quickness, agility, and composed ride. Carrying over is the smooth seven-speed automatic and 325-hp, 3.7-liter V6, which remains a great engine despite its many years of production. Fuel economy has never been great, though, and we don’t expect that to change dramatically with this model, in either rear- or all-wheel-drive form.

    Modest exterior changes for 2016 include LED daytime running lights incorporated into the headlights, LED taillights, and a new styling treatment for the grille, front and rear bumpers, and lower fascias.

    Standard features include leather upholstery and multi-adjustable heated, powered front seats, as well as a backup camera and keyless ignition. Plenty of electronic convenience gadgets are optional, including Infiniti’s 360-degree camera system, which is a tremendous parking aid, and power folding rear seats. Up-to-date safety gear available in uplevel packages include blind-spot warning, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, and full speed-range adaptive cruise control with forward-collision warning.

    Whether the new toys and extra rear-seat space can lift the QX50 from the sales doldrums is anyone’s guess. The cargo area behind the rear seats remains very small, and this car faces stiff competition from many newer luxury-brand alternatives, such as the Audi Q5, BMW X3, and Lexus NX. Furthermore, in order not to cannibalize sales of the new QX30, Infiniti might have to raise the price of the QX50 to the $40,000-plus neighborhood and that could give many potential buyers second thoughts.      

    See our complete 2015 New York auto show coverage.

    Gordon Hard

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    2016 Kia Optima evolves family sedan styling

    Though it might look a lot like the 2015 model, the Kia Optima is completely redesigned for the 2016 model year, including an all-new chassis. The five-passenger midsized sedan is longer and wider, with a more spacious cabin.

    The newest option is a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 178 horsepower, sent through a new seven-speed dual clutch transmission. Other engine options include a 185-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder and a 2.0-liter turbocharged four that puts out 247 horsepower. They all route power through a six-speed automatic transmission.

    The Optima features a larger cabin, with more headroom, shoulder room, and rear seat legroom. It is set off with a new dash design that houses the latest version of Kia’s UVO infotainment system. UVO incorporates touch-screen capability, with navigation and smartphone functionality. It will also have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, allowing you to operate select apps from iPhone and Android phones through the touch screen. This will make the Optima among the first vehicles on the market to feature both of these systems.

    Pricing for the Kia Optima will be announced closer to the sedan’s release late in 2015.

    See our complete 2015 New York auto show coverage.

    George Kennedy

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    Get an electric lawn mower through a lawn mower exchange

    If you've decided to switch from your gas mower to an electric mower this year, take advantage of a lawn mower exchange. These programs, which take place in many areas around the country in spring and summer, get you a discounted price on an electric mower. Typically, you show up at the appointed time at the designated location, say your municipal public-works yard, drop off your old gas machine, and head home with a brand-new electric. Your old mower will get recycled.

    Some of the deals are pretty sweet: Through the lawn mower exchange in San Diego County, California (PDF), residents who show up to the event with a working gas mower can get a Black & Decker CM1936 36-volt cordless rechargeable for $99.99, including tax. It usually retails for about $400.

    Since the number of mowers available through an exchange is often limited—the one in San Diego County has only 650 electric mowers available this year—you'll need to get to the site early or, when possible, sign up in advance. Some exchanges give you a rebate coupon instead of selling new machines on site. The Southwest Pennsylvania Air Quality Partnership—whose program includes mowers leaf blowers, trimmers, and chain saws—is one such exchange. Also, not every exchange is limited to a county or region. This year, Utah is holding its first exchange statewide.

    I'm still considering swapping my long-serving, loyal self-propelled gas model for a cordless electric mower. (In stores and online you might see cordless models called electric battery mowers; electric corded models requires an extension cord.)

    Why go electric? I'd like a mower that runs quieter, needs little maintenance (repair costs for my 14-year-old mower are adding up), and doesn't produce any emissions. Remember, the air quality where I live doesn't exactly scream Garden State. My lawn is less than a quarter acre and is mostly level, making it friendly for an electric.

    Our Ratings include corded and cordless electric mowers from Black & DeckerGreen WorksHomeliteRemingtonRyobiStihl, and Toro.

    Even if I go with a high-scoring self-propelled cordless electric mower from our tests, there are some concessions to make. With their narrower decks, electric mowers require you to make more passes over the lawn, and they typically don't handle tall grass as well, so you can't take too many weeks off.

    Unfortunately there's not a lawn mower exchange where I live. But I'll monitor the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. You can check the DEP or the equivalent in your own state. I'll also visit manufacturer sites to look for news about companies participating in a lawn mower exchange. In years past, Neuton ran a virtual exchange in which consumers recycled their machines and could then get a discounted electric mower from the manufacturer. 

    After what's been another long, brutal winter, I'm looking forward to doing outdoor chores, including cutting the grass. (I might have to remind myself of that come mid-August.) Here's hoping I'll be doing the mowing with a discounted electric machine I got through a lawn mower exchange.

    —Steven H. Saltzman

    Corded vs. cordless electric mowers

    A big advantage to a cordless model is that it isn't tethered to a power outlet, giving you greater flexibility when mowing, especially if your yard has trees and other obstacles. 

    But cordless electric mowers weigh much more than corded. The Black & Decker SPCM1936, a self-propelled electric battery mower, weighs 90 pounds. Its stable mate, the corded Black & Decker MM875, a push mower, comes in at 52 pounds.

    And then there's price: The SPCM1936 costs $450; the MM875 runs $240. The corded electrics in our Ratings range in price from $160 to $240, while the cordless models start at $300 and go as high as $690. The Ego LM2000 (shown), our top-rated cordless electric, costs $500.

    If I do get an electric model, I'll probably go with a cordless version even though when I tried out a couple of cordless models two years back, I was frustrated by the limited run time per charge. But according to our testers, today's cordless models run longer per charge.

    —S.H.S.

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    New 2016 Hyundai Tucson boasts serious tech

    The Hyundai Tucson has been completely redesigned, showing its new sheet metal for the first time at the 2015 New York International Auto Show. The latest version of the compact SUV features styling inspired by the Santa Cruz Truck concept that we saw earlier this year in Detroit.

    The Santa Cruz cues graft onto the Tucson body well, with sharply raked headlights, and a bold, dominant grille. The exterior design gives way to an all-new cabin design that has an upscale flair and large controls that appear easy to use.

    Many features on the new 2016 Tucson seem designed with daily use in mind. The hands-free smart lift gate should make packing up after the grocery store or soccer practice easier. The available stain-resistant fabric seating will come in handy on pretty much any activity involving the kids.

    The base powertrain setup is a 164-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, routing power through a six-speed automatic. The uprated setup is a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, sent through a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.

    The new Tucson boasts a suite of sophisticated safety technologies. They include headlights that turn with the road, lane departure warning system, blind spot monitoring, and forward collision avoidance with automatic braking.

    Connectivity is the 2016 Tucson’s strong suit. It is available with features like Pandora, Siri “EyesFree,” and even some functions operated via Android SmartWatch. You can check out all these features when the new Tucson goes on sale in July of this year.

    See our complete 2015 New York auto show coverage.

    George Kennedy

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    Redesigned 2016 Chevrolet Spark gains some needed maturity

    With a slightly longer wheelbase and lower roof, the redesigned 2016 Chevrolet Spark casts aside the gawky, tall stance for a more adult profile. To compensate for the 1.6-inch height reduction, the new Spark aims to maintain headroom by lowering the seats. That means drivers don’t sit quite as upright as before. New seat designs with high-density foam promise improved comfort, one of the many shortcomings with the current model.

    A bigger 1.4-liter engine brings 14 extra horsepower, for a total of 98. That’s a much-needed upgrade. With an aluminum block and head, and an integrated exhaust manifold, the new engine is lighter than the old 1.2-liter. Buyers can still choose a five-speed manual or continuously variable automatic transmission. Chevrolet says the stiffer body structure will give the new Spark a more refined driving experience with more precise handling and a quieter ride.

    The MyLink smartphone connectivity system gets the same seven-inch color display with a new icon-based menu that drivers can pinch and swipe to make selections. Better yet, the new model gets a physical volume knob and more hard buttons.

    Most importantly for a small car, the new Spark will offer the latest in active safety equipment, such as forward-collision alert, lane-departure warning, and blind-spot warning. We’ve consider all worthwhile safety features.

    All these changes bring the Spark some much-needed maturity. We’ll see if they turn it into a more pleasant car overall once it goes on sale late this year.

    See our complete 2015 New York auto show coverage.

    —Eric Evarts

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    This chicken is cheaper to buy than to make yourself

    Buying a cooked meal from your favorite supermarket isn’t only a time-saver; it can be a bargain, too. And no entrée is priced more aggressively than rotisserie chicken, which we found for as little as $4.99 whole at multiple stores, including Costco, Price Chopper, ShopRite, and Walmart. That’s less than you’d pay for an uncooked bird—a deal tough to pass up.

    And that’s the point: broad appeal and an immediate sensory impact. “It’s a universal head-turner that every shopper can relate to,” says David Morris, a food-service analyst for market research firm Packaged Facts.

    Chains make up for the entrée’s low price with sides such as macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes, which are sold by the pound and generate higher profits. “It’s an extra turn of the wheel to attract shoppers into the store and cross-sell them,” says Mona Golub, a vice president at Price Chopper.

    To see whether other prepared foods are cheaper to buy than to make, we bought chicken marsala, eggplant parmesan, and meatloaf from a local Stop & Shop, then had our food experts make the dishes from scratch. For a fair cost comparison, we used Stop & Shop’s own store-brand ingredients for our recipes.

    In the end, on a price-per-portion basis, the chicken marsala was $1.94 less to make, per serving; the eggplant parmesan, $1.36 less; and the meatloaf, 44 cents less. The homemade versions tasted better, too.

    Read our special report on Americas best—and worst—supermarkets. And learn about the the cost of organic food. (Don’t assume that organic is always pricier.)

     

    This article also appeared in the May 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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    The low-impact but still lush lawn

    Grass greener on the other side of the fence? That might not be such a bad thing, now that the best yard on the block probably isn’t the one pumped full of chemicals and water.

    “After World War II, a uniform, emerald-green lawn was marketed as a sign of success, but it’s becoming an outdated look as we understand the costs entailed,” says Diane Lewis, a physician and founder of the Great Healthy Yard Project, which teaches homeowners how to get beautiful yards without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. “It’s much more appealing to have a more varied and less perfect lawn that’s nurturing for your children, pollinators, and wildlife.”

    Instead of wall-to-wall coverage, more homeowners are going for the area-rug effect, for example, buffering a smaller patch of lawn with native plants that attract bees and butterflies. Others are using the yard to create an edible garden. Water-smart landscaping is also gaining traction, especially in drought-stricken regions where some municipalities pay residents hundreds of dollars to replace thirsty turfgrass with gravel or mulch.

    John Marzluff, author of “Welcome to Subirdia” (Yale University Press, 2014), calls it the Freedom Lawn. “Spending less time and money on lawn maintenance may allow homeowners to relax and enjoy nature in other ways, such as bird feeding,” he writes, noting that a shaggy lawn can attract goldfinches to dandelion seeds and even harbor frogs and turtles.

    Consider this: Homeowners apply up to 10 times more pesticides per acre to their lawns than farmers do to crops, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Exposure to those toxins carries potential health risks, from skin rashes to cancer. And after they leave your yard, “the chemicals don’t just disappear,” Lewis says. “They wind up in rivers and streams and eventually get into our drinking water.”

    Then there’s the economics. Maintaining a trophy lawn can be expensive, especially with water costs up 25 percent since 2010, according to the American Water Works Association. In parts of the Southwest, where tiered pricing applies, monthly bills can top $300. If the expense doesn’t cause homeowners to rethink their thirsty yard, being branded a water hog might. California’s State Water Resources Control Board website has even started ranking communities by their per capita water use.

    Whatever your motivation, creating a healthy yard that looks great doesn’t have to be a lot of work. In addition to being more fuel-efficient, the latest mowers, tractors, and string trimmers are easier to operate and maintain. The electric starter in the $500 Cub Cadet SC500EZ uses a lithium-ion battery you can charge indoors, where the temperature is right for charging. And the Briggs & Stratton EXi engine, found in the Toro 20353 and Snapper SP80, never needs an oil change.

    Let it grow. A scalped lawn means weak, shallow roots, so let your grass grow to about 4½ inches before mowing it to about 3 inches.

    Mulch those clippings. They’ll deposit nutrients back into the soil, which could reduce your fertilizer needs by 25 to 40 percent, says Van Cline, Ph.D., senior agronomist for Toro.

    Water less often. An established lawn needs only about 1 inch of water per week, including rainfall (use an empty tuna can to keep track). Rather than a daily sip, give the lawn a good, long drink once per week or so.

    Air it out. Heavily compacted soil denies your lawn much-needed oxygen. Aerating the lawn with a core aerator will help the soil breathe. Fall is the ideal time for this project because spring aeration can kick up weed seeds.

    Embrace certain weeds. Clover takes nitrogen from the air and feeds it to the soil. With their deep taproots, dandelions can provide natural aeration. Mow them as you do grass.

    Do a soil test. That will tell you which nutrients are missing. Applying lime can control acidity and reduce fertilizer needs. Though do-it-yourself kits are available, your local cooperative extension will do a more accurate soil test.

    Look for low-maintenance ground cover. “Sedge is a grasslike plant that’s getting a lot of attention,” says Pam Penick, author of “Lawn Gone!” (Ten Speed Press, 2013). It can take occasional light foot traffic. For higher-traffic areas, she likes No Mow Lawn Seed Mix from Prairie Nursery, a fine-fescue mix suitable for cooler climates. In hot, arid regions, consider Habiturf, a mix of short prairie grasses.

    Most turfgrass needs some kind of supplemental nutrition. But the four- and five-step programs marketed by manufacturers are overkill, plus they can unleash harsh chemicals into the ecosystem. A single fall application is often sufficient, especially if you follow our other lawn-care advice. Always read the instructions on the label, and keep fertilizers off sidewalks and other areas where they can be swept into storm drains.

    Good: Slow-release fertilizers

    These contain nitrogen and other chemicals, but they’re in a water-insoluble form, so they’re less likely than fast-release fertilizers to leach into the soil and eventually into waterways. Plus they won’t damage the lawn the way fast-release products can if you use too much. Using the recommended type of drop spreader will ensure even dispersal.

    Better: Organic fertilizers

    Derived from plant, animal, and mineral sources, organic fertilizers are broken down by microorganisms in the soil. If you have pets, avoid those that contain bone, blood, and fish meal because they might try to eat them, which can cause vomiting and diarrhea. The Organic Materials Review Institute website lists products that adhere to strict standards.

    Best: Compost

    Applying a quarter-inch top dressing of compost a couple of times per year will add healthy organic matter to the soil, reducing or even eliminating the need for fertilizer. Composting right after you’ve aerated will help mix the organic matter into the soil. A backyard compost bin is the most cost-effective approach, or you can purchase compost from the local garden center.

    Cut your water bill by 50 percent?

    With forecasts changing like, well, the weather, it can be tough to properly water at the right time. But the makers of these smart products—Smart Watering Controller ($150), Rachio Iro Smart Sprinkler Controller ($250), and Skydrop Sprinkler Controller ($300)—claim to save up to half of the water your sprinklers use new.

    The three products work similarly: A hardware device taps into weather-forecasting systems, customized to where you live, and either replaces or manages your existing controller and sprinklers.
    The low-profile Toro Precision Soil Sensor ($115) relies on your soil’s moisture level at a given spot to judgewhen the grass needs water. A sensor probe, inserted into the soil, communicates with a receiver connected to your irrigation controller.

    The yard-to-table garden

    It takes some effort and irrigation, but an edible garden qualifies as sustainable by providing food for your family. “We started to see an increase in food gardening in 2009, after the recession, and it remains popular today,” says Bruce Butterfield, market research director at the National Gardening Association.

    Nutrient-rich soil is key, so it’s worth investing in raised garden beds or going the container-garden route (a low-commitment option for beginners). Full sun is also required, so choose an exposed section of the yard. And consider drip irrigation, available in do-it-yourself kits at most home centers, because it will put water directly onto the root systems. As for what to grow, let your palate be your guide. “If you like strawberries, plant them,” Butterfield says. “Or you can grow a salad bar by planting tomatoes, cucumbers, and greens.” For additional suggestions, check out the website GrowVeg.com.

    Average cost: $50 for a 75-square-foot plot.

    The wildlife-loving garden

    The monarch butterfly, which had its lowest count on record in 2014, is disappearing. Bees are also dying off in droves. Planting native milkweed and honeysuckle will provide nectar and pollen to those and other pollinators. Or consider “birdscaping,” by adding nourishing berry plants or thorny trees that offer protective cover for nests.

    “If you can only count five species of plants, including the lawn, you’ve got an overly homogenized landscape,” says Damon Waitt, senior director and botanist at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas. “You want to see five times that number.” The center’s website has a database of more than 8,000 plants that can be searched by region, size, and sun requirements. You can also search for plants that are loved by bees and butterflies but not deer and other pests.

    Average cost: $50 to $150 for a 75-square-foot plot when using plants; $10 if starting from seed.

    The water-smart garden

    With roughly half of the U.S. experiencing abnormally dry conditions, water-smart landscaping is going from niche to necessity. But it’s not all cactuses and concrete. “A responsible garden that takes less water can have the same appeal as a traditional garden,” says Bob Brackman, executive director of the San Antonio Botanical Garden. Go for native species that are adapted to local rainfall conditions. A layer of mulch will help retain moisture and slow weed growth.

    For patios or pathways, a permeable material such as pea gravel or crushed granite will prevent runoff when it does rain. Use a rain barrel or other catchment system to collect water from the roof or your home’s air conditioning unit. Make sure in-ground irrigation is equipped with a soil sensor so that the yard gets water only when it needs it. The WaterSense section of the EPA’s website has additional tips.

    Average cost: $9 to $12 per square foot, including plants, materials, and high-efficiency irrigation, according the California Landscape Contractors Association.

    This article also appeared in the May 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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