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    Financial risks in your forties

    It was just 20 years ago that you were financially carefree. Twenty years from now you’ll be thinking about when to take Social Security. But your 40s are a major crossover point. It’s the decade when you first confront the big topics and start realizing there are big risks out there.

    There’s no avoiding those worries, but you can lessen them by anticipating them and planning ways to protect yourself. The sooner you do, the better financial shape you’ll be in for the future.

    Here are three wake-up calls – and suggested actions.

    For more information, read Financial Planning in Your Forties.

    You’re sluggish about saving. People in their 40s usually have more immediate concerns than whether they’ll have enough savings to support them in their later years. But the financial stopwatch clicks on for real once you turn 40, notes Mark Coffey, a certified financial planner with Summit Financial Strategies in Columbus, Ohio. If you want to have good options when you reach age 65, Coffey says, “you need to create a pool of capital over the next 25 years after that.”

    Action: Saving for retirement is like dieting: We understand that it’s something
we really ought to do but tend
to put it off. “For most people, it’s less painful to commit to a sacrifice someday in the future than it is to make one today,” says Coffey, who recommends a simple procrastination workaround. Assuming you can live within your means on your present salary, commit to save any future raises, bonuses, and windfalls.
“If you get a 3.5 percent raise
next year and commit to put
that aside, and the next year
get an additional 3.5 percent
raise, you are now talking serious money going into future savings,” he says. And you’re making those investments without putting your present spending habits through painful cuts.

    Your career lacks staying power. Turning 40 signals the start of your peak earning years, “the beginning of when you really need to be nailing it,” says Rick Kahler, founder of the Kahler Financial Group in Rapid City, S.D. That’s why you need to ask yourself, “Am I in a profession that is sustainable?” he says. If you can be replaced by a machine or somebody less expensive, or if the industry you’re in is stagnant or in decline, then you may be in for a tough time. Your No. 1 asset is your career, Kahler points out; you’ll want to make sure that asset has a bright future if you hope to profit from it.

    Action: Do a rigorous and honest analysis not just of your job prospects but also of the future of your profession. Do you need to tweak it by getting some additional education? Or do you need to switch it up completely? Stay current in your field and industry. Take a course, attend industry conferences, and regularly read trade magazines and industry journals. Erase the blind spots by getting involved in an industry trade group or association. Maintain a network of business contacts that can help you stay abreast of trends and advise you on how to alter your skills to adapt to those changes. If you need to morph, Kahler says, “now is the time.”

    You’re widowed at a young age. Chanel Reynolds never thought much about death—until the day her husband went for a quick bike ride and was hit by a van and killed. She didn’t know how much life insurance they had, or the password to unlock his phone and access his brokerage ac- count, or how she was going to pay the mortgage, let alone the medical bills. “All of that extra stress and pain could have been avoided with a few hours of organization and follow-through,” Reynolds wrote on the web- site she started to help others know what to do before tragedy strikes.


    Action: Go through a financial fire drill, Coffey advises. Make sure that you have written and signed the four fundamental documents: a will, a durable financial power of attorney, a health care proxy, and a living will. In addition, put together a list of your financial accounts, the names of your attorney, financial adviser, plumber, electrician, etc., and their contact info, and, most important, passwords for your phone, computer, and financial accounts. Reynolds’ website (search her name) and others, such as everplans.com, offer helpful checklists.

    — Catherine Fredman

    This article appeared in the April 2015 edition of the 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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  • 04/08/15--02:59: Status SUVs—at a price
  • Status SUVs—at a price

    Sport and utility. Despite their do-everything, go-anywhere promise, SUVs generally live on the street, carrying briefcases and gym bags more often than slogging expeditionary gear to a far-off destination. So it’s no surprise that luxury compact SUVs are a hot commodity. These status-worthy models offer the latest technology, competitive fuel economy, and all-wheel drive for security in inclement weather, and yet they are as agile and maneuverable as any hatchback. And the premium badge heralds your arrival at the ski lodge or country club. Still, these new tall hatchbacks require premium fuel, have cramped rear seats, don’t offer much cargo space, and carry a big price premium over mainstream models. Does a prestige logo actually bring more than a feeling that you’re above the hoi polloi? We bought and tested the two newest German models to find out.

    Many luxury brands are marketing high-riding hatchbacks and wagons as SUVs, but Audi’s entry actually delivers. The Q3’s design lets you sit higher, with a commanding driving position that the swept-back BMW X1 and Mercedes-Benz GLA lack. And let’s face it, where your posterior is planted relative to other drivers is a prime reason folks buy SUVs.

    With the Q3’s tall doors, you can easily hop in and out. But things get tight once you’re behind the wheel. Front-seat occupants are likely to bump elbows­—think of a coach-class fight over the center armrest. Taller drivers may feel their knee and hip cramping by the too-close, asymmetrical relationship of the dead pedal to the driver’s seat.

    Once underway, the Q3 is rewarding to drive. The suspension soaks up ruts and potholes well despite its underlying firmness. A quiet cabin and supportive seats make even a long commute pleasant. The Q3’s nimble and crisp handling makes those narrow, fast two-lane parkways a joy.

    The 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo sends its 200 hp through a six-speed automatic. Getting the Q3 to 60 mph feels faster than the 8.4 seconds it takes; however, its 22-mpg overall fuel economy is not stellar. But come winter, its all-wheel drive will help keep you from spinning your wheels. The Quattro system makes navigating deep slushy snow almost routine.

    Front-drive Q3s start at $32,500, and our Premium Plus Quattro set us back a hefty $40,125. That price gives you a mostly well-finished interior laid out with German precision, even if there’s some hard plastic here and there.

    Leather seats and a panoramic sunroof are standard, but some expected features are missing. It has no USB ports—just a proprietary media connector. A power liftgate costs $400, and the backup camera is part of a $1,400 option package.

    Don’t be misled by the Q3’s seemingly low price of entry; you’ll still have to cough up some cash for the true Audi boutique experience.

    Read our complete Audi Q3 road test.

    Trim Premium Plus Quattro
    Engine 200-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cyl.
    Fuel 22 mpg
    Price $32,500-$38,500

    The GLA’s $31,300 base price might seem temptingly low, but it has the feel of buying a Rolex and finding out the expected second hand is an extra-cost item.

    In fact, luxury-car basics such as dual-zone climate control, heated seats, and a sunroof are optional. Even with a restrained hand on the options list, the GLA’s price can easily pass $40,000. Ours cost $42,210.

    We understand the appeal for luxury in a small package and the draw of Mercedes’ cachet. But if you’re expecting real Mercedes qualities—such as a hushed cabin, plush ride, and a solid feel—you’ll be very disappointed. In fact, it’s difficult to see the GLA’s superiority over the similarly sized Mazda3 or Subaru Impreza.

    The GLA’s sleek silhouette attracts lots of looks but creates major limitations. We were taken aback by the cramped though nicely finished interior. Even average-height drivers found head room skimpy. The rear seat is laughably small, and you’re out of luck if you want to carry serious luggage behind it.

    And though the GLA’s flash makes you visible to others, you’ll have trouble seeing out. The must-have rear-view camera costs an additional $450. And we wouldn’t consider getting a GLA without the $550 blind-spot monitoring system. Some controls are confusing: It’s easy to mistake the column-mounted shifter for a wiper stalk and swat it when it rains, putting the car in neutral. We were also irked at how low in the dash the climate controls are mounted.

    Not all is dire. The low-slung GLA handles well, being more like a hatchback than an SUV. In all-wheel-drive form, the GLA is stable, with strong thrust from the 2.0-liter, four-cylinder turbo engine. We got 26 mpg overall, which is quite good for the segment.

    Still, this engine and the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic are an unrefined package. Despite a quick 6.9-second 0-to-60-mph sprint, the powertrain often feels half asleep, particularly when the engine is off the turbo boost, and the transmission takes its time finding the right gear.

    As a pricey bauble, the GLA works. But after the shine dulls on the three-pointed hood ornament, you’ll realize it doesn’t deliver the luxury experience you thought you were getting.

    Read our complete Mercedes-Benz GLA road test.

    Trim GLA250
    Engine 208-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cyl.
    Fuel 26 mpg
    Price $33,300-$48,300
    What price compact luxury?

    A compact crossover SUV may seem like an enticing entry point to a luxury brand. Without being too expensive, those vehicles make a grand entrance, carry a decent list of features, and, ooh la la, that badge. But certain compact luxury SUVs can be a poor value. For instance, a loaded-up mainstream crossover—such as the Honda CR-V (reviewed below)—gives you more bang for the buck. Conversely, for those who can afford the entry luxury price, spending a few grand more up front, or a few dollars more on a monthly lease, can upgrade you to a midsized luxury SUV that will have more room, a better driving experience, and higher-quality features and materials. The Mercedes GLA we purchased set us back 42 grand all tarted up. But the nicer and larger GLK (shown) rings in at about $47,000. In that case, spending more may be the wiser choice.

    In the battle for small-SUV supremacy, the latest salvo comes from Honda, but it doesn’t hit the bull’s-eye. The CR-V’s midlife freshening brings not only a new powertrain but also some degradation in ride comfort and user-friendliness.

    The direct-injected four-cylinder engine and new continuously variable transmission returned 24 mpg overall, just 1 mpg better than last year’s model. Although the rubber-band revving of the CVT is well-masked, under hard acceleration the CVT shows its true stretchy nature—with harshly amplified engine noise.

    Honda recalibrated the suspension to be more responsive and planted. But that comes at the cost of ride comfort, which used to be among the best in class. The cabin is marginally quieter and better isolated from road roar. Winter playtime proved the all-wheel-drive system to be capable in deep slush.

    The freshening brought more features to the widely sold EX trim level, such as a power driver’s seat, heated front seats, and the LaneWatch blind-spot camera. The new Touring trim gets you a power tailgate.

    Other virtues remain, such as generous rear-seat room and cargo space, as well as a handy rear-seat folding mechanism.

    The newfangled infotainment systemis one of the worst we’ve seen. Unless you get the base LX, the CR-V does away with knobs, instead using unintuitive menus and tiny buttons or onscreen icons.

    On the safety front, the CR-V offers features not normally seen in this class, such as forward-collision warning with automatic braking, lane-departure warning, and lane-keep assist—but only on high-end versions.

    Despite the transmission quirks, stiff ride, and confusing controls, the CR-V’s practicality and affordability still stand.

    Read our complete Honda CR-V road test.

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

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

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  • 04/08/15--05:59: The best store brands
  • The best store brands

    When it comes to quality, consumers don't want just the best meat and produce, but the best store brands, too.  Would you shop at a supermarket that sold lousy store brands? One of five Consumer Reports subscribers said quality store brands are a key criteria in store choice. Moreover, 66 percent of those surveyed for our new supermarket study said they buy store brands whenever they’re available. Rarely are those shoppers disappointed. Of those who bought store brands, 63 percent were completely or very satisfied with the quality. Only 5 percent expressed even a hint of dissatisfaction.

    Store brands, also known as private label goods, are a proven way to economize. How much can you save buying a supermarkets’ own label? Our studies over the years have been remarkably consistent. The average is around 25 percent vs. comparable national brands. Equally important, our testing has consistently revealed that many store brands are at least as good as their better-known counterparts.

    Store brands can sell for less because it’s astronomically expensive to turn a product like Heinz ketchup, Tide laundry detergent, or Lays potato chips into a household name. Besides research and development, there are hefty advertising and promotional costs. Icons don't come cheap. Ironically, name-brand manufacturers often make store-brands, too, utilizing their expertise and excess capacity to generate incremental revenue. It’s the industry’s dirty little secret.

    That said, our survey clearly shows some retailers are doing a superior job with their store brands. Of the 68 grocery chains in our Ratings, 49 earned average scores for quality; twelve received subpar grades—including Walmart Supercenter, the nation's largest grocer. The overall winner for the best store brands was Trader Joe’s, followed closely by Wegmans, Publix, Costco, Raley’s, Whole Foods Market, and Harris Teeter.

    The bottom line: The great thing about brands is that buying them isn’t a sweaty palm issue. We’re talking groceries, not a new car. The potential for significant savings is worth the low risk. And best of all: The stores stand firmly behind their products. Just about every retailer has a no-questions asked money-back satisfaction guarantee if the products fail to live up to your expectations. A few, like Hannaford and Giant Eagle, actually offer a double money-back pledge.

    —Tod Marks

     

    For detailed information on America's best and worst supermarkets, click here. Full Ratings are available to subscribers only.

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

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  • 04/08/15--07:19: Happiness is a 3-year lease
  • Happiness is a 3-year lease

    Leasing a car used to be just for the wealthy—or for those who wanted to look the part. Now it has gone mainstream.

    Indeed, 23 percent of all vehicle transactions last year were leases, according to the most recent industry data. More car shoppers are discovering that leasing works for satisfying Mercedes tastes on a Mazda budget.

    And people who lease seem generally pleased with their decision, according to Consumer Reports’ latest Annual Auto Survey, tallying more than 46,845 leased new 2011-15 model year vehicles driven by our subscribers.

    We also found, in a follow-up survey regarding 11,215 leased vehicles, that more than half of drivers who are currently leasing also had leased their previous vehicle.

    What’s more, experienced lessees are far more brand-loyal than other drivers. About 65 percent of lessees in our survey stayed with the same brand when they signed their current lease. “That’s double the amount of those who financed or bought their last car,” said Simon Slater, Ph.D., Consumer Reports senior research associate.

    Leasing is gaining in allure because shoppers can get a more expensive vehicle for their money. (The reason: Monthly payments are tied only to the car’s depreciation rather than to its entire value.) And lease-return programs lend themselves to drivers retaining the same brand because the lessee will need new wheels when the term expires. Also, automakers often offer great incentives.

    But does leasing deliver more owner satisfaction than ownership or financing?

    ConsumerReports.org subscribers can read the full article, complete with survey findings by brand.

    The full article is available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers. Sign in or subscribe to read this article.

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

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    Protect yourself from bug bites

    What bothers you most about summer pests: annoying bug bites or the diseases the insects spread, including Lyme and West Nile? For most of us, diseases are more worrisome, according to a Consumer Reports survey of more than 2,000 Americans.

    The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shares that worry—especially for emerging threats such as chikungunya, which may be poised to spread quickly this season. Here are smart steps to take:

    Mosquitoes

    West Nile, a virus that can cause fever, headache, and joint pain, killed 85 people in the U.S. last year. Mosquitoes carrying the disease have been found in 47 states.
    Of the 2,492 reported cases of chikungunya in the continental U.S. last year, no one died, and only 11 were from bites received in the U.S. (all in Florida); others came from the Caribbean or elsewhere.

    But chikungunya is raising alarms. To get West Nile you have to get bitten by a mosquito that first bit an infected bird. With chikungunya, mosquitoes can catch the virus from a person and spread it to other people, too. Plus, the mosquitoes that spread West Nile bite mainly from dusk to dawn. Those that spread chikungunya prowl all day long. And about 20 percent of people infected with West Nile develop symptoms, compared with about 75 percent of those with chikungunya.

    To avoid bites: Limit outdoor time, especially from dusk to dawn, when mosquitoes are most active, and skip strong scents, including perfume and aftershave. (Check our insect repellent Ratings to find the ones that performed best against two types of mosquitoes.)

    If you are bitten: Ease itching with an ice pack, hydrocortisone cream, calamine lotion, or a dab of vinegar. See a doctor for fever, headache, body aches, nausea, swollen glands, or rash. Take pain relievers and fever reducers to ease symptoms.

    Learn which insect repellents kept the bugs at bay best. And check out our insect repellent buying guide.  

    Ticks

    About 300,000 people get Lyme disease each year in the U.S., mostly in the Northeast and  Midwest. But it’s expanding, and doctors in new areas may be less familiar with the disease.  Other tick-borne infections—anaplasmosis, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever—are found throughout the U.S.

    To avoid bites: In woodsy or grassy areas, wear light-colored clothes to help spot the ticks, plus long pants, longsleeved shirts, socks, and closed-toe shoes. Tuck pants into socks and hair into a hat. (Check our insect repellent Ratings to find the ones that performed best against deer ticks.) Back home, throw clothes in the dryer on high heat for an hour. Shower with a washcloth and check for the poppy-seed-sized insects. If you find one in your skin, pull out the body with a tweezer.

    If you are bitten: See a doctor if you develop a bull’s-eye rash, or chills, fever, fatigue, headaches, and muscle or joint pain. Antibiotics stop the infection and prevent complications, such as joint pain and facial paralysis (Lyme disease); difficulty breathing or bleeding disorders (ehrlichiosis); and heart, joint, or kidney damage (Rocky Mountain spotted fever).

    This article also appeared in the June 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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    Buried under student loan debt? Help is on the way

    Think that student debt is only a college kid’s concern? America’s $1.2 trillion in outstanding college loans has surpassed the country’s $700 billion credit-card bill. That huge liability is a drag on the entire U.S. economy. It’s hardly a coincidence that the number of first-time homebuyers is at a generational low, while student-loan balances are at an all-time high.

    Student-borrowing totals have tripled in the past decade, a trend that will probably continue as college costs keep rising. (A typical loan tab for 2013 grads is $28,000.) There are many errors and inefficiencies within the labyrinthine repayment system. Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, has been fighting to make repayment easier and has had some success. In March, President Obama proposed the Student Aid Bill of Rights, which should help make student-loan repayments more manageable. Until that happens, you can help yourself by:

    • Understanding repayment options. It’s crucial for federal borrowers to pay down debt, and now there’s some help. Some income-based plans limit monthly payments to 15 percent of your discretionary income, and pay-as-you-earn plans cap payments at 10 percent of your discretionary income. Note that lowering your bills could mean paying more over the life of the loan. An extension could be for 10, 20, or even 25 years. But the plans forgive any remaining balance at the end of the repayment period. Compare choices by using the repayment estimator at studentloans.gov.
    • Knowing that a default leads to more debt. Default is a reality, especially for many older borrowers, some with loans from more than 20 years ago. Defaulting often results in a doubling of the loan balance because of compounding collection fees and penalties. A federal student loan is considered in default after nine months of nonpayment; private student loans can default even earlier. Most can’t be discharged, even in bankruptcy.
    • Asking for deferment or forbearance. If you’re unemployed or underemployed, ask your loan servicer for a deferment application. Military service and at least half-time schooling also make you eligible for deferment. Forbearance is often at the loan issuer’s discretion. Either way, interest usually continues to accrue, increasing the amount you’ll owe once the deferment or forbearance ends.
    • Putting payments on autopilot. You’ll receive an interest-rate reduction of 0.25 percent if your federal student-loan repayments are automatically debited from your bank account. But if you consolidate multiple federal student loans, you may have to repay those savings. Loan consolidation information can be found at studentaid.gov.
    • Paying it forward. Some federal student loans can be forgiven in part or in full if you make 10 years of loan payments on time and work in an eligible public-service job or for a not-for-profit.

    What needs to happen

    Consumers Union is urging the Department of Education, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Congress to protect students who need to settle debt by:

    • Improving borrowers’ access to flexible payment plans.
    • Creating a clear point of contact for questions and complaints.
    • Increasing protections for borrowers with private loans.

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

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

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    $76,000 Tesla Model S 70D hits the sweet spot

    For luxury enthusiasts drawn to the the Tesla Model S P85D's “insane” performance but deterred by its eye-popping price, there's a new Tesla to consider: the Tesla Model S 70D.

    Starting at $76,200 before taxes and incentives, the 70D provides a worthy step into Tesla ownership, replacing the slow-selling 60-kWh model. Where the previous 60 model felt like a compromised package that existed to hit a price point, the 70D promises all the range and performance most drivers could want.

    The 70D has Tesla’s dual-motor all-wheel drive system, along with a 70-kWh battery that gives it an EPA-rated range of 240 miles. That’s up from 208 miles with the 60-kWh model.

    Like the Tesla P85D (and 85D) announced last fall, the 70D has front and rear motors. Finding its place in the pecking order, the 70D has an official horsepower rating of 329 hp. That’s less than half that of the mighty P85D, but more than enough to deliver real-world thrills and catch some would-be stoplight competitors by surprise.

    Tesla says the 70D has a top speed of 140 mph and will go 0-60 in 5.2 seconds, compared with 3.1 seconds for the P85D. Rest assured, the 70D would still likely be the quickest electric car on your block. The 70D is also the most efficient Tesla you can buy, with an EPA energy-efficiency rating of 101 mpg-equivalent (MPGe).

    Tesla 70D 85 85D P85D
    Range (miles, EPA)
    240 265 270 253
    MPGe, combined 101 89 100 93
    Horsepower 329 362 422 691
    0-60 mph (seconds, claimed)
    5.2 5.4 4.4 3.1
    Top speed (mph, claimed)
    140 140 155 155
    Price $76,200 $81,200 $86,200 $106,200

    Perhaps more important, base-model Tesla owners now get standard access to the company’s nationwide network of fast-charging public "Superchargers," which owners of 60-kWh cars used to have to pay extra to use.

    It makes sense that Tesla is upgrading its base model. Looking at units registered with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the company built only two 60-kWh cars in the last month, and they made up less than 2 percent of production in 2014.

    Tesla buyers have been gravitating toward the most capable models with the longest range. Most Teslas produced so far in 2015 have been dual-motor, all-wheel drive, 85-kWh cars, according to government numbers. That includes both 85Ds and the 691-hp, high-performance P85D.

    But if Tesla expects to broaden its market, it needs to appeal to less well-heeled buyers as well. The company is hoping the 70D model will fill that gap until its expected $35,000 Model 3 debuts in 2017.

    Read our complete Tesla Model S road test.

    —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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    Hyundai to replace tires on all 2015 Genesis sedans

    Hyundai Genesis drivers are about to get a fresh set of tires, free of charge. Owners of the current-generation Korean luxury sedan—redesigned for the 2015 model year—will be receiving a service bulletin notifying them that Hyundai will replace their current tires with a different brand, due to the possibility of vibration and road noise.

    Until now, all versions of the Hyundai Genesis with 18- or 19-inch wheels have been fitted with Hankook Venus S1 Noble 2 tires. The Hankook 18-inch tires will be replaced with a Michelin model, while all 19-inch tires will be replaced with Continental ProContact DX rubber (per service campaign P18).

    “Our dealers will replace the current tires with four brand new tires, regardless of whether the customer has experienced issues with the tires or not,” said Hyundai spokesman Jim Trainor.

    On March 19, Consumer Reports first became aware of the service campaign initiated in the South Korean market—although no such campaign existed in the United States.

    When originally contacted at that time, Hyundai Motor America had not announced plans to replace tires for American customers. When we recontacted Hyundai on April 7, it appeared that our persistence had resulted in the service campaign being extended to U.S. customers.

    If there is any difference in the performance of the Genesis in our test fleet when shod with different tires, we will let you know.

    —George Kennedy

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

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    Use less water without sacrificing function or flow

    About half of the water you use every day goes down the bathroom drain. Toilets are the biggest water hogs, followed by showerheads and faucets. You can save about 19 gallons per person per day by switching to a WaterSense qualified toilet, which uses 1.28 gallons or less per flush, compared to an old, pre-1990 model. And the latest showerheads and faucets deliver a satisfying spray while using about half as much water as those made in the 1990s. In Consumer Reports tests we found bathroom fixtures that get the job done without wasting water.

    Toilets

    With nearly 2,500 water efficient toilets that meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense criteria, it’s hard to know which one to get. After all, you’re not going to save much water if you have to flush the toilet twice. In our toilet tests, the St. Thomas Creations Richmond Eco 6123.218, $350, quietly cleared our tough mix of baby wipes, sponges, and plastic balls without leaving unsightly stains inside the bowl. The American Standard Champion 4 Max 2586.128ST.020, $240, performed nearly as well. The Glacier Bay N2428E sold at Home Depot was even quieter and the CR Best Buy costs just $100, as does the Aquasource AT1203-00 from Lowe's, although it wasn’t as quite as good at removing solid waste. All meet WaterSense criteria and may qualify for rebates so check the WaterSense website.

    If you don’t want to buy a new toilet, make sure the one you have isn’t leaking. Put a few drops of food coloring in the toilet’s tank. If it seeps into the bowl in 15 minutes without flushing, there’s a leak that needs to be fixed. If so, there are many how-to videos online including that of conserveh2o.org.

    Whether your toilet is old or new, don’t flush tissues, flushable wipes, or paper towels. They don’t disintegrate as easily as toilet paper, so they can clog the toilet.

    Showerheads and faucets

    Installing a WaterSense low-flow showerhead can save the average family 2,900 gallons per year, according to the EPA. Since using less water also reduces demand on your water heaters, you’ll save energy too. In fact, the average family can save more than 370 kilowatt hours of electricity annually, enough to power a house for 13 days.
     
    The savings aren’t quite as dramatic for faucets, but they’re impressive, about 700 gallons a year for the average family, according to the EPA.  In our past faucet tests, we found few performance differences between faucets that cost $100 and $600. So look for one with a lifetime warranty that covers leaks and stains.
     
    Another way to save water is by replacing the aerators in all your faucets with WaterSense labeled ones, which can cost as little as a few dollars each. To estimate how much water your home consumes, use the calculator on the Watersense website. You may be surprised.
     
    —Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman (@CKLehrman 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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    What you get when you pay up to $1,000 for a grill

    Most gas grills sold cost less than $300 but are hauled to the curb after just three years, on average, according to the Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association. That surprises some people and angers them too. In “10 great gas grills for $300 or less” we highlighted small and midsized grills that were impressive in Consumer Reports’ tests. Over 300 people posted comments when our story appeared on Yahoo. Fired up, these grill owners had plenty to say about grills that were cheaply made and rust out, and grills that last well past three years. So how much should you spend?

    Your budget answers that question, but for $450 to $1,000 you can buy a grill that delivers impressive or even top performance, some midgrade stainless steel, sturdy construction, stainless or cast-iron grates, electronic igniter, and side burner. Our gas grill Ratings tell you how well a grill did at preheating, low and high heat, indirect cooking, and temperature range. We note features and whether the burners have a long or short warranty. Burners are the most replaced part and the better ones are covered for 10 years or longer.

    How to choose

    When you’re shopping shake the grill several times. Does it feel solid and sturdy? Look at the grates and pick them up. Stainless steel and coated cast-iron grates tend to be better for searing and maintaining even grilling temperatures—and stainless is more durable. Grip the handle. Your knuckles shouldn’t be too close to the lid. And keep in mind that a greater distance between the grates and burners usually means fewer sustained flare-ups.

    We tested 130 gas grills ranging from $115 to $2,600. We measured the main cooking area of each grill to help you find the right size grill. Usually the larger the grill, the bigger the cooking surface, but that’s not always true. Here are some sturdy, impressive grills that cost between $450 and $1,000.

    Small gas grills (fit 18 burgers or less)

    Weber Spirit E-220 463100001, $450
    Napoleon Terrace SE325PK, $600

    Midsized grills (fit 18 to 28 burgers)

    Weber Spirit SP-320 46700401, $600
    Kenmore Elite 33577, $950
    Weber Genesis S-330, $970
    Weber Genesis E-330, $800
    Broil King Signet 90 986784 LP, $700
    Napoleon Legend LA400 Series LA400RSIBPSS, $1,000

    Large grills (fit 28 or more burgers)

    KitchenAid 720-0893, $900
    KitchenAid 720-0709C, $800

    More choices. Our gas grill Ratings tell you how these grills compare to the others tested. Use the gas grill selector to narrow your search by price, brand, and so on. Once you do that, be sure to click the “Features & Specs” tab to find out how these grills stack up features-wise. Our user reviews offer insight, and if you have questions for our grill experts 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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    2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club and Launch editions drop cover

    The countdown is on to the next-generation Mazda MX-5 Miata, and the excitement is being further fueled by two special variants: Club Edition and Launch Edition.

    The Club Edition is the mid-tier trim, and its upgrades are installed with handling performance in mind. It gets 17-inch gunmetal alloy wheels, Bilstein shocks, limited-slip differential, strut tower brace, and new front and rear spoilers. All that comes when you get the Club with the six-speed manual. If you get it with the automatic, all you get are the alloys and spoilers.

    Next up is the Launch Edition Miata, available to the first 1,000 customers that reserve a new MX-5 Miata. It is based on the range-topping Grand Touring trim, but it gets the exclusive combination of Soul Red exterior paint and sport tan interior. Being a Grand Touring model, it also comes with heated seats, automatic climate control, navigation, and infotainment. The Launch Edition also comes with Mazda’s latest suite of safety tech, including blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning, and automatic headlight control.

    Miata customers can plunk down $500 to reserve their Launch Edition through Mazda's website until that 1,000-car figure has been reached. While we know that the Miata will start at almost $26,000, the price for these appealing special editions hasn’t been released. Pre-orders start on May 5, 2015.

    —George Kennedy

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    Consumer Reports buys a Tesla Model S P85D

    Like a beacon in the gray rain, the red Tesla Model S P85D that Consumer Reports just bought rolls off the trailer onto our wet track. Our readers have expressed much interest in this ultra-high performance electric supercar that is mopping up Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and muscle cars in drag-race videos all over the Internet.

    And no wonder, as the P85D is the most technologically advanced car you can buy and the utmost expression of our current top-rated car. Not only can it dust conventional supercars with its 671-hp Insane mode, but the P85D also carries an EPA energy consumption rating of 93 MPGe. Like all new Model S cars, the P85D incorporates Tesla’s new Autopilot active safety system. Among its features, Autopilot kicks adaptive cruise control up a notch with the ability to follow speed limits (or not), and pass other cars when you hit the left turn signal. And there’s more to come.

    Tesla keeps improving the Model S with over-the-air software updates, even after its been sold. Through this process, company founder and CEO Elon Musk says the cars can be kept current for 20 years. We’re not so sure. Like last year’s cell phone, our old 2013 Model S no longer has all the hardware needed to take advantage of the latest features. So we’ve upgraded.

    The next software update, due out this summer, is Version 7. It will add lane-keeping assistance and self-parking capability. This latter feature, Musk says, will allow the Model S to drop you off at a theater or another business, go park itself, and return when you need it (as long as it’s on private property).

    In the meantime, the new sensor hardware needed for Autopilot (radar and cameras in the front, and sonar sensors in the bumpers) finally gives the Tesla a host of active safety features that other luxury cars have had for years. These include forward-collision mitigation braking, lane-keeping assistance, and blind-spot warning. All Model S’s are now being built with equipment for these systems, but they aren’t activated unless you pay—much like a computer software upgrade. Autopilot is a $2,500 option from the factory, or the software can be activated later at a Tesla service center for $3,000.

    We look forward to seeing how Tesla’s Autopilot system compares with driver assistance systems from other automakers. In the meantime, with 691-hp on tap, we’ll have some fun putting test miles on our new P85D.

    Read our current road test on the Tesla Model S.

    —Eric Evarts

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    Which motorcycle brand has the highest owner satisfaction?

    If you want to know how satisfied someone is with their motorcycle, ask them how comfortable it is. In our latest motorcycle survey, we found that fun, styling, acceleration, even handling (with one exception) don’t distinguish motorcycle brands. The best differentiator is comfort.

    In analyzing data from over 12,300 motorcycles across 10 brands, Victory leads the pack with best overall owner satisfaction. Plus, it gets a top mark for comfort, followed by Can-Am and Harley-Davidson at better than average in comfort. Ducati, Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Triumph each got the lowest mark for comfort, which may have had an impact on their overall satisfaction.

    Impacting overall satisfaction and reflecting reliability, we saw cost of maintenance and repair be a satisfaction issue with BMW, Can-Am, Ducati, and Harley.

    Owner satisfaction

    Brand Would definitely buy again
    Victory 80%
    Harley-Davidson 72
    Honda 70
    BMW 68
    Can-Am 67
    Ducati 66
    Yamaha 65
    Triumph 63
    Kawasaki 59
    Suzuki 58

    Most other satisfaction categories saw close ratings across the brands, with handling being the other exception. Can-Am, with its distinctive three-wheelers, was judged to have average handling satisfaction—lower than every other brand. Based on our experience, the Can-Am Spyders don’t have the natural agility associated with traditional motorcycles. Not a bad thing, but the riding experience is quite different. (New Spyder F3 models aim to address some criticisms, by boosting power and agility, and adding more adjustability for comfort.)

    If you’re considering a big V-twin cruiser or touring bike, it would be wise to take a Victory for a test drive. Victory not only excelled in owner satisfaction, but the company had a strong showing with reliability—putting it almost on par with leading Japanese brands.

    For a more diverse model selection, Honda stands as a safe choice, performing well in both owner satisfaction and reliability.

    No matter the brand, an important insight from our more than 11,000 responding subscribers is comfort is important. Be sure to focus on this factor when taking a test ride, and if necessary, explore options for dialing in the handle bars and pegs to improve on the default factory set-up. Many motorcycles, especially newer models, have significant options for such adjustments.

    Visit our motorcycle buying guide to see our full motorcycle reliability and owner satisfaction ratings.

    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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  • 04/09/15--08:59: Best sports cars
  • Best sports cars

    Sports cars have an unmistakable allure, with gorgeous shapes, engaging handling, and spirited performance being their hallmarks. Their promise is to transform even a routine errand into a smile-inducing adventure. But even the most entertaining sports cars bring compromises, such as ride quality, ease of access, and intimate interior.

    The best sports cars tip the balance toward rich rewards, and they are crafted for those discerning drivers looking for a special experience behind the wheel. The models listed below are the top-rated sports cars, positioned in descending rank order of overall test score. All are offered with manual transmissions, considered by many to be essential to the sports car driver/machine interface.

    Click through to read the complete road tests, and scan the reliability, owner cost, owner satisfaction, pricing, and other data. Or use our interactive tools to compile your own list based on the factors that matter most to you.

    Jeff Bartlett

    Consumer Reports Build & Buy

    In addition to providing 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 provides upfront pricing information and a certificate for guaranteed savings off MSRP (in most states). The pricing information and guaranteed savings include eligible incentives. Consumer Reports subscribers have saved an average of $2,919 off MSRP with the Build & Buy Car Buying Service.

    BMW M235i

    Base MSRP price range: $32,100 - $47,700

    The small 2 Series coupe has razor-sharp handling and a sense of immediacy unlike other recent BMWs we've tested, which seem to focus more on luxury and comfort. The 228i comes with a 240-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder; the uplevel M235i we tested has a terrific 320-hp, 3.0-liter turbo six-cylinder. Available six-speed manual and eight-speed automatic transmissions are slick and smooth. The excellent front seats have ample space, but the rears are very cramped. Interior appointments are first-rate, but the iDrive unified control system remains a bit of a pain to fully master. All-wheel drive and a convertible are new for 2015.

    See our complete BMW M235i road test.

    Porsche 911

    Base MSRP price range: $84,300 - $194,600

    The 911's iconic shape hides a thoroughly modern sports car, delivering performance and relative refinement. The base model gets a 350-hp, 3.4-liter six, and the Carrera S uses a 400-hp, 3.8-liter six; both engines are matched with a seven-speed manual transmission. Measures to help with fuel efficiency include engine shut-off at idle and electric power steering. This powertrain sounds terrifically raucous, and driving the automated manual is just as thrilling as the stick shift. Overall, the 911 is quick and super-agile, and it has sublime handling. The 911 isn't particularly taxing on long trips, thanks to its relatively supple ride and enough sound deadening to prevent headaches. The interior is beautifully crafted but filled with buttons and rocker switches. A rearview camera is optional.

    See our complete Porsche 911 road test.

    Chevrolet Corvette Stingray

    Base MSRP price range: $55,000 - $83,000

    The seventh-generation Corvette has sharp-edged styling, more power, and an interior worthy of the price. Power comes from a 455-hp, 6.2-liter V8 mated to a standard seven-speed manual. New for 2015 is an optional eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters. Drivers with a thirst for more power can opt for the 650-hp Z06. The car's all-aluminum construction optimizes weight savings and strength to benefit fuel economy and handling. Acceleration is blisteringly quick, and handling is pinpoint. With the adjustable driving modes the car can be a fairly refined cruiser or track-ready race car. The seats deliver support and comfort. But you can't ignore the low-slung cabin that's difficult to access and tire noise.

    See our complete Chevrolet Corvette Stingray road test.

    Porsche Boxster

    Base MSRP price range: $51,400 - $73,500

    Porsche's entry-level roadster is tremendous fun to drive and offers strong 2.7- and 3.4-liter flat six-cylinder engines. Both the base and S versions are offered with a choice of a six-speed manual or a seven-speed automated-manual transmission. The 2.7-liter we tested in the base model is very responsive, and the manual shifter is smooth and crisp. Handling is still excellent despite some loss of steering feedback, and the ride is not punishing. The power top deploys quickly and can be operated at speeds up to 35-mph. Having both front and rear trunks are a bonus.

    See our complete Porsche Boxster road test.

    Volkswagen GTI

    Base MSRP price range: $24,785 - $32,640

    The redesigned GTI uses a 210-hp, 2.0-liter turbo, driving through either a six-speed manual or six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. We got an impressive 29-mpg overall with our manual-transmission test car. The GTI is fun to drive, with a taut ride that won't beat you up. Handling is agile, and throttle response is immediate. Inside is a high-quality, quiet, and refined interior with comfortable seats. That all adds up to a sporty car that doesn't wear on your patience during a long drive. The infotainment system includes 3D navigation and an easy-to-use touch screen that incorporates swipe motions.

    See our complete Volkswagen GTI road test.

    Mini Cooper S

    Base MSRP price range: $25,300 - $36,250

    The new third-generation Mini is longer and wider, and for 2015 is available with four doors. Engine choices include a 134-hp three-cylinder and a frisky 189-hp four-cylinder turbo, with either a six-speed manual or automatic. We measured 31-mpg overall in the base automatic and 30-mpg from the S with its stick shift. Handling is very nimble and sporty, though agility has been dialed back some. The ride is markedly better, no longer beating up your lower back, and road and wind noise are kept in check. The backseat is still tiny. You can spend hours online configuring your ideal, personalized Mini, but that can push up the price to and beyond $30,000 for a small car.

    See our complete Mini Cooper road test.

    Nissan 370Z

    Base MSRP price range: $29,990 - $49,400

    Employing a wonderfully strong and smooth 3.7-liter V6, the Nissan Z delivers quick acceleration and respectable fuel economy. The six-speed manual is a bit notchy but easy to use, and it can match revs on downshifts. Handling is very agile, with quick steering and lots of grip, but somehow the car isn't as engaging to drive as one would expect. The ride is very stiff and choppy, and road and tire noise are constant. The Z's well-finished interior is cramped, and visibility is lousy. Convertible and stiffer-riding, higher-performance NISMO versions are available. Changes for 2015 include standard Bluetooth and revised suspension tuning.

    See our complete Nissan 370Z road test.

    Scion FR-S / Subaru BRZ

    Base MSRP price range: $24,900 - $31,090

    Co-developed by Subaru and Toyota, the first rear-drive sports car for both Scion and Subaru brands features a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with a choice of a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. These coupes aren't about raw power or scrimping at the pump. Their magic comes from the super-sharp, agile handling and excellent braking that makes them so enticing to drive, whether on a track or a twisty, back-country road. At its limits, the BRZ understeers more than its mechanical sibling, the FR-S. That difference makes it more forgiving but slightly less rewarding. The ride is also a bit more jittery. Their trade-offs are typical for sports cars: a jittery ride, noisy cabin, and vestigial rear seats. And getting in and out of these low-slung cars requires a bit of ducking.

    See our complete Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ road tests.

    Mercedes-Benz SLK

    Base MSRP price range: $43,950 - $70,900

    The SLK features a retractable glass and metal top that lets it credibly serve as either a coupe or an open-top roadster. The base SLK250 features a 1.8-liter, 201-hp turbocharged four-cylinder that delivers ample thrust. Our tested SLK250 with the six-speed manual returned a very good 26-mpg overall, but we weren't impressed with the rubbery shifter action. The more powerful V6 and V8 engines come with a seven-speed automatic, which is a better choice. Handling is crisp and enjoyable, though inattentive drivers may be surprised at the SLK's limits due to its late-acting stability control. The ride is firm but refined enough even for lengthy trips. The small cabin is well-finished but narrow.

    See our complete Mercedes-Benz SLK road test.

    Subaru WRX

    Base MSRP price range: $26,295 - $38,495

    The redesigned WRX, with its wide fenders and muscular stance, is only available as a sedan. Its 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder produces 268-hp and an abundant 258 lb.-ft. of torque, driving all four wheels. A six-speed manual is standard, but a CVT automatic is offered, with three drive modes: Intelligent, Sport, and Sport Sharp. Power is abundant and handling is nimble, but the ride is very stiff and choppy, and the stiff-feeling shifter and abrupt clutch engagement make the WRX frustrating as a daily driver. Still, it's among the few high-performance cars that has four-door practicality. The higher-performance WRX STi has a giant wing on the trunk, some transmission and suspension differences, and a stronger 305-hp engine.

    See our complete Subaru WRX road test.

    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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    Washing machines that save water and money

    Pam Heath has used her top-loading agitator washer for 20 years and says it still works fine but because of the drought, this Californian is thinking of replacing it. “I’ve cut back on shower time and have done everything I can do short of changing my washer,” she says. “Since the water shortage will probably get more severe I’m looking at washers that use little water but have longevity.” Here’s a look at just how much water different types of washers used in Consumer Reports’ tests.

    Most agitator top-loaders we tested 18 years ago used over 40 gallons of water to wash an average size load. Since then, federal standards have gotten increasingly tougher, requiring washers to use less water and energy. Today, any washers scoring excellent in water efficiency in our tests used about 13 gallons or less to do our 8-pound load. A very good score means the washers used 13.5 to 17.5 gallons. Washers scoring poor in water efficiency used about 26 gallons or more. Our tests also found that despite using less water, cleaning remains just as good in many of the washers, but wash time is longer.

    Front-loaders

    As a group these typically clean better than HE top-loaders and use less water and their high spin speed extracts more water so dryer time is cut. Most front-loaders can handle about 17 to 28-pound loads.
    Water used: Most scored excellent in water efficiency meaning they used about 13 gallons of water or less to wash an 8-pound load, including the top-rated Samsung WF56H9110CW and the LG WM8500HVA, each $1,450, and the Maytag Maxima MHW5100DW, $950. Each washer used around 10 gallons to wash our 8-pound load.  

    High-efficiency (HE) top-loaders

    Most high-efficiency top-loaders hold more laundry (17 to 28 pounds) than agitator top-loaders and typically wash better. HE top-loaders use a lot less water and their higher spin speed reduces dryer time by extracting more water.
    Heads up: "If an HE top-loader senses a severe imbalance the washer may keep adding rinses until the problem is resolved—we've seen up to 100 gallons used on some models—or until an error warning flashes,” says Emilio Gonzalez, the engineer who oversees our tests of washers and dryers. So properly loading the washer is important. Add a few items at a time, rather than dumping in a basket of laundry, and wash similar items together—a load of sheets, a load of towels. And if you need to wash a waterproof item, check the manual and read the “5 things to know before buying a washer and dryer.”
    Water used: Most HE top-loaders tested score very good in water efficiency, using about 13.5 to 17.5 gallons to do our 8-pound load. The top-scoring Samsung WA48H7400AP, $900, scored excellent and used about 12 gallons of water but the Frigidaire Affinity FAHE1011MW, $550, scored poor, using about 26 gallons.

    Top-loaders with agitators

    They’re still the big sellers, in part because they’re the cheapest. These perform the least impressively as a group and because they use more water—most scored fair or poor in water efficiency—and extract less than high-efficiency top-loaders and front-loaders, dryer times are longer. Most hold about 12 to 16 pounds of laundry. The good news is a few agitator top-loaders we tested were impressive in cleaning and one even had excellent water efficiency.
    Water used: The top-rated Whirlpool WTW4850BW, $580, scored excellent in water efficiency and used about 13 gallons to wash our 8-pound load and was impressive at cleaning. Washers at the bottom of our washing machine Ratings scored poor in water efficiency, including the $400 Amana NTW4651BQ. It used about 27 gallons.

    Water-saving laundry tips

    • Do full loads and use cold water when possible.
    • Measure laundry detergent and use HE detergents for HE top-loaders and front-loaders. Regular detergents are too sudsy and using too much can cause these washers to use more water by extending the rinse cycle.
    • Choose the right soil setting for the load. Using the heavy-duty soil setting can use more water and extends wash time. The normal setting works for most loads.
    • Pick the appropriate water level setting—often small, medium, large—for the load if that’s how your machine works. Front-loaders and most HE top-loaders have auto-load sensing, and a few agitator top-loaders that recently came out have it too. This feature automatically determines the load size and the amount of water need.

    More choices. Use our washer Ratings to compare models, and try the washer selector to filter your search by washer type, price, and brand. Then click the “Features & Specs” tab to compare features and to see each washer’s dimensions. Any questions? E-mail me at kjaneway@consumer.org. And be sure to use the Energy Star rebate finder. It's money in the bank. 

    Kimberly Janeway 

    More water-saving tips

    Use less water without sacrificing function or flow

    Turn your yard from thirsty to thrifty with these tips

    Leaky plumbing can drain your bank account

    Full toilet Ratings and recommendations

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

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    9 mobile gadgets with long battery lives

    Odds are, you bought that laptop, smartphone, or tablet because it’s something you can easily take with you. So when it comes to battery life, the longer, the better. But not all batteries are created equal.

    In fact, battery life within each category of mobile devices varies widely. In our labs, we've recorded battery life of just 3.5 hours on a couple of laptops, and as few as 5 hours on some tablets. Several smartphones we tested provided as little as 8 hours of talk time.

    Those numbers got us wondering—which mobile products offer phenomenal battery life? Here’s a list of the tablets, smartphones, and laptops with batteries that don't tire easily.

    —Donna Tapellini

    Toshiba Portege Z30-BSMBN22 ($900, Intel Core i3, 4GB memory, 128GB solid-state drive)

    Toshiba’s new Portege kept working for 19 hours in our battery-life tests, making it the longest-lasting laptop in our Ratings. It’s a 13-inch model that’s also quite light at 2.6 pounds, and an excellent performer.

    Apple MacBook Air 13-inch MD760LL/B ($899, Intel Core i5, 4GB memory, 128GB solid-state drive)

    Lasting 16.25 hours, battery life on this MacBook Air will let you get two solid days’ work in. It’s thin, it’s light, and it’s an excellent performer. (This is the prior-generation MacBook Air. We haven’t tested the newest one yet, but we expect battery life to be at least comparable.)

    Lenovo ThinkPadX1 Carbon ($1,200, Intel Core i5, 4GB memory, 128GB solid-state drive)

    Battery life on this 14-inch laptop was 13 hours, the longest of all those we tested in this size category. It’s also the lightest of its size, weighing in at 2.9 pounds. Performance was excellent, and the display is one of few with a matte screen, making it less reflective than others.

    Consumer Reports' Buying Guides will help you make the best purchase decisions when you're in the market for a laptop, smartphone, or tablet.

    Sony Xperia Z3 Compact Tablet ($500, Wi-Fi, 32GB)

    How does 16 hours of battery life sound? This innovative tablet is also waterproof. (Yes, we dunked it!) The Z3 is also notably thin and light. Performance was excellent, so it’s great for playing games.

    LG G Pad 7.0 ($150, Wi-Fi, 8GB)

    At 15.9 hours, battery life on LG’s G Pad almost matches that of the Sony model. But the G Pad puts much less strain on your wallet. It’s also quite light.

    Amazon Fire HDX 8.9 ($380, Wi-Fi, 16GB)

    Another tablet with more than 15 hours of battery life, the Fire HDX has the largest screen of the tablets noted here. Performance was excellent. If you want to take full advantage of the Fire HDX, consider signing up for Amazon Prime, a $99 annual subscription that gives you access to free movies and TV shows, as well as other content.

    Samsung Galaxy Note 4 ($825 retail)

    The Note 4 will let you chat for 24 hours without needing a charge. Even better, it charges back up quickly. It’s got a dazzling 5.7-inch display, an impressive camera, and an innovative stylus.

    LG G3 ($580 retail)

    Another model with 24 hours’ talk time, the LG G3 sports a phenomenal display. The slim, curved design makes it comfortable to hold despite that large 5.5-inch screen. It’s also got one of the best laid-out virtual keyboards we’ve seen, so if you do a lot of typing on your phone, this is one to consider.

    Apple iPhone 6 Plus ($850 retail)

    Battery life with this model is significantly better than that of prior iPhones. With the iPhone 6 Plus, you’ll get 17 hours of talk time, our tests showed. That’s in addition to a great display and sleek design.

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

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    Winter-related brake failure a safety issue

    Even though all visible evidence of snow and ice may be a distant memory, the ghost of winters past may be lurking under your car in the form of corrosion. And it poses a big safety risk, particularly for vehicles from 2007 and earlier, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

    NHTSA has issued a safety advisory to remind people of the importance of washing and inspecting their vehicle—particularly the undercarriage—throughout winter and after the season has ended. Repeated exposure to winter road salts in Snowbelt states could lead to corrosion of metal brake lines and eventually failure, which could result in a crash. (See “Do's and don'ts of washing your car.”)

    Consumers are urged to take the following action to not only prevent damage to their brake lines, but to address any developing corrosion.

    Remove road salt that leads to corrosion:

    • Thoroughly clean your vehicle, including the undercarriage, at the end of the winter.
    • Regularly wash the undercarriage throughout the winter on warmer days.

    Monitor your brake system, including brake lines, brake hoses, and other undercarriage components for corrosion or signs of brake failure:

    •  If you own an older vehicle in a cold-weather state, have a qualified mechanic or inspection station look over the vehicle at least twice a year. If there are any signs of corrosion, inspect the brakes more frequently, at least every time you bring your vehicle in for service.
    • Keep an eye on brake fluid level. Watch for changes in how your brake pedal feels and for signs of fluid leakage beneath the vehicle. All of these could indicate a leak in your brakes.

    If you find severe corrosion that causes scaling or flaking of brake components, replace the entire brake pipe assembly:

    • Do not replace just a portion of the assembly. Failure in one portion of the brake pipes generally means other sections of pipe are at risk of failure.
    • Check with your manufacturer to see if they have pre-fabricated brake pipe kits to possibly make replacement easier.

    This warning comes at the conclusion of NHTSA's brake-line failure investigation of 1999 through 2003 model-year full-size pickup trucks and SUVs.

    The NHTSA advises not to drive the vehicle at all if you notice leaks from the brake pipes and that it is wise to replace all of the pipes at the same time.

    Jon Linkov

    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 avoid home improvement scams

    Now that warmer weather is here, your thoughts naturally turn to all of the around-the-house projects soon to occupy your weekends. Certainly a little help wouldn’t hurt, but be careful whom you hire: Along with the crocuses, spring is also the season when crooked contractors and home improvement scams start popping up everywhere.

    There are many variations on the scheme. Some home improvement scams involve contractors showing up at your door offering to repair your roof, repave your driveway, or do whatever chore you need for a price that seems fair. They ask for payment in advance but then do either shoddy work or none at all. It can be difficult to catch and prosecute these con artists. Even so, in the state of New Jersey alone, officials are seeking more than $2.1 million in consumer restitution and penalties from 130 contractors accused in 2014 of performing poor work or leaving projects unfinished. Here’s how to protect yourself from home improvement scams:

    • Get recommendations. Avoid contractors that contact you unsolicited. Don’t hire a contractor based solely on an ad in a local newspaper, even if you’re offered a big discount or another incentive. Get recommendations from friends, neighbors, or relatives.
    • See what others are saying. Before hiring a contractor, check his or her work history with your state consumer protection agency (go to usa.gov/directory/stateconsumer for a list) and the Better Business Bureau. Search the Web using the company or individual’s name and such words as “reviews” and “complaints.”
    • Check credentials. Verify with your state that the contractor has the required license or registration. Some states have funds that reimburse consumers who obtain judgments against licensed contractors.
    • Know your rights. Some states give consumers three days or so to cancel home-improvement contracts. Under federal law you have three days to cancel most contracts that are signed in your home or outside the contractor’s regular place of business.
    • Get everything in writing. Don’t rely on spoken promises. Demand a written contract, and get all warranties in writing, too.

    Planning a project at home? Check our kitchen planning and home improvement guides.

    1. He just happens to be in the area

    He knocks on your door and says he can offer you a great deal because he’s working nearby and has leftover material. It’s a ruse.

    2. The deal is good "today only"

    He says you must act immediately to get his special offer. Don’t let him muscle you into making a decision without doing your homework.

    3. You're told your safety is at risk

    He creates a sense of urgency by saying you may be in danger unless he makes immediate repairs. Contact authorities if you have concerns.

    4. You have to pay up front

    He demands you pay a substantial amount before work commences. It’sa sign that he’s out to rip you off or that he’s in financial trouble and has no credit to buy supplies.

    5. He lacks professionalism

    He’s hard to reach: He has no address, his vehicle is unmarked, and there’s no info on him at the Better Business Bureau, or anywhere.

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

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

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    Wegmans, Publix, & Trader Joe’s Continue to Dominate Consumer Reports’ Supermarket Ratings

    Walmart Supercenter still among lowest-rated grocers in latest survey; Fresh, high-quality produce & store-made meals a top consideration

    YONKERS, NY — In Consumer Reports’ new supermarket survey, Wegmans, Publix, and Trader Joe’s remain at the top of the Ratings of 68 of stores nationwide.  Also earning high overall satisfaction scores were Fareway Stores, Market Basket (Northeast), Costco, and Raley’s.  Once again, America’s largest grocer, Walmart Supercenter, landed at the bottom, along with A & P and Waldbaums, two smaller regional chains.

    The report, “America’s Best, Freshest Supermarkets,” which includes the complete Ratings of grocery stores, is available in the May 2015 issue of Consumer Reports and at www.ConsumerReports.org

    Consumer Reports National Research Center surveyed 62,917 subscribers about overall satisfaction with their supermarket shopping experiences based on 111,208 visits between March 2013 and July 2014. The top-rated supermarkets also received high scores for overall freshness – quality of produce, meats, poultry, bakery items, and store-prepared foods as well as store quality, which included scores for staff courtesy and store cleanliness.  Walmart Supercenter, consistently one of Consumer Reports’ lowest-rated grocers since 2005, earned low marks in every category other than price.

    “Once upon a time, low prices, checkout speed, and variety were attributes that mattered most to supermarket shoppers,” said Tod Marks, senior project editor at Consumer Reports.  “While these aspects are still critical, more and more consumers demand better fresh foods, more organics, and a greater variety of locally made and grown foods.”

    Many Americans believe that good health starts with a good diet.  As a result, consumers have become increasingly savvy label readers, wary of preservatives, chemicals, and unpronounceable ingredients and the demand for minimally processed foods and shorter ingredients lists has risen significantly. And supermarkets are taking seriously their new role in the health of their customers.  Consumer Reports found that 95 percent of chains have a registered dietician on staff to assist with merchandising and marketing decisions.  And, more than 75 percent of stores say they carry more locally grown or made goods than they did in 2012.

    In addition to traditional characteristics such as service and cleanliness, Consumer Reports asked subscribers to rate their grocers on the selection of local produce and the price of organics at their stores. Only around six in 10 were completely or very satisfied with the quality of their store’s produce, meat, and poultry offerings, according to Consumer Reports’ survey.

    Just three of the chains – Wegmans and national chains The Fresh Market and Whole Foods – earned stellar produce scores.  Seventeen were below average.  Eighteen retailers received low scores for produce variety, notably two big warehouse clubs – Sam’s Club (part of Walmart) and BJ’s Wholesale Club (in the East) – as well as Target and Target Supercenters.

    Consumer Reports also asked subscribers about the prices of organic options available at their stores: Trader Joe’s, Wegmans, Costco, and Sprouts Farmers Market received high marks.  And, to determine the real-world price differences, Consumer Reports conducted a study by shopping for 15 similar organic and conventional goods including bananas, milk, and chicken, at eight national, regional, and online grocers.  The organic items cost 47 percent more, on average, although in some cases, some of the organic versions cost the same or less than the conventional ones.  For example, organic Grade A maple syrup cost 11 percent less than the conventional version at Price Chopper.

    When it came to prepared food and bakery items, about 50 percent of respondents to Consumer Reports survey were highly satisfied with those offered by their store.  Standouts for prepared foods were Wegmans, Publix, Costco, Whole Foods, and Fresh Market.  Pathmark and Waldbaum’s in the Northeast, and Aldi, in the eastern U.S., received low marks in that category.

    For more information on America’s best and worst supermarkets, pick up the May 2015 issue of Consumer Reports, on newsstands now, or visit www.ConsumerReports.org.  The feature also decodes common terms such as “fresh,” “natural” and more.

    About Consumer Reports
    Consumer Reports is the world’s largest and most trusted nonprofit, consumer organization driving marketplace change to improve the lives and amplify the voices of consumers.  Founded in 1936 Consumer Reports has achieved substantial gains for consumers on food and product safety, financial reform, health and other issues. The organization has advanced important policies to cut hospital-acquired infections, prohibit predatory lending practices and combat dangerous toxins in food. Consumer Reports independent testing and rating of thousands of products and services is made possible by its member-supported 50 plus labs, state-of-the-art auto test center and consumer research center. Consumers Union, a division of Consumer Reports, works for pro-consumer laws and regulations in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace. With more than eight million subscribers to its flagship magazine, website and other publications Consumer Reports accepts no advertising, payment or other support from the companies whose products it evaluates.

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    Separate laundry rooms top Millennials' wish lists

    What feature do you want most in a new home? A separate laundry room tops the list for Millennials—adults 34 or younger—according to the American Housing Survey. Fifty-five percent of survey respondents said they would pass on a house without one. It’s not that Millennials want it all. The survey found they want smaller homes, but with a laundry room please. Whether you’re house hunting or shopping for new laundry appliances, keep in mind that washers and dryers have changed in recent years in ways that relate to your space.

    Wide load coming through

    Some high-efficiency top-loaders and front-loaders, like Consumer Reports' top-rated Samsung WF56H9110CW, $1,450, are two or three inches wider than usual; same with dryers. It’s one way to increase capacity. In our ratings a machine that scores excellent in capacity held about 25 or more pounds of our laundry. Those machines are typically bigger. A very good capacity score indicates about 20 to 24 pounds; good, around 15 to 19 pounds.
    Tip: Look at the dimensions in our Features & Specs box on the model page for each washer and dryer. Measure the space you have to work with and allow room behind the dryer for the vent, and measure the door to the house and to the laundry room for moving day.

    Height enhancers

    Many front-loaders we test are excellent at cleaning, but the design isn’t that convenient and requires lots of bending. That’s why for $500 to $600 you can buy pedestals for the washer and its matching dryer. They raise the machines from 11 to 15 inches. And the GE GFWR4805FMC, $1,200, has a built-in riser that boosts the machine’s height by about seven inches. So does its matching electric dryer, the $1,200 GE GFDR485EFMC.
    Tip: If you’re considering pedestals tally the height of the machine plus pedestal, especially if you plan to install your appliances below cabinets or shelves.

    Stack ’em

    For small laundry rooms or dual-purpose rooms—a mud and laundry room eliminates the middleman—stacking your appliances saves space. Most front-loaders we test can be stacked with a dryer, and we note this in the Features & Specs page in the Ratings so you can compare front-loaders. It’s also mentioned on each washer model page, as it is for the $700 Kenmore Elite 41472.
    Tip: Use the washer and dryer dimensions in our ratings to get an idea of how tall the stacked machines will be. When shopping ask the salesperson to add it up as the actual height may differ slightly depending on how the dryer attaches to the washer. With height in mind, will you be able to reach the dryer controls and inside the drum?

    Quiet, please

    Agitator top-loaders cost less than high-efficiency top-loaders and front-loaders and the best do a very good job cleaning, such as the Whirlpool WTW4850BW, $580, and the GE GTWN5650FWS, $650. But agitator washers are usually noisy.
    Tip: Look at the washers and dryers that scored very good or better in our tests for noise if you're placing these appliances near bedrooms or the family room. You'll know they're working but they shouldn't disturb you. You'll hear the machines that scored good or lower—they make sustained sounds that can be annoying. And while most manufacturers have reduced front-loader’s vibrations, keep in mind that concrete floors can absorb vibrations well, unlike wood-framed floors. You’ll see vibration scores in our washer Ratings.

    Think like a kid

    Keeping a front-loader’s door ajar between loads allows air to circulate and helps prevent mold and funky odors from developing if water collects around the rubber door gasket. But with washers and dryers moving to a space adjacent to the family room, kitchen, or bedrooms, young children may have unrestricted access. So if you have young ones running about, think how you’ll keep them safe—and be sure to keep detergent pods out of their reach.
    Tip: See “How to prevent smelly mold buildup in front-loading washers” for more tips and consider a high-efficiency top-loader, such as the Samsung WA45H7000AW, $700.

    Consumer Reports' washer and dryer Ratings offer all the details and you can easily compare models. Check the buying guides for news on features and the pros and cons of washer types. And if you have questions, e-mail me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

    Kimberly Janeway

    Best matching washers and dryers

    Find the best matching washers and dryers from Consumer Reports' tests. And don't miss the:

    Washing machine buying guide.

    Clothes dryer buying guide.

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

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