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Consumer Reports

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    Best wagons and minivans in Consumer Reports' testing

    Todays car market has a vehicle for every need. If your priority is getting your family and all their gear around the most effective way possible, the old ways—wagons and minivans—just might be the best. And that means bucking the SUV trend.

    Popularity contests aside, wagons and minivans continue to be the most logical choices among family vehicles. Cast aside any negative mom-mobile stereotypes. These car types simply offer the best balance of passenger comfort, versatility, and fuel economy. To help in your search, we present here the best wagons and minivans based on Consumer Reports’ testing.

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

    —George Kennedy

    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.

    Subaru Outback

    Base MSRP price range: $24,895 - $32,995

    No matter the version you buy—the four-cylinder 2.5i Premium or six-cylinder 3.6R Limited—the Outback is a smart choice for a family car, earning our highest rating among midsized wagons. It's a deceptively large, with a spacious back seat that delivers ample accommodations for three adults and 34.0 cubic feet of cargo room with the split-folding rear seatbacks lowered. The four-cylinder gets a combined 24 mpg, which is respectable for a wagon with standard all-wheel drive. Opt for the 3.6-liter engine if you crave refined power—its 22 mpg overall isn't a major trade off. Both models deal make quick work of bumps and road imperfections. And new safety features include a standard rearview camera and available blind-spot, cross-traffic, and lane-change warnings. All of that, plus an affordable price, makes the Outback an easy wagon to recommend.

    Read our complete Subaru Outback road test.

    Audi Allroad

    Base MSRP price: $44,400

    Take the sporty handling and refined ride of the Audi A4 sedan and blend it with the raised ride height and all-wheel drive of an SUV, and you have the Audi Allroad. Unlike many wagons or minivans—and nearly every SUV—the agile Allroad is fun to drive. Its more fuel efficient than most small SUVs, returning a decent 22 mpg overall. While the exterior may speak to rugged capability, the cabin has the sophisticated fit and finish that has become an Audi hallmark. Standard features include three-zone automatic climate control, panoramic moonroof, and a power lift gate, providing access to 28.5 cubic feet of cargo space. Still, some equipment that is common on non-premium, less-expensive vehicles is optional. And the interior and cargo area aren't as roomy as Audi's own small SUV, the Q5.

    Read our complete Audi Allroad road test.

    Volvo XC70

    Base MSRP price range: $36,050 - $47,150

    Volvo's wagon has a raised ride height and available all-wheel drive, which when combined with a host of safety features and secure handling, delivers a go-anywhere, haul-anything alternative to bulky SUVs. Power from the six-cylinder engine is adequate, though you do need to dip into the throttle for the best passing acceleration and its 18-mpg overall trails the like-minded Audi and Subaru offerings. Front-wheel-drive versions come with a turbocharged four-cylinder that should return better mileage. Inside are supportive seats and a clean dash and center stack. The second row is roomy enough for three adults, and the seat folds in a convenient 40/20/40 split—perfect for hauling family and gear. While a bit long-in-the-tooth, the Volvo delivers comfort and safety in a flexible package.

    Read our complete Volvo XC70 road test.

    Toyota Venza

    Base MSRP price range: $29,065 - $39,940

    Based on the previous-generation Toyota Highlander SUV, the Venza isn’t quite minivan, SUV, or wagon. But this lineage yields a five-seat vehicle with easy cabin access, a roomy interior, and a quiet ride. Packing everyone’s gear is made easier by a large rear hatch and large, flat load floor. A four-cylinder engine is available, but we'd go with the strong, refined 3.5-liter V6, which provides more than enough power. Plus, it's the only engine available with all-wheel drive. Fuel economy is the same 20-mpg overall as in the Highlander. In the end, this is a more affordable alternative to a Highlander for the loyal Toyota buyer who doesn't want an SUV and doesn't need three rows of seats.

    Read our complete Toyota Venza road test.

    Honda Odyssey

    Base MSRP price range: $28,975 - $44,600

    If you constantly find yourself hosting play dates, heading off to birthday parties, or carpooling the team, a full-on minivan is a must. The Odyssey is an easy choice, thanks to agile handling, sharp steering, and a slick engine and transmission that combine for a best-in-class 21 mpg overall. Inside is seating for eight, plus child seat compatibility that is flexible enough to allow for up to three seats to be placed side by side. And stowing gear—from strollers and diaper bags to bats, balls, and gloves—is made easier thanks to dual power sliding doors and a power rear hatch that can all be remotely opened and closed from buttons up front or on the key fob. Clever features like a cooled beverage compartment and an available built-in vacuum round out this strong package. Be aware: The Odyssey doesn't offer all-wheel drive, so buy a set of winter tires if you live in the Snowbelt.

    Read our complete Honda Odyssey road test.

    Toyota Sienna

    Base MSRP price range: $28,600 - $46,150

    In the battle for Minivan supremacy, the Sienna is nipping at the Honda's heels.  The Toyota is a very sensible choice overall, and it has two advantages over the Honda: strong reliability and all-wheel drive. The 3.5-liter V6 delivers respectable power, and front-wheel-drive versions return a respectable 20-mpg overall, just one mpg less than the Honda. In our tests the AWD Sienna got 19 mpg overall. That AWD system improves traction in inclement weather, but those versions use pricey run-flat tires. Ride comfort is very good, so you're likely to arrive slightly less taxed after a long trip. And recent updates have resulted in an interior that is quieter and features more soft-touch materials. Flexibility is big with the Sienna. Front-wheel-drive versions can seat eight thanks to a removable second-row seat that can be stowed away in the rear (AWD Sienna's seat seven). Finally, the 2015 update brought improved radio and climate system controls.

    Read our complete Toyota Sienna 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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    Cell-phone sciatica is a pain in the butt

    As our tests of the iPhone 6, Samsung Note 3, and other smartphones a few months ago showed, keeping the devices in your back pocket could bend the device when you sit down. But storing your phone in your back pocket can also be bad for your back and butt.

    Specifically, it can trigger sciatica, or pain that starts in your buttocks and shoots down the leg. I know that because, as a practicing neurologist, I have seen several patients complaining of the problem over the past few years. And I've been able to trace it back to the object tucked into their back pocket.

    The most recent victim: a 6-foot-2 man who was pleased to learn that the solution to his stubborn sciatica pain was not replacing his car (which he had been blaming), or surgery or drugs, but simply finding a new place to carry his iPhone.

    You might think that it’s pretty obvious that putting the device in your back pocket—and sitting on it—is a bad idea. But as last year’s bendgate controversy showed, a lot of people do it. In fact, it even triggered conversation on social media about on how to sit down with your phone in your pocket without damaging it. The few health concerns that have come up so far have focused on how keeping the phones in your front pant's pocket might allegedly hurt your sperm.

    Read more about how to prevent and treat back pain.

    That risk is speculative. But the potential harm to your back is clear. Pressing any hard object against the derrière, home of the sciatic nerve, is a bad idea. Cell-phone sciatica can now join several related nerve-compression syndromes, including wallet sciatica, credit-card sciatica, and back-pocket sciatica.

    A few years ago, for example, I wrote about a court officer whose sciatica pain stemmed from wearing his gun belt and nightstick over his backside. The condition is common enough that I now routinely check the rear pockets of patients who come to me with complaints of buttock pain radiating to the thigh.

    —Orly Avitzur, M.D.

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

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    Vizio Reference-series UHD TVs promise enhanced picture and sound

    The new Vizio Reference series UHD TVs are designed to offer enhanced contrast and colors and, in some cases, surround-sound systems. Vizio didn't indicate an availability date or prices for the flagship Reference series TVs, which will come in 65- and 120-inch screen sizes. 

    We saw an early prototype of the larger set at CES 2014, though the TV wasn't introduced last year as expected. Among the more notable features is Dolby's high dynamic range, or HDR, technology. Called Dolby Vision, it can enhance the set's contrast by boosting dynamic range—that's the difference between the brightest and darkest images a TV can produce.  

    The Reference sets will also be able to display a wider color gamut, the company says, and have full-array LED backlights with 384 dimmable zones. Vizio didn't say whether the TVs would use quantum dots to produce the wider range of colors, so we presume they'll use phosphor-coated LEDs.

    We're starting to see more TVs with wider color gamuts and high dynamic range technology, though currently there is no standard for high dynamic range. Dolby Vision is a proprietary encode/decode system, so movies first have to be encoded using the technology and then are decoded by a chip in the TV. Dolby has said that Sharp and TCL are also interested in Dolby Vision HDR, but there are no firm dates for availability. Vizio says that Warner Bros. will offer some 4K Dolby Vision through the Vudu streaming service.

    Find the best flat-panel TV for your needs and budget with our TV buying guide and Ratings.

    Beyond HDR, both TVs have dual-band Wi-Fi, a six-core processor, plus the Vizio Internet Apps (VIA) Plus smart TV platform, which provides access to several streaming video services, including 4K UHD content from Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and UltraFlix. The 65-inch model has a built-in 5.1-channel sound bar in the base plus a 10-inch wireless subwoofer and rear satellite speakers. The larger set doesn't come with speakers, presumably because people buying a presumably high-priced TV will have a home theater system.

    New M Series

    Vizio also announced its M-series TVs, UHD sets in screen sizes ranging from 43 to 80 inches; prices go from $600 to $4,000. All have full-array LED backlights, six-core processors, dual-band Wi-Fi, and the VIA Plus smart TV platform.

    —James K. Willcox

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

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  • 04/14/15--07:14: Best luxury sedans
  • Best luxury sedans

    Like beauty, luxury is subjective… and for some even budget limited. Car shoppers seek different upscale attributes, such as creature comforts, ride quality, and effortless performance, and they clearly have varying ability to afford the finer things. But within each budget, there are indeed desirable models ready to spoil.

    Because there are so many ways to parse luxury sedans, rather than provide a straight-up ranking by test score, we are highlighting the standout models for specific niches and attributes.

    Each model here is extraordinary in its own way, but there are numerous covetable cars to consider, as featured in our luxury car buying guide.

    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

    When buying a car, in addition to research and reviews, Consumer Reports offers subscribers access to the Build & Buy Car Buying Service at no additional cost. Through this service, a nationwide network of 10,000 participating dealers provide upfront pricing information and a certificate to receive guaranteed savings off MSRP (in most states). The pricing information and guaranteed savings includes eligible incentives. Consumer Reports subscribers have saved an average of $2,919 off MSRP with the Build & Buy Car Buying Service.

    Compact sedan: BMW 3 Series

    Base MSRP price range: $32,950 - $62,000

    The BMW 3 Series is an excellent car that boasts high quality, demonstrates careful attention to detail, and touts a long list of high-tech features. Dynamically, the car is agile, steady, and well balanced—even when pushed hard. And it delivers a very satisfying and balanced overall driving experience. Ride comfort, cabin quietness, and interior fit and finish are all impressive. The rear seat has received a little breathing room over the years, but it's still tight. And some controls remain needlessly complicated. The diesel 328d's 35-mpg overall is a standout in the class. A hybrid, an AWD wagon, and a less powerful 180-hp 320i version are also available. To the other extreme, the ultra-high-performance M3 can give Porsches and Chevrolet Corvettes a run for their money.

    Read the complete BMW 3 Series road test.

    Midsized sedan: Audi A6

    Base MSRP price range: $44,800 - $75,500

    The A6 outperforms many of its peers because it is so multi-talented. It provides an uplifting driving experience thanks to its responsive steering and tied-down suspension. But it also rides smoothly, leaving the bumps and ruts of the road outside the solid, vault-like cabin. The interior is quiet, sumptuous, and accommodating, with super comfortable and supportive seats keeping you fresh and ache-free. The trunk is large and beautifully finished. Interior quality and ambience is top notch, although it's more businesslike than glitzy. The A6 also provides an impressive variety of high-tech features, such as a 4G hotspot for connectivity and a touchpad interface.

    Read the complete Audi A6 road test.

    Ultra-luxury: Tesla Model S

    Base MSRP price range: $76,200 - $106,200

    The Tesla Model S is not only the best electric car we've tested, it's our top-rated model overall. This luxury sports car is brimming with innovation and delivers world-class performance. It provides razor-sharp handling, catapult-like acceleration, and excellent braking. The Tesla also rides comfortably, seats five adults plus two kids in an optional third-row seat, gets the equivalent of 84 mpg, and is one of the quietest cars we've ever driven. The new 70D base model has a dual-motor all-wheel drive system, along with a 70-kWh battery that gives it an EPA-rated range of 240 miles. With its hefty 85-kWh lithium-ion battery, the Model S we tested set new standards for EV driving range and recharge times. We found it can go between 180 and 225 miles on a charge. And it can be charged in five hours with a dedicated Tesla connector. We just bought a Model S P85D to test, with 691-hp and suite of active safety features. Look for P85D test findings in the weeks ahead.

    Read the complete Tesla Model S road test.

    Best fuel economy: Lexus ES 300h

    Base MSRP price range: $37,700 - $40,580

    While not the cossetting conveyance the ES used to be, the current ES provides a comfy, quiet interior and gets great fuel economy for the class. Although the ES rides well it's not luxury-car plush, feeling instead like a generic family sedan. Climb inside and you'll find adequate room, but it's not particularly spacious. Where the ES makes the cut here is with the zippy hybrid powertrain that squeezes out an excellent 36 mpg overall and 44 mpg on the highway. With a 17-gallon fuel tank, it has a 620-mile cruising range. Plus, it drinks regular gasoline—a cost-savings claim many peers can’t make.

    Read the complete Lexus ES 300h road test.

    Most reliable: Lexus GS 350

    Base MSRP price range: $48,600 - $61,330

    The GS competes well with other luxury sports sedans, delivering a balanced combination of ride, handling, quietness, and roominess. Where is has a distinct edge is with reliability. Its strong 306-hp, 3.5-liter V6 returned 21-mpg overall in our tests. Rear-drive versions have an eight-speed automatic, and all-wheel-drive models get a six-speed automatic. A 338-hp hybrid version with CVT is also available. Interior space is on a par with the class, and the cabin has the requisite luxury trim and materials throughout. Reliability can, and should, be a concern with true luxury cars. As these models push boundaries to have the very latest technology onboard, there can be risks of problems down the road. And with luxury models, repairs can carry a price premium. The GS shines with best-in-class reliability. In fact, based on the latest survey, we expect reliability of new models will be 48-percent above average.

    Read the complete Lexus GS 350 road test.

    Best American: Lincoln MKZ

    Base MSRP price range: $35,190 - $37,080

    The upscale MKZ is the most appealing and well-executed Lincoln in recent memory. Based on the Ford Fusion, it has a luxurious, quiet interior, and its ride and handling rival some high-end European sports sedans. Powertrains include a 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder and a 3.7-liter V6, each matched with a six-speed automatic. There's also a hybrid, which returned a near-class-best 34-mpg overall in our tests. The push-button gear selector and touch-sensitive controls for climate and audio functions are frustrating to use. And the modern styling compromises cabin access and rear-seat room. With many configurations to choose from, we’d pick the fuel-sipping hybrid, which, unlike many other hybrids, does not carry a price premium over the conventional gasoline powertrain.

    Read the complete Lincoln MKZ road test.

    Performance: Porsche Panamera

    Base MSRP price range: $78,100 - $200,500

    The Panamera offers the performance and feel that driving enthusiasts expect from a Porsche, but in a luxury sports car with seating for four. With very quick acceleration and excellent handling for its size, the Panamera cocoons passengers in a very well finished and comfortable cabin with rear seating that can accommodate adults. But the cockpit is somewhat snug, and the cluttered controls can be confusing. While the low-slung stance and firm suspension require compromises compared to a more upright traditional luxury sedan, the ride is civilized overall and the cabin is quiet. The hatchback design and folding rear seats add a measure of practicality.

    Read the complete Porsche Panamera road test.

    Most pampering: Mercedes-Benz S-Class

    Base MSRP price range: $94,400 - $230,900

    In almost every important attribute for a luxury car, the S-Class is a benchmark of excellence. The driving experience is first class, with an extremely hushed cabin, a supremely comfortable ride, and effortless power delivery. Handling is responsive and enjoyable. Unlike most competitors, when the corners become demanding, the S550's humongous size feels like it shrinks, allowing it to dance with the alacrity of a C-Class sports sedan. And in case the complicated controls distract you, and they will, the car will nudge you back into your lane and even stop for you in an emergency. The S-Class is indeed opulent and stately. Not only does it present a remarkable technological showcase, it hits the mark as a pampering, appealing, and enjoyable luxury liner.

    Read the complete Mercedes-Benz S-Class road test.

    Luxury alternative: Chevrolet Impala

    Base MSRP price range: $27,060 - $40,660

    Looking for a luxurious car without the upfront expense and elevated maintenance costs common with prestige-branded models? Test drive the Chevrolet Impala. Really. One of our top-rated sedans, the Impala is roomy, comfortable, quiet, and enjoyable to drive. It even rides like a luxury sedan, feeling cushy and controlled. Engine choices include a punchy 3.6-liter V6 and an adequately powerful 2.5-liter four-cylinder, both paired with a six-speed automatic. The V6 accelerates and brakes capably, with secure and responsive handling. The full-featured cabin stays very quiet, with a sumptuous backseat and a huge trunk. Controls are intuitive and easy to use, but rear visibility is restricted. Advanced electronic safety features are readily available. A standard Wi-Fi hot spot is new. Overall, the Impala is a world-class sedan that outscores luxury-brand sedans costing $20,000 more.

    Read the complete Chevrolet Impala road test.

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

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    Mattresses have changed since you last bought one

    If you haven't bought a mattress in a few years you'll notice that the market has changed. On the plus side, there are more choices in mattress types, including combinations such as hybrid innersprings and varying levels of foam over adjustable-air beds. And you’ll see more retailers, including web-only sellers with great prices and generous return policies. Other surprises, however, are less welcome. Here are five new twists that you may not be aware of:

    You have to climb aboard

    The models in Consumer Reports' mattress Ratings average nearly 12½ inches high, ranging from the foam Ikea Matrand (just 7 inches high), $400, to the pricey Duxiana Dux 515 innerspring, $7,595, which is 20 inches high. Add in the usual nine-inch box spring or foundation (the Duxiana’s height includes it), and your bed could easily top 30 inches including the six to seven inches of room beneath the frame. Major brands sell low-profile foundations, typically about five inches high; Tempur-Pedic sells ones as slim as two inches. But still, you may need a step stool to get into bed.

    Old sheets don't fit

    Extra cushioning on many new models is part of the reasons that newer mattresses are thicker. And those extra layers may mean your old sheets won't fit, since standard fitted sheets probably are difficult to pull over the corners of mattresses 15 inches or thicker. (Among our tested mattresses, the recommended Stearns & Foster Estate Scarborough Luxury Firm, $1,575, and six other innersprings come in that range.) Other than selecting a slimmer mattress or using a second flat sheet in place of the fitted, expect to buy deep-pocket sheets for a thick mattress.

    A gripe about grips

    Older mattresses could be rotated, flipped, or both to allow for uniform wearing of the springs. But today’s innersprings, often “hybrid” with layers of foam on top of the springs, don’t allow for flipping—so the grips that invariably lined the sides of old innersprings aren’t always there on a new one. Foam mattresses often have no grips, because you can’t flip them, and rotating the bed offers no benefit. And if the bed’s firmness is different on one side than the other, as with adjustable-air and some foam beds, you can't rotate or flip the bed.

    A plastic smell to dispel

    When you buy a foam mattress or one that includes foam, you’ll probably notice the smell of plastic in the room where you place the mattress. While it may seem overpowering at first, the smell is temporary. Our advice: Once the mattress is installed, leave the sheets off and open the windows for several hours, weather permitting. If you still notice the smell when you go to sleep that night, remove the sheets again in the morning and ventilate once more, which should suffice.

    Prices that bounce around

    While not all mattress sellers have prices that vary, prices at department stores and mattress chains can vacillate by 50 percent or more. We routinely warn readers to wait to buy a mattress at such stores until a holiday weekend and to watch for advertisements—or, better still, insist on the lower sale price as a condition for buying, even when the mattress you want isn’t on sale. If you buy on impulse, you could have missed a sale by just a few days and end up kicking yourself for not doing some research beforehand.

    Need a new mattress?

    Our mattress Ratings currently have almost 40 models, and we’re getting ready to test even more. (In addition to our performance Ratings are survey-based Ratings of mattress brands and stores.) Be sure to see our mattress buying guide before you narrow down your choices.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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

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    10 high-end appliances that are worth every penny

    Consumer Reports’ appliance testing runs the gamut, from entry-level units that might be right for a rental apartment to the high-end models you see in glossy design magazines. Some low-priced appliances actually outperform the priciest competition in our tests. But let’s face it—no one is going to put a $400 coil-top electric range in their designer kitchen, even if it does simmer better than pro-style ranges in our tests. Luxury appliances are as much about style and name recognition as they are about performance. Here are 10 favorites from our Ratings that have the requistite cachet—but also the ability to get the job done. 

    Sub-Zero refrigerator

    The sleek, integrated look of a built-in refrigerator is choice for many luxury kitchens. Sub-Zero is one of, if not the, most recognized names in built-in refrigeration. The company’s founder Westye F. Bakke, is credited with designing the first built-in back in 1943, and he founded the Sub-Zero Freezer Company two tears later in Madison, WI. In Consumer Reports' refrigerator tests, the Sub-Zero BI42S, $8,000, delivered super temperature control and its dual evaporators help maintain freshness. The unit comes in stainless steel or integrated panels to match the surrounding cabinetry.

    Wolf range

    In 2000, Wolf and Sub-Zero merged to form one of the most formidable names in pro-style appliances. Wolf handles the cooking appliances, and its ranges have become synonymous with commercial-grade, with their trademark red knobs and distinctive name plate. “Pro-style ranges don’t function like conventional ranges, so they take some getting used to,” says Consumer Reports market analyst (and professional chef) Michael DiLauro, who put in a Wolf range when he recently remodeled his kitchen.

    In our latest tests, the 30-inch-wide Wolf DF304, $6,400, was a top scorer, and it comes with dual-stacked burners, continuous cast iron grates, and convection fans in the oven. If you're looking for a 36-inch-wide pro-style range, consider the KitchenAid KDRU763VSS, $6,000, which tops that category in our pro-style range Ratings.    

    Miele dishwasher

    Miele’s fully-integrated dishwashers complete the streamlined look in a high-end contemporary kitchen. From its top-tier Diamond Series, the Miele Futura Dimension G5675SCSF, $1,900, combined standout washing performance and energy efficiency in our dishwasher tests, and it has many of the features you look for in a premium appliance, including soft-close door, LED interior lights, and time-remaining display—helpful since the dishwasher is among the quietest in our tests, so much so that you might forget it’s on.

    Thermador dishwasher 

    Thermador is another respected name in high-end dishwashers, along with other kitchen appliances. The brand is owned by BSH Home Appliances Corporation, which also makes the Bosch dishwashers that do well in our dishwasher Ratings. So you know you’re getting a quality product. The Thermador Topaz Series DWHD640JFM, $1,500, delivered outstanding washing performance in our tests and its blue light operating indicator lets you know when the dishwasher is running.  

    Thermador induction cooktop

    Thermador is a proven innovator in the cooking appliance category as well, as we found when we tested its 36-inch induction cooktop, the Thermador CIT36XKB, $5,000. While other induction cooktops have set elements, this model features an end-to-end electromagnetic surface, so you can put your pot or pan anywhere. If you need to move the cookware to another spot, the cooktop will transfer the programmed setting originally selected. High and low cooking were both exceptional in our tests. And the cooktop comes with the industry’s first full-color touch screen induction panel. 

    Vinotemp wine chiller

    Even if you don’t drink a lot of wine, a built-in wine chiller has become a common feature in designer kitchens, so it will add to your home’s value. If you do enjoy a good bottle, it's best to get a chiller that maintains uniform and stable temperature and humidity levels, like the Vinotemp VT-46TS-2Z, $1,000, from one of the biggest names in wine storage. The 46-bottle chiller has dual zones, so you can store your reds and whites at their optimal temperatures. Other features include tinted glass, touch screen controls, and a door lock.

    GE wall oven

    French-door wall ovens are the latest restaurant feature to find its way into home kitchens. We tested the GE Cafe Series CT9070SHSS wall oven, $3,900, and were impressed by its solid baking, broiling, and oven capacity. It’s engineered to allow for one-handed opening of both doors at one time, and the oven can be controlled wirelessly from your smartphone.  

    Miele vacuum 

    We also like Miele for its luxury-line vacuum cleaners. The Miele S 8590 Marin, $1,000, is our top-rated bagged canister vacuum, combining exceptional bare floor cleaning with very good carpet cleaning. Its features include suction control, retractable cord, and a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. Among bagged uprights, the Miele S 7210 Twist, $475, and the Miele S 7260 Cat & Dog, $715, are two standouts from our vacuum cleaner tests that are also full-featured.  

    KitchenAid stand mixer

    Like Q-tip and Kleenex, KitchenAid has become synonymous with the product it created—even though the KitchenAid brand is now on a lot more than stand mixers, which it invented back in 1919. The KitchenAid Professional 6500 Design Series stand mixer, $550, is probably the most eye-catching model, with its glass bowl and familiar color palette, including candy apple red, frosted pearl white, and slate gray. In terms of performance, the KitchenAid offers superb mixing, kneading, and whipping, and its optional attachments include a pasta maker and meat grinder.

    Vitamix blender 

    Here’s a case where the most expensive is also the best. The Vitamix Professional Series 750, $650, tops our Ratings of several dozen blenders, thanks to its ability to handle a wide range of blending tasks, including smoothies, whole-fruit juices, sauces, soups, and more. Vitamix has established a reputation for excellence. It sailed through our stand mixer durability tests, and the user reviews on our site are practically perfect, earning 4.9 stars out of a possible 5.

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico 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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    6 costly estate-planning minefields, and how to avoid them

    Over the years many celebrities have provided cautionary estate-planning lessons, and actor James Gandolfini, who died in June 2013 at age 51, is no exception. The actor, known for portraying mob boss Tony Soprano, left a portion of his estate, widely estimated at $70 million, to relatives and friends through his will, which became public and was criticized as being badly constructed. For one thing, it exposed some of his wealth to probate, the time-consuming and potentially costly process a legal court takes to administer financial affairs. In addition, his estate could owe millions of dollars in federal estate tax alone.

    At least Gandolfini had an estate plan; fewer and fewer Americans do. In 1998, 61 percent of Americans 55 and older had a will or trust. In 2012, only about 54 percent did, says a study by Texas Tech University.

    Failing to take action or making the wrong moves can be costly for you and your heirs. Here are six blunders experts told us they see most often, and what to do instead:

    A good estate plan can save your heirs some money; it also protects you and your family while you are alive. If you don’t have a plan and you become incapacitated, someone will have to go to court to be named your guardian so that he can make medical and financial decisions for you. The process not only is unpleasant but also could easily cost $10,000 or more, says Martin Shenkman, a New York City attorney and certified public accountant. If other family members object, the process could drag out, which will cost more and could leave your bills unpaid or delay needed medical treatments.

    If you die without a plan, you’ll also have no control over who becomes the guardian of your minor children or who gets your assets. “A lot of people assume that if they do nothing, everything goes to a surviving spouse,” says Deborah Cohn, an estate-planning attorney in Bethesda, Md. Instead, your property will pass to your survivors based on your state’s laws of intestacy. (You can find links to your state’s rules here.)

    And if you have neglected to name beneficiaries on accounts that need them, such as retirement, life insurance, and brokerage accounts, the companies that manage those products have a default rule in their contracts’ fine print that spells out how your assets will be distributed. “It might say it goes to your surviving spouse, but it might also say it goes into your probate estate,” Cohn says. “Then your state’s intestacy law make those decisions for you, and money will be depleted to pay for probate.”

    Steer clear. Get a basic estate plan in place. You’ll need a will, which states who you want to inherit any property that does not have a designated beneficiary, and name a guardian to care for young children. You’ll also want to draw up a financial power of attorney, which will allow someone you name to make financial decisions for you when you no longer can. Health care directives, which include a health care declaration (living will) and a power of attorney for health care, let someone make medical decisions for you. (In some states, those documents are combined into one, called an advance health care directive.) You may also want to consider a trust, which will hold some or all of your assets and pass them directly to your heirs at your death, avoiding probate.

    Drafting a plan doesn’t have to cost tens of thousands of dollars. You can do it yourself with document-writing software that costs less than $100. “DIY plans are better than nothing, but they won’t address your individual needs,” says Russell James, an estate-planning attorney and a professor in the department of personal financial planning at Texas Tech University. A basic plan drawn up by a pro can cost as little as $1,500 to $2,500, says Steve Hartnett, an estate-­planning attorney and the director of education for the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys. But if your situation is more complicated (for example, you own a family business and will need to set a up a plan for a child with special needs), the cost could be several thousand dollars.

    Search for an attorney who specializes in estate planning by getting a referral from your accountant or financial planner, or check the websites of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. Then call a few and ask how much they’ll charge, if anything, to meet with you for an hour and discuss your estate-planning needs. After your consultation, concentrate on negotiating the lowest price you can with the lawyers you like the best.

    After a divorce or the death of one parent, the surviving parent often add a child’s name (or that of another relative or friend) to bank, brokerage, property, and other assets as a way to ensure that they can take control if you need them to, and allow them to inherit the assets when you die and avoid probate, James says. “What parents often fail to grasp is that the child is a full co-owner of the asset immediately,” he says. You may not be worried about your child or another person you trust misusing the funds, but your worldly goods could be at risk if he is involved in a lawsuit, bankruptcy, or divorce proceeding.

    Steer clear. You can designate who will inherit your bank accounts, vehicles, and real estate automatically when you die. For example, you can set up payable-on-death bank accounts. All you need to do is fill out a simple form, provided by the bank, naming the person you want to inherit the account. While you live, the person you named has no rights to the money. You can spend it, name a different beneficiary, or close the account. At your death, the beneficiary receives the funds directly, avoiding probate.

    Almost every state has adopted a law (the Uniform Transfer-on-Death Securities Registration Act) that lets you name someone to inherit your stocks, bonds, and brokerage accounts without probate. It works very much like a payable-on-death bank account. You tell your stockbroker or the company itself that you’d like to take ownership in what’s called “beneficiary form.” Those you name have no rights to the asset as long as you are alive.

    Several states also allow transfer-on-death deeds for vehicles. You can find a list of the states that allow those types of accounts on Nolo's website.

    One of the biggest misconceptions is that a will has the final word, James says. But if you have a 401(k), an IRA, insurance policies, and other assets with named beneficiaries, as well as the payable-on-death and transfer-on-death account mentioned above, that money will be distributed directly to the people named, even if your will states otherwise. So if your will says that you want your son to receive your life-insurance proceeds, but your ex-wife is still the beneficiary on record at the insurance company because you forgot to update your information, she gets the money.

    Steer clear. Make a list of your assets with named beneficiaries, and review them at least every five years. Make sure that all documents still reflect your desires and that your beneficiaries and financial and health care proxies are still willing and able to serve. In addition, revisit your estate plan if Congress revises estate-tax laws or whenever there is a major change in your life, such as a birth, death, marriage, or divorce.

    How to spare your heirs a battle over your estate. Plus, manage your parents' estate without losing your mind.

    You may wish to leave property to a beneficiary but worry that he won’t spend it wisely or that she might get into trouble with creditors. Even if you respect your heir’s ability to handle money, he still might be tempted to spend it quickly. In a 2012 study, Jay Zagorsky, a researcher at Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research, found that the average baby boomer surveyed had spent, donated, or lost roughly half of his or her inheritance in the first 12 months.

    Steer clear. If you are concerned, put the assets you want to pass on in a trust and include instructions on how and when it will be paid out. A spendthrift trust allows payments to the beneficiary on a regular basis (say, monthly), so it can’t be spent all at once. Because the beneficiary cannot access the trust principal, neither can his creditors.

    You could also set up a trust that pays funds out over time—say, when a child reaches ages 25, 30, and 40. Or you can say what the funds can be used for, such as educational expenses, a new home, or retirement savings.

    “When parents die, fights between siblings are often over things, not money,” Cohn says. Jewelry, furniture, artwork—the legal term is “nontitled property”—and who gets what is often the biggest source of unhappiness among surviving family members.

    Steer clear. Talk to your children to find out what they want and expect. “Parents have to be skillful in setting the tone,” Cohn says. “If you are asking for honest answers, you have to be willing to hear them.”

    Of course, you’ll have to make the ultimate decisions. So if you want your jewelry or paintings to go to a particular child, put it in writing. Many states let you attach a codicil to your will indicating that you’ve made a separate list distributing your possessions. You can update the codicil without having to update your will when you do.

    The federal estate- and gift-tax exemption is $5.43 million in 2015, up from $600,000 in 1997; it continues to increase with inflation each year. Spouses may combine exemptions, so they can leave or give away $10.86 million this year without their heirs owing federal estate tax (which can be as high as 40 percent). The Tax Policy Center estimates that just 0.14 percent of estates in 2014 owed federal estate tax, down from 2.3 percent in 1999 and 7.65 percent in 1976.

    When the limits were lower, many married couples funded complex plans that often included a bypass trust to take full advantage of the estate exemption. The trust would include as much of the deceased spouse’s property that he could pass free of estate tax using his exclusion. The surviving spouse would often have access to the income from and the principal of the bypass trust during her life, but the bypass trust would not be part of the surviving spouse’s estate at death and would pass estate-tax-free to the beneficiaries.

    In 2011 the law changed to make the deceased spouse’s exemption portable, offering couples the option to jettison the trust to avoid its drawbacks. For example, assets in a bypass trust won’t get a step-up in basis at the death of the second spouse, so the heirs could face big capital gains bills on appreciated assets. Depending on where you and your intended beneficiaries live, the income-tax savings from the step-up in basis may be greater than the estate-tax cost.

    In addition, unless trust income is distributed, the income-tax penalty can be huge. That’s because a trust hits the highest income-tax bracket once it has more than $12,150 of taxable income. By contrast, a single individual doesn’t hit that bracket until his taxable income is more than $406,750.

    Steer clear. You’re not likely to need a bypass trust to use both spouses’ exclusions. But if you already have one set up, talk to your attorney about what to do. Depending on your situation, you may still find a bypass trust worthwhile if you want to protect assets from creditors or ensure (in the case of a surviving spouse’s second marriage) that the money eventually goes to your own children.  

    This article also appeared in the March, 2015 issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser.

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

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    Water-saving washers owe debt to dry Kansas town

    Front-loading washers were slow to catch on in the U.S. in the late 1990s—representing just two percent of the market—despite growing popularity in Europe. Americans liked their agitator top-loaders. Faced with the challenge of encouraging consumers to switch to expensive but water-saving front-loaders, the Department of Energy picked Bern, Kansas, with its periodic water shortages and population of 200, for a study in 1997. And here’s what happened next.

    At the time Bern was mostly a farming community. Severe drought conditions in 1988 in northeast Kansas drastically cut water for Bern, according to the DOE report. The town put conservation practices in place, some folks hauled water from farm ponds to give to livestock, water rates increased, and a project was started to get water from neighboring Nebraska.

    Washing, weighing, evaluating, and recording every load

    So the DOE and Maytag teamed up to do a 5-month study. “The purpose was to determine what the impact was in a real community if it switched over from agitator washers to front-loaders,” says Van Baxter, a senior researcher at the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the lab that led the tests. “It got a lot of press and publicity.”

    All told, 104 participants signed on and 103 completed the study. For two months data was collected on the current washers, and then they were replaced with Maytag Neptune front-loaders and data was collected for three months. Participants could keep the front-loader if they liked.  

    Survey says: Water use cut significantly

    The study found that the agitator top-loaders used on average nearly 42 gallons of water per wash load and the front-loaders used about 26 gallons (and 58 percent less energy to run the washer and heat the hot water). Jill Meyer was a newlywed in Bern in 1997 and participated in the study. “We kept the washer and I was impressed. But it didn’t last as long as I expected—eight years.” When she went to buy a new washer in 2005 it was an emergency and she says the hardware store in a nearby town only sold agitator top-loaders. “It gets our clothes clean, but uses a lot of water.”  

    Calls to three other study participants found one was still using the Maytag front-loader, one bought a new front-loader after the Maytag needed repairs a second time, and the third wasn’t happy that mold developed around the front-loader door and he replaced it with an agitator washer.

    18 years later, agitator washers outsell front-loaders

    Last year front-loaders represented 24 percent of all washers shipped to stores, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, a trade group. Agitator top-loaders are the least expensive type and accounted for 39 percent of shipments, but since the Bern study high-efficiency top-loaders came on the market and increasing sales now represent 36 percent of shipments.

    Today’s washers

    “We tested the Maytag Neptune front-loader when it came out and since then front-loaders have gotten more water and energy efficient and cleaning has improved,” says Emilio Gonzalez, the engineer who oversees Consumer Reports' tests of washers and dryers. “Manufacturers have addressed a lot of the mold and mildew issues by using different gasket materials, changing how the water drains from the gasket, or altering the door so that it stays slightly ajar between uses.” HE top-loaders are impressive. They typically clean better than agitator washers while using less water and usually cost less than front-loaders. See “Washing machines that save water and money” for more details.

    Two Maytag front-loaders made our list of top picks including the Maytag Maxima MHW8100DC, $1,300 and the  Maytag Maxima MHW5100DW, $950. If you’re shopping for a washer use our washing machine Ratings to compare washers and then click the Features & Specs tab to compare features and find out if a washer is Energy Star-qualified. That Star may earn you a utility rebate so use the Energy Star rebate finder. Questions? E-mail me at kjaneway@consumer.org, and hats off to Bern, Kansas for leading the way.

    Kimberly Janeway

    More water-saving tips

    Washing machines that save water and money

    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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    Are car alarm noises a nuisance or a necessity?

    Cars have become a lot more communicative in the past decade. Almost every new model comes with a key fob that lets you lock and unlock it remotely with a notifying chirp or horn toot.

    But is that vehicular self-expression just more noise pollution in an already raucous world?

    We asked our Facebook followers for their thoughts and conducted a separate subscriber poll on our home page.

    Respondents were evenly split. Many of them found the alerts to be a nuisance—especially the systems with a full-force horn blast instead of a refined chirp or muted goose honk.

    A major gripe was that the startling aural incursion often happens when a person is walking by someone else’s car, unaware that the owner is activating it from hundreds of feet away.

    We also received a stack of letters from folks who want the cacophony of klaxons silenced altogether.

    But others were reassured by the confirmation that their car was locked. For those who find themselves seeking a ­ubiquitous Toyota Camry in a dark, Escheresque parking structure, remote horn activation is a convenient locator and a safety measure as well.

    To appease those who prefer Chopin to Metallica, most newer cars offer settings to hush the racket or merely flash the lights if you want a more stealthy approach. For instructions, you can consult your owner’s manual, ask your dealer, or check an online user forum.

    Jim Travers

    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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    Tips from the pros on essential gardening gear

    It doesn't take a shed full of tools to keep your lawn and garden in tip-top shape. With a rake, a pruner, a saw, and a hoe you're good to go. If you give your flower garden a lot of TLC, add in a kneeling pad for comfort. Then there's the lawn. Don't buy more mower than you need or have room to store. Here's some essential gardening gear plus top-pick mowers from Consumer Reports' tests.

    Kneeling pad

    Look for high-density foam to better protect your knees. Larger ones keep you from having to shift often as you move down a row.

    Small bow saw

    Look for a sturdy blade guard for safe storage between cuts. Lightweight guards tend to break easily. Choose a minimum 24-inch blade.

    Rake

    Look for a lighter weight, nonwood handle. On some models, you can adjust the width from narrow, for tight spaces, to full-sized for leaves.

    Pruner

    Look for sharp bypass blades with a scissorlike action for clean cuts of small or thin branches from shrubs and trees. Keep blades sharp.

    Garden hoe

    Look for a lightweight aluminum or fiberglass handle. “Stirrup-style” blades are easier to wield. A slotted blade eases soil loosening.

     

    String trimmer

    Look for a string trimmer with good balance that feels comfortable in your hands. Electric string trimmers are a good choice and even gas trimmers are polluting less but it's hard to beat the conveninece of a battery-operated model.
    Recommended battery-powered trimmer: Ryobi RY24210A, $130

    Walk-behind mower

    Look for a mower that suits your needs and fits your budget. For a small yard, you can get by with a push mower but a self-propelled mower is a better bet for a bigger yard.
    Recommended push mower:
    Craftsman 37432, $220
    Recommended self-propelled mower:
    Toro 20370, $280

    Riding mower

    Look for a riding mower that is up to the size of the job. If you have a lot of land, you may want to consider a mower with a wide deck or a zero-turn-radius rider.
    Recommended lawn tractor:
    Craftsman 20442, $2,200

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

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    Don't rush to buy leveraged exchange traded funds

    Take a look at the funds page of the business section of your newspaper (assuming you still use a print newspaper, and it still has a business section). You’re likely to notice funds with names that include the word “Ultra” or “3X” appearing in the leaders and laggards tables. Those funds (traditional mutual funds as well as exchange-traded funds), and others like them, are known as leveraged funds. In 2015, at least 235 leveraged ETFs were available to investors.

    Leveraged funds are designed to amplify the returns of a particular index or commodity. In the case of a triple-leveraged, or 3X Standard & Poor’s 500 Index leveraged, fund, for example, a 1 percent daily gain in the S&P 500 will result in an increase of 3 percent. Such funds accomplish that amplification by trading a combination of stocks, futures contracts, and other derivatives.

    But don’t go rushing to your broker to buy a leveraged ETF. In practice, leveraged funds and ETFs present problems for the buy-and-hold investor. One of the problems that we often cite is cost. All of those derivatives that leveraged funds trade to meet their investment objectives cost much more to operate than an index-tracking ETF. The average leveraged ETF sports an expense ratio of 0.94 percent––many times more than the cost of broad market index ETFs.

    In your forties? Watch out for these financial risks.

    In addition, leveraged funds don’t pay the same dividends that most stock ETFs do. That can be a big drawback: Dividends provide almost half of a stock investor’s total return over the long run. Currently, S&P 500 investors receive a 1.9 percent dividend yield, vs. 0 percent for many leveraged ETFs.

    And over periods longer than a day, leveraged funds tend to deviate from the index tracked because of compounding of returns. The more volatile the market, the more likely a leveraged ETF will lose ground. When the S&P 500 fell 37 percent in 2008, for example, the leveraged ProShares Ultra S&P 500 (ticker: SSO), designed to double the daily return of the S&P 500, lost 68 percent. Over the next two years, as the market rebounded, the unleveraged investor had almost recovered from the 2008 losses. But the ProShares investor was still down more than 40 percent.

    Sum all of those factors, and it’s no longer a surprise that sometimes a leveraged ETF won’t provide the sort of gains expected. While the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (ticker: SPY) recently returned 4.3 percent over a six-month period, the Direxion Daily S&P 500 Bull 3X ETF (ticker: SPXL) returned only 9.4 percent over that same span—not the 12.9 percent that the math suggests.

    ––Chris Horymski

    This article also appeared in the February 2015 issue 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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    Beware triple-play TV bundles costs

    When you’re paying more than $150 a month for TV, Internet, and phone service, as I am, a promotion offering a triple-play bundle for $79.99 or even $99.99 a month sounds like a can’t-lose proposition. Don’t get your hopes up. When you add in equipment charges and an ever-longer list of fees—many of them recent additions—the total package price goes way, way up.

    Those extra charges aren’t exactly hidden, but they’re buried in fine-print footnotes and pop-up boxes that you could easily miss in your euphoria over saving big bucks. We found that recent promotions from Optimum (Cablevision), Verizon FiOS, and Xfinity (Comcast) included a number of fees. You might find these fees tacked on to a triple-play deal:

    • $4 a month RSN (regional sports networks) fee
    • $1 a month FDV (FiOS Digital Voice) surcharge
    • $2 a month broadcast surcharge
    • $8 to $12 a month for each HD STB (set-top box)
    • $13 to $17 a month for a DVR
    • $5 to $10 a month for a cable modem or router
    • $8 to $10 a month for a separate phone modem
    • $1.50 a month for additional outlet
    • $90 for installation.

    This list doesn’t even include taxes or government fees such as E-911 and the Federal Universal Service Fund. Such taxes and fees can easily exceed $10 a month.

    When you factor in all the extras, a $79.99-a-month package can wind up costing you well over $100. And if the salesperson convinces you that you can’t live without a bigger, better package, the bill could easily be double what you expected.

    See which TV service providers did best in our Ratings. Or explore our buying guide on telecom services.

    There’s not much you can do to avoid some of these fees, but other charges—for installation and DVR service, for example—might be negotiable, particularly if you’re a new customer. If you can’t get the price down, you can always ask for extras such as a free DVR or faster broadband service.

    To make the deals more palatable, some companies offer free wireless routers, a year of half-price premium networks such as HBO and Showtime, even $200 or $300 gift cards—usually if you sign a two-year contract. You’ll have to decide whether it’s worth being locked in for two years to get those enticements.

    See whether friends and relatives who use that provider are satisfied with the service, or check our Ratings of telecom providers to see how their customers rate them. If you opt for the contract, it’s especially important that you know exactly what you’ll be paying, and for exactly how long, so print out the online chat with the company rep or record the phone call to make sure there are no misunderstandings. You might also want to ask about early-termination fees.

    And if you decide you simply don't want to pay a high price for telecom services, build your own package with lower-cost alternatives for TV and phone service.

    —Eileen McCooey

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

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    Dishwashers that save water, energy, and money

    Today’s dishwashers use a lot less water than the one you grew up with so if you have a new machine and the water in your kitchen is still flowing, it’s not the dishwasher’s fault, it’s probably yours. Anyone who rinses the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher is not only failing to take advantage of its cleaning prowess but wasting water and money as well. Lots of water. Consumer Reports has been giving this advice for years but with drought conditions in the West, it bears repeating.

    A dishwasher made before 1994 wastes more than 10 gallons of water per cycle, according to Energy Star. Over its presumed lifetime of 10 years, an Energy Star dishwasher will save at least 1,600 gallons of water over older models. Do the math by multiplying that number and your water rate and you’ll see the savings. Still not persuaded? If you have a pre-1994 dishwasher you’re also paying an extra $35 a year for your utilities. Dishwashers that have earned the Energy Star are, on average, about 5 percent more energy efficient and 15 percent more water efficient than standard models.

    How do they achieve these efficiencies? Design innovations and improved engineering have made dramatic differences. Energy Star attributes the gains to the following:

    • Soil sensors test how dirty dishes are throughout the wash and adjust the cycle to achieve optimum cleaning with minimum water and energy use.
    • Improved water filtration removes food soils from the wash water allowing efficient use of detergent and water throughout the cycle. The final clean-water rinse assures your dishes come out sparkling.
    • More efficient jets use less energy to spray detergent and water over the dishes when cleaning.
    • Innovative dish rack designs maximize cleaning by strategically situating the dishes.
    • Better temperature control boosts water temperatures to 140 degrees, which allows for improved disinfection, especially compared to hand washing.

    Water misers from Consumer Reports’ tests

    When Consumer Reports tests dishwashers, it measures how much water and energy each model uses in addition to how well it cleans and how quiet it is. Our top-rated dishwasher,  the KitchenAid KDTM354DSS, $1,080, uses only four gallons of water per wash although most of our other top picks use five or six.  At 125 minutes, it has a shorter cycle than a number of other recommended models. But the clincher is a self-cleaning, ultrafine filter that breaks food particles down throughout the cycle without noisy grinding while still remaining fairly quiet.

    Using one more gallon of water and 20 more minutes of time is the Kenmore Elite 12793, $1,200, which was our reigning champ for a few seasons. In addition to top-notch performance, this Kenmore offers an industry first—a motorized spray arm that, among other claims, reverses direction should a utensil fall through the racks, blocking the arm's rotation.

    One of our CR Best Buys, the Bosch Ascenta SHX3AR7[5]UC, $700, has a speedier cycle of just 95 minutes but the trade-off is it uses six gallons of water per load. It aced our wash test, which uses a full load of very dirty dishes and silverware, and was very good at drying plastic items. It was also among the quietest models during fill, wash, and drain and was especially energy-efficient.  

    5 more 5-gallon champs

    For more choices see our full dishwasher Ratings and recommendations.

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

    More water-saving tips

    Water-saving washers own debt to Kansas town

    Washing machines that save water and money

    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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    16 smart things to do with your tax refund

    Truth be told, you're better off not getting a tax refund. That money going back to you means that the government took too much from your paycheck, eliminating your opportunity to spend, invest, or earn interest on that extra cash. So you need to adjust your withholding. Calculate the proper amount of witholding using the IRS' withholding calculator

    Still, since a tax refund is commonly seen as a windfall, we offer our suggestions for what to do with a refund. The average federal refund this year will exceed $3,000, but our refund recommendations range from free to pricey.

    For your home

    Paint your interior. Use one of the high-scoring paints in our Ratings—some of the best finishes only cost between $25 and $30 a gallon.

    Create the right mood. Top-rated LEDs continue to come down in price, and some top models we tested cost only $1.25.

    Update your landscape. Pruning an overgrown landscape with a selective removal of plants can make a yard feel more organized, and clear the way for new plantings. Perennials tend to be less expensive than annuals and fill the yard with seasonal color and blooms. Read more about how to fix the 5 most common lawn problems, and other lawn care tips.

    Set up a new gas grill. It's the right time of year to get your grill on with a new gas grill that comes with handy features. We've also sized up the best and worst grills for you to make the decision that much easier.

    For your car

    Upgrade your tires. New tires can make a measurable improvement in your car's performance and safety. When looking for new tires, focus on tires that do well in our tests for braking, handling, and resistance to hydroplaning.

    Find a GPS navigator. You can get many of the same functions that the infotainment systems in new cars have by picking up a portable GPS navigator. Basic units priced at $100 and up from Garmin, Magellan, and TomTom provide helpful turn-by-turn directions. For a bit more, you get free traffic information. At the high end, you'll find devices that add features such as a trip computer, Bluetooth capability, an MP3 player, and an FM transmitter.

    For your tech interests

    Capture it all. If you're using your refund for an action-packed vacation, you can immortalize your surfing, diving, and water-skiing adventures with an action camcorder. The GoPro Hero3+ Black Edition ($400) is our highest-rated action cam; the Silver Edition ($300) is a close second.  

    Impress your friends with your bleeding-edge geekiness. Put the latest thing in electronics on your wrist, and get a smart watch. The function-packed Samsung Galaxy Gear watch—it makes calls, takes pictures, and more—is great for those who already own a newer Samsung phone. The sleeker but more basic Pebble, which alerts you to incoming calls and messages, works with any Android or iOS phone.

    Buy an Xbox. Even nongamers will appreciate its other home-entertainment features: For example, the Xbox OneGuide shows you all your video-watching options in one interface; and you can use voice commands to control it. Now you can get the Xbox One in a bundle with the much-anticipated game Titanfall, normally $60 alone, for just $450 (marked down from $500).

    For your bottom line

    Pay down debt. According to surveys by the car-shopping service CarMax and Edward Jones, an investment house, a large percentage of refund recipients will use their windfalls to pay credit-card bills and other loans. We've outlined several approaches to managing your debt. First order of business: Negotiate with creditors for more favorable terms or to reduce what you owe.

    Invest in your retirement. It's too late to contribute to an traditional IRA for a potential tax break for 2013, unless you planned for it in advance or want to file an amended return. But why not jumpstart your retirement savings for 2014? The maximum you can contribute to a traditional IRA for a potential break on your 2014 taxes is $5,500, or $6,500 if you're 55 or older. If you can stomach reading anything more about taxes, check out IRS Publication 590, Individual Retirement Arrangements for details on your deduction eligibility.

    Invest in a child's education. Start or contribute to a 529 college savings plan. The money grows tax-free and remains untaxed if it's used toward qualifying higher-education expenses. And depending on where you live and the plan you choose, your contribution also may qualify you for a state income-tax break for 2014. Such plans are only one element in a college-savings strategy; read Parents' Guide to Saving for College for more ideas.

    For your health

    Go for a row.  Rowing provides a great full body workout, working your legs, arms, and core. The Concept 2 Model D (shown, $900) received our highest Rating. Or consider the H20 Seattle Wooden ($1,100) rower. It scored almost as high as the Concept 2, plus it looks good and, since it uses water for resistance, it re-creates the sound of paddling on a lake or river.

    Get a gadget. The Samsung Gear Fit ($200) is a stylish hybrid of smart watch and activity tracker. It looks good and is easy to use, though the apps for keeping track of your workouts are still pretty basic.

    For your kid and yourself

    Buy baby and yourself a new stroller. If you run or walk for exercise, consider the Schwinn Free Runner (shown, $220), which earned a very good score for running and excellent marks for maneuverability. This model is safe, thanks to its top-notch one-touch braking and five-point harness. If you have two kids to push around, consider the Graco FastAction Fold Duo Click Connect ($280). Check our strollers buying guide and Ratings for more details.

    Consumer Reports

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    Young shoppers make supermarkets more exciting

    Supermarkets are changing and so, too, are shoppers. For one, consumers are less loyal than ever to any particular store, instead cherry-picking individual markets to take advantage of their unique strengths. They’re also turning to other outlets—restaurants, convenience stores, food trucks, farmers markets, and even drug stores—to satisfy their needs on any given day.

    In addition, conventional grocers are feeling pressure from burgeoning retail concepts built around wellness and those interested in an artisan approach to eating. Sprouts Farmers Market, based in Phoenix, AZ., is a prime example of a niche market going mainstream. The 190-store chain specializes in fresh, organic, and homemade foods “at reasonable prices” —perhaps a not-so-subtle dig at rival Whole Foods, which is known for its enormous smorgasbord of store-made foods-to-go, but is equally famous for its stratospheric prices.

    But Sprouts is about more than selling food; its focus is on building relationships through recipes, how-to videos, wellness webinars, and access to health tips. Sprouts isn’t alone in realizing there's value in demonstrating concern for the welfare of customers. Iowa-based Hy-Vee has on staff 224 registered and licensed dietitians, and the chain's 235 stores offer numerous programs on how to read food labels, make quick and healthy meals, manage weight, and help shoppers implement dietary changes suggested by their doctors.

    Read our story on whether you need to pay more for organic foods

    Credit Millennials for instigating many of the changes. This influential group of 18-to-35 year olds now numbers 75.3 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s larger than the contingent of Baby Boomers. But Millennials march to a different drum beat. Food is much more a source of fun, exploration, social connection, and individual expression. Compared to Boomers, for instance, they’re less inclined to plan meals or make shopping lists in advance; many don’t want to cook everyday; and they don’t keep a fully stocked pantry. They’re “occasion” eaters, meaning they build a meal or ingredient list around a recipe or encounter that inspires them. In fact, one-quarter of all meals consumed by twentysomethings include items purchased the same day.

    To keep restaurants from hijacking these “5 o’clock” shoppers, industry-speak for consumers prone to last-minute meal decisions, many grocers have responded by developing immediate-consumption sections that sell fresh prepared meats, salads, sandwiches, sushi, and beverages. Some, like Wegmans and Whole Foods, are bringing a restaurant feel right into the shopping experience.

    “There’s a growing rejection of overly processed and packaged foods, especially among younger consumers in their late teens to early 30s,” says Jim Hertel, managing partner for supermarket industry consultant Willard Bishop of Barrington, Ill. “They’re ‘can rejecters,’ looking for ‘clean’ ingredient labels; they’re suspicious about food additives, they’re so sure ‘less is more’ that they buy gluten-free even if they’re not allergic to gluten. They’ve grown up going to Panera and now Chipotle so they know quality food doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. Plus, outlets like Whole Foods have changed the perception of natural, organic, ‘wild-caught’ seafood, and the like from being sacrifices one makes for the good of the planet, to becoming indulgences one wants because they are better tasting—and oh, they’re better for the planet, too.”

    To see which supermarkets are best meeting today’s demand for freshness, including better quality perishables and prepared meals, check out Consumer Reports latest researchBuying advice is free; Ratings are available to subscribers.

    Grocery spending by the numbers

    Group

    2014 weekly grocery bill

    2011 weekly grocery bill

    Gen X (36-49)

    $116.19

    $107.10

    Boomers (50-68)

    $100.53

    $106.40

    Millennials (18-35)

    $99.06

    $69.60

    Matures (69+)

    $87.86

    $89.60

    Source: The Food Marketing Institute

    —Tod Marks

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

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  • 04/16/15--07:59: Best used cars under $10,000
  • Best used cars under $10,000

    Need new wheels but have a tight budget? Don't let that frustrate or worry you. There are a wide variety of models out there to suit your needs, and it's easy to find a solid, reliable car with all the features you need. Just follow a few simple rules:

    • Look for a car with a good reliability track record. It’s no guarantee of finding an example that doesn’t have problems, but choosing a reliable model stacks the odds in your favor.
    • Choose one with electronic stability control (ESC). You should buy a model new enough to have ESC, a system that has proven to save as many lives as seat belts. Curtain airbags, which provide head protection in side crashes, is also a key safety feature.
    • Buy as new as you can afford. It may be a stretch, but that newer car likely has more safety features and fewer miles on it, improving the chances it hasn't been abused.
    • Buy from a reputable seller. New car dealerships are usually the best place to find a good selection of gently used vehicles, but you can also find them at established used car lots as well as from private sellers.
    • • Look at past history. If possible, ask to see the previous title and contact the former owner. There’s no better way to find out the real history of a used car than from the person who owned it.

    The cars and SUVs below are those we recommend to friends and family. They performed well in our tests and have consistently had above-average reliability for the model years shown, based on our latest Annual Auto Survey. Each also came standard with ESC, unless otherwise noted.

    —Eric Evarts

    Mazda3 (2008)

    The excellent Mazda3 is one of our favorite small cars to drive. It has precise, responsive handling and a firm, comfortable ride. Interior quality is very good, and some upscale features are available, though the cabin is noisy and the rear seat somewhat tight. For 2012, Mazda added a new 2.0-liter Skyactiv engine and six-speed automatic transmission that boosted fuel economy to an impressive 32 mpg. We’d skip the sportier Mazdaspeed3 version, which has a harsh ride and too much torque steer.

    Pontiac Vibe (2005-08)

    A twin to the Toyota Matrix, the Vibe is a practical, reliable, and efficient little wagon. Available all-wheel drive and a large, flat load floor in back make it a good substitute for a small SUV. Its 1.8-liter engine is stingier with fuel than most SUVs, though it can be a little slow and whiny. Access and cargo space are generous and the rear seat is roomy. Drivers, however, may find the steering wheel an awkward reach away. Handling is fairly nimble, and the ride is compliant though a little jittery. Stability control became available in 2005, but it may be difficult to find.

    Acura TL (2005)

    Based on the humble Honda Accord, the TL outclassed plenty of luxury cars that cost a lot more when it was new – and it still does. Taut, agile handling combined with a comfortable, quiet ride and impressive interior quality give the TL a nearly ideal blend of sportiness and luxury. Its smooth V6 makes the TL very quick, yet still returns commendable fuel economy. All that plus very good reliability makes the TL an excellent used-car choice – no matter what your budget.

    Acura TSX (2005)

    Acura's entry-level sedan is a great used alternative to a new small car. Based on the petite European version of the Honda Accord, the TSX’s agile handling and smooth revving yet thrifty four-cylinder engine give it sporty flair. Handling is frisky, but the tradeoff is a stiff ride—our major beef with the car. The cabin has impressive fit and finish and is fairly roomy up front, though the backseat is tight. Add in top-notch reliability and the TSX is an easy choice.  

    Toyota Avalon (2005)

    The Avalon has always been a well-executed large sedan, essentially a stretched Camry with more comfort and luxury features. High points include a silky-smooth powertrain, excellent road isolation, and generous accommodations. The punchy, powerful V6 easily gets this big car moving, and its limo-like rear seat is generous enough for three adults. But at highway speeds the ride tends to feel floaty; look for the more buttoned-down Touring model. All versions have great reliability to boot.

    Hyundai Sonata (4-cyl., 2006-08)

    2006 was the year the Hyundai Sonata grew up, metamorphosing from cut-rate alternative into a comfortable, capable cruiser. It has very good fit and finish, a roomy backseat, and a thrifty four-cylinder. (An optional V6 has more power, but may not fit under our $10,000 price ceiling.) The ride is smooth, although it can become a little buoyant on the highway. Its handling is more on the capable side than nimble. Think of it as a tight end rather than a running back. Reliability has been very good.

    Kia Optima (4-cyl., 2007-08)

    This generation of the four-cylinder Optima was one of the best midsized sedans, outscoring comparable Toyota Camrys and Honda Accords. It rides very comfortably, provides a roomy back seat, and has an efficient four-cylinder that performs smartly. Essentially a rebadged Hyundai Sonata, the Optima handles securely than the Hyundai and uses quality materials inside. Yet it costs a fraction of the price of the more popular Camry and Accord. Look for an EX-trim Optima, which was more widely available with antilock brakes and ESC

    Honda CR-V (2005)

    Like a tiny minivan, the CR-V has plenty of space and enough height inside to almost walk around. Its low cargo floor makes it easy to load your gear. Even better, the CR-V is one of the best-driving small SUVs of its day, with a four-cylinder engine that’s smoother and more powerful some contemporary V6s, a compliant ride, and almost spry handling. First-rate reliability is a major plus. Our main complaint is road noise.

    Mitsubishi Outlander (2007)

    With either an economical four-cylinder or a punchy V6, the Outlander is an affordable, no-compromises alternative to more popular small SUVs. Its quick, well-weighted steering and agile handling set it apart from most competitors. The tradeoff is a fairly stiff ride, though it’s better on four-cylinder Outlanders, which have smaller tires. The rear bench can seat three across with plenty of head- and legroom, and there’s even a tiny third-row seat for kids. Reliability is impressive.

    Honda Pilot (2005)

    The Pilot manages to combine the best of a wagon, SUV, and minivan. A bit roomier and less costly than its upscale sibling, the Acura MDX, it's among the better SUV choices for this class. The Pilot delivers spirited performance yet respectable fuel economy; a comfortable ride; secure, responsive handling; and seating for eight. Pronounced road noise was our only qualm. The standard split third-row seat folds neatly into the floor. Access is easy, fit and finish is impeccable, and reliability is sound. Look for a model with the available rear-view camera.

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

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    Keep your mower going for 15 years or more

    Whatever kind of mower you have, proper maintenance should help keep it going a decade or more. Here are the most common ways to have your machine humming from the mower pros at Consumer Reports

    Fuel matters most

    Gasoline degrades and gums up over time. Ethanol in the gas can compound the problem by degrading rubber and plastic parts and coating linkages.

    • Add stabilizer, particularly one designed for ethanol, to gas before fueling.

    • Siphon extra fuel out of a walk mower and run it dry at the end of the season.

    • For a tractor or rider, either run it dry or top off the gas tank so that there’s no room for condensation—but be sure to add stabilizer to gas first.

    Change the oil

    Having sufficient, clean oil is what keeps your mower or tractor engine from overheating and failing prematurely. For all lawn gear, consult your manual for how often to change the oil and what grade to use.

    • With a walk mower, change oil when the fuel tank is empty.

    • To change oil: Position an auto-style drain pan beside the mower on the side of the dipstick cap. Remove the cap and tip the mower over the pan to drain the oil. Refill.

    • For a tractor or rider, the manual gives the oil-change schedule by the number of hours it’s in use, which the machine’s hour meter will provide. (If not, you can buy one separately.)

    • Most riding mowers have an easy-access drain plug. Drain the oil and replace the oil filter. Refill to the “full” mark.

    Mind the deck

    Built-up clippings in your mower or tractor deck will obstruct airflow, leading to uneven cutting and corrosion. Dull blades make the machine rip, not slice, the grass.

    • Many walk and riding mowers have a washout port for a hose; use it after every mowing, and let it dry before stowing. If you have to wash out a riding mower manually, drive the front of the tractor onto a set of automotive ramps to elevate it for easier access.

    • If you’ve neglected the washouts, scrape clumps off with a plastic putty knife.

    • Sharpen the blade three times per year. For a walk mower, having a spare lets you replace a dull blade with a sharpened one at the same time. To avoid injury when removing the blade, wear heavy leather gloves, remove the spark-plug wire, and jam in a short two-by-four to keep the blade from turning.

    Keep up contacts

    A spark plug needs changing about every 100 hours of operation; otherwise, engine startup and overall performance will be affected. Even electric mowers need attention to maximize battery life.

    • With the mower off, remove the spark-plug cap and use a socket wrench with a spark-plug socket to remove the old plug. Take it to an auto-parts store or outdoor-gear dealer and get a new one.

    • If you have an electric mower, periodically charge the battery throughout the winter. Otherwise, its ability to fully recharge will diminish gradually before failing altogether—sooner than you expected. Mowers should be brought indoors over the winter.

    • For lawn tractors or riders, keep your battery fully charged, or at least periodically recharge it when it’s not in use.

    • Even if you have to store the tractor outdoors, buy a trickle charger for this type of machine and keep just the battery indoors.

    Don’t forget filters

    You’ll also need to replace your air filters to protect the engine. In addition to the oil filter, riding mowers have fuel filters.

    • On most walk-behind mowers, the air filter is paper and can be removed in seconds. Not sure which to get? Take the old one to your dealer.

    • On riding mowers, if the air filter is paper, replace it. If it’s foam, wash it in soap and water. Rinse and squeeze dry.

    Need a new mower?

    If despite your best efforts your mower has given up the ghost, see the results of our new tests of push, self-propelled, and riding mowers. And read "Pros and cons of walk-behind and riding mowers" to find what's best for the size of your lawn and your budget. Take good care of it and the machine will last another 15 years.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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

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    Financial risks in your fifties

    People in their 50s are beginning to recognize the reality of retirement. You’re part of the sandwich generation; your parents provide a preview of one future scenario as your kids’ costs cut into your retirement portfolio. It’s a tough balancing act, which is why it’s the time to get serious about putting your finances in order.

    Here are three wake-up calls—and some steps you can take.

    For more information on this subject, read Financial Planning in Your Fifties.

    You have to support mom and dad. What you don’t know about your parents’ financial affairs can cost you. There may be an emergency that forces you to scramble to respond—and pay their bills from your savings. Even when there isn’t a crisis, knowing their financial situation gives you options about organizing your own savings strategy to include them.

    Action: AARP has a list of questions to ask your parents and helpful suggestions about how to raise the topic in its online article “35 Questions to Ask Your Aging Parents.” Other questions to ask:

    • Do your parents have sufficient savings to afford the lifestyle and medical choices they’ll need to make as they age? 
    • Are they still paying a mortgage? 
    • What does their health insurance cover? 
    • Do you know their health plans and preferences? Find out the names of the important people in their lives: their doctors, lawyer, financial adviser, faith leader, and friends and neighbors to call on for help.

    Your term life insurance runs out. Many people take out just enough insurance to cover their kids’ college education. If you bought a 20-year policy in your late 30s, coverage will conclude in your late 50s. But before letting the policy lapse, look ahead to your retirement accounts. “If the bigger earner dies, the life insurance can replace that income for the surviving spouse,” points out John DiMatteo, a financial planner with the DiMatteo Group in Shelton, Conn.

    Action: Consider extending your policy while it’s still active. “It’s best to be sure to match the term of the policy with the need in the first place, but we often see people underestimate the term and then need to replace it,” DiMatteo says. “In that case, it is always better to do it sooner rather than later.” 

    Your medical costs spiral. Because so many of us have an increased understanding of the importance of a good diet, regular exercise, and a healthier lifestyle, 50 has been called the new 40. That’s the good news. The bad news is that increased longevity ups the risk of debilitating and costly conditions that can cripple your lifestyle and sap your savings.

    Action: If you generally enjoy good health, consider switching to a high-deductible insurance plan. (The popular Silver plans sold on health insurance marketplaces in 2014 had an average deductible of about $2,900.) Sock away the money saved on the lower premiums in a health- spending account (HSA). Contributions are tax-deductible, and you can withdraw money tax-free for qualified medical expenses, such as deductibles, co-pays, hearing aids, and eyeglasses. Best of all, the money in an HSA is yours to keep forever.

    Your first line of protection, however, is improving your fitness. The dividend of good health pays off for decades by giving you less expensive insurance options and the energy to keep working, if you choose. “Your 50s are the time to get disciplined about getting in shape,” says Rick Kahler, founder of the Kahler Financial Group in Rapid City, S.D. Join a health club and consult with a trainer to create a fitness regimen that’s right for you. Check the fine print of your health-insurance policy for gym reimbursements; many reimburse you up to $400 per year if you go to a gym at least 50 times every six months.

    Catherine Fredman

    A version of this article previously appeared in the April 2015 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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    9 surefire ways to save at the supermarket

    You’d think Consumer Reports subscribers would be among the savviest grocery shoppers around. While most of those surveyed for our latest Supermarket report diligently clipped coupons, checked out specials in weekly circulars, and watched for pricing errors, many did not.

    The best way to stretch your dollar is to patronize stores with the most competitive prices. In our survey, the standouts were Aldi, Costco, Trader Joe’s, Fareway Stores, Market Basket (the Northeast chain), and WinCo.

    Next, try these tactics, which are effective no matter where you shop:

    Compare unit prices. They’re on shelf tags beneath the products and they’re the only way to know for certain which package size and brand is the best deal per quart, ounce, or sheet. Unit pricing isn’t perfect, as our mystery shoppers learned, because the labels can be inconsistent, but they’re still the best indicator at a glance.

    Buy store brands. They account for about a quarter of all supermarket products and sell for a similar 25 percent or so discount, on average, over the national names. Sixty-three percent of those surveyed were highly satisfied with the quality of their store’s brands, and our own tests frequently reveal that those products are often just as good as the big brands.

    Join the club. Warehouse clubs have everyday low prices, so you don’t have to wait for a sale. And the prices are undeniably good. Costco was a clear winner over BJ’s Wholesale and Sam’s, in our survey. The drawbacks to club shopping are the annual membership fee, $50 at Costco, for example, as well as bulk sizes, lack of service, limited assortment, and long checkout lines.

    See our ratings of the best and worst supermarkets, free to subscribers. Be sure to also check out our general buying advice

    Be loyal. Many chains still reserve their best deals for customers who enroll in loyalty- or shopper-club-card programs. Some even have a fuel-reward component in which you earn a nickel or dime discount on a gallon gas for every $50 or $100 spent. Others loyalty perks (depending on the chain) include cash rebates, coupon doubling, buy-one-get-one-free offers, and bonus savings for seniors on certain days.

    Clip coupons. Consumers save more than $3 billion annually by using manufacturers coupons for packaged goods. However, only a fraction of the 300 billion or so coupons distributed are eventually redeemed. Don’t leave money on the table. Coupon savings average more than $1.50 per purchase. And for all the hullabaloo about online coupons, 90 percent still reach shoppers through newspaper inserts.

    Don’t be seduced by signs. It’s one of the oldest gimmicks in the supermarket sales manual. If you see a sign that says, for instance, 10 containers of yogurt for $10, know that you’re rarely required to buy all 10 to get the discount. You can buy one for $1.

    Eye end caps. Some shoppers assume products on aisle ends are always on sale, which is why those displays can boost purchases by a third. But end caps can highlight items about to expire or those that aren’t on sale.

    • Buy bagged produce. Some fruit and veggies are cheaper by the bag than by the pound. Potatoes and apples are good examples. We recently spotted a 5-pound bag of russets seen russets for $1.69 vs. those same spuds loose for $1.25 per pound. Economies of scale were similar for the apples.

    Avoid checkout temptations. Snacks at the register look more appealing the longer you’re in line, studies have shown. But they’re way overpriced. At several local stores, we noticed 2-ounce bags of chips near the checkout for $1.99, whereas a bag of the same chips triple the size was on sale for the same price along the snack aisle.

    How savvy are Consumer Reports shoppers?

     Strategy

    Percent that practice it

    Bought store brands when available

    66%

    Read store circulars for specials

    64

    Used manufacturers' coupons

    60

    Stocked up on non-perishables when on sale

    60

    Took advantage of store's shopper club specials

    55

    Paid attention to accuracy of scanned prices

    54

    —Tod Marks

    • Be loyal. Many chains still reserve their best deals for customers who enroll in loyalty- or shopper-club-card programs. Some even have a fuel-reward component in which you earn a nickel or dime discount on a gallon gas for every $50 or $100 spent. Others loyalty perks (depending on the chain) include cash rebates, coupon doubling, buy-one-get-one-free offers, and bonus savings for seniors on certain days.

    • Clip coupons. Consumers save more than $3 billion annually by using manufacturers coupons for packaged goods. However, only a fraction of the 300 billion or so coupons distributed are eventually redeemed. Don’t leave money on the table. Coupon savings average more than $1.50 per purchase. And for all the hullabaloo about online coupons, 90 percent still reach shoppers through newspaper inserts.

    • Don’t be seduced by signs. It’s one of the oldest gimmicks in the supermarket sales manual. If you see a sign that says, for instance, 10 containers of yogurt for $10, know that you’re rarely required to buy all 10 to get the discount. You can buy one for $1.

    • Eye end caps. Some shoppers assume products on aisle ends are always on sale, which is why those displays can boost purchases by a third. But end caps can highlight items about to expire or those that aren’t on sale.

    • Buy bagged produce. Some fruit and veggies are cheaper by the bag than by the pound. Potatoes and apples are good examples. We recently spotted a 5-pound bag of russets seen russets for $1.69 vs. those same spuds loose for $1.25 per pound. Economies of scale were similar for the apples.

    • Avoid checkout temptations. Snacks at the register look more appealing the longer you’re in line, studies have shown. But they’re way overpriced. At several local stores, we noticed 2-ounce bags of chips near the checkout for $1.99, whereas a bag of the same chips triple the size was on sale for the same price along the snack aisle.

    How savvy are Consumer Reports shoppers?

     Strategy

    Percent that practice it

    Bought store brands when available

    66%

    Read store circulars for specials

    64

    Used manufacturers' coupons

    60

    Stocked up on non-perishables when on sale

    60

    Took advantage of store's shopper club specials

    55

    Paid attention to accuracy of scanned prices

    54

    —Tod Marks

     

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

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    Judge rejects claims against GM over ignition switch

    A federal judge has rejected certain claims against General Motors for economic damages stemming from the company’s massive ignition switch recall.

    On April 14, U.S. District Judge Robert Gerber strictly enforced the terms of the bankruptcy, which shields the automaker from pre-bankruptcy liabilities. The judge, who also presided over the GM bankruptcy, ruled that only economic-loss cases that involve the post-bankruptcy company can move forward. He estimated that the total claims for economic damages could have amounted to $7 billion to $10 billion spread across the millions of cars subject to the GM recall.

    The defect has been blamed for 84 deaths in accidents that occurred when a bumped or jostled ignition switch shut off power to the car, which also disabled the airbags. General Motors has set aside an unlimited fund to compensate accident victims or their families, administered by attorney Kenneth Feinberg. Those claims are not subject to yesterday’s ruling.

    The question was whether loss-of-value damages stemming from the defective ignition switch, which was designed by “Old GM,” should be treated like warranty and recall liabilities and borne by the “New GM,” as the post-bankruptcy company is known.

    Learn more in "The truth about recalls."

    Under the terms of GM’s bankruptcy, the company was divided into good and bad halves: The New GM got all of the profitable assets, while the Old GM got most of its liabilities – everything from underperforming factories to bad loans and legal claims.

    Any claims filed before the June 1, 2009, bankruptcy would be paid by the old, broke GM, now renamed Motors Liquidation Company. According to a Reuters report, those claimants are receiving 29 cents on the dollar for their assets. Claims filed after that point, along with the costs of certain warranty repairs and recalls on older models would be borne by the new, profitable GM.

    These economic damage claims include those for “diminution of value” of GM cars because of the harm to their reputation, as well as for lost wages from time spent getting the recall work done, attorneys’ fees, and punitive damages.

    Some claims also involve accident and injury damage claims from before the bankruptcy, but those victims are potentially eligible for compensation from the Feinberg fund. And those victims who had already agreed to compensation from the fund are ineligible to bring additional lawsuits against GM based on those claims.

    Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, thinks consumers should be compensated for their losses. “Last year, Consumers Union pressed GM to do the right thing and set up a compensation fund for victims and their families," said William Wallace, policy analyst for Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. "While this fund has reportedly issued some payouts for pre-bankruptcy incidents, we are concerned that the court's ruling may close off legal avenues for other victims or their families to hold GM accountable. GM should take responsibility for all valid claims, regardless of whether an incident took place before or after its bankruptcy."

    This ruling stands in sharp contrast to a $1.4 billion settlement Toyota made in 2013 for economic damages in its recall of 5.8 million vehicles for unintended acceleration. Toyota didn’t have bankruptcy protection to shield it.

    GM issued a response to the ruling, saying: “Judge Gerber properly concluded that claims based on Old GM's conduct are barred, and that the [bankruptcy] Sale Order and Injunction will be enforced for such purposes. With respect to any claims that were not expressly barred, Judge Gerber's decision doesn't establish any liability against GM and the plaintiffs still must prove the merits of their claims.”

    Plaintiffs’ attorneys have vowed to appeal, and Judge Gerber has recommended the case to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.

    —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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