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    The multi-talented KitchenAid Multi-Cooker

    KitchenAid’s Multi-Cooker resembles a slow cooker but is so much more thanks to a variety of pre-programmed settings and an optional stirrer that frees you up. Stir-intensive dishes like risotto and caramelized onions should require less attention, and dishes from low-temperature yogurt to high-temperature meats (for searing) can be made in the Multi-Cooker. But how good is it? Here’s what the experts at Consumer Reports found when they put the KitchenAid Multi-Cooker to the test.

    KitchenAid claims

    We paid $400 for the 4-quart KitchenAid Multi-Cooker KMC4241 and an optional Stir Tower KST4054 accessory.  KitchenAid claims it, “delivers consistent culinary results with more than 10 cooking methods for amazing versatility.” Pre-programmed settings are sauté, sear, soup, yogurt, risotto, rice, boil/steam, simmer, keep warm (up to 24 hours), and slow cook low and high. “With EvenHeat technology it constantly monitors the temperature of the cooking pot from 110°F to 450°F for precise temperature control. The digital display shows step-by-step instructions, temperature, and timer for up to 12 hours of cooking.”
     

    The look

    A souped-up slow cooker with handles and a clear tempered glass lid, the KitchenAid Multi-cooker comes in stainless, candy apple red, and black. No need to hide it—it’s attractive enough to keep on the counter. The 4-quart metal pot insert has a nonstick coating, handles, and pour spout and comes with a dual-purpose steam basket and roasting rack.

    How it works

    While it’s similar to a slow cooker, the Multi-Cooker’s added settings let you cook as you would on your range-top and the optional 5-mode Stir Tower mixes and stirs ingredients, preventing burning and sticking and offering hands-free cooking, although you still have to keep an eye on it.

    How we tested

    We followed the recipes from the recipe e-book that called for use of the Stir Tower, making yogurt and cooking risotto, Cajun sausage, and Kung Pao chicken. We also made other foods to try the settings with and without the Stir Tower. We caramelized onions and cooked chili, ham, grits, and even roasted chicken.  We made lentil soup using the programmed multi-step mode,  using it to sauté the vegetables, bring stock to a boil, simmer, and then keep the soup warm. For most recipes we also prepared them on the range-top to compare results and ease of use.

    What we found

    Very flexible and easy to use, the KitchenAid Multi-Cooker delivered comparable or even better results than the range-top for all of the recipes we tested on both, and offers settings that we couldn’t reproduce, namely the yogurt setting. The caramelized onions were especially delicious and cooked without any assistance using the Stir Tower.

    Need to know

    It’s a little noisy, especially at higher speeds, and capacity is a bit small so it works better with smaller recipe amounts. The KitchenAid Multi-Cooker is slower than a range-top since it only uses up to 700 watts, but it heats up relatively quickly because the pot insert is lightweight and recipe amounts are small.
     
    Using the Multi-Cooker at 110°F is only for the yogurt setting and with the manual temperature mode you can only choose between 165°F and 450°F in 5° increments—unfortunate because its good temperature control could have allowed it to be used for sous-vide cooking but that often calls for temperatures below 165°. When using the Stir Tower we found that sometimes the ingredients slid along the bottom of the pot instead of being stirred, and using the side-scraper blade often worsened stirring for larger amounts.
     
    The KitchenAid Multi-Cooker just might be the right gift for the person who likes to cook (hint: Mother’s Day is May 10th). We also recently tested the Ronco Ready Grill and the Philips Digital Airfryer. For more on these countertop appliances see “Should you clear the counter for this grill and fryer?” Next up? We’ll tell you what we found when we tested the $54 Stirio Hands-Free Stirrer. And if you have questions or comments e-mail me at kjaneway@consumer.org.
     
    —Kimberly Janeway

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

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    Get the right bike helmet fit

    A bike helmet must fit snugly to protect you. “Try on the size you think you need, and then try a size smaller,” says Rich Handel, Consumer Reports' assistant test project leader. (Warning: Don’t be tempted to buy a larger size for your child, thinking she will grow into it!)

    If you’re buying a bike helmet online, check the return policy to make sure you can exchange it.

    Another important shopping tip: Wear a ponytail or a hat when shopping if you ride that way; those things can alter the fit. Then use our tips to make sure your helmet fits you properly.

    Check the fit

    • The helmet must be level on your head.
    • The front edge should be no more than an inch or so above your eyebrows.
    • The strap should fit closely under your chin.
    • Straps should meet just below your jaw and in front of your ears, forming a V under your earlobes.

    Find out how we tested bike helmets and which ones topped our Ratings.

    How do you know whether the helmet fits?

    Push the helmet side to side, then front to back, and give it a twist. (The skin at your temples should wrinkle.) The helmet should move only a little bit.

    If it’s too loose and your helmet has an adjuster knob, tighten it, or if your helmet came with extra pads, use the thicker ones. If it’s too tight, turn the knob to loosen it or use the thinner pads.

    Will it stay put while you’re riding?

    With the heel of your hand, push up on the front edge of the helmet. If it exposes your forehead, shorten the front straps. Then grab the back and try to push the helmet forward off your head. If it covers your eyes, shorten the back straps.

    You’ll know the chin strap is tight enough when you open your jaw halfway and feel the helmet press down on your head.

    This article also appeared in the June 2015 issue of ShopSmart magazine.

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

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    Smart luggage is the next big thing for an old product

    Not too long ago, “connected luggage” involved two suitcases and a strap. Now it involves a smartphone and built-in electronic capabilities. It’s the next generation of luggage. You didn’t think suitcases would remain analog, did you?

    We haven’t tested these but sure would like to.

    The Bluesmart “connected” suitcase (shown) knows where it is, how much it weighs, and who’s allowed to handle it. Download the Bluesmart app on iOS and Android devices to enable your bag’s digital lock (no need for keys or combinations), proximity sensors (it will alert you and lock itself when it moves too far away from your phone), location tracking (handy in the event of loss or theft), trip tracking (stores your trip information and history), a built-in digital scale (just pull on the handle), and a built-in battery that the company says holds enough power for six charges. The retail price is expected to be at least $450 when it comes out in August.

    Find out what to look for when buying luggage and use these 5 tips for preventing luggage theft.

    Like Bluesmart, Space Case 1 includes a scale, GPS tracking, and a built-in power source. This connected suitcase, made by Hontus through its Planet Traveler USA unit, has biometric fingerprint recognition locks and, in the carry-on size, a built-in Bluetooth speaker. The two-piece set—20-inch carry-on and 29-inch check-in—cost $2,000.

    You can create DIY high-tech luggage by adding electronic devices to your analog bags. The eGeeTouch Smart Luggage Lock ($25 to $35), made by Digipas, is a lock with options to operate it with a smartphone or a dedicated NFC key fob.

    For tracking, there is LugLoc ($70 plus tracking fees)—a small device you drop into your bag, which uses Bluetooth and GSM technology to pinpoint its location—and Trackdot, which, for a purchase price of $50 plus an annual $20 fee, will text or e-mail you the location of your bag when your flight lands. As for weighing bags on the go, there are a number of hand-held luggage scales on the market. On Amazon.com they range from $5 to $108.

    Add a portable charger to your equipment lineup and you’ll have many of the features of a full-fledged connected suitcase.

    —Susan Feinstein

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

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    Brinkmann grill fails Consumer Reports’ safety test

    Grilling seems a lot more fun than cooking on a range and it’s hard to argue with the results—seared steaks and sizzling burgers—but cooking with fire has its risks. That’s why the grill experts at Consumer Reports put well over 100 gas grills through safety checks. Our latest tests found that the Brinkmann Patio 810-6230-S small gas grill failed one of our safety tests and we do not recommend buying it. We paid $129 at Home Depot, and this grill is also sold at Albertsons and Hy-Vee, according to the manufacturer.

    The test

    If a burner’s flame goes out and the gas still flows it can build up and result in a potentially dangerous situation. To check how likely it is that a grill’s burners could go out, we drop the grill’s lid from a height of 6 inches above the closed position. When the lid drops, a burst of air is forced over the burners, which could happen if you quickly open or close the lid or if you drop the lid. We do this test at both the high heat and low heat settings.

    The results

    Two Brinkmann Patio 810-6230-S gas grills failed our drop-lid test.  Flames on one of the grill’s  two burners occasionally went out on each grill when operated on the low heat setting. This test failure poses a safety risk and we do not recommend buying the grill at this time. The risk from this situation is low, but no gas grill should have this flaw. All the other grills tested passed the drop-lid test on both heat settings. We are not aware of any reported injuries.

    Brinkmann’s response

    “We have done numerous tests here in Dallas and at our factory and this grill passed the ANSI standard (an industry test),” said Bradley Gleaton, director of quality control for Brinkmann who added he did not believe this issue posed a risk. “We found that one burner can occasionally be extinguished during the lid drop test on low.” Gleaton added that the company has since looked at the grill’s crossover channel and improved it, making sure the gap is the correct size, and the factory has made this change for future production. But Brinkmann has shipped the majority of its grills for the 2015 season, so Gleaton could not say when grills with the new crossover channel will be in stores.

    What you can do

    If you own this grill call Brinkmann’s customer service at 800-527-0717 and ask for a new crossover channel and it will ship within 48 hours, says Gleaton. You can also try returning the grill to the store. In the interim, if you must use the grill, operate it only on the high heat setting.

    CPSC alerted

    Consumer Reports notified the Consumer Product Safety Commission of the grill’s risk and asked the federal agency to investigate. “We take it seriously and are following up, but the CPSC cannot provide any additional details at this time of the nature of which direction we’ll go,” says Scott Wolfson, director of communications. “When any incident with a grill poses a risk of harm or is harmful we want consumers to go to saferproducts.gov and let us know. It provides benefits as an early warning system for us and it provides other consumers with information that empowers them to make their own decisions that precede CPSC action.”

    Buying a grill?

    If you’re shopping for a small gas grill, with room for 18 burgers or fewer, see our gas grill Ratings. Prices range from $115 to $1,800, and include the top-rated Weber Spirit E-220 46310001, $450, Broilmate 165154, $200, and the Brinkmann 810-3800-SB, $200, which is also sold at Home Depot.
     
    —Kimberly Janeway

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

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    Mean, green Tesla Model S P85D gets up to speed

    This year, we’re celebrating Earth Day in grand style, behind the wheel of our new all-wheel drive Tesla Model S P85D. Both green and mean, the P85D is the high-end version of the regular 85-kilowatt version of the Model S we tested in 2013. Not only does the P85D bring a stunning 691 horsepower (performance signaled by the P) and all-wheel-drive (D for dual-motor), it’ll also be able to drive itself to a limited degree. Needless to say, we're enjoying logging the initial break-in miles before we can formally test this new addition to our fleet.

    Our P85D started at $105,000, with options pushing the final price to $127,820. That’s a fair bit more than the $89,650 we paid for our rear-drive 2013 Model S 85, our current top-rated car. (Read our complete Tesla Model S road test.)

    All-wheel drive has become a must-have in the ultra-luxury arena. BMW and Mercedes-Benz jumped on that bandwagon about a decade ago, eroding Audi’s edge. Now even holdouts like Jaguar and Maserati even offer it. So an all-wheel-drive Tesla was inevitable.

    Being an electric car to begin with, it made sense for Tesla to simply add an electric motor to power the front wheels. That eliminated the need for an additional driveshaft and a set of gears—the usual penalty when a carmaker adds all-wheel drive to a rear-drive car. As compact as this front traction motor is, it still robs some space from the front trunk (aka frunk) space.

    In the P85D the rear motor’s output was upped from 362 hp to 470 hp. While that alone would add prodigious thrust, the front motor adds 221 hp more, bringing the total output to an eye-popping 691 hp.

    The EPA calculates the driving range on a full charge at 253 miles, as opposed to 265 miles for the regular P85. We averaged about 225 miles from a full charge with our regular 85. We’ll see what kind of range the P85D provides over time.

    Tesla says that the P85D will rocket from 0-60 mph in 3.1 seconds. That’s extremely quick but our old Model S 85 was hardly a straggler; we clocked 0-60 mph at 5.6 seconds with it. Likewise, we’ll be checking Tesla’s P85D claim in the near future, no doubt over and over again.

    To unleash maximum power, the P85D comes with a driving-mode adjustment that ranges from “Sport” to “Insane.” Select the crazy end of the scale, mash the throttle from a standing stop, and you’d swear you can feel the blood draining from your head as you launch. Part-throttle acceleration is equally impressive, with instant forward thrust. This car should come with a surgeon general “mature adults only” warning.

    The P85D’s 21-inch Michelin Pilot Sport performance tires are a little noisier than our Model S’s tires. The ride feels a little stiffer, too, but it’s still firm, steady, and supple. Handling is taut and agile. Overall, the driving experience is not dramatically different from a conventional Model S, which is a good thing.

    Initially, the Model S lacked such advanced safety features as lane-departure warning, active cruise control, blind-spot detection, and automatic emergency braking. With the optional $4,250 Tech Package and Autopilot, the Model S can now have all those features.

    Tesla announced that an upcoming software update will endow the car with some self-driving capabilities, such as parking on its own and leaving its parking space to come pick you up. But this impress-the-friends trick is supposed to be done on private property only.

    The P85D is fairly luxe inside, but it doesn’t ooze the exquisite level of décor as a Mercedes S-Class or Porsche Panamera. The standard seats are a bit on the short and flat side. Optional Recaro-like, more-supportive seats are a $2,500 option.

    Clearly, the P85D travels in elite circles. But even with the regular all-wheel-drive 85D ($75,500), this is the sexiest, coolest green car out there.

    Check back with us on the progress of testing the P85D.

    Gabe Shenhar

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

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  • 04/22/15--07:59: Best deals on hybrid cars
  • Best deals on hybrid cars

    Car buyers have been turning away from hybrids since gas prices dropped last year. To bring them back to showrooms, automakers have rolled out some of the biggest incentives in the industry on hybrids and electric cars. 

    On top of that, several hybrid models, including the Chevrolet Volt, Hyundai Sonata, and Kia Optima hybrids, are due to be redesigned soon. Those models facing imminent replacement have even bigger discounts. (The Toyota Prius, which has become a poster child for hybrids, is also scheduled for a redesign in 2016, but the new model has not been revealed.)

    Here are the top deals on hybrids for April. All the cars listed below are 2015 models and ranked in order of potential savings. Specific pricing details on these and other trim variations are available on the model pages, along with complete road tests, reliability, owner cost, and other key information.

    Consumer Reports Build & Buy Car Buying Service

    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.

    Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

    The Sonata Hybrid is still based on the last-generation Sonata, previously one of our highest-rated family sedans. Although it gets a little bit better fuel economy than its non-hybrid doppelganger, we think the trade-off in drivability, refinement, and braking performance is too high for the Hybrid. This car stumbles and hesitates a lot as it makes the transition from electric to gas power, and sometimes shakes and vibrates. As a result, the Sonata Hybrid scored too low for us to recommend it. For 2016, the Sonata Hybrid will be moved to the new Sonata platform.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
    4/30/15 $26,825 $25,666 20%+

    Ford Fusion Hybrid

    The Fusion is a delight to drive, whether in hybrid or non-hybrid form. Its supple ride and agile handling rival European sports sedans. All trim levels and powertrains feel solid and upscale, with a well-finished and quiet cabin and comfortable seats. But the rear seat is somewhat snug, and the MyFord Touch interface is an annoyance. Most Fusions get either a 1.5- or 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder matched with a six-speed automatic. The hybrid system is quiet and unobtrusive, and it boosts mileage to an impressive 39-mpg overall. Reliability has been average or better for all versions.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Ford Fusion SE Hybrid 7/6/15
    $27,715 $26,236 10%+

    Kia Optima Hybrid

    Kia's version of the previous-generation Hyundai Sonata also comes in hybrid, regular, and turbo forms. It is a good car but falls a bit short of its cousin in ride comfort, braking, and fuel economy. It handles well, but the ride is borderline stiff and road noise is noticeable. The standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder performs well. The Optima Hybrid uses the same powertrain as in the Sonata Hybrid, which we found unpredictable and jerky when we tested it. The hybrid version of the Optima improves fuel economy slightly, but the difference isn't that impressive. The front seats are comfortable, but the rear seat is low. The styling detracts from rear visibility and access. Reliability has been average. A redesigned Optima goes on sale this fall.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Kia Optima EX Hybrid 5/4/15 $32,975 $30,938 10%+

    Ford C-Max

    Based on the Focus compact car, the five-passenger C-Max hybrid is a clever, quiet, spacious, and practical hatchback. It rides well and handles with agility. Regenerative braking helps with fuel economy but makes the brake pedal feel touchy. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder and electric motor deliver adequate acceleration and seamless transitions between gas and electric power, and the C-Max can run in electric mode up to about 40 mph. To conserve fuel, the engine shuts down when coasting. We measured an excellent 37 mpg overall. Reliability, however, is far below average.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Ford C-Max Hybrid SE 7/6/15 $24,995 $23,897 10%+

    Toyota Avalon Hybrid

    The redesign that brought the hybrid powerplant to the Avalon also brought harshness to the formerly excellent, pillowy-soft ride. Toyota claims it will address suspension tuning with the 2016 model. Handling is sharp and secure, and the hybrid's 2.5-liter four-cylinder, teamed with an electric motor, has plenty of power and returns a standout 36 mpg overall. Upscale materials and finish details give the spacious cabin a lush, luxurious ambience, but the controls are somewhat complicated.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Toyota Avalon Hybrid XLE Touring
    5/4/15 $38,625 $36,001 5%+

    Chevrolet Volt

    An electric car with a backup engine to extend its typical 35-mile electric range, the Volt is quiet and responsive, with a taut ride. Its four-seat capacity limits practicality, the rear seat is cramped, and visibility is poor. Once the lithium-ion battery is depleted, the 1.4-liter engine acts as a generator to extend the range by 315 miles. We averaged the equivalent of 99 mpg in electric mode and 32 mpg—on premium—when it switched over to gasoline. Recharging takes four hours using a 240-volt supply and 10 hours with 120 volts. For 2015, the battery storage capacity is increased from 16- to 17.1-kWh, probably leading to more electric-only miles. Reliability has been average. Volt buyers also get a $7,500 tax rebate to make the price even more competitive. A redesign for 2016 promises increased electric range and an improved control layout.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Chevrolet Volt Plug-in Hybrid
    4/30/15 $35,170 $34,483 5%+

    Toyota Camry Hybrid

    For 2015, the Camry got new styling, plusher interior materials, better controls, and slightly improved ride and handling. The interior is also a little quieter. But that's not the big story. As incremental as these changes were, they came on top of a solid performing car with a smooth suspension, responsive handling, and a comfortable roomy interior. Throw in a smooth 38 mpg hybrid powertrain, along with first-rate reliability, and the Camry is hard to beat.  

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE 5/4/15 $30,805 $29,372 5%+

    Toyota Prius V

    This Prius wagon offers a very roomy rear seat and a generous cargo area. It's about the size of the Mazda5 but seats just five. Despite its extra weight and a less aerodynamic shape over the conventional Prius, the V still got an excellent 41-mpg overall in our tests. The electric motor and gasoline engine have to work fairly hard, especially when the car is loaded with people or cargo. Rear visibility is better than in the standard Prius. The 2015 model has been updated with a larger 4.1-inch dash-top screen for trip computer functions, as well as improved crash test performance. It now scores a Good in the small-overlap crash test from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Older models scored a Poor, which prevented us from recommending them.  

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Toyota Prius V Three 5/4/15 $28,885 $27,886 5%+

    Toyota Prius C

    This smaller, less expensive alternative to the regular Prius feels more like a subcompact than a sophisticated hybrid. It has a harsh ride, noisy engine and cabin, and slow acceleration. The interior looks and feels cheap, the driving position and rear seats are cramped, and there's little cargo space. However, its 37 mpg is the best city fuel economy of any car we've tested, and its 43 mpg overall is just 1 mpg less than the regular Prius. A number of exterior styling updates for 2015 come with improved performance in the IIHS small-overlap crash test. Reliability is well above average, but we can't recommend the Prius C because it scored too low in our testing. 

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Toyota Prius C Three
    5/4/15 $22,590 $21,831 5%+
    2015 Autos Spotlight

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

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

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    Hybrid Nissan Murano SUV makes auto show appearance

    At the Shanghai auto show this week, Nissan displayed a hybrid version of the redesigned 2015 Murano SUV, which will go on sale in China this summer. Nissan released few details about the vehicle’s performance and fuel economy except to say that it would use a supercharged four-cylinder gasoline engine, an electric motor, and a “compact” lithium-ion battery pack.

    With a combined 250-horsepower (230 hp from the gas engine and 20 hp from the electric motor) the electrified Murano will have power similar to Nissan’s ubiquitous 3.5-liter V6 with the fuel economy of a 2.0-liter, Nissan said.

    Although Toyota is widely regarded as the leader in hybrid technology, Nissan is no stranger to the art. It already offers a hybrid version of the Infiniti QX60 and the Nissan Pathfinder. The hybrid powertrains offered in those SUVs sound identical to the one planned for the hybrid Murano. That suggests that the gasoline part is a supercharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder.

    You could consider this a mild-hybrid approach, since the relatively small electric motor and battery pack supplement the gas engine during hard acceleration and the electric motor does not by itself move the vehicle. The hybridization treatment runs about $3,000 extra in the QX60, and we would guess that a similar price differential would hold for the Murano.

    Nissan hasn’t said whether it will bring the hybrid Murano to this country, but an industry source says it might appear here in the summer of 2016.

    We like the newest Murano. It has a decidedly upscale and comfortable interior with up-to-date electronic features and convenient controls, and it has been performing well in our tests. (The full road test has not been completed.)

    Whether a hybrid version would pay for itself in lowered fuel costs in some reasonable period of ownership, however, is open to question with fuel prices as low as they are right now.

    Read our Murano first drive.

    Gordon Hard

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

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    Stirio Hands-Free Stirrer mixes it up in the kitchen

    Making risotto is a labor of love. It’s rice, after all, turned into something wonderful but the constant stirring that’s required scares off some people and getting to perfection takes time. But what if a motorized pot stirrer could make the risotto? The Stirio Hands-Free Stirrer, $54, is claimed to do just that and more, so the experts at Consumer Reports put Stirio to the test.

    Stirio claims

    “Clamps onto your pot and will stir any food; for example, porridge, risotto, or stew, while you can put your feet up and enjoy a glass of wine or set the table.” Made in Norway, the manufacturer is Unikia and it claims that Stirio is safe to use with nonstick coated pots, the rechargeable motor provides at least one hour of stirring before you recharge it, the motor is silent, and that Stirio is easy to use and clean and dishwasher safe, except for the motor, of course.

    How it works

    The clip-on bridge clamps the Stirio to the pot and centers it so that the stirring arms reach and sweep the entire cooking surface. Stirio can be used with pots that are 6 to 10 inches in diameter and 3 to 7 inches deep. It has a rechargeable battery for power, operates continuously unless you turn it off, and has one stirring speed. An optional silicone lid ($29) fits over and around the bridge, working with different sized pots and containing boil-overs. We did not include this in our tests.

    How we tested

    We tested the Stirio by using it to cook risotto, chili, soup, grits, and caramelized onions.

    What we found

    Stirio was very flexible in the size pots it fits, and it worked great with thinner sauces and soups. But for other foods it complained loudly and/or failed to stir the food entirely. For example, Stirio worked with the risotto once the stock was added, but prior to that simply moved the grains around the pan without stirring. And it failed to move onions when trying to stir them early in the caramelizing process. In the much thicker chili, it simply did not move. Tested at higher temperatures on a gas range, when stirring is more important, the flame’s heat melted the plastic of the bridge clamp that holds Stirio to the pot’s sides—though the instructions do warn of this possibility.
     
    Stirio worked best on sauces and soups, which usually do not require constant stirring. Adding an intermittent mode would improve Stirio as would adding rigid low-profile blades that could handle chili and other thicker foods or recipes that don’t include liquids.

    Need to know

    It’s battery-powered so it has an upper time limit, which may vary with what you are stirring. Once the battery dies, the Stirio cannot be used while plugged in until it is recharged. The motor is definitely not silent, and its noise can become a bit grating in an otherwise quiet kitchen.  You’ll also need a Europe-to-US plug adapter, since it comes with a European power plug.

    Manufacturers get that you’re busy and that’s why you’ll see more appliances that claim to free you up in the kitchen. KitchenAid promises that its Stir Tower, an optional accessory for the KitchenAid’s Multi-Cooker, works like your own personal sous chef, keeping things moving no matter what you’re cooking. See “The multi-talented KitchenAid Multi-Cooker” to find out what our tests revealed about that small appliance. Questions? Send them to kjaneway@consumer.org.
     
    —Kimberly Janeway

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    Financial risks in your sixties

    “As you move into your 60s, taking steps to protect what you’ve earned and accumulated becomes more front and center,” says Bernard Krooks, a lawyer with Littman Krooks in White Plains, N.Y., who specializes in elder care. Yet many of the most serious risks to your nest egg aren’t necessarily obvious. Many times you might not even think about them until you wake in a panic and wonder, “Did I ever remove my ex’s name from my 401(k) beneficiary form?” Or “Should I have listened to my agent when he tried to sell me umbrella insurance?”

    Here are three risks you may not have considered – and advice on how you can protect your retirement savings.

    For more information on this subject, read Financial Planning in Your 60s

    You’re sued. You might think that you can cut back on your liability insurance once you stop carpooling kids or your teenage children grow up and move out. Think again, warns Rick Kahler, founder of the Kahler Financial Group in Rapid City, S.D. “Anyone can be the target of a frivolous lawsuit, especially if you’re perceived to have deep pockets.” And the last thing you want is for a lawsuit to drain savings earmarked for retirement when there’s little time left to rebuild them.

    Action: Most insurance policies, whether for auto or home, include some amount of liability coverage; you must decide how much protection you need and are willing to pay for. However, because the higher liability limits can become expensive to buy through home and auto policies, Kahler recommends purchasing additional protection with an umbrella insurance policy that is equal to your net worth. Umbrella insurance is relatively inexpensive, at about $200 per year for $1 million of coverage.

    You let insurance coverage lapse. With the kids grown and on their own, an increasing number of people are moving from the suburbs into the city or elsewhere. If you choose to rent while you test out a new lifestyle, “you need renters insurance—that’s an essential,” says Jeanne Salvatore, senior vice president of the Insurance Information Institute. But a poll by that organization in 2013 found that 96 percent of homeowners had homeowners insurance but that only 37 percent of renters had renters insurance.

    Action: Renters’ insurance provides financial protection against the loss or destruction of your possessions from fire or smoke, vandalism, theft, explosions, windstorms, and water (not including floods). If you are unable to live in your apartment, the policy also covers the cost of living in a comparable apartment for a certain amount of time. The cost is relatively inexpensive because in most cases, renters insurance covers only the value of your belongings, not the building they’re housed in. The average annual premium is less than $200.

    You don’t make your wishes known. “Relationships evolve as you get older,” Krooks says. “Someone you trust in your 40s to make important decisions for you may no longer be the appropriate person.” So while you might remember to update your will, you might forget to update other accounts, such as leaving your former wife as the beneficiary of a retirement account after you’ve remarried.

    Another example: In the interests of family accord, you name all of your adult children equally as agents. Not a good idea. “I’ve seen six kids put on as power of attorney,” Kahler says. “It could mean that all six have to be consulted to make a decision—or that any one of them can make the decision, so whoever picks up the phone first wins.”

    Action: Update your legal documents and estate plans every four to five years. If you have more than one adult child, consider making one the point person on health care decisions and give another the responsibility for financial decisions.

    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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    A dream vacation, a travel insurance nightmare

    While booking a weeklong cruise to Panama on a Windstar sailing yacht, Marita and her husband, Frank, also took American Express Travel’s offer of a $1,149 insurance policy from CSA Travel Protection. That was fine with the Florida couple in their 70s, who always get travel insurance. The CSA plan would provide a full refund of their $8,000 vacation if they needed to cancel before or during the trip.

    The couple, whose names we’ve changed at their request, felt differently seven weeks later upon learning that they could have bought an equivalent policy directly from Windstar for $660—a savings of $489. Marita contacted American Express Travel twice but got nowhere; then she contacted us. The documents she sent indicated that she had declined the Windstar insurance; she said she was never offered that alternative, so she couldn’t have declined it.

    In order to get the couple’s $489 back, we had to work our way through a thicket of confounding rules. The agent who sold the CSA policy told us that a refund was impossible because the policy’s 10-day cancellation period had passed. The American Express corporate office didn’t respond to our request for a resolution.

    Fed up with a company's customer service? Send an e-mail to our Problem Solver. And if you're planning a trip, find out what to look for when shopping for luggage.

    We also contacted CSA, which said it would cancel the policy and give a refund. That was great, but we wanted to make sure that Windstar would issue a policy to cover the couple. “We’d love to insure this trip,” said Amanda Graham, a spokeswoman for Windstar. But there was a problem: Purchase was required at least 90 days before sailing, and it was now too late.

    CSA, however, finally saw how Marita and Frank were in a jam through no fault of their own. It offered to make good on the mix-up by letting them keep the policy and refunding the difference between its price and Windstar’s. “This is an opportunity to help a customer who was not satisfied,” said Bob Chambers, CSA’s vice president of operations.

    Marita was thrilled. “We appreciate CSA’s trying to find a solution to the problem,” she told us. As for American Express? Marita says she won’t book travel through it again.

    How to keep your costs down

    A travel agent might offer limited insurance options or steer you toward a plan that yields the best sales commission. The going rate for insurance is 4 to 10 percent of your prepaid, nonrefundable expenses for the travel itself. Shop around with the website Insure My Trip, which sells policies from 27 insurers.

    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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    New Sony TVs show why high dynamic range is more important than resolution

    When Sony took the wraps off its 2015 TV lineup last week, the buzz wasn't about higher resolution but rather about the coming improvements in high dynamic range, or HDR, and wider ranges of color. Not everyone's eyes are keen enough to detect the extra detail of a 4K image at a normal viewing distance, but many will notice the deeper, richer colors and brighter images.

    The 2015 Sony UHD line will include six new series, ranging in price from $1,300 for a 43-inch set in its entry-level X830C UHD series to $8,000 for a 75-inch model in the flagship X940C series. The X850C-series and above get Sony's Triluminos technology, which produces a wider color gamut. The company will also offer HDR in two of its flagship sets this year.

    The other big news was that Sony is adopting Google Android TV as its smart TV platform, so you can use Google Cast to beam content from apps on your Android or iOS portable devices—as well as Macs, PCs, and Chromebooks—to the TV. Android TV also supports voice search with a remote control or a compatible smartphone.

    Eye-popping images

    The highlight of the Sony press event was the demonstration of HDR technology. High dynamic range refers to the difference between the very brightest and darkest images that a TV can produce. It allows a TV, when presented with HDR-enabled content, to display more dramatic, high-contrast pictures, with brighter whites and greater details in dark shadows, resulting in images that pop off the screen. Many TV brands and Dolby have shown what HDR content can look like on an HDR-capable TV, but Sony's was the most effective when viewed on a consumer TV.

    Sony says that the $4,500 XBR-65X930C and the $8,000 XBR-75X940C UHD TVs will receive a firmware update this summer that will make them compatible with HDR content. Several streaming services, including Amazon, Netflix, and Vudu, have said they'll offer HDR content later in the year, and we expect to see new 4K UHD Blu-ray players, which will support HDR, by year's end.

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

    During our short demo, which used 4K content captured with an HDR-capable camera, the results were impressive, especially in the area of specular highlights—that's the way that shiny objects become more brilliantly illuminated, as if reflecting light.

    In two scenes with a lot of metallic gold objects, these images shone brightly with rich, golden hues, while the same scenes played on a non-HDR-capable set looked washed out. In other scenes, you could see differences in illumination even among bright objects, with levels of intensity that were lost when viewed on the regular UHD set.

    There were also improvements in color: For example, the primary colors in an illuminated carousel were much deeper, richer, and more vibrant than on the other set, and I was able to distinguish more shades of colors in shadowy areas.

    The trick, according to Sony, is to combine the HDR technology with smart local dimming, so that you retain details in the dark areas of the picture while boosting brightness in others. The HDR TV we watched had a full-array LED backlight, which can more effectively dim darker ares while keeping brighter areas illuminated.

    Right now, there isn't a single standard for HDR, though Sony and Samsung say they're following an SMPTE standard for both HDR and expanded color. A UHD Alliance has been formed to establish benchmarks for things like HDR and wider color gamuts to avoid consumer confusion and interoperability issues.

    We're looking forward to getting several of the 2015 Sony TVs into our labs for a complete evaluation.

    —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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    As Comcast, Time Warner Cable execs meet with Justice, Consumers Union says conditions won't fix mega-merger

    WASHINGTON , D.C. ─ Comcast and Time Warner Cable executives are reportedly meeting with officials at the Department of Justice today to discuss the companies’ proposed merger, which would give Comcast control of nearly 60 percent of cable TV and more than half of the high-speed broadband in the U.S.

    The meeting comes just days after various news organizations said Justice Department officials may be leaning against the merger because of concerns that it will harm competition by giving Comcast too much power.  These news reports suggested today's meeting would likely include a discussion of potential remedies and conditions to overcome concerns about the mega-deal, which is currently under review by DOJ and the Federal Communications Commission.  

    Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, has urged DOJ and the FCC to reject the merger in a series of meetings and filings with regulators over the past year.  

    Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union said, “You can’t fix this merger with conditions.  The size and influence of Comcast would be so huge that no amount of promises or commitments could outweigh the harm to consumers.  This merger would give Comcast more control than ever before over what we see on TV and online, and how much we pay for it.   

    "You have two companies with notoriously bad reputations for customer service, looking to become one company that will have even less incentive to address these deep, long-standing problems.  Even if Comcast comes to the table with more promises to do better, we know millions of consumers would be hit with higher prices, fewer choices, and even worse service," Derakhshani said.

    Comcast owns extensive programming through its previous merger with NBC Universal, as well as regional sports networks and other video content.  Joining forces with Time Warner Cable would give Comcast a tighter grip on more key programming, plus the “pipes” that deliver the content to homes and devices.

    Yesterday, six U.S. Senators sent a letter to the Attorney General and FCC Chairman to urge the agencies to reject the merger.  Sens. Franken, Sanders, Markey, Wyden, Warren, and Blumenthal said the combined company “would have an ability to defeat competing TV and Internet companies and stifle American innovation across the country.”

    For more information about Consumers Union's campaign against the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, visit hearusnow.org.

    Media Contact:
    David Butler, Consumers Union, 202.462.6262 or dbutler@consumer.org
    Michael McCauley, Consumers Union, 415.431.6747 or mmccauley@consumer.org

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    Clever child seat installation in extended-cab pickups

    Pickup trucks have long shed their work-only persona and are now among the most popular passenger vehicles in the country. In fact, for 2014, three pickup truck models were among the best-selling vehicles sold in the United States. But being mainstream also means travelling with families.

    For most buyers, that means opting for a crew cab version, with four full-sized doors. For those that don’t travel with family frequently, those larger cabs may be more truck than they need. But for those occasions when kids need to ride back there, the short rear cushion found in most extended cab pickups can be uncomfortable and often prevents installing a child seat there. Child seats are intended to have at least 80 percent of their base length supported on the vehicle cushion. With some shorter extended cab cushions, we’ve found that far more than 20 percent of most child seats “overhangs” the cushion edge. The new 2015 Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon now offer a feature that may make their extended cabs a bit more child seat friendly. (Read our GMC Canyon first drive report.)

    See our car seat buying advice and ratings.

    The head restraint in the passenger side second-row seat of these trucks can be removed and then cleverly locked into place, using corresponding holes at the front of seat cushion.  The added length of the head restraint should give sufficient support for most child seats. Even rear-facing seats we tried seemed to have enough support.

    The feature does have some limits. If a rear-facing seat is installed there the front seatback ahead of it cannot be used according to the vehicle owner’s manual. So it’s likely something most will use in a “pinch” if they need to transport a younger child. For that reason, the feature is also only on the rear passenger side and not behind the driver.  The manual also clearly says that extended cushion length is not intended to provide leg support to a seated adult; in reality, an adult would have a tough time fitting back there anyway.

    For frequent family travel, a full crew cab is the ideal pickup truck configuration. But for extended cabs, any feature that helps provide safer child seat installation even in a pinch is a good thing.

    Jen Stockburger

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

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    Consumers Union on Reports FCC, DOJ Skeptical of Comcast Merger

    WASHINGTON , D.C. ─ News reports suggest the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) staff is recommending that Comcast’s merger with Time Warner Cable be sent to an administrative law judge for a hearing, a procedural move that could be a setback to the mega-merger.

    Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports, has consistently urged the FCC and the Department of Justice to reject the merger in a series of meetings and filings with regulators over the past year.  Reports suggest Justice may also be leaning against the deal.

    Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union, said, “If these latest reports are accurate, we are encouraged that the FCC may share our concerns that a merger of this size would hurt consumers and competition alike. This merger would give Comcast unprecedented control over cable TV, high-speed broadband and the content we receive – with zero incentive to address the consumer complaints that have plagued them for years. Despite Comcast and Time Warner Cable’s promises that this deal will be better for customers, it only serves to better Comcast’s bottom line. As regulators continue to review this merger, we will continue to make the case that there are no conditions or commitments that would make the deal palatable for consumers."

    For more information about Consumers Union's campaign against the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, visit hearusnow.org.

    Media Contact:
    David Butler, Consumers Union, 202.462.6262 or dbutler@consumer.org
    Kara Kelber, Consumers Union, 202.462.6262 or kkelber@consumer.org
    Michael McCauley, Consumers Union, 415.431.6747 or mccauley@consumer.org

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    Best deals on pickup trucks in April

    As people start dusting off their yard equipment and planning trips to the garden center, the usefulness of a pickup truck quickly becomes evident. But today's trucks aren't mere mulch movers. Pickups are more civilized than ever, making them versatile vehicles for family use, work, and play.

    Consumer Reports has pored over the latest incentives to bring you the best discounts on new pickups. This list focuses on full-size pickup trucks—a vehicle class known for its large-scale incentives. Curiously, there are no notable national offers on smaller trucks, despite the Nissan Frontier facing fresh competition and the Toyota Tacoma counting down to its next-gen replacement.

    To illustrate the available deals, we highlight popular configurations for the trucks, highlighting four-door models with four-wheel drive and in a mid-level trim. Some brands call certain bed and cab sizes by different names, so despite their similar configuration, many of the trucks on this alphabetical list have detailed names that differ from truck to truck. We found that the discount was relatively proportional to the price of the truck, so more you spent, the larger the discount. Most trucks came out to having about a 10-percent savings off sticker price; the Ram 2500 stands out with a potential 15-percent discount.

    Pricing on all variants, along with the complete road test in most cases, can be found on ConsumerReports.org by clicking on the model name.

    —George Kennedy

    Consumer Reports Build & Buy Car Buying Service

    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.

    2015 Chevrolet Silverado 1500

    In testing, the Silverado impressed us with its quiet cabin, responsive handling, technology features, and easy-to-use controls. The 1500 has a relatively low step-in height, which makes for a very livable daily-driver pickup, and both payload and towing capacities are generous. And at 16 mpg overall with a 5.3-liter V8, our four-wheel-drive Crew Cab model got impressive fuel economy.

    Read our complete Chevrolet Silverado road test.

     

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    2015 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Crew Cab, Standard Box 4WD 1LT 4/30/15 $43,110 $40,950 $3,507

    Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD

    If you need commercial-grade grunt for towing and hauling, heavy-duty pickups like the Silverado 2500HD are the way to go. The standard engine is a 6.0-liter V8, making 360 horsepower and 380 lb.-ft. of torque, with a 397-hp, 6.6-liter turbodiesel available for serious work. Comfort features in this roomy crew-cab truck include the EZ-lift/lower lockable tailgate and available 4G LTE connectivity. Plus, the new Silverado HD is available with safety features such as forward-collision alert, lane-departure warning, and front and rear park assist. 

    Read our complete Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD road test.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    2015 Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD Crew Cab, Standard Box 4WD LT 4/30/15 $44,845 $42,603 $3,313

    Ford F-150

    Despite being heavily promoted as the latest, greatest truck, Ford is already putting a pile of money on the aluminum hood of the all-new F-150. Powertrain choices include a 3.5-liter V6, 2.7 or 3.5-liter turbocharged V6 engines, and a 5.0-liter V8. All are paired with a six-speed automatic. Our F-150s with the 2.7L and 3.5L EcoBoost V6s deliver abundant power. New safety offerings include lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise control, and blind-spot detection. The popular XLT trim has features like Sync infotainment system and MyKey, which lets parents set up profiles for younger drivers. This way they can monitor their teen's driving habits, like their seat belt use and attention to speed limits.

    Read our complete Ford F-150 road test.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    2015 Ford F-150 4WD SuperCrew 6-1/2 Ft Box XLT 7/6/15 $42,410 $39,551 $2,736

    Ford F-250 Super Duty

    Cabin space for the F-250 is generous, with a large back seat and plenty of places to store your gear. Cabin noise levels are lower than some competitors, and the Sync system brings connectivity and infotainment features to the table. Unlike competitors, the F-Series trucks have a step system that extends from inside the tailgate, making getting in and out of the bed very easy. The Ford-built Powerstroke 6.4-liter turbodiesel V8 gets the best fuel economy among heavy-duty diesel trucks while having plenty of towing and payload-hauling capability.

    Read our complete Ford F-250 Super Duty road test.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    2015 Ford Super Duty F-250 SRW 4X4 Crew Cab XLT 6-3/4' Box 7/6/15 $43,965 $41,676 $3,783

    GMC Sierra 1500

    Like the similar Chevrolet Silverado, the Sierra boasts easy cabin access, simple controls, and generous towing and payload capacities. Fuel economy with the 5.3-liter V8 crew cab we tested was an exceptional 16-mpg overall. Other engines are a 4.3-liter V6 and powerful 6.2-liter V8. The cabin for this full-size pickup is large and quiet, like a luxury car, and the SLE trim featured here delivers quite a lot of features. It has a large eight-inch center touch screen with GMC’s IntelliLink infotainment, backup camera, and the EZ-lift/lower locking tailgate.

    Read our complete GMC Sierra 1500 road test.

     

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    2015 GMC Sierra 1500 Crew Cab, Standard Box 4WD SLE 4/30/15 $45,035 $42,778 $2,776

    GMC Sierra 2500HD

    Like its mechanical twin, Chevrolet Silverado HD, the GMC Sierra 2500HD goes beyond the light-duty 1500 truck for truly heavy towing and hauling. Styling and equipment distinguish the similar trucks, with GMC skewed a hint more upscale. For even more pampering, a Denali version piles on the premium features. Both the 360-hp, 6.0-liter V8 and 397-hp, 6.6-liter turbodiesel are mated to a six-speed automatic, and each delivers prodigious grunt. As with the 1500, stepping up to the SLE trim adds several welcomed features, including power windows. Really.

    Visit our detailed GMC Sierra 2500HD model page.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    2015 GMC Sierra 2500HD Crew Cab Standard Box 4-Wheel Drive SLE 4/30/15 $47,045 $44,693 $3,346

    Nissan Titan

    Dealers eagerly await the first all-new Titan in more than a decade, and consequently, they are looking to unload their current inventory to make room for the new model. The out-going model is roomy and agile, but it scores low in our road tests, hindered by a rubbery ride, dismal fuel economy, and austere cabin. For the right price, there is appeal to be found here, but it is worth heading owner feedback, which puts satisfaction at below average.

    Read our complete Nissan Titan road test.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    2015 Nissan Titan Crew Cab, 4x4, SV 4/30/15 $38,085 $35,306 $2,016

    Ram 1500

    If you're more a weekend warrior than weekend contractor, the Ram 1500 might be the way to go. It's the most refined pickup on the market, with a spacious cabin and a coil-spring rear suspension that gives it an impressively smooth ride. Our Big Horn Crew Cab, with its smooth 5.7-liter V8, averaged 15-mpg. The base 3.6-liter V6 is no weakling, but it tows less. Unique among half-ton trucks, the torquey 3.0-liter diesel V6 version is expensive but delivers effortless thrust and returns a class-leading 20 mpg overall. All engines are now mated to a slick eight-speed automatic.

    Read our complete Ram 1500 road test.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    2015 Ram 1500 SLT, Crew Cab, 4X4, Standard Bed 5/4/15 $42,645 $39,494 $2,244

    Ram 2500

    Like the Ram 1500, the 2500 has a rear coil-spring suspension, giving it a more civilized ride than its heavy-duty rivals. But it can still haul and tow with the best trucks out there, thanks to the standard 383-hp V8 and powerful 6.7-liter Cummins turbodiesel. The Ram 2500 lends itself well to fifth-wheel towing, thanks in part to its two rearview cameras: one for backing up, and one for monitoring what’s in the bed.

    Visit our detailed Ram 2500 model page.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    2015 Ram 2500 SLT, Crew Cab, 4X4, Standard Bed 5/4/15 $43,295 $40,169 $3,763
    2015 Autos Spotlight

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

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

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    The Comcast-Time Warner marriage is being called off at the altar

    In what would be a major victory for consumers, Comcast is reportedly planning to call off its bid to merge with Time Warner. The combined entity would have controlled, according to some estimates, more than 30 percent of U.S. pay-TV subscriptions and more importantly, more than half of the market for broadband service.

    According to Bloomberg News, which broke the story, Comcast is walking away from the deal, valued at $45 million. The company could make an announcement as early as tomorrow.

    Consumer Reports and Consumers Union have opposed the deal since it was announced, arguing that a combined Comcast-Time Warner Cable would have little incentive to treat customers better than either company did individually. Both typically rank low for customer service in Consumer Reports' annual satisfaction surveys. In fact, the merger could have resulted in higher prices and fewer choices, as well as continued poor service.

    Comcast already owns extensive programming through its previous merger with NBC Universal, as well as regional sports networks and other video content. This proposed merger would have given Comcast more control than ever over key programming, along with the pipes to deliver those programs—and the growing amount of Internet-delivered content—into American homes. That market dominance would have made it difficult for newer Internet companies and services to compete.

    However, over the past few days, there's been growing speculation that the deal wasn't going to receive regulatory approval. Both the FCC and the U.S Justice department seemed to be leaning toward opposing the deal, with the FCC requesting a special administrative hearing on the merger and the Justice Department rumored to be recommending that the government sue to stop the deal.

    The next question for regulators will be whether or not to approve AT&T's proposed acquisition of satellite TV service provider DirecTV, the country's second-largest pay TV service. AT&T contends that the cost savings it would earn by adding DirecTV's customers would allow it to allocate more resources to expand its high-speed GigaPower fiber-optic broadband service. It would also allow it to offer DirecTV TV customers a TV/Internet bundle. AT&T covers about 17 percent of the broadband market, and DirecTV doesn't offer Internet service directly.

    Once there's official confirmation from Comcast that it's no longer pursuing the Time Warner merger, we imagine that Consumers Union, our advocacy arm, will have a statement. Keep checking back for updates.

    —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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    Pick the best riding mower for your property

    Riding mowers are the way to mow for lawns of a certain size, typically one-half acre or more. If your property is even more princely, you may want to consider a tractor with a wider cutting deck. And if you need to cut around trees and other landscaping features, consider a zero-turn-radius rider, which has a fun factor not usually found in mowers. Consumer Reports tested 66 tractors and riders and here are the best from our tests.

    Top tractors

    Lower-priced on average than zero-turn-radius riders for properties larger than a half-acre, tractors are the better bet for bagging clippings—and they’re easier on turf and more stable on hills. Top scores and high-quality features make the John Deere X300, $3,000, well worth its price. For $800 less, the Craftsman 20442, $2,200, a CR Best Buy, has a larger deck, mulched more evenly, and can turn more tightly. You might also like its 6½-mph ground speed. The Snapper NXT2346, $2,800, another CR Best Buy, offers impressive cutting across the board and a dashboard LED screen with an hour meter and timers for changing oil, filters, and more. The John Deere S240 Sport, $2,500, comes with an extra-wide, flat chute that, for side-discharging, shows some improvement in dispersal of clippings over older Deere tractors; it’s also priced more competitively.

    Top wider-deck tractors

    Wider-deck lawn tractors haven’t fared as well at cutting evenness as their smaller siblings have, but this trio has changed the rules with exceptional cutting. The Craftsman 20445, $3,000, has the largest deck, at 54 inches, and offers tight turning around trees and other obstacles. A bargain for 50-inch cutting, the Troy-Bilt Super Bronco XP 13WQA2KQ, $1,900, a CR Best Buy, matched the Crafstman for cutting and offers the same electric power takeoff, dashboard, and other features. The John Deere D155, $2,200, is slightly smaller, with a 48-inch deck, but offers impressive cutting in all modes.

    Top zero-turn-radius riders

    Zero-turn-radius riders offer the greatest ground speed—though you should be mowing at about 4 mph—and easy turning around obstacles on fairly flat lawns. We’ve called the 42-inch deck of theTroy-Bilt Mustang 17WFCACS, $2,300, a CR Best Buy, the ultimate in cutting performance, and the 46-inch Troy-Bilt Mustang Pivot 17ARCBDTT, $2,900, another CR Best Buy follows that tradition—making both the highest-scoring riding machines overall. (Cub Cadet, from the same manufacturer, has a high repair rate in our survey, which has kept the brand off our list of picks for lawn tractors and zero-turn-radius riders.) For more stability on hills, The Troy-Bilt Mustang Pivot and Toro SW4200 74784, $3,000, have a steering wheel and steerable front wheels instead of the usual control levers and caster-style front wheels, an innovation we first saw in the Cub Cadet RZT-S Zero, $4,000, Cub Cadet Z Force S46 17AF5BHH, $3,600, and the Cub Cadet RZT-s 17WF2BDT, $3,000.

    —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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    Garage Gurus expands training for independent mechanics

    What are Danny “The Count" Koker, star of History channel’s “Counting Cars,” and financier supreme Carl Icahn doing in the same room?

    They recently headlined the grand opening of the latest Garage Gurus training center—part of the nationwide technical education network established by Federal-Mogul Motorparts to help vehicle repair professionals keep pace with the latest automotive technologies. While these centers, and competing training programs, target career professionals, their online innovations remind of the great resources available to DIY’ers of all skill levels.

    "Garage Gurus brings much-needed focus to the talented, hardworking professionals who help keep millions of consumers safe and secure behind the wheel," said Federal-Mogul Motorparts CEO Dan Ninivaggi at the kick-off event. The training is a combination of 100 onsite, online, and on-demand courses taught by more than 100 ASE-certified “Gurus” in English and Spanish. They even have Web-connected “Gurus-On-The-Go” product technology vans that travel to independent repair shops for onsite training on the latest repair parts and technologies. Garage Gurus plan to have 15 training centers open around the United States to support the 220,000 automotive repair businesses. They currently have them in Chicago, Los Angeles, and now the Bronx.

    Back to the original question: Mr. Icahn owns an 82 percent stake in Federal Mogul, which is why he was at the grand opening. The Count was invited to provide some celebrity buzz; he is a self-taught mechanic who has a Las Vegas based restoration and customization business. Koker believes in real jobs for real people, and his own custom shop has 48 people on staff with various automotive skills.  

    What does this all mean to you the consumer? CR subscribers have consistently found that independent repair shops outscored dealership service for overall satisfaction, price, quality, courteousness of the staff, and work being completed when promised. With few exceptions, the entire list of independent shops by brand specialty got high marks on those factors. In order to compete with dealerships, independents need to receive ongoing education in the latest procedures and technologies. And this program is one more tool for doing so.

    While Garage Gurus advises that some classes are available to non-professionals, the education is targeting experienced wrenches.

    But there are also great online resources for the average driver to learn more about maintaining and fixing their car. The car repair encyclopedia and repair estimator at ConsumerReports.org/carrepair is a free, easy-to-use way to learn more about car systems and even get estimates from local shops on common work.

    Another valuable tool is YouTube, where you can find all manner of videos covering common problems and solutions. Watching such videos can make you better equipped to understand issues and communicate with your local shop. In some cases, these videos can even show you how to do some basic work yourself, such as replace filters or headlights.

    Car education for consumers and professionals is good thing, especially when it is convenient and affordable.

    Rich Handel

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

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    Consumer Reports Finds Potentially Harmful Bacteria and Illegal Antibiotic Residues in Tests of Frozen Shrimp

    Findings raise public health concerns especially with imported, farmed shrimp; FDA needs to step up inspection at U.S. ports and overseas shrimp farms

    Consumer Reports recommends buying responsibly-caught U.S. wild shrimp when possible

    CR June 2015 CoverYONKERS, NY — Shrimp has surpassed tuna in popularity, with each American consuming almost 4 pounds of it on average per year.  However, if shrimp isn’t raised, caught, and handled properly, this popular seafood item can pose some potential risks to consumers and the environment.

    Consumer Reports recently tested 342 samples of frozen shrimp – 284 raw and 58 cooked – and found bacteria that can potentially make a consumer sick and illegal antibiotic residues that raise some cause for concern. The shrimp samples were purchased at large chain supermarkets, big-box stores, and “natural” food stores in 27 cities across the U.S. They were tested for bacteria including salmonella, vibrio, staphylococcus aureus, E. coli, and listeria.

    Consumer Reports found one or more types of bacteria on 60 percent of the raw samples. And, seven samples of raw shrimp tested positive for MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), a concerning antibiotic-resistant bacterium, likely occurring from processing or handling, which can cause serious skin and blood infections that are often difficult to treat.

    In eleven samples of raw imported farmed shrimp, illegal antibiotic residues were detected in Consumer Reports’ tests. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved the use of any antibiotics in shrimp farming, and told Consumer Reports that if those drugs had been detected in even one sample of imported shrimp, the entire shipment would have been refused entry into the U.S.

    While the antibiotic residues found on the shrimp Consumer Reports tested do not pose an acute health risk for an individual consumer, these findings raise concerns about the overuse of antibiotics in shrimp production. The overuse of these drugs can ultimately lead to bacteria becoming resistant to them and these antibiotics may no longer work to treat common human ailments.

    The FDA is responsible for inspecting shrimp coming into the U.S. to make sure it doesn’t contain any drugs or chemicals that aren’t permitted in imported shrimp. About 94 percent of America’s shrimp is imported, but in 2014, the FDA examined only 3.7 percent of foreign shrimp shipments, and tested only 0.7 percent, raising concern about the level of inspection at U.S. ports.

    “It’s important to consider how the shrimp you’re buying was raised, and how and where it was caught,” said Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., Executive Director of Consumer Reports' Food Safety and Sustainability Center. “There are plenty of choices available that are both healthy for consumers and good from an environmentally sustainable standpoint.  The use of antibiotics is particularly concerning as overuse can lead to the rise of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can’t be easily controlled.”

    The full article, “How Safe Is Your Shrimp?” is featured in the June 2015 issue of Consumer Reports and at www.ConsumerReports.org

    What the Government Should Do

    Consumer Reports is urging the FDA to take a closer look at its practices and policies related to shrimp imports. To keep consumers safe, Congress should increase the FDA's inadequate food safety funding, and Consumer Reports believes the agency should do the following:

    • Significantly step up inspection programs at U.S. ports and at overseas shrimp farms and processing plants that supply shrimp.

    • Increase testing of imported shrimp for antibiotics and ensure that they are able to detect them at the lowest levels that modern technology allows.

    • Add vibrio to the list of bacteria the FDA tests for in shrimp.  And, put measures in place to help producers control vibrio contamination, both at shrimp farms and at processing plants that shell, devein, and package shrimp.  Freezing is thought to kill vibrio, but 28 percent of the uncooked frozen shrimp samples Consumer Reports tested contained the bacteria.

    • Reject all shrimp imports that test positive for MRSA.

    Smart Shrimp Shopping

    While farmed shrimp can be less expensive than wild shrimp caught in the ocean, Consumer Reports tests suggest that wild shrimp from U.S. waters may be worth the higher price.  Of all the shrimp tested, wild shrimp were among the least likely to harbor any kind of bacteria or contain chemicals.  When it comes to safety and sustainability, responsibly-caught U.S. wild shrimp is Consumer Reports’ top choice. Below are some other things consumers should consider when shopping for shrimp:

    • When buying wild shrimp, look for those listed as “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” at seafoodwatch.org or certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, an organization that ensures shrimpers are fishing responsibly.

    • When buying farmed shrimp, look for those with these certifications: Naturland, Aquaculture Stewardship Council, or Whole Foods Market Responsibly Farmed.

    • Be wary of shrimp marketed as “organic.” No organic standards exist for shrimp, or for any seafood, in the U.S.  There are also no standards or regulations for the terms “Natural,” “Environmentally Aware,” and “Chemical-free.”

    • While there is no foolproof way to ensure consumers won’t get sick from bacteria on shrimp, proper handling, storage, and cooking can reduce risk.  Cooking shrimp should kill the bacteria.   Though buying cooked shrimp may be convenient, it doesn’t guarantee safety.

    The full report on shrimp also includes safe prep tips, the lowdown on labels, and more and is available in Consumer Reports June 2015 issue and at www.ConsumerReports.org.

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

    Funding for this project was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Any views expressed are those of Consumer Reports and its advocacy arm, Consumers Union, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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    The Apple Watch launches—and our labs tests begin

    Pre-order sales of the Apple Watch have reportedly been between 1 million and 2.3 million—the first of those devices are arriving to customers today. We've seen the device twice now at launch events, but when it comes to testing, we make sure to buy our devices just like regular consumers. We've got eight of the devices coming into our labs, split between the entry-level aluminum Apple Watch Sport models and the pricier stainless-steel Apple Watch models (sorry, folks, we decided not to spring for the $10,000-plus gold Apple Watch Edition).

    We've been testing a bunch of smartwatches of late, and we're expecting to post ratings on several models (including the Motorola Moto 360, Pebble Steel, and Samsung Gear S) next week. We test durability (scratch resistance, water resistance), health and fitness features (step count, heart-rate monitoring), and usability (readability in bright and low light, user-interface navigation), as well as other factors. Because we know interest in the Apple Watch is high, we're working hard to get results fast on these devices. We hope to have our first results as soon as this evening, so stay tuned.

    —Glenn Derene

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

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