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    How much sunscreen do I need?

    When you wear sunscreen, you want to make sure you wear enough to get the most protection. You often hear that you should use a shot glass full for your entire body, but what if you aren’t in a bathing suit?

    One rule of thumb is a teaspoon per body part or area: 1 teaspoon for your face, head, and neck; 1 for each arm; 1 for each leg; 1 for your chest and abdomen, and 1 for your back and the back of your neck. Regardless of which SPF you use, apply it 15 to 30 minutes before going outside to allow it to adhere to skin, then reapply at least every 2 hours—more often if you’re swimming or sweating excessively.

    Get the latest sun protection advice from Consumer Reports and read our new report, "5 Things You Must Know About Sunscreen."

    While we’re on the topic of reapplication, note that doing so after you’ve exceeded a sunscreen’s approximate maximum protection time doesn’t allow you to stay in the sun longer—that can lead to burning. So if you normally burn in 20 minutes when you don't wear sunscreen and have already been using an SPF 15 sunscreen for 5 hours, your best choice is not to reapply it but to head for the shade.

    This article also appeared in the July 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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    5 things you must know about sunscreen

     

    In a perfect world sunscreen would glide smoothly onto your skin, imperceptibly and safely providing all of the protection you need until you wash it off. The reality, as we all know, is far different: Sunscreen often drips into eyes, feels greasy, irritates skin, and stains clothing. Worse, as our tests this year and in the past have shown, sunscreens don’t always shield your skin as well as their labels claim. People like to think they can trust particular brands or ingredients, but that’s not always the case.

    We measured SPF (sun protection factor) in nearly three dozen sunscreens by applying different products to panelists’ backs and having them soak in a large tub of water for the amount of time the sunscreens were claimed to be water-resistant (either 40 or 80 minutes). When the panelists got out of the water, we exposed their sunscreen-coated skin to ultraviolet (UV) light. The result: Almost a third of the products tested fell short of the SPF claim on their labels. We also found reasons to be concerned about claims of broad-spectrum protection and of “natural” sunscreens.

    But not all of the news is bad. This year, we found nonsticky, nonstinky products that also do a great job of protecting your skin, many of them at affordable prices. So when you’re struggling to choose from a huge selection (more than 1,000 lotions, sprays, foams, and gels are on the market), look for our recommended products and keep these five facts in mind.

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

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

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    Consumer Reports Latest Sunscreen Tests Find Eleven Products That Didn't Meet Their SPF Claims

    Results reveal many provide excellent protection from UVA & UVB rays, some at a low cost; Natural sunscreens don’t work all that well according to CR’s tests

    CR July 2015 CoverYONKERS, NY – When shopping for sunscreen, SPF (sun protection factor) is usually an important feature for consumers.  Consumer Reports recently tested 34 sunscreens and found almost a third of them didn’t meet the SPF claim on their labels, missing the mark by anywhere from 16 to 70 percent.

    But there’s good news too: many of the sunscreens Consumer Reports tested met their SPF claims and some of the most effective products were also the lowest-priced.  Coppertone Water Babies SPF 50 lotion, $10.50 (8 ounces), Equate (Walmart) Ultra Protection SPF 50 lotion, $9 (16 ounces), and Banana Boat SunComfort Continuous Spray SPF 50+, $11 (6 ounces), all delivered top-notch protection and met their SPF claims.  Consumer Reports’ highest-rated sunscreen, La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-in Sunscreen Milk (SPF 60), received a perfect score of 100 but cost the most of those tested - $36 for a 5-ounce bottle.  

    The full report, which also features proper sunscreen-applications tips, complete product Ratings, and more, is available in the July 2015 issue of Consumer Reports and at www.ConsumerReports.org.

    SPF is a relative measure of how long a sunscreen will protect a consumer from UVB rays which can cause sunburn and contribute to damage that can lead to skin cancer.  Most dermatologists and other experts recommend using a sunscreen that delivers an SPF of 30 or higher, which blocks 97 percent or more of the sun’s UVB rays.

    Consumer Reports found that eight of the eleven sunscreens that didn’t meet their SPF claims had an SPF below 30. For example, Yes To Cucumbers Natural SPF 30 had an average SPF of just 14.  Sunscreens from Babyganics, Banana Boat, CVS, EltaMD, Hawaiian Tropic, Walgreens, and Vanicream also had SPF levels below their claims and less than SPF 30.

    “The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires sunscreen manufacturers to test their products and label them correctly,” said Trisha Calvo, Health and Food Deputy Content Editor for Consumer Reports.   “Our findings are troubling because consumers may not be getting the amount of SPF protection they think they’re getting. On top of that, people often do not apply the right amount of sunscreen, fail to reapply it frequently enough, and don’t minimize their sun exposure, which could potentially put them at risk for overexposure to the sun’s rays.”

    Consumer Reports measured SPF levels in the sunscreen samples by applying different products to panelists’ backs and having them soak in a large tub of water for the amount of time the products claimed to be water-resistant.  When the panelists got out of the water, their sunscreen-coated skin was exposed to ultraviolet light.

    Although they didn’t meet their SPF claims, three sunscreens still had an SPF higher than 30 and are worth considering: Coppertone UltraGuard SPF 70+ tested as an SPF 59, Coppertone ClearlySheer for Beach & Pool SPF 50+ tested as an SPF 37, and Banana Boat Sport Performance with Powerstay Technology SPF 100 tested as an SPF 36.

    Aloe Gator SPF 40+ landed at the bottom Consumer Reports’ sunscreen Ratings. While it rated excellent for UVB protection that would suppress burning, it earned poor marks for protection against UVA rays, which are constantly present during the day no matter the season and are potentially a more insidious threat to health than UVB rays because they penetrate deeply into the skin.  

    Natural Sunscreens

    Though “natural” has no real definition on a sunscreen label, the term is often used to refer to products that contain only the minerals zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as active ingredients.  Mineral sunscreens are less likely than those that contain chemicals (such as avobenzone) to irritate skin or cause allergic reactions.  

    Consumer Reports has found that these so-called naturals are also less likely to offer skin the complete protection it needs. Out of the five mineral sunscreens tested, only two met their SPF claims.  California Baby Super Sensitive SPF 30+, $20 (2.9 ounces), didn’t receive high enough scores to be recommended, but it was the only mineral sunscreen that got a good rating for UVA and UVB protection; titanium dioxide is the active ingredient.  Goddess Garden Organics Sunny Body Natural 30 also met its SPF claim, but didn’t earn high scores for UVA protection.

    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.

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    Natural mosquito repellents don't do the job

    Natural mosquito repellent sprays made with plant oils, such as citronella, lemongrass, and rosemary, often have labels that talk a good game, with claims such as “proven effective” or “repels mosquitoes for hours.” But don’t believe it.

    Unlike insect repellents with chemically synthesized ingredients (including picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus), plant-oil products are exempt from scrutiny by the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s because the EPA considers them “minimum risk.”

    But none of those natural mosquito repellent products we tested lasted more than 1 hour against aedes mosquitoes, aggressive biters that can transmit chikungunya virus, and some failed almost immediately. In addition, the names of two products—Babyganics Natural  and EcoSmart Organic—imply that they’re organic. But neither contains certified organic ingredients or bears the Department of Agriculture organic seal.

    Find out how to win your battle with bug bites, and find safer insect repellents that did best in our tests. 

    Wristbands are a bust

    They’re marketed as being safer, because you don’t have to rub anything into your skin. But when our testers stuck their arms into a cageful of mosquitoes while wearing one of two wristbands—the Coleman Naturals Insect Repellent Snap Band (containing citronella oil) or the Super Band Wristband (containing geraniol oil)—the bugs started biting immediately. Given those results, we’ve rated them as poor performers and recommend that you skip them.

    In February the Federal Trade Commission charged another maker of repellent wristbands, Viatek, with deceptive marketing of its Mosquito Shield Bands,  which the FTC says contain mint oil. The company’s claim that the bands protect against mosquitoes wasn’t backed up with scientific evidence, the FTC says. The case will be decided by a U.S. District Court; the FTC is seeking penalties and consumer refunds.

    This article also appeared in the July 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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  • 05/14/15--05:59: The deal with Skin So Soft
  • The deal with Skin So Soft

    How did a bath oil develop a reputation as an insect repellent? Avon’s Skin So Soft makes no repellent claims, and its ingredients—mineral oil and emollients—are purely cosmetic. But because it had so many fans, Consumer Reports tested the pump spray—in 1993—and found that it did not fend off mosquitoes at all.

    Other Skin So Soft products are now marketed as repellents. One, Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus IR3535 Expedition, combines an insect repellent with sunscreen. But we think such products are a bad idea: Sunscreens should be applied liberally and often, so the combo could lead to unnecessarily high doses of the repellent.

    We haven’t yet tested Avon’s stand-alone repellent, Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus Picaridin, but we plan to include it in our next round of testing. That product contains just 10 percent picaridin. In our tests of similar products, the two with 20 percent picaridin performed very well, and the one with 5 percent didn’t.

    Find out what really works against bug bites, and learn how to get a pest-free backyard.

    This article also appeared in the July 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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    The best vacuum cleaners for carpets and rugs

    A wall-to-wall carpet can be easy to clean and maintain if you have the right vacuum. Rugs are a different story. Some are antiques and no match for the rough brushes of modern vacuums. Other types of rugs may not need vacuuming at all if they’re small enough to take outside and shake. Here are some cleaning tips from the experts at Consumer Reports as well as vacuums that aced our carpet cleaning tests.

    Oriental rugs

    Because these rugs are generally handmade, are frequently old, and may not be colorfast, they need special care. The rotating brush of a newer upright vacuum cleaner is too harsh, so use a canister cleaner or an upright vacuum with a beater bar (not found on newer models). To prevent the fringe along the edges from being sucked up, cover the attachment nozzle with an old nylon stocking. If the rug is small enough, take it outside, hang it on a clothesline, and dust it with a soft brush. Because gritty dirt abrades a rug’s backing, vacuum the back of the rug occasionally. Remove grease stains with a dry spot cleaner, testing first in an inconspicuous place. Every one to three years, depending on your household traffic, hire a professional to clean the rug.

    Pile rugs

    Wool pile rugs should generally be wet-cleaned; silk-pile rugs generally should be dry-cleaned; and rugs with rayon pile must be dry-cleaned exclusively. Rub a damp white cloth over dark portions to check colorfastness. If color comes off on the cloth, the rug will bleed during cleaning.

    Flat-woven rugs (dhurrie, kilim, Navajo, and rag)

    Vacuum regularly. If the rug is small enough, take it outside and shake it, or hang it over a clothesline and brush it with a soft brush. Check the label for care instructions before washing, shampooing, or dry cleaning. Such rugs can often be washed by hand or machine.

    Shag

    For shag or other high-pile carpets, use a canister vacuum or an upright model with a beater bar. An upright vacuum cleaner with a rotating brush can damage shag or become entangled in loop or pile carpeting.

    Jute

    Vacuum periodically. Blot liquid spills immediately with a clean white cloth, working from the edges of the spill in toward the center. To remove stains, saturate the area with a mild detergent solution or white vinegar, and then blot up immediately with a clean white cloth. Do not rub, which will damage the fibers. Test on an inconspicuous area first.

    Sisal, coir, rush, and split-cane rugs

    Vacuum regularly to remove dirt and debris caught between the fiber and the backing. For spills, first blot, then apply an absorbent dry powder. Check with the manufacturer for the best way to shampoo or dry-clean. For sisal or coconut mats, shake to remove dirt and dust, vacuum both sides, and occasionally take them outside and sponge them with warm soapy water. Rinse, air dry thoroughly.

    Best vacuums for carpets (by type)

    Cleaning carpet is an important factor in Consumer Reports’ vacuum tests. Here are the best performers by type for carpet cleaning. Keep in mind that some rugs need special care.

    For more choices see our full vacuum Ratings and recommendations.

    --Adapted from: Consumer Reports' How to Cean (Practically) Anything

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

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  • 05/14/15--11:59: Test driving Android Auto
  • Test driving Android Auto

    Now that we’ve been living with Android Auto for a month or so, we can report that it’s a good thing. Sort of.

    While Android Auto promises to reduce driver distraction by integrating your phone with the car’s controls and center screen, the system is not as seamless as we’d like. And we’ve experienced a glitch or two along the way while using our Pioneer AVH-4100NEX stereo.

    Like Apple CarPlay for iOS devices, Android Auto lets you access certain phone functions using the car’s touch screen, voice, and steering wheel controls, including navigation, calls, texts, and music. (Read: Installing Apple CarPlay and taking it for spin.)

    Overall, Android Auto works well, with excellent voice controls that use natural speech. It’s easy to make and receive calls using your voice, and it is even simple to compose or listen to text messages. Entering an address is just as easy, and Google navigation and traffic info is among the best. Voice controls aside, the onscreen buttons and menus are large, easy to read, and simple to use.    

    The problem is, Android Auto operates in its own little universe. If you want to switch from listening to music on Spotify to FM or XM, for example, you have to exit Android Auto. And it takes several steps to back out of the Android environment.

    While none of this is a huge deal, it can be annoying. But if you never leave the realm of your phone, you’ll probably like Android Auto just fine, so long as your phone uses the new Lollipop operating system. Older phones aren’t compatible.  

    Like CarPlay, Android Auto is set to roll out on a wide variety of new models soon. Virtually all carmakers have said they will offer both platforms. We’re eager to see how well automakers are able to integrate them into their vehicles.

    Jim Travers

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

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    Where to invest your emergency savings

    Something that pays zero percent interest may not seem a good deal, but Series I bonds, a type of Federal savings bond for individual investors, can sometimes be a peculiar exception.

    This month, the Treasury department kept the interest rate of I bonds at 0 percent, the same level as in the previous 12 months. Over the past six months, owners of the November 2014 I bonds earned no interest on their I bonds.

    But don't click the back button yet: There's the potential for some real upside for I Bonds over the next six months. The CPI is virtually guaranteed to rise signifcantly between now and November 2015, as gasoline prices rebound from $2 per gallon lows this winter.

    I bonds pay two types of interest to their owners. One is a fixed rate that the Treasury Department announces every May and November. In addition, all I bonds are also indexed to inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index (specifically, the Consumer Price Index for all Urban Consumers, or CPI-U). If the CPI is greater than zero, the bond owner also receives that percentage increase as interest. The total interest the bond owner receives is a combination of both rates. So although November 2014 I bond owners got a bit of a raw deal this May, they, as well as all other I bond owners, may be rewarded as the CPI index goes up. 

    http://www.bankrate.com/calculators/savings/emergency-savings-calculator-tool.aspx
    http://www.bankrate.com/calculators/savings/emergency-savings-calculator-tool.aspx

    Find out more about different strategies to amass cash for emergencies.

    Individuals are limited to purchasing no more than $10,000 in I bonds each calendar year, so you may not be able to park your entire savings in them. But that limit is more than sufficient for the emergency savings needs of many households. In the event you need to redeem the I bonds before 5 years of purchase, you lose only 3 months of interest.

    Another advantage of I bonds is that any interest paid are free from state taxes. (And if you use the proceeds for qualified education expenses, they can be free from Federal tax as well). The only way to receive I bonds in the old-fashioned paper form is by purchasing them with your Federal tax refund. Otherwise, you'll need to set up a TreasuryDirect account to keep tabs on your balance and savings bond values.

    -—Chris Horymski

    Individuals are limited to purchasing no more than $10,000 in I bonds each calendar year, so you may not be able to park your entire savings there. But that limit is more than sufficient for the emergency savings needs of most households. In the event you need to redeem the I bonds before 5 years of purchase, you forfeit 3 months of interest.
    Individuals are limited to purchasing no more than $10,000 in I bonds each calendar year, so you may not be able to park your entire savings there. But that limit is more than sufficient for the emergency savings needs of most households. In the event you need to redeem the I bonds before 5 years of purchase, you forfeit 3 months of interest.

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

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    Easy remedies for three common pet messes

    When you share your home with a cat or dog you have to be prepared to take the good with the bad.  Sure they’re good company but they can also do some damage to your house and yard. Fortunately, there are some quick and easy fixes for some of the most common problems, leaving you time to walk the dog or cuddle the cat.

    Stains on a rug

    If your area rug is made of nylon or wool and the problem is a cat that often pees in the same spot, your best bet is an enzyme-based pet stain and odor remover such as Nature’s Miracle or Brampton’s Simple Solution. Check the instructions and test a small area first. A 4- to 6-inch stain will spread into the back of the rug and pad below, so the area is really about 2 feet in diameter.

    For any pet stain, wet the entire area with the enzyme pet-stain remover, including the back of the rug and the pad. (Try to put a plastic sheet under it first.) Be sure to follow the directions on the container for drying the area; they often say to let the product dry for a day or more while the enzymes work on the urine residue. If all has gone well, the urine smell and residue will be gone, but you might still have a stain on your rug. If that’s the case, try blotting the area with a mixture of one-third cup white vinegar and two-thirds cup water. That doesn’t always work, but it’s definitely worth trying.

    Stains on carpeting are harder to deal with because you can’t get at the pad easily. And excess cleaner can damage the floor beneath. In that case, you may need a professional carpet cleaner.

    Skunk odor

    To deodorize the coat of a dog or cat that has been sprayed by a skunk, try the following: In a large, open container, mix a quart of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide from a fresh bottle, 1⁄4 cup of baking soda, and 1 teaspoon of liquid soap (be sure your container is large—the mixture can produce a great deal of foam). Then work the mixture into the animal’s fur, making sure to keep it out of the eyes—the mixture is nontoxic, but the salt from the baking soda will sting. Let it sit until the odor has abated and then rinse thoroughly. Repeat if necessary.

    Brown spots on the lawn

    The dog did it. That’s right, if you have a dog, you can blame those brown spots of grass on the nitrogen in its urine. Sometimes the spots can grow large enough to require reseeding. And despite a cottage industry of dietary supplements for dogs designed to neutralize nitrogen and prevent burns, turf experts say the surest way to eliminate them is to pour a bucket of water onto the urine right after your dog goes. That takes vigilance, not to mention it's a waste of water.

    A better, perhaps more challenging solution is to train your dog to go in a designated area of the yard. You’ll have more luck if you start when your pooch is a puppy. Providing a marking post, such as a bird bath or lawn ornament, might help. And ask your vet if changing the dog’s diet or giving it more water can help dilute the urine before it hits the lawn, for example by using canned food or moistening dry food with water.

    --Adapted from Consumer Reports' "How to Clean (Practically) Anything"  with reporting from lawn care experts

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

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    Biking to work with a safety vest is a smart move

    Before you set out today on National Bike to Work Day, you'll probably make sure your bicycle has enough air in its tires. And of course, you'll strap on a bike helmet to protect your head. But what should you do to make sure drivers can spot you if you ride when it's dark out?

    Reflective gear, such as safety vests, jackets, and accessories, can save cyclists’ lives if they make riders stand out at night. Our testers looked at 11 reflective garments and accessories along with a dark shirt used as a control. The mission: to judge how well each could be seen in headlights after dark at 300 feet, the stopping distance for a car going 60 mph in normal road conditions.

    Our panelists dressed up mannequins and staffers, then parked in a car with the headlights on 300 feet away. The bright yellow Uline safety vest, $15 (top), though not so fashionable, popped the most. The Sugoi Zap Versa fluorescent bike jacket, $159 (right), was also easy to spot. Both the Gore Windstopper Soft Shell jacket, $180, and Eastern Mountain Sports Velo bike jersey, $55, could be seen easily from the back, thanks to big reflective elements, but less so from the front.

    The Betabrand reflective plaid commuter shirt, $59, was the least visible at 300 feet. Reflective and lit wrist and ankle bands had good visibility. The SlapLit, $10 (right), goes into flashing mode with the push of a button. Wearing one of those accessories alone limits reflectivity to one small area of your body, so we suggest wearing one with a reflective jacket, vest, or shirt for an extra measure of safety.

    —Sue Byrne

    Check our bike helmet Ratings and find out how to properly fit your bike helmet.

    This article also appeared in the June 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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  • 05/15/15--02:59: What does SPF stand for?
  • What does SPF stand for?

    SPF (sun protection factor) is a relative measure of how long a sunscreen will protect you from ultraviolet (UV) B rays. The chief cause of reddening and sunburn, UVB rays tend to damage the epidermis, skin’s outer layers, where the most common (and least dangerous) forms of skin cancer occur. Those cancers are linked to sun-accumulation over the years. Another type of skin cancer, melanoma, is thought to be caused by brief, intense exposures, such as a blistering sunburn.

    Assuming you use it correctly, if you’d burn after 20 minutes in the sun, an SPF 30 sunscreen protects for about 10 hours. But intensity and wavelength distribution of UVB rays vary throughout the day and by location. And that calculation does not apply to UVA rays.

    UVA rays are long enough to reach skin’s dermal layer, damaging collagen and elastic tissue. That layer is also where the cells that stimulate skin darkening are found; that’s why UVA rays are considered the dominant tanning rays. (UVA rays are also used in tanning beds.) Though many people still think a tan looks healthy, it’s actually a sign of DNA damage—the skin darkens in an imperfect attempt to prevent the further injury, which can lead to the cell mutations that trigger skin cancer.

    Get more of your sun protection questions answered in our guide, Stay Safe in the Sun.

    To get the most protection, you want a broad spectrum sunscreen—these protect against UVB and UVA rays. But it's important to note that no sunscreen blocks 100 percent of UVB rays, and ultrahigh SPFs are not much more protective than SPFs of 30 or 50. SPF 15 blocks 93 percent of UVB rays. SPF 30 blocks 97 percent. The increase in protection is even more gradual after that, 98 percent for SPF 50 and 99 percent for SPF 100. Sunscreen should be just one of the sun protection strategies you use to protect your skin—you also need to cover up with clothing and a hat, seek the shade, and try to stay out of the sun during peak hours 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.

    This article also appeared in the July 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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    Why hot stocks may not be so hot after all

    During the boom in tech stocks 15 years ago, Jeremy Siegel, the finance professor and best-selling author, pointed out that “whenever companies, no matter how great, get priced above 50 to 60 times earnings, buyer beware.” In other words, when a stock price rises far beyond any reasonable measure of what the underlying business can generate in profits, a bubble is brewing. And it’s only a matter of time before it pops.

    Hot stocks—be they the latest overhyped initial public offering (IPO) or the big gainer of the month—are prime examples of what Siegel is talking about. Sure, everyone wants to be in on the next big thing. But for a variety of reasons—most notably the risk of buying into overvalued stocks—retail investors should just stay away.

    The odds of suffering a loss are already high enough when investing in individual stocks. Take the total stock market. Pick a random stock. The probability of losing money on that investment is almost 50 percent, according to an analysis by Thomas E. Berghage, author of “Stock Analysis in the Twenty-First Century and Beyond” (Xlibris, 2014). According to another study of stock performance from 1970 to 2010 by Jay Ritter, a professor at the University of Florida, IPO stocks lagged similar but established stocks by 4.8 percent in the first year after the IPO and by just over 8 percent in the second year. In the first five years, they underperformed similar stocks by 3.3 percent.

    The reasons for that underperformance have to do with how quickly many stocks initially rise after an IPO, and investor psychology. Chasing the next big thing sounds great, except that other investors are chasing it, too. That demand can drive up prices into the danger territory, Siegel warns. Rising prices can also lead to a vicious cycle. Investors see the price gains and chase those returns. That increased demand drives prices higher still, enticing more investors.

    The phenomenon can be explained by one of the most famous market bubbles of all time­—the Dutch Tulip Bubble, which took place in the 1600s. It was recognized at the time that prices for tulip bulbs had become divorced from their inherent value as speculators—not collectors—became the primary source of demand. As prices rose, more and more speculators wanted to get in on the action, which pushed prices ever higher until they crashed, leaving many people in financial ruin.

    Indeed, if you follow the money, you’ll see that the greatest amounts enter a market bubble close to the top. In the dot-com bubble, monthly net cash flows into equities peaked at about $35 billion soon before the tech-heavy Nasdaq peaked out.

    From fund flow data to surveys of investor sentiment to personal accounts, there’s an abundance of empirical and anecdotal evidence showing that investors have a tendency to buy at high prices.

    That’s especially true when it comes to hot IPOs because they garner so much media attention. According to a study last year in The Journal of Finance, “The Long-Run Performance of Initial Public Offerings,” people tend to overpay for stocks they read about in the news.

    And because those hot stocks are in the news and overpriced, the same study found that three years after an IPO, most new companies are underperforming their closest competitors.

    When you overpay for a stock, by definition you are consigning yourself to disappointing returns. That’s because valuation reverts to the mean over time. A good example of that is Microsoft (ticker: MSFT). The software giant’s valuation peaked in 2001 when investors paid almost $60 per share (adjusted for stock splits), or about 43 times trailing earnings. After the tech bubble burst, Microsoft stock spent the next 10 years languishing, its stock pretty much stuck in the high $20s. The stock didn’t start rising again until Microsoft’s profits caught up to its valuation. (In May 2015 MSFT was selling for about $47 per share, or about 18 times trailing earnings.)

    Have a look at today’s hot stocks and you’ll see many similar examples of prices at large multiples to earnings. Tesla Motors (ticker: TSLA), for example, has been one of the market’s hottest stocks for the past couple of years. It doesn’t have a trailing price-to-earnings ratio (P/E) because it doesn’t have any past profits. By estimated earnings, which are only a guess on the part of Wall Street analysts, it has a P/E of more than 50. Remember that at that level, Siegel warns, “buyer beware.”

    All you really need to know is this: Warren Buffett never, ever buys IPOs and fast-rising stocks. That’s because chasing them isn’t investing; it’s gambling. And when it comes to gambling, the house always wins. 

    This article also appeared in the May 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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    Why you should worry about health care identity theft

    Hackers, more and more, are targeting health care information. Medical identity thefts were up more than 20 percent between 2013 and 2014, according to the Ponemon Institute, which studies privacy, data protection, and information security. And almost 43 percent of breaches last year were health care related, according to the Identify Theft Resource Center. All that theft is costing millions of people time, money, and anguish—and may be putting their health at risk.

    While it’s easy to understand why hackers want your credit card and bank account numbers, you may wonder why cyberthieves want your personal health information, too. “One reason is that it’s a relatively new thing to steal,” says Ann Patterson, senior vice president at the health industry group Medical Identity Fraud Alliance. “With financial and retail theft, they’ve been there, done that,” she says. But the move over the past few years to digital health records has opened up “a new channel for fraudsters."

    In other cases, cyberthieves may target health data for political or personal purposes. “Hackers may seek to hurt the reputation of a health-related institution or create chaos and cause harm for activist reasons, known as ‘hacktivism,’” says Eric Perakslis, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Biomedical Informatics and the Francis A. Countway Library at Harvard Medical School.

    Of course, the main interest in health-related data has to do with money—often yours. Hackers like to steal medical information for several reasons:

    1. It’s valuable

    The breadth and type of information in your files at health insurers and health care providers—which can include Social Security numbers, security words such as a mother’s maiden name, your contact information, insurance ID numbers, and more—can help hackers rake in big bucks.

    “Health information is sold at a premium on the black market,” says Michelle De Mooy, deputy director of the Consumer Privacy Project at the nonprofit Center for Democracy & Technology. “There are some estimates that it goes for about $50 per record.” That compares with roughly $1 or less for U.S. credit card numbers, according to the World Privacy Forum. When you consider the numbers involved in the hack of health insurer Anthem reported this February, in which some 80 million customer records were breached, that can add up to big bucks.

    Hackers can use the information not only to perform old-school tricks like setting up credit cards in your name, but can also commit medical care fraud. For example, a thief can use your insurance information to obtain—and then sell—high-value medical items such as wheelchairs, to fraudulently get medical care, or simply to sell your data to someone else who wants to do the same.

    Find out how you can protect yourself from health care hackers and identity thieves see our extensive guide to Internet security for more safety tips and tactic.
     

    2. It’s easy to hide

    “Medical identity theft and fraud is much harder to spot than financial fraud,” De Mooy says. If a hacker grabs your credit information and tries to charge, say, an around-the-world airplane ticket, you’re likely to be alerted pretty quickly.

    If someone uses your information to get medical care, you may not know until odd charges show up on your explanation of benefits (EOB) statements from your health insurance company or invoices from health care providers. And if those statements or bills are mailed to the person who’s robbed your insurance, you may be in the dark for months. In fact, a February 2015 Ponemon Institute study of 1,005 victims of medical identity theft found that, it took them, on average, more than three months to find out they’d had their data stolen.

    Read how your gadgets are watching you and use these privacy tips for the Internet of Things.

    3. It stays valuable for a long time

    Health care information also has a longer shelf life on the black market than does financial information. “Unlike a bank account or credit card account that can be shut down the moment fraudulent activity is noticed, we can’t shut down our birthdate or Social Security number,” Patterson says.

    1. It can cost you a lot of money

    Not only can hackers access your financial accounts, but you may face some surprising—and significant—expenses. The Fair Credit Billing Act limits your financial liability to $50 if a credit card is stolen. But there’s no clarity on who covers fraudulent medical charges.

    For example, 65 percent of medical identity theft victims in the Ponemon study were forced to shell out money to resolve the issue. They spent, on average, $13,500, to pay insurers or health care providers for fraudulent care, to restore health insurance lost as a result of fraud, to pay lawyer’s fees to help them untangle the mess, or to cover fees for an identity protection service. Other financial problems identified by the study include the denial of legitimate insurance claims after fraudsters used up the identity theft victims’ benefits, and negative effects on credit scores.

    2. It can be very inconvenient

    Aside from financial difficulties, a wide and complex variety of issues can spring from medical identity theft. According to the Ponemon study, it took victims an average of more than 200 hours to re-secure their medical credentials. And there’s no straightforward process for reporting and resolving medical data theft problems.

    “With financial information, there is a streamlined system in place to get redress,” De Mooy says. “But with health records, who do you call? Your provider? Your insurance company? You have to call everybody. Financial institutions are incentivized to have a system, because, in most cases, they’re financially responsible for theft. It’s not like that in health care.”

    If someone fraudulently gets care for a condition you don’t have, for example, it can easily end up in your health records—which are quite difficult to change. “In health care, they don’t take anything out of your records,” Patterson says. “You can have a notation made to say that a particular surgery or prescription is a potential identity theft case. But often, the actual records never really get cleared up.”

    Even more worrisome is that privacy regulations, which typically vary from state to state, may prevent you from even determining what a criminal has done to your medical records. “In some cases, you may be told that you can’t see your medical records because they ‘belong’ to someone else—the identity thief,” Patterson says. “They don’t want to get sued by the identity thief for disclosing private information. So sometimes, to avoid legal stickiness, records are kept private from the victim, in order to protect the privacy rights of the thief.”

    3. It can harm your health

    The Ponemon study found that 10 percent of survey respondents experienced a misdiagnosis because of fraud-related errors in their medical records, and 11 percent experienced delays in treatment.

    For example, if a criminal’s blood type is added to your health records, you might, during a procedure, receive blood that is incompatible with yours—which can cause a life-threatening reaction. And if a fraudster’s medication allergies are placed in your record alongside your own drug allergies, that may slow essential treatment down as doctors try to untangle the information.

    Diane Umansky

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

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    The cars that a real Mad Max would drive

    In a dystopian future where oil is a rare, precious commodity and roads are constant war zones, a real Mad Max would turn to dependable, fuel-efficient cars, rather than a ratted-out Ford XB Falcon with a supercharged V8.

    The fourth installment in the film series, “Mad Max: Fury Road” promises exhilarating visuals, with wild machines seemingly born from the “Twisted Metal” PlayStation games. But access to such machinery untold years from now would depend on raiding museums, for the various hot rods and monster trucks depicted in the latest sequel. As such, they’d be buried, decayed dinosaurs. An extreme example is the gregarious Gigahorse (shown), made from two 1959 Cadillacs and powered by twin V8s. That’s a fierce combination. But finding a ’59 Cadillac in a dismal, dusty future without the benefit of a Barrett-Jackson auction is downright fanciful.

    There is appeal in the simplicity of carbureted cars featured in these films, as they are better suited to wilderness repairs than today’s delicate, computer-intense models. But a real-life road warrior would be selecting rides from among the most popular cars, focusing on those with excellent fuel economy, reliability, and parts availability. Automotive exotica need not apply.

    In other words, rather than seek a mechanical unicorn, like a Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat, a Max Rockatansky would more likely grab a Toyota Camry, finished with a patina of rust, dust, and desperation. For a performance advantage, perhaps an SE model with a V6 would be the smart renegade’s choice to outrun marauders. Or go for the best cruising range: the Camry Hybrid goes for 650 miles on a tankful of the precious petroleum (or "guzzoline" as the inhabitants of this dystopian future call it).

    To identify cars most likely to survive until oil-maggedon or some other apocalyptic event causing the world as we know it to go catawampus, we scoured the 1.1 million vehicles represented in our Annual Reader Survey to find the models that reached 200,000 miles or more the most often. (Learn how to get your car to 200,000 miles.)

    These cars are smart buys today, and they promise to be great rides tomorrow, with all but the Honda Pilot meeting the stringent criteria to be Consumer Reports recommended, factoring overall road test score, reliability, and safety. Of course, as any model crosses the 200,000-mile line or lies dormant in the desert for decades, concerns about the overall structural integrity and general wear to components can arise. There comes a time when trading in for a newer model is wise. (Read “Do You Really Need a New Car?”)

    Click through the model names for complete road tests, reliability, owner cost, and other key information. And print this article to add to your go bag, in case you need buying advice after an EMP destroys the Internet.

    Also read “Zombie Apocalypse Now: Best Car for Surviving World War Z.”

    Jeff Bartlett with Jim Travers

    Honda Accord sedan (4-cyl.)

    Base MSRP price range: $22,105 - $35,055

    A smooth, reliable powertrain and good fuel economy are good qualities in a car you’re going to keep for a while, and the Accord checks in with both. Add to that a relatively spacious, quiet interior and responsive handling, and it adds up to a winning formula for going the distance.

    Honda Civic (non-hybrid)

    Base MSRP price range: $18,290 - $29,390

    Like a good citizen, the compact Civic sedan goes about its business without complaint, rolling up the miles and staying out of trouble. A reliability champ, the Civic is also easy on gas and more fun to drive than some competitors. Stick with the basic gas four-cylinder for better reliability than the hybrid which had high incidence of hybrid battery problems with some model years.

    Honda CR-V

    Base MSRP price range: $23,445 - $32,895

    Combining compact exterior dimensions with a spacious interior, all-wheel-drive, decent fuel economy and an aversion to spending time in the shop or by the side of the road, the CR-V comes close to universal appeal. Lots of our readers like them enough to really rack up the miles.

    Honda Odyssey

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

    If you’ve got a crowd with places to go, there’s no better bet than the Odyssey. The cavernous and versatile interior has room for up to eight passengers and a whole lot of gear, several storage cubbies, and is very child seat friendly. Comfortable on the highway, the Odyssey gets bonus points for more responsive handling than you’d expect from a minivan.

    Honda Pilot

    Base MSRP price range: $29,870 - $41,620

    Another family favorite, the Pilot offers a spacious interior with room for eight, and the security of all-wheel drive. Second- and third-row seats fold into the floor for more cargo room, and the powertrain is as smooth as it is reliable. A redesigned Pilot arrives soon. If its track record is any indication, the new one should be up for going the distance.

    Toyota Camry

    Base MSRP price range: $22,970 - $31,370

    Spacious, quiet, and comfortable, the Camry is one of the most reliable sedans you can buy. It may not pack a lot of excitement, but it makes a nice place to be while the miles roll up. All powertrain choices are pretty bullet proof, but the four-cylinder Camry is the one most often past 200K, combining reliability with being the biggest selling car in America.

    Toyota Corolla

    Base MSRP price range: $16,950 - $22,955

    One of the longest-running nameplates in the business, the Corolla also makes an excellent choice for the long run. Its compact dimensions and good fuel economy make it an excellent choice for commuting, running errands, or road trips, and ironclad reliability means you won’t be seeing much of your mechanic.     

    Toyota Prius

    Base MSRP price range: $24,200 - $34,905

    With seating for five, hatchback versatility, rock-solid reliability, and an amazing 44-mpg overall in our tests, there’s a lot to like about the Prius. That’s why it’s a top-scorer in our Ratings, and a perennial favorite in our owner satisfaction surveys. And those owners like to drive them, with more examples on the far side of 200K than any other model in our survey.

    Toyota Sienna

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

    A traveling companion you can really rely on, the Sienna has plenty of room for families and cargo, and the ride is comfortable and composed. The engine is strong and smooth, and fuel economy is decent for its size. The Sienna is also the only minivan available with all-wheel-drive.

    Toyota Highlander (V6)

    Base MSRP price range: $29,665 - $50,240

    Another popular choice with families, the Highlander offers a comfortable ride, quiet, roomy, and well-finished cabin, and a smooth powertrain that’s good for many miles of hassle-free driving. With virtues like that, it’s no wonder the Highlander has long been one of our top-Rated midsized SUVs. The Hybrid version gets you even further on a tank of gas.

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

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    10 ways to protect yourself from medical identity theft

    A lot of good minds are trying to figure out how to make health information more secure. But it’s complicated, in part because there are advantages to not locking up medical information too tightly. You want online medical records that are “privacy- and security-protective, but also facilitate research and medical care,” says Michelle De Mooy, deputy director of the Consumer Privacy Project at the nonprofit Center for Democracy & Technology.

    For prompt and accurate medical care, your doctors may sometimes need to send information back and forth to each other. Or, in an emergency, doctors may have to quickly determine whether you have specific medication allergies.

    “A banker has the time to go through four layers of security before accessing data,” says Eric Perakslis, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Biomedical Informatics and the Francis A. Countway Library at Harvard Medical School. “In an ICU, a doctor needs instant and timely access.”

    Until we have solid solutions, guard your financial and health information with the same rigor, and consider the following advice:

    1. Share only what you have to

    Share as little personal data as you can at doctor’s offices and hospitals, and with insurers. For example, don’t give your Social Security number to health care providers unless you must, and ask whether other information, such as your date of birth and driver’s license number, is really needed before you provide it. Be especially careful on the phone. After the Anthem breach, consumers posted comments on the Federal Trade Commission’s website describing phone inquiries from callers who claimed to be Anthem representatives asking for personal identifying information. But Anthem says it made no such calls.

    2. Be e-mail savvy

    Anthem customers affected by the breach also received phishing e-mails. Don’t click on e-mails you don’t recognize and, if you do, don’t provide information unless you have verified that the source is real. Consider creating one e-mail account for health care and banking, and another for social media. "Change your e-mail password often and use 2-factor authentication for e-mail and other accounts when available and possible," Perakslis says. Two-factor identification uses two different password types—such as a regular password and a one-time-use code that expires within minutes—and offers more security than one password.

    3. Store carefully

    “Whether paper records, medical scans on a DVD, or records in a computer file, treat medical data like you would treat your tax returns," Perakslis says. "Carefully file and manage them." Electronic records should be encrypted and stored on a password-protected external hard drive. Store paper records and CDs in a locked file cabinet. Shred paper or destroy discs before throwing them away.  

    Find out why cyberthieves want your personal health information and see our extensive guide to Internet security for more safety tips and tactic. 

    4. Choose paper or digital records

    There's no need for storing both paper and digital records of your account. Using both can double your risk of data theft, unless both are managed well.

    5. Get protective software

    Purchase high-quality virus and malware protection software, and use it and update it the way it’s recommended.

    6. Avoid public Wi-Fi

    Don’t log into health or financial accounts on public Wi-Fi. “Using public Wi-Fi is like sharing a bathtub,” Perakslis says. For anyone using a Wi-Fi-enabled device on any public or free Wi-Fi, clean the device with protection software beforehand. Do the same afterward, before reconnecting the device to the home network.

    7. Watch the cloud

    If you use cloud services to connect your devices and accounts, remember that all are not created equal. Exclude sensitive accounts and store important files encrypted on a physical external hard drive at home that is password protected. With online storage accounts, look for services that require 2-factor password authentication. “Having too many things in one online digital place is like one-stop-shopping for a hacker if the data is not secured properly,” Perakslis says.

    8. Be wary of wearables

    Think carefully before providing your personal information to devices like Fitbits, mobile apps, and health websites, especially those that have interactive tools like calorie trackers. Don’t share medical information on social media either. All can put you at risk of data theft. (Read more about privacy and the Internet of Things.)

    9. Monitor your credit

    Since many data breaches and cases of identity theft are not discovered for months, check your credit history to see if someone is using your health and financial data improperly. You are entitled to a free credit report once a year from each of the three credit reporting agencies. Stagger the free annual reports and get one from a different credit bureau every four months. You are also entitled to one additional free report from each agency if you have been the victim of identity theft and place a fraud alert on your credit report.

    10. Check your records

    Check all your health-related mail, e-mail, and health records. Look closely at statements and other communications from your insurance company and health care providers for strange items or services and for health conditions that you don’t have. Look at your electronic health records, too. Ann Patterson, senior vice president at the health industry group Medical Identity Fraud Alliance, suggests that consumers review their health records by using the patient portals that are increasingly coming online with healthcare providers. If you have access to a portal, look at your online medical records monthly, as you would your financial statements. If your primary health care provider doesn’t have an online system, ask for an annual summary of your records—or ask quarterly if you suspect you’ve been a fraud victim. Sometimes, providers charge a nominal fee for a summary of your medical records.

    Finally, i you spot something worrisome, call your primary-care provider and insurance company promptly. In addition, maintain a list of your accounts, so you can quickly ask for new credit and debit cards, change online user names and passwords, and ask credit bureaus to put a fraud alert on your records.

    Diane Umansky

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

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    Best deals on large and luxury cars

    With large cars and luxury sedans, you can expect spacious accommodations, abundant features, comfortable road trip manners, and, as our latest analysis shows, big discounts.

    Based on national incentives, we’re seeing 5 to 15 percent total savings available in these overlapping vehicle segments. Interestingly, just one luxury brand currently offers such deals: Cadillac. For savings from other brands, look to regional offers and lease deals.

    These are the top deals on large cars and luxury sedans for May. All the cars listed below are 2015 models and ranked in alphabetical order. 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.

    Also, check our Best New Car Deals, updated monthly, that lists features in only those models that earn a Consumer Reports recommendation, factoring road test score, reliability, and safety.

    Consumer Reports Build & Buy Car Buying Service

    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 about 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 include eligible incentives. Consumer Reports subscribers have saved an average of $2,919 off MSRP with the Build & Buy Car Buying Service.

    Buick LaCrosse

    Thanks to its luxurious, well-finished, and roomy interior, and a supple ride, the LaCrosse is a very competitive large sedan. Buyers can choose from a powerful 3.6-liter V6 or a mild-hybrid eAssist four-cylinder that still delivers good performance, as well as 26-mpg overall. Its engine shuts off at idle to save fuel. Handling is responsive. Rear-seat room is generous, and the seats are well padded and comfortable, though the cockpit is narrow. Exterior styling compromises visibility fore and aft, though a standard rear-view camera is new for 2015. Controls are quite simple for a luxury car. 

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Buick LaCrosse, leather 6/1/15 $36,650 $35,936 $2,072

    Cadillac XTS

    Cadillac's large front- or all-wheel-drive sedan has a beautifully executed interior, perfect for limo duty. It's roomy, luxurious, and quiet inside, with comfortable seats. But the ride feels too ordinary for a luxury car, and the 3.6-liter V6 engine sounds coarse when prodded. The touch-activated Cue infotainment interface is unintuitive and frustrating to use, and the high rear deck impedes the view aft. The blind-spot warning system, which vibrates the driver's seat, helps a bit. A Vsport version with a twin-turbo 3.6-liter engine gives the XTS V8-like power. A standard built-in Wi-Fi hot spot for 2015 will please passengers on road trips.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Cadillac XTS 6/30/15 $45,655 $44,092 $3,340

    Chevrolet Impala

    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 adequate 2.5-liter four-cylinder, both paired with a six-speed automatic transmission. 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. 

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Chevrolet Impala 1LT 6/1/15 $30,135 $29,402 $2,379

    Chrysler 300

    Chrysler's roomy and luxurious 300 is one of the best large sedans on the market. Inside, you'll find plenty of space for five adults and a comfortable cabin with attractive trim. The punchy 5.7-liter V8 comes paired with a smooth eight-speed automatic transmission. But our preferred choice is the 3.6-liter V6, which also uses the eight-speed and brings a stately ride and responsive handling, along with a good 22-mpg overall in our tests. All-wheel drive is optional. The Uconnect touch-screen system is one of the best in the industry. The 2015 model got a mild styling update, a rotating knob for gear changes, a big driver-info screen in the gauge cluster, and a stack of modern safety gear.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Chrysler 300 Limited 6/1/15 $32,690 $32,084 $2,451

    Dodge Charger

    Like its cousin, the Chrysler 300, the Charger is a big, comfortable cruiser with an array of sophisticated technology on tap. Exterior and interior updates arrived for 2015. In addition to the perfectly adequate 3.6-liter V6, buyers can opt for a 370-hp 5.7-liter Hemi V8, and the power-mad can have a 485-hp 6.4-liter or the Hellcat's 707-hp supercharged V8. An eight-speed automatic is standard, and all-wheel drive is optional on some versions. Also new is forward-collision warning, which can slow or bring the vehicle to a full stop when a frontal collision appears imminent. The well-designed Uconnect touch-screen system is optional.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Dodge Charger SXT
    6/1/15 $30,990 $30,286 $2,900

    Ford Flex

    The boxy Flex combines SUV-like versatility with carlike driving dynamics. The interior is versatile, with room for up to seven passengers in three rows. And its shipping-carton shape works well for cargo. Rear visibility is hampered by big head restraints, and the MyFord Touch interface is complicated and distracting. Handling is not particularly agile, but the ride is comfortable and the cabin remains quiet. The base 3.5-liter V6 has been updated and gets 18-mpg overall. Choosing the turbo V6 gives you quicker acceleration at a cost of just 1-mpg overall. 

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Ford Flex Limited 7/6/15 $38,595 $36,929 $1,631

    Ford Taurus

    The Taurus puts styling ahead of interior comfort and driver visibility, and the convoluted MyFord Touch control system doesn't help matters. Fuel economy from the 3.5-liter V6 is 21 mpg. The six-speed automatic can be slow to shift and is not very smooth. A more fuel-efficient turbo four-cylinder is available. Otherwise, the Taurus is quiet, rides comfortably, and has lots of features. Handling is responsive but not sporty, and the turning circle is wide. The SHO, with standard AWD, is quick but not engaging to drive. A rear-view camera is standard.  

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Ford Taurus SE
    7/6/15 $27,880 $26,385 $3,812

    Kia Cadenza

    The Cadenza is a competent and credible competitor among large sedans. There's a lot here for the money, including a luxurious and quiet interior, a roomy backseat, responsive handling, and a comfortable ride. The 293-hp, 3.3-liter V6 engine and standard six-speed automatic combine to make a slick powertrain that delivers a competitive 22-mpg overall. Controls are refreshingly easy to use. A host of electronic safety aids are available, but some of the most useful ones are bundled into expensive options packages.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Kia Cadenza Premium 7/6/15 $35,725 $33,556 $2,047

    Kia K900

    Kia's new flagship is the brand's first rear-drive model and cousin of the Hyundai Equus. It is offered with a smooth and punchy 420-hp V8 or a 3.8-liter V6. The K900 is like a traditional freeway cruiser: more comfortable wafting along in a straight line than carving corners. The base infotainment system uses a 9.2-inch screen, and top trims get a 12-inch display. A central controller manages the menus and selections, but it takes some getting used to. The cabin is very roomy. Safety options include blind-spot monitor and lane-detection systems, rear cross-traffic alert, a wraparound camera, and front-collision warning.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Kia K900 Luxury 7/6/15 $60,800 $57,048 $3,797
    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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    A propane fuel tank gauge can save your barbecue

    Running out of propane gas, just as hungry friends gather around your grill, is a hassle. To keep tempers from flaring some gas grills come with a fuel gauge but if yours didn't, you can buy one. Consumer Reports recently tested two tank gauges from GasWatch and Refuel from Quirky, which you can monitor from a smartphone. Here’s what we found.

    What we tested
    GasWatch TVL214
    , $30
    GasWatch TVL216, $25
    Refuel from Quirky, $50

    Claims

    GasWatch: Never run out of gas again while cooking. Displays tank level and cooking time left. Low-level audible alarm. Digital electronic display. Easy to set up, no tools required.

    Refuel: Monitor your propane tank from your smartphone. Get alerts when your propane is low. Works on all grills with non-hanging propane tanks.

    How they work

    These gauges are scales that sit underneath a tank and report the weight of the liquid propane in the tank. Each gauge adjusts the displayed weight by subtracting the empty tank weight. For the scales to work properly the tank cannot hang from the grill or be secured in a way that prevents the scale from supporting the full weight of the tank. Typically they’re installed under the grill or in the grill’s cabinet, where they can be protected from the weather.

    How we tested

    We set up each gauge following the instructions, which for Refuel included connecting to a Wi-Fi network. Then we placed full, mostly full, and mostly empty propane tanks on each gauge and recorded what the displays showed, comparing the values to the actual propane weight. We substituted a large water jug of appropriate weight for an empty tank.

    What our tests found

    These gauges are fairly accurate but they tended to slightly over report the propane level. Refuel only reports quarter tanks and only works with your smartphone if your home Wi-Fi extends to your grilling area, though it will show the propane level by lighting up LEDs on its communications hub, the electronics package wired to the base and used to power the scale and connect to your home’s Wi-Fi.

    The takeaway

    They work, but it’s hard to imagine why you would use them instead of just having an extra tank of propane on hand and storing it properly. Empty tanks are available for less than the costs of these gauges and the cost of filling the tank really shouldn’t be taken into account for the cost comparison. Low gas levels are easy to spot—just lift the tank to check weight or pay attention to the flame, which will become lower as the tank is nearing empty.

    Shopping for a grill?

    Well you’ve come to the right place. Our gas grill Ratings include well over 100 grills from Weber, Char-Broil, Napoleon, Kenmore, and many others, and they range from $115 to $2,600. Use the gas grill selector to narrow your search by price, brand, and so on. And click the “Features & Specs” tab to see how these grills compare features-wise. Our user reviews offer insight and feel free to e-mail questions to 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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    Cool extras don't improve the Raven hybrid mower

    Denver Global Products’ Raven, a combination lawn tractor, ATV, and generator sold at Lowe’s, has had a spotty history considering myriad problems with the first version, which led to an eventual recall. But while we still can’t vouch for the $4,000 Raven MPV-7100’s cutting prowess, you might like what else it offers.

    The Raven uses gas power for cutting and has a 46-inch deck you can remove if you want to putter around using the machine as an ATV. Whenever you’re not actually mowing, though, you can run on electric power at speeds up to 17 mph. The generator is 110-volt instead of 220V, so you can’t safely connect it to your home's transfer switch. But that’s not what it’s for; it’s meant to supply power for remote locations—in fact, anywhere beyond reach of a power cord.

    Problems that plagued the earlier version, such as the surging over bumps seemingly caused by a switch that shuts the ignition off when you leave the seat, are gone. Judging from the few negative user reviews, we’ve seen, also fixed is a flaw in a faulty wire connection that allowed the blade to spin when it wasn't engaged.

    Two peculiarities remain: Switching between cruising and mowing speeds requires you to step off the tractor, get on your hands and knees, and grope beneath the machine for a small lever you have to move from one detent to another. As with the earlier version, it might not budge unless you rock the tractor.

    Moreover, the Raven’s brake is too close to the front panel for easy stopping. Even if you press the pedal with the ball of your foot, your toes might stop at the front panel. Braking, of course, is an action you need to be second-nature, nothing you actually need to think about, so we found this more than a little disturbing.

    The single-cylinder, Chinese-made Rato engine, automatic drive system, and electric power takeoff—along with a comfy high-back seat—made mowing easy. But the Raven MPV-7100 was the only lawn tractor we tested that we judged mediocre across the board. When side-discharging, the most common mode for riding mowers, it left noticeable windrows; in mulching mode, it left clumps (see photo). And in the machine’s bagging mode, we also saw lots of clumping where the chute from the deck makes a 90-degree turn on its way to the bag, with far fewer clippings in the bag than on the ground in the Raven’s wake.

    In our tests, all of our recommended lawn tractors cut more cleanly in all modes than the Raven MPV-7100. Of these, top scores and high-quality features make the John Deere X300, $3,000, well worth its price. For $800 less, the Craftsman 20442, 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. While neither machine comes in camo like the Raven, you’ll be more pleased when you look back on what you just mowed.

    If you haven’t shopped for a mower or tractor in a few years, be sure to check out our lawn mower buying guide before viewing our mower Ratings of more than 180 walk-behind and riding mowers.

    —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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    Takata airbag recall adds millions more vehicles

    The unending expansions to the Takata airbag inflator recall continue to roll out. Honda, Nissan, and Toyota have recently added vehicles to the recall—and it is far more than just a few cars. The latest announcements add millions of cars to the already massive recall, bringing the global total of recalled vehicles to a staggering 36 million.

    Toyota has added the most, recalling 5 million vehicles worldwide. Around 600,000 of those vehicles are included are in the U.S. market. Of that, 160,000 RAV4 models built in 2004 and 2005 are having the front driver’s side inflators replaced. Front passenger side inflators are being replaced on 177,000 2003-2004 Tundra and 2004 Sequoia models.

    Another 300,000 vehicles have been added to the recall for cars in regions of high humidity. This includes the 2005-2006 Tundra, as well as 2005-2007 models of the Corolla, Matrix, Sequoia, and Lexus SC 430.

    According to Automotive News, Honda has recalled an additional 4.9 million vehicles globally, but none that are part of the North American market. Honda says that cars in the U.S. and Canada are not part of the latest expansion.

    Finally, according to a statement by Nissan and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Japanese automaker is recalling 326,000 vehicles in the U.S. and Canada. This is comprised of 250,967 2004-2006 Nissan Sentras and 12,725 Nissan Pathfinders built for the 2004 model year. The statement does not break out the number of affected vehicles only in the U.S. or Canada.

    If you have a vehicle of this make and model from the years in question, locate your VIN number and ask your local dealer's service department to verify the status of your vehicle.

    George Kennedy

    For more information, read: "Everything you need to know on the massive Takata airbag inflator recall."

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

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    Fiat 500X brings an Italian twist to mini crossovers

    If you like cute, they don’t get much more adorable than a Fiat 500. And now it has a big brother in the equally distinctive 500X crossover.

    The 500X has about the same visual impact as that iconic city car, although this new “urban road warrior” is a bit bigger. It comes in five whimsically named trim lines, starting with the entry-level Pop, and ascending through Easy, Trekking, Lounge, and Trekking Plus. Front-wheel drive is standard and all-wheel-drive optional across the board.

    While the 500X is assembled alongside the new Jeep Renegade in Melfi, Italy, the two are different cars. They share a platform and powertrains but little else. Besides, unlike the Jeep, the 500X has no off-roader pretenses: It’s made to cope with potholes, not sink holes. Further, the Fiat is aimed at young, urban professionals. Think kayakers rather than bass-boat fans. (See our Jeep Renegade first drive.)

    The version we’re trying out is a fully optioned, top-of-the-line Trekking Plus that’s priced at around $32,000 all in—quite a princely sum for a diminutive crossover. But that buys kit seldom seen in the subcompact-SUV club outside of the luxury marques. Its phone-book-length features list includes a heated steering wheel and heated perforated-leather seats, keyless start, navigation, automatic climate system, dual sunroofs, 18-inch wheels, and a full quota of modern safety and crash-avoidance systems. Atop the dash is a round-cornered pod holding a downsized touch screen for Chrysler’s excellent UConnect infotainment system.

    While the lowest trim offers a small 160-hp, 1.4-liter turbo four-cylinder engine and an optional six-speed manual, all other versions come with Chrysler’s 180-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission.

    On the road the 500X handles competently, and that 2.4-liter Tigershark engine has sufficient power to motivate this small, light car once the busy transmission finds the right gear. The engine sounds louder than we like while accelerating, but on the whole the cabin stays fairly quiet.

    Handling is tighter than that of the Renegade. The steering has reasonable heft but no great tactile road feel. The car tracks down the road nicely and feels agile enough zipping around town.

    The ride, meanwhile, is about par for the class. On all but a freshly paved road, little jiggles come through without being too punishing.

    The front cabin offers a driver copious headroom although, typical of this class, the seats are a bit narrow and the left footrest is a tad too close.

    Double-stitched leather upholstery and numerous padded surfaces provide a smidgeon of plushness. Controls are easy to reach and use—welcome news since previous Fiats have been adorned with panoplies of eccentric, European-style buttons and switches.  

    One low-tech but handy touch is a good-sized open bin forward of the gear selector on the center console. It’s large enough to hold a double-handful of travel junk such as a smartphone, eyeglasses, gum, keys, snacks, and other essentials.   

    Sadly, the view straight back is appallingly constrained. If no one is in the back seats, you can improve the rear view a little by flipping down the rear seatbacks and their view-blocking head restraints.

    The nice accommodations begin and end in the front seating area. The rear is cramped, especially at knee level. The seats themselves are flat and rather unwelcoming. High doorsills make it a little tough to climb in or out, at least for adults. Likewise, the cargo area is a little stingy. The floor space is good but the sloping rear window and seatbacks pinch the cargo volume considerably.

    It’s too early to make conclusive judgments—these informal impressions are based on a rented high-end version—but we can imagine that when it hits showrooms this summer, the 500X will provide an appealing alternative for shoppers who’d otherwise have a Mini Countryman or Nissan Juke on their wish list.  

    Check back with us when we buy our own sample for a full road test.

    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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