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    EcoBoost vs. EcoBoost: Which Ford F-150 is faster?

    How much engine does a pickup truck really need? The redesigned-for-2015 Ford F-150 takes this question to extremes, offering a puny-sounding 2.7-liter turbocharged EcoBoost V6 as one of its main engine choices. We bought and tested two F-150s, one with the 2.7-liter and one with Ford’s familiar 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6, to find out if there indeed is a replacement for displacement.

    Working in tandem with the redesigned F-150’s 700-pound weight savings from its new aluminum body, the 2.7-liter posts class-leading fuel economy numbers in our testing. That wasn’t really a surprise here at our test track. What did shock us was that the 2.7-liter outsprinted the 3.5-liter EcoBoost from 0-60 mph. We discuss the reasons behind that, as well as the tradeoffs incurred from the smaller engine, in our latest podcast. (Read "2015 Ford F-150 EcoBoost engine shootout.")  

    In other news from the test track, our Tesla Model S P85D suffers a malfunctioning door handle. Its fancy retracting grip failed to automatically unveil itself, so we couldn’t open the driver’s door. Digging through Consumer Reports’ reliability data shows just how common Tesla door handle problems really are.

    We then move onto questions. Some viewers remind us that there have been collaborations between car companies—unlike the Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ—that actually proved reliable. We revisit the VW Golf R vs. GTI and discuss whether the R’s all-wheel-drive is really worth it. Another viewer objects to our opinion on the Acura ILX. We wrap up talking about two Mazda SUVs, the CX-5 and the oft-overlooked CX-9.

    As with the other shows, this episode is also available free through the iTunes Store. Subscribe to the video or audio. You'll also find the video on YouTube.

    Also view:

    Tom Mutchler

    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 expanded to 33.8 million cars

    In a safety campaign of historic proportions, 33.8 million vehicles equipped with defective airbag inflators will be recalled, according to a joint announcement from parts supplier Takata and the Department of Transportation (DOT).

    This doubles the scale for the existing recall of roughly 17 million vehicles equipped with defective airbags, and it now counts BMW, Chrysler, Daimler Trucks, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota among the affected automakers.

    Up to this point, Takata has remained conservative, refusing to issue a nationwide recall for the potentially faulty airbag inflators. Any recalls for Takata airbags were issued by the automakers themselves. Beyond the massive scale the total recall now encompasses, it is significant that Takata now acknowledges that a defect exists in its inflators.

    The propellant in the recalled driver and front passenger airbag inflators can degrade over time, and though automakers previously focused on areas of high humidity, the danger was significant enough in other regions that the DOT saw fit to expand to nationwide recalls, resulting in the additional 17 million vehicles.

    According to the DOT release, the root cause of the malfunction has not yet been established. However, the government agency has found that time and moisture changes the chemical composition of the igniter propellant. In a deployment, these conditions conspire to ignite the airbag too quickly, resulting in “excess pressure that causes the inflator to rupture and sends metal shards into the cabin that can lead to serious injury or death.”

    At least five fatalities and more than 100 injuries have been linked to the Takata airbags.

    For more information about this recall, read "Everything you need to know about the Takata recall.”

    You can also check out NHTSA’s site on the Takata recalls: SaferCar.gov/RecallsSpotlight. It provides a VIN lookup tool to see if your car is affected.

    George Kennedy

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

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    YouTube Kids—what parents need to know

    In a two-minute video sent to the Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday, consumer advocacy groups revealed flaws in a YouTube app designed to protect preschool children from inappropriate content. Using the app’s search function, the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood and the Center for Digital Democracy uncovered clips featuring explicit language and references to sex, drug use, and dangerous activities such as tasting battery acid. Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, was among the groups making the complaint to the FTC.

    Available for free download since February, YouTube Kids offers Android and iPhone users a hub for popular children’s programming from Sesame Street andThomas and Friends, plus  kid-friendly content created by teachers and entertainers. Google, the owner of YouTube and the creator of the app, planned to use automated analysis, manual reviews, and consumer feedback to screen YouTube’s offerings.

    But the search engine—which can be activated with voice commands—allows some unsuitable content to slip through the filters, even though adult-themed search terms are off-limits. Some of the sexual references, for example, were inserted by YouTube users into the audio that accompanied cartoon clips.

    “YouTube handles tremendous breadth, depth and scale of content—around 300 hours of video uploaded every minute—so while we work hard to get it right, it’s nearly impossible to have 100% accuracy,” states the YouTube Kids web page.

    As an added precaution, YouTube’s owner Google recommends that parents disable the search function.

    In addition to the programming content, the advocacy groups complained about the advertising on the app. In one instance, they were able to access a Budweiser spot, which clearly conflicts with YouTube’s claims to show only family-friendly ads.  

    —Chris Raymond

     

    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 American cars for Memorial Day 2015

    Memorial Day weekend may be known for barbecues, parades, and road trips, but it can also be a great time to buy a new car. The advertising blitz now underway is broadcasting dramatic savings through cut-rate financing, customer rebates, and subvented lease deals (which are sweetened by the manufacturer). There are so many promotional fireworks that it can be overwhelming.

    To identify standout deals, our analysts have focused on nationwide discounts that point to notable available savings below sticker price. In the holiday spirit, we’re spotlighting just American-made models.

    Calling a vehicle "American" is becoming increasingly difficult, with the Chrysler 300 built in Canada and the Ford Focus sourced from Mexico. Meanwhile, BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Infiniti, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Subaru, Toyota, Volkswagen, and other brands have been manufacturing stateside for years. Making a patriotic car purchase can mean targeting models made in the United States, those offered by domestic brands, or potentially both. If buying "Made in the USA" is a goal, be sure to check the window sticker on the specific model you are considering.

    All the cars listed below are 2015 models, shown 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. We did find numerous other models with tempting deals, although some cars with big cash on the hood come up short in Consumer Reports testing underscoring the need for shoppers to do their research.

    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.

    Jeff Bartlett with Todd Young

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

    Buick Enclave

    Even after six years on the market, the large Enclave remains a competitive three-row SUV. We liked its firm, comfortable, and quiet ride and its agile, secure handling. But like its corporate cousins, the Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia, this Michigan-made crossover is beginning to show its age. The 3.6-liter V6 engine and six-speed automatic are smooth and powerful enough, but at times they work hard in this large SUV, and its 15-mpg overall is paltry. A big plus is the ability to fit adults in the roomy third row. Fit and finish is impressive, and for 2015 forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems are available.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Buick Enclave Premium AWD 6/1/15 $50,230 $48,751 $5,229

    Chevrolet Malibu

    More than a humdrum midsized sedan, the Malibu has a comfortable ride and a well-finished and exceptionally quiet interior that set it apart. Handling is sound, if a little soggy at its limits. A 2.5-liter four-cylinder with an unobtrusive start/stop system, paired with a six-speed automatic, is standard. The uplevel 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder delivers plentiful power and gets 24-mpg. Controls are straightforward to use. The wide, soft front seats lack support on long trips, and the backseat is cramped. But trunk room is sufficient, even in the hybrid. Changes for 2015 include a standard built-in Wi-Fi hot spot with three months of complimentary data. The current Malibu is made in both Kansas and Michigan. A redesigned Malibu goes on sale in the fall, with the promise to address some shortcomings. Expect deals to continue on the soon-to-be retired sedan.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Chevrolet Malibu 2LT 6/1/15 $26,420 $25,780 $2,268

    Chevrolet Silverado 1500

    The Silverado and similar GMC Sierra are among our top-scoring pickups. Their strengths include responsive handling and a cabin as quiet as a luxury car's and more spacious. Cabin access is easy, controls simple, and towing and payload capacities generous. Fuel economy from the 5.3-liter V8 crew cab we tested was an exceptional 16-mpg overall, but the truck feels sluggish. Other engines include a 4.3-liter V6 and powerful 6.2-liter V8. The truck's few shortcomings include a jittery ride and front seats that aren't as supportive as those in some competitors. Standard and extended-cab Silverado 1500s are built in Indiana, while the crew cab configurations are assembled in Mexico and Michigan.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Regular Cab, 4WD 1LT 6/1/15 $36,820 $35,034 $3,319

    Chrysler 200

    Redesigned for 2015, the Michigan-made 200 is well-equipped but is downrated for its mediocre ride and handling qualities. Engine choices are a fairly polished 3.6-liter, 295-hp V6 or an underwhelming 184-hp, 2.4-liter four cylinder that returned a very good 30-mpg overall. Both are paired with a nine-speed automatic that is neither smooth nor responsive. The V6 can be had with all-wheel drive. The center console includes a charging station and a rotating knob instead of a conventional gear selector. The cabin is quiet, but handling is clumsy and the ride is rough and unsettled. Available safety features include forward-collision and lane-departure warnings, and self-parking. 

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Chrysler 200 S 6/1/15 $26,165 $25,645 $2,755

    Ford Escape

    The Kentucky-built Ford Escape has a solid feel and drives very well, with agile and sporty handling and a composed ride. The cabin is very quiet for the class, but many of the controls are needlessly complicated, especially if you get the optional MyFord Touch system. The driver's footwell is a bit narrow, and the base-level cloth seats provide just mediocre support and comfort. The optional leather seats are better shaped. The rest of the interior is roomy enough. Most models have a 1.6-liter turbo four-cylinder; uplevel models use a stronger and quieter 2.0-liter turbo. Both got 22-mpg overall in our tests. A rearview camera is standard.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Ford Escape 4WD Titanium 7/6/15 $31,890 $30,513 $2,430

    Ford F-150

    Redesigned for 2015, Ford's big-selling pickup truck has moved to an all-aluminum body, which saves about 700 pounds. Powertrain choices include a 3.5-liter V6, 2.7- or 3.5-liter turbo V6s, and a 5.0-liter V8, each paired with a six-speed automatic. Our F-150 with the 3.5-liter V6 delivers abundant power, and even the 2.7-liter is no slouch. In early testing we found the 2.7 gets 17 mpg overall, one mpg better than the turbo 3.5. The 2.7 is also slightly quicker in the 0-to-60 mph sprint. The cabin is very quiet, but the ride is a bit jittery. New safety offerings include lane-departure warning and blind-spot detection. Other notable features include a 360-degree-view camera and integrated loading ramps. The F-150 is manufactured in Dearborn, Michigan, and Claycomo, Missouri.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Ford F-150 SuperCab XLT 4WD 7/6/15 $38,590 $36,009 $2,622

    Ford Taurus

    The Chicago-sourced 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 rearview camera is standard. 

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

    Hyundai Sonata

    The Sonata is a competitive but ho-hum sedan with a quiet cabin, a comfortable ride, and good rear-seat room and access. Handling for this Alabama-built sedan is sound and responsive enough. But the SE we tested had lackluster tire grip, affecting braking and emergency handling. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder returned 28-mpg overall in our tests; a 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder is optional. Both engines are mated to a six-speed automatic. The Eco features a 1.6-liter turbo four-cylinder paired with a seven-speed dual-clutch. Controls are easy to reach and simple to use. Safety features include forward-collision mitigation, lane-departure warning, and blind-spot detection. A hybrid version arrives in June. 

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Hyundai Sonata Limited 6/1/15 $27,350 $26,181 $3,046

    Nissan Pathfinder

    This Tennessee-built midsized SUV has seating for up to seven, but the second row's posture is not ideal and the third-row seat is tight. The 3.5-liter V6 and CVT delivered respectable acceleration and 18-mpg overall in our tests. The ride is comfortable enough, but handling lacks agility. Towing capability is competitive at 5,000-pounds. The cabin is quiet and spacious, the controls are fairly easy to master, and the passenger-side rear seat can be moved forward with a child seat installed. Updates for 2015 include available blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Nissan Pathfinder SL 4WD 6/1/15 $38,635 $36,317 $2,052

    Ram 1500

    The Ram is the most comfortable-riding full-sized pickup on the market, yet it's plenty capable of grunt work. Its coil-spring rear suspension helps cushion the ride, and the spacious cab is luxury-car quiet. 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. The torquey 3.0-liter diesel V6 version is expensive but delivers effortless thrust and returns a class-leading 20 mpg overall. Rear-seat room is generous, and the Uconnect 8.4-inch touch screen infotainment system is easy to use. The Ram 1500 is built in Warren, Michigan, with regular cab trucks built in Saltillo, Mexico.

    Make & model Expires MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Ram 1500 Sport, Regular Cab, 4X4 6/1/15 $40,530 $37,224 $3,180

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

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    Supersized 2016 Honda Pilot delivers more of just about everything

    Honda traditionally embodies efficiency in design. But the typical consumer doesn’t always appreciate such modesty, tending to always want more. Redesigned for 2016, the new Honda Pilot aims to please, providing more in almost every conceivable way.

    This is a shift for the Pilot. Introduced in 2003, the original was basically a station wagon on steroids, one of the first family-friendly three-row crossovers. Topping CR’s ratings, it was also a runaway sales success. Honda didn’t recapture the same lightning in the bottle with the second generation, introduced in 2008 as a 2009 model. Its boxy old-school styling and cheap interior missed the mark in an increasingly gentrified market. Also, in a nation with big driveways and garages, not many people appreciated the Pilot’s efforts to cram the most interior space into a relatively compact footprint.

    The new Pilot is bigger, measuring 3.5 inches longer. It also looks and feels more premium, starting with the styling that bears more than a passing resemblance to the popular CR-V. Unusually, the rear three-quarter angle is arguably the best view, being reminiscent of a Mercedes-Benz GL. That upright greenhouse affords great visibility for a modern SUV, with large windows all the way around, even in back. For a new vehicle, the windshield pillars are freakishly narrow—a refreshing change.

    Growing in size didn’t make the Pilot profligate. Not only did it not gain weight, it shed almost 300 pounds. Despite this reduction, Honda strengthened the structure, aiming for a Good in the challenging IIHS small overlap crash test. This remedies a major shortcoming of the outgoing Pilot, which lost its Consumer Reports recommended status after scoring Poor in that test.

    “More” also applies to the 2016 Pilot’s powertrain. A new 3.5-liter V6 makes 280 horsepower, up 30 hp from before. The outgoing Pilot was one of the last holdouts from any manufacturer to still have a five-speed automatic transmission. Standard now is a six-speed, with a nine-speed on swanky Touring and Elite versions. That’s a mixed blessing, likely to improve performance and fuel economy but at the cost of gaining an unintuitive pushbutton shifter.

    Smooth power delivery motivates the Pilot. Most shifts from the nine-speed are unobtrusive, but a few bumps show up at low speeds as the transmission figures out which gear to pick. Top-trim models have a start-stop system that shuts off the ignition to save fuel when stopped; restarts are smooth but can feel slow in some traffic situations compared to better systems of this type.

    For the first time, we dare to use the word “quiet” to describe the Pilot—at least on the luxurious Elite trim, which benefits from additional sound-deadening measures. Wind and road noise are hushed. We did notice some suspension noise thumping through, a discordant note. Don’t expect sporty reflexes. Not only does the Pilot look more regal, but it also feels bigger when steering through the corners. Agility isn’t part of the equation, even compared to the Hyundai Santa Fe and Toyota Highlander. While the suspension does a decent job of absorbing bumps, ride comfort doesn’t stand out.

    Inside, the Pilot is spiffed up with more soft-touch materials and nice details, including stitching and a slick sliding console top. But there were still more hard panels than we’d expect, especially for the price of the loaded top-level Elite model we tried. While the Elite is packed with equipment, it still misses some modern upscale touches expected at $47,000, like an electric parking brake or height-adjustable lumbar support.

    Family friendly accommodations are a highlight. There’s plenty of room in all three rows, although adults won’t care for the too-low third-row seat. (Kids won’t mind.) Second-row seats fold out of the way for third-row access with the push of a single button—a tremendously handy feature. Fancy options that are common in this class, like second-row captain's chairs and dual moonroofs, are finally available. Cabin storage is increased from already generous levels.

    Not every “more” is a benefit. Controls are more complicated, thanks to Honda’s infuriating touch-screen audio system. Devoid of normal knobs and buttons, figuring out the logic of the system’s screens fails to be intuitive—a common complaint with other recent Hondas and Acuras.

    No question that the Pilot’s redesign reestablishes it among the big players in this popular market segment. It does a great job of providing near-minivan utility in an image-friendly SUV wrapper. But for all of the “more” that Honda has baked into this Pilot, we wish they had made it more rewarding to drive.

    Tom Mutchler

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

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    5 key developments in the electric car world

    The 28th Electric Vehicle Symposium—EVS28—was held this year in Goyang, South Korea, where the annual international conference hosted a variety of presentations, exhibits, vehicles, and state-of-the-art new technology. Set up in a vast complex, EVS28 brought together academia, research, utility companies, auto manufacturers, and suppliers. 

    Consumer Reports was on hand to learn about the latest technology and trends, and even present a paper on how we test electric cars.

    The five notable developments covered below reveal that the ongoing electric-car revolution promises to expand its appeal to an increasingly mainstream buyer.

    Check out our guides to alternative-fuel vehicles and fuel economy.

    Gabe Shenhar

    LG Chem, a Korean chemical engineering company, announced its intention to be a supplier of larger batteries to car manufacturers who are interested in longer range EVs. LG Chem is targeting a 200-300 mile range battery pack. The company contends that currently most EVs with their 75-90 mile range have a limited appeal and that hinders the potential for market growth. Currently, only the Tesla Model S possesses a truly long-range battery pack. To that end, LG Chem says it would begin to offer large capacity lithium-ion batteries that hold between 80 and 120 kWh. LG Chem is already a supplier for the Chevrolet Volt. For those who remember, GM announced this past January that the Bolt, a new pure EV that will go into production in 2016, will have a 200-mile range. It’s easy to connect the dots—the Bolt might be the early bird to incorporate such a long-range battery. Such long-range EVs have the potential to dramatically shake up the electric-car landscape and appeal to a larger audience.

    We also got to drive an all-electric Kia Soul. We really like the quirky-looking regular Soul. The beauty of this EV version is that since its relatively large, 27-kWh battery doesn’t rob a lot of cargo space or compromise access, the car gets to preserve its practicality and purpose. Kia claims the Soul EV will go 93 miles on a full charge and that it takes between 4 and 5 hours to fully recharge. It also has a port for DC charging, which is a lot faster.

    On the road, the Soul EV accelerates with authority, thanks to its 109-horsepower electric motor. Unlike with some electric cars, though, lifting off the accelerator pedal eases you gently into regenerative-braking mode. Non-EV drivers will probably appreciate that smooth transition, but old-hand EV drivers might not. They often like to feel the regen to kick in like a sea anchor, as it does with the BMW i3. Even in the Soul’s Eco mode and when the gear lever is set to B (braking), the regenerative-braking function is never abrupt.

    The Soul is priced similarly to the Volkswagen eGolf, $33,700 before a $7,500 tax break, and both are positioned between the $29,010 Nissan Leaf and $41,350 BMW i3. Unfortunately the Soul doesn’t ride as comfortably as the Golf, largely retaining the stiff ride of its conventional version.

    While the Soul EV is already available in the U.S., it's offered only in select markets such as California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Oregon. Five more states will be added later this year.

    According to Nissan, initially, the primary reason people fell for a Nissan Leaf was its zero-emissions status. However, more recent customer feedback points to low running costs as the primary reason for buying.

    That demonstrates that many early EV adopters were driven by altruism while the more recent purchasers are guided more by pragmatism, figuring that an EV works for them economically.

    One striking difference between American and Japanese Leaf owners is the use of DC “fast” charging. In Japan, over 40 percent of owners take advantage of a quick charging opportunity, but the recharge behavior is different in the U.S. due to customers’ preference to charge at home and the scarcity of public DC chargers (those that can replenish 80 percent of the battery in 30 minutes). Still, 91 percent of American Leaf owners, according to Nissan, would buy it again.

    Pure EVs and even some hybrid cars are very quiet when driven slowly, to the point that they’re sometimes unnoticed by pedestrians. At speeds below 12 mph even the tires make little noise. The stealthiness can pose a problem, risking someone wandering into the path of a car because they didn’t hear it coming. One research paper presented at EVS28 provided sound measurements for roughly equivalent vehicles such as the Chevy Volt against the Cruze and Nissan Leaf compared to the Versa. Lo and behold, the Cruze was actually quieter than the Volt. The paper urges regulators to make a decision from a position of knowledge.

    It’s been suggested that EVs should make a clearly audible noise of some kind to alert pedestrians, especially the blind, as well as cyclists, that a car is coming. Congress passed the Pedestrian Safety Act of 2012 to address the issue. An actual solution has been a long time coming. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has pushed off the deadline for automakers to implement a solution until 2018. Nissan voluntarily equips the Leaf with an audible notification, but for now, it’s the only carmaker that does.

    How convenient would it be not to have to fuss with electric cables and plugging your EV in to charge the battery every night? With a wireless-charging setup, like that shown by California-based Qualcomm, an EV driver only needs to park the car above a pad lying down in a garage floor. That pad then communicates with the car and creates an electromagnetic field using induction coils to transfer energy to the car’s battery. Wireless charging has long been a wish of EV designers. The big challenge is that it’s been less efficient than using a direct wired connection. But even if the car charges a little longer as you sleep, the convenience of minimal hassle makes the system appealing.

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

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    Do you have to pay estate and inheritance tax to your state?

    The chart below lists the estate and inheritance taxes levied by the states that impose them. Bear in mind that state laws on these matters change frequently, so check with an attorney or tax adviser if you inherit money in the future.

    When you do your estate planning avoid these 6 minefields, and make sure you spare your heirs a battle over your estate.

    ––Mandy Walker (@MandyWalker on Twitter)

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

     

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

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    Sleep soundly on a mattress made in the USA

    With foam mattresses that pop out of a box after being delivered to your doorstep, Casper and Tuft & Needle have burst onto the mattress scene. The upstarts boast that their mattresses are made in America but so are those from such major old-guard brands as Tempur Sealy (including Stearns & Foster), Serta, and Beautyrest. Turns out that when you turn in at night you’re likely sleeping on a mattress made, or mostly made, here. Consumer Reports has tested dozens and has plenty to recommend.

    Tuft and Needle says that, “our fabric comes from a 90-year-old, family-owned textile mill in the Carolinas” and Casper says “our knit fabrics come from South Carolina, our wovens from Belgium, and they are sewn together by hand in Illinois and South Carolina.” We found that getting some textiles from elsewhere was a common thread among mattress makers even when the mattresses were otherwise assembled in this country. Here are some that impressed in our tests.

    The innerspring Sealy Posturepedic Hybrid Trust Cushion, $1,275, a CR Best Buy, and foam Serta iComfort Savant EverFeel, $1,575, another top pick, proved to be comfortable choices in our tests. The innerspring Charles P. Rogers St. Regis Pillowtop, $1,100, another CR Best Buy, is also made stateside.

    In addition to Casper and Tuft & Needle, another new brand sold primarily over the Internet is made in the U.S. Saatva mattresses, including the Saatva Luxury Firm Euro Pillowtop innerspring, $900, are" 100-percent" made in the USA, says Saatva. We liked the $500 Tuft & Needle Ten foam bed we tested and named it a CR Best Buy. The Casper, $850, also made our top-picks list.

    Of course, you may not care where your mattress is made as long as you can get a good night's sleep. The luxury brand, Duxiana, is made in Sweden. We tested the high-priced Duxiana Dux 515, which costs $7,595 and made our recommended list. However, the $4,800 Duxiana Dux 101 fell just short.

    Because some companies are more forthcoming than others about where the materials for their mattresses are sourced, it's hard to say for certain which mattresses are made primarily of American goods. But many brands proudly tout their American heritage. We can tell you from the results of our mattress tests which mattresses provide the best back and side support, are as firm or soft as claimed, and will last for years. If you haven’t shopped for a mattress in a while, be sure to read our mattress buying guide .

    —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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  • 05/21/15--02:59: Made in America
  • Made in America

    Almost 8 in 10 American consumers say they would rather buy an American-made product than an imported one, according to a recent Consumer Reports survey. And more than 60 percent say they’re even willing to pay 10 percent more for it. For some, the decision might stem from a belief in American quality and safety. Others might think it’s the best way to support the American economy and workers. But in our increasingly complex global economy, how much meaning does a label stating “Made in America” still hold? (Get more details from our nationally representative survey by clicking on the image a right.)

    Some iconic American products, from the Apple iPhone to Cuisinart food processors, have little or no manufacturing presence on these shores, while many foreign makers have invested heavily in manufacturing plants in the U.S. The auto industry has long grappled with what it means to be made in America. (Read “What Makes a Car ‘American’?”) But now, because of a wave of “reshoring,” many appliance manufacturers and other companies are moving significant operations back to the USA. Since 2010, about 300 companies have returned here, according to the Reshoring Initiative, an industry-supported not-for-profit that focuses on bringing manufacturing jobs back.

    And yet the perception persists that American manufacturing is in decline. It’s fueled by the fact that very few products sold in the U.S. in certain high-profile categories, such as consumer electronics and clothing, are actually produced here. But the Department of Commerce reports that between 2009 and the end of 2014 , U.S. manufacturing output grew by 45 percent, 646,000 jobs were added between February 2010 and May 2014, and another 243,000 positions are waiting to be filled. (Even so, such growth hasn’t made up fully for losses during the 2008-2009 recession.)

    Two reasons cited for a resurgence of American manufacturing in recent years are newly cheap energy and the narrowing gap in labor costs between the U.S. and other countries. But it’s not just about costs. A third factor is increased investment in research and development.

    Some analysts say that the frontier in innovation lies in “brainfacturing.” It’s a term that describes a new wave of manufacturing focused on research in digital technologies, automation, and new materials. In certain industries, such as software, American companies are so dominant that other countries are enacting legislation to encourage development of their own products in order to lessen their reliance on U.S. technology.

    No matter how you define a “Made in America” label, though, it has selling power, and many marketing departments are rushing to capitalize on it. But consumers often don’t know whether they can trust the claim. The Federal Trade Commission has issued standards for products that bear a “Made in the USA” label, but those guidelines aren’t widely understood. And the claim gets even more confusing when compared with products that say “assembled” or “designed” in America. Adding to the cacophony, there is plenty of outright deception by companies that slap Americana on their products, in hopes they’ll be able to cash in on public sentiment before getting found out as a fraud.

    In an effort to capture the wide range of voices on this nuanced topic, we asked 13 leaders to weigh in. We also provide a guide to some of the highest-rated products—ones that live up to the “Made in America” promise.

    Renewed pride in American manufacturing has made it more fashionable—and profitable—for companies to wax patriotic in their advertising, even when the claims are far from bona fide. “We see many goods which say ‘Made in the USA,’ but they’re actually made in China,” says Hal Sirkin, a senior partner at The Boston Consulting Group, global-management consultants.

    The federal government’s “Made in USA” standards empower the Federal Trade Commission to take action against companies that make false or misleading claims.

    All or almost all of a product bearing the label must be of U.S. origin, i.e., it should contain no foreign content (or a negligible amount) and its final assembly or processing must take place within the 50 states, the District of Columbia, or U.S. territories and possessions.

    But the standards also allow manufacturers to make “qualified” claims for products that aren’t entirely of domestic origin. One example: a GE refrigerator with 87 percent U.S. content.

    Why fakes sneak through

    The role of the FTC is to provide guidance to companies that want to use the label; it doesn’t police every product on the market. “It’s often a question of context,” says Julia Solomon Ensor, a lawyer for the agency. “A product may convey that it’s made in the USA, with a huge American flag on the package, but then there will be a tiny qualifier saying it consists of 100 percent imported parts.”

    The FTC would certainly challenge that kind of claim, but only after receiving a formal complaint from an outside party. “Most complaints come from competing companies, who can best determine if a product is truly made in the U.S.,” Ensor says. “It’s very difficult for the typical consumer to know if a claim is true or not.”

    It doesn’t help that the FTC standards allow companies to design their own labels, unlike the federal Energy Star program, for example, with its distinctive blue label that’s a recognized mark of energy efficiency. ‘Made in the USA’ labels, by comparison, take many forms, as the examples below show.

    Paradoxically, plenty of products that really are manufactured domestically don’t carry a ‘Made in America’ label. For example, many Kenmore appliances are produced in the U.S., but you won’t see any patriotic labeling on them because Kenmore also has contracts with foreign manufacturers.

    How to recognize imports

    Given the vagaries of “Made in the USA” labeling, another strategy is to look for a “Country of Origin” mark, which Customs and Border Protection require on all imported products. It must be in a conspicuous place where it can be seen with casual handling, so you should be able to find it easily while shopping in a store. With refrigerators, for example, the country of origin is on the manufacturing sticker usually found on an interior wall. With gas grills, the sticker can be found on the back of the metal frame or cart. (Bear in mind that the marking isn’t required on American-made products.)

    We’ve mined our current Ratings in a dozen product categories for recommended models that were made in the USA out of mostly U.S.-supplied parts, even if their manufacturers don’t advertise the fact. See our list.

    If you come across a claim that seems bogus, file a complaint at ftc.gov or call 877-FTC-HELP. An investigation will probably take a while, and the FTC won’t respond to you directly, so playing the vigilante role won’t help with your immediate purchase. But you’ll be doing your part to uphold the integrity of the “Made in the USA” claim.

     

    Company

    Key facts

    GE Appliances (Louisville, Ky.)

     

    Since 2009, GE has invested $1 billion to bring some of its manufacturing home to the U.S., with most of the investment going to Appliance Park, a 900-acre facility in Louisville. That’s led to 3,000 new manufacturing jobs. GE’s qualified “Made in America” label tells how much U.S. content is in each appliance. For example, the company says its bottom-freezer refrigerators comprise 87 percent domestic parts.
    Whirlpool (Benton Harbor, Mich.)

    It’s the world’s largest appliance manufacturer; its brands include Amana, Jenn-Air, KitchenAid, and Maytag. It’s also the leading producer of U.S. appliance factory jobs with eight factories nationwide employing 15,000 workers. About 80 percent of Whirlpool appliances sold in the U.S. are made here. Some foreign components are used, but Whirlpool’s label doesn’t indicate how much.

    Frigidaire (Stockholm, Sweden)

     

    Frigidaire, whose label says “Built with American pride,” was founded in Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1916. It remained a U.S.-owned company until 1986, when it was purchased by the Swedish multinational Electrolux (which is also in the process of acquiring GE Appliances). Electrolux has been moving its manufacturing to Asia, Latin America, and other low-cost areas, but Frigidaire still maintains five plants in the U.S., including one in Memphis, Tenn., that opened in late 2013.

    Apple (Cupertino, Calif.) 

    Although a few Apple products are American-made, including the Mac Pro computer manufactured in Austin, Texas, the bulk of its manufacturing happens in China. Hence the “Designed by Apple in California” label shown above. Apple claims that its innovation has produced more than 1 million U.S. jobs. But only 66,000 are actual Apple employees, including 30,000 retail workers.

    Ariens (Brillion, Wis.)

     

    Although many of its engines are imported, Ariens, which boasts of “American craftsmanship,” employs more than 1,000 American workers in three factories to produce outdoor power equipment. Another 400 U.S. workers design, test, sell and support its products and customers.

    Troy-Bilt (Valley City, Ohio)

     

     

    Troy-Bilt’s label, which says “Rooted in America,” plays up its agrarian origins. In 1937, it revolutionized the rototiller, which is still a signature product, along with lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and other outdoor power equipment. It was bought by MTD, a Cleveland-based manufacturer, in 2001. Its five U.S. factories use a combination of domestic and foreign parts.

    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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    Best American-made appliances

    The thousands of products that pass through Consumer Reports test labs each year come from all corners of the globe. There are washing machines and water heaters from Mexico, TVs and refrigerators from South Korea, dishwashers and vacuums from Germany. We see lots of appliances that are made right here in the U.S. too, of course. Every country has winners and losers when it comes to quality and performance.

    Here, we focus on the best American-made large and small appliances available now. Especially with so much recent reshoring, the U.S. is competitive in these categories, so you have plenty of choices. You may have to spend a bit more, however, since in many cases, appliance manufacturers have brought production of premium lines home , while continuing to outsource lower-priced models.

    Read our special report, "Made in America," to find what's really a U.S.-made product and not an import. ANd find out what makes a car ‘American’.

    Refrigerators

    Among all bottom-freezers and built-ins we’ve tested, roughly 40 make our recommended list, including these 10 American-made models. (Most top-freezers and side-by-sides are manufactured overseas.)

    French-door bottom-freezers

    Conventional bottom-freezers

    Built-ins

    Dishwashers

    In this category, KitchenAid is the safest bet because all its dishwashers are manufactured in Findlay, Ohio. Bosch and Kenmore mix of domestic and foreign production, but the models below are made in the U.S.

    Wall ovens

    Michigan-based Whirlpool (which also owns Maytag and KitchenAid) makes many of the best performing wall ovens on the market. GE’s innovative French-door oven is also a recommended model.

    Ranges

    Looking for a great American-made range? Many electric models score highly in our tests, including the top induction model from Kenmore. The best pro-style ranges are made in KitchenAid’s factory in Cleveland, Tenn.

    Smoothtop electric

    Induction

    Gas

    Pro-style

    Washers

    About a third of our washing machine picks are American-made. No dryers produced in the U.S. make the cut in our current Ratings.

    Front-loader

    HE top-loader

    Conventional top-loader

    Freezers

    About half of our recommended freezers are made in the U.S. , including both upright and chest configurations.

    Self-defrost upright

    Manual-defrost upright

    Manual-defrost chest freezer

    Small appliances

    American-made small appliances are hard to come by. Indeed, no recommended toaster, coffeemaker, or food processor is made here. But the mixer and blender choices below are all top-rated.

    Stand mixers

    Blenders

    Gas grills

    The vast majority of gas grills are manufactured in China. But all Vermont Castings grills are made in central Vermont, and Weber’s Summit and Genesis lines are made in Palatine, Ill.

    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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    Try a foam roller to relieve aching muscles

    Q. My muscles are often very stiff, and stretching them out doesn’t seem to help. What else can I do to relieve the stiffness and achiness?

    A. Try using a foam roller (available online, at sporting goods stores, and big-box stores like Target and Walmart for about $15 to $40). These simple cylindrical pieces of dense foam come in different lengths, but the most common is 36 inches, which is considered the most versatile model.

    Want to beat back pain? Find out what worked for our readers. Also, see our pain relief guide to know what to take when.

    To use it, sit or lie on the floor with the roller directly under the problem muscle, then slowly roll back and forth for 20 to 60 seconds, using your body weight to press down as much as feels comfortable. This type of self-massage technique, called myofascial release, loosens up stiff muscles and relaxes tight spots in your fascia, the thin sheath of connective tissue over muscles. Studies show myofascial release can also reduce soreness and improve range of motion.

    In addition to a foam roller, a tennis ball can be especially helpful for an achy back or hip. Follow the same technique as with the roller, rolling the ball under the painful spots to work out the knots.

    One crucial tip when you begin foam rolling or using a tennis ball is to start off slowly. Like some other massage techniques, myofascial release can be painful. Be sure to use your body to modulate how much pressure you put on the roller or ball.

    Remember: The idea is to relax the muscles—putting yourself in too much pain may only result in them tensing up even more. To that end, start off by purchasing a smooth foam roller, and avoid the ones with pronounced bumps and lumps that cause them to resemble medieval torture devices.

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

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    Soon you'll know whether your steak has been mechanically tenderized

    It will soon be possible to greatly reduce your risk of getting a potentially deadly form of food poisoning from steak or other cuts of beef, thanks to a new federal labeling rule that Consumer Reports’ food safety advocates have long been urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to put into place to protect consumers.

    The recently issued final rule, which will take effect in May 2016, requires labeling for beef that’s been mechanically tenderized, a process in which a machine punctures the meat with blades or needles to break down the muscle fibers (shown below). Mechanically tenderized beef is served 6.2 billion times a year in the U.S.

    You can’t tell just by looking whether a particular steak or roast has been tenderized in this way. And that’s a problem because, as we reported in "Mechanically Tenderized Beef Needs a Label," this process can drive bacteria, such as the deadly pathogen E. coli O157:H7, from the meat’s surface deep into its center. In the U.S., this type of beef was the source of at least five E coli O157:H7 outbreaks from 2003 to 2009, causing 174 illnesses, one of which was fatal according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And a 2013 study conducted by Canadian health officials concluded that the risk of getting sick from eating mechanically tenderized beef is approximately five times that of intact cuts of beef.

    Given this, it’s important to know what you’re buying, and that’s why our food safety experts have been pushing for more than five years for the government to require such meat to be labeled.

    For more information on food safety, check our Food Safety & Sustainability Guide.

    That’s just part of the solution, though. Even when it’s labeled, this beef still carries a higher risk of contamination, and therefore has to be cooked accordingly. Here’s where the USDA’s rule falls short. “USDA clearly is taking a very important step forward to protect consumers’ health because they’ll finally have a way of knowing whether the beef they’re buying has been subjected to this tenderizing process,” says Michael Hansen, Ph.D, senior scientist at Consumer Reports. “Unfortunately, we don’t agree with the agency’s decision on recommended cooking temperature.”

    A steak that hasn’t been mechanically tenderized is likely safe, even if cooked rare, if it is seared on the outside, because the bacteria are on the meat’s surface and will be killed during broiling or grilling. The new rule would allow companies to list 145° F (medium rare) as a safe cooking temperature for mechanically tenderized steak. But Hansen says 160° F (medium) is a safer bet. That’s the recommended temperature for ground beef, which has a similar contamination concern—as the meat is ground, any bacteria present gets mixed in, so the outside and the inside of a burger must be thoroughly cooked.

    Another piece of safe cooking advice that’s missing from the USDA’s label requirements: the advice to flip steaks twice during cooking to achieve an even distribution of heat needed to kill bacteria. So as you're grilling this Memorial Day, remember: Flip that steak twice and use a meat thermometer to be sure you're reaching an internal temperature of 160° F.  

    —Andrea Rock

    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 gas grills made in America

    Summer doesn’t begin for a month or so but Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start, and with that comes firing up the grill and eating outdoors. The grill pros at Consumer Reports have tested over 100 gas grills to find the best and worst, including gas grills made in the USA Here’s a look.

    Most gas grills are made in China, but Vermont Castings Signature Series grills are made, as the name implies, in Vermont and Weber’s Summit and Genesis lines are manufactured in Illinois. They aren’t cheap and you’ll see some of them highlighted in “High-end grills that are worth the price.”  The Broil King gas grills in our gas grill Ratings are made in Indiana.

    When we test grills we assess preheat performance, high- and low-temperature evenness, indirect cooking, temperature range, and convenience. We measure each grill’s usable cooking area so you can match it to the number of people typically gathered around your table. The small grills in our tests fit 18 burgers or less. Midsized can hold 18 to 28 burgers, and large, 28 or more.  

    Grills made in America

    The following grills were impressive in our tests and have overall scores of 70 or higher (out of 100). 

    Midsized
    Vermont Castings Signature Series VCS325SSP, $1,350, Recommended
    Weber Genesis S-330, $970, Recommended
    Weber Genesis E-330, $800
    Broil King Signet 90 986784 LP, $700
    Weber Summit S-470, $1,900

    Large
    Weber Summit E-670, $2,500
    Vermont Castings Signature Series VCS524SSP, $2,500  

    Beyond the border

    Our gas grill Ratings also includes Brinkmann, Char-Broil, Kenmore, Napoleon, Nexgrill, KitchenAid, and many other brands. You can narrow your choice by brand, size, and price range and use the compare tool to do just that. Check out “10 impressive gas grills for $300 or less” and “What you get when you pay $450 to $1,000 for a grill.” And because running out of propane in the middle of a party is not cool, see “A propane fuel tank gauge can save your barbecue.” Questions? E-mail me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

    Kimberly Janeway

    What else is made in America?

    Read the full report: Made in America

    The best American-made appliances

    Sleep soundly on a mattress made in the USA

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

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    4 great wireless speakers for under $300

    Memorial Day weekend signals the start of summer fun, and that means you'll probably be spending more time outdoors. No warm-weather fun would be complete without music, and wireless speakers make it easy to bring your soundtrack anywhere.

    We review dozens of models, and while you can certainly pay a lot for a speaker, a high sticker price isn’t a guarantee that you’ll be buying a high-quality model. These wireless speakers perform well but won’t break your budget.

    —Terry Sullivan

    Check our wireless speaker buying guide and Ratings and our guide to streaming music services.

    Bose SoundLink Color, $130

    This wireless speaker lets you play your tunes almost anywhere—relaxing by the pool, on the deck, in the family room—without needing to search for a power outlet or struggle with cords and connections. The Bluetooth-enabled SoundLink can play music from a smart phone or tablet as long as it’s within 30 feet or so. It can remember eight devices, so it’s easy to switch from music stored on one device to another. Weighing only 1.25 pounds, the speaker is easy to carry around, and the rechargeable battery is rated for 8 hours of play. And you can buy one in your favorite hue: The speaker comes in a choice of blue, mint, red, black, and white.

    Sonos Play:1, $200

    This CR Best Buy is a stylish, solidly constructed mono Wi-Fi speaker. You can use several of the Wi-Fi speakers (which require AC power) to play the same music, or mix it up with soft jazz where people are eating, and rock on the dance floor. Either way it's a good choice for the more critical listener looking for a wireless stereo speaker. Music and other audio content can be streamed wirelessly from your computer or mobile devices, and the Play: 1 has direct access to several online music services, including Pandora, TuneIn Radio, and Spotify.

    Jabra Solemate Max, $300

    If you’re worried that a sudden cloudburst will damage your speaker, consider a weather-resistant model such as this Jabra Solemate Max, which has a ruggedized, weatherproof design and an integrated carrying handle. The speaker has a two-tone blue/gray color scheme with a few yellow accents, including on the underside of the handle. For connecting to devices without Bluetooth, it comes with a yellow audio cable, which is neatly packed into a cutout on the bottom of the speaker.

    TDK Life on Record Trek Max, $150

    This portable, easy-to-use, weatherized Bluetooth wireless speaker from TDK is a decent choice for non-critical listeners looking for a portable wireless stereo speaker for playing music and movie/TV soundtracks. It could also double as a home system in a medium-sized room. It has NFC for touch pairing with phones and tablets, and it includes an analog audio input for use with non-Bluetooth devices. TDK claims that this speaker is weather resistant.

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

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    Best luggage brands revealed in new Consumer Reports survey

    When it comes to luggage, ConsumerReports.org subscribers are a pretty happy bunch. Of 7,000 luggage-owning respondents to a recent luggage survey* conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, 61 percent of said they did not have any issues with their primary piece of luggage, and 78 percent said they are “completely to very” (highly) satisfied. Indeed, 93 percent said they would be very or somewhat likely to recommend the brand of luggage they are using.

    For our suitcase Ratings, which included responses from 3,485 respondents to the luggage survey and that reveal the best luggage brands, we gained sufficient data to rate 10 different luggage manufacturers: American Tourister, Briggs & Riley, Delsey, Eagle Creek, Kirkland, Ricardo Beverly Hills, Samsonite, Travelpro, Tumi, and Victorinox.

    Of of the 10 different brands of suitcases that respondents said they use, Samsonite is currently used by the highest percentage of subscribers (33 percent), followed by American Tourister (15 percent) and Travelpro (12 percent).

    However, brand popularity did not always correlate with brand satisfaction, as American Tourister landed at the bottom of the chart with a lower score than almost every other rated brand and mediocre scores across the chart. Check our Ratings to find the best luggage brands.

    Check our luggage buying guide and Ratings to find the best luggage brands and advice on selecting bags that meets your needs.

    Function trumps form

    The results also indicate that respondents value function over form. More than one-half of our luggage owners chose durability (59 percent) or wheelability (58 percent) as one of three most important luggage attributes, and about one-third named easy to carry/transport (34 percent) or weight (32 percent). In contrast, appearance (6 percent), brand name (2 percent), and matching set (1 percent), were low down on the list.

    Further, the top problems people had with a piece of luggage they replaced were function related rather than brand or style related. In 36 percent of cases, the reason was worn or damaged material; for 28 percent it was a broken zipper; 24 percent named difficulties with maneuverability; 21 percent cited malfunctioning wheels; and 17 percent named problems with the handle

    More on luggage

    5 tips for preventing luggage theft

    Why buying new luggage can save you money

    Know your airline's carry-on luggage rules before you fly

    Smart luggage is the next big thing for an old product

    Luggage tips that will make you a happier flyer

    The survey was conducted in February 2015 asked Consumer Reports Online Annual Active subscribers to respond to an online survey. Our results include 7,001 total responses regarding all types of luggage and more than 200 brands of luggage.  

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

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    Is your toilet running up your water bill?

    With the drought in California stretching into a fourth year, residents may be running out of ways to cut their water use. One perhaps overlooked way—for homeowners everywhere—is to find leaks and fix them. In the average household, 10,000 gallons of water go down the drain every year because of leaks. Here’s how to stem the tide with tips from the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Leak detection

    If a family of four is using more than 12,000 gallons a month in winter months, they’ve got serious leaks. Before looking for individual leaks, check your overall water usage by monitoring your water meter over a two-hour period when no water is being used. If the meter keeps inching up, you probably have a leak.

    Toilets

    Typically, toilets begin leaking when the toilet flapper or valve seal becomes old or worn. To check, put some food coloring in the toilet tank and wait 15 minutes to see if color shows up in the toilet bowl. If it does, you’ve got a leak.

    Faucets

    Old and worn washers and gaskets are frequently the cause of leaks. Turn the water off under the sink before trying to fix a leak. Close the drain and cover the bottom of the sink or bathtub with a cloth so you don’t lose any small parts.

    Showerheads

    Make sure there is a tight connection between the showerhead and pipe stem. You can use pipe tape to secure it. You may also need to replace the washer. If you suspect a valve leak, it’s time to call the plumber.

    Outdoors

    Check your garden hose at the connection to the spigot and, if needed, replace the washer. If you have leaky in-ground irrigation, call a professional.

    Mend your water-wasting ways

    Use less water without sacrificing function or flow

    Washing machines that save water and money

    Turn your yard from thirsty to thrifty with these tips

    Leaky plumbing can drain your bank account

    Telltale signs that you're overwatering your lawn

    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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    Don't miss these Memorial Day home center sales

    Holiday weekends are a great time to check out sales at the home center and this Memorial Day weekend is no exception. Consumer Reports took a spin through the virtual aisles of the websites of Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Sears and found some great bargains on some of our top-rated products. The prices listed below are from the retailers and were current as of this posting.

    Home Depot

    Appliances that costs $396 are being discounted 10 percent and some mowers and other yard gear is up to 25 percent off. There are also deals on buckets of paint, gas grills, and patio furniture. Here are sales on some of our top picks.

    Mowers and trimmers

    Appliances

    Lowe’s

    At Lowe’s, you can find big sales of 10 to 30 percent on major appliances that cost $396 or more. Pails of paint, garden gear, and everything for outdoors—grills, patio furniture and power equipment—can also be found marked down. Here’s some of our picks.

    Appliances

    Mower

    Sears

    Sears has discounts of up to 60 percent on mattresses, 40 percent or more on selected appliances and vacuums, and up to 25 percent off some grills, mowers and outdoor power equipment. Here’s some top-rated gear from it house brands, Kenmore and Craftsman.

    Appliances


    Outdoor gear

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



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  • 05/22/15--02:59: The best way to stop sunburn
  • The best way to stop sunburn

    Summer may not officially begin for a few weeks, but Memorial Day is the unofficial start of sunburn season.

    “It’s often the first burst of sun exposure for many people, especially those in northern climates,” says Arielle Kauvar, M.D., a New York City-based dermatologist and clinical professor of dermatology at New York University School of Medicine. “And because people are often more lax then about following sun-safe guidelines, such as wearing sunscreen and protective clothing, and limiting exposure during prime burning hours, sunburn is very common.”

    That’s worrisome, considering that one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles a person’s chances of developing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, later in life. But you’re hardly safe from any skin-ravaging effects if you get burned as an adult: A person’s risk for melanoma also doubles if he or she has had five or more sunburns at any age.

    Get more advice about staying safe in the sun and our latest sunscreen ratings.

    Another reason people tend to get scorched at the start of the season is that they’re at their palest then, so they burn more quickly. However, getting a “base” tan is hardly a sound sunburn-prevention strategy, according to Kauvar.

    “It provides very little protection from sun damage and further sunburns, and leads to a false sense of security," she says. Plus, a tan—regardless of your motivation for getting it—is a sign of skin damage. The rays that produce skin darkening also stimulate the breakdown of collagen that can cause wrinkling and trigger cell changes that may lead to skin cancer.

    The upshot: Whether you’re kicking summer off at the beach, pool, backyard barbecue, or baseball game, you need to shield your skin from UV damage.

    Luckily, being sunwise is quite simple. Just use a water-resistant (to 80 minutes) sunscreen, apply it 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure (most sunscreens need to be absorbed into the skin before they’re effective), and reapply every two hours or after swimming or perspiring heavily.

    Remember to cover any areas that will be exposed; often-overlooked spots include the back of the neck, tops of ears, bald heads, tops of feet, and swimsuit edges. (Applying sunscreen before getting dressed will help avoid this last one-—but let it dry before you put on your suit. Most sunscreens stain fabric.)

    Opt for a broad-brimmed hat and wraparound sunglasses. And if you’re heading to the beach or pool, don’t forget the cover-up!

    —Karyn Repinski

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

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  • 05/22/15--02:59: What makes a car 'American'?
  • What makes a car 'American'?

    It's been almost 40 years since the first U.S.-built Volkswagen Rabbit rolled off an assembly line in Westmoreland, Pa., forever changing the definition of “American car.”

    During those four decades, the automotive industry has increasingly become a global enterprise, with automakers and their suppliers grabbing parts from all over the world, then building and selling those polyglot vehicles in as many countries as possible.

    One example of the murkiness of defining nationality is the 2014 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 pickup. Many were assembled in Silao, Mexico, with assembly lines also in Indiana and Michigan. But the 2015 Toyota Tundra is assembled exclusively in Texas. Which truck is more American, the Mexican-made Chevy or Texas Toyota?

    “You’re never going to get a car made 100 percent in one country anymore,” says Eric Fedewa, a supply-chain expert with industry consultancy IHS. “What you’ll typically see instead is larger components made near the point of sale, to save shipping costs, while small components like electric motors and actuators will be brought in from anywhere.”

    The traditional Detroit automakers accounted for almost 6 million of the more than 11 million vehicles made in the U.S. last year—although Toyota and Honda are close to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles as the No. 3 U.S. producer. And Korean and European brands have joined numerous Japanese automakers in building assembly plants amid America’s amber waves of grain.

    To help consumers understand how “American” a new vehicle is, every car has to display a parts-content window sticker. That country-of-origin statement has been required since 1994 by the American Automobile Labeling Act (AALA). It lists the final assembly point, source of the engine and transmission, and which countries supplied 15 percent or more of the vehicle’s equipment. You can find the full list at nhtsa.gov.

    That label is flawed, though. Thanks to some creative lobbying, the AALA lumps in Canadian content with parts sourced in the U.S. Everywhere else counts as “foreign”—even Mexico, despite both Canada and Mexico being part of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

    Read our special report, "Made in America," and our coverage of the best American-made appliances.

    How did that geographical anomaly come to pass? Detroit’s Big Three automakers happened to own a string of auto and component plants just northeast of Detroit in Ontario. Subtract the Canadian content, and many Detroit cars just became a lot less “American.” As comedienne Kathleen Madigan would have it, perhaps Canada really is America’s attic.

    At best, the AALA sticker is a rough approximation anyway: Carmakers continuously juggle their suppliers and production-­­line assignments as the need arises. Also, the AALA doesn’t account for where the profits on the sale of a vehicle end up. And the origination label traces a vehicle part back only so far. So the profits from a Honda Civic assembled in Indiana ultimately return to Japan, and profits from a Chevrolet Trax crossover built in South Korea return to Detroit. To add to the confusion, profits from that most American of all vehicles—Jeeps—are now funneled overseas because the brand is part of the Fiat auto empire.

    “Made in America” also means more than just assembly jobs. Most automakers have created large local supplier factories and engineering and safety labs, as well as design studios and research centers.

    Carmakers have long believed that the most sensible course of action is to use global component sets that are fine-tuned locally for regional market tastes. But the local studios of many foreign brands are now leading the way for global vehicle development. Perhaps no greater symbol of that was when Honda had its Ohio research and development lab develop the automaker’s flagship Acura NSX supercar, which will launch this year.

    The marketing of the Chrysler 200 sedan (shown above) carries the slogan ‘America’s Import.’ But how much of the 200 actually is made in America? About 67 percent, with final assembly in Michigan. But some key parts come from overseas, as the image above illustrates.

    The U.S. saw an increase in automotive employment in the 1990s and early 2000s. German, Japanese, and South Korean automakers covered the American South with hulking final-assembly and supplier plants and tens of thousands of nonunion jobs that paid just well enough to fend off the United Auto Workers. The idea: Build ’em where you sell ’em.

    Many Americans were wary back in the 1980s when Honda, Toyota, and Nissan began constructing factories in the U.S., but those “transplants” have turned out to be stalwart large-scale employers.

    In an ironic turnabout from the years when naysayers decried made-in-Asia cars as little more than tin boxes built with cheap labor, the U.S. has become the low-cost labor source of choice for foreign brands. Korean automakers Hyundai and Kia jumped into the fray; even German luxury brands had little problem expanding outside home.

    In 2014, BMW exported 70 percent of what it builds in its South Carolina plant. Paul Ferraiolo, BMW’s product planning and strategy manager, says, “it’s not an issue” that the automaker builds cars in South Carolina.

    “Our Spartanburg cars are as German in character, design, tuning, and quality as any other,” Ferraiolo says. “No one asks for a German-built car.”

    In 2012, Japanese-brand car-production facilities and their suppliers generated almost 700,000 manufacturing and other jobs in America, according to a report by Rutgers University economics professor Thomas J. Prusa, Ph.D. Including dealer networks, Japanese-brand companies accounted for an estimated 1.3 million American jobs.

    But the American South’s automotive boom could be tapering. Mexico, with its willing and lower-wage work force, and the benefit of NAFTA, is emerging as a major exporter.

    Almost all of the big carmakers and many parts suppliers have built Mexican plants in the past five years—mostly specializing in entry-level cars with their inherent narrow profit margins.

    It has been reported that Mexico is likely to send about 2 million cars north of the border this year, outpacing what we import from Canada, Japan, or all of Europe.

    Given the rise of the Latino population in America, having vehicles coming from Mexico could have a marketing benefit.

    Those customers have the opportunity to purchase vehicles that might have been built in their home country, says Jim O’Sullivan, CEO of Mazda North American Operations, which now builds some Mazda2 and Mazda3 models in Mexico. “Some of our dealers have told us anecdotally,” he says, that Latino customers “know the vehicle was built in Mexico, and they gravitate to that.”

    So if you want to buy American, which is the best vehicle to choose?

    In 2014, about 11 million vehicles from a dozen brands were built in the U.S. But they vary considerably in the percentage of U.S.-manufactured components they use. The 2013 BMW X3 was assembled in South Carolina, but 65 percent of its content came from Germany, according to its AALA label. The Honda Odyssey, at 75 percent American or Canadian parts, is assembled in Alabama, with its engine and transmission also coming from the U.S. Honda says it exported more vehicles from U.S. factories than it imported from Japan in 2013 and 2014.

    To those who argue that Japanese-branded cars can’t be considered American because profits revert to Japan, it could be pointed out that the billions of dollars spent on American plant construction, equipment procurement and assembly-line workers bolsters the U.S. economy rather than Japan’s.

    Whatever your reasons, if you’re in the market for a good-performing homegrown vehicle, you can find some great choices. To help you choose, we have assembled several lists of good-performing vehicles that have strong reliability, are assembled in the U.S., and have high percentages of the content attributable to domestic manufacturing.

    If you want a car assembled by the folks you see down at Moe’s diner and made with American-sourced parts, the following list is a good place to start. A checkmark indicates that the vehicle also is recommended because it performed well in Consumer Reports' tests, has average or better predicted reliability, and performed adequately in crash tests.

    Ranking of automakers by the number of passenger vehicles assembled in U.S. factories in 2014. Numbers include vehicles exported for sale outside the U.S.

    Automaker

    Vehicles built in U.S. (2014)

    Ford

    2,178,120

    General Motors

    1,926,007

    Fiat Chrysler

    1,733,002

    Toyota

    1,334,691

    Honda

    1,268,904

    Nissan

    931,974

    Hyundai/Kia

    768,230

    BMW

    349,949

    Mercedes-Benz

    220,181

    Subaru

    193,022

    Volkswagen

    123,415

    Mitsubishi

    69,178

    Tesla

    36,036

    Total

    11,132,709

    These 2015 models assembled within the U.S. have the largest portion of domestic-manufactured components, as defined by the American Automobile Labeling Act (AALA). 

    Vehicle

    Percent

    Buick Enclave

    75%

    Cadillac CTS coupe

    75%

    Chevrolet Corvette

    75%

    Chevrolet Traverse

    75%

    GMC Acadia

    75%

    Honda Odyssey

    75%

    Toyota Camry

    75%

    Toyota Sienna

    75%

    Dodge Viper

    71%

    Jeep Cherokee

    71%

    Tied at 70 percent: Acura RDX, Honda Accord, Honda Crosstour, Honda Pilot, Jeep Wrangler, Toyota Avalon, Toyota Tundra. 

    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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    Don’t make this costly mortgage-shopping mistake

    As with anything you buy, scoring the best deal on a mortgage or refinancing involves shopping around. Yet 77 percent of borrowers applied for a loan with a single lender instead of checking out several to compare costs, according to a recent study by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “People may well put more time and effort into shopping for smaller products such as appliances and televisions than they do in shopping for the right mortgage,” the bureau’s director, Richard Cordray, said in a statement. But the potential savings from doing your homework are significant. If you get a $250,000 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at 4 percent interest from a lender instead of paying 4.5 to another, you’ll save $26,345 over the life of the loan.

    We know it can be difficult to find the right mortgage; the process can be intimidating. Following these steps will help you get the best deal.

    To get the most favorable rate on a loan, you have to have a credit score of at least 740, says Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com. Recently, if your score was 740 and you applied for a $300,000 30-year fixed mortgage, you could qualify for a 3.75 percent interest rate. If your score was below 680, the best national rate we found on Bankrate.com was 4.25 percent for the same loan, which would cost you $31,130 more over the life of the loan.

    Finding a free FICO score has become easier. About a dozen lenders now provide it to customers, although you may have to have a particular kind of account. If you don’t do business with a company that offers free scores, you can pay $20 for a FICO score and one credit report at myfico.com.

    Get your score at least six months before you plan to shop for a mortgage. If your score is less than stellar, you’ll have time to try to boost it, says Kelly Long, a CPA in Chicago. (See the box below for more tips.)

    Before you shop, determine how much you want to borrow, which type of mortgage you want, and how long a term you need so that you can compare lenders’ products.

    Most borrowers go with a fixed-rate mortgage, usually for a 30-year term, to spread out the cost of a home purchase over time while making predictable payments each month, says David Reiss, a professor who teaches real-estate finance law at Brooklyn Law School. Those loans make sense especially when rates are low and for buyers who intend to own their house for a long time.

    But also consider an adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM), also called a variable-rate or floating-rate mortgage), Reiss says. It has an interest rate that’s fixed for an introductory period of time, then changes periodically, usually in relation to an index. The introductory rate is often lower than the rate on fixed-rate mortgages. For example, the average 30-year fixed-rate mortgage recently had an annual percentage rate (APR) of 3.5 percent, according to Bankrate.com; the average 5/1 ARM (which adjusts annually after five years) was 2.67 percent.

    When the rate adjusts, it can sometimes result in a sizable increase in monthly mortgage payments. “ARMs are appropriate for people who anticipate relocating or paying off the loan before it adjusts,” Reiss says, “or for empty nesters who don’t plan to stay in a home for many years.”

    Many first-time homebuyers can qualify for Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans. They usually have less rigid borrowing requirements, low down payments, and more flexible income requirements. For more information, go to fha.com/fha_loan_requirements.

    After you decide on a type of loan, compare the deals you can get from a mix of large national banks, online banks, local regional banks, credit unions, mortgage brokers, and mortgage companies, Long says. Interest rates can fluctuate daily, so try to shop on the same day or within a few days, if possible.

    Remember that lenders with the lowest interest rates may not necessarily be the best option because fees can significantly drive up the cost of a mortgage. In general, a mortgage with higher fees will have a lower interest rate, so it’s important to ask about loan origination or underwriting fees, broker fees, and closing costs. And ask lenders what each fee covers.

    Points are fees paid to a lender or broker and are usually linked to the interest rate. The more points you pay, the lower your rate. One point costs 1 percent of the loan amount and reduces your interest rate by about 0.25 percent.

    To find out how much you’ll actually end up paying, ask for points to be quoted as a dollar amount. In general, people who plan to live in a house for 10 years or more should consider points to keep interest rates lower for the life of the loan. Paying a lot of money up front for points may not be worth it if you plan to move in a shorter amount of time.

    Calculators that compare mortgage deals, like the ones at Bankrate.com and HSH.com, can help you compare the cost of different mortgages over the life of a loan.

    After you have found the best offer, try to negotiate even better terms. Ask the lender whether he will waive or reduce any of the fees he is charging or offer you an even lower interest rate (or fewer points). You are unlikely to get fees waived from third parties, like those for a title search, government processing fees, and appraiser fees, Reiss says. “But you may be able to cut the lender’s fees, like its underwriting, document processing, and document preparation costs,” he says.  

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

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