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Consumer Reports

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    Dekton countertop cracks in Consumer Reports' tests

    Kitchen countertops take a lot of abuse. Spills happen, stains can follow, with food coloring one of the toughest to wash away, and not everybody uses a cutting board or trivet—just ask teens. That’s why Dekton sounds so appealing. This new countertop material is marketed as an ultraresistant, ultracompact surface. Consumer Reports tested Dekton and found it excelled in some of our tough tests, but during others, it cracked into two pieces and edges chipped off.

    What is Dekton?

    “It’s made of a combination of quartz, porcelain, and glass. I would describe it as a hybrid of the best materials in the market for surfacing,” says Lorenzo Marquez, vice president of marketing for Cosentino North America, the manufacturer. “It’s a new product category. There are similar products from an aesthetic sense but nothing like it from composition. The look and feel is unique. ”

    The Dekton website says that a high-tech process “produces surfaces of a size and thinness that was previously unimaginable, yet still ensuring extreme levels of performance.” In consumer talk that means that stains, abrasion, scratches, heat, ultra-violet rays, ice and thawing are supposedly no match for Dekton. It’s sold at Home Depot and kitchen design stores for $58 to $96 per square foot installed and must be professionally installed. Dekton comes with a 25-year warranty, which does not cover cracks or chipping due to impact from heavy objects.

    How we test

    To test durability we stained, sliced, scratched, scorched, and nicked 14 materials from leading brands, including Dekton, which is the only ultracompact in our tests. We found big differences among materials but little variation among brands, except for recycled glass, and so our countertop Ratings are by materials.

    Our test results

    Dekton resisted damage from heat, stains, chopping and cutting, scoring excellent in these tests, and was very good at resisting abrasion. But in our impact tests, pieces of the edges chipped off, and Dekton cracked into two pieces on samples that were 2 centimeters thick, the manufacturer-recommended thickness. Our impact tests simulate what could happen if a heavy pot fell from a shelf or pot rack up to 2 feet above the counter. None of the other 13 materials we tested cracked this way.

    Shopping for countertops?

    You know what you like—quartz, granite, marble, laminate— now find out how durable these materials are. We tested 14 materials and our countertop Ratings offer a glimpse into the future—life outside the showroom. Any questions? E-mail me at kjaneway@consumer.org

    Kimberly Janeway 

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

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    Recommended coffeemaker falls from grace

    After Consumer Reports tests a product, our job isn’t over. Product pros continue to monitor the user reviews on our website, especially for our top-rated models. That’s why we took another look at the Mr. Coffee BVMC-SJX33GT, at $40 it was our only CR Best Buy among carafe-style drip coffeemakers. Readers questioned whether the model’s brew-strength setting actually worked, so we bought two new models of the coffeemaker for retesting.

    Mr. Coffee claims that the brew-strength feature “pumps up a stronger flavor if you like it bold-tasting.” The brewing process lengthens when the machine is on this setting, so it certainly seems that something different is happening. But when we tested the coffee two ways, it was difficult to tell coffee made on the normal setting from coffee made on the strong setting.

    In the first test, we used a coffee refractometer to analyze how coffee brewed with and without the strong setting compared in its percentage of dissolved solids—one measure of coffee richness. And the bold coffee didn’t necessarily differ in the level of dissolved solids. Our second test was a blind taste test conducted by our staff sensory panel. They sampled coffee made on both settings,  but couldn’t conclusively identify the bolder coffee in terms of taste.

    Using our full suite of coffeemaker tests, we continued to put the Mr. Coffee BVMC-SJX33GT through its paces. That’s when the real surprise came. In our brew-performance tests for temperature and brewing duration, the one-time champ fell short of maintaining the industry-standard temperature of 195° to 205° F for five to six minutes, the time and temperature it takes to brew optimal coffee.

    Because the new models of the Mr. Coffee BVMC-SJX33GT no longer measure up, it is dropping in our Ratings from a recommended model to lower in the pack. Consider it a win for consumer feedback and a reminder that we are listening.

    Need a new coffeemaker?

    More than a dozen machines in our coffeemaker Ratings of 75 drip coffeemakers meet industry standards for brew performance. Also see our coffeemaker Ratings of more than 30 single-serve, pod machines, and check out our coffeemaker 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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    Ford Sync 3 infotainment system is coming soon to a car near you

    The Ford Sync 3, the anticipated replacement for the much-maligned MyFord Touch system, will launch in the 2016 Escape and Fiesta this summer, featuring all-new hardware and software.

    A simpler layout and larger onscreen buttons give the next-generation Ford Sync 3 a cleaner look than MyFord Touch. Beyond the fresh appearance, Sync 3 promises an easier and less distracting experience while driving. The menu structure is more intuitive, and the demo unit we used had a faster response time, which Ford promises will carry over to production versions. Seamless app integration and easy-to-use voice controls that respond to natural speech add to the appeal.

    Ford Sync 3 can automatically detect compatible smartphone apps, such as Glympse, iHeart Radio, NPR One, Pandora, and Spotify, integrating their graphics into the display. When paired with an Apple iPhone, Sync 3 can access Siri via a button on the steering wheel. The touch-screen controls mimic those on a smartphone, responding to screen gestures and pinch-to-zoom operation.

    Tune in to our guide to infotainment systems.

    Ford Sync 3 also includes the capability for over-the-air updates via Wi-Fi, delivered to the car as soon as they’re available, along with a notification that they’ve arrived. Such updates would be performed when the car is in the driveway or garage within reach of Wi-Fi coverage.

    A subscription-free 911 assist can alert emergency services in the event of a serious accident, much like GM's OnStar, via a paired phone, transmitting key information such as location and airbag deployment to first responders. This heightens functionality available on select MyFord Touch systems currently by delivering more car details.

    We look forward to evaluating production versions of the Sync 3 to see whether this infotainment system eliminates the screen freezes and other glitches that have plagued MyFord Touch and resulted in the carmaker getting lower scores in our reliability and owner-satisfaction surveys.

    Following the Escape and Fiesta to market with Sync 3 will be the C-Max, Focus, Mustang, and Transit. Other models will continue the roll out through late 2015 and beyond.

    Jeff Bartlett

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

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    6 Father's Day tech gifts that will entertain all year long

    Even if your Dad isn't a geek, we bet he'd love to get a gadget for Father's Day. After all, how many neckties can one guy wear? So we asked our experts to recommend specific electronic gifts that can meet different budgets, starting at less than $50. And of course, all of the Father's Day gift suggestions must have performed well in Consumer Reports tests. 

    Father's Day is coming up fast. Treat the father in your life to a cool and useful gift—a smartwatch, waterproof camera, Bluetooth speaker, headphones, action cam, or streaming media player—that will make him smile all year long.

    —Eileen McCooey

    Apple Watch Sport, $350 (38mm) and $400 (42mm)

    What self-respecting techie wouldn’t love a smartwatch that puts phone and computing capability right on his wrist? One of the best we’ve tested is the Apple Watch, a top choice for generous budgets. Consider the entry-level Sport versions.

    These less-expensive models have the same functionality as their pricier siblings, including fitness tracking and the ability to make phone calls when paired to an iPhone. Dad can even summon Siri, Apple's intelligent personal assistant, to handle searches and other tasks using voice commands. The Apple Watch works only with the iPhone 5 and later devices.

    Other choices for other budgets

    If you prefer a watch that’s easier on the budget but still big on performance, consider the LG G Watch R, $300, which resembles a scuba timepiece. (You might find the G Watch R selling for less. A brand-new model we haven't tested yet, the LG Watch Urbane, $350, has a stylish metal case but appears to offer similar functionality.)

    For something with classic styling, check out the Motorola Moto 360, $250, which looks like a modern art museum’s take on a traditional analog watch.

    Both the LG and Motorola watches work with devices running Android 4.3 Jellybean or higher.

    Finally, there’s the Pebble watch, $100 (plastic case) and $200 (stainless steel case). It’s compatible with iPhone 4 and Android 4.1 and later gadgets.

    Check out our smartwatch buying guide for more helpful advice.

    Nikon Coolpix AW130, $300

    The rugged, waterproof Nikon Coolpix AW130 digital camera is a great companion for any Dad who’s into the outdoor life. It’s waterproof to 98 feet, deeper than most other cameras on the market, so it's perfect for scuba adventures. It’s also designed to survive cold temperatures and hard knocks. Built-in Wi-Fi and NFC make it easy to transfer photos to a compatible smartphone for quick sharing, and the GPS feature records coordinates and geotags shots. And did we mention that it takes very good photos? It comes in four colors, including vibrant red.

    Other choices for other budgets

    If your Pop doesn't need a waterproof model but likes to capture closeup photos from across the field or the back of the auditorium, he’ll appreciate the Canon PowerShot SX410 IS superzoom, $250. It packs an impressive 40x zoom into a relatively light package and has an excellent image stabilizer that helps minimize blurriness due to jittery hands.

    Check out our digital camera buying guide for more helpful advice.

    Sony HDR-AS200V, $300

    If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a video must be worth at least a gazillion. Help Dad capture and share his outdoor exploits by giving him the Sony HDR-AS200V action cam. This stylish, compact model stands out for its top-notch image stabilizer, which helps take smooth video even when he's careening down a bumpy mountain trail or bouncing along on a  whitewater raft trip. The body is splash proof, and when used with the included waterproof housing, the camcorder can take a 15-foot dive.

    Another less-expensive choice 

    The Kodak PixPro SP1, $180, can dive up to 33 feet without a case. Like the Sony, it has image stabilization, and it adds an LCD, but it's a bit heavier.

    Check out our camcorder buying guide for more helpful advice.

    TDK Life on Record Trek Max A34, $150

    If your Dad spends lots of time in the backyard grilling burgers or chilling with a cold brew, give him the gift of tunes on the go with the TDK Life on Record Trek Max A34. This battery-powered speaker uses Bluetooth technology to stream music from phones, tablets, and other devices up to 30 feet away. The rugged, weather-resistant exterior should protect it from sudden cloudbursts or splashes from the pool. Its good sound quality is suitable for playing music and movie/TV soundtracks.

    Another option

    The Bose SoundLink Color, $130, is a great choice if your father would prefer a more compact and colorful speaker. It comes in red, green, and blue, along with basic black and white.

    Check out our speaker buying guide for more helpful shopping advice.

    Google Chromecast, $35

    Stick it to Dad this Father's Day—in the nicest way possible—by presenting him with the Google Chromecast streaming media player. It's one of the lowest-priced streamers out there. Besides streaming Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, and other content directly, it can display content from a computer or using the Chrome browser and mirror content from your Android phone or tablet.

    Other choices for Dads into Amazon Prime

    If Dad subscribes to Amazon Prime, consider the Amazon Fire TV Stick or Roku Streaming Stick, around $40 each. Both these players can mirror content from his phone or tablet. They include a remote as well as a free remote app. The Fire TV Stick also recognizes voice commands for easy searches.

    Check out our streaming media players buying guide for more helpful advice.

    Sennheiser CX 215, $30

    Don't let Dad suffer with the cheapie earbuds that came with his phone or, worse yet, the freebies from his last plane ride! The Sennheiser CX 215 earphones offer very good sound quality and an earplug-style design that will muffle some external noise, so he can enjoy his favorite music with less distraction. (The design will also limit the amount of sound that escapes, so you won't have to listen to doo-wop when he's sitting next to you!)

    These earphones, which are covered by a 24-month warranty, come in five fun colors and include three sets of earpieces of various sizes to ensure a comfy fit. There's even a storage case.

    Another option for tight budgets

    The Panasonic RP-TCM125 earbuds, $20, will treat him to very good sound quality. The integrated microphone and controls work with many cell phones. They come in four colors with three sets of eartips and a carrying case. You might find them selling for as little as $11 or so online.

    Check out our headphones buying guide for more helpful advice.

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

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    The drive to make your next car safer

    Following government mandates that new cars be fitted with seat belts, airbags, and more recently electronic stability control (ESC), the next major step in automotive safety is to require forward-collision warning and mitigation systems.

    This technology is widely offered on many of today’s new cars. Forward-collision systems have been shown to dramatically decrease crash incidents—or at least the speed at which the impacts occur. Trouble is, these increasingly affordable systems are still too often bundled into expensive options packages, or require a premium trim level.

    New recommendations published this week by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) push for these features to become standard equipment on all new cars. Consumer Reports gives this effort our full support.

    The NTSB cites that in recent years, almost half of all two-vehicle crashes involved a rear-end collision, claiming about 1,700 lives per year, and causing 500,000 injuries. And the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) estimates as many as 1.9 million total crashes could be prevented or mitigated each year if all vehicles were equipped with forward-collision systems.

    The benefits of a system that could drastically reduce these crashes is monumental. The price-per-car for a frontal-collision warning system is $250-$400—a fraction of the typical charge for an ambulance ride.

    How the systems work

    Forward-collision warning (FCW) uses cameras, radar or laser (or some combination thereof) to scan the road ahead, and to alert the driver if the distance to a vehicle ahead is closing  too quickly.

    The systems alert the driver with an audible, haptic (touch), and/or visual cue. More advanced systems include automatic braking that can stop a car quickly enough to avoid a collision at modest speeds, or at the very least reduce the closing speed. At freeway speeds, the systems can’t stop the car in time, but they will still apply the brakes to reduce the force of the collision and some can even prepare the cabin’s seat belts and airbags for impact.

    In driving dozens of cars equipped with FCW systems, Consumer Reports has found the abilities to be impressive both on our test track and in the real world. A polling of our Auto Test Center staff found that cars with forward collision systems have proved their worth to nearly every staffer at least once.  

    That said, while most systems work well, there is some variation in how they perform. One noted complaint is that they can emit a false warning when the driver is attentive to his surroundings and the car is well under control. But these warnings are rare and the staff unanimously agrees that the benefits outweigh the negatives. Plus, the systems will only become more sophisticated over time.

    Learn more about car safety.

    Recommendations

    The NTSB has issued several recommendations to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that Consumer Reports wholeheartedly endorses:

    • Install forward-collision avoidance systems that include, at a minimum, a forward collision warning component, as standard equipment on all new vehicles. (This includes commercial trucks and RVs.)
    • Develop and apply testing protocols to assess the performance of forward-collision avoidance systems in passenger vehicles at various velocities, including high speed and high velocity-differential conditions.
    • Complete, as soon as possible, the development and application of performance standards and protocols for the assessment of forward-collision avoidance systems in commercial vehicles.
    • Expand the New Car Assessment Program 5-star rating system to include a scale that rates the performance of forward-collision avoidance systems. (Currently, NHTSA just cites the availability of systems.)
    • Once the rating scale is established, include the ratings of forward-collision avoidance systems on the vehicle window stickers.

    “Affordable crash avoidance technologies exist today that can dramatically reduce the risk of being injured or killed on the road, but they aren't as widely available to new-car buyers as they should be,” says William Wallace, policy analyst at Consumers Union, the public policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. “Automakers and regulators should act on NTSB's recommendations so that all new-car owners can benefit from these technologies. And the proposed window sticker ratings would inform shoppers and pressure automakers to make ongoing improvements.”

    See which cars currently offer advanced safety systems.

    Jeff Bartlett

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

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    Why Congress shouldn't repeal country-of-origin labeling on meat and poultry

    It took years fighting the global meatpacking industry to get country-of-origin labeling—that's COOL—on meat, so you have the choice to buy American or any other country you want. The labels finally began appearing in your grocery stores within the last year after unsuccessful lawsuits and attacks.

    But now, after a World Trade Organization ruling in a case brought by countries who oppose our country-of-origin labeling law, Congress is ready to cave in and gut it.

    The House of Representatives will vote on June 10 whether to remove country-of-origin labeling from beef, as well as poultry and ground pork. Many members want to give in to the demands of the WTO and Canada and Mexico, which claim these labels discriminate against their products.

    Read about Consumer Reports' work on chicken and shrimp safety, and get more information in our Food Safety & Sustainability Guide.

    It was a major consumer victory in 2008 when Congress made country-of-origin labeling the law of the land after concern about the safety of some imported food. 

    The law survived lawsuits and delays. But now that the United States signed up to various global trade agreements, the WTO ruled that the U.S. must get rid of the labels or pay penalties to Canada and Mexico.

    But Congress and American consumers don’t have to give in to what the WTO or the meat and poultry processors want!  Many past disputes like this have been negotiated with other countries and settled in other ways.

    Congress is hearing from big-money lobbyists, not consumers who actually use the labels. So join us and make your voice heard by telling your congressional representatives to vote no on the repeal of country-of-origin labeling.

    —Consumer Reports

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

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    Garment bags for the 21st-century dad

    Lay it out on the bed longways. Insert suits on the hang bar. Zip closed, fold in half, sling it over the shoulder, and head out. That's how travelers used to use garment bags, those heavy, bulky carriers that were designed to keep a suit wrinkle-free.

    Today, newer garment-bag designs that are light and wheeled are making the old-school garment go the way of smoking cabins on airplanes. Indeed, many types of luggage designed for packing suits are not even “garment bags.”

    With Father's Day approaching—it's June 21 this year—take a look at these garment bags for the dad on the go.

    Read our luggage buying guide and survey results before you shop for luggage. 

    Wheeled suiters

    It’s a carry on! It’s a garment bag! It’s a carry-on and a garment bag! Often called a suiter, wheeled luggage with integrated garment-bag-type sections are abundant on the market. From the outside, suiters look no different from the typical 22-inch-high x 9-inch-deep x 14-inch-wide carry-on bag. On the inside, though, they include a section designed to keep a suit or two unwrinkled.

    For example, the two-wheeled Briggs & Riley Baseline Domestic Carry On Upright Garment Bag* includes a garment section and a well for additional clothes, plus interior and exterior pockets. Same idea but less pricey are the Traveler's Choice Sienna 21” Hybrid Rolling Carry-On Garment Bag and the Travelpro Crew 10 Rolling Carry-on Garment Bag.

    For a suiter with additional capabilities, look at the ECBC Sparrow Wheeled Garment Bag (shown at top), which includes a padded laptop compartment that can be removed for scanning at the airport security line, as well as an integrated portable battery pack for recharging your devices.

    Of course, unlike a traditional hanging garment bag, you can’t hang these wheeled suiters in a closet; you have to unpack the suits for hanging. So the Samsonite Silhouette Sphere Spinner Garment Bag has a solution. Like the others, it’s on wheels, but it also stands autonomously in the open position, like a self-contained wardrobe, so your suits are upright.

    Traditional, with a twist

    For the more traditional garment bag devotee who needs an update, look at the Briggs & Riley Baseline Compact Tri-Fold Garment Bag, which folds into carry-on size and unfurls into a full-size hanging garment bag. The Tumi Alpha Tri-Fold Carry-On Garment Bag satisfies the traditionalist and also provides a back-side slip pocket to enable you to piggyback it onto the handle of your wheeled suitcase.

    Untraditional, but practical

    Finally, for a garment bag that’s in a category of its own, there’s the SkyRoll (shown right). The suit is packed into a traditional-looking garment section, then is rolled around a center cylinder that holds the rest of your essentials. All packed, the SkyRoll is the right size for a domestic carry-on. The system doesn’t hang, so you still have to unpack the suit and hang it in the closet.

    —Susan Feinstein

    Consumer Reports has not tested any of these garment bags.

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

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    The how-to-get-anything-fixed guide

    It’s not every day that your refrigerator stops working. So when that happens, figuring out how to get it fixed may not be obvious. For Eileen Globus of Melville, N.Y., it was an eye-opening experience. After her daughter called in a technician to look at her built-in KitchenAid refrigerator, the technician said it needed a new circuit board that would cost $200, including installation. He also said it would take two weeks for the part to arrive.

    After Globus did some research online, she found that the problem could be fixed by replacing a capacitor on the circuit board, available from Radio Shack for $1.49. Her husband said it took just 30 minutes to install it and get the refrigerator running again.

    Whether it’s a refrigerator, a television, a computer, a vacuum cleaner, a washing machine, or another product, you don’t need to be at the mercy of a repair person, who may overcharge you, misdiagnose the cause, or simply not know about a less costly solution. And when repairs do go wrong, you have recourse. Here’s what to do.

    Step 1. Start with research.

    Contact the product manufacturer. The problem may be a common one for which the company has a fix, perhaps free. Also try an online search that includes the type of product and a short description of the problem. For example, you might type “ freezer stays cold but refrigerator is warm.” That alone might produce results that suggest what the problem is and how to diagnose it, as we found on RepairClinic.com.

    Try narrowing things down further by using your brand and model. You also can try posting the problem on a message board for your product. If you’re mechanically inclined, you may find that you can do the repair yourself using the many videos and other tutorials experts have posted online.

    Step 2. Find a pro.

    If you haven’t already established a relationship with a trustworthy repairer, ask people you trust to recommend someone. Even then, check out the company. Here are some factors to consider:

    Reputation. Look for a company report at the Better Business Bureau, and use an online search with the company name and such terms as “reviews” and “complaints” to see what others say.

    Licensing and certification. Some states require the licensing or registration of some technicians. Check your state’s requirements and verify that the repairer has met them. Some repairers may have professional certifications indicating that they have met industry standards. For example, car mechanics are certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence and appliance technicians may be recognized by the Professional Service Association.

    Ask a repair shop about the credentials of the technician who will be assigned to your repair, advises Don Pierson, who heads the Certified Service Center program, which certifies electronics and appliance repair shops.

    Manufacturer connections. Using a dealer or other factory-authorized repairer is probably essential if the product is still covered by the manufacturer’s warranty or a safety recall. Either one also may negotiate with the manufacturer for a free out-of-warranty repair on your behalf. But they may charge a premium.

    Step 3. Get a diagnosis.

    Provide as much detail about the problem as you can and describe any recent repairs (but never offer your own diagnosis). Ask how much it is likely to cost. We recommend that you replace a broken item if the repair will cost more than half the price of a new product.

    After obtaining a diagnosis, ask the technician whether he’s guaranteeing that the repair will correct the issue. If he is, ask him to put it in writing. That may help later if the repair doesn’t work.

    If he’s unsure, be careful. You may be dealing with a so-called parts replacer, who just replaces parts in hopes of stumbling on the problem, says John Nielsen, AAA’s managing director of engineering and repair.

    Step 4. Verify the price.

    Find out whether the price is fair by checking with competitors, using an online search, or asking on online forums. If parts are involved, check with a parts store to verify that the shop isn’t marking up the price unreasonably.

    Step 5. Get a written estimate.

    The estimate should specify the type of parts: new, used, genuine manufacturer replacement, or aftermarket. Ask how much the estimated price can change. Be sure the work order requires the shop to get your approval before exceeding the estimate.

    Step 6. Tell the shop that you want to retain the old parts, if practical.

    You may be able to reduce the likelihood of fraud or provide an extra incentive for the technician to make sure the part really is defective before he replaces it.

    Step 7. Use a credit card.

    Make any deposit or payment with a credit card. That way, if the shop tries to pull a fast one, such as overcharging you or charging you for a part it didn’t replace, you can contest the charge with the credit-card issuer.

    If the repair still goes wrong, here’s what to do. If the technician took reasonable steps to diagnose and fix the problem, you may not be legally entitled to anything. “Service providers don’t guarantee that everything will go perfectly,” says Richard Alderman, who heads the Center for Consumer Law at the University of Houston. “They guarantee that they’ll do as a reasonably competent person would do in that profession.”

    It’s another matter if the technician was negligent or engaged in fraud, says Daniel Blinn, managing attorney of the Consumer Law Group, based in Rocky Hill, Conn. In October the Maryland attorney general’s consumer protection division ordered an appliance repair company in that state to return $100,000 to customers for repairs that it didn’t complete or that were unnecessary.

    Step 1. Research the problem.

    Of course, it often can be difficult to tell whether the technician acted reasonably. Perhaps a knowledgeable friend or relative can help. Consider posting the details on product message boards and see what others say.

    Step 2. Complain to the repairer.

    Start by being nice, even if you think the technician was negligent. Otherwise, you may discourage the company from helping you.  

    If you believe the technician was negligent or dishonest. You shouldn’t have to pay for a technician’s error. You may even be entitled to so-called expectation damages, an amount necessary to put things the way they would have been had the job been done correctly, Blinn says. The same goes if you have a written guarantee that the repair will fix the problem.

    You also may have a right to so-called consequential or incidental damages if the technician’s negligence caused you to suffer a loss beyond the cost of the repair. Maybe your food spoiled in your refrigerator after the first fix. And if there was fraud, you may be able to collect double or even triple damages—as well as legal fees—under state laws banning unfair trade practices.

    The hope is that it won’t get to the point where you’ll need to enforce your rights. Start the negotiation by making a reasonable argument. If the technician works for a company with higher-ups, ask to speak to a supervisor. “You’ve got to get to the key person in the business relatively quickly and nicely pitch your complaint,” Pierson says.

    If the job needs to be redone, ask to have someone else do the work. And don’t agree to pay for another part unless the company makes good on the unsuccessful repair.

    If you think the technician acted reasonably. A company should be open to negotiation if it didn’t fix the problem, says Randy Carney, executive director of the Professional Service Association, which certifies repairers (primarily those who service appliances). For instance, it might agree to charge you its wholesale cost for any additional parts and/or forgo labor or diagnostic fees.

    Step 3. Call in another repairer.

    If you have to call in another repairer, get a detailed work order and keep your receipt. That can help you show that the initial repair wasn’t done correctly and can prove your damages.

    Step 4. Complain to a third party.

    If you’re unable to get satisfaction, seek help from third parties, such as the Better Business Bureau. Also contact any organization that certified or recommended the repairer, or a trade group to which it belongs. Finally, file a complaint with your state or local consumer protection agency or the entity that licenses or registers the repairer, such as an occupational licensing board.

    Step 5. Dispute the charge.

    If you paid by credit card, try disputing the charge, especially if the shop did work you didn’t authorize or charged more than you agreed to.

    Step 6. Consider legal action.

    Nolo.com has free information about small claims court, including state-by-state charts that show the rules and dollar limits for filing. You may also want to consider consulting a consumer attorney if the dispute involves a significant amount of money.

    Find a repairer before you need one

    When your car, an appliance, or any other product has broken down, there’s a good chance that you’re desperate to get it fixed and don’t have a lot of time to research and compare repairers.

    So start checking out potential repairers beforehand, perhaps when a product requires maintenance or inspection. Then evaluate how it went. Did the shop act professionally? Was the work done on time? Did the shop try to sell you unnecessary products or services? “You can evaluate if that shop is treating you well while you have choices,” says AAA’s John Nielsen.

    Once you’ve established a relationship, the people working there will probably go out of their way to please you. And you can use the same approach for many other types of products that need service. Also start a list of shops that others have used successfully. If friends were satisfied with repairs they’ve had done, ask for the name of the shop and jot it down. That information could come in useful in the future.

    This article also appeared in the April 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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    Temperatures are rising and so will your electric bill

    Last summer was mild but this year we won’t be so lucky. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is forecasting a steamier season. And along with the rising temperatures comes higher electricity rates. The U.S. Energy Information Administration expects the typical U.S. residential electricity bill to go up 4.8 percent this summer. New Englanders could see the biggest increase, up to a 15 percent. But there are ways to save without sacrificing comfort.

    Some simple things you can do to keep your house from heating up include keeping the shades drawn during the heat of the day and using the microwave or gas grill to cook instead of the oven. Running a ceiling or box fan is cheap and allows you to raise the thermostat on your air conditioner or do without AC on milder days. And if you have a programmable thermostat, take advantage of it so you're not fully cooling the house when you're not home.

    To save money, install air conditioners in shady windows where they don’t have to work as hard. The same goes for the outside part of your central air system. No matter what kind of system you have, change or clean the filters monthly during the cooling season to keep the unit running efficiently.

    If you’re buying a new air conditioner, make sure you get the right size.  Call it the Goldilocks Paradox: An AC that’s too small will work overtime to keep you cool and run up your electric bill in the process. But an AC that’s too big will stop cooling before it removes enough humidity from the air creating a cold, clammy room.  Follow our sizing advice for room air conditioners. For central air systems, have a professional help you with sizing, but check our central AC reliability ratings to avoid problematic brands.   

    The best air conditioners from our tests

    You can get a capable window air conditioner for as little as $160. Here are the top three of the three sizes tested by Consumer Reports.

    Small: 5,000 to 6,500 Btu/hr. (Cools 100-300 sq. ft.)

    Medium: 7,000 to 8,500 Btu/hr. (Cools 250-400 sq. ft.)

    Large: 9,800 to 12,500 Btu/hr. (Cools 350-650 sq. ft.)

    –Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman (@cklehrman on Twitter)

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

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  • 06/10/15--04:59: How to change a car tire
  • How to change a car tire

    Being stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire is a situation every driver dreads. For most people, the best response is to contact a roadside-assistance service, such as AAA or your car company. These hotlines can deploy a local professional who has the tools and training to change the tire safely and quickly. Or you can call a family member or friend for help.

    But if you don't belong to AAA, are in a remote area without cell coverage, or are motivated by a DIY spirit, it's time break out the spare tire and change the flat yourself.

    Become familiar with how to use the jack and tools by reading your car’s owner’s manual and follow the instructions precisely—failure to do so could result in injury or damage to your car.  Here are some general guidelines:

    1. Before you start work, make sure you are in a safe zone. This might force you to drive on the flat tire a bit farther to find a safer spot, such as a wide break-down lane, turn-out, or side road.
    2. Look for level, solid ground to park on. This will allow you to safely jack up the car. Put the car IN park (for an automatic) or in gear (manual transmission). Then, set the parking braking brake. If you are on the side of a public road, turn on your car’s hazard lights.
    3. Get out the spare tire, jack, and needed tools. Everything should be in the trunk or cargo area.
    4. Remove the wheel cover if there is one. The owner's manual will tell you if it merely pops off or if there are plastic nuts to undo.  
    5. Loosen the lug nuts once they are exposed. Loosen (but don't remove) them with a lug wrench, turning counter-clockwise, before you begin jacking up the car. Some car manufacturers supply a short lug wrench, which may not provide enough leverage to loosen lug nuts. Carrying a piece of pipe in the trunk to slip over the end of the wrench in order to provide additional leverage.  Some cars with alloy wheels have a locking lug nut that requires a special keyed lug socket to remove. Generally the socket is located with the spare or in the glove box.  
    6. Jack up the car. Once again consult the owner’s manual for determining the correct jacking point on the car. Get it wrong and you may damage the car or risk injury. Lift the flat several inches off the ground, then remove the lug nuts and flat. Have the spare tire close-by, ready to swap out the flat.
    7. Install the spare tire. Lightly tighten the lug nuts in a cross pattern—not in a circle but alternating across like you’re drawing a star—so the spare is snug. Then lower the jack and remove it from under the car.
    8. Tighten the lug nuts firmly. Again, do this in a cross pattern.
    9. Secure the flat tire, jack, and tools back into the car. Drive a few miles and then re-tighten the lug nuts one more time.

    Learn more about tire maintenance and check our reviews of more than 150 tires.

    What to do before you have a flat tire

    1. Don’t wait to learn how to change a spare when you have a flat. Instead, read the owner’s manual, check where the tools are, and practice changing a tire at your convenience, on a nice day in your driveway or secured parking area.
    2. Check out what equipment you have before experiencing a flat. Do you have a spare tire and if so, have you checked the condition and pressure in the tire? Some new cars no longer come with a spare, substituting a compressor and sealant kit to fix a flat or the car may have run-flat tires. In some cases, a spare tire kit can be purchased from the car dealer.
    3. Assemble an emergency kit. You never know what the conditions will be when you get a flat. An emergency kit with a flashlight, gloves, and a towel or mat on which to knee will make changing the flat tire more bearable.
    4. Carry a tire pressure gauge and routinely check tire pressure. That includes the spare tire! Check tire pressure once a month when the tires are cold.

    Gene Petersen

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

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    Beware the flood of flood cars

    Hurricane and tornado seasons routinely damage large number of cars. Unfortunately, many of them—as-well as countless other water-damaged cars—make it to the used-car market, camouflaged as ordinary used cars. That's a problem because water damage can be hard to spot.

    Immersing a car in water can ruin electronics, lubricants, and mechanical systems. The impact may not be immediately obvious, for it can take months or years for the incipient corrosion to find its way to the car's vital electronics such as airbag controllers. Key protections depend on accurate reporting to insurance companies, and they to national registries, and careful pre-purchase inspections.

    Too often, when an insurance company decides a flood-damaged car is totaled, the information isn't clear to any future buyer. Once a car is totaled, it’s supposed to get a new title, called a salvage title. Those titles are usually either plainly marked (“branded” is the term used) with the word “salvage” or “flood.” In some states the warning is an obscure coded letter or number. Totaled cars are typically sold at a salvage auction to junkyards and vehicle rebuilders. Reselling is legal, as long as the flood damage is disclosed to buyers on the title, say experts at CarFax, a website that tracks vehicle histories and sells reports to consumers online.

    But as Consumer Reports found in an investigation of "rebuilt wrecks," some flood-damaged vehicles magically reappear with clean titles. Be especially wary of any used car with a "lost" title.

    One useful online tool is the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS), which helps consumers run background checks. This system aims to crack down on the practice of “title washing,” where cars that have been totaled (or stolen) can get clean new titles in states with lax regulations. The NMVTIS website lists several information providers, with varying prices and services.

    Arguably the best-known vehicle history report company is CarFax, which charges $39.99 to check out one car. CarFax says it gathers information from fire departments, police agencies, collision repair facilities, and rental agencies, among other public record sources. Often, used-car dealerships will provide a free CarFax report, and the company itself offers free reports for car listings on its website.

    For a basic check, the National Insurance Crime Bureau offers a free VIN-check service, although it doesn't use as many data sources as some of the paid providers.

    Of course, vehicle-history reports are not all-inclusive and are no guarantee that a vehicle is problem-free. But they are a valued aid in screening potential cars. Ultimately, a detailed inspection is the best protection. 

    Water damage can be hard to detect, but there are some telltale signs you should be aware of:

    • Inspect the carpets to see if they show signs of having been waterlogged, such as smelling musty or having caked-on mud.
    • Check the seat-mounting screws to see if there is any evidence that they have been removed. To dry the carpets, the seats must be removed, not generally a part of normal maintenance.
    • Inspect the lights. Headlights and taillights are expensive to replace, and a visible water line may still show on the lens or the reflector.
    • Inspect the difficult-to-clean places, such as gaps between panels in the trunk and under the hood. Waterborne mud and debris may still appear in these places.
    • Look for mud or debris on the bottom edges of brackets or panels, where it wouldn’t settle naturally.
    • Look at the heads of any unpainted, exposed screws under the dashboard.
      Unpainted metal in flood cars will show signs of rust.
    • Check if the rubber drain plugs under the car and on the bottom of doors look as
      if they have been removed recently. It may have been done to drain floodwater.

    If you’re from an area affected by a flood and have a car that wasn’t damaged, be aware that buyers might suspect it was. Consider having a mechanic inspect your car before you put it up for sale so that you can present potential buyers with a clean bill of health.

    Used car buying guide

    Learn more about choosing a used car, avoiding a lemon, buying and selling a used car, pricing and financing, and more in our used car buying guide.

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

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    5 terrific side-by-side refrigerators

    Side-by-side refrigerators have lost some market share to popular French-door bottom-freezers, but they’re still an excellent choice for many kitchens. In galley-style kitchens, for example, their narrow door swing can be a real space saver. Also, a lot of consumers find the freezer compartment on a side-by-side easier to organize than a pullout bottom-freezer, plus the vertical configuration allows often-used foods to be placed on an easy-to-reach upper shelf. Given their enduring appeal, manufacturers continue to invest in the side-by-sides, as Consumer Reports' latest refrigerator tests found. Here are five models to consider. 

    Samsung RS25H5121SR, $1,900. This 36-inch-wide Samsung beat out the competition by a decent margin. In fact, it’s one of the highest scoring models out of all 250 or so refrigerators in our refrigerator Ratings. In addition to outstanding temperature control and efficiency, its dual evaporators should help extend the life of your food by maintaining optimal humidity levels.                  

    LG LSXS26366S, $1,700. The 36-inch-wide LG combines superb temperature control, energy efficiency, and quietness in our tests, and it offers an impressive 20.7 cubic feet of usable capacity. The LG offers a unique look, too, thanks to the easy-access door-in-door compartment on its refrigerator side. A slim icemaker expands space in the freezer compartment and this model also has dual evaporators.

    LG LSC22991ST, $2,700. Paying more for this LG gets you a cabinet-depth design, which creates an even sleeker, more streamlined look in tight kitchens. Temperature performance is very good, though not quite to the level of its standard-depth brandmate. It has the same door-in-door compartment on the refrigerator side, though the recessed handle is carried all the way across the unit, creating the appearance of a true four-door refrigerator.

    Kenmore 51813, $1,400. Kenmore’s 33-inch-wide side-by-side is one of the least expensive models on our recommended list, with few tradeoffs in performance. Solid temperature control and quietness combine with superb energy efficiency. You’ll have to give up a few convenience features, however, including adjustable shelves and a temperature-controlled meat and deli bin.                               

    Samsung RH29H9000SR, $2,350. In addition to its solid performance across all of our tests, this 36-inch-wide, standard-depth Samsung gets points for originality thanks to its full-length door-in-door compartment. Stainless steel paneling inside the door is supposed to help seal in the freshness.

    Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico on Twitter)  

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    Britax ClickTight convertible car seats are tops in latest Consumer Reports tests

    Looking for a car seat that can be positioned rear-facing and forward-facing to transition your child from an infant seat? Two clever Britax ClickTight convertible car seats top our updated Ratings for convertible child seats: the Marathon ClickTight and Boulevard ClickTight convertibles.

    To achieve this, these Britax ClickTight convertible car seats balanced their performance in the three key areas we evaluate: crash performance, ease-of-use, and fit-to-vehicle. What stood out was how easily we were able to install these seats with the unique Britax ClickTight feature in the challenging vehicles we use for our fit evaluations. Though we were already impressed with the ClickTight technology in the Britax Frontier 90 Toddler Booster Seat, this is the first time the feature has been showcased in the more complex convertible models.

    Because convertibles are designed to be installed both rear- and forward-facing, they are more complicated from a design standpoint. As an important second seat and likely the child seat you’ll use for the longest number of years, it’s critical for convertibles to be easy to install, as you’ll need to change its orientation and the method of installation as your child grows.

    While we are big fans of LATCH for providing secure installations, heavier seats like these will likely spend more of their useful life installed with the vehicle seat belt than they will with LATCH as they will quickly approach the 65-lb. limit for LATCH (factoring child and seat). The ClickTight system makes either installation method a much easier task than with competing seats. In fact, this was one of very few seats where our fit-to-vehicle evaluations using the seat belt rivaled those for LATCH.

    While we highly rate the seat’s overall performance, we still have some reservations for early-production seats where we found that the harness was not fully attached to its hook-like anchor beneath the ClickTight feature. Britax related the issue to an assembly problem for seats manufactured between August 15 and November 7, 2014. And although Britax notified its customers who had registered via email about the issue, the company did not notify those who had registered seats via regular mail. Although the company notified the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which governs child seat performance, no formal investigation was initiated and no additional information is available from their site. If you own a seat from that time period, periodically inspect the seat to ensure your harness is fully attached, especially if you have to reinstall the seat in another car or position.

    Seats we have procured with later production dates have a slight bend to the harness anchor, which should help to retain the harness more effectively (as illustrated in our animated image). Britax confirmed this, saying they “made a slight modification to the angle of the brackets for the lower harnesses to make it easier to assemble. We gained the additional benefit of improved retention of the lower harness straps.”

    For all Britax ClickTight seats:

    • When using the ClickTight feature, always make sure that the “ClickTight” lettering is completely horizontal. Only then is the belt fully tensioned and secured.

    If you own Britax ClickTight convertible car seats produced before November 7, 2014 (the production date is located on the front of the seat under the padding near the child’s leg):

    • Remember to periodically check the harness hook to confirm that the harness remains properly attached to the hook.

    And if you find that you’re still unsure or uncomfortable with the specifics of your seat, visit the Britax website or call its customer support line (888-427-4829).

    Jennifer Stockburger

    The crash performance Ratings for these seats continues to use the methodology Consumer reports has had in place for many years, closely resembling the federal government’s current test. Meanwhile, we’re working to rate all of the new convertible seats to our latest test protocol, which seeks to raise the bar in the marketplace and incorporate additional real-world conditions.

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

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    Share your student loan repayment struggles

    Student loan repayments can sometimes be your worst nightmare. Many times, simply keeping up with payments becomes the least of your worries. Various students find that loan companies create obstacles that make the repayment process more difficult. 

     

    In an effort to improve the student loan servicing process for borrowers, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is accepting comments now through July 13. If you have a story you want to share, be sure to submit a comment that highlights your experience with loan servicers. 

    Struggling with repaying your student debt? Read "Buried under student loan debt? Help is on the way"

    Here is what the CFPB has found to be the more common issues amongst borrowers:

    • New loan servicer: Sometimes companies fail to inform their borrowers of new servicers, hindering payments from reaching the correct destination, thus resulting in late fees and lost payments.
    • Lack of proper communication: Servicers fail to provide their borrowers with proper information, often giving borrowers the run around when they reach out with inquiries or questions.
    • Difficult payment process: Servicers may apply payments in ways that allow for additional charges or hinder borrowers from paying back their loans more quickly.

    If any of the above pertains to you or someone you know, be sure to share that story. Also, spread the word on Twitter and other social media sites using #StudentDebtStress or by supporting CFPB before June 10 by signing up to share the message through Thunderclap, a site dedicated to amplifying and spreading messages.

     

    —Marcy Robles

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

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  • 06/10/15--12:59: Best new car deals
  • Best new car deals

    A great price isn't necessarily a good deal if the vehicle doesn't measure up, so we help you choose a good car at a good price with monthly list of best new car deals. The featured vehicle highlighted below has an attractive incentive that can save you extra money, and it is recommended by Consumer Reports, as are all models detailed below.

    Other trims on the vehicles listed may also present good deals. Although incentives all eventually expire, they are often renewed. Research ratings, reliability, owner satisfaction, and the latest dealer pricing on our car model pages

    See our full list of this month's best new car deals below. 

    Click here to receive an RSS feed with the latest car news and deals.

    $2,469 savings available (expires 7/6/15)

    The Fusion is a delight to drive, with a supple ride and agile handling rivaling that of a European sports sedan. All trim levels and powertrains feel solid and upscale, with a quiet and well-finished cabin. But the rear seat is somewhat snug, and the MyFord Touch interface is an annoyance. Most Fusions get either a 1.5- or 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder matched with a six-speed automatic. The 1.5-liter does the job, but the 2.0-liter packs more punch and better suits the car. We recorded 24-and 22-mpg overall, respectively, which is among the lower performers in the category. The Hybrid turned in an excellent 39-mpg overall.  

    Model MSRP Invoice price Total available savings Build & Buy car buying service Potential savings below MSRP
    2015 Ford Fusion Titanium AWD $33,115 $31,326 $2,469 View dealer pricing 10%+

    Get dealer pricing information on more than 1,100 models.

    Get dealer pricing information on the vehicles listed below.

    Model name MSRP Invoice Incentive expiration date Potential savings below MSRP
    2015 Chevrolet Volt Plug-In Hybrid $35,170 $34,483 6/30/2015 5%+
    2015 Kia Forte LX $18,315 $17,778 7/6/2015 10%+
    2015 Kia Rio Sedan EX $17,815 $17,207 7/6/2015 5%+
    2015 Kia Rio 5-door EX $18,015 $17,382 7/6/2015 5%+
    2015 Kia Soul + $19,515 $18,731 7/6/2015 5%+
    2015 Nissan Versa Note SV $17,155 $16,905 6/30/2015 5%+
    2015 Toyota Corolla LE Plus $19,790 $19,048 7/6/2015 5%+

    Get dealer pricing information on the vehicles listed below.

    Model name MSRP Invoice Incentive expiration date Potential savings below MSRP
    2016 Ford Fusion Hybrid SE $26,815 $25,388 7/6/2015 10%+
    2015 Ford Fusion Titanium AWD $33,115 $31,326 6/22/2015 10%+
    2015 Hyundai Equus Signature $62,450 $59,029 7/6/2015 10%+
    2015 Kia Cadenza Limited $44,625 $41,718 7/6/2015 10%+
    2015 Kia Optima SX $26,615 $25,199 7/6/2015 10%+
    2015 Mazda6 Touring $25,715 $24,659 6/30/2015 5%+
    2015 Toyota Avalon Limited $40,805 $38,024 7/6/2015 5%+
    2015 Toyota Avalon Hybrid Limited $42,525 $39,618 7/6/2015 5%+
    2015 Toyota Camry XLE 4-cyl $26,975 $25,473 7/6/2015 5%+
    2015 Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE $30,805 $29,372 7/6/2015 5%+
    2015 Toyota Prius Four $29,260 $28,226 7/6/2015 5%+

     

    Get dealer pricing information on the vehicles listed below.

    Model name MSRP Invoice Incentive expiration date Potential savings below MSRP
    2015 Dodge Durango AWD Limited $40,490 $39,106 6/30/2015 5%+
    2015 Ford Flex SEL AWD $34,945 $33,454 7/6/2015 5%+
    2015 GMC Acadia AWD SLT1 $43,745 $42,460 6/30/2015 10%+
    2015 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport AWD 2.0T $33,895 $32,501 7/6/2015 5%+
    2015 Nissan Rogue SV AWD $26,725 $25,590 6/30/2015 5%+
    2015 Toyota RAV4 4X4 XLE $27,525 $26,677 7/6/2015 5%+
    2015 Toyota Venza LE 4-cyl AWD $31,400 $29,779 7/6/2015 5%+

    Get dealer pricing information on the vehicles listed below.

    Model name MSRP Invoice Incentive expiration date Potential savings below MSRP
    2015 Toyota Sienna XLE, 7-Passenger, AWD $38,185 $36,367 7/6/2015 5%+

    Get dealer pricing information on the vehicles listed below.

    Model name MSRP Invoice Incentive expiration date Potential savings below MSRP
    2015 Toyota Prius V Three $28,885 $27,866 7/6/2015 5%+
    Consumer Reports Build & Buy Car Buying Service

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

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

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    5 top string trimmers for $150 or less

    Even a well-mowed property can look sloppy without the occasional follow-up with a string trimmer to clear away weeds and other tall growth around obstacles and along the lawn’s perimeter. Here are a few top picks from Consumer Reports' latest string trimmer Ratings that cost $150 or less.

    Poulan Pro PP25CFA, $100, CR Best Buy

    This curved-shaft, gas-powered Poulan Pro is among the lowest-priced models we tested, yet it had top trimming and tall-grass performance. The 12.5-pound unit also has a fixed-line head that rotates for easier edging or detaches to let you add other attachments, such as a hedge trimmer. And like most trimmers, this one has two trimming lines. Edging, while impressive, is a notch below the best. But at this price, that's hardly a sacrifice.

    Craftsman 71117, $150

    This curved-shaft, gas-powered Craftman, $150, was top-notch at regular and tall-grass trimming, with impressive edging as well, thanks to its dual heavy-duty .110-inch lines. It has a clutch, which stops the cutting head from spinning while the engine is idling. There's also a head that rotates for easier edging. At 11.7 pounds, it isn't exactly light. Still, it remains a good, moderately priced pick overall.

    Weed Eater Featherlite SST25CE, $90, CR Best Buy

    This straight-shaft, gas-powered trimmer weighs just 10.3 pounds. Still, this model is no lightweight when it comes to performance. Trimming and edging were impressive, and tall-grass performance was superb. Starting is straightforward, with no choke to worry about. You can add short lengths of line without having to load and unload a spool. And like most trimmers, this one has two lines for faster, more aggressive cuts.

    Stihl FSE 60, $110

    Choose this curved-shaft, corded-electric Stihl trimmer if you want the easy start and low maintenance of an electric and do all your trimming within the 100-foot limit of a power cord. Pluses include trimming, edging, and tall-grass performance on a par with some lighter-duty gas trimmers, along with the two lines you'll find on most trimmers. Like other corded electric trimmers, this one is also relatively light at 8.7 pounds, though you'll find even lighter models in this category.

    Worx WG175, $150

    This battery-powered trimmer from Worx, $150, is suitable only for general trimming, with only infrequent edging or tall-grass chores. The 32-volt, straight-shaft model was lightweight at roughly 6 pounds, and we found it especially easy to use through such features as a cutting head that swivels for edging. Its modest performance is at least partially due to the single .065-inch cutting line. And you'll have to do your trimming within this model's roughly 34-minute run time; recharging the lithium-ion battery takes about three hours.

    A word about gas-powered models

    If you opt for a gas-powered model, be sure to use only gasoline to which you’ve added fuel stabilizer, along with the proper amount of 2-cycle oil. These small engines are especially prone to fuel-related problems. Start it at least every couple of weeks if you’re leaving fuel in the tank, and run it dry at the end of the season. We recommend pre-mixed, ethanol-free fuel, available for $6 to $8 a quart at your local home center. Besides eliminating most starting problems, it saves you the hassle of mixing gas and oil.

    More choices. Our string-trimmer Ratings include 90 gas and corded- or cordless-electric models sold through home centers, Sears, dealerships, and elsewhere. Be sure to see our buying guide if you’re unsure of which type of trimmer or helpful features, are best for you.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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    Smartphone thefts drop as kill switch usage grows

    Phone theft used to be a growth industry. The snatch-and-run stealing of iPhones even had its own clever moniker: Apple picking. But such thefts might be in decline. Last year, 2.1 million Americans had phones stolen, according to a nationally representative survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. (Another 3.1 million smartphones were lost.) In 2013, about 3.1 million phones were stolen, according to our previous survey.

    The two Consumer Reports surveys employed slightly different methodology, which could account for some of the drop, but there is other evidence of a decline—and the trend might accelerate now that Android devices seem poised to embrace kill switches, which allow you to deactivate your stolen or lost phone. 

    Smartphones have allowed users to remotely wipe their data for years. But in 2013 prosecutors across the country started calling for technologies that disable, or “brick,” stolen phones to deter thieves from stealing them for resale overseas. Minnesota and California both passed laws requiring manufacturers to make progress on installing anti-theft features by July 1, 2015.

    Apple is well ahead of the deadline. After the company added a kill switch to its Find My iPhone app in 2013, police departments around the country reported that iPhone thefts dropped. Then, Activation Lock became a default feature last fall with the launch of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Samsung also added a kill switch—called Reactivation Lock—to a few phone models in 2013. But, in general, Android phones haven’t had the technology. To protect their devices, consumers had to download aftermarket security apps.

    Shopping for a new phone? Be sure to check out our Buying Guide and Ratings.

    Many expected Android Lollipop 5.0 to resolve that problem in late 2014, but manufacturers didn’t implement the kill switch, presumably because of performance issues. Now, all eyes are trained on Lollipop 5.1, due to roll out this summer. Given the helter-skelter, one-off approach phone companies take to their mobile operating systems, however, it will be a long time before a kill switch comes to all Android models.

    The technology could eventually save U.S. consumers $3.4 billion, according to calculations by William Duckworth, a statistics and data science professor at Creighton University. (His 2014 study included the costs of replacing handsets and a portion of the money consumers spend on phone insurance.)

    Kill switches aside, many phone owners do an abysmal job of protecting their mobile devices, the new Consumer Reports survey found. Among survey respondents, only 46 percent set a screen lock using a four-digit PIN or a stronger method such as a lengthy password or fingerprint. Just 33 percent backed up their data, including photos and contacts, to a computer or online service. Built-in security technology can only get a consumer so far—to reap the benefits, you actually have to use it.

    —Calla Deitrick

    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 take back your garage

    “The garage is where clutter goes to die,” jokes Amanda M. LeBlanc, a professional organizer in Birmingham, Ala.

    Many of you said the same thing in Consumer Reports' recent nationwide poll of almost 1,000 garage owners. Filled with tools, lawn mowers, sports equipment, and more, the garages of 62 percent of Americans are crowded, disorganized, or a mess. Shocker: Almost a third of us don’t park our car in the garage no matter how large, and only 25 percent of people with three-car garages actually park three cars there.

    Sound familiar? Even if you can still squeeze into your garage, getting from the car to the house shouldn’t be an obstacle course. Help is at hand.

    First, cull (be ruthless). Then plan.

    Divide items in your garage into four groups: sell (watch our video, below), donate, trash, and keep. That will give you a better idea of how much storage you need, and what kind. And if you call in a pro to install a system, you won’t wind up with one that’s more extensive and expensive than necessary.

    Overall, your objective in this step is to get as much as you can off the garage floor and onto the walls or shelves. With that done, you can start planning. Ask yourself whether you prefer to store items behind closed doors, on open shelves, or a mix of both. Also, are there items cluttering up indoor living spaces that you’d like to store in the garage? And last, think about future needs. If you own a Mini Cooper but will be trading it in for an SUV, or vice versa, consider the size of future cars.

    Remember to allow for the swing of car doors, plus room to exit and enter, when measuring. That way you’ll know how many linear feet are actually available for storage. Typically, the wall facing the hood will have room for deep shelves or cabinets, but side walls will have space only for shallow storage.

    Consider our four scenarios, no matter what you’re storing. Tackle one problem or all of them if you’re feeling ambitious. Then you might be able to park your car—or even another car—in your garage.

    Send your tips and photps

    Inspired by our organization advice? Please send your garage storage before-and-after photos to garagemakeover@cr.consumer.org.

    A whopping 78 percent of people surveyed store tools or a workbench in their garage, and 44 percent use the space as a workshop. A slat wall, wire grid, or pegboard will keep your tools in plain sight. Opt for cabinets with doors and drawers if you prefer things to be stowed away or you want to keep them from young children. Unless you have an oversized garage, cabinets that are 24 inches deep and a workbench will probably fit only at the rear of the garage.

    • If space is a premium or you maintain your own car, consider tool cabinets on wheels, which you can move into the center of the garage or the driveway.
    • A workbench that lets you adjust the height is handy for different jobs and for users of different heights.
    • Consider a workbench with a sealed, laminate, or plastic surface. Those types resist stains best, according to our tests. A wood or metal table is also a good option.

    You’ll probably want wall storage and shelves for hand tools, potting soil, peat moss, and fertilizer. Lawn mowers and heavy pots will need space on the floor. If you need a new mower, consider the Toro 20339 SmartStow, $350. It can be stored upright to save space and performed very well in our tests, though it was a bit difficult to push, pull, and turn.

    • Use a wall system for your rakes, hoes, and other tall items. An ideal place is along a side wall because those items don’t protrude much. Mount trowels, bulb planters, and other hand tools on a pegboard, either on individual hooks or perhaps in wire or clear plastic bins for visibility.
    • If there’s space, consider a potting bench along the back wall, with some grow lights. Benches made of cedar, cypress, or galvanized steel will stand the test of time.

     

     

    “If kids have to open a door, put in something, and close the door, forget it,” says Derrek Holland, who owns The Closet Doctor in Lincoln, Calif. “They’ll leave it on the floor.” A slat wall, track, or grid system can be fitted with hooks for specialized holders for balls, mitts, backpacks, rackets, skateboards, skis, bikes, and more. You can also mount hooks and other holders directly on the wall. Ditto for pegboards, which also come in galvanized steel. More tips:

    • A slat wall or grid system allows you to easily raise hooks and accessories as kids get taller.
    • Wall-mounted wire baskets, mesh bags, and clear, open bins stow items in clear view.
    • An exception to the keep-the-floor-clear rule is a floor bike rack, which allows youngsters to ride right into the garage and park. When they’re older and stronger, swap it for a wall-mounted rack. No kids? Consider suspending bikes from the ceiling with a bike lift, either motorized or manual.
    • A hoist allows you to get your canoe or kayak up and down without damaging it or harming yourself in the process. Be sure to check the weight that the units can hold as well as the head room your garage door needs.

    The ceiling has become the new frontier in garage storage, with systems designed to hold items as varied as hurricane shutters, big coolers, and surfboards. Overhead storage is an economical alternative to a cabinet for large, long, and relatively flat objects.

    • A ceiling-mounted shelf is the ideal place for such lightweight items as holiday decorations and out-of-season clothing. Most are designed to allow plastic bins to sit securely in slots. Mesh sides add another measure of stability.
    • For bulk purchases, keep extra cleaning supplies and nonperishable foods near the inner door to the house.
    • Paper records can go into bins, but the weight makes them better for a shelf mounted high on a wall rather than above a car. Some rail-storage systems have wall braces and accommodate bins above.
    • Use clear plastic bins to hold more than one type of item. Opaque bins are fine for out-of-season clothes, old business records, etc., if they’re clearly labeled.

    3 things you shouldn’t keep in your garage

    Paint or solvent: Wide temperature swings can damage paint. Cold is especially bad because it can freeze the water in paint.

    A refrigerator or freezer: When your garage is cold, the machine’s compressor won’t run long enough to properly cool the freezer. When the garage is hot, the fridge will work overtime to stay cool, driving up your electric bill. 

    Gasoline or oil: Pilot lights, like those on a water heater, and flammable vapors are the problem here. The vapors could cause a fire or an explosion. Even in a detached garage, you want to be sure that gas is stored in an approved container. Keep only as much gas as you’ll use in a few weeks.

    Depending on how many components you select and which types, you should be able to outfit two walls in a standard garage with open shelving for $1,000 to $2,000. Adding some cabinets will probably push the cost above $2,500, as will hiring an installer.

    Hooks and baskets

    The most basic and inexpensive approach is to simply install hooks, baskets, or other devices directly on a wall, using appropriate fasteners for studs, concrete/cement blocks, or gypsum board surfaces. Pegboard (now also available in sleek galvanized steel) with an array of hooks and fasteners is another easy and inexpensive option.

    Track system

    A track system can simply be a horizontal rail that allows you to attach various kinds of hooks, baskets, or mesh bags; others can also support cabinets or shelving. The highest-quality tracks are made of steel, preferably with an enamel coating, which can handle more weight and won’t rust unless scratched. You can reconfigure the system as your needs change.

    Wire grids

    Wire grids are usually made of metal with an epoxy or vinyl coating, although some are made of a strong polymer that looks like brushed chrome. Wall grids come in a variety of sizes, can be mounted vertically or horizontally, and come in different strengths to handle different weight requirements. When fitted with hooks, fasteners, and accessories, they can hold almost any item you want to stow. Reposition fasteners and accessories at any time or even move the grid up the wall as your kids grow.

    Slat walls

    Originally made of melamine clad particleboard or medium-density fiberboard for store displays, slat walls are the latest trend in garage storage. And now they also come in aluminum, PVC, resin, and steel, all of which are more durable than melamine. Horizontal grooves in the board accept baskets, bins, hooks, and other accessories. You can go whole hog by lining an entire wall with 4x8-foot panels. Some systems ­offer cabinets that can be mounted right on a slat wall and repositioned as desired. Or run two, four, or more horizontal slats at selected points on the wall.

    Cabinets

    Cabinet options include melamine laminated on MDF or plywood, injection-molded resin, or steel. Laminated cabinets may not hold up well if your workshop area gets a lot of use or is exposed to frequent moisture. Ditto organizers with cardboard backs. Avoid thin, flexible plastic cabinets; the shelves may sag, and the doors may not close properly. Thin steel cabinets can have similar problems. Look for thicker, lower-gauge steel, which is stronger.

    Hanging cabinets reduce the likelihood of moisture transfer from the garage floor, which can delaminate melamine cabinets and rust steel ones. Hanging cabinets also ensures that they will be level; otherwise, the slight downward pitch of the floor that diverts water toward the garage doors means the cabinets may not line up perfectly and the doors may be more difficult to open. Some companies add front legs to deep cabinets for added support. Sliding cabinet doors make access easier than swinging doors when a car is parked nearby.

    No matter the storage system and the clarity of the directions, a second set of hands will usually make the work easier. These simple—though often ignored—steps can help avoid problems:

    • Plan to spend several hours assembling and installing a unit.
    • Read all of the directions before you start putting the pieces together.
    • Find and mark wall studs before attaching anything to the walls. Most studs are 16 inches from center to center.
    • Do an inventory of the parts. If somethingis missing, it’s better to find out early so that you can request a replacement. If it’s a crucial part, you might want to wait until it arrives to get started.
    • Measure twice, cut once. Before you cut wall brackets and other pieces, make sure that your measurements are accurate.
    • Use a cordless screwdriver or drill to speed the work of driving many screws.

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

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

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  • 06/11/15--13:59: Gift guide for DIY guys
  • Gift guide for DIY guys

    Sure smartwatches are all the rage but not every man wants one for Father’s Day. Some dads would rather spend time in the shed getting their hands dirty than playing games on a smart device. This gift guide is for those guys. Here are some suggestions from the power equipment and grilling pros at Consumer Reports.

    Cordless drills

    Makita BHP454, $280
    Loads of speed, power, and run time make this relatively light, heavy-duty drill perfect for decks and other big jobs. At 5 pounds, the 18-volt Makita weighs less than most tougher drill/drivers. Perks include 30-minute recharge time, a hammer-drill mode for masonry, two lithium-ion batteries, a smart charger, and an LED work light. A battery-charge indicator would be a helpful addition.

    Hitachi DS18DSAL, $170
    A CR Best Buy, this general use 18-volt drill is nearly as fast and powerful as heavy-duty models yet weighs just 3.4 pounds. Pluses include a 1/2-inch chuck, two speed ranges, two lithium-ion batteries, a smart charger, and an LED work light. We also found its handle especially comfortable. While recharges take 10 minutes longer than the optimal 30 minutes or less, they're still reasonably fast. A gripe at this price: The battery doesn't show the time remaining until battery is depleted.

    Gas grills

    Weber Spirit SP-320 46700401, $600
    This top-rated medium-sized grill was easy to use and preheated quickly and evenly, but its temperature range was only so-so. It was superb on high and low heat and indirect cooking. That's a delicious way to slow-cook ribs, roasts, and whole fish and poultry by placing the food next to the heat, not directly over it. The Weber has an electronic igniter, stainless-steel grates, side burner, and a long warranty on its burners, the most frequently replaced part of the grill. We also recommend the smaller Weber Spirit E-220 46310001, $450.

    Brinkmann 810-6550-S, $350
    For big entertainers, this top-rated large grill from Home Depot offers fast, even preheating and superb low-heat and high-heat cooking. Indirect cooking was very good but the temperature range is just good. An electronic igniter fires it up and a gauge lets you keep an eye on how much fuel remains. Use the side burner to sear steaks. Lighted controls and a pull-out grease tray are nice extras, and so is the lifetime burner warranty. For big spenders, there's the Napoleon Prestige Pro 665RSIB, $2,600, which makes a statement in the backyard.

    Meat thermometers

    Williams-Sonoma Smart Thermometer 87072, $200
    The wireless Williams-Sonoma smart thermometer was the best of all the meat thermometers we tested. It offers excellent, consistent accuracy, and impressive features, such as estimated time remaining to reach the target temperature and more than a dozen programmable settings. It has a sleek design, brushed stainless steel base, and an easy-to-ready LCD screen. But the function buttons are small and can be difficult to push. If you want wireless setup, you’ll need to read the instructions, but once the app is downloaded it automatically syncs with the receiver. The Williams-Sonoma thermometer only works with Apple products—iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch.

    CDN ProAccurate TCT572, $80
    The top-rated CDN ProAccurate TCT572 instant-read digital meat thermometer was excellent overall, with impressive accuracy and superb consistency. It was simple to use and has a folding probe. Large digits make it easy to read, and it’s a cinch to clean, but at $80 it’s one of the more expensive of the instant-read thermometers in our tests. A backlight assists in low light.

    Self-propelled lawn mowers

    Honda HRX2175VYA, $800
    Stellar cutting across the board, plus easy operation and smooth handling, raised this 21-inch, rear-drive Honda to the top of our mower Ratings. Other pluses include dual overlapped blades, infinitely variable drive speeds, no-prime starting, and a blade-brake clutch. And its premium, overhead-cam engine is likely to run more efficiently and start more easily than traditional side-valve engines for years to come. The brand is also among the least repair-prone for self-propelled mowers. On the minus side, there's no electric start, and side discharge is actually to the rear, in the path of your feet.

    Toro 20381, $520
    Want the flexibility to mulch, bag, and side-discharge clippings with superb results? This top-performing Toro, a CR Best Buy, aced all three of those tests. Handling this 21-inch, rear-drive Toro was easy, and its premium, overhead-valve engine should run more efficiently and start more easily than side-valve engines for years to come. Other pluses include a no-rust, cast-aluminum deck and infinitely variable drive speeds, along with easy starts without having to push a primer bulb.

    Leaf blowers

    Toro Ultra Blower Vac 51609, $75
    This update of Toro's long-time Ratings champ among corded-electric handhelds is still going strong, with superb sweeping and vacuuming and impressive loosening of embedded leaves and other debris. The powerful unit was nevertheless easy to handle and use, and neighbors hearing it from a distance shouldn't have much to complain about. We still, however, recommend hearing protection for the operator. It's a CR Best Buy.

    EGO LB4801, $200
    This battery-power model is easy to handle and control and quiet enough to be used without hearing protection. That’s a plus for your neighbors too. The EGO moved leaves and other debris especially quickly and also easily removed leaves embedded in the lawn. It has more than one speed for better control in tight areas.

    String trimmers

    Green Works 21142, $90
    Choose this light duty straight-shaft GreenWorks trimmer if you want the easy starts and low maintenance of an electric, and your trimming needs fit within the 100-foot limit of a power cord. Pluses include trimming, edging, and tall-grass performance on a par with some lighter-duty gas trimmers, along with the two lines you'll find on most trimmers. We also liked this unit's good balance and bump head. For a corded electric trimmer, this one is on the heavy side at 9.7 pounds; you'll find much lighter, though lesser-performing, models.

    Ryobi RY40220, $180
    This light duty Ryobi is as good as it gets from a battery-powered string trimmer. The 40-volt model delivered top-notch trimming and edging and performed impressively in tall growth and weeds, too, thanks to its dual .080-inch cutting lines. Its straight shaft makes it a good choice for taller users, and the swiveling cutting head helps with edging. What's more, the cutting head detaches for adding one of several available attachments. You'll have to do your trimming within this model's roughly 22-minute run time. Recharging the lithium-ion battery takes about 90 minutes.

    For techie dads

    And if your guy does indeed want a smartwatch or another digital gadget, check out, “6 Father's Day tech gifts that will entertain all year long.”

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell 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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    Cadillac Escalade LED headlights outshine all others

    We recently completed our extensive 2015 Cadillac Escalade road test and though the entire SUV package has room for improvement, one aspect literally outshines the rest: The nighttime visibility from the Cadillac Escalade LED headlights proved the best Consumer Reports has ever tested. (For more on the Escalade, check out the discussion in the "Talking Cars" video below.)

    Although headlight performance may not be at the top of your “must haves” list, it can be a key differentiator for night driving safety. Approximately 35 percent of motor vehicle fatalities happen between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., even though far fewer people are on the road during the night, underscoring the need for great visibility. Moreover, nearly two-thirds of the pedestrian fatalities happen during nighttime hours. These types of statistics, along with the introduction of new lighting technologies, like HID (xenon) headlamps and now LED headlamps, are why Consumer Reports began testing headlight performance in 2004.

    Over the years, we’ve seen some better-performing headlights achieve high levels of a Very Good rating. But the performance of the low-beam headlights in the Cadillac Escalade, combined with its high-beam driving and headlight mounting heights, was enough to award those lamps the first ever Excellent rating in our headlight test. The Escalade lamps are a stylish looking vertical stack of LED lights behind what GM calls "crystal" lenses. But apparently they don’t just look good, they are good. Low-beam lamps illuminated signs on our course out as far as 400 ft.

    That stand-out performance does come at a price, however. A loaded vehicle like the Escalade isn’t cheap; ours rang in at $87,000 and change. And you’re also going to pay for those lamps in the case of a mishap. Replacement estimates for the headlamps in the Escalade runs around $1,250 a piece. At that price, even a minor fender bender that damages that lamp can be costly to you or the insurance company.

    Read our guide to car headlight technology.

    The bright ideas behind our headlight tests

    When we launched our headlight tests, we made a conscious decision that even the best performing headlights would rate only a very good score in our five-level ratings scale. (Learn more about how we test headlights.)

    Our reasoning was based on some fairly clear facts:

    • People drive with only their low beam headlights on most of the time. Even when conditions allow it, the most recent research says that people only opt for their high beams about 25 percent of the time.
    • Our ongoing tests show that the average straight-ahead distance that most low beams illuminate is about 300 feet.
    • The average braking distance (60 mph to stop) for the latest cars we’ve tested is approximately 130 feet. That 130-ft. average stopping distance is for dry braking with full brake pedal application (panic-type stops) on new brakes. When you add any adverse weather conditions that decrease visibility or increase brake distance, the disparity between visibility and stopping gets even larger.
    • Although figures vary, most sources would say it takes about 2.5 seconds for the average person to see and react by hitting the brakes to avoid something ahead of them in the road.
    • When you combine all of that together and if you’re traveling 60 mph (and let’s face it, most of us are going faster on the highway) then by the time you see, react, and brake for something ahead, you’re looking at about 300 feet for you to stop. That’s just beyond the average low beam distance. Here's the math:

     • 2.5 secs at 60 mph = 220 feet

    • Average braking distance from 60 mph = 130 feet

    • 220 + 130 = 350 feet.

    Our testing is all conducted in nearly ideal conditions. That means clean headlights and clear windshields, all done on a clear night with no moon, no interfering ambient light, and no oncoming vehicles.

    From a safety standpoint, we were happy to see the progress in forward lighting and anticipate more Excellent headlights in the future.

    If you do a significant amount of night driving and strong headlight performance isn’t on your list of must-have features for your new car, perhaps it should be. Headlight evaluations and ratings are available on the model pages for all tested cars.

    Jennifer Stockburger

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

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