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Consumer Reports

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    The best lightbulbs for a teenager's bedroom

    Being a teenager isn’t easy and sometimes being a parent of a teen is no walk in the park either. Years are spent arguing over important matters and silly stuff, such as why the lights are always on in your kid's bedroom, day and night, even when he isn't there. And that stay-out-of-my-room vibe teens give off? They mean it.

    Happily, you can solve both these dilemmas by replacing your teenager's lightbulbs with long-lasting, energy-saving LEDs. They don't cost as much to run as other lightbulbs and last for years so you won't have to venture past the "Keep Out" sign until long after junior has gone off to college. And you’ll have one less thing to argue about.

    Why this is smart

    LEDs use a lot less electricity so they’re cheaper to use than halogen bulbs, and they use slightly less energy than CFLs. And LEDs last much longer. Typically, they're supposed to last 23 years or longer when they’re on three hours a day. Even if they’re on 12 hours a day you won’t have to change them until the teen years have passed.    

    Choosing the right light color

    Pick LEDs with a warmer light color and less blue, or cooler light—LEDs around 2700 Kelvin—for bedroom lamps and fixtures. You’ll see light color indicated on the Lighting Facts label on the LED package and in our lightbulb Ratings. LEDs emit more blue light than CFLs and halogen bulbs, and while any light can suppress melatonin, the hormone that facilitates sleep, research has shown that human eyes are especially sensitive to blue.

    For light that’s as bright as 60-watt incandescents and warm yellow, consider these CR Best Buys: Feit Electric 9.5WPhilips SlimStyle A19 Soft White, each $7, and Great Value (Walmart) 60W Soft White A19, $9, among others that are recommended and those that came close.

    And if you want to read more about blue light, see "Do lightbulbs need a health warning label?" To minimize exposure to blue light, our medical experts suggest shutting off smart phones and other electronic devices a few hours before turning in. Sounds easy, unless you're a teenager. 

    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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  • 06/30/15--02:59: How to check your oil
  • How to check your oil

    Got a low-oil warning light? It’s bad to have too little oil in your engine, but it’s also a problem if you add too much. So be careful not to overfill your engine. Also consult your owner’s manual to determine the right grade of engine oil to use.

    Here’s how to determine how much oil you may need to add:

    1. Drive the car long enough to warm up the engine, then park it on level ground, turn off the engine, and wait 2 minutes. Look under the hood to find the oil dipstick. On most newer cars, the dipstick handle is a bright yellow or orange plastic ring.

    2. Pull out the dipstick, wipe it clean with a lint-free cloth, reinsert it fully, and remove. The dipstick should have markings that designate the engine oil level. A sheen of oil should indicate the engine’s current level.

    3. If the oil level is at or below the bottom ‘fill’ line, add ½ quart of oil into the reservoir opening—located under the screw-cap mounted on top of the engine. Wait 2 minutes, then recheck the level. If it’s still low, add more oil incrementally.

    Learn more in our guide to car maintenance.

    If you need work done on your car, check out our car repair estimator.

    And read about the problem of excessive oil consumption and discover which cars are the worst offenders.

    This article also appeared in the August 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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    Excessive oil consumption isn't normal

     Cars under warranty shouldn’t burn oil. And most don’t.

    But Consumer Reports’ 2014 Annual Auto Survey found that several auto manufacturers are building engines—available in a number of widely sold models—that require frequently topping off the oil reservoir between recommended oil changes. That’s a worry and cost that a new-car owner shouldn’t have.

    The oil-change industry has long prescribed changing your oil every 3,000 miles. In recent years, most automakers have stretched that to 7,500 or even 10,000 miles because refinements in engine manufacturing and oil technology purportedly allow engine oil to last longer.

    For some automakers, though, that appears to be an optimistic claim. In our survey of owners of about 1 million vehicles stretching back 10 years, we found that for certain models, significant numbers of consumers have to add a quart of oil to their engines as frequently as every month.

    It’s normal for cars to burn a little oil as they age toward 100,000 miles and beyond. But Consumer Reports believes that for an almost new car to burn that excessive amount of oil is unacceptable. 

    Does your car suffer from excessive oil consumption? Tell us about it by leaving a comment below.

    We focused on 498,900 vehicles from the 2010 to 2014 model years, many of which are still under their powertrain warranty. Several engines emerged as the main offenders: Audi’s 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder and 3.0-liter V6, BMW’s 4.8-liter V8 and twin-­turbocharged 4.4-liter V8, and to a lesser extent Subaru’s 3.6-liter six-cylinder and 2.0- and 2.5-liter four-cylinders.

    Those engines are in models such as the Audi A3, Audi A4, Audi A5Audi A6, and Audi Q5; BMW 5, BMW 6, and BMW 7 series, and BMW X5; and Subaru Forester, Subaru ImprezaSubaru Legacy, and Subaru Outback.

    The worst case showed that, overall, owners of BMW 5 Series vehicles with V8 engines were 27 times as likely to suffer excessive oil consumption as owners of an average vehicle.

    Already, some manufacturers are facing off against angry consumers who are finding that carmakers aren’t backing up their products.

    Audi, BMW, and Subaru stick firmly to the statement that oil consumption is a normal part of a car’s operation. Subaru considers a quart burned every 1,000 to 1,200 miles to be acceptable. Certain Audi and BMW cars’ standards state that a quart burned every 600 to 700 miles is reasonable.

    If a driver has to add a quart of oil once per month, that can mean adding up to 7 to 9 quarts of oil between oil changes. Those costs due to excessive oil consumption can add up because automakers more frequently require synthetic oils that can cost upwards of $9 per quart—in addition to the expense of the routine oil changes.

    Consumer Reports data does not show a direct connection between increased oil consumption and other engine problems. But our survey data concerning 10 model years shows that if a car burns oil early in its life, it will burn even more as it ages. In tracking oil consumption by model year, engine families show increased consumption with each successive year on the road.

    Having to add oil isn’t a problem that will necessarily strand you by the side of the road if you are vigilant about monitoring your oil levels. But we think it’s a serious problem that automakers should address.

    Not all engines suffer from this problem. In fact, our data shows that owners of 98 percent of 2010 to 2014 cars did not have to add oil between changes. But the cars that do burn oil do so furiously. Even if only 2 percent of vehicles sold since 2010 have this problem, that still represents about 1.5 million vehicles on the road.

    Consumer Reports believes that any engine that burns oil between changes should be repaired under the powertrain warranty. But automakers often shield themselves in the fine print of their owners’ manuals.

    In some cases, when confronted by a customer complaint, the manufacturer has authorized a dealer to repair, rebuild, or replace the engine under warranty. In other cases, though, some manufacturers are defending the oil consumption as falling within the car’s technical specifications—or they blame the car’s owner for his or her driving habits.

    Shelly Shugars, a training director from Tivoli, N.Y., bought a new 2012 Subaru Impreza Sport hatchback and had her first oil change done on schedule when it hit its first 3,000 miles. But since that oil change, she says she has been adding a quart of oil every 800 to 1,000 miles. Shugars says her Subaru dealer told her that her car’s oil consumption is normal, although the automaker offered her $500 for her trouble. Rebuilding the engine to fix the problem would cost far more.

    Shugars is far from alone. Subaru and Audi are in the midst of class-action lawsuits regarding the problem.

    Subaru’s director of corporate commu-­nications, Michael McHale, said in an e-mailed statement, “The rate of consumption can be affected by such factors as transmission type, driving style, terrain, and temperature.”

    For consumers who complain about excessive oil consumption, Subaru has authorized its dealers to perform oil-­consumption tests to determine whether the vehicle is performing outside of manufacturer specifications. Subaru began modifying its engines on certain models starting in 2010 but took until 2014 to modify others.

    Meanwhile, a settlement to a class-action lawsuit against Audi would extend the power­train warranty on its 2009 to 2011 model-year CAEB 2.0-liter turbo engines to eight years or 80,000 miles. Audi declined to comment on the litigation or oil-­consumption problems in general. Our data shows that newer Audi 2.0-liter turbos and V6 engines are also burning oil.

    In a recent technical service bulletin, Audi recommended that “the customer always have a spare quart of engine oil in case the engine oil needs topping off while on the road.”

    BMW outlines such consumption as part of its manufacturer specifications. You can even purchase a traveling case for oil, to affix in the car’s trunk.

    “Oil consumption is normal on all engines,” BMW spokesman Hector Arellano-Belloc said in an e-mailed statement. “BMW vehicles have long intervals between oil changes (10,000 miles). BMW engines (excluding the BMW M) may consume up to one quart of engine oil per 750 miles under certain driving conditions.” He added that BMW’s M performance models may consume even more oil than that.

    Other manufacturers that have shown instances of oil consumption are taking corrective action.

    Honda recently issued a warranty extension to eight years or 125,000 miles for 2008 to 2011 Accord and 2010 to 2011 CR-V four-cylinder engines. Honda said it had found that sticking piston rings could lead to higher oil consumption if the engine is revved hard when cold, when combined with prolonged usage of low-quality gasoline.

    And following the filing of a class-action lawsuit in California regarding its four-­cylinder 2AZ-FE engines sold in some 2007 to 2011 models, Toyota amended its powertrain warranty on those engines to 10 years or 150,000 miles. A Toyota representative said, “This program provides complete relief to owners who are currently affected, as well as those who have previously paid for repairs.”

    Automakers are facing a dilemma: They want to reduce ownership costs and the ecological impact of their cars. Used engine oil can pose an hazard if not properly discarded, and internal combustion engines rely on routine changes. But wait too long to change your oil and it can foul—turning to sludge and damaging your engine.

    Some consumers we followed up with told us they would not have bought their oil-burning cars had they known they would be checking their oil so often. A recent CR national survey of 542 American owners of a 2000 to 2016 model-year vehicle showed that 39 percent either never check their oil or only have it checked when taken in for service.

    If consumers are being denied repairs and rebuilds on engines that consume too much oil, those cars could end up unloaded onto used-car lots by folks sick of adding oil. That just passes the problem on to the next owner.

    If a car does consume oil under warranty, Consumer Reports believes the automaker should cover the repair costs for current owners and pay to top off the oil in between changes—and not just improve the engine’s design for future buyers.

    Burning up

    The chart shows the percentages of surveyed vehicles that needed at least a quart of oil added between oil changes, sorted by model year. The chart does not include vehicles that leaked oil.

     

    According to data from Consumer Reports’ 2014 Annual Auto Survey of owners of 498,900 vehicles from 2010 to 2014 model years, these 30 models have much higher rates of oil consumption overall than the average for their model years.

    If your car requires frequent topping off of its oil due to excessive oil consumption, you might have recourse from the automaker.

    Take your car to your dealer, along with receipts for oil changes and oil purchased between oil-change intervals. Ask whether your car is eligible for repairs under any customer-satisfaction campaign or technical service bulletin.

    Even then, the dealer may want to conduct an oil-consumption test before offering to perform repairs under warranty.

    The test measures how much oil you consume over several weeks of driving. If your car’s oil consumption exceeds the manufacturer specifications and it’s still under its original powertrain warranty, Consumer Reports believes the dealer should repair or replace the engine free of charge. Some extended warranties will cover the problem. However, if your car is consuming oil, but at a rate less than the manufacturer guidelines state is excessive, you could be in for a legal battle.

    If that is so, you may want to consult an attorney regarding lemon-law statutes. Also check to see whether your car is a part of an excessive oil consumption class-action suit already in progress.

    This article also appeared in the August 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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    2017 Audi A4 pumps up the technology quotient

    Lots of everyday car owners used to aspire to the Audi A4 as their first entrée into a luxury car. But the latest model, on sale since 2009, has fallen behind competitors from Acura, BMW, Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz, and even its own baby brother, the A3.

    Enter the 2017 A4, which Audi just revealed in European spec. The new car looks almost the same, with an updated grille, headlights, and taillights. It’s an inch longer and almost an inch wider, but the redesigned sedan weighs 265 pounds less. Shoppers will find the model-year changeover is most dramatic inside.

    The new A4 has an entirely new dashboard, with air vents all the way across. They can heat or cool the cabin more quickly at lower fan speeds than conventional systems, Audi says. A4s also offer a new fully digital instrument panel, a new center infotainment display, and a new MMI controller, set in front of the shifter, with an integrated touch pad. Its natural language voice recognition can perform searches on the Internet, in the navigation system, and in your phone contacts and playlists. The MMI screen gets new logic that Audi says is simpler.

    A new smartphone interface integrates Apple CarPlay and Android Auto with Audi’s MMI controller. Passengers can surf the web and get any data they want on their smartphones over the car’s 4G wireless connection, while drivers' access is restricted to services needed for driving, such as Google Maps, playlists, and phone contacts. A “phone box” gives drivers a place to put their phone that includes Qi wireless charging. A portable tablet from Audi can be used as a flexible rear entertainment display.

    A new top-of-the-line instrument cluster, which Audi calls the Virtual Cockpit, puts all the usual center-screen information right in front of the driver where the gauges usually go. You never even have to turn your head. This 12.3-inch screen in the instrument cluster can show everything from a Rand-McNally sized map of where you’re going, turn-by-turn directions, or playlists and contacts from your phone, all controlled from the steering wheel. The speedometer and tachometer appear as dials on the edges of the screen.

    The interface also allows drivers to control the car remotely, to unlock the doors, for example, or activate the auxiliary heating system from a smartphone app when they’re away from the car.

    The car will launch in the United States with a turbocharged, 2.0-liter gasoline-powered four-cylinder, followed by a 2.0-liter turbodiesel Four. The TFSI gasoline engine will use new valve timing technology to dramatically improve fuel economy by shortening the intake stroke. Audi claims this engine can get 40 mpg, presumably on the highway. Transmission choices will include a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic “S-tronic” and an eight-speed Tiptronic automatic. Front-wheel drive A4s will get the dual-clutch automatic in place of their old continuously variable unit. Both gearboxes will come with automatic stop-start to save gas at stoplights. And both have a new freewheeling feature that Audi says will save gas when coasting downhill. Even without a route planned, the transmissions will take topography into account when selecting gears.

    This iteration finally brings the A4 a full suite of active safety equipment, including active cruise control, pre-collision braking, lane-keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and attention warning to jolt distracted or drowsy drivers to pay attention.

    Lane-keeping assistance and active cruise control work up to 40 mph, and the active cruise control will start and stop the car automatically in traffic up to that speed. Exceed that threshold, or approach a turn tighter than the active steering can negotiate, and the car will warn you to retake control. If you don’t, it will bring the A4 to a complete stop in traffic. So pay attention!

    Pre-collision warning will sound the alarm if you approach another car too fast; if you still don’t slow down it will jab the brakes to try to wake you up. If nothing else, that will get your passengers’ attention!

    It also works with the car’s navigation system to warn you of upcoming obstacles, intersections, or speed limits where you may need to slow down. It will automatically apply the brakes at speeds up to 52 mph.

    The blind-spot monitoring system will warn you of cars approaching fast from the rear, even if you’re parked on the side of the road, so you don’t open your door into them before climbing out.

    Audi showed both sedan and wagon versions of the A4 for Europe. But since the company discontinued the A4 wagon in the United States in 2013, it seems unlikely they’ll bring it back here. What’s more likely is that this new A4 will spin off a new Allroad wagon for the U.S.

    The 2017 A4 will make its way to the U.S. next spring. In the meantime, the A4 desperately needs some of these technical advances to catch up to its luxury competition.

    —Eric Evarts

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

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    First look: Olympus Air camera mount brings interchangeable lenses to your smartphone

    The trend of people turning to their smartphones to capture photos and videos shows no sign of slowing down. But a related trend is picking up momentum, as well: More smartphone photographers are looking for ways to improve the quality of those images. One way is to use a wireless accessory that connects with your phone or tablet, providing you with a larger sensor and better lens than anything built into a mobile device.

    Sony started offering its smartphone accessories in 2013. The company's Wi-Fi QX-series lens-style cameras, such as the Cyber-shot DSC-QX10, have sensors, processors, memory card slots, and batteries—they are full-fledged cameras—but they connect wirelessly to your mobile device so you can compose photos on the LCD.

    Yet Sony didn't stop there. The company also offered a second type of camera, or more specifically, a Wi-Fi camera mount: The DSC-QX1 has a large APS-C-sized sensor and accepts the E-mount interchangeable lenses used on Sony mirrorless models. That hardware can dramatically improve image quality, since it's better than what's available on any smartphone.

    Today, Olympus announced its own contender in this market, the Olympus Air, a 16-megapixel wireless mount for interchangeable lenses that's compatible with both Apple and Android devices via a mobile app called Olympus Air Central (or OA Central). The new product will ship in two configurations—with a 14-42mm lens ($500) and in a mount-only version ($300). Unlike Sony's QX1, the Olympus Air has a slightly smaller micro four-thirds image sensor. It will accept lenses made for both Olympus PEN-series mirrorless cameras and Panasonic G-series mirrorless models. The Olympus Air connects to devices via both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. (The QX1 can only connect by Wi-Fi.)

    I've had some time to test this new Olympus model, which is supposed to get into consumers' hands in July; here's what I found.

    Set up and ergonomics

    Before I paired the devices, I had to charge the Olympus Air using a USB cord hooked up to my computer. I also needed to insert a microSD memory card. One minor issue I had was finding the slot: You need to pry open a thin, shell-like cover on the back of the device.

    To pair the Air to my phone (I used an Apple iPhone 6 Plus), I had to download a beta version of the Olympus OA Central App. The app then did a decent job of walking me through the process of pairing the device with my phone.

    One thing I really liked about this camera was that it was lightweight and felt good in my hand. I used a 14-42mm lens, which is also lightweight and small. But if you're using some of Olympus's large lenses, I could see the package being a bit awkward to hold, unless you mounted the lenses on some sort of tripod.

    The back of the camera has an adjusting bracket that can accept just about any phone. (You can't attach a tablet to this camera, but you can use one; the two devices can sync without being in physical contact.) The bracket set the phone at an angle, for easy viewing when holding the camera above or below you.

    Shooting photos and video

    Once I had the Olympus Air paired with my phone, I found shooting to be very easy. The camera has a large gray shutter button on top, which works for both still photos or video, or you can tap the virtual shutter button on your LCD. When using the Mode dial mode on the app, you can select various shooting modes, just like on a mirrorless camera, including full auto, program auto (P), aperture priority, shutter priority, full manual, and video capture. It also allows you to adjust the metering, ISO, resolution, drive (single or burst), face detection, and other settings. You can tap the screen to set your focus point, but I didn't find this as easy to do as I would have liked. I had to tap several times to readjust the focus.

    Like all mirrorless cameras, the Air lets you capture high-quality RAW files as well as JPEGs. But according to the company, the Air doesn't include all the technology and features you'll find in one of the company's mirrorless Pen cameras. For instance, it lacks a built-in flash, mechanical image stabilization, and dust reduction. Some lenses have image stabilization built in, which is a way to get around that shortcoming.

    Using the Olympus OA Central mobile app

    I found the design and versatility of the app appealing. (Note, I only tried the iOS version.) In addition to the Mode Dial setting, which lets you use and set the camera using many manual settings, you have access to other modes: Art Filter gives you access to lots of Instagram-like filters; Color Creator lets you dramatically alter color and tone; Photo Story provides several preset layouts to create a narrative; Clips lets you stitch together short video segments to make a movie; and Genius generates six versions from one photograph. Most modes worked pretty well, although I didn't think the Genius mode offered enough variety, in terms of the types of images the mode created.

    Unfortunately, the app tended to freeze up quite often. In some cases, it lost its connection to the Wi-Fi signal, and once it shut down altogether. But this was a beta app; the glitches may be solved by the time the devices ship to consumers in July.

    Highs, lows, and bottom line

    Overall, I was impressed with the design and depth of the mobile app. It had a clean, easy-to-use interface, but allowed you to use the camera in many ways. Additionally, I liked how the product itself was designed: It's small and lightweight, but still felt sturdy. However, I was disappointed with with the consistency of the app, though the problems may be fixed for the next update.

    This is a pricey device. However, if you're looking to boost the quality of the photos and videos that you capture with smartphone or tablet, the Olympus Air is an option that holds a lot of promise.

    —Terry Sullivan

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

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  • 06/30/15--10:29: 8 sweet reward-card deals
  • 8 sweet reward-card deals

    With the economy rebounding and consumers spending more, credit-card issuers are upping their efforts to snag you as a customer. According to the most recent data available from CardHub, a website that compares credit cards, cash-back deals are inching higher and higher, with some credit cards giving more money back than ever—up to 6 percent—on certain purchases. And to tempt you even more, some cards provide initial bonuses that amount to an average of almost $100, up 14 percent from a year ago.

    You might be persuaded to apply for a card because of the rewards, but you should never let the promise of a payback feed an impulse to overspend. That could lead to paying high interest rates on outstanding balances and late fees if you miss payments. Also, before applying, consider a card’s terms and conditions carefully. High annual fees might negate the very rewards you were after in the first place.

    To find the best card for you, consider the rewards the cards below offer and determine which works with your spending patterns.

    Read about surprising credit card fringe benefits

    This is among our favorite offers for those with a wide variety of expenses. It offers 1 percent cash back when you make a purchase—and another 1 percent when you pay at least the minimum due on your monthly statement. If that doesn’t scream out to you, this might: The discounts apply to every purchase you make. There’s also no limit on how much cash you can earn, no annual fee, and no interest charged on balances for the first 15 months. You’ll probably need excellent credit to qualify for this card.

    If you are looking for more cash back, this card gives you 5 percent, up to $1,500 spent per quarter. There is no annual fee. But the kinds of purchases that qualify for cash back rotate every quarter, from grocery stores to restaurants to gas stations to Amazon.com purchases. So you need to carefully monitor how you use this card. You’ll also get 1 percent cash back on other purchases and a $100 bonus if you spend $500 in the first three months. Like other cards, Chase Freedom charges no interest for the first 15 months, and here, too, you’ll probably need excellent credit to qualify.

    If you spend a lot of money in supermarkets, you’ll like credit cards that offer a relatively new reward: cash back on purchases at any grocery store. The Everyday card charges no annual fee and gives you 3 percent cash back on the first $6,000 in grocery expenses in a year. After that it gives you 1 percent back. It also gives you 2 percent back on gas, and purchases at certain department stores. After you spend $1,000 in the first three months, you’ll get a $100 credit on your statement.

    If you have excellent credit and are willing to pay an annual fee of $75, you may be able to get an even better deal than with the Everyday card. The Preferred provides many of the same benefits as the Everyday card but gives you a whopping 6 percent cash back on groceries—the most we’ve seen—up to $6,000 per year. After that, it gives you 1 percent back.

    If your credit score isn’t excellent, but good, this card from Barclays gives you 2 percent cash back on all purchases related to gas, groceries, and utilities. For all other purchases, you get 1 percent back. Once you have earned 1,000 points, you can redeem them for statement credits or gift cards. The reward points don’t expire, and there is no annual fee.

    Not long ago, travelers often opted for credit cards that earned miles on particular airlines. Now they are more likely to go after general reward cards that give miles that can be redeemed for flights on any airline, at any hotel, or for car rentals. For those with excellent credit, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus is a good choice. If you charge at least $3,000 to the card in the first three months, you’ll get 40,000 bonus miles (a $400 credit) for travel purchases. You also get two miles for every dollar you spend, and there is no annual fee in the first year.

    Similar to the Barclaycard Arrival Plus, the Venture Rewards card increased its one-time bonus of 20,000 miles to 40,000 miles last year (equal to $400), as long as you spend $3,000 in the first three months. The drawback, though, could be significant. If you make a late payment, you could be hit with an onerous APR of 29.4 percent that could last, well, indefinitely.

    One “gotcha” with many credit cards is the 3 percent fee they charge if you transfer a balance to a new card. Chase Slate, aimed at cardholders with at least a good credit rating, waives that fee for any balances transferred within 60 days of opening the account. It also offers 0 percent interest on the balance for the first 15 months—a nice combination. 

    Nikhil Hutheesing (@Nikhil212 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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    JetBlue abolishes its free checked bag policy for thrifty coach travelers

    Sad, so sad. The fact that JetBlue allowed all travelers to check one bag for free, and Southwest allowed two free checked bags, somehow gave me hope that these policies would prove so popular with travelers that the tide would turn, and other airlines would follow suit. But you naysayers were right, fees only go one way–up. Starting today, JetBlue introduces a new four-tier fare scale. Opt for the lowest-priced ticket, now called "Blue," and you'll pay about $15 dollars less the next level fare, according to the airline. But those aptly named Blue ticketholders will pay $20 if they check in a bag online or at a kiosk. Check it in at a ticket counter and it's $25. A second checked bag will cost you another $35.  

    Spend more on a Blue Plus ticket, and you'll get one free checked bag. Plus you'll owe a slightly reduced change or cancellation fee if you need to make a switch. So Blue Plus would seem to be the obvious choice if you want to check a bag. However, the airline notes that difference in the price of a Blue and a Blue Plus ticket depends on the route and demand–in other words, it will vary, so it could be a more than $15.

    Blue Flex, the third level of fares, will run you about $100 more each way than the cheapest ticket but is fully refundable. You'll also get to check two free bags, à la Southwest (its policy remains, for now).

    See our travel and vacation guide for ways to save on airfare, strategies to help you land a seat using frequent flyer points. Also check out our airline ratings.  

    There's also a pricey Mint level ticket, which includes two free checked bags, a more spacious seat that lies flat and has its own "door," free food and alcoholic beverages, expedited check-in and early boarding, plus a Birchbox parting gift that includes grooming and "lifestyle" products.

    The bottom line: Comparing airline fares and fees will take even more time for travelers who want to include JetBlue in the mix. When it comes to luggage fees alone, checked bag charges can vary based on your route; check airline websites for more details. Think you can avoid luggage fees by stuffing your stuff into a carry-on? More bad news, the allowed size of carry-on luggage may be shrinking.  

    ––Mandy Walker (@MandyWalker 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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    4 products on deep discount in July

    Consumer Reports analysts track prices year-round, so we can tell you when products are on sale, month by month. Planning a vacation at the beach this summer? You can find deep discounts on bathing suits in July. People planning a stay-cation shouldn't dispair; outdoor furniture will be on sale, too, so you can spruce up your outdoor living spaces.

    Want to replace an old sofa, table, chair, or bedroom set? Look for great deals on indoor furniture this month, too. And just in time to record your family's summer fun or a special wedding, camcorders will be marked down. 

    If you're in the market for these items on deep discount in July, we've got the shopping tips, buying guides, and ratings that can help you find the best deals. If camcorders are on your list, there's a video below that pits Sony's Action Cam against GoPro's Hero 3 in a tough series of tests.

    Want to know what's on sale the rest of the year? Check our calendar of deals.

    ––Mandy Walker (@MandyWalker on Twitter)

    Furniture is on sale this month because stores need to make way for new lines that will arrive later this summer that were shown at the spring High Point Furniture Market.

    Shopping tips

    Where you shop makes a difference. Catalog retailers, for example, have been around for several years, sometimes as an adjunct to a chain of stores. Mass-market retailers, including Ikea, Value City, and Walmart, tend to stress price. Expect a fairly limited fabric selection on upholstered furniture.

    Size up upholstered furniture like an expert. Follow these steps with floor samples and again when the furniture is delivered, to be sure that the piece from the warehouse matches what you saw in the store.

    Find the best furniture stores, and check this interactive guide, which includes details on upholstered furniture, styles, and furniture-care tips. 

    Many items are discounted toward the end of a season. With fall on the horizon, you're likely to find great deals on outdoor furniture. Patios, porches, and decks are being turned into “outdoor rooms” with places to cook, dine or just enjoy the garden. Buying the right furniture can help you transform your outdoor space into a place you’ll want to hang out until winter's chill forces you indoors. Some well-made sets are reasonably priced, but you do have to know what to look for in outdoor furniture.

    Shopping tips

    Consider the material. For example, choose untreated natural wicker only if it will be protected from the elements. Otherwise go with outdoor plastic wicker. Resin plastic is a good choice for poolside or in salt air, but strong winds can knock lightweight pieces around, so choose sturdy chairs, and ones that are wider, allowing guests to get comfortable.

    Try it out. Before you buy sit in the chairs and pull them up to the table. Check that the seat height is fine, and your knees don’t touch the table. You’ll want chairs that are roomy with comfortable armrests. Cushions should be well padded, water resistant, and fit well. And be sure the legs of the table don’t get in the way.

    As temperatures soar, you'll find good deals on swimsuits. Because it's the end of the swimsuit season for retailers, however, selection may suffer.

    Shopping tips

    Time it right. You'll get the deepest discount on spring gear by timing it right, say the editors at Shop Smart magazine. It has found Kohl's fans could head to the "Gold Star Clearance" racks, where prices are slashed up to 80 percent on weekend nights. Every Wednesday, shoppers who are 60 years old and older received an extra 15 percent off. At Target, women's clothing was generally marked down on Tuesdays, men's on Wednesday, and kids' on Mondays. Markdowns at Marshalls and T.J. Maxx usually happened on Wednesday. Each store can be different and the policies can change at any time, so have a chat with store salespeople to find out what the deal is in the stores you frequent.

    Look for deals from other seasons. If you can find winter clothing on the racks in stores, the prices should be slashed. And luxury consignment shops are good places to find first rate deals on second-hand designer goods any time of year. You might find the deepest discounts, however, on swimsuits at outlets; read our guide to outlet shopping.

    Want some great video of your summer holiday celebration? Although many of us take videos with our phones, in most cases you'll get better quality (due to better lenses) if you spring for a camcorder.

    Shopping tips

    Check the type, size, weight, controls and features. Decide on the type of HD camcorder you want to buy. If you want better quality and more options, consider a full-size model. If you need a smaller, more portable model or if you're an athlete or adventurer who loves to capture footage of yourself, then consider an action cam.

    Drill down to the right model. Check out our camcorder buying guide. If you're a subscriber you can access our Ratings of camcorders to see which ones were tops in our lab tests, including each model's picture quality, audio quality, and battery life.

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

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    Everything you need to know about the Takata airbag recall

    More than 30 million vehicles in the United States, made by 10 different automakers, have been recalled to replace frontal airbags on the driver’s side or passenger’s side, or both. The airbags, made by major parts supplier Takata, were mostly installed in cars from model year 2002 through 2008, although it has been expanded through 2014 in some cases. Some of those airbags could deploy explosively, injuring or even killing car occupants. (Look for details below on waits for replacement airbags.)

    At the heart of the problem is the airbag’s inflator, a metal cartridge loaded with propellant wafers, which in some cases has ignited with explosive force. If the inflator housing ruptures in a crash, metal shards from the airbag can be sprayed throughout the passenger cabin—a potentially disastrous outcome from a supposedly life-saving device.

    Nailing down the root cause and determining which of Takata’s several inflator designs is implicated has been tough for Takata, the automakers, and independent investigators to establish. It now appears there are multiple causes, as well as several contributing factors, including poor quality control in manufacture, several years of exposure in high heat and humidity regions, and even the design of the car itself. If the propellant wafers break down, due to high humidity or another cause, the result is that the propellant burns too rapidly, creating excessive pressure in the inflator body.

    Visit our guide to car safety.

    June 19, 2015: NHTSA and Honda confirm that an 8th fatality was attributable to a Takata airbag rupture, which took place in Los Angeles in September of 2014. The car was identified as a rented 2001 Honda Civic. Honda said the car had been under recall since 2009 but that various owners, including the small rental company in Los Angeles, had failed to have the repairs made.  

    June 17, 2015: NHTSA VIN look-up tool is updated to include all affected models. Often, there can be a slight delay between announcements and when data is available. 

    June 16, 2015: Toyota expands years for recall on previously announced models, adding 1,365,000 additional vehicles.

    June 15, 2015: Honda expands national recall on Honda Accord.

    June 15, 2015: NHTSA and Honda confirm that Takata airbag rupture was implicated in a seventh death. The driver of a 2005 Honda Civic was fatally injured following a crash on April 5, in Louisiana.

    June 4, 2015: Reuters reports that at least 400,000 replaced airbag inflators will need to be recalled and replaced again. 

    May 29, 2015: Chrysler, Mitsubishi, Subaru, and General Motors added the vehicle identification numbers (VIN) of the impacted vehicles to their recall websites.

    May 28, 2015: NHTSA and vehicle manufacturers revealed the additional models included in previous recall announcements.

    May 19, 2015: DOT released a statement saying that Takata acknowledges airbag inflators it produced for certain vehicles were faulty. It expanded certain regional recalls to national ones, and included inflators fitted in certain Daimler Trucks in the recalled vehicles. In all, the recall was expanded to a staggering 33.8 million vehicles. That number includes the roughtly 17 million vehicles previously recalled by affected automakers.

    February 20, 2015: NHTSA fined Takata $14,000 per day for not cooperating fully with the agency's investigation into the airbag problems.

    January 18, 2015: The driver of a 2002 Honda Accord became the fifth person in the United States thought to have been killed by an exploding airbag inflator.

    December 18, 2014: Ford issued a statement adding an additional 447,310 vehicles to the recall.

    December 9, 2014: Honda issued a statement saying it will comply with NHTSA and expand its recall to a national level. This brings the number of affected Honda/Acura vehicles to 5.4 million.

    November 18, 2014: NHTSA called for the recalls to be expanded to a national level.

    November 7, 2014: New York Times published a report claiming Takata was aware of dangerous defects with its airbags years before the company filed paperwork with federal regulators.

    Eight fatalities and more than 100 injuries have been linked to the Takata airbags, and in some cases the incidents were horrific, with metal shards penetrating a driver’s face and neck. As awful as they are, such incidents are very rare. In June of 2015, Takata stated that it was aware of 88 ruptures in total: 67 on the driver’s side and 21 on the passenger’s side out of what it calculated was just over 1.2 million airbag deployments spread over 15 years. Despite these figures, airbags in general are not a danger. The Department of Transportation estimates that between 1987 and 2012, frontal airbags have saved 37,000 lives.

    Based on information provided by Takata and acting under a special campaign by NHTSA, the involved automakers are responding to this safety risk by recalling all vehicles that have these specific airbags. While the automakers are prioritizing resources by focusing on high-humidity areas, they shouldn’t stop there. We encourage a national approach to the risks, as vehicles tend to travel across state borders, especially in the used-car market.

    How do I know whether my car is affected by the recall?

    There are several ways to check whether your specific car is affected. You’ll need your vehicle identification number, VIN, found in the lower driver-side corner of the windshield (observable from outside the vehicle), as well as on your registration and insurance documents. Punch that number into NHTSA’s online VIN-lookup tool. If your vehicle is affected, the site will tell you so. NHTSA also has a list of vehicles available for a quick review, and the manufacturers have ownership sections on their websites for such information. Or you can call any franchised dealer for your car brand.

    Acura Lexus
    BMW Mazda
    Chrysler Mitsubishi (Registration req'd)
    Dodge Nissan
    Ford Subaru
    General Motors (includes Pontiac, Saab) Toyota
    Honda  
    Infiniti NHTSA VIN lookup tool

    What is taking so long for my airbag to arrive?

    Many affected owners are learning that it may take weeks or months for their replacement airbags to arrive. Takata has ramped up and added to its assembly lines, and expects to be cranking out a million replacement kits per month by September, 2015. But with the recalled airbags now numbering more than 34 million, replacing them all could take years, even as other suppliers race to support this initiative.

    Can other suppliers step in to fill the gaps?

    As recently as the fall of 2014 it looked unlikely that other airbag suppliers could pick up the slack. There was little spare assembly capacity anywhere, and rival systems used different designs. That picture is changing, and other major suppliers are now involved, including AutoLiv, TRW, and Daicel. Takata has said that it is now using competitors’ products in half the inflator-replacement kits it is churning out, and expects that number to reach more than 70 percent. Those rival suppliers also use a propellant that hasn’t been implicated in the problems Takata has experienced.

    How important is that I respond to the recall?

    All recalls, by definition, are concerned with safety and should be treated seriously. As with all recalls, we recommend having the work performed as soon as parts are available and the service can be scheduled. Since age has been established as a key factor in most of the Takata airbag ruptures to date, it’s especially important for owners of older recalled cars to get this work done.

    Does it matter where I live?

    According to NHTSA, yes. The Takata inflators seem to be vulnerable to persistent high humidity and high temperature conditions, such as in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, the Gulf Coast states, Hawaii, and island territories. However, since a number of confirmed deaths have occured in places outside the priority recall area, this recall should not be ignored.

    How are repairs being prioritized?

    Automakers are getting the replacement parts as fast as they can, and most are sending them to the high-humidity areas first. Northern and less-humid areas might need to wait longer for parts availability, depending on the brand. Contact your dealership to learn how soon the work can be performed.

    What if I spend only a certain part of the year in a humid climate?  

    People who travel to the higher-risk areas in times of low humidity (such as snowbirds) are not at the same level of risk as those who live in those areas year-round, according to NHTSA.

    Are the airbags in my car definitely defective?

    No. Since 2002 only a very small number of some 30 million cars have been involved in these incidents. Between November, 2014 and May, 2015, Takata reported to NHTSA that the company had conducted more than 30,000 ballistic tests on airbag inflators returned pursuant to the recalls. In those tests, 265 ruptured. That is an unacceptably high number, and, at 0.8 percent, a far higher frequency than what has been seen so far in vehicles on the road. According to defect reports filed with the government, Takata said that as of May 2015 it was aware of 84 ruptures that had occurred in the field since 2002.  

    I’m worried about driving, what should I do until the fix is made?

    If the recall on your car involves only the front passenger-side airbag, then don’t let anyone sit in that seat. But if you use the VIN-lookup tool and it says that the problem involves the driver’s side, you should do what you can to minimize your risk. If possible, consider:

    • Minimizing your driving.
    • Carpooling with someone whose vehicle is not affected by the recall.
    • Utilizing public transportation.
    • Renting a car.

    Renting a car until yours is repaired can prove expensive and ultimately might not be the ideal solution. Asking your dealer whether they will provide one, or a loaner vehicle might be worth a try if it accomplishes nothing else than putting some pressure on the manufacturer. If you do get a rental car, as with any new vehicle or rental, take some time to familiarize yourself with its operation before driving.

    What about shutting off airbags until the replacement parts arrive?

    Right now only Toyota is recommending this course of action. Consumer Reports has concerns about the recommendation from a safety standpoint.

    Should I expect to pay any money to get the recall fix?

    Repairs conducted under the recall are free, but unrelated problems discovered during the service may not be.

    Affected owners in Florida, Hawaii, or Puerto Rico have been prioritized in this recall and will receive parts first. If you live in these regions, make sure to contact your local BMW dealer immediately to schedule an appointment to have your front driver and/or passenger airbag replaced. BMW recommends that no one sit in the front passenger seat until that airbag is replaced.

    Recalled cars:

    Driver's side airbag

    2002-2005 BMW 3 Series sedan and wagon

    2002-2006 BMW 3 Series coupe and convertible

    2002-2003 BMW 5 Series sedan and wagon (including M5)

    2003-2004 BMW X5

     

    Driver's side only in humid states (Florida, Puerto Rico and Hawaii)

    2004-2006 BMW 325Ci

    2004-2006 BMW 325i

    2004-2005 BMW 325Xi

    2004-2006 BMW 330Ci

    2004-2006 BMW 330i

    2004-2005 BMW 330Xi

    2004-2006 BMW M3

     

    Passenger side front airbag, plus driver's airbag on models with the Sports Package steering wheel shown in photo.

    2000-2005 3 Series Sedan

    2000-2006 3 Series Coupe

    2000-2005 3 Series Sports Wagon

    2000-2006 3 Series Convertible

    2001-2006 M3 Coupe

    2001-2006 M3 Convertible

     

    Chrysler is going to replace the airbag in cars based in Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It is currently working on accumulating a supply of replacement parts, and is contacting customers as they become available.

    Chrysler stresses that its vehicles are equipped with inflators that differ from other vehicles. The American automaker is saying that these inflators are not faulty.

    Recalled cars:

    Chrysler:

    2005-2010 Chrysler 300 - Driver’s side airbag

    2007-2008 Chrysler Aspen - Driver’s side airbag

     

    Dodge:

    2005-2010 Dodge Charger - Driver’s side airbag

    2005-2011 Dodge Dakota - Driver’s side airbag

    2004-2008 Dodge Durango - Driver’s side airbag

    2005-2008 Dodge Magnum - Driver’s side airbag

    2004-2008 Dodge Ram 1500 - Driver’s side airbag

    2005-2009 Dodge Ram 2500 - Driver’s side airbag

    2006-2009 Dodge Ram 3500 - Driver’s side airbag

    2005 Dodge Dakota - Passenger side airbag

    2005 Dodge Magnum - Passenger side airbag

    2003-2005 Ram Pickup (1500/2500/3500) - Passenger side airbag

    Contact your local Ford dealer to schedule an appointment to have the airbag replaced in affected vehicles. Ford states that it has not seen any issues in its vehicles, but under advisement from NHTSA, and with information from Takata, the company is recalling specific vehicles, including the 2004 Ford Ranger and 2005-2014 Mustang.

    Recalled cars:

    2004-2006 Ranger - Driver’s and/or passenger side airbag

    2005-2006 GT - Driver’s and/or passenger side airbag

    2005-2014 Mustang - Driver’s side airbag

    Double check that your vehicle is actually involved. It was first announced that many Buicks, Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles were affected by the recall. It turns out that was an error in reporting by NHTSA. Most of those vehicles were part of an unrelated recall years ago.

    Interestingly, the two remaining vehicles were actually produced by other automakers and rebranded under former GM makes: the 2003-2005 Pontiac Vibe (built alongside the Toyota Matrix) and the 2005 Saab 9-2x (a Subaru-built vehicle rebranded as a Saab). Both vehicles should be taken to a current GM dealership for repairs.

    Recalled cars:

    2003-2005 Pontiac Vibe - Passenger side

    2005 Saab 9-2x - Passenger side

    2007-2008 Chevrolet Silverado 2500/3500 - Passenger side

    2007-2008 GMC Sierra 2500/3500 - Passenger side

    Honda has the most affected vehicles, with more than five million cars being recalled. If you haven’t already, go to Honda’s recall site and enter your VIN. If your vehicle is included in this recall, the site will provide a description of the problem and instructions on how to proceed.

    If you have a vehicle that was first sold in, or is registered in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Puerto Rico, or the U.S. Virgin Islands—take immediate action. If you haven’t already received notice in the mail, print out the results of your VIN search and contact your nearest Honda dealer. They have allocated the replacement parts to these high humidity areas and will replace the part once you’ve made an appointment. Honda will be sending notices to other areas on a rolling basis as the parts become available.

    Honda will comply with NHTSA and expand its recall to a national level. This brings the number of affected Honda/Acura vehicles to 5.75 million.

    On January 18, the driver of a 2002 Honda Accord became the fifth person in the United States thought to have been killed by an exploding airbag inflator in a minor two-car collision in Spring, Texas. Although that Accord had been recalled to replace its driver-side airbag inflator in 2011, the recall work was never done, Honda has acknowledged. The driver who was killed had bought the car used less than a year ago and may never have received the recall notice. Consumer Reports urges all car owners to respond right away to safety-defect recalls.

    Recalled cars:

     

    Acura:

    2003-2006 Acura MDX - Driver’s side airbag

    2002-2003 Acura TL - Driver’s side airbag

    2003 Acura CL - Driver’s side airbag

    2005 Acura RL - Passenger side

    Honda:

    2001-2007 Honda Accord - Driver’s side airbag

    2003-2007 Honda Accord - Passenger side airbag

    2001-2005 Honda Civic - Driver’s & passenger side airbag

    2002-2006 Honda CR-V - Driver’s side airbag

    2003-2011 Honda Element - Driver’s side airbag

    2002-2004 Honda Odyssey - Driver’s side airbag

    2003-2008 Honda Pilot - Driver’s side airbag

    2006 Honda Ridgeline - Driver’s side airbag

    Mazda has focused its recall on vehicles sold or registered in Florida, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. The automaker will replace the front and/or passenger airbag inflators.

    Recalled cars:

    2003-2008 Mazda6 - Driver and/or passenger side airbag

    2006-2007 MazdaSpeed6 - Driver and/or passenger side airbag

    2004-2008 Mazda RX-8 - Driver and/or passenger side airbag

    2004-2005 MPV - Driver and/or passenger side airbag

    2004-2006 B-Series Truck - Driver and/or passenger side airbag

    If you see that your car as part of this recall, Mitsubishi advises owners to act immediately in scheduling an appointment to replace it. If the dealer does not have the part yet, they will provide instructions on how best to proceed until the part is available.

    Recalled cars:

    2004-2006 Lancer (including Evolution and Sportback) - Passenger side

    2006-2010 Raider - Driver's side

    Nissan has notified owners of affected vehicles to bring their vehicle in for inspection and potential parts replacement. Extra attention is being paid to “some areas” of Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, or the U.S. Virgin Islands. Nissan says they have a sufficient supply of airbags to keep up with demand.

    Recalled cars:

    Infiniti:

    2003-2005 Infiniti FX - Passenger side

    2006 Infiniti M35/M45 - Passenger side 

    2001-2004 Infiniti I30/I35 - Passenger side  

    2002-2003 Infiniti QX4 - Passenger side  

    Nissan:

    2001-2003 Nissan Maxima - Passenger side 

    2001-2004 Nissan Pathfinder - Passenger side 

    2002-2006 Nissan Sentra - Passenger side  

    Call your local Subaru dealer and schedule an appointment to have the airbag replaced. There is no wait for parts to arrive and no special emphasis on localized climates or regions. Because second owners may not know where the previous owner of their vehicle lived/drove, Subaru does not want to focus on any particular region.

    Recalled cars:

    2003-2005 Baja - Passenger side

    2003-2005 Legacy - Passenger side

    2003-2005 Outback - Passenger side

    2004-2005 Impreza (include WRX/STi) - Passenger side

     

    Immediate action is recommended if your vehicle registered in the coastal areas around the Gulf of Mexico, including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Or if the car is in Florida, Puerto Rico, Guam, Saipan, American Samoa, Virgin Islands and Hawaii.

    Toyota will replace the front passenger airbag. If the part is not available, the dealership can disable the front passenger airbag until a replacement part is available, and then recommends that the front passenger seat not be occupied.

    Toyota also says that if you do not follow the instructions in the owner letter to have the work performed, then you should not drive your vehicle.

    If you must use the seat after airbag deactivation, we advise that extra care should be taken to ensure passengers wear a seatbelt.

    When the parts become available, owners will be notified by mail to bring their vehicle in for the proper fix.

    Finally, if you are uncomfortable driving your vehicle to the dealership to have the work performed, contact your local Toyota dealer, and they will arrange to have the vehicle picked up.

     

    Recalled cars:

    Lexus:

    2002-2005 Lexus SC - Passenger side  

    Toyota:

    2002-2007 Toyota Corolla - Passenger side

    2003-2007 Toyota Matrix - Passenger side

    2002-2007 Toyota Sequoia - Passenger side

    2003-2006 Toyota Tundra - Passenger side

     

    Car safety

    • Check for recalls on your car

    • The truth about recalls

    Guide to car safety

    Guide to models offering advanced safety features

     

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

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    Tesla Model S P85D vs Dodge Challenger Hellcat

    Having a 327-acre test track allows Consumer Reports to conduct all sorts of performance comparisons not available on public roads. The most recent example: testing the outer limits of the certifiably insane 691-hp Tesla Model S P85D and the patently ridiculous 707-hp Dodge Challenger Hellcat.

    But it’s far more than just a 2.6-mile test track we have at our disposal. We have world-class drivers and scads of instrumentation that would make an automaker’s R&D chief nod in approval, as they routinely do. (Learn how Consumer Reports tests cars.)

    Recently, we decided to test our own P85D against a rented Challenger Hellcat, courtesy of the speed freaks in Chrysler’s SRT performance division. If you need the finish-line results right now, you can cut straight to our video above or scope our data tables below. But if you want to hear about the sensation behind the wheel, read on.

    What did we find? Horsepower simply doesn’t tell the story. This is beyond horsepower for horsepower’s sake. Remember the new, more powerful Porsche 911 that we raved about just a few months ago? That’s a legitimate, proper sports car. But it has just half  the horsepower of either of these cars.

    So which of these socially inappropriate cars delivers the most screech for the shekel? The most zoom for the zloty?

    The Hellcat’s supercharged Hemi V8 bellows, burbles, and crackles, and it makes all the appropriate go-fast sounds. But to its detriment, it also consumes several precious milliseconds while transmitting engine power to the transmission, then to the axle, and then convincing those big Pirellis to get a grip on the blacktop and shove you down the track.

    By contrast, the all-wheel-drive Tesla’s launch is smooth, near silent, and even more ballistic. The tires on this gilded, tree-hugger seem afraid to burn rubber. All that electric-motor power is put instantly to pavement. We piled up more than a full G in less than a second.

    What is “more than” a full G, you ask? The application of one g-force on an object’s acceleration is the equivalent of a free-fall. To have this force—and then some—applied in less than a second is no different than being flung off a building. It is quite literally terminal velocity. And your brain reacts in exactly the same way – by retreating into a quivering ball in the darkest corner of your skull. Side effects may include dizziness and momentary panic. (Read "Is the Tesla Model S P85D the quickest car ever?")

    Because sensory response can’t always be trusted, we checked with our instruments, which showed that the Tesla had reached 30 mph in one and one-third seconds. That’s an unheard-of acceleration rate in a street-legal car. In our tests, no other “normal” car has reached that velocity that quickly, and in that few feet. Oh, and the Tesla hit 60 mph in three and a half seconds. That’s still million-dollar supercar territory. The Tesla costs $128,000, which is still in 1-percenter turf, but why quibble? (See our guide to Tesla news and reviews.)

    The Hellcat—a relative bargain at $65,600—was hardly tame. And if it took eight-tenths of a second longer than the Tesla to reach 60 mph from a standstill, that’s still about as quick as that aforementioned Porsche 911. (Yes, the Porsche has half the horsepower, but also much less weight to carry around.) And more than that, the Hellcat’s sound and sensation of speed and control filled our heads and hearts with the visceral satisfaction that embodies a beautiful friendship between man and machine.

    Ultimately, both of these adrenaline-pumping rides are a thrill and could be addicting for some. They just come from different places, even different eras—the Hellcat being the ultimate representation of the 1970s dream machine, while the Tesla is the car from the future.

    Read our complete Dodge Challenger and Tesla Model S road tests.

    Gabe Shenhar

      Tesla Model S P85D Dodge Challenger Hellcat
    Price as tested $127,820 $65,565
    Power output, hp 691 707
    Max torque, lb.-ft. 687 650
    Engine/motor Front & rear motors Front supercharged 6.2L V8
    Drive wheels All Rear
    Weight, lbs. 4,962 4,300 est.
    Acceleration, 0-30 mph
    1.3 2.3
    Acceleration, 0-60 mph 3.5 4.3

    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-made cars for July 4th

    Independence Day conjures images of patriots, parades, flags, BBQ, and car sales. Indeed, this national holiday weekend is perennially one of the best times to buy a new car. Typically, the customer rebates are large, interest rates small, sales staffs eager, and free balloons plentiful.

    To size up the buying opportunities, our analysts have studied recent nationwide transactions, then layered in current available incentives to predict the average savings for this holiday shopping weekend. This is labeled as "Market average." Among the many discounted models, we narrowed our focus to those that meet Consumer Reports’ stringent criteria to be recommended, meaning they scored well in our testing, have average or better reliability in our latest subscriber survey, and performed well in government or insurance-industry safety tests, if evaluated.

    In the spirit of the patriotic holiday, we have further narrowed our focus to vehicles that are made in America—those models that are built right here on U.S. soil, whether from a domestic or import manufacturer. All featured vehicles are 2015 models. General Motors dominates this list, due to a combination of attractive pricing and having many models that earn a Consumer Reports recommendation. Beyond the highlighted models, there are many vehicles offering notable discounts right now.

    See all current Best New Car Deals, or use our New Car Selector to create your own list of vehicles by sorting and filtering by the factors that matter most to you.

    See our special feature "What makes a car 'American'?"

    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 MSRP Invoice Market average
    Buick Enclave Leather AWD $46,375 $45,012 $42,434

    Cadillac CTS

    The CTS is a luxury sedan with agile handling and a firm, absorbent ride that crowns it as one of the sportiest cars in the class. But as satisfying as it is to drive, the CTS can also be frustrating. Much of the blame goes to the overly complex Cue infotainment-system. The cabin is super-luxurious, with impressive material quality. But rear-seat room is snug and the trunk is relatively small. Neither the four-cylinder turbo nor the 3.6-liter V6 is as refined as the best in class. The high-end Vsport version is better, with effortless thrust.  

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Market average
    Cadillac CTS Sedan 3.6L AWD Luxury $55,965 $53,766 $53,310

    Chevrolet Corvette

    The sharp-edged Corvette has abundant power from its 455-hp, 6.2-liter V8 and an interior worthy of the price. A seven-speed manual is standard, with an eight-speed automatic optional. Drivers with a thirst for more power can opt for the 650-hp Z06. The car's all-aluminum construction optimizes weight savings and strength. Acceleration is blisteringly quick, and handling is pinpoint. With the adjustable driving modes the car can be a fairly refined cruiser or track-ready race car. The seats deliver support and comfort. But you can't ignore the low-slung cabin that's difficult to access and tire noise. The Corvette is built in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where buyers can take delivery, tour the factory, and visit the National Corvette Museum.

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Market average
    Chevrolet Corvette Convertible Z51 3LT $74,445 $69,020 $70,342

    Chevrolet Impala

    One of our top-rated sedans, the Impala is roomy, comfortable, quiet, and enjoyable to drive. It even rides like a luxury sedan, feeling cushy and controlled. Engine choices include a punchy 3.6-liter V6 and an adequate 2.5-liter four-cylinder, both paired with a six-speed automatic. The V6 accelerates and brakes capably, with secure and responsive handling. The full-featured cabin stays very quiet, with a sumptuous backseat and a huge trunk. Controls are intuitive and easy to use, but rear visibility is restricted. Advanced electronic safety features are readily available.  

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Market average
    Chevrolet Impala 2LTZ $36,265
    $35,025 $33,522

    Chevrolet Traverse

    Although it dates back to 2008, the large, Lansing, Michigan-built Traverse is among the most competitive three-row SUVs. We liked its firm, comfortable, and quiet ride and its relatively agile, secure handling. But like its corporate cousins, the Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia, it's beginning to show its age. The 3.6-liter V6 and six-speed automatic powertrain is smooth and powerful enough, but it works hard in this large SUV, and its 16-mpg overall is uncompetitive. A big plus is the ability to fit adults in the roomy third row. Fit and finish has improved, and for 2015 forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems are available.  

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Market average
    Chevrolet Traverse 1LT AWD $36,670 $35,596 $33,486

    Chevrolet Volt

    An electric car with a backup engine to extend its typical 35-mile electric range, the Michigan-built Volt feels quick, quiet, and responsive, with a taut ride. It only seats four, the rear seat is cramped, and visibility is poor. Once the lithium-ion battery is depleted, the 1.4-liter engine acts as a generator to extend the range by 315 miles. We averaged the equivalent of 99 mpg in electric mode and 32 mpg on premium when it switched over to gasoline. Recharging takes 4 hours using a 240-volt supply and 10 hours with 120 volts. For 2015, the battery storage capacity is increased from 16- to 17.1-kWh, probably leading to more EV-only miles. A 2016 redesign brings increased electric range, an improved control layout, and a center rear seating position.

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Market average
    Chevrolet Volt Plug-In Hybrid $35,170 $34,483 $32,063

    Ford Fusion

    Built in Flat Rock, Michigan, 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.  

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Market average
    Ford Fusion Titanium AWD $33,115 $31,326 $30,204

    GMC Acadia

    Though it's starting to feel a little dated, the Acadia is still competitive among three-row SUVs. Like its twins, the Chevrolet Traverse and Buick Enclave, it has a spacious and quiet interior, with a third-row seat that's roomy enough for adults. Seating for eight is available. Handling is relatively agile and secure, with responsive steering, and the ride is comfortable and steady. Its 3.6-liter V6 is smooth and refined, but it has to work hard and it gets mediocre gas mileage. Upgraded touch-screen infotainment systems bring more capability. Rear visibility isn't great. Denali versions have more features but no better functionality or performance.

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Market average
    GMC Acadia AWD SLT1 $43,745 $42,460 $38,171

    Honda Odyssey

    This versatile and capable hauler built in Lincoln, Alabama, combines clever and generous packaging with responsive handling and a supple ride. Its vigorous 3.5-liter V6 and smooth six-speed automatic returned 21-mpg overall in our tests. The Odyssey can seat eight in relative comfort, with varying configurations for cargo and passenger needs. Easy access, excellent child-seat accommodations, and abundant cabin storage add to the family-friendly quotient. Among our few gripes is the tediously complicated dual touch-screen infotainment system. In addition, fit and finish and some material selection are not what one would expect at this price, and AWD isn't available.

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Market average
    Honda Odyssey EX-L $36,655 $33,912 $33,555

    Toyota Avalon

    When it was redesigned, the Kentucky-built Avalon's formerly excellent ride was stiffened too much, especially on versions with the 18-inch tires. (Toyota claims it will address that with the 2016 model.) Handling was sharpened and is now sound and secure. The lively 268-hp V6 is paired with a smooth six-speed automatic and delivers punchy performance and a commendable 24-mpg overall. The hybrid's 2.5-liter four-cylinder is teamed with an electric motor, returning a standout 36-mpg overall. Upscale materials and finish details give the spacious cabin a lush, luxurious ambience. Interior and exterior styling were given careful attention, but the controls were made more complicated.

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Market average
    Toyota Avalon Limited $40,805 $38,024 $37,921

    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 matching washers and dryers

    Matching washer and dryer pairs are a popular choice but some don't make a great couple. Their coordinating style and color make a statement, but you'll question how a terrific washer and a noisy dryer that's tough on clothes ended up together. Enter the matchmaker. Consumer Reports tests found a number of matching pairs that are worth a look.

    Now about the prices. The top-rated washers and dryers are expensive. Blame it on the rising cost of manufacturing and transportation, as well as much larger capacities, stainless-steel drums, added cycles and features, and better styling. Specialty cycles take out the guesswork, but up the price. Our tests have found that basic cycles can handle most of your laundry needs. So ask yourself if you want to pay extra for a bedding cycle or one for your jeans. 

    Did you know? The washer and dryer Buying Guides offer a look at the advantages of each washer type and features. Use the ratings selector to narrow your choices by brand and price, and click on the Features & Specs tab to compare features. The Brand Reliability tab offers helpful information and so do the user reviews. And if you have questions e-mail me at kjaneway@consumer.org. 

    CR Tip: Take a look at the washers and dryers that scored very good or better in our tests for noise if you're placing the washer and dryer near bedrooms. You'll know they're working but they shouldn't disturb you. You'll hear the machines that scored good or lower. They make sustained sounds that can be annoying.


    Full washing machine Ratings and recommendations
    .
    Full clothes dryer Ratings and recommendations.

    Our tests found pairs that are quiet enough for placement near a family room or bedrooms. All offer large or even jumbo capacities and the dryers have moisture sensors that help save energy by turning off the machine when the laundry is dry. Many have a steam option. Our dryer tests have found that steam didn't remove wrinkles but did remove more odors than conventional dryers, and steam washer settings slightly improved stain cleaning. We frequently show appliances in white but many pairs are also available in other colors and up the price of each machine by $100 or so. 

    Where are LG top-loaders?

     LG pairs that include a high-efficiency top-loader and matching dryer are no longer highlighted here. That's because our latest Brand Reliability data shows that LG top-loaders are among the more repair prone and while they offer impressive performance, their brand reliability keeps them off the recommended list. However, LG front-loaders are among the more reliable brands, and LG is the most reliable brand of both electric and gas dryers, according to Consumer Reports' 2014 Annual Product Reliability Survey of over 100,000 subscribers who bought new washers or dryers between 2007 and the first half of 2014.  

    For more details on their performance and features, see our Ratings of washing machines and clothes dryers and consider these pairs.

    Kenmore set

    Kenmore Elite 41073 front-loader and Kenmore Elite 81073 electric dryer
    Price: $1,350 each
    Here's the deal: The washer is near the top of our Ratings and has 14 cycles, offers excellent washing, was gentle on fabrics, and has a jumbo capacity—it can hold about 25 pounds of laundry. It made the recommended list. The dryer was excellent at its job and also has a jumbo capacity. 
    Consider this: Normal wash time using the heavy soil setting is 95 minutes. You'll save about 15 minutes by using the normal-soil setting and try the Accela-Wash option. It offers comparable wash performance in about 15 to 20 minutes less. 
    Need to know: Each machine is 29 inches wide—2 more than usual—but can be stacked to save room. Gas dryer is Kenmore Elite 91073, $1,450. 

    LG duos

    LG WM8500HVA front-loader and LG DLEX8500V electric dryer 
    Price: $1,450 each
    Here's the deal: The washer is near the top of our Ratings and both machines make the recommended list and have jumbo capacities, each holding about 26 pounds of laundry. The washer was superb at cleaning and gentle on fabrics and has 14 cycles; the dryer excelled at drying. 
    Consider this: It took 90 minutes to do a normal wash on the heavy soil setting, but the TurboWash option offers comparable wash performance in 15 to 20 minutes less time.
    Need to know: Each machine is 29 inches wide, two more than usual, but can be stacked. Only available in a graphite-steel finish. Gas dryer is LG DLGX8501V, $1,550. 

    LG WM4270HWA front-loader and LG DLEX4270W electric dryer
    Price: $1,000 each 
    Here's the deal: Neither made our top picks but both were impressive at their task and relatively quiet. The washer fit 22 pounds of our laundry, was gentle on fabrics, and has 14 cycles. 
    Consider this: Normal wash time on heavy-soil setting is 75 minutes. Save 15 minutes or so by using the normal-soil setting. And the TurboWash option offers comparable cleaning in 15 to 20 minutes less time.
    Need to know:  These machines can be stacked. Gas dryer is the LG DLGX4271W, $1,100. 

    Maytag mates

    Maytag Maxima MHW8100DC front-loader and Maytag Maxima MED8100DC
    Price: $1,300 each
    Here's the deal: This recommended front-loader offers excellent washing and held 22 pounds of our laundry. It was gentle on fabrics and there are 11 wash cycles. The dryer was superb at its task and among the quietest tested. They're made in the U.S.
    Consider this: The washer took 75 minutes using the normal cycle on heavy-soil setting.
    Need to know: Gas dryer is Maytag Maxima MGD8100DC, $1,400. Washer and dryer can be stacked to save space.  

    Samsung sets

    Samsung WF56H9110CW front-loader and Samsung DV56H9100EW electric dryer
    Price: $1,450 washer, $1,500 dryer
    Here's the deal: These recommended models are top rated, excellent at their job, relatively quiet, and have jumbo capacities. The washer held 28 pounds of our laundry and was among the gentlest on fabrics. There are 15 wash cycles.
    Consider this: Normal wash on heavy-soil setting took 90 minutes. Use the normal-soil setting and you'll save about 15 minutes. The SuperSpeed option trimmed wash time of full loads about 15 to 20 minutes without affecting cleaning.
    Need to know: Each machine is 30 inches wide, three more than usual, and can be stacked. The matching electric dryer is shown in the ratings as ending in "EG" to indicate the tested model has an onyx finish; "EW" is white and listed here as it matches the tested washer. Gas dryer is shown in ratings as the Samsung DV56H9100GP, $1,600. 

    Samsung WF56H9100AG front-loader and Samsung DV56H9100EG electric dryer
    Price: $1,500 each
    Here's the deal: This washer has one the largest capacities of the tested front-loaders and fit about 28 pounds of our laundry. It offers impressive cleaning and was gentle on fabrics. There are 15 wash cycles.The top-rated dryer was superb at drying and also has a jumbo capacity. Both are recommended.
    Consider this: Normal wash time on heavy soil setting was 85 minutes, but the SuperSpeed option cut wash time of full loads by about 15 to 20 minutes without sacrificing performance.
    Need to know: Each machine is 30 inches wide, three more than usual, and can be stacked. Gas dryer is Samsung DV56H9100GP, $1,600.

    Samsung WA56H9000AP high-efficiency top-loader and Samsung DV56H9000EP electric dryer
    Price: $1,300 each
    Here's the deal: This washer has a jumbo capacity and can hold about 28 pounds of laundry. Washing was impressive and there are 15 cycles. Normal wash time on heavy soil setting was 75 minutes. The dryer was excellent at its job and has a jumbo capacity. Both are recommended. 
    Consider this: As with most top-loaders this washer wasn't so gentle on fabrics.
    Need to know: Each machine is 30 inches wide, three more than usual. The washer's waterproof cycle prevented the washer from becoming unbalanced when we washed several waterproof jackets. Gas dryer is Samsung DV56H9000GP, $1,400. 

    Samsung WA52J8700AP high-efficiency top-loader and Samsung DV52J8700EP electric dryer
    Price: $1,000 each
    Here's the deal: The washer was impressive at cleaning and made our top picks. The jumbo capacity fit 26 pounds of our laundry. The dryer was excellent at its job. Both are relatively quiet. 
    Consider this: Wash time was 75 minutes using the normal wash heavy-soil setting. Try the SuperSpeed option. It cuts wash time by 15 to 20 minutes and cleaning is still impressive. However, the washer wasn't so gentle on fabrics although that's true for most high-efficiency top-loaders tested. It has a water jet and built-in sink with ridges—a modern take on the washboard—that enable you to hand wash and soak stained items before they go into the machine.
    Need to know:  Each machine is 27 inches, the standard width. When shopping reach into washer to see if you can touch the bottom of the tub. The dryer is Energy Star qualified and using the eco-mode can save you some energy but extends dryer time. 

    Whirlpool pairs

    Whirlpool Duet WFL98HEBU front-loader and Whirlpool Duet WEL98HEBU electric dryer
    Price: $1,500 each
    Here's the deal: Both have a large capacity. The washer offers excellent wash performance and was gentle on fabrics. There are 13 wash cycles. Normal wash time, on heavy soil setting, is 75 minutes. That's faster than most.The dryer was superb at drying and among the quietest tested.
    Consider this: These machines are expensive, in part, because they are Wi-Fi enabled, providing remote control via your smart device that lets you monitor your laundry's progress, start/stop the machine, and more.
    Need to know: Machines are only available in silver and can be stacked. Dryer is not available as a gas model.

    Whirlpool Cabrio WTW8500DW high-efficiency top-loader and Whrilpool Cabrio WED8500DW electric dryer
    Price: $1,000 each
    Here's the deal: The washer was impressive and made our top picks.The dryer excelled at drying. Both are relatively quiet. This washer fit 26 pounds of our laundry and was one of the gentlest on fabrics. There are 26 wash cycles. That's right, 26. 
    Consider this: Normal wash time on heavy-soil setting was 80 minutes. Save 15 to 20 minutes by using the normal-soil setting.   
    Need to know: Gas dryer is the Whirlpool Cabrio WGD8500DW, $1,100. 

    CR Tip: Some HE top-loaders come with a warning not to wash waterproof items, or the manufacturer may suggest using the low-spin or no-spin mode to prevent the load from becoming unbalanced, which can cause the machine to shake too much, even damaging the machine and laundry area. Check the manual before you buy.  

    You'll pay about $3,000 for a top-rated front-loader and its matching electric dryer, plus $400 to $600 if you want pedestals to boost their height. But if your budget is around $1,600 or less, take a look at the pairs that did well in our tests and that won't break the bank. A word of caution. Some are relatively noisy, something to think about if you want to install them near bedrooms or a family room.

    CR Tip: Before you give up on your dryer consider that most of the improvements in performance and efficiency are found on washers. If you're set on a matching duo, in general it's smart to select your washer first and then the dryer. Here's a look at several matching pairs, most of the models did not make our recommended list, but all of these washers and dryers were still impressive at cleaning or drying. For more details on their performance and features, see our Ratings of washing machines and clothes dryers.

    Kenmore couples

    Kenmore 28132 high-efficiency top-loader and Kenmore 68132 electric dryer
    Price: $800 each
    Here's the deal: The washer made the recommended list and was the least expensive and fastest of the top picks. Cleaning was impressive and it took 60 minutes using normal wash on a heavy-soil setting. Use the normal-soil setting and you can save about 15 to 20 minutes. And here's a way to speed up doing laundry: This washer fit 26 pounds of our laundry. The washer has eight wash cycles and both the washer and dryer are relatively quiet. The dryer was superb at drying.
    Consider this: The washer wasn't so gentle on fabrics although that's true for most high-efficiency top-loaders we've tested. The dryer is Energy Star qualified and you will save some energy but extend drying time using the eco-mode. 
    Need to know: Each machine is 27 inches wide, standard width, and yet capacity is very large. When shopping reach in to the bottom of the washer to see if you can grab that last sock. If not, move on.   

    Kenmore 27102 high-efficiency top-loader and Kenmore 67102 electric dryer
    Price: $600 each
    Here's the deal: Not on our list of top picks, but keep reading. The washer was very good at cleaning, used less water than most top-loaders tested, and got the job done in 45 minutes. That's fast, for a washer without an agitator. The dryer was excellent at drying and relatively quiet.
    Consider this: The washer is noisy and capacity isn't as large as the top-rated models—it held about 19 pounds of our laundry—but should do for most families.
    Need to know: Gas dryer is the Kenmore 77102, $700. 

    Maytag pair

    Maytag Bravos XL MVWB725BW high-efficiency top-loader and Maytag Bravos XL MEDB725BW electric dryer
    Price: $800 each
    Here’s the deal: Neither made our recommended list but offer impressive washing and drying and have large capacities. The washer has 10 wash cycles. The dryer is relatively quiet.
    Consider this: Like most top-loaders the Maytag wasn’t so gentle on fabric, and this washer is relatively noisy. Normal wash time on heavy soil setting was 90 minutes—longer than most.
    Need to know: Gas dryer is Maytag Bravos XL MGDB725BW, $900.

    Samsung set

    Samsung WA45H7200AW high-efficiency top-loader and Samsung DV45H7200EW electric dryer
    Price: $800 each
    Here's the deal: While they didn't make the recommended list they were very good overall. The top-loader was impressive at cleaning, has a large capacity, and is relatively quiet.There are 11 wash cycles and a waterproof cycle for shower curtains and other waterproof items. Normal wash time on heavy-soil setting was 75 minutes. The dryer was superb at drying and relatively quiet.
    Consider this: Like most top-loaders the Samsung wasn't so gentle on fabrics.
    Need to know: Gas dryer is the Samsung DV45H7200GW, $900. 

    Whirlpool set

    Whirlpool Cabrio WTW5800BW high-efficiency top-loader and Whirlpool Cabrio WED5800BW electric dryer
    Price: $630 each
    Here’s the deal: Neither made the recommended list but the washer was impressive at cleaning and did a normal wash on heavy soil setting in a brisk 40 minutes. The dryer was excellent at its job.
    Consider this: Like most top-loaders this washer wasn’t so gentle on fabrics, and it’s relatively noisy.
    Need to know: The washer’s capacity isn’t as big as the top models, but should suffice for most families. The capacity earned a good score, and can hold about 17 pounds of laundry. Gas dryer is Whirlpool Cabrio WGD5800BW, $730. 

    CR Tip: Increasing capacities meant it was time to update the capacity scores in our ratings of washers and dryers. A machine now needs to hold about 25 or more pounds of laundry to earn an excellent capacity score. Most families can get by with a machine that’s rated very good or even good in capacity. Very good indicates that the washer fit about 20 to 24 pounds of our laundry. A good score means the washer held about 15 to 19 pounds.

    In addition to washing performance Consumer Reports' washing machine tests look at how gentle a washing machine is on fabric as well as its energy and water efficiency. We also look at such factors as noise and vibration that might annoy you if your laundry room is adjacent to a living area. And we compare cycle times using the normal wash, heavy-soil setting. If you use the normal-soil setting you can save about 15 to 20 minutes. Front-loaders usually take anywhere from 65 to 105 minutes to wash an 8-pound load. Top-loaders are a little quicker, most ranging from 45 to 90 minutes. As for capacity, models rated excellent in capacity fit 25 or more pounds of laundry. Models scoring very good in capacity fit 20 to 24 pounds of our laundry.

    In our clothes dryer tests we run the machines with different sized loads and a variety of fabrics. We also measure noise, capacity and convenience. Models that earned excellent or very good capacity scores in our dryer tests can hold large loads as well.

    You can find more details on the model page for each washer and dryer, and compare up to five washers or dryers using the comparison feature on our Ratings charts. Before you buy, look online for sales as well as manufacturer rebates and utility rebates for Energy Star washers and dryers; the first Energy Star dryers arrived in stores in the summer of 2014. For more information read, "How much energy does an Energy Star dryer use?"

    A word about washer types

    Front-loaders use less water than top-loaders but typically have longer wash cycles—some take 90 minutes or more. That's not the end of the world, but it may be the beginning of laundry pile-up. Since front-loaders use less water, the detergent is more concentrated and the machine's tumbling action can also help boost cleaning. Manufacturers recommend using HE detergent—that's high efficiency—for front-loaders and HE top-loaders. Regular detergents are too sudsy for these machines.

    The best front-loaders clean better and use even less water than most of the top HE top-loaders. Front-loaders spin faster than HE top-loaders so more water is typically extracted, reducing drying time. HE top-loaders don't have a center agitator and use a variety of methods to lift and tumble laundry. They're high-efficiency because they use less water and spin faster than conventional top-loaders, also cutting dryer time.

    —Kimberly Janeway

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

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    Get the best cell phone plan for your family—and save up to $1,000 a year

    Update 7/1/15: Sprint’s new All-In plan puts a top-notch smartphone in your hands with no money down and then charges you only $80 a month (plus taxes and a one-time $36 activation fee) for unlimited data, text, and voice minutes. That seems like a good deal considering other plans, including those from Sprint, charge about $65 to $90 per month per phone (including access fees) for about 4GB or 5GB of data—without the phone. The hitch: Phone choices for the All-In plan are limited to a 16GB iPhone 6, a 32GB Samsung Galaxy S6, or an HTC One M9. What's more, you'll never own the phone. It's just a lease—$20 of the $80 of your monthly bill is a phone-rental fee that never goes away.

    Often, we steer people away from that kind of arrangement, but in this case, the pricing should work out well for a lot of consumers. Let's crunch the numbers for someone who needs just one phone line. With All-In, you can get a 16GB iPhone 6 and use it for two years for $1,920 (that doesn't include the activation fee.) The same phone and 24 months of service would cost $2,210 on the company's 4GB Family Share Pack data plan ($65 a month, plus about $27 while you paid off the phone, which costs $650).

    What if you keep your iPhone for a third year? All-In will end up costing $2,880 ($80 per month for 36 months). If you have the Family Share Pack, the monthly bill will drop to $65 after two years, once the phone is paid off, but the total for three years is still higher, at $2,990.

    That doesn't mean the All-In is better for everyone. You need to do some arithmetic to get the best deal. If you need multiple phones, the price-per-phone drops for most plans, but not for the All-In. You can economize on data usage to bring costs down on most plans, but not the All-In. And if you keep a phone you've paid off for a fourth year, trade it in—or just decide to sell it on E-Bay—the numbers change again.  

    Update 2/5/15: Thanks to price-war incentives and greater plan flexibility, there are more opportunities now to save a few bucks on the new, no-contract plans from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless—a.k.a. the Big Four.

    These plans separate the purchase of the phone from the service charges, effectively giving you an interest-free loan you can pay off in about two years. When you’ve paid off the phone, your monthly bill goes down accordingly. And there are no termination fees; if you want to leave the carrier, you just pay any remaining balance on the phone.

    Although our recent report, "Small carriers outrank the big ones in Consumer Reports' latest cell phone service survey," covering 63,352 subscribers in 26 metro areas, found some very happy customers who switched to smaller cell providers, there are still good reasons for staying big.

    Verizon, for example, earned decent marks across the board for voice, text, and data service, while AT&T was a standout for its 4G service. It recently slashed prices on its More Everything plans, added more data tiers to allow customers to better fine-tune plans, and monkeyed with the access fees it charges (for a limited time) to lower costs further.

    T-Mobile was tops for value and customer service. And Sprint, which didn’t do particularly well in any category, has recently become very aggressive about pricing—and some people actually do like the company.

    Thinking about changing your wireless company? We'll help you find the best cell phone carrier.

    Unfortunately, these plans are rather complicated, and the carriers have done their best to make apples-to-apples comparisons difficult among one another’s offerings. For example, they charge different rates for additional phone lines, break data allowances into chunks that don't match the competition’s, and provide differing discounts for multiple phones. In fact, plan pricing is so bizzare and counterintuitive that customers, particularly those with multiple phone lines, can often save money by buying more data for each phone.  

    The good news: We’ve already done the math for you in the tables below to help you find the best deal. And to make sure your needs are covered, we’ve presented the service-cost breakdowns for one to five family members for light, medium, and heavy data service. All you need to do is figure out how much data your family needs, which we also help you do in  "How much service do you need?"

    Looking to save money on your Internet, TV, and home-phone service? Here's how you can create your own triple-play bundle and save money.

    T-Mobile Simple Choice

    Number of people

    1GB of data per phone

    3GB of data per phone

    5GB of data per phone

    1

    $50

    $60

    $70

    2

    80

    100

    120

    3

    90

    120

    150

    4

    100 (2.5GB per phone)

    100 (2.5GB per phone)

    180

    5

    110 (2.5GB per phone)

    110 (2.5GB per phone)

    210

     

    Sprint Family Share Pack

    Number of people

    1GB of data per phone

    2GB of data per phone

    4GB of data per phone

    1

    $45

    $50

    $65

    2

    75

    90

    100

    3

    115 (1.3GB of data per phone)

    115 (2.7GB of data per phone)

    135

    4

    140

    130

    160 (5GB of data per phone line)

    5

    145 (1.6GB of data per phone)

    165 (2.4GB of data per phone)

    175

     

    AT&T Next on Mobile Share

    Number of people

    1GB of data per phone

    2GB of data per phone

    4GB of data per phone

    1

     $50

    $65 (3GB of data)

    $95 (6GB of data)

    2

     90 (1.5GB of data per phone)

    120 (3GB of data per phone)

    130 (5GB of data per phone)

    3

     115

    145 (3.3GB of data per phone

    175 (5GB of data per phone)

    4

    170 (1.5GB of data per phone)

    200 (2.5GB of data per phone)

    210 (5GB of data per phone)

    5

     195 (1.2GB per phone)

    175

    225

     

    Verizon Edge More Everything

    Number of people

    1GB of data per phone

    2GB of data per phone

    4GB of data per phone

    1

     $55

    $65

    $85

    2

     90

    110

    110 (5GB of data per phone)

    3

     125  

    115  

    145 (5GB of data per phone)

    4

     160  

    140 (2.5 GB per phone) 

    200 (5GB of data per phone)

    5

     145 (1.2GB of data per phone)

    155

    215

     

    Note that in comparing rates, we couldn’t always find perfect matches, but we used the most similar plans.

    For instance, AT&T, Verizon, and now Sprint sell their data in chunks that can be shared by all the phones on one account, while T-Mobile requires you to buy data plans for each phone. So we selected sharable data plans that matched (or came as close as possible to matching) the per-phone data plan of T-Mobile.

    Then there's the question of what happens if you don't use your full data allotment. T-Mobile and AT&T both provide ways for you to "bank" unused data from your monthly allowance for later use. With the T-Mobile Data Stash plan, you get a “gift” bucket of 10 gigabytes of data per phone line, plus the ability to roll over unused data into the following months—it just needs to be used within a year. The AT&T Rollover Data offer is more stingy. There is no data bonus and you have to use rolled over data by the end of the following month.

    Another adjustment: T-Mobile offers unlimited data plans, while AT&T's and Verizon's plans cap off at 50GB, and Sprint's at 60GB, at rates north well north of $200. We determined that 4GB to 5GB per phone would be comparable to having unlimited data, for most users.

    —Mike Gikas

    How much service do you need?

    1. First see whether a 500MB to 1GB data plan is enough for you. It will be for many consumers, especially if you confine your cellular-data activities mostly to browsing the Web, using news and e-book apps, and sending and reciving e-mails without large attachments. Save video calls, media streaming, and big-file uploads for when you have Wi-Fi access.

    2. If you stream a fair amount of music and video on the road, such as during your commute to work or on business trips, you'll probably need 2GB to 3GB per month.

    3. If your eyes are permanently glued to Netflix, YouTube, and other other data-draining activities, you might want to consider a high-limit or unlimited data plan.—M.G.

    If you're thinking about what your next smart phone should be, check our cell phone buying guide and Ratings.

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    Best gadgets in bright sunlight

    Ah, summer! Warm days. Ocean breeze. Bright sunlight…uh-oh. Suddenly that beautiful display on your favorite gadget is just one big square of glare.

    When it comes to bright light, not all displays are created equal. We combed our test data for smartphones, cameras, tablets, laptops, and smartwatches to find the screens that won’t fade out when you let the sunshine in.

    —Donna Tapellini

    Smartphones. You take your smartphone with you everywhere, so a screen you can see in the sun is particularly important. We measure how well you can see a tablet outdoors by viewing it at different angles under a light that mimics bright sunlight. The Apple iPhone 6 ($300) has a large 4.7-inch display that looks great in the sun (and anywhere else—we rated it excellent). If you’re committed to the Android world, the Samsung Galaxy S6 ($300) and LG G4 ($550) are also good choices. It may sound counter-intuitive, but the brighter the display, the more you’ll see it in bright light. Remember that to make the display look its best in the sun, turn on auto-brightness.

    Tablets. We measure tablet performance in bright light the same way we do smartphones. Apple’s iPad Air 2 ($500), a 9.7-inch model, is the best we’ve viewed under bright light, thanks to the anti-reflective coating Apple added to this model. Looking for a smaller tablet, or an Android model? The 8-inch Sony Xperia Z3 Compact Tablet ($500) performed really well in that test, and it’s got one of the brightest displays we’ve ever measured on a tablet. It’s also waterproof, a plus for beach bums.

    Digital camera. It’s tough to frame the perfect shot when you can’t see the camera’s LCD in the sun. The best way to overcome that problem is by getting a camera with a viewfinder and an LCD that swivels. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 iii ($800) has both. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FC1000 ($800) also has a viewfinder and swiveling LCD.

    Laptop. Laptops are less easy to manipulate than tablets and smartphones if you’re stuck in the sun. We determine the amount of glare you see on a laptop screen by shining a light bulb on it and measuring the reflection with a light meter. The 13-inch Toshiba Portege Z30-BSMBN22 ($900) did really well in bright light, thanks largely to its matte screen. An alternate choice: Apple’s MacBook Pro 13-inch with Retina Display MF839LL/A ($1,300) which combines a very bright screen with anti-reflective coating.

    Smartwatch. The Pebble Steel ($130) is the only smartwatch that earned an excellent in our tests for readability in bright sunlight. Most of the others were just good. On the other hand, most of the other watches in our Ratings were excellent in low light, while the Steel was only good. If you don’t mind using your hand to shade your watch in the sunshine, stick with the Apple Watch ($550 to $600) or the LG G Watch R ($300), both of which we recommend.

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    Be cautious of rent-to-own deals

    Would you buy a $700 computer knowing that it would cost you over $1,700 after a year's worth of payments? How about a $1,800 clothes washer and dryer combination that would total $3,431 after two years?

    Those are the types of deals you could end up with if you get your electronics, furniture, appliances, or other items from a rent-to-own store. The rent-to-own industry has about 4.8 million customers, and its 8,900 stores in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico generate $8.5 billion in annual sales, according to its data. The lure of stores such as Aaron's and Rent-A-Center is that you can acquire a new or used washing machine, television, or bedroom set right away, typically without a credit check and with relatively low weekly or monthly payments.

    Your agreement is generally on a week-to-week or month-to-month basis, and you can return an item and walk away without a penalty and without damaging your credit score, as you would if you were late on a traditional loan payment.

    If you make all your rent-to-own payments, you'll own the item at the end of the term. You might also be able to buy the item during the rental period at a price that's reduced by a portion of the payments you've already made. 

    Read more about the best place to buy appliances.

    But rent-to-own can be a pricey proposition. Consider the deal for a $700 Dell Inspiron computer we found at one rent-to-own store. It was being offered at $142.98 a month for 12 months for a total of $1,715.76, excluding sales tax. You could buy two of the laptops outright for that amount and have more than $300 left over.

    The negatives don't stop there. You could face other charges, including if you are late with a payment and want to reinstate the agreement so you don't lose the benefit of what you paid so far.

    Rent-to-own alternatives

    Save the rent-to-own charge Paying twice the market price for an item rarely makes sense. If you can afford the weekly or monthly payment of a rent-to-own agreement, consider saving that amount instead. You'll end up owning the item sooner, you'll pay far less, and you might even earn a little interest.  

    Consider loans or used goods If it's a necessary item, such as a computer for school or work, look for alternatives until you can save the cash. Maybe a friend or family member has a computer you can use, or try a public library, where computers and Internet service often are available for free. Or consider less expensive used products, or models without some pricey bells and whistles that you may never use anyway.

    Use plastic, but only as a last resort If you have a credit card and absolutely must use it, avoid making only the minimum payment. If you know how much the payments would have been had you obtained the items at a rent-to-own store, add at least that amount to your regular credit-card payment every month, and you'll likely come out way ahead.

    ––Mandy Walker (@MandyWalker on Twitter)

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  • 07/02/15--02:59: Best summer deals on cars
  • Best summer deals on cars

    A car dealership is the last place most folks want to be on a summer day. But with the 2016 models on the way, dealers are offering big discounts on their remaining 2015 stock—especially for vehicles receiving major changes for the upcoming model year. Here are some tips and tricks to make sure you get the best deal when the industrial-strength air conditioning lures you into a showroom:

    The price of unpopularity

    Automakers usually pay a car dealer’s inventory “floor planning” costs for 60 days. But after that, the holding costs come out of a dealer’s pocket. That gives the dealer extra reason to sell that moldy oldie sitting on the lot. Those unpopular units often have colored stickers identifying them as such to the sales staff. Ask whether any car on the lot is aged stock. Chrysler, GM, and Hyundai have given additional incentives to move old inventory.

    Stair-step stock

    One way some automakers spur their dealers to sell more units is with “stair-step” incen- tives. Dealers get extra bonuses from the factory if they exceed their typical volumes, and those incentives skyrocket with each new benchmark hit. The problem: If the dealer falls short by one unit, he doesn’t get the big payday. As the deadline draws near, dealers get desperate to hit the mark. Ask the salesman whether there are any stair-step incentives in place and see what happens. 

    It only looks new

    You may be seduced by a discounted 2015 model, but remember that it’s “new” only in that it has zero miles on the clock. Some vehicles are much older in terms of their engineering and design. Long-in-the-tooth models often are hard to sell, especially if a carmaker has begun publicizing a new 2016 edition.

    If you don’t need the latest sheet metal, the old models usually carry big financing and lease incentives on their way out the door.

    This summer, that aged lineup with big incentives includes the BMW 7 Series, Chevrolet Malibu and Volt, Ford Edge and Explorer, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Optima and Sportage, and Lexus RX. (Of those, we don’t recommend the BMW and the Fords.)

    Some caveats: Because those models are of an old design, they may not have the lat- est safety features and body construction technology. Plus, your car will suffer a big depreciation hit once the new model arrives.

    Do your homework

    Automakers list sales incentives on their website. Yes, it’s annoying when the site asks for your ZIP code, but it does the work of finding localized incentives for you.

    Also, college graduate or military discounts aren’t as exclusionary as they sound. They often apply to family members as well. To reap the benefits, you must live in the same household as the graduate or the active or recently discharged veteran.

    Buy local

    See a good deal at a dealership the next town over? Though a dealer may come down on price to steal a sale away from his rival, it could be a shortsighted play for you. When a dealer offers free replacement tires or oil changes, it almost always requires going to that dealer for all future maintenance. Traveling that extra distance for a freebie won’t seem as much of a bargain later.

    How to haggle

    When negotiating, use e-mail so that you can take your time in analyzing the offer. You also will have the offer in writing. Contact multiple dealers for the best price, and don’t disclose your knowledge of additional discounts until after you’ve negotiated a price. 

    Check the best new car deals. Plus, see the latest pricing and incentives on all new cars on their model pages.

    One reason to wait

    If you’re in the market for a Ford or Lincoln vehicle, you may want to wait. The erratic, distracting MyFord Touch infotainment system will be replaced with Sync 3—which looks promising. It will arrive first in the Ford Escape and Lincoln MKC by the end of summer; the rest of the lineup will roll out Sync 3 during the 2016 model year.  

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

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    Serve a safer burger this 4th of July

    If burgers are on the menu for your July 4th holiday weekend, don’t fire up the grill until you know the right way to safely shop for, handle, and cook ground beef. You want to have a good time and minimize your risk of getting food poisoning.

    Like most meats, beef can be contaminated with harmful bacteria at various points in the production, packing, and handling process. But the odds of contamination may be higher with ground beef than with steaks or roasts because of the way it is produced. Meat trimmings used to make it often come from multiple cattle, and grinding can spread bacteria that may be on just a few pieces of meat throughout the entire batch.

    Tasty though it may be, ground beef is a significant source of foodborne illness, and summer is a risky time. Outbreaks caused by beef contaminated with the deadly bacteria E. coli 0157: H7 peak in July, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 2009 and 2013, nearly half of the 74 E. coli 0157 outbreaks were traced to ground beef, and more than 40 percent of them were from meat people cooked at home.

    You can reduce your odds of becoming one of those statistics by taking the right safety precautions at each step of your burger’s journey, from the supermarket to your plate.   

    For more information on preventing foodborne illness, see our food safety guide.

    Before you shop for ground beef

    • Take your fridge’s temp. Bacteria that can make you sick grow very slowly in ground beef (and other foods) stored at temperatures below 40° F, but they multiply rapidly at temperatures between 40° F and 140° F. Our experts recommend keeping your fridge at 37° F. To make sure temperatures stay in a safe range, use a refrigerator thermometer, which you can buy for $10 or less.  
    • Time your shopping trip. Raw ground beef should be stored in the fridge for no longer than two days, so if you don’t want to freeze your meat before grilling your burgers, time your grocery shopping trip accordingly.
    • Pack a cooler. When you head to the market, bring along a cooler or an insulated bag with an ice pack to keep beef (and other perishable foods) cold if you’ll be making other stops after the market, or you’ll be traveling more than a short distance from the store to home. And even if you are going straight home, consider taking this step just to be on the safe side if it’s an especially hot day.

    At the supermarket

    • Shop for meat last. This minimizes the time it spends unrefrigerated.
    • Reach into the back of the cooler. Choose a package of meat that feels cold and is securely wrapped. If possible, place the ground beef package securely inside a plastic bag in your cart in case any juices from the meat leak out and contaminate other foods.
    • Pack meat separately. When checking out, bag ground beef (or any raw meat) separately from other foods to avoid any bacterial cross-contamination.

    When making the burgers

    • Don’t get ahead of yourself. Keep the ground beef refrigerated until you are ready to form it into patties and cook them. If you want to form the patties ahead of time, immediately put them back into the refrigerator until you are all set to begin grilling.
    • Wash up. Don’t touch anything in your kitchen after you’ve handled raw meat until you have thoroughly washed your hands with hot, soapy water.  Immediately clean counters and any utensils you used to avoid spreading bacteria. Sanitize plastic cutting boards by washing them in the dishwasher. 

    At the grill

    • Use a thermometer. To be sure you destroy bacteria that can make you sick, ground beef needs to be cooked to 160°F. Burgers served rare or medium rare are riskier because they aren’t cooked long enough to hit that safety point. Rely on an instant-read meat thermometer (rather than the color of the meat) to ensure your meat reaches the desired temperature. If you’re worried that burgers cooked to this level of doneness will be dry, experts at the Consumer Reports’ test kitchen have some tips for keeping your burger tasty.
    • Double up on your serving utensils. Don’t put cooked burgers back on the same platter or plate you used to carry the raw meat to the grill. And be careful with forks, spatulas, and other utensils that you may have used on the raw meat.

    After the feast

    • Clean up in a timely way. Don’t let a platter of cooked burgers sit out for more than two hours, or for more than one hour if the outside temperature is above 90° F.  Toss any burgers (or other food) that have been out longer.
    • Store leftovers right. Cooked burgers can be safely refrigerated for about three to four days and can be frozen for up to four months.
    • Reheat properly. When reheating fully cooked patties, make sure the internal temperature reaches 165° F as measured on an instant-read meat thermometer to kill bacteria. 

    —Andrea Rock

    Keep burgers tasty

    If you’re assuming a burger that is cooked long enough to kill dangerous bacteria will be dry and tasteless, think again. Here are some simple tips that will help you serve safer burgers that still are juicy and flavorful:

    Prep your patties. When shaping your ground beef into patties, use your thumb to make a slight indentation in the top of each to keep shrinkage to a minimum when they’re cooking. Then chill the patties in the fridge for at least 30 minutes to help them retain their shape when they’re sizzling on the grill.

    Season at the grill.  Seasoning a burger too far in advance pulls liquid from the meat, producing that dry burger. Just before cooking, sprinkle salt, pepper, and any other seasonings you like on one side of each burger and place that side down on the grill first. As they’re cooking, season the other side before flipping to finish them off.

    Take a hands-off approach. Never push down on burgers while they’re cooking because you’ll be draining out flavorful juices. Let the cooked patties rest on a clean platter for a few minutes—no more than five—to let the juices redistribute.

     

     

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    Can you afford to live to 100?

     How long will you live? It’s a key question in retirement planning—and one many of us answer with an educated guess. If you’re healthy and your family tree has branches with staying power, you might figure that you have decades ahead. You might live to 100 and even beyond. If your parents died early of natural causes, you might assume a shorter life.

    Yet research shows genes play a smaller role than most people think in determining longevity. More crucial is behavior. If you are eating better, smoking less, and exercising more than your parents did, there’s a good chance you’ll live longer than they did. So it makes sense to consider that your own retirement may extend 30 to 40 years.

    You’ll also need to consider how much money to live on. Although with low expenses you might be able to get away with as little as 55 percent of your preretirement income, we judge that 85 percent of income from your last year of work is about right, based on a survey of recently retired Consumer Reports readers.

    So how can you ensure your nest egg’s longevity? Try these smart steps.

    Planning to to live to 100? Tell us what financial steps you're taking by leaving a comment below.

    Delaying Social Security is the least costly way to boost income later in life. For instance, folks born in 1949—who are now reaching “full retirement age”—can earn a benefit that’s 8 percent higher each year they delay, up to age 70.

    How it works

    Delaying your claim shortens the payment period of your benefit, so you get more each month. Conversely, taking Social Security early—you can claim as young as 62—permanently reduces your monthly benefit because payment is stretched over a longer period.

    What to know

    If you delay claiming Social Security, you risk never getting to use it. But if you’re healthy, it’s worth doing.

    Some people think it’s smart to claim early because they’re concerned Social Security will go broke. Indeed, the 2014 Social Security Trustees report says coffers will be exhausted in 2033 if funding and benefit levels stay as they are. But after that, the program could still pay 75 percent of scheduled benefits even without a fresh infusion of taxes, according to the Trustees. Coupled with tax increases to help shore up the system, benefit modifications could be far more modest, suggests Kathy Ruffing, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Those changes, “carefully crafted to shield recipients with limited means and to give ample notice to all participants, could put the program on a sound footing indefinitely,” she maintains.

    Strategy

    At the least, wait to claim until your full retirement age, which ranges from 66 (for people born from 1943 to 1954) to 67 (for people born in 1960 and later). Divorcees, couples with substantial income differences, surviving spouses, and others can use claiming strategies to increase benefits

    Consumer Reports’ surveys of retired readers show that having a pension—guaranteed income—correlates with satisfaction in retirement. As traditional pensions disappear, insurers are stepping up their marketing of annuities, which promise pensionlike, lifetime income.

    Two types of simple annuity products are worth a look.

    With a fixed immediate annuity, you pay a lump-sum premium and get guaranteed, monthly income right away. That could be useful if you need retirement income but want to defer Social Security benefits.

    With a deferred-income annuity (DIA), you pay up front or spread premiums over several years; payments begin from two years to as long as 40 years later. Longer-term versions are called longevity annuities. Knowing you’ll have additional, guaranteed income later in life could give you the confidence to spend more earlier in retirement.

    How they work

    Policyholders who die earlier subsidize those who survive. The longer you defer, the more you benefit, because the annuity has more time to grow.

    What to know

    You’ll have to pay extra for a DIA that adjusts for inflation. A relatively new DIA type offers dividend income as an inflation hedge but doesn’t guarantee how much.

    The Internal Revenue Service exempts up to $125,000—or 25 percent—of retirement accounts invested in “qualified longevity annuity contracts” when determining your required minimum distribution, up to age 85. That means you can delay payouts almost 15 years longer than normal, saving on taxes.

    Strategy

    The smaller your nest egg is, the less you’ll want to devote to an annuity, which effectively locks up your savings. Wade Pfau, Ph.D., a professor of retirement income at The American College of Financial Services, warns against spending more than 40 percent of your assets on annuities. But he projects that a 65-year-old could cover all spending after age 85 by devoting 10 to 15 percent of current assets toward purchasing a longevity annuity.

    Choose from an insurer highly rated for financial strength by Weiss Ratings, which we’ve found to be more impartial than other ratings agencies. An independent agent can help you obtain multiple quotes.

    Avoid the rider for a “cash refund” of premium, payable to your heirs if you don’t use all that you paid in. It effectively negates the financial benefits of the product, Pfau says.

    Genworth Financial, the largest seller of long-term-care insurance, estimates the average cost of nursing home care in a semiprivate room at $80,300 per year.

    You probably won’t end up facing such frightening bills for years on end. The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College estimates that although 44 percent of men and 58 percent of women currently age 65 will need nursing home care at some future time, stays will average less than a year for men and less than 18 months for women. The bulk of care will be provided in the home or another community setting. About half of nursing home and retirement care expenses are covered by either Medicare or Medicaid.

    However, assisted living facilities, where the median stay is 22 months and the median cost is $43,200 annually, may not accept Medicaid. And though Medicaid funds some home care, making up the difference can burden your family. Long-term-care insurance can help fill the gap.

    How it works

    Though you buy a policy based on a monthly benefit, you’re really purchasing a lifetime benefit: a pot of money that can be spent flexibly.

    If, for instance, your policy provides for $4,500 per month of nursing care for a total of $162,000 over your lifetime but you use just $3,500 per month in the first year on home-based care, you’ll have more left over to use in a nursing home later. (With a pooled benefit rider, partners can both draw from one pool of funds.)

    What to know

    A 55-year-old buying $6,000 per month of coverage for a $219,000 lifetime pool of benefits and a 3 percent inflation protection could pay $2,664 per year, says Steve Cain, a principal at LTCI Partners, a long-term-care insurance brokerage. (The policy includes a 90-day elimination period, during which the buyer must pay for care out of pocket.) Single women can pay more than single men. In most cases you lose all benefits if your premiums lapse. And, as with any insurance, you may never use it.

    Strategy

    Ask a financial adviser whether you can afford it. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners recommends paying no more than 7 percent of annual income in premiums. “Consumers who look at this usually have assets of $300,000 and up, not including their home,” Cain states. You’ll pay less if you initiate coverage before age 60; Cain says that as a rule of thumb, you’ll pay 6 to 8 percent more each year that you wait.

    Base your expected daily benefit on current costs where you plan on retiring, and your lifestyle and budget. Subtract what you can afford per day out of pocket from the daily cost. The longer your elimination period, the cheaper the policy will be; 90 days is the most common.

    If possible, buy coverage through a state Medicaid partnership program. If care costs exceed your private-insurance coverage, you don’t have to spend down as much to qualify for Medicaid. Not all states offer the programs; contact your state department of insurance for availability.

    As with annuities, choose from among highly rated carriers. And be prepared: Premiums could rise a lot over time.

    Consumer Reports' retirement planning guide offers unbiased, expert advice on making the best of your next chapter.

    If costly insurance premiums aren’t options, consider changing your lifestyle and expectations.

    How it works

    Working longer and ramping up savings for just a few years longer can improve your prospects. Say you earn $85,000 at age 59, have $75,000 saved, and get yearly raises of 2 percent. Assuming an annual return of 6 percent, saving 15 percent of your income for five years would grow your nest egg to $175,000 by age 64.

    What to know

    Saving more in your last years of work not only builds your nest egg but also forces you to practice living with less. If you can increase savings by 10 percent and still pay the bills, you will probably need less than the 85 percent earnings replacement rate we recommend.

    Strategy

    Work with a financial adviser to draw up a realistic retirement budget and savings withdrawal rate, usually no more than 4 percent of assets.

    If there’s a chance that you might need long-term care, whether at home or in a facility, it’s wise to at least know your options through Medicaid.

    How it works

    Enrollees must be at poverty level—for individuals, around $2,000 in “countable” assets; for couples, $3,000—for at least five years (called a “look-back” period). But individual states may allow for more in assets and for a certain level of monthly income. And a lot doesn’t count toward Medicaid. You won’t have to sell your home if your spouse or certain other relatives are living there; home-equity limits apply. Exempt assets also include retirement accounts, one car, and prepaid burial plots. Be aware that state rules vary.

    What to know

    Spend-down rules exempt capital improvements that allow you to remain in your home for care. You can expend assets within the five-year period if they’ll be used toward your care.

    Strategy

    An elder law attorney can help you transfer certain assets in advance of applying. Michael Ettinger, an elder law attorney based in New York City, recommends an irrevocable, Medicaid asset protection trust (MAPT). Only withdrawals of dividends and interest are permitted.

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

     

     

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    Kitchen remodeling on a budget: A downsized space that is high on style

    Adrian Forman’s last kitchen had professional appliances, a marble floor, and a tile backsplash. But when the recently divorced mother of two moved to a smaller home in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., her idea of a dream kitchen started over, too. “I left that behind,” says the Texas native, a writer. “My goal was to create a functional, comfortable kitchen. I want people to spend time here.”

    Forman’s original budget was $25,000 (though she spent a bit more than that before she was done), which is about the national average for a kitchen remodel. Here’s how she made her dream a reality.

    Are you kitchen remodeling on a budget? Share your story below.

    A neutral palette

    “White appliances would have been too much white. Black is too heavy. Stainless was the perfect midpoint, and the tin backsplash helps tie it all together. The cabinets and counters are like the wrapping paper, and the appliances and backsplash are the bow on top.”

    Maximizing space

    “The refrigerator is on your right as soon as you enter the kitchen, so I wanted cabinet-depth even though it meant spending a bit extra. I also had to have French doors as opposed to a fridge with one big door that swings open, cutting off the flow of the kitchen.”

    Double-duty

    “Two ovens, one space—it’s such a smart design. I entertain constantly, and I like cooking big meals. I’ll put a standing rib roast in the lower oven and a kale-sweet potato casserole in the upper, while my homemade rolls bake in the toaster oven.”

    Natural fit

    “Granite is durable and easy to take care of. I got a very high-end piece for an exceptional price because I paid cash and was willing to accept a few imperfections. Bonus: The supplier threw in the sink for free because I paid cash.”

    A cozy corner

    “I wanted an eat-in kitchen for the boys and me, and this sitting area creates a nice connection to the outdoors. When friends come over and I’m cooking, it’s a comfortable place for them to hang out and keep me company. The banquette’s built-in storage holds all my tablecloths and napkins.”

    The right light

    “Putting in LED undercabinet task lighting was one of my best decisions. I can see! There are no weird shadows, and I can use the whole counter when doing prep work. The two glass ceiling fixtures have specialty incandescent bulbs that look great, but they don’t give off a lot of light.”

    Under foot

    “I’ve had stone floors in the past, but I find them uncomfortable because I spend so much time on my feet. Wood is comfortable, plus I wanted continuity throughout the house. The wood floors on the first floor are all stained the same English walnut finish.”

    Adrian Forman went over budget, in part because she needed to replace her range and refrigerator. Experts suggest leaving at least a 10 to15 percent cushion when planning.

    Banquette seating, table, curio cabinet

    $690

    Cabinets and hardware

    $4,165

    Dishwasher with cabinet panel

    $660

    Faucet

    $316

    Granite counters and installation (stainless sink included)

    $2,850

    Paint and labor

    $230

    Stainless double-oven gas range

    $1,973

    Stainless French-door refrigerator, cabinet depth

    $3,000

    Tin backsplash

    $312

    Two ceiling light fixtures

    $98

    Undercabinet LED task lighting

    $188

    Labor

    $15,000*

    Total

    $29,482

    *Labor costs usually run higher in the Northeast.

     

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    This article also appeared in the August 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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    Get the TV shows you want at the best price

    Like many young mothers with a growing family, Julie Wilson Caton has been looking for ways to trim her budget, especially because her family is just starting a home addition. She was particularly ticked off at her monthly bill of $180 for TV, Internet, and phone service, which seemed excessive given how few channels her family actually watches. Caton started to shop around, but as she explored the alternatives, she was taken aback by the expanding number of choices.

    “I initially thought I might be able to just cut back a bit on my cable package, since we were relying more on Netflix,” recalls Caton, who lives in the Hudson Valley about 30 miles north of New York City. “When I started to do some research, I found there were so many options available. Figuring out the best solution was way more complicated than I ever imagined.”

     Many consumers share Caton’s frustration. There has to be a better way to get TV. Americans may not agree on much, but almost all of us complain about being trapped by overpriced cable packages. According to research firm NPD Group, the average pay-TV customer spends more than $100 per month for TV and Internet service. And it’s not like we’re watching all of the channels we’re paying for. Last year the typical U.S. home received 189 TV channels but regularly watched only 17, according to Nielsen, a leading research firm. That kind of waste bothers people. In the most recent survey on telecom providers conducted by Consumer Reports, 83 percent of the TV providers we rated received our lowest mark for value.

    “Lack of competition among cable providers has resulted in higher prices and poor customer service, year after year,” says Ellen Bloom, senior director of federal policy for Consumers Union. But cable customers have grudgingly stayed put because they saw no decent alternatives.

    Check our telecom Ratings to find the best TV, Internet, and phone service.

    Now, after a quarter century of monopolies, high prices, and frustration, that’s beginning to change. Over the past year, new services have emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, and regulatory agencies have aggressively asserted themselves to level the playing field. Internet-streaming services such as Sling TV and Sony PlayStation Vue offer curated channel packages with popular networks such as the Disney Channel, ESPN, and TNT, and Apple is rumored to have its own service in the works. Premium networks such as HBO and Showtime are selling cable-free subscriptions to compete with the likes of Netflix. And cable, satellite, and fiber companies are fighting back with slimmer packages and lower prices.

    For the first time in a generation, consumers are starting to have more choice. Why now? The main reason is that broadband service has reached a TV-friendly threshold. About 90 million homes have high-speed Internet connections, closing in on the 100 million households that get pay TV. Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company, has more broadband customers than TV subscribers. And Internet connections have become fast enough—about 11 megabits per second (Mbps), on average—to reliably support streaming. That has allowed Internet-based startups to shoulder their way into the market, in turn spurring established TV players to experiment with their services.

    “The shift to downloading and viewing content over the Internet could eventually offer real competition in the video market, and that could mean flexible choices and better pricing,” Bloom says. For now, TV providers seem less concerned about making fistfuls of money than they are about understanding how the business is shifting. “Broadcasters are finally more open to testing their content on new platforms, to see what consumers want and what makes sense,” says Dan Rayburn, principal digital media analyst at market research firm Frost & Sullivan.

    Government regulation is encouraging, rather than inhibiting, innovation. This spring, the Federal Communications Commission rewrote its rules for Internet service providers (ISPs) to prevent them from favoring one type of content over another or from slowing down or blocking content coming from some websites. That principle of nondiscrimination is called “Net neutrality.” The FCC is also fighting state laws that block municipal broadband, so towns and cities can provide fast, cheap public Internet access.

    The streaming option

    Given better, faster broadband and more options for streaming content over the Internet, consumers can trim or even ditch their conventional cable or satellite TV package. Assembling an entertainment package from a mix of services can seem liberating if you’ve felt trapped by your cable company. But it’s not without trade-offs

    “Streaming still has a lot of issues you don’t have with cable—technical problems, buffering, inconsistent home Wi-Fi environments—and it’s not clear where you have to go for content,” Rayburn says. “With cable and satellite TV, you know that it will work, and the picture quality will be consistently good, especially on a big-screen TV. And all your program choices are easily found on one menu.”

    You also need to consider value. When our experts priced a few combinations of streaming services, the packages they configured cost $20 to $30 per month less than traditional cable, but they got far fewer channels.

    Plus almost all of the new options depend on broadband service—which in many cases is provided by the very cable or telecom company you want to escape. If you drop television service, your provider will probably charge you more for Internet service, and you might have no choice but to ante up: The FCC says three out of four households lack choice when it comes to high-speed broadband.

    Though new streaming options may not be perfect, the pros clearly outweigh the cons for many consumers. Research firm Experian estimates that 18 percent of households with an online video service such as Netflix have dropped traditional TV service; by contrast, almost 7 percent of households overall have cut the cord. Pay-TV companies started losing more customers than they gained in 2013, and in the first quarter of this year, they lost 86,000 subscribers, reports research firm MoffettNathanson.

    Caton hasn’t yet decided whether she’ll join the ranks of cord-cutters. The week she spoke to us, she was canvassed by a Verizon rep, who said FiOS fiber service was only a block or so away from her home. She’s waiting to see how Verizon’s offers compare with her other options. In a market that’s changing this fast, every week seems to bring a new reason to shop around.

    Have you cut the cord? What have you done to lower your monthly viewing expenses? Let us know by telling your story below.

    If you think the hundred-plus channel package provided by your cable company is a colossal waste of content—and money—then it’s about time you explored your options. Here’s our guide to right-sizing your entertainment budget.

    Start by creating a list of programs you can’t live without, then ask family members to add their favorites. Do you need to watch shows the day they air? Do you have sports nuts in the house who want everything—including ESPN, TNT, and regional sports networks—or are they casual fans who can make do with what’s broadcast on network TV? Is local news critical? Are you willing and able to use an antenna to pull in over-the-air broadcasts? Do you need a DVR to record shows? Do you have smart TVs or streaming media players, such as Apple TV or Roku devices, that can connect every TV in your home to streaming services?

    Once you’ve compiled your preferred channel lineup, go through the various cable, satellite, telecom, and streaming-service packages to find the lowest-cost option that most closely matches your list. Then decide which other services or channels you’d want to add. Crunch the numbers to see how the total compares with the best deal from your TV provider. (This chart may help you choose.) Consider what you get for the money. If you would save a little but give up a lot, it might not be worth switching. Check the fine print on pricing. Prices sometimes rise steeply after a promotional period ends.

    If you get your TV service from a cable, satellite, or fiber provider, it’s worth checking out their current offers before you sever ties. You might be able to trim costs without losing your favorite channels by “shaving” the cord rather than cutting it. Check out the most basic plan available; most such plans start at about $20 per month. Companies rarely promote them, so you may have to dig to find them.

    If you like cable programs such as AMC’s “The Walking Dead” or TNT’s “Falling Skies,” a midpriced package that includes regular cable channels should suffice. Some providers let you add premium cable channels such as HBO for about $10 per month, so don’t assume you have to spring for a pricey package to get them.

    A number of companies offer flexible packages with a limited number of cable channels plus broadband. Verizon’s FiOS Custom TV Double Play plan, for example, combines 25-Mbps Internet service with local broadcasts, about 30 cable channels (about 10 of them mainstream), and a choice of two channel packs for $60 per month. You can add more packs such as sports (which includes ESPN), kids, and news for $10 each. (At press time, ESPN was suing Verizon, stating that contracts required that it be part of the core package.)

    Traditional TV bundles have one big advantage that you won’t get with most streaming services: easy recording on a DVR, which is often included in midpriced and higher packages and available for an additional cost with the most basic plans.

    Learn about do-it-yourself TV packages that will save you money.

    Most new over-the-Internet TV services have about 20 to 30 cable channels as part of a core package, and some let you pay to add channels, including premium channels such as HBO and Showtime. But that can quickly bump up the price, and even then, none of the services completely replicates what you’d get with cable—including a DVR.

    Sports has been called the glue that has kept viewers stuck to traditional cable and satellite TV packages, but that’s starting to change. ESPN, home to “Sunday Night Baseball” and “Monday Night Football,” is available in Sling TV’s cord-cutter package. Sling TV’s basic package also includes popular channels such as AMC, CNN, and the Disney Channel, but it doesn’t have the major broadcast networks or a DVR. You can add channel packs for $5 more per month apiece.

    Sony’s PlayStation Vue has a cloud-based DVR and as many as 85 local and cable channels, but it lacks ABC and Disney channels including ESPN and regional sports networks. As of this spring, Vue was available in only three cities, but Sony said it would be offered more widely soon. Also, its cost—from $50 to $70 per month—isn’t much lower than that of many cable plans.

    At press time, the dark horse in the race was Apple, which was reportedly readying a streaming service for launch this fall. Based on early reports, it could have about 25 local and cable channels and cost $30 to $40 per month.

    It’s quite possible that no single alternative will completely meet your family’s needs, so you might have to mix and match. You can start with a skinny cable package and supplement it with Internet streaming services or over-the-air local broadcasts using an antenna. (You’ll find advice about reception in your area on websites such as AntennaWeb and TV Fool.)

    Some networks offer limited live programming on their websites. CBS, with its $6-per-month CBS All Access, is the only major network with a full stand-alone streaming service. But NFL games will be excluded because of licensing agreements. If you can live with a delay of a day or so, you can watch current episodes of many shows from the major networks on Hulu Plus, which costs $8 per month. And if you’re OK being a season or more behind, Netflix, $8 per month, and Amazon Prime, $99 per year, are great options for movies and binge-watching. Many professional leagues—including MLB, NBA, and NHL—offer monthly or yearly online streaming subscriptions, though local games are often blacked out. The one exception is NFL Sunday Ticket, which is available only to DirecTV subscribers.

    If you go through the process we’ve outlined, you should be in a good position to decide which telecom service, or mix of services, is best for your family. And with things changing so rapidly, check back periodically to see whether an even better choice for you has emerged.

    Cable TV companies have had captive audiences for too long. Now streaming services delivered over the Internet and slimmed-down packages from traditional pay-TV providers are creating a buyer’s market. Cick on the image to get a rundown of your options:

    Hidden fees

    Know the full price before you sign up for a plan. Fees for installation, regional sports, equipment, taxes, and more can tack $25 or so onto your monthly bill.

    Early exit

    Most cable companies don’t require a contract, but certain providers do, especially with promotional rates. With Verizon contracts, you pay up to $350 if you want out before your term expires. DirecTV and Dish charge a prorated fee of $20 per month (up to $480) if you try to exit a contract early. Before you sign anything, find out what it’ll cost you to get out of a contract if you change your mind later.

    Modem or router rental

    A rental charge of $8 to $10 per month adds up fast. Instead of continually shelling out that fee, buy your own gear for about $100 or less.

    This article also appeared in the August 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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