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Consumer Reports

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    Do-it-yourself TV packages that save you money

    Want to trim your cable expenses and still get the kinds of shows you love? Here are three packages you can assemble yourself to accomplish both feats. 

    Also read our new report on how to get the shows you want at the best price.

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

     

    Satisfy a sports fan

     

    Keep
 the family happy

     

    Get the basics

     

    Sling TV, $20/month: Twenty popular channels, plus ESPN and ESPN2, and TNT for Final Four and NBA Basketball.

    +

    Verizon FiOS Custom
TV, $60/month: Local
broadcasts and cable channels, plus broadband.

    +

    Free over-the-air broadcast TV
using an antenna.

    +

    SlingTV sports add-on pack, $5/month: ESPN Buzzer Beater, ESPNews, Universal Sports, SEC Network, etc.

    +

    Two FiOS add-on packs (such as Kids and Pop Culture) are included in package. Additional packs are $10 each per month.

    +

    HuluPlus, $8/month, and Netflix, $8/month, for TV shows and movies.

    +

    Over-the-air TV antenna, $40: For local channels and sports events.

    =

    Amazon Prime $8.25/month: Includes access to older Viacom shows, including “Dora the Explorer.”

    =

     

    Over-the-air TV antenna, $40: For local channels and sports events.

    =

     

    $80 up front (antenna and $40 Amazon Fire TV Stick), plus $25/month for Sling TV, plus broadband, about $50.

     

    $78.25/month with no up-front costs, but there are additional monthly service and equipment fees. Broadband is included.

    $90 up front (antenna and
$50 Roku Stick), $16/month for streaming services, plus broadband, about $50.

     

    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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    Create the perfect kitchen for you

    What makes some kitchens a joy to be in, whether you’re the one cooking or a guest perched at the island? And why do other kitchens fall short even when they clearly cost a lot? Every kitchen is unique, but the best ones share certain key elements whether they cost $15,000 or $150,000. (Speaking of money, learn how one homeowner redid her kitchen on a budget.)

    Layout

    It all starts with a functional layout that will let you, family members, and guests move about easily. The trusty work triangle, connecting the range, sink, and refrigerator, works well in smaller kitchens. In larger ones, adding an island countertop creates more space for food prep and casual dining.

    Storage

    Another essential is ample, efficient storage designed around your specific needs. Look for ways to minimize the back and forth. Place the pantry near a convenient landing spot for groceries, or choose easy-access drawers instead of shelves.

    Counters

    Next decision: countertops and floors that match your lifestyle. They look great when new, but you want them to stand up to daily life. Consume Reports' Ratings include the hardest-wearing materials, as well as sinks and faucets that stand the test of time.

    Appliances

    Your appliances should also address the way you live. Manufacturers have developed many innovations to make life easier in the kitchen: versatile double-oven ranges, speedy induction cooktops, and refrigerators with flexible storage.

    Lighting

    Don’t leave lighting to the end. A good plan will include task light in all the right places, as well as general illumination from recessed canisters or pendants.

    Ventilation

    To contain odors and prevent grease build-up, you’ll need adequate ventilation. Range hoods are best at venting fumes and smoke; make sure yours is at least as wide as the cooking surface below. An over-the-range microwave is a space-saving option, but it won’t clear the air as well.

    Are you remodeling your kitchen? Tell us about your project below.

    The average American spends more than 12 hours per week in the kitchen. (For families, it’s a lot more.) Plan properly, and your new kitchen will be a source of pride and pleasure for years to come. With the average cost to remodel a 200-square-foot kitchen ranging between $19,226 and $56,768, it's worthwhile to take your time and make smart choices such as the following:

    Quartz is tops for countertops

    Quartz has been the most durable countertop material in our tests for the past few years. More expansive design options are adding to its appeal. A cool, new look: Caesarstone’s concrete collection in a trio of finishes, all with the hand-poured patina of concrete and the toughness of quartz. Prefer the look of marble? Check out Silestone’s Lagoon or Lyra patterns.

    You can't go wrong with white

    White and off-white are the most popular kitchen color schemes, used by 81 percent of certified kitchen designers last year, according to the National Kitchen and Bath Association. After coming on strong in 2014, the color gray is projected to see the most growth in 2015. Consider pairing the two hues, with white on the cabinets and gray on the island.

    Give a wave to hands-free

    More kitchen products are eliminating the handle. There’s Miele’s new dishwashers that open with just a knock; cabinets that you open with a wave of the hand across embedded sensors; and hands-free faucets that offer convenience and water savings—many turn off automatically when you pull your hands away.

    Keep it simple with Shaker

    Shaker cabinetry, known for its clean lines and square corners, was the most popular style in the latest Kitchen Trends Study by Houzz, the home design website. With its simple rail-and-stile construction, Shaker cabinetry tends to be an affordable option that works well in kitchens that straddle the line between traditional and contemporary.

    Share your photos on Pinterest

    Planning your own kitchen remodel? Follow Consumer Reports on Pinterest to keep up with the latest in inspiring tips, tools, and design.

    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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    How to use a retirement calculator

    How much income will you need in retirement? Are you on track? A retirement calculator, used correctly, could help you get a rough idea. Two we like are AARP’s and T. Rowe Price’s retirement calculators because they can accommodate couples, not just individuals. With some retirement calculators, you may have to override built-in assumptions. Here are guidelines:

    • Inflation. Input 3 or 3.5 percent. Pessimistic? Use 4 or 5 percent.

    • Investment returns. Past performance is not predictive, and your allocations will shift over time. Historical, average annual returns of 9.6 percent for stocks and 5 percent for bonds mean that a mix of 60 percent stocks and 40 percent bonds would return 7.8 percent. But to play it safe, we suggest estimating lower: for a 60/40 mix, 5 or 6 percent.

    • Retirement income. You won’t commute, fund a 401(k), or owe FICA taxes, but you’re likely to spend on leisure early in retirement. Later, you’ll spend more on health care. So where the retirement calculator asks for retirement income, go with 85 percent of expected final annual income.

    • Social Security benefits. Get a free estimate from the Social Security Administration. For claiming strategies that may yield more, use Financial Engines’ free Social Security planner (scroll midway down the home page); or pay a service such as Social Security Choices or Maximize My Social Security, $40 each.

    • Rate of asset withdrawal. Theories vary, but 4 percent annually is a good starting point.

    Consumer Reports' Retirement Planning Guide offers unbiased, expert advice on making the most of your next life chapter.

    This article also appeared in the August 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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    How to save big bucks on car rentals

    The car rental industry has made an art out of the low-advertised-price scam, promoting bargain rates and neglecting to mention mandatory extras. Rent a car at an airport and you may be hit by a truly awe-inspiring stack of additional fees.

    Besides the rental itself, you could be charged for the airport concession, the rental facility, and even the car’s registration. You may find charges for a local civic improvement, a juiced-up local sales tax, and other surcharges, including one levied on frequent fliers. And that's before you get to the optional extras: Insurance, gasoline, additional driver, child seat, toll transponder, and a navigation system.

    Drivers under 25 may pay a much higher rate, face a large-dollar hold on their credit card, or not be able to rent at all. A possible solution for these younger drivers is a car-sharing organization like Zipcar (see below).

    You can ply these shark-infested waters with minimal danger if you’re willing to plan ahead. For instance, you may find that renting the smallest car isn’t the best choice. Sometimes the rate for a midsized car is lower than for a subcompact from the same company—and it is likely more comfortable and safer (though it will probably use more fuel).

    When it comes to securing a rental car, comparison shopping is vital, and shopping online is the easiest way to go. Use travel sites like Orbitz, Kayak, or Expedia; a dedicated site like Carrentals.com; or simply Google “cheap car rental” and the name of the city you’re visiting.

    We recently checked out prices for renting a Toyota Corolla for eight days, spanning a holiday weekend, from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. The 12 quotes produced by Orbitz ranged from $274 (Ace) to $615 (National), not including those pesky extra fees. With the fees factored in, the rentals actually ranged from $404 to $897. The median quote, including taxes, was about $500.

    Another choice you’ll see is to pre-pay with your booking or pay the day of pickup. Pre-paying can net a big discount, but check the cancellation terms. You want to be able to back out painlessly if your plans change—or you find a better deal.

    Don’t be afraid to check out smaller car-rental names like Ace, Advantage, Fox, and Payless. Local and regional agencies can charge 20 to 50 percent less than the big chains, even if, as in the case of Payless, they’re affiliated with one of the majors. It might be a good idea to check local—and recent—online reviews for the smaller players, as service quality can vary.

    Skip the airport

    You might get a big break, perhaps as much as 50 percent off, by renting downtown, or in a suburb if you’re headed for one, rather than grabbing a car at the airport.

    If you can avail yourself of a cheap shuttle, train ride, or cab trip to your hotel, all the better, especially if it allows you to skip the airport-rental queues and chaos.

    One possible option if you go for an off-airport deal, is to check out the cost of a one-way rental in which you pick up the car at a remote location and drop the car off at the airport.

    Organizations like AAA and AARP offer cheap—or at least discounted—rental-car deals. AAA members may get perks such free use of a child seat. Costco and BJ’s also offer some great discounts. Costco, for instance, looks for deals that include an additional driver at no extra cost. American Express and numerous Visa and MasterCard offerings also offer car-rental discounts.

    Weekend rates are often the cheapest, but you can also get good deals by renting at a weekly rate. But watch out for big charges if your plans change mid-trip and you end up returning your car sooner or later than you planned.

    You may be charged for a full extra day if you’re as little as an hour late at drop-off. Some companies also charge you extra for dropping your car off too early. Your weekly-rate discount may be voided as well, sticking you with a far higher daily rental rate.

    A rental company’s insurance offerings—Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), property-theft coverage, and so on—can add $10 to $30 per day if not more. If you have no alternative, you should spring for CDW. But your own car insurance may already cover you, so check that out ahead of time. Keep in mind that if you don’t carry collision coverage on your own car, you probably won’t have it on your rental.

    American Express and many Visa and MasterCard programs also supply rental-car insurance, so long as you book using that card.

    The rental clerk may say your own insurance doesn’t cover tires, glass, or days out of service. Check the fine print in your own auto and credit-card coverage before you leave home. And bring your insurance card with you, just in case.

    Be sure to inspect the car in minute detail when you pick it up. Use a digital camera or a smartphone to take close-up pictures of scrapes, scuffs, dents, dings and interior stains in order to prove that these blemishes were there at the start. Take a similar set of pictures (preferably date-stamped or with other proof such as the day's paper) when you return the car so you can prove that any subsequent damage was not your fault.

    Turn these down

    Child seat. If you need a child safety seat while traveling, bring your own rather than taking a chance on whatever the rental company has to offer. It may not be clean or easy to secure, and the fee—typically $10 a day—can quickly mount up. (See our guide to car seats and rental cars.)

    Navigation. It may not be worth your while to rent a navigation system, especially if you own a portable system you can bring with you. Many smartphones have built-in GPS navigation, but be aware of state laws against hand-held device use. (See our guide to GPS devices and the law.)

    HD radio. Unless you’re really, really hooked on HD radio, which offers great sound but spotty coverage, we’d skip it.

    You’re often given three fuel choices: agree to return the car with a full tank; prepay for a full tank; or let the rental company top up the tank when you return the car.

    The first choice is best if you start with a full tank. Fill the car immediately before returning it—and save that receipt!

    Buying a tankful up front makes sense if you can contrive to return the car almost empty. If you return it partly full, you don’t get a refund. In other words, you get to pay not just for your own fuel but some of the next customers’, too.

    Letting the rental company fill the tank for you is your worst bet. The company may add a “service” charge, tacking on several dollars a gallon.

    Electronic toll trolls

    Many regions are adopting cashless electronic highway tolls—EZ-Pass in the northeast, SunPass in Florida, FasTrak in California, and so forth. Typically you’ll pay $3 to $5 a day for the car’s built-in e-toll transponder, whether you go through any tolls or not, plus the tolls themselves.

    Sometimes you’re given a choice of having the transponder activated or not. If you decide mid-trip that you’ll need it after all, you’ll be charged for all the days you didn’t have it, as well as those you did. If you turn down that privilege and happen to breeze through a cashless toll, be prepared to pay a big charge, $100 or more, plus the toll, and perhaps other fees.

    This table shows typical sedans you’ll find in retail rental fleets, according to their websites. Note that most sites mention a model name with the caveat “or similar.” That means you often can’t know for sure that you’ll get the exact car you wanted. Try calling the rental location to nail them down on what they have on hand.

    Large chains like Avis, Enterprise, and Hertz also rent luxury cars, usually BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes, in select markets and locations.

    Models that we consider especially mediocre, based on our testing, are marked in italics. There is no reason to ruin your vacation by renting a model that has an uncomfortable seat, harsh ride, and/or poor fuel economy. Those include the Chevrolet Impala, because for now most rental Impalas are the previous-generation Impala Limited, which GM continued making for rental fleets, instead of the much nicer Impala redesign that bowed in 2014.

      Alamo Avis Budget Dollar/
    Thrifty
    Economy Chevrolet Spark Hyundai Accent Hyundai Accent Kia Rio
    Compact Nissan Versa Ford Focus Ford Focus  
    Intermediate/ Midsized Toyota Corolla Chevrolet Cruze Dodge Avenger Ford Focus
    Standard Chrysler 200 Chrysler 200,
    Nissan Altima
    Chrysler 200,
    Nissan Altima
    Dodge Avenger
    Full size Ford Fusion Chevrolet Impala Limited Chevrolet Impala Limited, Ford Fusion Mitsubishi Galant
    Premium Nissan Maxima, Chrysler 300
    Chrysler 300 Ford Taurus Nissan Altima
    Luxury Cadillac ATS Lincoln MKS Lincoln MKS Buick LaCrosse
      Enterprise Hertz National
    Economy Chevrolet Spark Kia Rio Chevrolet Spark
    Compact Nissan Versa,
    Toyota Yaris
    Ford Focus Nissan Versa
    Intermediate/ Midsized Toyota Corolla Toyota Corolla Toyota Corolla
    Standard Chrysler 200 Nissan Altima Chrysler 200
    Full size Chevrolet Impala Limited, Nissan Altima Chevrolet Malibu, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry
    Ford Fusion
    Premium Nissan Maxima Nissan Maxima Chrysler 300
    Luxury Cadillac ATS,
    Lincoln MKZ
    Buick LaCrosse Cadillac ATS

    Zipcar is a leader in the “car sharing” movement, a low-hassle approach to very short-term car rental—from an hour or two to a week. Typical rental charges run about $8 to $9 an hour, which includes gas, insurance, and 180 miles. The varied fleet mostly has small and midsized sedans, but it includes vans, pickups, and luxury cars at select locations.

    Despite being acquired by Avis in 2013, Zipcar maintains its youthful, socially conscious vibe. You first buy a membership, for $6 per month or $60 per year, and they mail you a personal key card that will enable you to access cars you then book by phone or online. Members can be as young as 18 for some college students.

    Members are expected to leave plenty of fuel for the next renter, and fill up (at Zipcar’s expense) if necessary. They’re also enjoined to leave the car free of travel trash, return the car to the place where they picked it up, and not be late.

    The honor-system approach doesn’t always work out. Numerous complaints cite cars that have been left with little gas and someone else’s food waste. Pickings may be slim in some places, too. But for people who need a car only occasionally, Zipcar can be a convenient and low-cost alternative to car ownership.

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

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    Highest-scoring American vehicles

    There are many ways to view the Consumer Reports Ratings to find the highest-rated vehicle in a given category or price range. But we get many questions from journalists and our readers regarding the best current American-branded vehicles.

    To answer that popular query, we sorted vehicles into 14 key categories. We found that Ford Motor Company has five slots. General Motors captures five entries, Chrysler has three, and Tesla has one. Reviewing the scores, we find that most of these American models are quite competitive, scoring well in most cases. Unfortunately, some models are not recommended due to below average or unknown reliability. Check our Ratings (available to online subscribers) to see which ones are top scoring and reliable.

    Category Model Overall test score
    Compact car Ford Focus SE SFE sedan

    76

    Midsized car Chevrolet Malibu 2LTZ

    85

    Large car Chevrolet Impala 2LTZ
    91
    Luxury compact car Buick Regal Premium I (turbo)
    83
    Luxury midsized car Lincoln MKZ 2.0 EcoBoost
    84
    Luxury large car Tesla Model S (base, 85 kWh)

    99

    Sports car Chevrolet Corvette Stingray 3LT

    92

    Small SUV Ford Escape Titanium (2.0T)

    78

    Midsized SUV Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited (diesel)

    82

    Large SUV Dodge Durango Limited (V6)

    83

    Luxury SUV Buick Enclave CXL

    77

    Full-sized pickups
    Ram 1500 Big Horn (diesel)

    82

    Minivan Ford Transit Connect XLT (2.5L)

    76

    Wagon Ford C-Max Hybrid SE 77
    Best and worst new cars

    See our best and worst section to help filter down your purchase considerations including best new cars under $25K, best and worst new car values, most fuel-efficient, and most fun to drive.

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

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    7 tried-and-true retirement-savings strategies

    Some key investment tools cost nothing: time, patience, vigilance, and perseverance. Use them with even small investments for big payoffs at retirement. Check out these retirement-savings strategies.

    Start early

    Stock-price increases and compound dividends can turn a molehill into a mountain over time. Between 1928 and year-end 2014, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index returned an average 9.6 percent annually, not adjusted for inflation. Even at a more conservative rate of 6.5 percent for a 100 percent stock portfolio, a 22-year-old investing $200 per month—roughly the cost of a sandwich and soda each day—would end up with $248,600 at age 67, even if he never invested anything after age 30. If he invested $200 per month for all 45 years, he’d have more than $591,000.

    Invest regularly

    Save 10 to 15 percent of your income. Automatic contributions from your paycheck let you benefit from “dollar-cost-averaging.” The principle: That $200 per month buys fewer shares when prices are high, and more when share prices are low. The average share price is potentially lower than if you had invested sporadically and depended on market timing.

    Avoid future taxes

    They’ll erode earnings. While your income is relatively low, use tax-advantaged Roth 401(k) and IRA plans. You won’t get a tax break up front, but your investments grow tax-free—a huge lift to returns—and you’ll pay no tax on withdrawal years later, when your presumably higher income could be subject to higher tax rates.

    Get retirement-savings strategies and unbiased advice on investment products such as mutual funds, ETFs, and annuities in our investing center.

    Diversify and allocate

    Varying your holdings reduces your risk of losing money; usually when some holdings go down, others go up. Mutual funds—collections of stocks or bonds—provide that diversification. Investing in several mutual funds that focus on different types and sizes of companies—large-cap, small-cap, and international, for example—reduces your risk more. While you’re young, put all or nearly all of your holdings in growth-oriented, equity (stock) mutual funds. As you age, shift gradually to less risky bond holdings.

    Focus on low cost

    By one estimate, a typical couple loses more than $150,000 to mutual-fund fees over a lifetime of 401(k) savings. Pick index mutual funds keyed to broad-based market indices such as the S&P 500; they have low fees because they require little active management. Investment researcher Morningstar has shown a high correlation between low cost and superior performance over time.

    Rebalance

    Periodically sell holdings that have grown to reset to the proper proportion of stocks to bonds. Target-date retirement funds are baskets of low-cost, index mutual funds that rebalance automatically as you age. They’re the default investment option in many 401(k) plans for good reason. They encompass many of the key principles of investing mentioned here: diversification, low cost, and automatic rebalancing.

    Be patient

    Studies by the investment research company Dalbar have shown that folks who stay put during market volatility do far better than those who panic and sell, expecting to return to the markets later. So buy, hold, and reap the rewards.

    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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  • 07/02/15--07:59: 2WD vs AWD vs 4WD
  • 2WD vs AWD vs 4WD

    All passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. starting with the 2012 model year come equipped with electronic stability control, which along with traction control significantly improves road-holding capabilities regardless of the drive wheels. Even so, we have found there are distinct differences in the driving, and traction, characteristics among drive types.
     
    If you’re looking for maximum grip, we've found that all- and four-wheel-drive systems provide superior traction in some slippery conditions.
     
    Here’s how the different systems work:
     

    Front-wheel drive

    Most passenger vehicles on the road today use front-wheel drive (FWD), where the engine’s power is routed to the front wheels. In fact, all but a handful of SUVs are primarily front-wheel drive vehicles, with additional components that send some power to the rear wheels as the need arises. Front-wheel drive designs are cheaper to manufacture and more space-efficient than rear-drive systems. Plus, FWD has the added advantage of better traction while climbing hills because the engine’s weight is poised over the front wheels. From a packaging standpoint, front-drive also precludes the need for a space-robbing driveline hump running down the middle of the cabin floor.

    Rear-wheel drive

    Rear-wheel drive (RWD) is commonly found on pickups and old-school truck-based SUVs, along with sports cars and high-performance and luxury sedans. For trucks, RWD allows the use of bulky, heavy-duty components, and it provides better traction with a hefty load. On a performance car, rear-wheel-drive improves handling by balancing the car’s weight more evenly front to rear. And because the front wheels don’t have to do double duty—both driving and steering—designers can optimize the suspension for handling prowess. However, RWD provides less traction on slippery roads. These days, most high-end cars offer all-wheel drive either standard or as an option.

    All-wheel drive

    As the name implies, all-wheel drive (AWD) feeds power to each corner. Depending on the system (designs vary), AWD can provide maximum forward traction during acceleration. It is especially helpful in sloppy road conditions and when driving over moderate off-road terrain. It can help get you going and keep you moving through mud, sand, and other loose surfaces. Most AWD systems deliver power primarily to one set of wheels, front or rear. When slippage is detected at one axle, power is diverted to the other axle, in hopes of finding more traction there.

    Not all AWD systems are equal. Subaru’s AWD system  always directs at least 20-percent of the engine’s power to the rear, and it can direct a larger amount aft if needed. Many other systems fitted to front-wheel-drive vehicles operate with 100 percent of the power normally going to the front wheels; the rear wheels then only receive power only when the front wheels start slipping.   

    AWD systems are especially helpful in rapidly changing conditions or when driving on a road with intermittent snow and ice. It is commonly used for car-based SUVs, as well as certain cars and minivans. (See our list of  best AWD vehicles.)
     

    Four-wheel drive

    Although four-wheel drive (4WD) and AWD are designations that are often used interchangeably in advertising and sales literature, there is a difference. Generally, 4WD is optimized for severe off-road driving situations such as climbing over boulders, fording deep water, and tackling steep hills with loose, low-traction surfaces. Most 4WD systems have high and a low gear range, the latter used to increase low-speed climbing power. Some have differentials (which allow left and right wheels and front and rear axles to turn at different speeds) to be locked for maximum traction.

    Modern 4WD systems are either full-time, which means they stay engaged; automatic, where the vehicle automatically switches between two- and four-wheel-drive mode; and part-time, which require the driver to manually shift between two- and four-wheel drive. Vehicles with a part-time system shouldn’t be driven on dry pavement when in 4WD mode, which could risk damage to the vehicle's drivetrain.

    Aside from serious off-road enthusiasts, most drivers never come close to needing the capability that 4WD systems provide over and above AWD systems.

    For rain and very light snow, 2WD will likely work fine, and for most vehicles, front-wheel drive is the preferred setup. (For performance cars, RWD is preferred, but AWD, if available, can increase traction. AWD is fine for most normal snow conditions or for light-duty, off-pavement excursions. If you'll be driving in severe snow or true off-road situations, or if you're interested in pursuing off-roading as a hobby, you should opt for a vehicle with 4WD and lots of ground clearance. Keep in mind that both AWD and 4WD systems add considerable weight to a vehicle, compromising fuel economy.

    One of the reasons many people buy a traditional sport-utility vehicle is for the extra security and traction of four-wheel drive. Many drivers don't realize the limitations of AWD and 4WD, however. Though having power delivered to all four wheels increases straight-line traction, it does nothing to improve cornering or braking.

     Drivers are often fooled  when driving in slippery conditions with an AWD or 4WD vehicle, not realizing how slippery conditions may be when driving, only to discover they are going way too fast when trying to stop. Because the added traction of 4WD can allow a vehicle to accelerate more quickly in slippery conditions, drivers need to be more vigilant, not less. Slippery conditions demand extra caution, no matter what you drive.

    In many cases, having good tires is more important than the drive wheels. Winter tires, for instance, actually do help you turn and stop on a snowy road—things that AWD doesn’t help with.

    See our list of the best off-road vehicles.

     

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

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    Why do some cars consume excessive oil?

    Auto industry sources and Consumer Reports engineers believe that some new lower-friction engine designs meant to improve fuel economy have had the side effect of increasing oil consumption.

    One automaker’s instructional engineer—who spoke on condition of anonymity because he didn’t want to comment on competing automakers’ troubles—said there are several factors at play.

    The use of super-low-viscosity oils, also known as zero-weight oils, reduces the hydraulic friction of moving liquid oil around in the engine. They also reduce the effort needed to turn the oil pump, contributing to efficiency improvements.

    However, the lighter, thinner oil is more able to sneak past engine parts such as piston rings, valve guides, gaskets, and seals that have tiny gaps between the sliding surfaces. Those tolerances are extremely precise, to within a few thousandths of an inch between a piston and its cylinder, leaving little margin for error.

    Subaru’s recent engine changes involved improving the assembly process to reduce those tolerances, a Subaru insider said. However, an inverse problem is that too tight a fit between sliding parts can increase friction and shorten the life of an engine significantly.

    It’s not always the oil or engine tolerances. Several years ago, BMW discovered its “N63” V8 engine had an oil leak from the engine’s vacuum pump that was causing increased consumption. It also revised the oil sump design with new ventilation hoses and increased capacity.

    A different problem is known as “positive crankcase ventilation.” When that happens, oil gets sucked into the engine’s emissions control system, and from there into the cylinders. Both BMW and GM have issued technical service bulletins to address this problem.

    For more insights, read our special report on excessive oil consumption.

    Share your experiences in the comments below.

    Eric Evarts

    Car maintenance resources

     

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    Get the mattress you want at the price you want

    A mattress store might be the last place you want to visit on a holiday weekend. That's why retailers like Macy’s, Sears, and Sleepy’s try extra hard to get you in the door. If you need a new mattress in a hurry, you’ll like what you see. If you have other plans, here's a little secret: You don’t have to wait for a holiday weekend for breaks of 50 percent or more, free shipping, and other bargains.

    This weekend, Macy’s is touting the end of a three-month sale with a handful of Sealy innerspring mattresses selling for as low as $147, not including the box spring. The retailer also offers free “five-star” local delivery of a mattress set totaling $789, but certain charges are excluded, such as taxes, removal, and (curiously) “delivery.”

    Sears is offering major-brand mattresses in the same price range and is trumpeting sales of up to 60 percent off, with free delivery on orders of $599 and up. And Sleepy’s is hawking half-off “every” mattress—except Tempur-Pedics—and free delivery of certain models through the weekend.

    How to get the best price

    Mattress sales, however, are intended to get you in the door, not necessarily to sell you the mattress that drew you to the store in the first place. Because most salespeople work on commission as a percentage of the sale, they're often determined to steer you toward a mattress you’ll “like much better,” one said to be firmer, more comfortable, or more popular among customers. Expect also to be pitched on mattress covers, comforters, and other extras that raise the commission higher still.

    Consumer Reports' mattress Ratings help you avoid such gamesmanship, since we test for back and side support, durability, and other factors to help you choose objectively. What we can’t test for is comfort, a choice you judge yourself when you try out the mattress in the store, as we recommend. Once you choose a mattress, take a few weeks to monitor the full selling-price range of the mattress you’re considering at the retailer you plan to patronize. And once you’re ready to buy, insist on that mattress alone—and at the lowest price you’ve seen it advertised by that store.

    Of course, you can avoid the stores entirely by buying from one of the manufacturers that sell primarily online, such as Casper, Leesa, and Tuft & Needle. Typically, you can’t try out the mattress before buying (Casper and Tuft & Needle have a limited number of showrooms). But as we’ve reported, such companies offer hassle- and cost-free returns.

    Need a new mattress now?

    Consumer Reports' current mattress Ratings include more than 35 innerspring, memory foam, and adjustable-air beds. Here are some of our top choices at everyday prices.

    Before narrowing down your choices, check out our mattress buying guide.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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    Are U.S. airlines plotting against their customers?

    Today, the four largest U.S. airlines—American, Delta, United and Southwest—all confirmed that the Department of Justice is examining whether they colluded to limit seats available in order to keep prices high and planes full.

    The investigation comes as U.S. airlines have been merging with each other and cutting back on the number of available seats even though demand for flights has been rising. The consolidation has reduced the number of big U.S. airlines by half. At the same time, consumers have been hit with higher airfares, extra fees (such as for checking luggage and changing flights) and often, less legroom.

    All this has paid off for the airlines. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, domestic airfares rose an average of 2.5 percent last year even though fuel costs dropped nearly 32 percent in the past 12 months. At the same time, the percentage of seats filled on domestic flights rose to a record 84.5 percent last year.

    “It’s hard to call a market where just four companies control more than 80 percent of business competitive, but that’s where the continued consolidation in the airline industry has left travelers," says William J. McGee, airline and travel consultant to Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. “Airline collusion to keep already high prices artificially inflated would be an even more egregious offense and we’re glad the Department of Justice is taking a hard look with this investigation.”

    Read "Tips from a master frequent flyer" and check out our report on the best and worst airlines

    On top of the high cost of travel, it's worth noting that passengers have increasing difficulty cashing in their frequent flyer awards. While it’s not clear if the use the Department of Justice will look into the use of frequent flyer awards, one way to reduce capacity is by making it harder for customers to cash in their awards. "When flights are fuller and fares are higher the opportunity costs of a free seat are greater," says Seth Kaplan, the managing partner for the trade publication Airline Weekly.

    Airlines, though, have to walk a fine line when it comes to making good on their frequent flyer awards, explains Kaplan. He says the programs are important to the airlines not only because they drive loyalty, but because they also result in consumers applying for co-branded credit cards—a business Kaplan says is worth billions of dollars to the airlines.


    —Nikhil Hutheesing (@Nikhil212 on Twitter)

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    The best big gas grills for cooking for a crowd

    Mid-sized gas grills are the biggest sellers but when it comes to cooking for a crowd only a large grill will do. The biggest grills in Consumer Reports’ tests have room for 28 burgers or more and take up as much space as a couch. You can find our top large grill at Home Depot for only $350. Here’s the drill on our top three big grills.

    Brinkmann 810-6550-S, $350, at Home Depot

    This top-rated large grill offers fast, even preheating and superb low-heat and high-heat cooking. Indirect cooking was very good but the temperature range is just good. An electronic igniter fires it up and a gauge lets you keep an eye on how much fuel remains. Use the side burner to sear steaks. Lighted controls and a pullout grease tray are nice extras, and so is the lifetime burner warranty.

    Napoleon Prestige Pro 665RSIB, $2,600

    The most expensive of the recommended large grills, the Napoleon also has the biggest cooking area. There are five main burners and stainless-steel grates. Temperature range was superb, and so was low heat and indirect cooking. Preheating was fast and even and high heat was impressive. Features include a side burner, utensil hooks, lighted controls, lighted cooking area, rotisserie motor and spit, slide-out tank tray, towel bar, cutting board, and bin.

    Kenmore Elite 3358, $1,800

    This Kenmore has five main burners, a side burner, and utensil hooks, lighted controls, lighted cooking area, and rotisserie motor and spit, and those are some of the reasons it costs more than some large grills. It offers fast,even preheating, impressive temperature range, superb low and high heat, and impressive indirect cooking. Grates are stainless steel. The Kenmore 16156, $620, is similar at one-third the price.

    Don’t need a big grill?

    If your yard isn't the center of neighborhood barbecues, consider a small or medium grill. Here are the top three of each size from our tests. For more great choices, see our full gas grill Ratings and recommendations.

    Medium gas grills (18 to 28 burgers)

    Small gas grills (18 burgers or fewer)

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

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  • 07/03/15--02:59: The best bug bite treatment
  • The best bug bite treatment

    Nothing can drive you crazier than itchy bug bites or a tick embedded in your skin. See a doctor quickly if you develop flulike symptoms three to 30 days later, because prompt treatment can prevent more serious long-term complications.

    Avoid bites in the first place by applying an effective insect repellent. But if despite your best efforts mosquitoes or ticks still latch onto you, here’s advice from our medical experts for bug bite treatment.

    Mosquitoes

    How to ease the itch. Try an ice pack and an over-the- counter steroid cream, such as hydrocortisone (Cortizone-10 and generic). Or try calamine lotion or a dab or two of white vinegar.

    When to see a doctor. West Nile and chikungunya are viral diseases, so antibiotics won’t help, but you should see a doctor if you develop a fever, body aches, headache, nausea, swollen glands, or joint pain. You can take a pain reliever such as Advil to ease your symptoms.

    Find out what really works against mosquitoes and ticks.

    Ticks

    If you find one on you. Use tweezers to remove the tick, making sure you get the entire body and head.

    When to see a doctor. Deer ticks usually have to be attached for at least 36 hours to transmit Lyme disease. But if you develop a bull’s-eye rash or chills, fever, fatigue, headaches, and muscle or joint pain, call your doctor. Getting treatment early with inexpensive antibiotics can stop tick-borne infections and prevent any complications.  

    —Sue Byrne

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    How often should I replace brake fluid?

    Q. Some mechanics say that replacing brake fluid every three years will keep the braking system in top condition. It doesn’t mention that in my manual. What’s your take?—Dale Mettee, Westminster, MD

    A. Our recommendation is to follow the instructions in your owner’s manual. Many dealers offer to replace brake fluid as an extra service, but it’s not really necessary unless the fluid is dirty. But you should top it off if you see that the level is dropping. That will prevent air bubbles, which can reduce a pedal’s responsiveness.

    For related information, check our maintenance and repair guide. And read our special report on excessive oil consumption and today's cars.

    Send your questions to ConsumerReports.org/askourexperts.

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

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    Airline baggage rules can be even more convoluted than you think

    Say you are flying from New York to Singapore round trip with a connecting flight in Los Angeles, and your itinerary involves two different airlines on a single ticket that you bought in a single transaction. The two airlines have different baggage allowances and fees. Whose rules apply for your trip?

    More than 14 million passengers in the United States faced this question concerning airline baggage rules between June 1, 2014, and May 31, 2015, according to the Airlines Reporting Corporation, an airlines-owned company that compiles such data. The answer lies with the initial carrier of the trip.

    If the U.S. or Canada is your origin or destination

    If your journey begins or ends in the United States (including U.S. territories), the carrier on the first segment of the itinerary has the right to set the baggage allowances and fees for the entire itinerary. So says the U.S. Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over such matters. Canada also recently imposed an identical rule. The rule is in force for both domestic and international carriers, and for all airlines on the ticket. But the most important—and relief-inspiring—point is that the same luggage rules must apply for every flight on the ticket.

    If you travel complex itineraries, be aware that this so-called “first carrier rule” also applies to tickets for which the United States or Canada is the farthest checked point (example: Hong Kong to Vancouver to New York back to Hong Kong).

    A carrier is defined as the “marketing” carrier—the one that has the flight number—not the “operating” carrier, in instances where they differ.

    Before you buy new luggage, check our luggage buying guide and brand Ratings.

    If your travel is entirely outside the U.S. or Canada

    You need to remember these three words: most significant carrier. For multi-airline tickets in most of the world, the allowances and fees applied are those of the most significant carrier of the route. You’d have to be well-schooled in airline-industry minutiae to figure out on your own which airline is the most significant carrier on your ticket.

    Suffice it to say that it it has to do with how the flights on your itinerary move through various geographic zones. The most significant carrier system was established by the International Air Transport Association industry group (the same people who wanted to shrink your carry-on bag) and has been in place since 2011.

    Unlike the U.S. and Canada stipulation that require a single baggage standard throughout an itinerary, the IATA’s most significant carrier can change at different points, depending on where you check and/or retrieve your checked baggage.

    As if it couldn’t get any more convoluted, the most significant carrier rule can apply on a journey to or from the United States or Canada too—if the first carrier of the itinerary so chooses.

    So what are you to do?

    The most important fact is that airlines and ticket agents are required to disclose the baggage allowances and fees that will be applied throughout a ticketed itinerary within, to, or from the United States. How they disclose the information could vary, so be aware when you are booked on a multi-airline ticket and be sure to find the applicable baggage rules.

    As for itineraries abroad, ask the airline for the applicable rule if it is not disclosed on your ticket or confirmation.

    Maybe a standardized carry-on size might not be a bad idea after all.

    Susan Feinstein

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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

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    Take advantage of July 4th sales

    This holiday weekend is the perfect for bargain shoppers who don't want to battle crowds. Just 19 percent of people plan to shop on Independence Day this year; that's up from 14 percent last year, but still light compared with other major holidays, when as many as 45 percent of shoppers cram into stores, according to RetailMeNot, a website that helps consumers find deals on the Web. Consumer Reports market analysts say you'll find some of the biggest markdowns on swimsuits and other summer outdoor gear, as well as indoor and outdoor furniture and camcorders.

    When I called several of the nation's largest retailers to ask about their 4th of July sales, they all sent me to their websites to check out their flyers. We've compiled a few examples from their sites below, but the list is likely tailored to our region in the New York City metro area. And the list is by no means exhaustive, so check retailers' websites for more.

    Remember that some of the advertised deals you'll see are not necessarily the lowest prices you can find, as we often found from the random selection of items we checked, so do a little comparison shopping at competitors sites before you head out to the store. Inventories in stores can of course vary from online offerings, so check availability on the stores' websites; to snag the best deals, you may need to order some items online. Most of the sales extend beyond this weekend.

    When you spot the best deal, don't neglect to negotiate an even lower price if you can. Consumer Reports surveyed shoppers about their bargaining experiences, and found 89 percent of those who tried to get a better deal on everything from jewelry to home electronics were rewarded at least once in the last few years. And the savings were often substantial: Furniture buyers, for instance, saved $250 on average.

    Plan to do some car shopping this weekend? We've got the best deals on American made cars.

    Best Buy

    Appliances The site says microwaves, refrigerators, washers and dryers, ranges and ovens, and dishwashers are up to 30 or 40 percent off. We spotted a Whirlpool over-the-range microwave (WMH53520CS) that did well in our lab tests for $299.99, about a 25 percent savings (it was also selling at Home Depot, Lowe's, and Sears for about the same price).

    Electronics An Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch laptop (MGXA2LL/A) that we found usually runs around $2,000 is selling for $1,800, about the same deal we found on Amazon and Microcenter.com. A Canon VIXIA (HF R62) camcorder is listed at $50 off for $399.99, but we found it on Amazon for $390 with free shipping for Prime members.

    Home Depot

    Appliances The home goods giant says several large and small appliances, from refrigerators to vacuums, are discounted anywhere from 10 to 40 percent off. A Whirlpool three-door French-door bottom-freezer (WRF535SMBM) that did very well in our tests and retails for around $1,300 is on sale for $998.

    Gas grills Most grills are only about 10 percent off. For example, a 6-burner Blue Rhino model (GBC1273SP) that did well in our tests is $494, down from around $530. However, a Dyna-Glo Premier grill (DGA550SSP) that did very will in our tests and usually runs around $484 is discounted to $199.

    Lowe's

    Appliances Like Home Depot and Best Buy, Lowe's has many models marked down–an ideal opportunity, when possible, to pit the competitors' deals against one another and negotiate a better price. A Whirlpool washing machine that did well in our lab tests (WFW95HEDW) is $799, about $300 off–but Home Depot and AJ Madison.com also were selling it for $799. One of our recommended Samsung electric ranges (NE58F9500SS) is listed for $1,399; we found it on Amazon for about $1,292 before tax with free shipping.

    Gas grills Several Char-Broil models are in this home goods giant's circular. For example, a Char-Broil TRU-infrared 4-burner model (463242715) that earned very good marks in our tests is $449, down from around $500.  

    Target

    Outdoor furniture Save up to 30 percent on tables, chairs, and setting sets. If you end up buying online, save another 10 percent with the code "HOMEOWNERS."

    Summer clothing and sports gear The site says duds for the whole family, plus some shoes and accessories like handbags, sunglasses, and hats, are 20 percent off. Some bikes, balls, bats, golf clubs, and pool accessories are up to 20 percent off.

    Walmart

    Grills A Better Homes and Gardens grill (BH1510109903) that had a good overall performance in our tests is about 25 percent off, down to $124. A Char-Broil Tru-Infrared model (463234815) that scored a very good in our lab tests is about 15 percent off ($258).

    TVs There are several secondary-brand Sceptre TVs in Walmart's Fourth of July sale, including a 50-inch 60Hz 1080p set (X505BV-FMQR) for $349. Smaller models include a 32-inch 720p set (X322BV-HDR) for $159 (down $10 from its 2014 Black Friday price at Walmart). These TVs don't seem to be available elsewhere, except via the Amazon.com marketplace, or sometimes on NewEgg.com, where prices are a bit higher. There's also a Vizio 60-inch 120Hz 1080p set (E600i-B3) for $750; we found it at Sam's Club and on Amazon for a bit more, and Walmart sold it for $798 last Black Friday.

    ––Mandy Walker (@MandyWalker on Twitter)

     

     

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  • 07/05/15--03:59: Best cars for comfort
  • Best cars for comfort

    If you spend a lot of time in your vehicle, you know that comfort is a high priority. Simply put: You want the ride to be pleasant and not torture for your body. A seat that causes discomfort or even a bumpy, noisy ride can make the drive very unpleasant.

    These cars listed below stand out in terms of ride comfort, cabin quietness, and front-seat comfort. We've excluded small cars, sports cars, and convertibles, which by definition don't major in comfort.

    Click through each vehicle name to reach the model page to see how they rate in other factors such as performance, safety, and reliability.

    Audi A6 Premium Plus

    The A6 has a very comfortable ride, and, unlike other Audis we've tested, doesn't feel overly firm at low speeds. The cabin is exceptionally quiet, with only traces of road noise and a muted engine murmur. The well-sculpted front seats are also very supportive and comfortable.

    Buick LaCrosse CXS

    The LaCrosse is a sophisticated and thoroughly modern sedan that is quiet, roomy and luxurious. Except for some tire hiss and refined engine hum, little noise intrudes into the cabin. The front seats are well-padded and comfortable, with well-shaped cushions and generous lower-back support.

    Chevrolet Impala 2LTZ

    The Impala is a contemporary large sedan that's roomy, comfortable, quiet, and enjoyable to drive. The big front seats are roomy and plush. They're pleasingly soft at first touch and supportive beneath--a boon for staying comfortable on long trips.  Two adults will be very comfortable in the Impala's well-shaped and supportive rear seat.

    Chrysler 300 (V6)

    Chrysler's 300 is roomy and luxurious, and one of the best large sedans on the market. The top-trim 300C we tested rides comfortably, handles responsively, and has a quiet, luxurious cabin packed with useful features and amenities. The highway ride feels composed and fairly serene. Except for some tire noise and engine hum the cabin is a very quiet place.

     

    Ford Fusion Titanium

    The top level Ford Fusion Titanium has a composed, civilized, and steady ride.The cabin stays blessedly quiet, with the hush broken only by the climate fan on brisk mornings and by the gruff engine note. The front seats are well shaped and comfortable, with good lower-back support. The leather seats are more supportive than the cloth seats, where we found the padding somewhat spongy on long trips.

     

    Lexus ES 350

    Quietness is a high point for the Lexus ES. The cabin is pleasantly hushed; road texture and ambient (traffic) noise is effectively isolated and wind noise is kept at bay. Both ES versions have quiet engines, with the ES 350's V6 emitting a well-honed V6 murmur. Inside, the wide front seats are accommodating, with appealingly soft cushioning.

    Lexus LS 460L

    The Lexus flagship sedan delivers luxurious, highly refined, and fuss-free motoring with a comfortable and serene ride. The LS glides silently and nonchalantly over just about any road surface with excellent isolation and absorption. It has an exceptionally quiet cabin, and all seats are very comfortable and the rear is sumptuous even by limousine standards.  

    Mercedes-Benz E-Class E350

    The E350 has long been a solid, comfortable, quiet, and capable sedan, and lately one of the best choices in this category. In general, the E-Class puts comfort, function, and good reflexes over glitzy flash. The E-Class provide good isolation from bumps and a quiet and steady highway ride. Front seats are large, well shaped, and supportive all around.

    Mercedes-Benz GL-Class GL350

    This seven-passenger luxury SUV is the most comfortable-riding SUV we've tested with a plush and hushed interior. The third-row seat is usable and allows seven adults to ride comfortably. The GL's well-padded front seats are wide and accommodating yet well contoured for good lateral support and the cushions are firm enough to be supportive without being too hard. Our GL's optional power lumbar support provides good lower-back support.

     

    Mercedes-Benz S550

    Ride comfort is truly extraordinary in the S550. Even compared to its direct competitors, it stands out with remarkable absorption and a steady, calm and stately demeanor. Bumps and ruts disappear under the S550's 19-inch tires and standard AirMatic suspension as if they weren't even there. Ride motions are small yet slow, imparting a feeling of steadiness and composure that persists regardless of surface or speed. The highway ride is a serene, smooth glide.

     

     

    Best and worst new cars

    See our best and worst section to help filter down your purchase considerations including best new cars under $25K, best and worst new car values, most fuel-efficient, and most fun to drive.

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    How to tell what kind of oil your car needs

    There’s no substitute for reading your owner’s manual. It will list what type of oil the automaker recommends for your car. It may also recommend different oil depending on whether you live in a hot or cold climate.

    The most important thing is to use oil that’s the right thickness, or viscosity, for your car’s engine. Oil that’s too thick or thin won’t provide the necessary protection for your engine, which can result in costly damage. Your owner’s manual may recommend an acceptable alternative-weight oil if you can’t find the recommended product.  

    Oils must also comply with different quality standards. The standards required for your car will also be listed in your owner’s manual. Sometimes the automakers list standards published by the Society of Automotive Engineers or the American Petroleum Institute. These will be listed on the oil container.

    Others have their own standards that don’t necessarily correspond to SAE or API standards. Any car dealer who sells the brand, and most auto parts stores, list which oils conform to these standards.  

    Because standard motor oil can't meet many of these standards, many of today’s cars require synthetic oils.

    Although some mechanics will swear by certain brands of oil, it’s most important to use the right weight of oil that meets the required standards.  

    For more insights, read our special report on excessive oil consumption.

    Share your experiences in the comments below.

    Eric Evarts

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    Updated 2016 Acura RDX yields mixed results

    The Acura RDX has been one of the most popular small, upscale SUVs for good reason: it has a roomy cabin, plenty of power, is competitively priced, and its upscale without being pretentious.

    But the RDX was missing some safety and luxury features expected from an prestige nameplate. Good news: A freshening for 2016 brings important safety equipment that were previously unavailable.

    We’re pleased to see that the Acura Watch safety package—including autobraking to mitigate forward crashes and lane-departure warning with lane keep assist—is now available on every trim line.

    More upscale features are available now, too, like blind-spot monitoring, an eight-way power passenger seat, and ventilated front seats.

    The powertrain benefits from the addition of cylinder deactivation, whereby the V6 can run on just three cylinders under light loads, such as modest-speed cruising. Further, the engine gains six horsepower for the new model year. The 279-hp, 3.5-liter V6 and six-speed automatic remains slick. Both front- and all-wheel drive are available.

    EPA estimates for the AWD model are 19 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway, promising a 1 mpg gain on the highway. In the real world, we expect that the 22 mpg overall figures that we got in our last RDX test won’t likely change.

    Slight suspension tweaks seem to have settled the ride, but impacts from bumps are rather stiff.

    Handling is quite mundane and the lifeless steering contributes to the hum-drum driving experience. Fans of the German competition from Audi and BMW just might find the RDX boring to drive, others may have no objection.

    The seats offer many adjustments and are reasonably accommodating for a long drive. The backseat is also spacious and there's plenty of cargo space.

    Unfortunately, the controls are an exercise in needless stupidity, a common phenomenon with recent Acuras and Hondas.

    Acura replaced the old RDX’s simple controls with their latest corporate infotainment system. This multiscreen display unit is distracting and annoying, with one screen too many and an awkward mix of hard and virtual controls. Voice commands, also, are hit and miss.

    Outside, you’ll now find Acura's familiar many-lensed "jewel eye" LED headlamps, as well as new taillights and wheel designs.

    Where the RDX wins big points is value. An RDX AWD with the Technology package and the Acura Watch safety gear costs $42,690. Typically equipped, compared to the Germans, it’s about $6,000 cheaper.

    No, it's not as fun to drive as the best from Europe, but the RDX has plenty of luxury touches.

    The RDX also delivers a more premium drive compared to its natural rival, the Lexus NX. The NX favors a less refined turbocharged four-cylinder engine, and it feels more snug and stiff.

    All in all, the updated RDX probably continues to offer exactly what Acura buyers want.

    —Mike Quincy

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  • 07/07/15--05:59: Best places to buy motor oil
  • Best places to buy motor oil

    It’s a bad sign when you have to start buying oil by the gallon. But if your car is consuming oil regularly, it’s a good idea to have some on hand.  

    You can buy oil online at big-box retailers such as WalMart, Kmart, Sears, and Costco; at  auto parts stores such as Advanced Auto Parts, AutoZone, O’Reilly Auto Parts, or Pep Boys; or at almost any service station. You can even find a few common types of oil at many corner drugstores and convenience stores.

    The devil in the details is the selection. Many modern cars use lightweight and synthetic oils that aren’t in wide circulation. You may not find the right oil at a 7-11. So unless your car uses common 5W30 weight oil, you’re better off going to a dedicated auto parts store or a big box store known for carrying auto parts, such as WalMart.

    We examined the availability and pricing of four brands of 5W30 weight motor oil at WalMart, auto parts stores, and online retailers. We found that big-box stores often have the best prices. But auto parts stores generally have a wider selection. Beware if you’re buying online: Oil is a heavy liquid and shipping costs can more than double the price. Kmart sometimes offers free shipping, however.  

    Once you decide on the type and retailer, you have to determine how much to get. If you have the space, buying a 12-bottle case is more affordable than picking up a bottle or two at a time. Generally, the least-expensive way to buy oil is in one-gallon jugs, although they are unwieldy to carry and challenging to pour into your car’s engine. You can transfer the oil into old single-use containers, or just buy a big funnel to get the oil into your engine and not all over it.

    For more insights, read our special report on excessive oil consumption.

    Share your experiences in the comments below.

    Eric Evarts

    Car maintenance resources

     

    Repair cost estimator

    Car-repair encyclopedia

    Guide to car maintenance

    Special report: Excessive oil consumption

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