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Consumer Reports

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    Best gas ranges from Consumer Reports' tests

    Cooking with gas has its fans. They’ll rave about how the flame makes it easier to judge the heat, how quickly you can adjust the heat from high to low, and more, as we highlighted in "5 great reasons to buy a gas range." And while owners of electric ranges are out of luck when a storm hits and power’s out, most gas range fans can strike a match to light the burners, then eat dinner by candlelight. Not bad. The cooking appliance experts at Consumer Reports tested dozens of gas ranges. Here’s a glimpse at our single oven top picks.

    Samsung NX58F5700WS, $1,600
    Here’s the deal:
    This top-rated gas range is stylish and unlike most gas ranges tested offers fast cooktop heat and superb baking. Even broiling was impressive—not something most gas ranges do well.
    Need to know: Five burners, including two high power. The oven is large and has gliding oven racks and a convection feature that can trim cooking time for some foods. There’s a warming drawer below, handy when holding dinner for latecomers or when hosting a crowd. 

    Samsung NX58H9500WS, $2,000
    Here’s the deal:
    It's a slide-in range so the knobs are up front and there isn’t a back panel, giving it a stylish, built-in look. This range offers super simmering and impressive baking, broiling, and self-cleaning.
    Need to know: There are five burners; two are high power and deliver fast heat. The oven is big and has convection and a temperature probe, and there's a warming drawer below.

    GE PGS920SEFSS, $2,800
    Here's the deal: It's a slide-in and so it's expensive. Excellent at simmering, this range has a large oven and was superb at baking.
    Consider this: Like most gas ranges broiling and self-cleaning were so-so.
    Need to know: There are five burners; one is high-power and delivered fast heat. The oven has a convection option and there's a warming drawer below. 

    Samsung NX58H5600SS, $1,000
    Here's the deal: Superb at simmering, this range has an oven that's larger than most tested and was impressive at baking and broiling.
    Consider this: There are five burners, including two high power which weren't as fast as the top-scoring ranges. Self-cleaning was just good.
    Need to know: A large oven window offers great views, and the convection option can cut cooking time for some foods.  

    Frigidaire Gallery FGGF3032MW, $700
    Here’s the deal:
    This CR Best Buy isn’t a showpiece but it’s superb at simmering and impressive at baking. It comes in a stainless steel finish.
    Consider this: Cooktop heat wasn’t as fast as most other top picks and broiling and self-cleaning were just good.
    Need to know: Five burners, two are high-power. The oven has convection and a temperature probe for gauging doneness.

    Kenmore 74132, $700
    Here’s the deal: 
    Fast cooktop heat and impressive simmering. Baking was very good, and it was one of the few gas ranges to ace our self-cleaning tests.
    Consider this: Like most gas models broiling was mediocre.
    Need to know: Available in stainless, but no convection. Two of the five burners are high power.

    Samsung NX58F5500SS, $900
    Here’s the deal:
    It performed similarly to the Frigidaire but has a larger oven.
    Need to know: There are five burners, including two high power. No convection, but you can get it in stainless.  

    The worst gas range we tested was the $2,300 Kenmore 32363. It's a freestanding range with controls up front. It looks terrific, but scored 28 out of 100 and was poor at simmering and mediocre in the other tests. Check our range Ratings to see how the top picks compare to other ranges in our tests, including double-oven models. You’ll find a compare-model tool, features & specs tab, brand reliability data, and user reviews to help you choose. Any questions? E-mail me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

    Kimberly Janeway

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

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    When the ATSC 3.0 digital broadcast standard arrives, your TV tuner will stop working

    You know that ATSC TV tuner inside your set that lets you get free, over-the-air HD broadcasts from an antenna? In the near future it will no longer work. If you want to continue getting free TV broadcasts, you’ll either need to get a new TV or use an adapter (or dongle), like many of us had to do during the digital TV transition that ended analog broadcasts signals.

    That's because a new digital broadcast standard, called ATSC 3.0, is already in the works. But you actually don’t have to start worrying about the ATSC 3.0 digital broadcast standard quite yet, since we're still about two years away from a final standard. And broadcasters will then have to upgrade all their equipment and existing infrastructure, which is designed to work with the current ATSC 1.0 standard.

    Why a new broadcast standard?

    The ATSC 1.0 standard was developed more than 20 years ago, before most people had any idea of the prominent role the Internet, streaming video, and mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones would play in how we watch TV. To accommodate these, and other, shifts in TV viewing, the broadcast industry started working on a new, more modern digital transmission system that can simultaneously deliver signals to both fixed and mobile devices.

    There are several advantages to ATSC 3.0 digital broadcast standard. For one, it uses TV spectrum more efficiently than the current standard, and it includes better compression. That will enable broadcasters to transmit higher-quality 4K signals with high-quality, immersive audio to those with Ultra HD TVs. It will also give broadcasters the option to offer multiple channels within that same bandwidth, plus the ability to simultaneously broadcast to TVs in the home and to mobile users on smart phones and tablets. In addition, since the ATSC 3.0 digital broadcast standard is based on Internet Protocol, it will let broadcasters transmit content developed for and sent over the Internet. This will allow them to create new hybrid services and augment regular TV broadcasts with greater interactivity.

    Are you using an antenna and are excited about a new digital broadcast TV standard? Let us know by adding a comment below.

    At the very earliest, the final ATSC 3.0 digital broadcast standard won’t be finalized and approved until 2017, after a series of tests and an evaluation process takes place. And it’s quite likely that its rollout will get pushed even further into the future by broadcasters. It won’t happen until the FCC’s auction of TV spectrum is completed, at which time current stations will get “repacked” at the lower end of the spectrum to free up space in the upper UHF frequencies, which will be used for expanding mobile broadband.

    Once the transition to the ATSC 3.0 digital broadcast standard does occur, it's unlikely you'll be able to use the ATSC 1.0 digital tuners in current TVs. There won't be enough TV spectrum available for broadcasters  to simulcast both ATSC 1.0 and ATSC 3.0 signals.

    So there may not be a transitional period like there was when the industry moved to all-digital TV broadcasts but continued to provide analog signals to give consumers time to adapt. One proposal is for broadcasters to share spectrum, so that one station would allow others in its market to broadcast ATSC 1.0 over its channels to ease the transition. It’s also unclear whether the FCC will be willing or able to provide subsidies for converter boxes or dongles, as it did during the DTV transition.

    —James K. Willcox

     

     

     

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

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    2015.5 Volvo V60 Cross Country wagon review

    Volvo wagons are a familiar sight near our Connecticut auto test track. From remarkably preserved 145 “bricks” to the modern-era V60, there’s a distinct feeling that Volvos are the official vehicle of the Northeastern landed gentry. But wagons haven’t been cool in a while. Many automakers—Volvo included—have elevated the ride height of their five-door vehicles into something vaguely resembling an SUV but without the off-road chops. Here we test Volvo’s latest mutation, the V60 Cross Country. (Video above showcases the V60. The extended V60 CC road test video is available on the model page.)

    Volvo V60 Cross Country

    Volvo’s latest attempt to persuade Americans to embrace wagons is the SUV-ified V60 Cross Country. But it satisfies neither as a wagon nor as an SUV, which makes it a tough sell next to the brand’s proper SUVs.

    Sized for dual-income-no-kids couples, the V60 CC comes with a snug rear seat and modest cargo area. We usually like the feel and sprawl of Volvo interiors, but the packaging wizards at Gothenburg headquarters must have taken the afternoon off when they got this assignment. For all of its exterior size, it just feels small inside.

    This metrosexual wagon scrimps on leg room and head room in the backseat; a tall teenager will be squished sitting behind an average-sized adult. Those with families and accoutrements should probably pick the XC60 SUV instead. Also, driver visibility isn’t good, suffering for style, with small side and rear windows crimping the view.

    That said, the Volvo’s cabin feels like a luxury car. The fit and finish of the interior materials have the expected upscale feel; the leather feels sourced from coddled cows.

    Our V60 CC came with Volvo’s familiar 2.5-liter, turbocharged five-cylinder engine, mated to a six-speed automatic. The engine thrums with power and delivers a decent punch. Its 21 mpg in our tests places it smack in the middle of the wagon pack. For fashion’s sake or the occasional muddy trail in Vermont, the V60 CC boasts an additional 2.6 inches of ride height over its V60 wagon cousin.

    Like most Volvos, the V60 CC suffers from a stiff ride, transmitting road imperfections harshly to occupants’ kidneys and bladders. That discomfort happens despite Volvo’s excellent record of building firm yet supple seats—which in this case suffered from a paucity of lumbar support.

    For a brand that focuses on safety, we were surprised by the V60 CC’s tail-wagging nature in our avoidance-maneuver test. Although it ably navigates sudden suburban obstacles—such as a wayward bouncing ball—you don’t feel confident that the Volvo will accomplish its task when you have to swerve. Meandering curvy country roads, the Volvo isn’t as athletic as its most direct competitor, the Audi Allroad. Nor is the Cross Country as fun to drive as its regular wagon rendition.

    Another odd shortcoming: the headlights. We found their low-beam illumination distance too short for a driver to react to sudden changes in road conditions. You could drive with the high beams on all the time, but that would mean blinding oncoming drivers. We gave the V60 CC’s headlights our lowest rating.

    Base models are stocked with luxury equipment including navigation, a moonroof, and leather seats and surfaces. But given Volvo’s safety reputation, it’s shocking that a backup camera comes in an expensive package and that you can’t get a power liftgate.

    The audio and climate controls have an interface with lots of buttons. The layout is busy, and not all functions are initially obvious, but the confusion ebbs once you live with the car for a while. You navigate the various onscreen menus with a not-so-handy control knob that feels out of date.

    This wagon doesn’t reward with space for people or gear, and the driving experience is unfulfilling. It earned one of the lowest scores in our wagon Ratings. For the same price, you can buy many roomier and better offerings. Sometimes you don’t get what you pay for.

    Read our complete Volvo V60 Cross Country road test.

    Highs Plush cabin, braking, active safety features, crashworthiness
    Lows Ride, rear visibility, tight rear seat and cargo area, value equation, headlights
    Engine 250-hp, 2.5-liter 5-cyl. turbo; 6-speed automatic; all-wheel drive
    Fuel 21 mpg
    Price $36,890-$49,740

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

     

     

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    Lexus SUV review: 2015 Lexus NX 200t and NX 300h

    The Lexus recipe for success: Hide the Toyota mass-market roots under the Lexus logo by filling a car with amenities and luxury trappings, a more supple ride, and a quiet, soothing cabin. Even a pro can’t sniff out the Camry beneath an ES sedan. But with the new, compact NX, the soufflé falls. This Lexus SUV doesn’t coddle you like the wildly successful Lexus RX—the midsized crossover vehicle that started the whole craze. Nor does it thrill you with BMW-like handling. It just feels like an upmarket Toyota RAV4.

    Lexus NX

    With a snout borrowed from a largemouth bass and a body with more creases than a churro pastry, the NX is the most un-Lexus Lexus we’ve tested. From a brand that made its bones building vanilla-mobiles, this Lexus SUV is a swing in the other direction.

    But the NX is not a convincing effort, and much of that has to do with its Toyota RAV4 underpinnings. Nothing against the RAV4, but luxury is not in its DNA.

    The NX’s looks promise derring-do performance, and its handling is indeed sharp. It’s responsive compared with a typical Lexus, but handling and braking are a notch below competitors from BMW and Audi. And the NX doesn’t deliver the quiet, calm, and serene ride you expect from a Lexus. Instead, it’s as firm and controlled as an IRS audit. The performance doesn’t match the looks—like when a peach-fuzz sibling borrows his big brother’s leather jacket, the appearance isn’t quite right.

    Inside the cabin, the NX once again falls short of Lexus standards. You’re not cosseted with parlor-room luxury. Many parts and panels look and feel cheap, costing the NX points for fit and finish. The bolstered seats are supportive, but lumbar-support adjustment is limited. The rear seats are adequate for two.

    The very tight driving position in this Lexus SUV is made worse by claustrophobically small windows. They look cool from the outside, but visibility from the driver’s seat is poor. A rear camera is standard; you’ll also want the blind-spot monitoring system.

    The 200t marks Toyota’s foray into turbocharged four-cylinder engines; the German brands have used them for a while. The 235-hp four-cylinder delivered 24 mpg in our tests; it accelerated to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds.

    The NX is also offered as a hybrid, with a total output of 194 hp from its 2.5-liter, four-cylinder plus electric drive. It got the best fuel economy of any SUV we’ve tested—an impressive 29 mpg overall. It can loaf in EV mode at low speeds.

    The 300h hybrid is underwhelming when you need to accelerate; the engine annoyingly howls like 4-year-old denied a juice box. That stems from the nature of its continuously variable transmission, which holds engine revs high, contributing to the interior racket.

    The NX is saddled with a new touchpad controller, included with the optional navigation system. But the user interface requires dexterous fingers to make selections­­—not easy or intuitive when driving. Access to phone contacts is blocked while on the move unless you use voice commands. Connectivity to music sources works well. For the vain, there is a removable makeup mirror.

    The cargo area is quite limited, detracting from the “utility” of this SUV.

    Even though pricing starts around $35,000, option packages quickly extend the bill past $40,000. Green-minded buyers will have to pony up more for the hybrid model; our loaded version of this Lexus SUV cost a dizzying $51,000. Still, a comparably equipped NX is $4,000 cheaper than a BMW X3 or an Audi Q5.

    Consumers shopping for a small luxury SUV have many choices, but those expecting a proper Lexus from the NX may be disappointed.

    Read our complete Lexus NX road test.

    Highs Agility, maneuverability, fuel economy, crashworthiness
    Lows Tight quarters, visibility, fussy touchpad controller
    Engines 235-hp, 2.0-liter 4-cyl. turbo; six-speed automatic (200t); 194-hp, 2.5-liter 4-cyl. hybrid; continuously variable transmission (300h); all-wheel drive
    Fuel 24 mpg (200t); 29 mpg (300h)
    Price $35,405-$42,235

    This article also appeared in the September 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 a beautiful bathroom for the ages

     M ost people want to stay in their homes as long as possible. Trouble is, their homes may not be aging as well as they are. Take the bathroom. Because of its hard and slippery surfaces, almost 235,000 people visit the emergency room each year with injuries suffered while bathing, showering, or using the facilities. Despite that, many homeowners resist even small changes that would make the room safer because they fear their beautiful bathroom will end up looking institutional. (Check out these 5 steps to a safer bathroom.)

    But that’s now changing. The very things that make your bathroom safer and easier to navigate—large, walk-in showers; higher toilets; natural lighting—are also some of the latest design trends. It’s like hiding vegetables in the meal of a finicky eater. You can conceal safety upgrades with sleek design, clever innovations­—and a few euphemisms.

    “Grab bars were a real deal breaker,” says Diana Schrage, an interior designer at Kohler. Now that grab bar is being called a “shower rail.” Higher-seated toilets are “comfort height.” And easy-to-use lever handles and handheld showers are “ergonomic.”

    That type of adaptable design has come to be known as “aging in place,” but some remodeling pros prefer the more friendly “visitability,” which means making your home welcoming to people of all ages and abilities.

    Unlike the access features for public spaces required by the Americans with Disabilities Act for the past 25 years, aging-in-place updates are strictly residential and don’t need to follow the stringent rules put in place by the ADA, so your bathroom can be functional without looking like a hospital. “The whole idea is safety, access, comfort, and convenience,” says Steve Hoffacker, a specialist in aging-in-place design.

    Create the right lighting

    Glare can be a problem in a bright bathroom. Sconces on both sides of the mirror are easier on the eyes than overhead lights. Introduce natural light from a window or skylight. Install a night-light in the bathroom and in the hallway outside it. Rocker-style light switches are easier to use.

    Widen the doorway

    For easiest access, remove the raised sill and widen the doorway to 36 inches. Switch the handle from a knob to a lever for easier opening. If possible, hang the door to open out, not in; if someone falls against it, the door won’t be blocked.

    Enlarge the shower

    A curbless shower works for someone using crutches or a walker and also for parents bathing children or the family dog. Handheld shower­heads can be anchored to an integrated grab bar. The hose should be at least 6 feet long. Add a seat (some fold up when not in use). Make sure you have good light in the shower. And hang a shelf or install a cubby that keeps toiletries within easy reach.

    Keep items handy

    Open shelves can be attractive if they’re tidy. Putting glass-front doors on your cabinets lets you see what’s inside without opening them. Look for cabinets with easy-close doors and drawers with D-shaped pulls instead of knobs.

    Re-think the sink

    A countertop at two heights is good for every member of the family. Sinks should be wall-mounted, leaving space underneath for someone seated. Faucets with lever handles are best. A full-length mirror is better for someone seated, who may have trouble looking into a medicine cabinet mirror that’s above the sink.

    Install nonslip floors

    Water and slick tile are a bad combination. Look for slip-resistant tile or vinyl. The more textured the tile, the less slippery it is. The ceramic tile industry has adopted a slip-resistance test that measures the dynamic coefficient of friction. The higher the number, the better the slip resistance. Ideally, you’re looking for 0.42 or higher. Smaller tiles embedded in grout also provide more friction.

    Grab bars that do double duty

    You can find bars that match towel racks and other fixtures—even ones that function as shelves and toilet paper holders. Place them at the entrance to the shower or tub, inside the shower or tub, and near the toilet.

    Consider tub options

    Getting in and out of the bathtub can be tricky for anyone with mobility problems. Some bathtubs are outfitted with a wider edge that you can sit down on first, then swing your legs into the tub. A number of manufacturers make walk-in tubs. One type has a door that swings in or out, but you can fill and drain the tub only from inside. Kohler makes a tub with a side that rises up and down. Installing any of those tubs can be costly, and some are less attractive than others.

    How to find a pro who knows

    When you want to make aging-in-place modifications, you need more than an interior designer or a general contractor. The credential you want is Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS). To earn that certification, people in the industry—designers, remodelers, occupational therapists—take a three-day course that covers marketing, building and design, and business management. Collaboration is encouraged, so a CAPS pro may consult other experts for a client with special needs. To find a CAPS professional, check the website of the National Association of Home Builders.

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

     

     

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

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    Best minivans and SUVs for hauling the family

    Best all-around: Toyota Highlander

    If an SUV is more your style than a minivan is, there’s no better choice than our top-rated Toyota Highlander. Family-friendly and spacious, the Highlander offers a comfortable and quiet ride, with seating for up to eight, and a third row that’s roomy enough for three small kids. You can choose a bench seat or captain’s chairs in the second row. Controls feature big knobs and large instruments. Our tested V6 version was smooth and powerful, and returned 20 mpg overall. A 25-mpg hybrid is also available. Reliability has consistently been stellar. Seats eight.

    Read our complete Toyota Highlander road test.

    Van-tastic! Toyota Sienna

    If room for gear is more important, the Toyota Sienna wins. It shares its smooth, punchy V6 with the Highlander. It also has available all-wheel drive. Innovative and versatile interior packaging allows room for lots of stuff. The second-row center seat stows in the back when it’s not needed. A recent freshening made the Sienna quieter. Seats eight.

    Read our complete Toyota Sienna road test.

    Weekend warrior: Hyundai Santa Fe & Santa Fe Sport

    The seven-passenger Hyundai Santa Fe is one of the most pleasant and well-rounded three-row SUVs on the market. It’s functional yet stylish, without being so big that it’s too bulky to drive or park. The comfortable ride and quiet interior make it a welcome family-road-trip companion. The limo-like middle-row seats are a bonus, but the third row is cramped and hard to get to. Fuel economy from the standard V6 engine is impressive. We measured 20 mpg overall in our testing—1 to 2 mpg better than most competitors. Seats seven.

    Read our complete Hyundai Santa Fe and Santa Fe Sport road tests.

    Super SUV: Kia Sorento

    Forget everything you might think about Kia being a cut-rate brand. The midsized Kia Sorento’s 2016 redesign transformed it into a vastly improved SUV. The cabin is quiet and well-equipped for the money, and ride comfort has improved. Handling is responsive and secure. Fuel economy is an impressive 21 mpg overall. Available safety gear includes forward-collision warning, blind-spot detection, and rear cross-traffic alert, as well as a surround-view monitor. Good crash-test results are a plus. Seats seven.

    Read our complete Kia Sorento road test.

    New kid on the block: Honda Pilot

    Long a top-scorer in our tests, the Honda Pilot has always been a family-friendly choice. A redesigned Pilot has just landed, and our borrowed model has us thinking that the new version has a lot of potential. We like the smooth, punchy powertrain and the spacious, quiet, and airy cabin. Clever second-row seats fold away at the push of a button for easier third-row access, and big windows offer much better visibility than most modern SUVs. We’ll know more soon, once testing is complete. Seats eight.

    Read our Honda Pilot first drive.

    The mother of all minivans: Honda Odyssey

    Nothing beats the space you’ll find in a minivan. A perennial high-scorer and one of our favorites, the Honda Odyssey combines average reliability, impressive fuel economy, and surprisingly responsive handling for a vehicle its size. The versatile cabin fits up to eight occupants, with lots of storage bins and cubbies. Big sliding doors make for easy access. When you’re carting the gridiron gang’s shoulder pads, the third row folds into the floor and the second-row seats can be removed entirely. An optional built-in vacuum can suck up wayward Cheerios. Seats eight.

    Read our complete Honda Odyssey road test.

    Have board, will travel: Dodge Durango

    If you’re looking for luxury comfort with truck-like capability, the Dodge Durango might be your best bet. It has serious towing capacity for boats or campers yet is roomy and quiet inside. Comfortable seats and a steady ride make it feel premium. The optional Uconnect 8.4-inch infotainment system is one of the best—it’s easy to use and offers Wi-Fi to keep the kids occupied. Owner satisfaction is high in our surveys. Seats seven.

    Read our complete Dodge Durango road test.

    This article also appeared in the September 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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  • 07/30/15--02:59: 5 steps to a safer bathroom
  • 5 steps to a safer bathroom

    As we age, injuries in our own homes increase, and bathrooms are no exception. Reduced mobility, impaired eyesight, decreased muscle strength, and balance problems call for adopting some commonsense solutions and extra caution, all part of a plan to create a safer bathroom.

    Add grab bars

    When someone loses his balance in the bathroom, he instinctively grabs the closest thing to steady himself. The results can be catastrophic if it’s something that’s not properly attached to the wall. To support weight, a grab bar needs to be attached to the studs. Most building codes require grab bars that support at least 250 pounds.

    Check water valves

    Achy joints or arthritis can make it difficult to turn faucets and shower knobs on and off. That’s why pressure-balancing and anti-scald valves are a good idea. Most building codes require them, but if you live in an older home, your house may not have them. They’re not expensive, but you’ll need to call a plumber. The pressure-balancing valve keeps a steady flow of water in the shower when someone flushes the toilet, and the anti-scald valve keeps water at a safe temperature, usually 120° F.

    Find out how to create a beautiful bathroom for the ages.

    Choose easy-to-clean surfaces

    A buildup of soap scum and mildew can add a slick coating to an already slippery surface, so to make your bathroom safer, encourage your family to wipe down the shower and tub after they bathe. Plus surfaces that are easy to clean require less exertion. Scrubbing grout lines is a chore, so consider solid surfaces or larger tiles for your walls. Look for a skirted toilet with smooth sides.

    Run your vent fan

    Mold and mildew thrive in damp bathrooms. To rid the room of moisture, make sure you have an exhaust fan that vents to the outside and run it for 15 to 20 minutes after bathing.

    Get rid of clutter

    Toss the throw rugs and make sure any bath mat you use has nonskid backing. Remove the hamper, scale, and any tripping hazard.

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

     

     

     

     

     

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    Consumer Reports Shines Light on Car Insurance Quote Secrecy, Prices Are Rife With Inequities and Unfair Practices

    Poor Credit May Raise Premiums Higher Than a Drunk Driving Conviction           

    CR September 2015 CoverYONKERS, NY—The amounts drivers pay for their car insurance premiums are based on confounding algorithms that increasingly have more to do with socioeconomic factors than driving habits, according to extensive research conducted by Consumer Reports.

    The organization, w­hich believes that knowledge about the going rate of any product or service is a fundamental consumer right, has released the findings of a two-year, in-depth car insurance investigation. The report analyzed more than 2 billion price quotes for sample drivers that were obtained in August and November 2014 from more than 700 companies across all 33,419 general U.S. ZIP codes. The report includes Amica and USAA, which have been consistently top-rated for claims satisfaction by tens of thousands of Consumer Reports’ subscribers since the late 1990s, and the largest insurers operating in each state, which usually included Allstate, Geico, Progressive, and State Farm. For companies that had more than one subsidiary in a state, Consumer Reports used whichever company had the largest in-state market share.

    Consumer Reports’ analysis of rates for eight hypothetical single drivers of varying ages found that those individuals who had merely “good” scores paid $68 to $526 more than similar drivers with the best credit scores, depending on which state they called home.  In one example, Consumer Reports found that its single drivers in New York with a good credit score and clean driving record would pay an average of $255 more in annual premiums than if they had an excellent credit scores. In another example, in Florida, CR’s group of adult single drivers with a clean driving record and poor credit paid $1,552 more on average than if the exact same drivers had excellent credit and a drunk driving conviction.

    “Consumers have a right to expect that their car insurance premiums are based on meaningful behavior such as their driving record, and not on such factors as how they shop, pay their bills or how likely they are to tolerate that their rates have been hiked up,” said Consumer Reports Editor in Chief Diane Salvatore. “ The insurance industry spends over $6 billion on advertising that only confuses the issue and makes light of the significant expense. We hope that our enterprising journalism will spur consumers to join forces with us and demand reforms and transparency in pricing.” 

    Car insurance companies often boast about some of the different ways that customers can save money. But Consumer Reports’ study revealed that some of the most advertised discounts—such as the ones for bundling home and car insurance, or installing anti-theft equipment—actually don’t save people much money. Bundling home and car insurance would save a typical policyholder just $97 a year; adding anti-theft equipment would save just $2 annually, when looking at national averages.

    Consumer Reports’ investigation also found that the promise of significant savings for student-driver training turned out to be little more than a mirage. In fact, the student-driver training discount was worth very little—a piddling $63 in annual savings nationally for CR’s sample family. The discounts were worth more, however, in Louisiana ($155), California ($334), and Massachusetts ($386).

    For more findings from Consumer Reports car insurance investigation, including a state-by-state look at how credit scores impact car insurance premiums and a guide to help consumers shop for the best deal where they live, go to: ConsumerReports.org/FixCarinsurance.

    Consumer Reports used the mathematical pricing formulas that insurers must file with almost all regulators in almost every state to help evaluate and compare premiums across the United States. Under the state laws that regulate automobile insurance, carriers are required to adhere to the prices generated by their public rate filings. 

    Consumer Reports found that most car insurance companies cherry-pick about 30 of the almost 130 elements in a credit report to create their own score for each policyholder that’s very different than a FICO score—and secret. If a car insurance company calculates that a consumer’s credit score isn’t up to its highest standard, it often charges a higher premium—even if the customer had never had an accident. California, Hawaii, and Massachusetts are the only states that prohibit insurers from using credit scores to set prices.

    Consumer Reports’ investigation illuminates some of the worst practices and demonstrates the real cost to consumers in dollars and cents, and the organization is asking consumers to join forces with them in demanding that insurers—and the regulators charged with monitoring them—adopt price-setting practices that are more meaningfully tethered to how consumers drive.

    The organization is encouraging consumers to tweet the National Association of Insurance Commissioners @NAIC_News to “Price me by how I drive, not by who you think I am! #FixCarInsurance.”

    Consumer Reports September Issue has also included a special cut-out petition that drivers can sign and return to the organization—which it will collect and deliver directly to their state insurance commissioner.  You can also pick up the phone; dialing 855-384-6331 will connect you directly to your state insurance commissioner.

    In its analysis, Consumer Reports created driver profiles for a cross section of hypothetical policyholders. There were 20 profiles in all, for individuals ranging in age from 16 through 75, men, women, some married, some with a teenage driver. The policyholders were assigned the same “base” profile, including a perfect driving record and excellent credit. They were assigned popular vehicles, in most cases the Toyota Camry LE, and Honda Accord LX. Each profile bought standard liability coverage, and also bought uninsured/underinsured motorist protection for the same amounts, and collision, comprehensive, and Med Pay or personal injury protection.

    Consumer Reports’ complete special investigation “The Truth About Car Insurance,” is featured in the September issue of Consumer Reports, on sale starting August 4th.  The 10-page feature includes more insurance rate analysis from Consumer Reports, a comprehensive guide to smart shopping for insurance rates, and tips on how to fight unfair pricing.  More information is also available at www.ConsumerReports.org.

    About Consumer Reports
    Consumer Reports is the world’s largest and most trusted nonprofit, consumer organization working to improve the lives of consumers by driving marketplace change. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has achieved substantial gains for consumers on health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other issues. The organization has advanced important policies to cut hospital-acquired infections, prohibit predatory lending practices and combat dangerous toxins in food. Consumer Reports tests and rates thousands of products and services in its 50-plus labs, state-of-the-art auto test center and consumer research center. Consumers Union, a division of Consumer Reports, works for pro-consumer laws and regulations in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace. With more than eight million subscribers to its flagship magazine, website and other publications, Consumer Reports accepts no advertising, payment or other support from the companies whose products it evaluates.

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    Mixed crash-test results for Ford F-150

    The latest crash test results for the Ford F-150 show that body styles lead to much different outcomes. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recorded top marks for the F-150 crew cab, earning it a coveted Top Safety Pick designation. But the extend cab variation garnered just a Marginal rating in the challenging small overlap front crash.

    This newer test has been tough for many models. It concentrates crash forces over just 25-percent of the vehicle front when the test car strikes a rigid pole-like barrier at 40 mph. The notable finding here is that the occupant protection varies widely within this model range.

    Where the F-150 extended cab came up short was in allowing compressed structure to intrude into the passenger cabin, earning a Poor structure rating. IIHS test findings show that the toepan, parking brake, and brake pedal were pushed by 10-13 inches toward the driver, and the dashboard was jammed against the crash-test dummy’s legs. Further, the steering column was pushed back nearly eight inches, coming “dangerously close” to the dummy’s chest.

    “Ford added structural elements to the crew cab’s front frame to earn a good small overlap rating and a Top Safety Pick award but didn’t do the same for the extended cab,” said David Zuby, IIHS chief research officer. He added, “In a small overlap front crash like this, there’s no question you’d rather be driving the crew cab than the extended cab F-150.”

    The Institute traditionally tests just one body style for a given model, but because of the popularity of the F-150, even its second most-popular variation outsells most other vehicles on the market. Therefore, IIHS tested two variations. These test findings are the first among a new group of large pickup trucks being evaluated this year. The safety organization says it plans to test multiple configurations of other trucks, as well.

    In response to these findings, a Ford spokesperson explained, "The F-150 program was well under way when this test mode was introduced. We addressed the IIHS small overlap front crash in the 2015 F-150 SuperCrew—which accounts for 83 percent of 2015 F-150 retail sales —and are adding countermeasures in the SuperCab and Regular Cab in the 2016 model year."

    IIHS gives both F-150 cab configurations a Basic rating for front crash prevention. Neither is eligible for the more stringent Top Safety Pick+ designation, as the optional forward-collision warning system does not have automatic braking.

    All three F-150 cab types were given top five-star ratings by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for front and side crash protection. (They earned four stars for rollover protection.) Of course, the test methodology differs between the organizations, and the IIHS small overlap frontal test is much more difficult to pass than the 35-mph, full-frontal crash test NHTSA conducts.

    There has been great interest in the extensive use of aluminum in the Ford F-150, an engineering breakthrough that helped the truck to shave about 500 lbs. of weight. As IIHS points out, the body may be aluminum, but the underlying frame that is so vital to crash-test performance remains steel.

    Repair comparison

    IIHS also conducted tests to compare repair costs between a steel 2014 F-150 and an aluminum 2015 F-150. Both trucks were crashed into one another at 10 mph—twice—given equal treatment to front and rear corners.

    In both scenarios, the aluminum F-150 suffered more damage. In total, the necessary repairs were 26-percent greater for the 2015 truck, based on work conducted at a Ford dealership certified to perform the repairs.

    Repair costs

      2014 Ford F-150 (steel) 2014 Ford F-150 (steel)
    Front $3,759 $4,147
    Rear $3,275 $4,738

     

    IIHS explains that the 2015 F-150 cost more to repair due to extra time needed on the front and additional parts needed on the rear.

    Ford disagrees with the findings. In a statement, the company said, "Real-world repair costs for the 2015 F-150 to date are comparable to or less than other full-size pickups and an average $869 more affordable to repair than last year’s F-150." (Read our preview report on the real costs of repairing a Ford F-150.)

    Not all Ford dealerships or independent mechanics are trained in aluminum repair. F-150 owners in need of a qualified body shop can use the Ford.com locator tool to find qualified locations in their area.

    Read our complete Ford F-150 road test.

    Jeff Bartlett

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

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    Victory Empulse TT electric motorcycle races toward production

    Fresh from strutting its high-voltage stuff at the 2015 Isle of Man TT Zero race, Victory has unveiled the production Empulse TT electric motorcycle. On sale in late 2015, the Victory Empulse TT marks a dramatic shift from the large-displacement cruisers the American brand is best known for.

    Where Victory has positioned itself as an alternative to Harley-Davidson, the Empulse TT is an interesting counter to the Harley LiveWire concept—an electric motorcycle that has been on a high-profile marketing (and customer research) tour. Victory accelerated into this segment when corporate parent Polaris purchased Brammo, an electric motorcycle specialty company, about a year ago. The Victory Empulse TT is said to drawn from the Brammo Empulse R. (The two companies have worked together since 2011.)

    The Victory Empulse TT features a 54-hp motor, matched with a six-speed gearbox. Power comes from a 10.4 kW lithium-ion battery pack. The company says a 65-mile range is typical, although it says ginger throttle application and regenerative braking could make 100 miles possible. (The Empulse TT demonstrated a 94-mile city range on the Motorcycle Industry Council test, with an overall 57-mile rating for city and highway combined.)

    A complete recharge takes 3.9 hours with 240 volts, or 8.9 hours with standard 120 volts. The Victory Empulse TT battery is backed by a five-year, 100,000-mile warranty.

    Check our motorcycle buying guide, and see the results from our motorcycle reliability and owner satisfaction survey.

    The 470-lb. Victory Empulse TT has two modes: Eco and Sport. In Sport, the driver is able to tap 20-percent more battery power to boost acceleration. Conversely, it also makes regenerative braking more aggressive, thereby aiding stopping distances and capturing more energy.

    The gearbox is a twist, as not all electric motorcycles even use one. Here, shifting is only necessary when underway; from take-off or coming to a stop, shifting is not necessary. Neutral is positioned between second and third gears. Victory says riders can simply leave the transmission in third gear for most riding speeds and conditions. In riding other electric motorcycles, we found that their ease of use is especially appealing for less-experienced riders, just as this simplified operation promises. That said, the Victory Empulse TT clearly skews toward performance, with a top speed of over 100 mph.

    At launch, the Victory Empulse TT will be offered with a variety of performance and customization options, including forks, frame sliders, panniers storage bins, and tall and short windscreens.  Pricing starts at $19,999—a few thousand dollars more than the sporty offerings from Zero Motorcycles, which lowered prices by $1,350 across its 2015 line.

    Read our ride with Zero motorcycles.

    Jeff Bartlett

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

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    Secrets of car insurance prices

    You probably have no doubt that driving while intoxicated (DWI) is one of the most dangerous and irresponsible offenses. But in most states, car insurers treat people with a poor credit score worse than a drunk driver, according to a two-year Consumer Reports investigation of more than two billion car insurance price quotes. 

    In Florida, for example, a group of eight hypothetical adult single drivers with a clean driving record and poor credit paid $1,552 more on average than if the exact same drivers had excellent credit and a DWI conviction. 

    That's just one of many concerning secrets of car insurance prices in our new report "The Truth About Car Insurance, which has a special feature that shows how insurers' use of credit scores can raise premiums in each of the 47 states and the Disctrict of Columbia that allow the controversial practice. (Three states, California, Hawaii, and Massachusetts, prohibit insurers from using credit scores to set rates.)

    But you might not even be aware that most car insurers use credit scores to determine how much of a premium you'll pay or that they rifle through your private credit report to cherry-pick 30 of 130 elements that they claim can predict a driver's likelihood of filing a claim. The credit scores concocted by insurers are nothing like the FICO score you're familiar with, and unlike your regular credit score, they're kept secret from you and you have no right to see them.

    Insurers' use of credit scoring is part of a concerning shift in car insurance pricing that bases premiums more on socioeconomic factors than driving habits, which is why Consumer Reports is asking consumers to join forces with us to demand that insurers—and the regulators charged with monitoring them—adopt price-setting practices that are more meaningfully tethered to how consumers drive.

    Among the investigation's other key findings:

    • Price optimization, a new profit-generating practice employed by car insurers, which has been banned by seven states, gathers Big Data to assess how savvy a shopper you are, then scores you on how much of a price hike you'd tolerate without switching to a competitor.
    • Insuring a new teen driver doesn't have to break the bank. Our 55-year-old sample parents who added a 16-year-old boy to their policy saw their premium increase by 90 percent, nationally, on average. But the impact ranged widely, depending on the state, from only 16 percent in Hawaii to 159 percent in North Carolina.
    • Some of the most advertised discounts—such as the ones for bundling home and car insurance, or installing anti-theft equipment—actually don’t save people much money. Bundling home and car insurance would save our study's single policyholders just $97 a year; adding anti-theft equipment would save just $2 annually, when looking at national averages.

    Read the full report for more findings and money saving advice.

    —Jeff Blyskal (@JeffBlyskal 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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    Six smart money strategies to prepare for an interest rate hike

    For months now, market watchers and financial prognosticators have been predicting a rise in the federal funds rate—the chief tool that the Federal Open Market Committee uses to influence interest rates and the economy—from the historic low of 0.25, where it’s been stuck since December 2008. The Fed’s workings may seem far removed from consumers’ day-to-day financial decisions, but when the rate shifts upward, you will feel it in your wallet. 

    No one knows for sure when the Fed will make its move. But Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, points out, "This interest rate is the best-telegraphed hike in history. If you’re not ready for it, you’re not listening.”

    Here are six situations in which an interest rate hike could affect you, and how you can prepare for it. 

    For more smart financial strategies read, "Get the best rates on your savings."

    Credit card users with high balances

    Credit card rates have held steady at about 13 percent for fixed rates and slightly under 16 percent for variable APRs for much of the low-rate period. Because credit card interest rates are tied to the prime rate and most credit cards have variable annual percentage rates (APR), the interest charged on your balance will fluctuate when the prime rate changes.

    If you’ve got a good credit score, you’re probably already paying a relatively low interest rate on your balance and can expect more of the same. However, notes Kathy Jones, fixed income strategist at the Schwab Center for Financial Research, the lower your credit score, the more you’re going to feel a rate rise. That’s because credit card companies hedge their bets by hiking the cost of the money they loan people with fewer resources to pay it back. “Your rate probably would go up and you would pay more going forward until you prove yourself a more worthy credit risk,” says Dan Werner, senior equity analyst for Morningstar.

    So what should you do?  Reduce your balance. One option is to transfer it to a credit card with a lower rate, but be sure to read the fine print: Many low- or zero-rate cards charge a transfer fee, and rates can skyrocket after the initial promotion period. If you have a home equity line of credit, consider tapping that. “It will almost certainly be at a lower interest rate, and I’d rather pay 4 percent than 14 percent,” says David Schneider, certified financial planner and founder of Schneider Wealth Strategies, an independent firm in New York City. To avoid putting your home at risk, do that only if you’re 100 percent confident about your ability to pay the loan back.

    New home buyers or mortgage holders 

    If you locked into a fixed-rate mortgage with a low rate, there's no incentive to change. But if you have an adjustable-rate or jumbo mortgage, consider refinancing into a fixed-rate mortgage.  

    To do this, examine the terms of your existing mortgage and calculate the damage if the rates rose two or three percent. If you plan to stay in your home longer than three or four years and haven’t already refinanced into a 15- or 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, do it now before the Fed moves.

    Home equity borrowers 

    Home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) are directly affected by Fed decisions. If interest rates ultimately rise by a couple of percentage points, Schneider warns, "You could be looking at a 50 to 100 percent increase in your payment." 

    Before applying for or increasing a HELOC, do the math.

    Student loan borrowers

    Federal loan rates are set by Congress at a fixed rate every year, so college students who have already secured their loans won’t see any change. The cost of private loans, however, is likely to rise.

    So it may be a good idea to refinance to extend the repayment period; although you’ll be writing checks longer, the amounts will be lower. You can also get a somewhat lower rate if you opt for automatic payment.

    Because it can be tough to qualify for a student loan refi compared to other types of loans—and you can’t refinance federal loans—consider asking a parent or grandparent to take it over. Jones offers a hypothetical situation of a college graduate paying 7.5% on her student debt. “If she has someone who wants to put some extra cash to work and is secure in her ability to pay it back, they could refinance the loan at 4 percent. They can’t earn anything close to 7.5% in a safe investment, so it’s a win/win for both.”

    Savers

    Savers who socked away their money in Certificates of Deposit (CDs) or bank money market accounts will finally catch a break, says Schneider. "CD rates will go up. Money market account rates will increase. An increase is a win for savers."

    But it’s not a slam-dunk. Pointing out that the Federal Reserve has an inflation target of two percent, Zandi predicts, “We’ll be in the low single digits for the foreseeable future.”

    Whether one bank offers better rates on a CD than another depends on whether it feels the need to attract more deposits. “Right now, most retail banks are pretty flush with deposits,” Werner explains, so it’s unlikely that you’d see a significant jump in rates. In any case, he adds, most people view their CD or money market account as their financial safety net. “If you have a rainy day fund in the bank, how likely are you to move it down the street for 50 basis points?”

    Roll over your CDs but leave enough flexibility to take advantage of future rate hikes.

    Investors

    Despite an initial hiccup when rates increase—the result of the rising cost of doing business—the stock market has historically done well when rates go from low to normal because that signals a healthier economy. Higher rates will "definitely be a positive for bank stocks," says Werner, because their profit margins will finally widen after years of being compressed. 

    Bonds are more complicated. True, most people assume that if interest rates rise, bond funds values will slump. But the returns on a passive fixed-income portfolio comes more from returns on interest payments from individual bonds, reinvested and compounded over time, than a change in price. “There’s a good chance that the income will start to go up as rates rise, which could offset any price decline,” says Jones. Consult your financial adviser about increasing your investment.

    Catherine Fredman

    A version of this article previously appeared in the August 2015 Consumer Reports Money Adviser.

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

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    Nearly half of us would pay more for safer cleaning products

    If you're like many Americans, you're willing to pay more for cleaning products that are safer for your health and the environment. That's according to a recent Consumer Reports' survey of 1,000 adults nationwide, which found that 44 percent said they would do so and another 46 percent answered "maybe."

    But trying to decipher labels to find safer cleaning products has been a challenge—until now. A new "Safer Choice" seal from the Environmental Protection Agency can help you with this task. It can now be found on all sorts of bottles, from bath and kitchen cleaners to pet stain removers to laundry detergent in stores such as Costco, Home Depot, Staples, Target, and Walmart.  

    Find safer cleaning products and how to allergy-proof your home.

    And in many cases, the safer cleaning products aren't more expensive. A price comparison of cleaners bearing the new Safer Choice label from manufacturers such as Bissell, BoulderClean, Earth Friendly, CLR, Holloway House, OdoBan, and PrideClean showed that they often cost about the same as cleaners without the seal, and were sometimes even less expensive.

    To earn the Safer Choice label, products are screened by EPA scientists for potential health and environmental risks, and are considered free of substances that can be harmful to your health and the environment. They cannot contain ingredients such as triclosan, for example, which is found in some antibacterial dish detergents. Consumer Reports' experts have evaluated the label and think it's useful.

    Find the EPA's list of Safer Choice products, and for more on labels, check out Consumer Reports' Greener Choices.

    —Sue Byrne

    What's on the bottle and what it means

    Very little cleaning-product labeling is regulated, says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., director of Consumer Reports' Consumer Safety and Sustainability Group. An exception is sanitizing and disinfecting claims for non-hand soaps, for which a company must submit safety and efficacy data to the Environmental Protection Agency. We take apart some common terms:

    Nontoxic. You’d think that a product with that claim wouldn’t cause adverse health effects. But there’s no standard definition.

    Plant-based. The contents may have come from something natural, but they could have been processed into something chemical.

    Fragrance-free. It doesn’t mean fewer ingredients, says Pat Slaven, Consumer Reports’ lead tester of cleaning products. Many manufacturers add a neutralizing odor to mask the less-than-pleasant scent of certain active chemicals.

    Organic. Only the USDA Organic seal ensures that 95 percent of the contents are organic. Without that seal, it can be tough to know which ingredients meet the standards.

    Gluten-free. So long as they’re not washing down dinner with laundry detergent, even people with celiac disease can safely use most cleaners.

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

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    Hot cars: A deadly danger that can happen to anyone

    On average, 37 children die of heat stroke each year after being left in a hot car, according to KidsAndCars.org. While it may be hard to imagine, many deaths have occurred when over-stressed parents forgot that their children were in the backseat.

    These hot-car tragedies often occur when there is a change in driver's routine, stress, or a sleeping baby in the back and a parent or caregiver forgets that a child is in the car. Some knowingly leave children "just for a minute" not realizing how quickly the temperature in a car can rise to dangerous levels. Even if it is only 70 degrees outside, a car can quickly heat to more than 120 degrees. Jennifer Stockburger, Consumer Reports' Director of Operations at our Auto Test Center, says that researchers are working on devices such as weight sensors or heartbeat monitors to detect the presence of a child in the backseat, but nothing currently exists to warn the driver that a child has been left behind.

    Here are some tips to help avert a heartbreaking catastrophe and make sure no child is left behind in a vehicle.

    • Simple rule: Never leave a child unattended in a vehicle, not even for a minute. In addition to being dangerous, it is against the law in many states.
    • Set up cell-phone reminders for yourself to be sure you’ve gotten the children safely to their destination.
    • Check the car to make sure that all occupants leave the vehicle or are carried out when unloading. If you lock the door with a key, rather than with a remote, it would force that one last look in the car before leaving it.
    • Always lock your car and keep keys and remotes away from children.
    • To serve as a reminder, keep a stuffed animal on the front passenger seat when carrying a child in the backseat.
    • Place something in the backseat that you would need, such as a purse, briefcase or cell phone.
    • Have a plan that your childcare provider will call you if your child does not show up.
    • If you see a child alone in a car, especially if they seem hot, call 911 immediately to help get them out.

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

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    The cheapest gas can be trouble for outdoor gear

    The price you pay for gas may be what gets you to the pump but when it comes to choosing the right fuel for your mower or other outdoor power gear, there’s another number you should pay attention to—the ethanol content. Most gasoline now contains 10 percent ethanol (E10). But you may see higher blends such as E15, E30, E50, or even E85 percent ethanol gas. The higher blends are often cheaper than E10 but don’t be tempted to buy them for your outdoor gear as any blend with more than 10 percent ethanol can damage your small engine, costing you more in the long run.

    This may become more apparent this summer as mowers and other equipment sit idle because it’s either too hot and dry or too rainy and wet to do yard work. Gasoline left sitting in a mower, generator, or anything smaller than a lawn tractor can gum up or “varnish” into a thick goo, especially if the gas hasn’t been mixed with a fuel stabilizer. Ethanol draws water from the gas and can crust up. This makes plastic and rubber parts brittle and freezes up linkages in the carburetor. Some stabilizers are specifically designed to counteract these effects but routine use helps by keeping fuel circulating.

    The best way to avoid this problem is to buy gas with as little ethanol as possible but the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, the industry’s trade group, says that's not always easy as more blends become common at the gas station. These range from E15, permitted for cars newer than 2006, to E85 (for Flex Fuel vehicles), with some choices in between. Mixes higher than E15 make small engines run hotter, reduce their life, and can even be dangerous.

    In recent surveys conducted for the OPEI, 63 percent of respondents said they use the least expensive grade of gas whenever possible and 48 percent of respondents said they fill their gas cans with the same fuel they put in their car. Less than half said they notice the tiny warning label the Environmental Protection Agency says is adequate to warn outdoor-gear owners about E15; fewer still say they notice the ethanol content of what they’re pumping. "The research shows that the American public is woefully unaware and uneducated about ethanol blended fuels, and how to use them," says Kris Kiser, CEO and President of OPEI.

    So what to do? The OPEI recommends that the EPA require stronger wording on labels posted at the pump. Instead of the word “attention,” they recommend using “warning” or “caution” to help consumers avoid misfueling. And in its campaign called “Look before you pump,” the OPEI gives the following tips to protect your investment:

    • Understand which fuel is appropriate for your equipment.
    • Read the equipment’s operating  manual for specific fueling requirements.
    • Check the ethanol content and ensure it is the right fuel for your engine.

    Need some new outdoor gear?

    A gas-powered product that won't start most likely has a fuel issue, and a trip to the shop—followed up by better upkeep—can be cheaper than buying new. But if you’re already in the market, see our Ratings and buying guides for mowers and tractors, string trimmers, leaf blowers, chain saws, and generators.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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

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    Clever Evenflo infant car seat uses tech to combat heatstroke risk

    On average, 37 children die of heat stroke each year after being left in a hot car, according to the Department of Meteorology and Climate Science at San Jose University. Often these deaths have been the result of a change in routine or increased stress factors for a loving caregiver. For several years, child passenger safety advocates have appealed to vehicle and child seat manufacturers to provide technological solutions for these tragic circumstances. Recently, one child seat manufacturer rose to the challenge. (Related "Hot cars: A deadly danger that can happen to anyone.")

    A week ago, Evenflo introduced their new SensorSafe technology aimed at preventing child heatstroke deaths. The SensorSafe technology is integrated with the Advanced Embrace DLX Infant Car Seat’s chest clip and works in conjunction with a wireless receiver that connects to a vehicle’s onboard diagnostic port (OBD-II).

    Consumer Reports has purchased the Advanced Embrace DLX Infant Car Seat with SensorSafe technology and will soon test it.

    Thus far, here’s what we find promising with this product:

    • Unlike other solutions, SensorSafe connects your child seat with your vehicle, not an app on your phone.
    • The SensorSafe chest clip has been crash tested with the infant seat by the child seat manufacturer, unlike aftermarket chest clips, which are not crash tested and thereby not recommended for use by child seat manufacturers or child passenger safety advocates.
    • Alerts are provided for two situations: if the chest clip is unbuckled while the vehicle is moving, and secondly, upon arrival at your destination, when turning off the engine.
    • The wireless receiver can work with multiple SensorSafe chest clips in the same vehicle.

    It’s important to note that the SensorSafe technology is currently only compatible with vehicle model year 2008 and newer, traditional gasolines/diesel-fueled vehicles, and only with Evenflo Embrace infant car seats with maximum weight ratings greater than 30 lbs.

    For hybrid or stop/start vehicles, contact the Evenflo ParentLink: 1-800-233-5921 (US), 1-937-773-3971 (Canada), or 01-800-706-12-00 (Mexico).

    Although this featured seat is sold as a package, the components can be purchased separately and added to the Evenflo Select Infant Car Seat with SureSafe, Evenflo Select Infant Car Seat, and Evenflo LX Infant Car Seat. The chest clip and standard receiver cost $8 and $50, respectively.

    The technology looks promising, and we applaud industry efforts to reduce the number of child heat stroke fatalities.

    Stay tuned for more detailed testing of the SensorSafe technology by our child seat experts.

    See our child seat buying advice and ratings.

    Emily A. Mathews

     

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    Built-in refrigerators that are worth the money

    A built-in refrigerator is a serious investment, costing between $7,000 and $10,000. That’s why Consumer Reports doesn’t test them as frequently as standard refrigerators (remember, we buy every product we test off the shelf or showroom floor, just like any consumer). But we made room in our budget to test about a dozen new built-in models, from familiar names like Sub-Zero and Viking, as well as some newcomers. There’s a lot happening in the category, including improvements in design, performance, and efficiency. We also found that you can spend all that money and end up with less-than-stellar results. Here are the details on some new models we added to our Ratings of dozens of built-in refrigerators.

    Miele makes it mark

    The German manufacture is well known for vacuums and dishwashers, but Miele is relatively new to the built-in refrigerator category. It didn’t waste any time taking over the top spot in our Ratings. The Miele MasterCool KF1903SF, $8,600, combines superb temperature control with whisper-quiet operation. The 36-inch-wide bottom-freezer also has some nice features, including spillproof shelves, touchpad controls, and a smudge-proof stainless steel finish. If you’re dealing with a smaller space, say an urban kitchen, the 30-inch-wide Miele MasterCool KF1803SF also earned solid marks in our tests, though it just missed our recommended list.

    Whirlpool shows its worth

    KitchenAid and Jenn-Air, two premium brands owned by Whirlpool, help round out our recommended list. They’re especially worth considering if you like the look and convenience of French-door styling. The KitchenAid KBFN502ESS, $9,000, offers superb temperature control, efficiency, and quietness, plus a unique platinum interior and soft-close doors. The Jenn-Air JF42NXFXDE, $8,500, offers similar performance and the option of integrated paneling, for homeowners who want match their refrigerator to the surrounding cabinetry.  

    Viking pivots

    Viking, which invented the pro-style appliance category in 1987 with its launch of the first restaurant-grade range, was acquired in 2013 by the Middlebury Corporation. The new Viking VCSB5423SS side-by-side has some unique features, including moisture-controlled drawers, a first for the category. And the unit’s Plasmacluster Ion Air Purifier filtration system, which in our past tests was a big energy draw, didn’t pose any problems this time around. But at $10,160, the refrigerator is pricey, even by built-in standards, and its overall score, though very good, is well below our top performers.

    Sub-Zero gets basic

    The Sub-Zero IT36CI, $7,600, has a middle drawer that can be handy for storing snacks and other items you reach for often. But that’s about the only convenience feature on the 36-inch-wide refrigerator—no spillproof shelves, no gallon door storage, no temperature-controlled deli bin. The model did do well in our performance tests, and of course it has the style and name recognition of the Sub-Zero brand. But there are better Sub-Zeros to choose from in our built-in refrigerator Ratings.

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico 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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    You're paying too much on cable-box rental fees

    Think you're shelling out too much on cable-box rental fees each month? So do a couple of U.S. senators, who say the lack of choice when it comes to settop boxes means the average U.S. home spends more than $230 a year on rental fees.

    Senators Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) collected data from the top 10 pay-TV providers after Congress reversed an FCC ban on boxes with integrated security that essentially makes those boxes proprietary. This was the basis for the failed CableCard initiative, which was designed to loosen the hold pay-TV companies had on those devices and give consumers lower-cost options. In the end, few consumers took advantage of the move: Of the 47 million CableCards that shipped with cable company boxes, less than 620,000 were deployed. Last year, as part of a satellite TV reauthorization bill, Congress lifted the ban against integrated security.

    The two senators, however, remain concerned that cable companies have a monopoly on settop boxes, forcing consumers to pay too much for them. Based on their findings, the average household spends nearly $232 a year on cable-box rental fees. Those leasing a single device pay almost $90 a year, or about $7.40 per month. The senators estimate that pay-TV companies rake in nearly $20 billion each year in cable-box rental fees.

    Looking for alternatives to your traditional pay-TV service? Learn  how to win at TV,  which takes a look at all the options.

    “Consumers should have the same range of choices for their video set-top boxes as they have for their mobile phones,” Markey said in a joint statement issued by the legislators. "When Congress last year regrettably removed the requirement that cable company services be compatible with set-top boxes purchased in the marketplace rather than rented directly from the provider, we doomed consumers to being captive to cable company rental fees forever."

    “Consumers deserve protection against hidden, hideously vexing fees for set-top boxes,” added Blumenthal. "Consumers deserve competitive options in accessing technology and television – not exorbitant prices dictated by monopoly cable companies.”

    There is, however, some hope on the horizon: The FCC is currently working on a successor to CableCard, which will feature a downloadable security system. Do you think you're paying too much in settop box rental fees? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

    —James K. Willcox

     

     

     

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    The problem with car insurance premiums

    In its new investigation, "The Truth About Car Insurance," Consumer Reports takes a hard look at auto insurance and the ways companies determine car insurance premiums. We conducted research for two years in which we analyzed more than 2 billion car insurance price quotes from more than 700 companies.

    Our investigation found that your credit score—more than your driving record—can determine your car insurance premiums. Other factors unrelated to your driving, such as shopping habits and how likely you are to tolerate rate hikes, can also play a role in what you pay. Many consumers don’t know that insurers are judging them less on their driving and increasingly on socioeconomic factors.

    Our analysis of car insurance premiums for eight hypothetical single drivers of varying ages found those individuals who had a good credit score paid $68 to $526 more than similar drivers with a higher score, depending on which state they called home. In one example, in Florida, our group of adult single drivers with a clean driving record and poor credit paid $1,552 more on average than if the exact same drivers had excellent credit and a drunk driving conviction.

    We believe that’s unfair. You have a right to know the going rate of any product or service you buy, and you have a right to expect your car insurance premiums are based on meaningful behavior.

    The way insurers set prices today is shrouded in secrecy and rife with inequities.  We want to change that, and we need your help.

    Working together, we can pressure the policymakers to reform the system and help ensure you get a fair price for your car insurance premiums.

    This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

    Read past installments of our Policy & Action feature.

     

     

     

     

     

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    3 easy ways to prevent theft on campus

    Back in the day—that is, in the 1970s—college students didn’t have a lot of valuable stuff in their dorm rooms. Sure, there was a bevy of stereo gear ideal for blasting the latest Grateful Dead bootleg cassette, but a would-be thief wasn't going to easily slip out of a dorm schlepping a pair of giant speakers.

    Fast-forward to 2015, and a dorm room is a veritable treasure trove of expensive gear. Two roommates might have more than $6,000 worth of electronics—laptop or tabletsmartphonegaming system—and other items, such as a musical instrument or a fancy coffeemaker, in their small space.

    And apparently a lot of that stuff goes missing.

    Theft of personal property is the most common crime on college campuses, according to U.S. Department of Education data. “A university is considered a target-rich environment,” said Jon Barnwell, the police superintendent at Tulane University, in New Orleans. “Students become complacent and leave their iPhone on a table in the cafeteria or leave their room door open. It takes only eight seconds for a thief to enter an unsecured area and walk off with something.”

    To prevent theft on campus, follow the advice we got from several campus-security experts:

    Step 1: Conceal it

    When a valuable item is out of sight, you remove the chances for impulse theft. Concealing such items as phones, passports, headphones, wallets, and jewelry is easy and cheap. Concealment can be as simple as storing a tablet in a drawer or closet or using a decoy product, such as this fake dress with hidden compartments for storing valuables or a book safe to add to your bookshelf.

    Word to the wise: Some valuables are better left at home, including expensive or irreplaceable jewelry.

    Step 2: Lock it up

    A further step to prevent theft on campus is to lock up valuable personal property. An anchor lock system, which attaches a laptop to a stationary object, gives a student the freedom to step out of her dorm room to join a hallway political debate or to leave a study carrel in the library for a bathroom break without having to lug the laptop.

    Another deterrent is a portable mini-vault for storing small items in the dorm room. For more security, consider a safe that can be anchored to the floor (if the school allows it) or attached with a cable to a stationary object. University security experts recommend securing a bicycle with a sturdy U-lock, not a cable lock, some of which might be easily cut.

    Word to the wise: Add this to the sage advice you give your kid when he or she heads back to school: Even when you just go down the hall to the bathroom or leave the room to follow the aroma of fresh popcorn, lock your door.

    Step 3: Register it

    Many colleges offer free property-registration programs that are designed to deter or prevent theft on campus. These types of programs not only create a centralized database of who owns what but also provide stickers and security plates that adhere to the registered items and leave a permanent tattoo if removed—signaling to a potential buyer that the item for sale is stolen property.

    For example, Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine provides each student with an anti-theft security plate to attach to laptops. Students at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor are urged to register their electronics and bicycles via a secure online system, which then generates a sticker for the item. 

    Of course, deterrents are not a foolproof way to prevent theft on campus. So don't forget to check whether your homeowners insurance covers property away from home. If not, consider buying dorm insurance.

    —Susan Feinstein

    More for students and parents

    • How to save money on college textbooks

    • Best everyday products for college students

    Best small appliances for college students

    • Should you buy college tuition insurance?

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

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