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Consumer Reports

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    The Wrong Way to Invest in Oil

    The sharp rebound in oil prices—up more than 20 percent in recent weeks to $46 per barrel as the summer driving season winds down—may lead you to consider investing in oil, especially as stocks have recently faltered.

    But you should be careful when considering how best to add that commodity to your personal investment portfolio. While the advent of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) has made investing in commodities like gold and oil relatively simple, doing so may seem a smarter move in theory than in practice.

    One reason: Some funds that attempt to track the price of oil, such as the United States Oil ETF (ticker: USO) and the iPath S&P GSCI Crude Oil Total Return ETF (ticker: OIL), make investments in futures contracts that imperfectly track the price of the commodity. (Buying the physical commodity itself, the way some gold ETFs do, isn’t practical with barrels of oil.)

    The Smart Way to Invest in Oil

    A recent example illustrates their primary shortcoming: In 2009, the last time oil prices rose significantly, from $34 per barrel to almost $100, investors in OIL and USO captured only a fraction of that gain, short shrifting investors who had bought into the ETFs.

    A better approach to investing in oil may be to consider the broadest, as well as the largest, energy ETF: the Energy Select Sector SPDR ETF (ticker: XLE). The Energy SPDR includes large dollops of Big Oil—vertically integrated giants such as Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips make up 30 percent of the fund. But the ETF also owns refiners, exploration and production companies (known as E&Ps, or the “upstream” part of energy production), and firms that manage the storage and transportation of petroleum and other energy products.

    More importantly, with a broad-based ETF such as XLE, the price is right; it costs investors just 0.15 percent of assets annually. It also currently sports a dividend yield of 3.1 percent, unlike the commodity-based ETFs, which offer no meaningful dividends and have much higher expense ratios: 0.72 percent for USO and 0.75 percent for OIL.

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

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    Who’s minding the mercury in your child’s tuna sandwich?

    If tuna sandwiches are your go-to choice for school lunches, you may be putting your child at risk for ingesting too much mercury, a toxin that can damage the brain and nervous system. And knowing how much tuna is too much is more important than ever, given recent evidence indicating that mercury levels in tuna are on the rise.

    Nearly all fish and shellfish have at least trace amounts of methylmercury (the form that accumulates in fish). The highest levels are found in swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and Gulf of Mexico tilefish. But 37 percent of Americans’ dietary mercury exposure actually comes from canned tuna, which ranks second only to shrimp as the most popular seafood in the country.

    It doesn’t take too many tuna fish sandwiches to exceed the safety threshold for mercury exposure. For example, a child who weighs less than 60 pounds should not eat more than two ounces of canned albacore (white) tuna per week. That’s less than half the amount of tuna in a typical, five-ounce can. Albacore contains, on average, three times more mercury than the canned light variety, according to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tests. (See the chart below: "How Much Canned Tuna Can You Safely Eat?")

    But even for canned light tuna, the per week safety limit, based on the average mercury level for this variety, for the same under-60-pound child is only five ounces.

    The trouble is, the mercury level in canned light tuna can vary wildly. Our analysis found that 20 percent of samples in an FDA study contained almost double the average. And these safety limits are for total exposure, not even accounting for contact with other sources of mercury.

    Read our special report on mercury in fish. Also, learn how to reduce your mercury exposure from fish.

    It’s not just the tuna brown baggers that have to keep track. School cafeterias often have tuna on the menu, either in sandwiches or on a salad bar. Odds are the school’s tuna is canned light—the lower mercury kind— rather than albacore. To be sure, ask your school’s food service director. Knowing the type of tuna will help you accurately calculate your children’s weekly mercury exposure, using our experts’ chart.

    To take it one step further, PTAs and other parent groups may want to work with their schools’ lunch programs to ensure and verify that only the lowest-mercury fish is served. “Recent testing demonstrates significant variations in ‘light’ tuna mercury levels, and new studies also show far greater risks at much lower exposure levels,” says Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project. The group published a 2012 study, Tuna Surprise: Mercury in School Lunches, which tested mercury levels in samples of canned tuna supplied to school cafeterias. Bender even goes a step further, suggesting that schools avoid tuna altogether.

    You can still get the nutritional benefits of seafood with other canned fish, such as salmon, which is higher in healthy fats known as Omega 3 fatty acids than tuna is. "Canned salmon, with its high Omega 3 and lower mercury is a better choice,” says Michael Gochfeld, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

    So this year, when you’re packing those lunchboxes, do your kids a favor and try switching out the tuna salad for a salmon salad sandwich instead.

    Where do school cafeterias get their tuna?

    More than 100,000 schools and residential childcare centers take part in the National School Lunch Program, in which schools receive federal subsidies—cash or food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—for providing free or reduced-price lunches to eligible students. Participating schools are required to serve lunches that meet federal nutrition standards.

    Canned light tuna used to be among the foods the program provided, and all of the tuna was purchased from StarKist because it was the only vendor that met USDA rules requiring all foods for the program to be 100 percent U.S. produced. Competing brands lobbied to become eligible providers, but some members of Congress opposed, and the Buy American rule has not changed.

    But then the USDA stopped buying tuna for the lunch program in 2012. The impetus? StarKist was cited by the FDA for unsanitary conditions at its processing plant in American Samoa.

    According to a USDA representative, StarKist has resolved the issues and is again approved by the USDA to supply tuna for the National School Lunch Program. Even so, the USDA has not resumed purchasing canned tuna for the National School Lunch Program.

    “USDA does not currently have plans to purchase canned tuna for the National School Lunch Program, but schools are permitted to purchase tuna directly from private vendors,” the agency representative told us, pointing out that participating schools purchase more than 80 percent of the food for the lunch program, rather than relying solely on the USDA-supplied food.

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

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    3 Cool Possibilities for the New iPhone 6s

    So, should you get the new iPhone? I can’t tell you—yet. But I’m sure the next model(s) will be better—at least in some ways. If Apple stays on the evolutionary path it established with the 3G, the update it unveils on September 9 will still be an iPhone 6 model, but with an “s”—signifying subtle improvement—attached to the name.

    Of course, two recent s updates have been quite exciting.The iPhone 4s was the first model offered by carriers other than AT&T. And the iPhone 5s added Apple Pay. (Okay, well, make that one out of two.) 

    So, let’s play a game called Cupertino Casino, where we bet on the three features the new iPhone models will likely have. Anyone who guesses all three correctly wins . . . the right to be smug for one hour.

    Here are my picks:

    iFeatures

    Mega-pixeled camera. The 8-megapixel camera on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus is already among the best we've tested—better than rival phone cameras with twice the resolution. And we’ve already documented that the 6 Plus camera, which adds an optical image stabilizer, improves your chances of taking good photos under low-light conditions. But I say this time with the new iPhone Apple hits it out of the park with 12, no make that 16, megapixels of resolution, and 4K video recording. Take that Samsung and LG.

    Immortal battery. Our readers and a throng of analysts report that few things are more important to consumers than a phone that won’t quit on you before the day is done. Historically, battery life has been a weak spot for iPhones, though the iPhone 6 improved things significantly. The battery lasted 10 hours in our tests. In fact, the 6 Plus blew almost every other phone away with an ample 17 hours on a single charge. I’ll bet this time Apple stretches battery life on the new iPhone a little further, and introduces built-in compatibility with wireless charging mats.

    Proficient processor. It’s a safe bet that the A9 processor these new iPhone models purportedly sport will be at least a tad faster than the A8 on the old 6 models. But the biggest processing trend—for mobiles, anyway—is not so much speed, but rather efficiency. Apps and widgets are constantly demanding access to processing power, while the processor itself has to be on high alert for incoming messages and wireless pings from nearby devices.

    And, speaking of pings, the screens on LG G and Motorola Moto phones now stir awake with a simple nudge or tap of a finger, which comes in handy if you just want to check the time or see who sent you that last message. iPhones can’t do that yet, but if the new iPhone models do, they’ll need help from very efficient processors.

    Did I miss anything?

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

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    Surprising Scion iM Hatchback Is Engaging and Fun to Drive

    Outside of the wickedly entertaining Scion FR-S and the funky, boxy Scion xB, there hasn’t been much excitement when it comes to Scion.

    Hence our admittedly modest expectations when we rented a new Scion iM hatchback from Toyota for a brief preview.

    Guess what? This new Scion iM hatchback is quite surprising.

    Based on the European Toyota Auris, which is essentially a Toyota Corolla, the Scion iM hatchback manages to be the rare inexpensive Toyota that is engaging, fun to drive, and livable. 

    The first thing you notice is the iM's nimbleness. It might not be quite in the same league as the Ford Focus, Mazda3, or Volkswagen Golf, but it corners willingly and can dance even when pushed on a track. Not only does the Scion iM hatchback point well into corners, but it also rounds them off rewardingly after clipping the apex. It can definitely give the Mazda a run for its money.

    The Scion iM hatchback delivers some refinement, with a more absorbent ride and less road noise than we're used to in most inexpensive hatchbacks.

    Under the hood is a 1.8-liter, 137-hp four-cylinder, mated to either a six-speed manual or a continuously variable transmission. There’s not a lot of power here, but the CVT works well, with artificial steps that mimic a conventional automatic. There's also a manual mode for those who want to "shift."

    Scion didn’t scrimp inside, with lots of padded material and stitching to spiff things up. The seats in the Scion iM hatchback are really narrow, though, with side bolsters that can pinch, and they lack adjustable lumbar support adjustment.

    Backseat room is snug, and the small rear window hinders rear vision. Folding the seats increase cargo space in this versatile hatchback, providing room to throw in a bicycle, for instance.

    So far, the Scion iM hatchback delivers a decent driving experience and practicality for its modest price: $19,995 with the CVT, less expensive than the Mazda3 and four-door Golf. Yet the iM has a standard backup camera, touchscreen radio, dual-zone automatic climate control, 17-inch alloy wheels, and power heated mirrors.

    We'll be buying a Scion iM hatchback this fall to see whether it's as compelling over the long term. 

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

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    Front Crash Prevention Technologies Make Strides

    In the latest round of front crash prevention testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 14 cars received a Superior and five earned an Advanced rating. Front crash prevention systems with automatic braking have been tested by the IIHS since 2013 and the number of vehicles earning either Advanced or Superior ratings has tripled since then.

    The basic rating, Advanced, is given to vehicles that meet the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s performance criteria for forward-collision warning and have autobrake systems that provide minimal speed reduction. The highest rating, Superior, goes to vehicles that show a major speed reduction in in the 12-mph and 25-mph tests.

    Beyond the tested performance, what might be even better news is that these systems have also become more readily available. Luxury cars are no longer the only players in this market.

    The Impact of Advanced Safety

    Consumer Reports welcomes the improvement in both performance and prevalence. Many auto testers here have jumped to attention in response to collision-warning alerts, appreciating the guardian angel effect. Although autobrake systems aren’t yet perfect, we value their potential to take over when drivers can’t or don’t.

    Real-world evidence shows that autobrake systems are making a safety difference. Vehicles equipped with these systems continue to show reduced rates of insurance claims for both damage and injury, according to reports from the Highway Loss Data Institute. And data from Australia and Europe shows that vehicles equipped with autobrake systems are involved in 38 percent fewer rear-end crashes than similar models without the systems.

    Front crash prevention systems have many names in the automotive industry which can make it difficult for shoppers to understand exactly what they are suppose to be looking for. Systems such as the Mercedes Collision Prevention Assist Plus, the Subaru EyeSight, and the Volvo City Safe, to name just a few, work to accomplish the same safety goal with some combination of cameras, radar, or laser to watch for cars ahead and alert the driver if they are approaching too fast or not paying attention.

    Systems with autobrake go one step further, automatically applying the brakes when an imminent collision is detected; some react even without warning the driver. These systems are one of those “you don’t need them until you need them” features. We heartily recommend car shoppers prioritize such advanced safety systems. (Check our safety features list for 2015 models.)

    Advanced safety feature availability promises to expand with 2016 models, including more systems with an autobrake function.

    IIHS Front Crash Prevention Ratings

    Presented in rank order.

    Advanced

    • 2016 BMW X3 (with City Braking Function)
    • 2016 Volkswagen Golf/Golf Sportwagen
    • 2015 Volkswagen Touareg
    • 2016 Volkswagen Jetta

    Superior

    • 2016 Acura MDX/RLX
    • 2016 BMW X3 (with Braking Function) 
    • 2016 Mazda CX-5
    • 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class/E-Class
    • 2015 Mercedes-Benz CLA
    • 2016 Acura ILX/RDX
    • 2015 Chrysler 300
    • 2015 Dodge Charger
    • 2016 Mazda 6
    • 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class/CLA/E-Class

    As always, we encourage you to buy as much safety as you can afford.

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

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    How Consumer Reports tests toilet paper

    You think you’re picky about toilet paper? Consumer Reports uses machines and specially trained sensory panelists to determine which rolls combine softness, convenience, and strength.

    How strong?

    We stack and insert eight sheets of each toilet paper into an Instron, a device also used to test sturdier materials like fabric and plastic. It slowly pushes a steel ball through the sheets. The force required to punch through the paper is measured and recorded. Stronger paper can withstand three times as much pressure as the weakest ones before ripping. The Instron also determines how hard you need to pull to rip two sheets along their perforation, or the “tearing ease.”

    How soft?

    Sensory panelists check for softness in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room so the toilet-paper fibers are evaluated under controlled conditions. First they make light, circular motions over each sample with their fingertips. Next, they softly drag their fingers over the tissue in straight lines. Both tasks help them form an overall impression of softness. Then they test for pliability by gently manipulating the paper into a ball. The roughest, stiffest papers feel cracked, pointed, and ridged; the softest tend to be more pliable and conform smoothly to the hand.

    Down the drain

    Toilet paper can be a pain even after you use it. To find out what happens once it’s flushed, we check to see how easily it disintegrates. That gives you an idea of how well it will move through a home’s plumbing and septic systems. We put a 2x2-inch square from a sheet of toilet paper and a 2-inch stirring bar into a water-filled beaker on a stirring plate. The score is based on the time it takes for the sheet to disintegrate.

    And the winner is ...

    Only one toilet paper made it to the top of our tests, White Cloud Ultra Soft & Thick sold at Walmart, scoring a 77 out of 100. The next best, Nice Premium Ultra sold at Walgreens, scored 57, losing points on strength. To see how your favorite brand fared, see our full toilet paper Ratings and recommendations. And don't miss our story, The Dirty Little Secrets of Toilet Paper, which may confirm your suspicions that rolls are getting smaller.

    This article also appeared in the October 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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    2016 Lexus RX Hits the Reset Button

    For the past 18 years, the Lexus RX has set the tone for the luxury, midsized crossover category it pioneered. The RX has always delivered an appealing blend of refinement and practicality. It stands out as a benchmark thanks to its supremely quiet, plush cabin with oodles of convenience features, along with a settled, comfortable ride, smooth power delivery, and just the right amount of space for five people and their luggage.

    One of the few knocks on the outgoing RX bore on its bland, even yawn-inducing, exterior styling. The 2016 makeover may draw gasps instead. All angularity and sharp points, it could masquerade as an armored spacecraft, with a shockingly large and ferocious-looking black grille. A blacked-out section of the rear roof pillars creates the similar “floating roof” illusion as the 2015 Nissan Murano, one of those coincidences that makes you wonder if half the world’s car designers live in the same condo.

    On the whole, the new RX makes a fine pleasure craft. We’ve been spending a few days behind the wheel of an early-production 2016 RX, borrowed, for a fee, from Toyota.

    Rather than a regular RX 350, our sampler is a high-end F Sport, which has larger (20-inch) wheels and different suspension tuning than the standard crossover will, so it probably rides a bit more stiffly, but is similar in other respects. Standard fitment are 18-inch wheels.

    Power delivery from Toyota’s nearly ubiquitous 3.5-liter V6, married here to a new eight-speed automatic transmission, comes on with creamy smoothness. And, this time around horsepower got nudged from last year’s 270 to 295, and the resultant thrust is effortless. Fuel economy is estimated by the EPA to be 22 mpg overall.

    As so often with a Lexus, the cabin remains almost unnaturally quiet when you’re under way. The switchgear gives good tactile feedback, and matte-finish plastic trim has a quality feel.

    Wide door openings and high seats allow for easy access front and rear. Multi-adjustable power seats and a power tilt-and-telescope steering wheel make it simple to find a good driving position. We found the F Sport’s perforated red-leather seats well-shaped and comfortable, at least on short acquaintance. Because they are more deeply sculpted and bolstered than the standard trim’s will be, we can’t say how the standard-issue perches will stack up. When you shut off the engine, the driver’s seat thoughtfully glides back and the steering wheel recedes, easing your exit.

    The all-electronic gauge cluster is easily legible, with a big round dial in the center combining a digital speedometer readout with an analog rev counter. The left portion of the instrument binnacle presents page after page of vehicle and trip-computer information, scrollable with steering-wheel buttons.

    Safety gear includes the now usual suite of modern marvels, including lane-departure and blind-spot warning, adaptive cruise control, pre-collision warning with autonomous braking, and rear cross-traffic alert.

    Poised atop the center dash is a prominent eight-inch display pod for the navigation, rear camera, and infotainment system. Several other luxury brands have also positioned that display as a free-standing upright pod, including BMW and Mercedes-Benz, but the RX’s is huge, coming acros as a flat-screen TV.

    In some ways it’s ideal to have a big navigation map right up near the windshield where you don’t have to take your eyes off the road to see the thing, but it might grow tiresome to have something nearly the size of a sun visor sticking up from the dashboard all the time. The screen also defaults to the map view, rather than, say, the audio system settings—an odd quirk. A deep dive in the menu settings can alter that, though.  

    Infotainment system functions themselves are managed with a unified control knob, sort of a joystick with a padded hat, that resides on the center console within easy reach of the driver’s right hand. It can take a bit of familiarization, because every slight nudge of that controller sends the screen cursor skittering all over the display. Once you get the hang of it, though, it’s no harder than riding a unicycle.

    As happens way too often with hip-as-can-be car design, the new RX has coupe-like styling with a steeply raked back window and body lines that rise to meet it at the rear quarter. That sleek, modern look brings two penalties: the driver’s view to the right rear is severely impaired, and cargo space is compromised.

    Thankfully, the cargo floor behind the second row is very deep, so it shouldn’t be a problem loading decent quantities of luggage. The cargo bay is also attractively finished, plushly carpeted, and has handy tie-downs at the corners and bag hooks above.

    Time will tell if Lexus’s gamble with wild styling will alienate its conservative customer base or bring new converts to the flock, but the RX’s long history of quality, comfort, and reliability may prove to be an unbeatable ace in the hole.

    Gordon Hard

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

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    Can a Pricier, Ad-Free Hulu Succeed?

    For would-be cord cutters, the Hulu streaming service has been a great option for watching broadcast TV shows, with one glaring drawback: Despite paying $8 per month for the service, you were still forced to watch ads while viewing programs. Not anymore. Last week new ad-free Hulu was announced, though you'll have to pony up an extra $4 each month for this option

    But even those sticking with the $8-per-month plan are getting a bonus: Hulu says there will be fewer ads, and the ones you see will be more targeted to your interests.

    An ad-free Hulu has been rumored for months, as the competition among streaming services has heated up. Neither Netflix, with more than 40 million subscribers and a service that starts at $8 a month, nor Amazon, which offers movies and TV shows to about 40 million customers who pay $99 a year for Prime membership, display ads in their videos.

    With its new ad-free option, Hulu, with about 9 million subscribers, believes it can attract both those looking for a lower-priced alternative to their traditional pay TV service, and those who don't mind paying a bit more for the ads to disappear.

    However, not all shows will be completely devoid of ads. Some programs, including "Scandal," "Grey’s Anatomy," and "Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D," will have a 15-second commercial before the show starts, and a 30-second spot once it ends, though no ads during the programs.

    Pricing and ad policies are only a part of the changes Hulu is making. In addition to its usual fare of TV shows from the major networks, the company has recently inked deals with several cable networks, including AMC, FX, and Turner, and it's nailed down some exclusive subscription streaming rights for broadcast and cable shows ranging from "Seinfeld" and "South Park" to "Empire" and "Fargo." Hulu also has a deal with Showtime that lets its subscribers sign up for the premium channel for just $9 a month instead of the usual $11.

    Hulu is also making a push to beef up its movie library, which trails those of the other services. Recently, Hulu jumped in when Netflix didn't extend its deal with Epix, securing multiyear rights to stream films, including Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Transformers: Age of Extinction, and World War Z, from Lionsgate, MGM, and Paramount.  (Amazon has its own deal with Epix.)

    Hulu is even getting into the original content game, an area where both Amazon and Netflix have found success. Among the planned upcoming shows are "11/22/63," a time-travel JFK assassination thriller from Stephen King and J.J. Abrams; a comedy series from Amy Poehler called "Difficult People;" and the next season of "The Mindy Project," starring Mindy Kaling.

    While it's too early to see whether Hulu can close the gap on its streaming competitors, at least on paper the company is now a more compelling option for those looking for cable-TV alternatives. The influx of new content makes the service more attractive, and you no longer have to complain as much about the ads—even if you stick with the lower-priced plan.

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

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    All-New 2016 Toyota Prius Promises More Fun, More MPG

    When most people think of hybrids, they think of the Toyota Prius—and who can blame them? The Prius was the first hybrid car to go mainstream, and it consistently delivers exactly what it promises: Excellent fuel economy, envious reliability, and a futuristic look and feel. But while it delivers great gas mileage, it is completely devoid of driver engagement.

    Toyota is promising to address those issues with the all-new Prius. The 2016 Toyota Prius model will be not only more fuel efficient but, Toyota says, also more emotional, with more aggressive styling and a more involving driving experience. We’ll weigh in on that once we drive the new Prius.

    Describing the 2016 Toyota Prius makes us feel like advertising execs from the 1950s: The new, sedan-like car is longer, lower, and wider, with more pronounced creases in the sheet metal and a representation of the "spindle" grille found on newer Toyota and Lexus designs. LED headlights give the new car a more purposeful look while lowering its profile to the wind, while the taillights have become downright funky. Overall, it is a radical departure from the shape that has become so familiar over the past two generations.

    Toyota claims the wrap-around dash is designed to give the driver a sense of control. Again, a digital gauge cluster sits atop the center dash, leaving a distinct void behind the steering wheel. The center stack is less integrated than before, seeming like separate components piled up, whereas before, the stereo, climate controls, and shifter all flowed together. The automaker says the Prius' larger footprint will provide increased passenger and cargo space.

    Our biggest complaint about the previous Toyota Prius has been the driving experience, which is only slightly less exciting than reading a dictionary. The upcoming Prius sits on a new platform and has an independent double-wishbone rear suspension, a step-up from the compact and inexpensive torsion beam used in the current car, though Toyota has said nothing about improving the Prius' feedback-free steering. That new platform is expected to underpin the next Toyota Camry and other models, suggesting generous development investment.

    Naturally, Toyota has put considerable effort into improving the 2016 Prius' fuel efficiency. With an upgraded engine, lighter hybrid system components, and battery cells with a higher energy density, Toyota expects a 10 percent improvement over the current Prius' EPA ratings of 41 mpg city and 48 mpg highway. No details yet regarding engine size or battery chemistry. We recorded 44 mpg overall in the last Prius we tested, so if those numbers translate to real-world driving, we could see overall fuel economy approaching 50 mpg. Toyota has also announced a more fuel-efficient Eco version for determined hypermilers.

    We're pleased to see the styling of the 2016 Toyota Prius has taken on more personality, and we like the idea of better fuel economy. The promise of more driver involvement is intriguing, but then again, Toyota's definition of fun-to-drive doesn't necessarily match ours. We're optimistic, but to find out whether the new Prius will address our most serious complaints—too much noise and not enough fun—we'll have to wait until we buy one for a full road test. 

    The all-new Prius will arrive at dealerships in early 2016.

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

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    The best tools for clearing fallen trees

    During a violent storm any tree—even a healthy one—can be imperiled by wind,rain, snow, or hail. To improve your odds of nothaving one go down, monitor all of your trees for health during fine weather. If you’re unlucky enough to have one fall, know that arborists will be in demand and slow to arrive after a storm. If you decide to pull out a chain saw and tackle the job yourself, follow this advice:

    Wear proper gear

    That includes snug clothing, sturdy boots, Kevlar chaps, protective gloves, a helmet with a face shield, and hearing protection.

    Look for power lines

    “You won’t hear things or see smoke,” says Mark Chisholm of Aspen Tree Expert in Jackson, N.J., “but there’s often current running under or in a tree you’re cutting.” Always treat any downed line as live and wait for the utility crew’s OK.

    Examine the tree for bent branches

    “Rarely does a tree fall flat,” says Scott Jamieson, a vice president of the Bartlett Tree Experts location in Stamford, Conn. “When one comes down in an unnatural position and you start cutting, some of that could spring back and throw wood right at you.”

    Stay safe

    Have someone with you who can help in case of emergency.

    Top chain saws

    Consumer Reports' chain saw Ratings of more than 40 models include heavy-duty gas models such as the Echo CS-590-20, $400; lighter-duty gas models including the Stihl MS 180 C-BE, $230; the corded-electric Worx WG303.1, $100; and the battery-powered Ego CS1401, $300.  

    3 handy tools

    Reciprocating saw

    Suitable for cutting branches and roots too close to the ground for safe chainsawing.

    Cost: $50 for the Ryobi 18-volt cordless P154, $50 for the battery and charger, and $7 for a 12-inch pruning blade.

    Loppers

    With longhandles and pincers, they’re great for snipping off small branches and twigs.

    Cost: About $30 for the Fiskars 91416966J, a typical hand-operated model.

    Bow saw

    A bow saw can handle many of the same cuts as a chain saw. At minimum, choose one with a 30-inch blade.

    Cost: About $40 for a Bahco model with a 30-inch blade and a sturdy blade guard. Extra blades cost about $10.

    This article also appeared in the October 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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    7 easy ways to make your child's lunchbox healthier

    At back-to-school time and throughout the school year, parents face the daily lunchbox challenge: how to pack food that will tempt kids' appetites and still give them quality nutrition.

    Unless you've got a confirmed salad-lover on your hands, you might find yoursel relying on the same old PB&J (if your child's school allows nut products at all) every day. But you dont have to, because our nutrition pros did a better-for-you redo of some lunchbox regulars.

    1. Instead of white bread, try whole-grain white bread

    They look and taste about the same, but whole-grain white bread—a combo of regular white flour and whole-grain flour—has more than double the fiber.

    2. Look for breads labeled "soft" or "soft and smooth." If your child won't eat whole wheat bread, try 100% whole wheat breads that are labeled “soft” or “soft and smooth.” These have a texture that's similar to white bread's, and the fiber benefits of  traditional 100% whole wheat breads. Another option: Make sandwiches with whole-grain hamburger buns. "These are lighter and less dense than some whole-wheat breads," says Consumer Reports' senior product tester Amy Keating, R.D.

    3. Instead of American cheese slices, try Swiss cheese slices

    The fat and calories may be similar, but Swiss cheese has 80 percent less sodium per slice. Don't like the taste? Try cheddar and save a third or more of the sodium per slice.

    Find out where cost-conscious American women do their grocery shopping.  And get some great snack strategies for your youngsters, too.  

    4. Instead of salami or bologna, try sliced chicken or turkey breast

    Ounce per ounce, you'll save more than half of the calories and get just a fraction of the fat. But watch the sodium in deli meats, and stick with a 2-ounce portion.

    5. Try others tasty, healthly fillings.

    For alternatives to lunch meat, chop grilled chicken breasts with a bit of shredded cabbage and make wraps, top whole-wheat wraps with cheese and beans in a skillet (they're tasty  sliced into quesadillas and eaten cold the next day); create a sandwich with hummus or egg salad.

    6. Use those leftovers.

    If you made pasta and veggies for dinner the night before, heat a portion up and pack it in a Thermos. "They will really will keep foods warm," says Keating.

    7. Instead of chocolate-chip cookies, try a granola bar with chocolate chips

    You can find bars with less fat and fewer calories than a typical chocolate-chip cookie. But to make sure you're getting the most whole grains and fiber, look for granola bars and whole oats as the first ingredient. Another option: unsweetened applesauce.  

     

    A version of this article also appeared in the August/September 2014 issue of ShopSmart magazine.  

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

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    3 Reasons to Get a New Apple TV

    After weeks of speculation, Apple has finally taken the wraps off the new Apple TV, which will come in two versions—$149 for the basic 32GB model and $199 for a 64GB model—when it becomes available next month. The big question for those looking for a new streaming media player is, was it worth the wait?

    Based on what we've seen and heard at the Apple event itself, we think the answer is an unqualified yes. Apple TV has always made sense for those who already live in Apple's world, but over the past year the platform has started to feel a bit outdated, especially in light of the regularly updated Roku players and newer contenders such as Amazon Fire TV. With its faster processor, Siri voice and gesture control, plus a new app market, that's no longer the case.

    We'll be doing a full evaluation of the new Apple TV for our streaming media player Ratings, but based on the product info and demos at the Apple media event today, here are three reasons we think the Apple TV is worth considering, despite its higher-than-average price tag. (We also have hands-on coverage of the new iPad Pro, along with iPhone 6s and 6s Plus.)

    1. Siri Voice and a New Remote

    Yes, Siri is finally coming to Apple TV. Using the microphone built into the new remote control, you access content across multiple video streaming apps, including iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and Showtime. During a demo, the presenter was able to look for movies by genre, cast, director, date, or age ratings. You can also impose additional filters on searches, such as first selecting "Bond" movies, and then limiting the results to only those starring Sean Connery. And you can ask for recommendations, such as "kids' movies." One especially cool feature shown during the demo was to rewind by a few seconds and turn on captions, simply by asking what a character on the screen just said.

    The new remote has a glass touch surface so you can swipe to navigate through the updated, more modern-looking interface, plus gesture support, which makes it friendlier for playing games. The remote has Bluetooth 4.0 wireless technology, and both an accelerometer and gyro for gesture-based controls. Apple says the remote can last three months without a charge, and it has a lightning connector for charging from another Apple device.

    2. Faster Processor and tvOS

    To go along with its new, slighly taller chassis, Apple TV is getting some improvements under the hood, namely a faster processor (the 64-bit A8, not the new A9X chip in the new iPad Pro), and a special TV-optimized version of the company's new iOS operating system, called tvOS. The player has built-in 802.11AC MIMO Wi-Fi, plus Bluetooth communication with the new remote, so you don't need line of sight between them. It also supports infrared (IR) commands. The back-panel connections are similar to the older Apple TV's with HDMI, optical audio, and wired Ethernet inputs, plus a micro USB Type-B port for service.

    3. Games and Apps

    Perhaps the biggest announcement is that Apple is opening up its app store to third-party developers for apps ranging from games, to fitness and wellness titles, to shopping. Games appear to be a big initial focus, with an emphasis on casual gamers. At the event, two games—Hipster Whales' "Crossy Road" and "Beat Sports" from Harmonix were demonstrated, and they will be available at launch. Apple already does a brisk business in casual games on its mobile devices, and adding this capability to Apple TV is a smart move, especially now that the player has increased horsepower and a more game-capable remote control.

    With the revamped Apple TV, Apple will become more competitive with both Roku, which has regularly updated its players, and Amazon Fire TV, which has some similar characteristics. We're looking forward to getting a new Apple TV as soon as it's available and putting it through the paces in our streaming media lab. Check back next month for our full evaluation.

    Consumer Reports' Glenn Derene analyzes all of Apple's September 2015 announcements: Apple TV, new iPhones, and iPad Pro with stylus and keyboard.

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

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    New iPhone 6s and 6s Plus have 3D Touch Display, Hi-Res Cameras

    The iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus announced by Apple today aren't dramatically changed from their pre-"s" versions—at least on the outside. But with upgraded displays and cameras, the new phones seem to adding capabilities introduced with limited success to Android phones in recent years. As so often happens, Apple's execution promises to be better than its competitors—though we'll want to do our own lab tests before we pass judgment.

    The new iPhones, which come in Silver, Gold, Space Gray, and Rose Gold will be avavailable in 16GB, 64GB, and 128GB storage capacities. Preorders begin on September 12. The company also introduced a revamped Apple TV, and we have hands-on impressions of the phones and the new, 12.9-inch iPad Pro.

    Key iPhone 6s and 6s Plus features

    3D Touch display. This new twist on multi-touch display takes into account how hard you press on the screen, and for how long. This lets it perform an impressive array of tasks, without backing out of an app. For example, a light touch on an email in an inbox provides a preview of the message inside—release it, and the message will recede. Firmer presses can launch apps or let you peek at attachments, without taking you out of the e-mail.

    This feature echoes the app previews you can perform on a Samsung Note smartphone by hovering its S-Pen stylus over an e-mail, video, or calendar appointment. But the iPhone's gesture interpretation seem far more convenient, and appear to let you do more. For instance, while viewing an e-mail, you can delete it, forward it to a friend, or take further actions with just a swipe of your finger.

    3D Touch screen makes multi-tasking easier, too. When you're juggling several apps at once you no longer have to back out of the application to view your choice of open apps. With the 3D Touch display, you can simply shuffle among them by swiping you finger left or right as though they were a deck of cards.

    One thing longer-term hands-on tests will determine is whether 3D Touch will prove to be over-sensitive by responding to accidental touches when the phone is in your hand.

    Mega-sharp camera. Apple bumped the already great iPhone camera up from 8 megapixels to 12, and adding, for the first time, UltraHD video recording, with better color accuracy—especially when taking shots that have both natural and artificial lighting. Cramming that many pixels into the tiny image sensor of a smartphone, Apple admits, poses some challenges regarding image noise. Apple says it's licked, or at least minimized, the problem using a technology that isolates the closely packed pixel sites on the image sensor. Our image experts will determine how successful this approach is when we get these new iPhones in our labs.

    One new s-series feature is Live Photos. (It will also appear in the iPad Pro.) In this mode, still images you take with your iPhone 6s camera will become animated and play sound for about 3 seconds, if you firmly press on the display. Apparently, this effect is achieved by the camera capturing 1.5 seconds of video before and after you snap a picture. It's turned on by default, but you can toggle it off.

    This feature reminds me of the Zoe images HTC introduced on its One series phones several years ago, and then abandoned. We look forward to seeing what impact this feature will have on shutter speed and phone storage.  

    When taking selfies with the front-facing 5-megapixel camera, the display can act as a TruTone flash. We've already seen a feature like this on many Android phones. 

    Faster processor. These models have the A9 chip, which Apple claims can process graphics 90 percent faster, and perform CPU functions 70 percent faster, than the A8 chip in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. That should mean astoundingly detailed graphics and more responsive controls for hard-core smartphone gamers. Working with 3D Touch screen, gamers can more more successfully defend themselves against alien attacks by leaping from one weapon to another—all without lifting their fingers off the screen.

    The Touch ID is also faster. Apple says it can recognize a fingerprint in half the time it takes on the iPhone 6.

    Consumer Reports' Glenn Derene analyzes all of Apple's September 2015 announcements: Apple TV, the new iPhones, and iPad Pro with a stylus and keyboard.

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

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    Hands-on: iPhone 6s, 6s Plus, and iPad Pro

    SAN FRANCISCO—The first thing you notice when you pick up the new iPhone 6s and 6s Plus is that both models are almost indistinguishable from the current iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. They are two millimeters thicker and a tiny bit heavier than their siblings, which—along with the new, stronger 7000-series aluminum alloy—implies that Apple felt the need to bulk the device up in response to the Bendgate issue from last year. Regardless, those differences are imperceptible in the hand. That’s why I predict the new Rose Gold color will sell well—it’s the only way to show strangers that you have a new device. When it comes to functionality, Apple has made just two major changes, to the cameras and the multi-touch functionality.

    The new iPad Pro is a much greater departure from what came before. The whole point of the tablet is to be a larger version of the iPad Air 2, but it still feels surprisingly big when you pick it up. The 12.9-inch screen offers a significant amount of extra surface area—in fact, it’s designed to be the size of two iPad Air screens side-by-side. That allows the iPad Pro to run and display two apps simultaneously, which is a trick that many tablets—and even some phones—have been doing for some time now.

    The company also introduced the revamped Apple TV, which should help Cupertino catch up to its streaming media competitors.

    First, the iPad Pro

    The new tablet is fast and highly responsive, and on first look the screen is impressive (though we’ll reserve final judgment until we see it in our labs). There seem to be two natural ways to use the device—either propped up on a table or resting on your arm like a clipboard, but in contrast to the smaller iPads, it feels awkward to hold it in two hands like a book.  

    Perhaps that’s why Apple felt the device needed two accessories: the Smart Keyboard and the Apple Pencil (the name got laughs during the announcement). The Keyboard serves the iPad Pro in tabletop mode. It snaps on magnetically, but only on one side, where there is a power and data connection. It’s pretty easy to type on—the keys are responsive and have a satisfying amount of travel. Still, it folds up rather awkwardly and everyone who I saw try it had some trouble setting it up.

    The Pencil seems ideal if you plan to cradle the iPad Pro in your arms. Drawing and writing longhand with the Pencil is far more precise than with a finger, but don’t expect it to translate your chicken-scratch automatically. According to an Apple representative at the event, it doesn’t perform handwriting recognition—although third-party developers could make that work. The Pencil has an internal rechargeable battery with a Lightning charger under a cap where an eraser would be in a real pencil. Apple claims you’ll get about a full day’s use per charge—and you can charge it directly from the iPad Pro. But don’t expect the Pencil to work with other iPads. This $100 accessory only works with the Pro.

    The iPad Pro presents a dilemma to the shopper. If you get the 128 gigabyte Wi-Fi-only version with the Smart Keyboard, you’re at $1,120, that’s more than $100 more than a 130-inch MacBook Air with similar storage. Add the pen and you’re in MacBook Pro territory. Seems a lot to spend on something that’s sort of like a laptop, but still not quite a laptop.

    New Phone Cameras

    When it comes the iPhones, the most noticeable hardware upgrades arrive in the cameras. The rear-facing iSight camera went from 8 megapixels in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus to 12 megapixels in the new versions, and it can now also take 4K video at 30 frames per second. The front-facing Facetime camera has been improved from 1.2 megapixels to 5 megapixels. We asked Apple if we could take a few quick photos with the devices to display here, but they wouldn’t let us offload any images from the devices—so that will have to wait until we get them in our labs a few weeks from now. Apple did show us some of the photos they had taken with the phones, and these all looked—unsurprisingly—gorgeous.

    We also tried out the Live Photo function, which automatically captures a few seconds before and after a photo to animate it. This is something HTC pioneered a few years ago with its One (M7) phone. It’s a cool effect, but it can be a bit tricky to use if you’re used to taking quick snapshots. All of Apple’s pre-made Live Photos of waterfalls and smiling children looked almost spookily alive—just like the pictures in a Harry Potter newspaper. But when we took one spontaneously at the event, it looked jerky and unplanned. If people want to use this functionality effectively, they’ll have to keep the phone steady and convince their children to hold those smiles a little longer.

    3D Touch Enables New Gestures

    Apple loves its branding, so I'm not sure why the company isn’t just sticking with the “Force Touch” name for this technology, which it uses for the Apple Watch and the MacBook. The underlying effect is essentially the same. The new 6s and 6s Plus have sensors built into the backlight that can detect force, and haptic feedback that makes if feel as if you have pressed a button when you push into the screen. If you’ve tried the new MacBook, you’ve experienced the effect—when the device is off, it feels as if you’re pushing against a solid object, but when you power it on, the screen (or in the case of the MacBook, the trackpad) seems to give a little when you press it.

    It’s kind of fun and non-intuitive at the same time. Press on app icons in the home screen, and mini shortcut menus pop up (the phone app shows you contacts from your favorite list, for instance). Tap on an email and you can preview the attachment. Or you can look at photos you’ve taken without leaving the camera app. But it’s not always clear where in iOS 9 you can use 3D Touch: Sometimes a push just gives you a shivering feedback, as if to shake you off of an interaction that’s not possible.

    And the feature can also create problems. Since there are only so many ways you can touch a touchscreen, and all of them tend to do something, 3D Touch can collide with other parts of the interface. For instance, when we rested our finger on the screen too long without pressing down, all the icons started shivering—inviting us to rearrange or delete some of them. Regardless of that quibble, though, it’s clear that Apple’s onto something here.

    Correction: A previous version of this article said that the screen of the iPad Pro was the size two iPad mini screens, side-by-side. The iPad Pro screen is actually the size of two iPad Air screens side-by-side. 

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

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    Should I buy an end-of-summer new car?

    Following annual tradition, automotive advertising spools up to a turbo-like frenzy in late summer as dealerships seek to move the current metal and make room for the new—in this case, 2015—models. Large rebates and near-zero-percent finance rates can sure tempt shoppers, but such deals might not always be a smart move.

    By definition, these discounted cars are in the last days of their model year. Buy one, and it will be considered a year old soon as the 2016 models hit the showroom. Sure, the rebates and added urgency to negotiate can mean real savings below the window sticker price, but the deal may not turn out be as great as it initially looks.

    Our car price analysts have studied the latest offers, finding that the national discounts on Consumer Reports’ recommended models—those that meet our high standard for test performance, safety, and reliability—are about on par with most months. While there can be a reason to buy a close-out model, such as personal preference for that generation or concern about reliability with a redesign, cost savings alone don’t always add up. You need to do your homework before taking the plunge. If you do, there are some real savings available.

    Scanning the whole market, TrueCar finds that August has the lowest average transaction price of the year. Historically, the fall tends to have the highest prices—when the shiny, new cars are just arriving and obligatory price hikes have been applied to carry-over models. Come February, the average price is within $400 of August. In other words, if past trends remain true, don’t succumb to outside forces promoting the latest deals. Emphasize other factors in choosing your car and the timing for the purchase. If you can align the stars and get a terrific deal, bravo. Just go into this process informed.

    Generally, the model-year-end deals make sense only if you hold on to a car for a long time or if you are a high-mileage driver looking to change vehicles every 3-5 years. For those road warriors who rack up more than typical annual miles, a close-out car would give you one more year to spread those miles out, thereby preserving some trade-in value.  

    The exceptions may be those models where there is excess local supply, enabling deep discounts, such as some full-sized trucks and a few SUVs right now. And as we’re seeing this year, there may be 2016 models with a late introduction that can complicate buying strategies, as often a shopper has a finite window to purchase a new vehicle. They key here is to understand when the next model year car will be introduced and adjust your timing and negotiation tactics accordingly.

    Discover the best end-of-summer car deals.

    Driving a bargain

    Getting a great deal starts with identifying the best car for you, and then getting it for a fair price. The Consumer Reports car model pages contain a wealth of information to empower you to make a smart choice, and they provide detailed pricing that factors all the customer rebates and the hidden direct-to-dealer incentives. Take it a step further, and our Build & Buy program can help you configure a car online and see local quotes from approved dealerships.

    When shopping, be sure not to focus on strictly the advertised deals. There may be even more room for negotiation, as the dealerships are likely to be anxious to sell and the automaker may even have hidden spiffs to pad the dealerships’ bottom line, giving the sales managers a little more flexibility.

    Review our car-buying tips before sitting down to negotiate.

    Consumer Reports Build & Buy

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

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

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  • 09/10/15--09:29: Best End-of-Summer Car Deals
  • Best End-of-Summer Car Deals

    The shifting seasons signal a change of the automotive guard, with the 2015 models being ushered out to make room for the new 2016s rolling into town. Consequently, there is a flurry of advertising with too-good-to-be-true pricing designed to clear the dealership lots. Before racing to capture the latest marketed deal, remember that the real smart buys start with choosing a good all-around car, then negotiating a great deal.

    Hence, to take full measure of the quality of new-car deals available, our analysts have studied recent nationwide transactions, then layered in current available incentives to predict the average savings available now. This is labeled as "Market average" in the charts below. Among the many discounted models, we narrowed our focus to those that meet Consumer Reports’ stringent criteria to be recommended, meaning they scored well in our testing, have average or better reliability in our latest subscriber survey, and performed well in government or insurance-industry safety tests, if evaluated.

    The predicted transaction prices for these highlighted 2015 models shows potential savings off MSRP of about $3,300 or more. (Of course, some greater deals can be found on non-recommended vehicles, including full-sized pickup trucks.) For this grouping, we ranked the models based on predicted dollar savings, with the Cadillac CTS example showing that buyers can save $5,650 off MSRP on average.  

    You'll find specific savings for each model, including other trim variations, on the Consumer Reports car model pages.

    Before buying, be sure to read "Should I Buy an End-of-Summer New Car?"

    Consumer Reports Build & Buy Car Buying Service

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

    Cadillac CTS

    The CTS is a luxury sedan with agile handling and a firm, absorbent ride that crowns it as one of the sportiest cars in the class. But as satisfying as it is to drive, the CTS can also be frustrating. Much of the blame goes to the overly complex Cue infotainment-system. The cabin is super-luxurious, with impressive material quality. But rear-seat room is snug and the trunk is relatively small. Neither the four-cylinder turbo nor the 3.6-liter V6 is as refined as the best in class. The high-end Vsport version is better, with effortless thrust. And 2015 marks the return of the CTS-V, which gets its engine from the Corvette Z06.

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Predicted transaction price
    2015 Cadillac CTS Sedan 3.6L AWD Luxury $55,965 $53,766 $49,682

    Hyundai Equus

    Hyundai's flagship competes with the largest luxury sedans but costs a good deal less. The Equus absorbs and hides all but the most severe impacts, but buoyant body motions give the car a busy feeling at times. Handling can best be described as ponderous, with notable body lean and steering that lacks any feedback. The standard V8 has smooth and refined power delivery, and the eight-speed automatic does its job with little notice. The interior is spacious and well-finished, but some controls are complex. Overall, the Equus doesn't quite measure up to the established luxury brands. Available features include adaptive cruise control and a lane-departure warning system.

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Predicted transaction price
    2015 Hyundai Equus Signature
    $62,450 $59,029 $57,620

    Chevrolet Traverse

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

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Predicted transaction price
    2015 Chevrolet Traverse 1LT AWD $36,670 $35,596 $32,490

    Volkswagen Touareg

    The Touareg has the feel of a sharp-handling, luxury SUV, with a plush interior and wide, supportive seats that deliver all-day comfort. The V6 turbodiesel, mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission, pulls effortlessly and returned 24-mpg overall in our tests. Its towing capacity is generous. The low-speed ride is overly firm, but it's steady on the highway. The cabin is quiet and access is easy, but our almost-$50,000 Touareg lacked some common luxury features, such as a sunroof. The hybrid is the top-of-the-line version. It is quick and shuts off the engine when coasting, even at highway speeds.  

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Predicted transaction price
    2015 Volkswagen Touareg TDI Sport w/ Technology
    $53,155 $50,744 $49,033

    GMC Acadia

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

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Predicted transaction price
    2015 GMC Acadia AWD SLT1 $43,745 $42,460 $39,142

    Kia Cadenza

    The Cadenza is a competent and credible competitor among large sedans. There's a lot here for the money, including a luxurious and quiet interior, a roomy backseat, responsive handling, and a comfortable ride. The 293-hp, 3.3-liter V6 engine and standard six-speed automatic combine to make a slick powertrain that delivers a competitive 22-mpg overall. Controls are refreshingly easy to use. A host of electronic safety aids are available, but some of the most useful ones are bundled into expensive options packages.  

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Predicted transaction price
    2015 Kia Cadenza Limited $44,625 $41,718 $39,356

    Volkswagen Passat

    The midsized Passat sedan has a lot going for it, including generous interior space, responsive handling, and a comfortable, quiet ride. The primary powertrain is an energetic 1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder and a six-speed automatic. High-end versions use a powerful 3.6-liter V6. The 1.8-liter turbo averaged a very good 28-mpg overall and 39 on the highway. The diesel got 36-mpg overall and delivers a lot of mid-range torque, but is hesitant off the line. Front seats are accommodating but very firm. Extra-spacious rear seats are a big plus, and the trunk is huge, but fit and finish is mundane, not spectacular.  

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Predicted transaction price
    2015 Volkswagen Passat TDI SE w/ auto $29,945 $28,901 $27,660

    Volkswagen Tiguan

    The Tiguan is a solid and agile small SUV. Pluses include high-end fit and finish, and spacious rear seating. Handling is very responsive and enjoyable, with sharp steering and strong cornering grip that contribute to the Tiguan staying secure and unflappable at its limits. With its 19-inch tires, the SEL rides stiffly. The lower S and SE trim lines, with 17-inch tires, ride more comfortably and quietly. Some trim lines lack automatic climate control. The 2.0-liter, turbo four-cylinder engine is smooth and purposeful, and yielded 21-mpg overall in our tests. Updates for 2016 include more trim lines getting a power driver's seat.  

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Predicted transaction price
    2015 Volkswagen Tiguan SEL 4Motion
    $36,430 $35,158 $32,418

    Buick Enclave

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

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Predicted transaction price
    2015 Buick Enclave Leather AWD $46,375 $45,012 $42,916

    BMW 5 Series

    No matter your tastes, the 5 Series has an engine to satisfy your appetite. In our tests, the turbo six-cylinder in the 535i delivered strong, smooth acceleration, and the eight-speed automatic shifted imperceptibly. At 23-mpg overall, fuel economy is commendable for such a quick and substantial sedan. For the frugal-minded, hybrid and diesel models are available; Autobahn-stormers can opt for the top-level M5 and its 560-hp 4.4-liter turbo V8. The ride is elegant and composed, but the car's vague steering hurts its fun-to-drive quotient. Interior fit and finish is excellent, but some controls are complex.  

    Make & model MSRP Invoice Predicted transaction price
    2015 BMW 535i
    $56,595 $53,245 $52,708

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

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    AutoNation Pledges Not to Sell Cars With Outstanding Recalls

    In a move that will bolster consumer confidence, convenience, and safety, AutoNation—America’s largest automotive retailer—has announced that it will not sell, lease, or wholesale any vehicle that has an open safety recall. This new policy impacts both new and used cars at the company’s 293 stores, and it will not limit the acceptance of trade-ins.

    In setting forth this policy, AutoNation is accepting potential added cost in dealing with recalls, including holding inventory to await parts. This bold step follows industry pressure from consumer groups, such as Consumers Union, legislators, and government agencies for retailers to better protect car shoppers from risks identified by recalls.

    "There's no way to expect that customers would or should know of every safety recall on every vehicle they might purchase, so we will ensure that our vehicles have all recalls completed," said Mike Jackson, Chairman, CEO and President of AutoNation. "We make it our responsibility as a retailer to identify those vehicles and remove them from the market until their safety issues have been addressed."

    Consumers Union, the  policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, applauds the new AutoNation effort on car recalls and urges other retailers to follow this example. 

    Used Cars

    Used-car buyers are especially vulnerable to buying a car with an outstanding recall, as the reseller might not have a new-car store and formal relationship with the car manufacturer, as is necessary to perform warranty work. Also, there is no specific federal law requiring dealers to fix recalled used cars before they are sold. Consumers Union thinks Congress should pass S. 900, the Used Car Safety Recall Repair Act, to close this gap.

    If you're ready to buy from a used-car dealer, or even a private party, ask the seller for the Vehicle Identification Number and use it to check for any open recalls via any of the following methods:

    While the thought of buying—or having just bought—a car with an outstanding recall may be worrisome or scary, remember that a recall means that a problem has been found and a solution identified. The corrective action will be made for free, even after the sale, so long as you bring the car to the local franchised dealer to have the work performed. Of course, there remains risk in driving a recalled vehicle before work is performed, and some recalls can take significant time for parts and training to be available locally.

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    The New Apple TV vs. Roku 3 and Amazon Fire TV

    Apple has now unveiled its long-awaited new Apple TV, which boasts innovative features and higher price points—$149 and $199, depending on internal storage capacity—that set it apart from competitors such as the Roku 3 and Amazon Fire TV. But there's no guarantee those enhancements will lure existing Apple TV customers to the device, much less people fond of other, less expensive streaming players.

    Here's how we think the new Apple TV will stack up against other settop boxes, including a few key bits of information Apple didn't reveal at the unveiling. (Check our roundup of the September 9 Apple announcements.) Will they impact the product's success? We'll see. Of course, we'll be buying a new Apple TV as soon as it's available, testing it thoroughly, and updating our streaming media player Ratings.

    Voice Control

    Judging by the demos, Siri is now an enticing part of the product's pitch. Apple TV seems to respond very well to natural spoken language, and there's an intuitive feel to the personal assistant's reply to requests, such as when she automatically rewound a program and activated captioning when asked what an onscreen character had said. With Siri, you can use your voice to search TV shows and movies by title, genre, cast, crew, rating or popularity, and then follow up with a second query to further filter results. However, we don't know for sure if this is confined to iTunes content, or if the feature has the same extensive reach when used with apps such as Netflix, Hulu, or HBO Now.

    Both Fire TV and Roku can respond to basic voice commands, though primarily for searches. We've noticed that Amazon Fire TV supplies are dwindling, which leads us to believe that an updated version is coming, and there are rumors that Amazon's own talking assistant, Alexa, will make its way into the device. This will make Fire TV far more competitive with the new Apple TV at responding to commands beyond simple searches and volume adjustments.

    Roku 3's voice commands are nowhere near as sophisticated as Siri or Alexa.

    Remote Control

    We think we're really going to like the new Apple TV remote, which has a glass touch screen that lets you swipe to navigate, as well as a built-in gyroscope and accelerometer for Nintendo Wii-like gesture capability. You can even use an iPhone or iPod touch as a game controller. It's also likely that the new Apple TV will support third-party MFi (made for iOS) controllers.

    The integrated volume control, which lets you use the CES technology built into most new TVs to adjust the sound, is another attractive feature. The device also has IR for use with older sets. We should note that we also like the updated Apple TV interface, which uses 3D-style app tiles. It appears you can reorder those apps on the screen to suit your preferences.

    Amazon Fire TV comes with a more basic Bluetooth remote, and if you really want to play games, you have to shell out an additional $40 for the optional game remote.

    The Roku 3 comes with a Wi-Fi-enabled remote that has motion sensors that let you play games using gestures. It also has a headphone jack that lets you listen to shows or movies without disturbing the person next to you.

    We're not sure if a revamped Fire TV will carry the same $100 price as the current model, but right now the optional game brings Fire TV's price closer to the new Apple.

    Games

    During its media event, Apple said it had created an app store and a software kit to entice third-party developers into inventing apps for the new TV platform. Although the company mentioned health and wellness and showed a shopping app from Gilt, the emphasis—at least initially—seems to be on casual games, with demos from Hipster Whales' "Crossy Road" and Harmonix's "Beat Sports." It's  too early to know what kind of support Apple will get from game companies, but we imagine it will be fairly easy to port iOS mobile games to the product's new iOS-based tvOS operating system and Apple's app store is certainly loaded with options. The big question in our minds is whether people will want to play those same games on a large TV screen while sitting in the living room. One intriguing possibility is cross-platform social gaming, where players on iPads and iPhones compete against players using an Apple TV.

    But Roku and Amazon both made a big deal about games when launching their respective systems, and so far neither has been an unqualified success. I doubt many people can name one game on the Roku 3 other than "Angry Birds." Amazon has done a better job in that arena—it claims there are 700 games in its library, which includes a separate area for kids—but I don't believe many people are buying the player for that reason.

    Streaming Video and Music

    This is an area where Apple has long trailed its competitors. Roku has an unmatched assortment of content, and Amazon offers almost all the major services, though it has an annoying tendency to favor its own Amazon Prime. While Apple has consistently added content, there was no mention from company executives of Amazon Prime or Instant movies, M-Go, or Vudu, and—as far as we know—the product doesn't support Sling TV. It's no surprise that the new Apple TV has iTunes and Apple Music, but it lacks the more popular Pandora and Spotify. Perhaps its new openness to third-party developers will eventually help the company even the score, but right now Apple still trails its competitors in this important area.

    Future Enhancements

    We think the new Apple TV is a major, if not revolutionary, leap forward from the earlier-generation settop box. But there are a few  developments that could really separate it from its competitors in the future. The first is the launch of the Apple TV streaming service, which has apparently been bumped to 2016. According to several reports, Apple is looking to offer a "skinny" TV package featuring about 25 channels—local broadcasts and cable networks—for about $30 to $40 a month.

    Another intriguing possibility? Morphing the Siri-armed TV platform  into a home automation hub that would let users control Apple HomeKit-enabled devices such as lights, locks, and thermostats via their sets. We also expect Apple TV to work with iOS-enabled devices such as health and fitness monitors and the Apple Watch.

    Of course, we'll have a much better understanding of how well the new Apple TV works once we can buy it and get it into our streaming media labs for thorough testing. Check back with us in October for a first look.

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

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    5 Must-Have Cooking Appliance Features

    Features that save time, make cooking and clean-up easier, or add style often start on higher-end appliances, and over time, may wind up on mid-priced models. Here's a look at five features that grabbed our attention in the test labs of Consumer Reports.

    Front Controls

    Freestanding ranges are the most popular type, have finished sides, are easy to install, and typically cost less than slide-ins and drop-ins. And they've finally gotten a make-over. The controls have been moved up front, eliminating the back panel. The look is sleek and stylish and similar to slide-in ranges.

    Ranges with this features. Among the recently tested front-control freestanding ranges, none made our top picks. The best was the $2,200 electric smoothtop Kenmore 41313, although its oven is small. The $1,600 Whirlpool WEE760H0DS has a large oven and was superb at broiling. Simmering and fast range-top heat were excellent too. Baking, however, was just good and self-cleaning was poor. And here’s an odd mix of old and new: The Whirlpool WEC530H0DS, $1,100, is an electric coil-top range with front controls. It scored 51 out of 100. The gas ranges were unimpressive. The $1,700 Whirlpool WEG760H0DS earned an overall score of 48; the Kenmore 32363 is at the bottom of our range Ratings, with a score of 28, and it’s $2,300.  

    Virtual Flames

    One of the reasons people like cooking with gas is the visual cue of the flame, and fans of electric ranges depend on the glow of the electric coils. But with induction range-tops and cooktops the electromagnetic field doesn’t create that glow. That’s why Samsung has added virtual flames—LEDs that shine light onto pots and pans to remind you that the elements are in use.

    Range with this feature. You’ll see virtual flames on the high-end Samsung Chef Collection ranges, including the Samsung NE58H9970WS. This slide-in induction range scored excellent overall and is $3,600.

    Cooking Sensors

    The idea is to put an end to runny eggs, burnt food, and worse, burnt food that’s raw in the middle. Bosch claims its AutoChef sensor measures the temperature of the bottom of a special aluminum pan and then provides the right amount of energy to the element, delivering precise results.

    Cooktop with this feature. We tested the Bosch NETP066SUC electric smoothtop cooktop. It made our top picks and is $1,200. AutoChef, with its nine cooking programs and four temperature settings, took the guesswork out of cooking small steaks and we didn't have to adjust settings when cooking three omelets consecutively. Pancakes and bone-in fried chicken turned out okay, but not ideal. Our testers look forward to seeing where Bosch will take this feature.

    Hinged Cast Iron Grates

    Cooking can be fun, but clean-up? Whirlpool’s EZ-2-Lift cast iron grates are hinged at the back of the gas cooktops, making it easy to lift the entire grate and wipe clean.

    Cooktop with this feature. The $900 Whirlpool WCG97US0DS gas cooktop has this feature. It’s top rated among 30-inch gas cooktops and the least expensive of our recommended models.

    French Doors

    Ovens with two side-by-side doors, known as French doors, are often used in restaurant kitchens, and GE has added them to wall ovens. The doors open to the side, rather than down, and pulling one handle opens both doors at the same time.

    Wall oven with this feature. The stylish GE Café CT9070SHSS 30-inch electric wall oven has French doors and you can control the oven from your smart phone. Impressive at baking and broiling, it’s all yours, for $3,900.

    Full Ratings and Recommendations

    Then take a look at our range Ratings and cooktop and wall oven Ratings. Use the filter to narrow choices by brand and type, and click the features and specs tab to learn more. Any questions? E-mail me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

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

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    GreatCall and Other Mobile Medical Alerts Promise Help When You're Out or at Home

    Traditional medical alert systems can get help when you have an accident at home. But now you can also buy mobile devices, including GreatCall Splash and Mobile Help Solo, that promise to connect you with a rescue team for medical emergencies that happen when you’re out and about.

    They do that in two ways. First, mobile medical alerts link you to an emergency call center with the push of a button. Second, if you’re unable to talk or you’re lost, the devices use GPS (Global Positioning System) to find you.

    That sounds reassuring. But given the fact that most falls and medical emergencies occur in the home, according to the National Safety Council, mobile medical alert systems have a notable drawback: They might not work as well as a traditional system indoors, where cellular connections tend to be weaker. Also, the GPS feature might not function well indoors.

    So if you don’t have good wireless coverage in your home, a mobile medical alert system, such as Bay Alarm Mobile GPS, GreatCall Splash, and LifeStation Mobile GPS, might not be right for you.

    In addition, the devices need to be recharged often, and they usually cost more than home-based systems. And last, a cell phone with an emergency call feature provides one of the same benefits of a mobile medical alert.

    Still, the one-button simplicity and GPS can be appealing, especially if you’re at higher risk for falls or have a chronic health condition—and spend time away from home alone. Mobile alerts “can give a sense of security,” says Alfred Sacchetti, M.D., a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians.

     

    Important Features

    The experts we consulted recommend looking for a mobile medical alert system that has all or most of these features:

    • A cellular phone network that works well in your area. (Find out how Consumer Reports rated cell-phone carriers by city.)
    • A 3G or 4G network.
    • Easy-to-use buttons.
    • A neck pendant or belt clip to hold it.
    • Its own U.S. monitoring center, with trained emergency operators (rather than an outside contractor).
    • A monitoring center certified by Underwriters Laboratories (UL).

    The Lowdown on 5 Leading Systems

    The mobile medical alert systems below are handheld, weigh about 2 ounces each, and offer neck pendants or belt holders, which may cost extra. These GPS-enabled devices have 3G service and two-way speaker-phone communication around the clock. In all cases, an operator will call someone in your contact group and get emergency help if needed. Tip: When you call to order a system, have a printout of prices and terms from websites handy. Prices for these systems fluctuate, and that information will help you haggle, especially if you're dealing with an aggressive salesperson.

    Bay Alarm Mobile GPS

    Monthly service cost: $40
    Device and activation fee:
    $80 plus shipping
    Minimum obligation:
    None
    Cancellation policy:
    Full refund if returned within first 14 days
    Network provider:
    T-Mobile
    Water-resistant:
    No
    Fall detection:
    No
    Battery life:
    Up to 3 days
    Monitoring center:
    Outside contractor
    UL-listed center:
    Yes
    Contact information:
    bayalarmmedical.com; 877-522-9633

    GreatCall Splash

    Monthly service cost: $20; $35 with fall detection
    Device and activation fee:
    $85 plus shipping
    Minimum obligation:
    30 days
    Cancellation policy:
    Service, device, and activation fees are refundable within first 30 days
    Network provider:
    Verizon
    Water-resistant:
    Yes
    Fall detection:
    Yes
    Battery life:
    Up to 4 days
    Monitoring center:
    In-house
    UL-listed center:
    No
    Contact information: greatcall.com; 800-650-5921

    LifeStation Mobile GPS

    Monthly service cost: $30
    Device and activation fee:
    $50
    Minimum obligation:
    None
    Cancellation policy:
    Full refund if returned within first 14 days
    Network provider:
    T-Mobile
    Water-resistant:
    Yes
    Fall detection:
    No
    Battery life:
    Up to 36 hours
    Monitoring center:
    In-house
    UL-listed center:
    Yes
    Contact information:
    lifestation.com; 855-701-0968

    Medical Guardian Premium

    Monthly service cost: $50
    Device and activation fee:
    None
    Minimum obligation:
    3 months
    Cancellation policy:
    $50 restocking fee if returned within first 10 days
    Network provider: AT&T
    Water-resistant:
    Yes
    Fall detection:
    Yes
    Battery life:
    Up to 36 hours
    Monitoring center:
    Outside contractor
    UL-listed center:
    Yes
    Contact information:
    medicalguardian.com; 800-724-5845

    Mobile Help Solo

    Monthly service cost: $38
    Device and activation fee:
    None
    Minimum obligation:
    None
    Cancellation policy:
    Cancel anytime and pay only for time used
    Network provider:
    AT&T
    Water-resistant:
    Neck pendant only
    Fall detection:
    Available separately
    Battery life:
    Up to 30 hours
    Monitoring center:
    Outside contractor
    UL-listed center:
    Yes
    Contact information: mobilehelp.com; 800-992-0616

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

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