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    How to Prep Your Motorcycle for Winter Storage

    Cooler weather means another riding season is drawing to a close in northern regions, for all but the most hardcore motorcycle riders. And unless you count yourself as part of that hearty group, now is the time to think about proper winter storage for your bike.

    Whether you’re hanging up your riding gear for just a few weeks or several months, taking care of some basic needs will make getting your motorcycle or scooter going again in the spring that much easier, and it will help ensure trouble-free riding for years. (See the results of our latest motorcycle reliability and owner satisfaction survey.)

    Shelter: Figure out where your bike is going to take the big sleep. Inside heated storage is best, either in your own garage, or at a commercial storage facility. Your local dealership may offer this service. If that’s not an option, the next best place is an unheated garage or shed. If you don’t have access to indoor storage, make sure you at least park the bike on a sheet of plywood and cover it up.  

    Clean up and service: Give the motorcycle a good wash and wax job, and perform any needed maintenance as outlined in your owner’s manual. Lube the chain and cables, and check your tires for wear and inflate them to the proper pressure. If your tires need replacing, now is the time to do it, so you don’t lose riding time in the spring.

    Change the oil: Even if your bike won’t be sitting for long, change the oil. Dirty oil contains contaminates that can increase corrosion, leading to premature engine wear. Start by firing up the engine and let it run for several minutes to get everything up to operating temperature. Then, drain the old oil, and refill the engine with whatever viscosity is recommended by your owners manual. There’s no need for any special “winter” blend or oil additive.

    Add fuel stabilizer: Measure fuel stabilizer into your gas tank according to the instructions on the bottle, and then start the engine. Let it run long enough so the stabilizer can work its way through the fuel system and get into small parts and passageways. You’ll find stabilizer at an auto parts store or big box retailer. It can be more convenient to mix stabilizer and fuel in a separate 5-gallon gas can, as it simplifies the math for the additive.

    Get proper coverage: Plastic tarps trap moisture, risking corrosion on chrome and painted surfaces where you can see it and inside mechanical parts where you can’t. The best bet is to invest in a good breathable cover designed for your motorcycle. Check with your dealer or look for one from an aftermarket supplier online.     

    Mind your battery: Your battery will last a lot longer if it’s kept charged, but you don’t want to overdo it, either. Overcharging will not only kill a battery, it can boil the fluid inside—that can cause it to overheat and can even lead to an explosion. The best bet is to invest in a battery minder and charger that will cycle on and off as needed to maintain a proper charge. You can find them online starting at about $50.   

    Following these few basic tips can help keep your motorcycle in good condition and ensure it is ready to ride when spring arrives.

    Learn more about motorcycles, riding, and safety.

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

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    Are Studded Snow Tires a Necessity?

    Being based in Finland, it's no wonder that Nokian Tyre has an aptitude for winter tires. Its product line has numerous snow-ready models, and the latest examples have gained traction in our tests.

    One of Nokian Tyre's newest products is the Hakkapeliitta 8 studded snow tires. Like its predecessor, the Hakkapeliitta 7, the Hakkapeliitta 8 comes studded right from the factory.

    Although Hakkapeliitta claims these so-called "Eco Stud” tires damage road surfaces less than traditional studs, we evaluated the Hakkapeliitta 8 only for ride and winter traction to avoid wear and tear of our test track. Testing included dry and wet braking, handling, hydroplaning resistance, winter traction, ride comfort and noise, and rolling resistance.  

    What We Found

    The Hakkapeliitta R2 proved to be a top-scoring snow tire with excellent snow traction and grip on ice. Plus, it rides comfortably and quietly. The R2 is a great choice where severe wintry conditions are common.

    For areas where wintery conditions are moderate and roads are cleared soon after a storm, the Nokian WR G3 is worth considering. Nokian calls it an all-weather tire, and the tire does offer well-rounded performance. Our tests showed the WR G3 has very good snow traction; good stopping grip on dry, wet, and icy road surfaces; and secure handling. Plus, we projects the tire’s tread life to be comparable to its 55,000 mile warranty, making the WR G3 a good choice for year-round use. (Find out the truth about tire treadwear, and learn how to buy long-lasting tires.)

    So where does the Hakkapeliitta 8 Eco Stud fit in? It’s a hardcore winter tire that has excellent snow traction and stopping grip on ice. The Hakkapeliitta 8 might be useful for clawing hard-packed snow and ice, but at least based on our test conditions, we did not experience a notable advantage over the impressive Hakkapeliitta R2.

    It’s possible the Hakkapeliitta 8 studded snow tires would have an edge in certain wintry conditions. And ride comfort is a strong suit. But chose the studless Nokian models if a quiet ride is a high priority—the ticking stud noise is noticeable in the Hakkapeliitta 8.

    For complete all-weather test results for these Nokian tires, along with their competitors, check our winter/snow tire buying guide and Ratings.  

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

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    Driving Them Crazy: Americans' Top Customer Service Complaints

    Like many Americans, Judy Sharum had a customer service meltdown last year. Fed up with overpaying for a landline phone and Internet service from AT&T, Sharum signed up for the company’s U-Verse triple-play package. It seemed like a great deal. The package also included cable TV and the price was better.

    But just after a crew installed the equipment and left her Rockford, Michigan, home, she discovered that none of the services worked. The reason? U-Verse was not yet available in Sharum’s neighborhood.

    For two weeks, the 64-year-old retired accountant implored representatives to “flip the switch” and restore her previous services. “I went on the warpath,” she said, taking to the company’s Facebook page and “letting AT&T have it in all caps.” Eventually, she coaxed a representative to call in a favor from a technician to do the deed. But with all that bad history, Sharum soon cut ties with AT&T.

    That wasn’t the end of the story, however. Sharum’s ordeal and Facebook rant caught the eye of AT&T’s assistant to the president, who phoned her to right the wrong.

    “Too late,” Sharum groused, who received an apology and a refund check for a month’s service for her trouble.

    Sharum’s odyssey isn’t unique. Nearly 90 percent of Americans have dealt with customer service for one reason or another during the past year, according to a recent survey by Consumer Reports National Research Center, and the experience is often frustrating. Half of those surveyed reported leaving a store within the past year without making their intended purchase because of poor service; 57 percent were so steamed that they hung up the phone while talking to a customer service representative without a resolution. Women were more annoyed than men, as were those under age 45.
     

    Customer Service Complaints
     

    Issue

    Percentage of Respondents

    Can’t get a human on the phone

    75

    Salesperson is rude or condescending

    75*

    Disconnected

    74

    Disconnected and unable to reach same rep

    71

    Transferred to representative who can’t help or is wrong

    70

    Company doesn’t provide—or hides—customer service phone number

    68

    Long wait on hold

    66

    Many phone steps needed

    66

    Repeatedly asked for same information

    66

    Proposed solution was useless

    65

    Salesperson ignored me

    64

    Unsure whether on hold or disconnected

    62

    Can’t speak with a supervisor

    62

    Phone menu doesn’t offer needed option

    61

    Voice-recognition system works poorly

    61

    Sales pitch for unrelated goods or services

    60

    Salesperson is too pushy

    60

    *For in-store experiences, rudeness was highly annoying to 71 percent of respondents.
     

    How to Get Results

    Consumers have more tools than ever to cut through customer-service clutter. Technology has given people a powerful voice, allowing their customer service complaints to be heard. Internet forums can turn one person's headache into a corporate nightmare. Companies actively patrol social-networking venues such as Facebook and YouTube to monitor what's being said about them—and often respond to customer service complaints before they go viral. Twitter has become the go-to brand for support. There's even an app called GripeO that will take your complaint right to a company's doorstep. Other tips:

    • More businesses offer live chats on their websites with agents. It's faster and more efficient than e-mail because you can have real-time dialogue and have a transcript of the conversation before signing off.
    • User communities within a firm's site will get you noticed. You can post questions, comments, and air grievances about products and services. Often, a representative will join the discussion to put out a fire before word gets out. Studies have shown that bad news travels fast; those who have a negative experience are much more likely to express their unhappiness than those who have a good one. Also, be sure to publicly praise a company if they resolve your problem. It's only fair.
    • Sidestep automated phone menus. Check out websites such as DialAHuman and GetHuman, which list hard-to-find customer service numbers and advise how to bypass automated prompts to get a live person. You can also try pressing "0" repeatedly to reach an operator. Another trick: Press the prompt to place an order; companies are often more gracious to potential customers than existing ones.
    • Drop the “E” bomb. If you make it through to a live person and still feel you are getting the runaround, tell the agent you want to “escalate” the status of your complaint. That’s a surefire attention grabber because agents can be criticized for bumping too many calls “upstairs.”
    • Climb the corporate ladder. Companies discourage direct dialog by forcing customers to submit comments and complaints to a generic inbox via a “contact us” web page. Responses can take days, if ever. If your comments are ignored, go to the bottom of the website’s home page and sniff around for hyperlinks to “corporate” contacts, “investor relations,” “company information,” and so forth. That’s where you can typically find names and contact information for top management.

    —Tod Marks

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

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    The best matching washers and dryers

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

    Now about the prices. The top-rated pairs are expensive. Blame it on rising manufacturing costs, larger capacities, stainless drums, and added cycles and features. Our tests have found that basic cycles can handle most laundry needs. So ask yourself if you want to pay extra for a bedding cycle or one for your jeans. 

    The washer and dryer Buying Guides highlight the advantages of each washer type and features. Use the Ratings selector to narrow choices and the Features & Specs tab to compare features. Our Brand Reliability offers helpful information and so do user reviews. If you have questions email me at kjaneway@consumer.org. 

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

    The Quietest Couples

    Consider machines that scored very good or better in our noise tests if placing near bedrooms. You'll know they're working but they shouldn't disturb you. Note that wash times are based on the normal wash cycle heavy-soil setting. You'll save about 15 minutes using the normal-soil setting.

    Many washers and dryers have a steam setting. We found it slightly improved a washer's stain removal. Steam removed more odors than dryers without steam, but left clothes wrinkled. The dryers highlighted here have moisture sensors, the most important feature. It turns off the machine when laundry is dry—that saves energy and is easier on fabrics. For more details see our Ratings of washing machines and dryers

    Kenmore set

    Kenmore Elite 41072 front-loader and Kenmore Elite 81072 electric dryer
    Price: $1,000 each
    Here's the deal: The washer is near the top of our Ratings and made our top picks. It has 14 cycles, offers excellent washing, was gentle on fabrics, and has a jumbo capacity—it fit about 25 pounds of our laundry. Claimed capacity is 5.2 cubic feet. The dryer excelled at its job and also has a jumbo capacity. Claimed capacity is 9 cubic feet. 
    Consider this: Wash time is 95 minutes. The Accela-Wash option offers comparable performance and saves 15 to 20 minutes. 
    Need to know: Each machine is 29 inches wide—2 more than usual—but can be stacked. Gas dryer is Kenmore Elite 91072, $1,100. 

    LG duos

    LG WM8500HVA front-loader and LG DLEX8500V electric dryer 
    Price: $1,450 each
    Here's the deal: The washer is near the top of our Ratings and both machines make the recommended list. They have jumbo capacities, each holding about 26 pounds of our laundry. Claimed capacity is 5.2 cubic feet for the washer, 9 for the dryer. The washer was superb at cleaning and gentle on fabrics and has 14 cycles; the dryer aced its job. 
    Consider this: It took 90 minutes to do a normal wash on the heavy soil setting, but the TurboWash option offers comparable wash performance in 15 to 20 minutes less time.
    Need to know: Each machine is 29 inches wide, two more than usual, but can be stacked. Only available in a graphite-steel finish. Gas dryer is LG DLGX8501V, $1,550. 

    LG WM4270HWA front-loader and LG DLEX4270W electric dryer
    Price: $830 each 
    Here's the deal: Neither made our top picks but both were impressive at their task and relatively quiet. Claimed capacity is 4.5 cubic feet for the washer, and 7.4 for the dryer. The washer fit 22 pounds of our laundry, was gentle on fabrics, and has 14 cycles. 
    Consider this: Normal wash time on heavy-soil setting is 75 minutes. The TurboWash option offers comparable cleaning and saves 15 to 20 minutes.
    Need to know:  Machines can be stacked. Each is 27 inches wide. Gas dryer is the LG DLGX4271W, $930. 

    Maytag mates

    Maytag Maxima MHW8100DC front-loader and Maytag Maxima MED8100DC
    Price:
    $1,400 each
    Here's the deal: This recommended front-loader offers excellent washing and held 22 pounds of our laundry. Claimed capacity is 4.5 cubic feet. It was gentle on fabrics and there are 11 wash cycles. The dryer was superb at its task and among the quietest tested. Claimed capacity is 7.3 cubic feet. Both machines are made in America.
    Consider this: The washer took 75 minutes using the normal cycle on heavy-soil setting.
    Need to know: Gas dryer is Maytag Maxima MGD8100DC, $1,500. Appliances can be stacked. Each is 27 inches wide. 

    Maytag Bravos MVWB855DW HE top-loader and Maytag Bravos MEDB855DW electric dryer
    Price: $1,050 each 
    Here's the deal: The washer made our top picks, delivers impressive cleaning, and was among the most water efficient of the HE top-loaders. It fit about 26 pounds of our laundry. Claimed capacity is 5.3 cubic feet. There are 11 wash cycles. The dryer was impressive at its job and claimed capacity is 8.8 cubic feet. These machines are made in America. 
    Consider this: Normal wash time was 80 minutes using heavy-soil setting. This washer wasn't so gentle on fabrics, but that's true for most top-loaders. 
    Need to know: Washer is 27 inches wide; dryer, 29. Gas dryer is the Maytag Bravos MGDB855DW, $1,150. 

    Samsung sets

    Samsung WF56H9110CW front-loader and Samsung DV56H9100EW electric dryer
    Price: $1,450 washer, $1,300 dryer
    Here's the deal: These recommended models are top rated, excellent at their job, relatively quiet, and have jumbo capacities. The washer held 28 pounds of our laundry and was among the gentlest on fabrics. Claimed capacity is 5.6 cubic feet for the washer and 9.5 for the dryer. There are 15 wash cycles.
    Consider this: Normal wash on heavy-soil setting is 90 minutes. The SuperSpeed option saved about 15 to 20 minutes without affecting cleaning.
    Need to know: Each machine is 30 inches wide and can be stacked. The matching electric dryer is shown in the ratings as ending in "EG" to indicate the tested model has an onyx finish; "EW" is white and listed here as it matches the tested washer. Gas dryer is shown in ratings as the Samsung DV56H9100GG, $1,400. 

    Samsung WF56H9100AG front-loader and Samsung DV56H9100EG electric dryer
    Price: $1,200 each
    Here's the deal: Both made our top picks. The washer has one of the largest capacities tested and fit about 28 pounds of our laundry. Claimed capacity is 5.6 cubic feet. It offers impressive cleaning and was gentle on fabrics. There are 15 wash cycles.The top-rated dryer was superb at drying and has a jumbo capacity. Claimed capacity is 9.5 cubic feet. 
    Consider this: Normal wash time on heavy soil setting was 85 minutes, but the SuperSpeed option cut wash time of full loads by about 15 to 20 minutes without sacrificing performance.
    Need to know: Each machine is 30 inches wide and can be stacked. Gas dryer is Samsung DV56H9100GG, $1,400.

    Samsung WA56H9000AP HE top-loader and Samsung DV56H9000EP electric dryer
    Price: $1,100 each
    Here's the deal: Both are top picks. This washer has a jumbo capacity and can hold about 28 pounds of laundry. Claimed capacity is 5.6 cubic feet. Washing was impressive and there are 15 cycles. Normal wash time on heavy soil setting was 75 minutes. The dryer aced its job and has a jumbo capacity. Claimed capacity is 9.5 cubic feet. 
    Consider this: As with most top-loaders this washer wasn't so gentle on fabrics.
    Need to know: Each machine is 30 inches wide. The waterproof cycle prevented the washer from becoming unbalanced when we washed several waterproof jackets. Gas dryer is Samsung DV56H9000GP, $1,200. 

    Samsung WA52J8700AP HE top-loader and Samsung DV52J8700EP electric dryer
    Price: $1,000 each
    Here's the deal: The washer was impressive at cleaning and made our top picks. The jumbo capacity fit 26 pounds of our laundry. Claimed capacity is 5.2 cubic feet. The dryer was excellent at its job; claimed capacity is 7.4 cubic feet. Both machines are relatively quiet. 
    Consider this: Wash time was 75 minutes using the normal wash heavy-soil setting. The SuperSpeed cuts wash time by 15 to 20 minutes and cleaning is still impressive. However, the washer wasn't so gentle on fabrics although that's true for most top-loaders. This washer has Activewash, a water jet and built-in sink with ridges that enable you to hand wash and soak stained items before they go into the machine.
    Need to know: Each machine is 27 inches, the standard width, yet capacity is very large. When shopping reach into washer to see if you can touch the bottom of the tub. The dryer is Energy Star qualified and using the eco-mode can save you some energy but extends dryer time. 

    Whirlpool pairs

    Whirlpool Duet WFL98HEBU front-loader and Whirlpool Duet WEL98HEBU electric dryer
    Price: $1,500 each
    Here's the deal: Both have a large capacity. Claimed capacity is 4.3 cubic feet for the washer and 7.4 for the dryer. The washer offers excellent cleaning and was gentle on fabrics. There are 13 wash cycles. Normal wash time, on heavy soil setting, is 75 minutes. That's faster than most.The dryer was superb at drying and among the quietest tested.
    Consider this: These machines are Wi-Fi enabled, providing remote control via your smart device that lets you monitor your laundry's progress, start/stop the machine, and more.
    Need to know: Made in the U.S.A. Machines have a silver finish and can be stacked. Each is 27 inches wide. Dryer is not available as a gas model.

    Whirlpool Cabrio WTW8500DW HE top-loader and Whirlpool Cabrio WED8500DW electric dryer
    Price: $1,000 each
    Here's the deal: The washer was impressive and made our top picks.The dryer excelled at drying. Both are relatively quiet. This washer fit 26 pounds of our laundry and was one of the gentlest on fabrics. There are 26 wash cycles. That's right, 26. Claimed capacity is 5.3 cubic feet for the washer and 8.8 for the dryer. 
    Consider this: Normal wash time on heavy-soil setting was 80 minutes. 
    Need to know: Washer is 28 inches wide; dryer, 29. They're made in the U.S.A. Gas dryer is the Whirlpool Cabrio WGD8500DW, $1,100. 

    CR Tip

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

    Impressive Pairs for $1,700 or Less

    All were impressive at cleaning or drying though most did not make our top picks. The dryers have moisture sensors, a must. Keep in mind that most improvements in performance and efficiency are on washers. If you're set on a matching duo pick your washer and then the dryer. For more details see our Ratings of washing machines and clothes dryers.

    Kenmore couples

    Kenmore 28132 HE top-loader and Kenmore 68132 electric dryer
    Price: $800 each
    Here's the deal: The washer is the least expensive and fastest of the top picks. It took 60 minutes using normal wash on a heavy-soil setting. There are eight wash cycles. Cleaning was impressive and the washer fit about 26 pounds of our laundry. Claimed capacity is 5.3 cubic feet. This machine is relatively quiet, as is the dryer. The tested dryer was superb at drying. The dryer highlighted here is a similar model and we expect performance to be similar to tested dryer. Claimed capacity is 8.8 cubic feet.
    Consider this: The washer wasn't so gentle on fabrics although that's true for most HE top-loaders we've tested. The dryer is Energy Star-qualified and you will save some energy but extend drying time using the eco-mode.
    Need to know: Washer is 27 inches wide, standard width, and yet capacity is jumbo. When shopping reach into the bottom of the washer to see if you can grab that last sock. Dryer is 29 inches wide. 

    Kenmore 27132 HE top-loader and Kenmore 67132 electric dryer
    Price: $700 washer, $700 dryer
    Here's the deal: Neither made our top picks but the washer came close. It performed similarly to the Kenmore above and also has eight wash cycles and a wash time of 60 minutes (normal wash, heavy-soil setting). But capacity is slightly smaller. Claimed capacity is 4.8 cubic feet. We fit about 23 pounds of laundry. The dryer was impressive at drying. Claimed capacity is 7 cubic feet. Both machines are relatively quiet. 
    Consider this: Like most top-loaders this one wasn't gentle on fabrics.
    Need to know: Washer is 27 inches wide, dryer is 29. Gas dryer is the Kenmore 77132, $800.  

    LG duos

    LG WM3570HVA front-loader and LG DLEX3570HVA electric dryer
    Price: $800 each 
    Here's the deal: They didn't make our top picks but the washer was excellent at cleaning, gentle on fabrics, and fit about 21 pounds of our laundry. Claimed capacity is 4.3 cubic feet. There are 12 wash cycles. The dryer aced its job; claimed capacity is 7.4 cubic feet. Both machines were relatively quiet. 
    Consider this: Wash time on normal wash heavy-soil setting was 95 minutes. The TurboWash option cut wash time of full loads by 15 to 20 minutes and offers comparable wash performance.
    Need to know: Each machine is 27 inches wide and stackable. They have a graphite finish. In the ratings the dryer model name ends with a "W" to indicate that the tested model was white. It costs about $100 less than the graphite finish. Gas dryer is LG DLGX3571W in white or LG DLGX3571HVA in graphite. 

    LG WM4270HWA front-loader and LG DLEX4270W electric dryer
    Price: $830 each 
    Here's the deal: Not on our top-pick lists but worth considering since LG front-loaders are among the more reliable brands and LG dryers are significantly more reliable than other brands, according to our survey of more than 100,000 subscribers. The washer was impressive at cleaning and has 14 cycles. The dryer was impressive at drying. Claimed capacity is 4.5 cubic feet for the washer, 7.4 for the dryer. Both have large capacities and are relatively quiet. 
    Consider this: Normal wash time using the heavy-soil setting was 75 minutes. The TurboWash option cuts 15 to 20 minutes off wash time and cleaning was just as good in our tests.
    Need to know: Stackable. Each machine is 27 inches wide. Gas dryer is the LG DLGX4271W, $930. 

    Samsung set

    Samsung WA45H7000AW HE top-loader and Samsung DV45H7000EW electric dryer
    Price: $500 each
    Here's the deal: Not top picks but worth a look. The washer has nine wash cycles, was impressive at cleaning, gentle on fabrics, unlike most HE top-loaders, and fit about 22 pounds of our laundry. Claimed capacity is 4.5 cubic feet. There's a cycle for waterproof items. The tested dryer aced its job. Both machines are relatively quiet. The dryer highlighted here is a similar model and we expect it to perform the same as the tested model. Claimed capacity is 7.4 cubic feet.
    Consider this: Wash time is 80 minutes using normal wash on heavy-soil setting.  
    Need to know: 
    Each machine is 27 inches wide. Gas dryer is the Samsung DV45H7000GW.

    How We Test Washers and Dryers

    In addition to washing performance Consumer Reports' washing machine tests look at how gentle a washing machine is on fabric as well as its energy and water efficiency. We look at noise and vibration, and note cycle times using the normal wash, heavy-soil setting. As for our capacity scores, models scoring excellent fit 25 or more pounds of laundry; a very good capacity score means the washer fit 20 to 24 pounds, and good, about 15 to 19 pounds. 

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

    —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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    EPA Discovers Volkswagen Also Cheated With V6 Diesel Engines

    The Environmental Protection Agency’s investigation into Volkswagen’s use of a “defeat device” to pass emissions tests with its four-cylinder diesel engine has determined that VW used a similar strategy with certain Audi, Porsche, and Volkswagen sedans and SUVs.

    The EPA found that several models using VW’s 3.0-liter V6 diesel engine, totaling approximately 10,000 vehicles, have software (the defeat device) that causes the vehicles to perform differently during testing than in normal, real-world operation. This is in addition to the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines in nearly 500,000 models in the U.S. that were declared as having cheated the emissions tests. (Read "Consumer Reports Tests VW Diesel Fuel Economy, Performance in 'Cheat' Mode.")

    “VW has once again failed its obligation to comply with the law that protects clean air for all Americans,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for the Office for EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

    According to the EPA, “These defeat devices bypass, defeat, or render inoperative elements of the vehicles’ emission control system that exist to comply with the Clean Air Act emission standards.” 

    Vehicles Involved With the 3.0-liter V6 Diesel Engine

    When the software detects that an emissions test is underway, the vehicle makes a number of adjustments to reduce NOx output, including fine-tuning injection timing, exhaust gas recirculate rate, and common rail fuel pressure.

    The EPA explains, “In 'normal mode,' tailpipe emissions of NOx from these vehicles are up to 9 times the applicable NOx standard levels, depending on the model type and type of drive cycle (e.g., city, highway).”

    The EPA has notified the automotive brands of the noncompliance, and it states that the investigation is ongoing. The guidance remains that these vehicles are safe and legal to drive.  

    In a statement, Volkswagen AG says it "wishes to emphasize that no software has been installed in the 3.0-liter V6 diesel power units to alter emissions characteristics in a forbidden manner."

    "This is obviously a growing scandal which continues to demand forceful action by regulators," said Ellen Bloom, senior director of federal policy and the Washington, D.C., office for Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. "Consumer confidence and public health are at stake." 

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

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    8 Kitchen Tools That Make Holiday Cooking a Breeze

    You have better things to worry about during the holiday season than how your kitchen tools will perform when you're whipping up a celebratory meal. You have time now before the big feast, so do yourself a favor and check out what you have on hand. If your cooking toolbox could use some sprucing up, take a look at these great gadgets. And some of them make great gift ideas, too.

    1. Ginsu Chikara knives
    Good knives are one of the most important kitchen tools—and they doesn’t have to cost a fortune. At about $75, this 8-piece set is a great value and a Consumer Reports Best Buy. The cutting performance and comfort level are at the same level as sets costing three to four times as much. While the set doesn’t have a slicer (carving knife), it does have a santoku, a cross between a chef’s knife and a cleaver, that will give you a perfect carved turkey or roast. 

    2. Calphalon Simply Nonstick 10-inch pan
    Has the nonstick pan in your cabinet become “sticky?” If so, pick up this inexpensive but high-performing pan. A Consumer Reports Best Buy (about $40), it scored Excellent for even cooking and food release and Very Good for ease of cleaning. 

    3. Cutting board
    Inspect the boards you have, and get rid of any with deep scratches where bacteria can hide. You need at least three boards: one that’s dedicated to raw meat, one to chop vegetables, and one for cooked meat. Consumer Reports’ food safety experts recommend you choose one made out of polypropylene or another dishwasher-safe material for raw meat, but for produce and cooked meat, it’s your choice.

    If you use a wooden board, wash it by hand in hot soapy water after you use it. To remove odors, rub the board with half a lemon and coarse salt. Rinse and then give your wood board a little conditioning by rubbing the lemon rind over the board. 

    4. Meat thermometer
    Consumer Reports’ tests show that digital thermometers are the most accurate. With an instant-read model, all you have to do is turn it on and stick it in the meat near the end of the estimated cooking time. If you don’t want to keep opening the oven door to check the temp, opt for a leave-in model. It stays in the meat recording temps via a long cord and sending them to a countertop base unit. The CDN Proaccurate TCT572 was the best of the instant-read models we tested. The downside is its price (ranges from $70 to $130). Another smart pick at $18 is the Polder Stable Read THM-379. For leave-ins, we like the $40 Oregon Scientific Wireless BBQ/Oven AW131.  

    5. Tongs
    Possibly one of the handiest kitchen tools around, tongs can be used to flip meat or vegetables, serve salads, sauté foods, juice citrus, plate pasta, reach to grab something in the back of the oven, and so much more. Silicone tipped tongs can be used with nonstick pans. A pair that locks in the closed position makes for easier storage. 

    6. Roasting rack
    Add a rack to your roasting pan and the bottom of your roast or bird won’t be soggy. Racks help with even cooking, browning, and crisping. Get a nonstick one to make cleanup easier.  

    7. Kitchen twine
    Trussing your turkey or tying up your roast is all about presentation—key if you want your guests to ooh and aah when you present the main course. Poultry wings and legs stay close to the body and roasts hold their shape during cooking. Be sure to use only twine specifically sold for use with food, made out of cotton or linen. Synthetic materials can melt into your food.  

    8. Storage containers
    The best part of Thanksgiving? Leftovers. Make sure you’ve got somewhere to put them. Opt for glass or BPA-free plastic containers. Consider, too, buying a pack of disposable containers so you can send your guests home with the fixings for a terrific turkey sandwich. 

    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 Cookware From Consumer Reports' Tests

    A cookware set is the perfect gift for newlyweds, new home owners, and college grads moving into their first apartment. Heck, a couple that’s been married for 25 years may appreciate a new set to replace the one they got at their wedding. You can spend a lot on a top-notch cookware set but you don’t have to as Consumer Reports discovered in its cookware tests. And we panned some sets with a celebrity name on the box. Here are the details.

    Stick With Non-Stick

    Our two top cookware picks are both non-stick sets. No uncoated cookware made the grade. Here are our two favorite sets.

    The Swiss Diamond Reinforced 10-piece set, $600, was the highest rated of all our tested sets. It was very good at evenly heating food and, when new, it was superb at releasing food. This set was very good at withstanding our non-stick durability test in which steel wool is rubbed over a pan for up to 2,000 strokes and like most non-stick cookware, is easy to clean. The aluminum set comes with a lifetime warranty.

    The Calphalon Simply Nonstick 10-piece set, $200, a CR Best Buy, combines performance and value and was very good overall. It was excellent at evenly heating food without it sticking to the pan. The handles stayed cool to the touch, but aren't as sturdy as the top-rated Swiss Diamond set. The aluminum set is durable and easy to clean and comes with a 10-year warranty.

    Frying Pans That Sizzle

    Frying pans are perhaps the most replaced pan in the kitchen. We found three to recommend including a $40 omelette pan that any cook would love.

    The 10-inch Swiss Diamond Classic nonstick frying pan, $90, was very good overall. Food cooked evenly and released without sticking. The pan withstood our nonstick durability test  and cleanup was a snap. This pan is made of aluminum and comes with a lifetime warranty.

    The Scanpan Classic, $90, is 10¼ inches and performed very well overall. It was superb at evenly heating food and did a very good job releasing food. It’s sturdy, easy to clean and dishwasher-safe. The aluminum pan comes with a lifetime warranty.

    The Calphalon Simply Nonstick 10-inch omelette pan, $40, is such a good deal you might want to buy one for yourself. A CR Best buy, it combines impressive performance and value and was very good overall. It was excellent at evenly heating food and releasing it without sticking. The aluminum pan is sturdy and easy to clean and comes with a 10-year warranty.

    Don’t Be Tempted by Claims and Names

    Celebrity cooks have invaded the cookware aisle as have some as-seen-on-TV products that make claims that may be too good to be true. Keep in mind that a celebrity’s cookware set may not be a star in the kitchen. Here’s how to find a gift without the gotchas.

    Count the pans not the pieces. The cookware box may tout sets with 10 or more pieces but look closer and you may discover that the count includes lids and cooking utensils as well. A 10-piece set, for example, may include six pans and four lids. One 16-piece set we tested included six cooking utensils in addition to the pans and lids.

    Over-the-top claims. The manufacturer of the Pauli Never Burn Stock Pot claims, “You’ll never burn your recipe again because the Perfect Sauce and Chowder Pot eliminates the need for stirring!” But misjudge the heat setting and you’re cooked. In our tests, the Pauli pot warped even on medium heat—and what’s medium, anyway? Could be 5,000 or 10,000 Btu/hr., depending on the burner. Moreover, you might want higher heat for browning, deglazing, and other common recipe steps before simmering. One plus, the food we cooked didn’t stick to the pot.

    The name game. We took stock of cookware sets from Rachel Ray and Guy Fieri and neither bubbled to the top. On the plus side, the non-stick Rachael Ray Porcelain Enamel II 10-piece set, $140, released food quickly, was easy to clean and its handles were comfortable without getting too hot. But cooking evenness and durability were only so-so. The Rachael Ray 10-inch Open Skillet, $30, got similar reviews.

    The Guy Fieri Stainless Steel 10-piece set, $200, was the winner of our tests of uncoated cookware but fell far short of our top picks list. Speed of heating was very good but cooking evenness and handle comfort were so-so and it was difficult to clean.

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

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

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    Best and Worst Airlines: Find Out Which Carrier to Fly

    High fares. Hidden fees. Long security lines. Shrinking seats. Crowded cabins. There's not much to enjoy about airline travel these days, especially if you're sitting in coach, according to readers in our airline survey, conducted this summer by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

    More than 14,000 coach passengers and some 6,000 first-class passengers who took a domestic nonstop flight told us their opinions about their airline's seat width and comfort, legroom, room for carry-on bags, cabin and restroom cleanliness, check-in ease, service from the airline staff, in-flight entertainment, and transparency about fees.

    You'll have a more comfortable trip without springing for an upgrade if you fly with the airline at the top of our coach Ratings: JetBlue. It earned a higher score than any other airline for its coach cabin's seat comfort and legroom.

    JetBlue, Southwest, and Virgin America received favorable Ratings for their check-in, their staff service, and upfront disclosure about their fees. (Find out why it's time to strike a blow against airline fees.) Passengers dinged Southwest and Virgin America, however, for their cramped and uncomfortable seats. Yet apart from JetBlue, all coach services rate poorly in these areas.

    When it comes to first-class travel, Virgin America, Hawaiian Airlines, and Alaska Airlines earned an exceptional overall score. Virgin was the real stand out, however, with top marks across the board. Hawaiian and Alaska (with the exception of its average in-flight entertainment) also received high marks in the rated areas. 

    Can You Find Comfort in Coach?

    Overall, people in our survey had a pretty dim view of the U.S. airline industry's domestic coach service. Amenities rated as particularly poor include seating, food and refreshments, and in-flight entertainment. In fact, apart from Southwest’s especially high score on fee transparency, no airline received a top mark on any of the attributes we measured.

    Even the highly rated coach carriers received a few below-average marks. JetBlue passengers were unenthusiastic about its food and refreshments. People flying on Southwest gave its seat comfort, legroom, food and refreshments, and in-flight entertainment a big thumbs-down. Passengers had a mixed range of views about hidden fees, but they gave the airlines in the top half of our Ratings much better scores than the carriers that landed below.

    The three U.S. airlines that control about 65 percent of the domestic market—American, Delta, and United—placed from the middle to the back of the pack for their coach service.

    Two airlines made their debut in our Ratings this year: Sun Country and Allegiant. Sun Country was formed in 1982 by a group of pilots and flight attendants from the defunct Braniff International. The airline now travels to 34 destinations in the U.S., Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean. Allegiant, which took off in 1997, travels to 112 destinations in the U.S., including Laredo, Texas; Grand Island, Nebraska; Ogden, Utah; Missoula, Montana; Scranton, Pennsylvania; Peoria, Illinois, and other smaller cities.

    The lowest-rated coach carrier in our survey was Spirit. It received low marks on all the aspects we measured, and was significantly worse than every other airline in terms of overall satisfaction. In fact, its overall satisfaction score is among the lowest for any service we've ever rated. 

    Disparities in First Class

    Three airlines stood out for first class: Virgin America, Hawaiian Airlines, and Alaska Airlines. Virgin America earned top marks across the board. Last year the airline added free hors d'oeuvres in first class to its traditional after-takeoff cocktail service, as well as hot towels, table linens, and a custom ice cream flavor developed in collaboration with San Francisco's Humphry Slocombe

    Hawaiian Airlines received favorable scores in every category, as does Alaska Airlines with the exception of its in-flight entertainment.

    Much like coach class, however, passengers who flew with our lower-rated first class carriers were a lot less happy. Not only were United and US Airways first-class travelers significantly less satisfied overall than the travelers on every other airline that qualified for our first-class Ratings, but they were also significantly less satisfied than the coach travelers on the top six carriers in our coach Ratings.

    Both were viewed as especially bad for cabin and restroom cleanliness, food and refreshments, and in-flight entertainment. (Note: US Airways took its last flight under its name this year on October 17, and is now fully merged with American.)

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

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    Education Is the Best Tool to Fight Elder Fraud

    One way that scammers often try to convince consumers to send them money is to threaten them with fines and penalties if they don't do as they're told. That's exactly what happened to Anna Guillory Yates of Los Angeles. The 70-year-old resident received a voice message from someone claiming to be from the IRS. The caller threatened to confiscate her property if she didn't pay a tax bill right away.

    This time, the scammer was messing with the wrong person. Yates, a member of the Stop Senior Scams Acting Program, was well versed in how the notorious "IRS scam" works. That's because the program puts together a show dramatizing dozens of ruses and frauds used against seniors. It then takes the show on the road to senior centers and other venues around the Los Angeles area.

    "I just laughed because I do that skit," Yates recalls. "I thought to myself, 'You do not have me on this one!'" 

    Senior-to-Senior Education

    I was thinking of how Yate's know-how helped her when I testified on preventing senior scams before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade on October 23. Getting the word out among seniors about how scams work is key to preventing them from being successful.

    But becoming an expert in elder fraud isn't all that easy because many seniors are reluctant to speak about what they've been through. My suggestion: Why not fund senior-to-senior educational groups like the Stop Senior Scams Acting Program all over the country?

    There are others who are also doing good things to educate seniors and others about elder fraud. My co-panelist before the House Subcommittee, Charles Wallace, associate professor and undergraduate program director of computer science at Michigan Technological University, discussed his university's innovative Breaking Digital Barriers program. It's a unique program that brings college students and seniors together. The students act as technology tutors to seniors in the community.

    During their meetings, Wallace observed that while some senior participants were initially afraid to venture onto the Web for fear of scams or privacy breaches, others readily opened spam and other dodgy emails, making them vulnerable to fraud. Among the lessons seniors learn is how to identify emails that should be treated just like junk mail they get in their mailboxes at home.

    "In a nutshell, an ounce of education is worth a pound of prosecution," Wallace says.

    Spreading the Word About Elder Fraud

    The Federal Trade Commission has taken the word-of-mouth concept to heart. At the October hearing, Daniel Kaufman, deputy director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, outlined the agency's elder-fraud education initiatives, including "Pass It On," a multimedia program with simple, pointed messages on a number of current scams. Individuals can obtain free articles, presentations, videos, and activities to help identify and thwart a number of current scams, including impostor scams (IRS, FTC), charity fraud, health-care scams, and "you've won" scams. Among my favorite souvenirs from a recent elder-abuse conference: FTC "Pass It On" bookmarks with straightforward advice. An example:   

    Someone calls to ask you to DONATE MONEY to a charity. TODAY.

    The advice? Stop. Call the charity. Never donate by wiring money.

    Another witness, Stacy Canan, deputy director of the Office of Financial Protection for Older Americans at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, mentioned the bureau's Money Smart for Older Adults awareness program, a series of instructor-led lessons developed together with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

    The CFPB also recently released guides for fiduciaries—that is, the relatives, friends, and professionals tasked with managing a senior's money when he or she is no longer capable of doing so. The CFPB's Managing Someone Else's Money guides walk fiduciaries through their duties; tells them how to watch out for scams; advises what to do if the senior has been victimized; and outlines where to go for help.

    The CFPB has published state-specific guides for Florida and Virginia, and soon will release guides to help financial caregivers in Arizona, Georgia, Illinois and Oregon. Because the agency can't draft guides for every state, it recently issued templates that other states can use to create their own guides.

    Where Is Hollywood?

    All of these approaches are useful, but what I'd really like to see is a Hollywood movie on elder fraud. It's a plot with poignant stories, heroic investigators and victims, piles of money—at least $3 billion lost each year—and even some exotic locales. That kind of exposure could make financial elder abuse part of the cultural conversation and get more folks to protect themselves.

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

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    Everything you need to know about the Takata airbag recall

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

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

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

    Visit our guide to car safety.

    Recent timeline

    November 3, 2015: NHTSA imposes a record civil penalty of up to $200 million against Takata. (Of that, $70 is a cash penalty, with an additional $130 million charge if Takata fails to meet its commitments.) Plus, the government agency requires Takata to phase out the manufacturer and sale of inflators that use the risky propellant and recall all Takata ammonium nitrate inflators currently on the road—unless the company can prove they are safe or can show it has determined why its inflators are prone to rupture.

    October 9, 2015: Honda releases an update on the Takata airbag recall, stating its progress in reaching out to consumers and its recall repair completion rate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Putting the dangers in perspective

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

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

    For a historical perspective, AutoSafety.org has compiled a list of airbag recalls over time.  

    Takata airbag Q&A

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

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

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

    What is taking so long for my airbag to arrive?

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

    Can other suppliers step in to fill the gaps?

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

    How important is that I respond to the recall?

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

    Does it matter where I live?

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

    How are repairs being prioritized?

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

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

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

    Are the airbags in my car definitely defective?

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

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

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

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

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

    What about shutting off airbags until the replacement parts arrive?

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

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

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

    BMW

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

    Recalled cars:

    Driver's side airbag

    2002-2005 BMW 3 Series sedan and wagon

    2002-2006 BMW 3 Series coupe and convertible

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

    2003-2004 BMW X5

     

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

    2004-2006 BMW 325Ci

    2004-2006 BMW 325i

    2004-2005 BMW 325Xi

    2004-2006 BMW 330Ci

    2004-2006 BMW 330i

    2004-2005 BMW 330Xi

    2004-2006 BMW M3

     

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

    2000-2005 3 Series Sedan

    2000-2006 3 Series Coupe

    2000-2005 3 Series Sports Wagon

    2000-2006 3 Series Convertible

    2001-2006 M3 Coupe

    2001-2006 M3 Convertible

     

    Chrysler

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

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

    Recalled cars:

    Chrysler:

    2005-2010 Chrysler 300 - Driver’s side airbag

    2007-2008 Chrysler Aspen - Driver’s side airbag

     

    Dodge:

    2008-2010 Dodge Challenger - Driver’s side airbag

    2005-2010 Dodge Charger - Driver’s side airbag

    2005-2011 Dodge Dakota - Driver’s side airbag

    2004-2008 Dodge Durango - Driver’s side airbag

    2005-2008 Dodge Magnum - Driver’s side airbag

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

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

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

    2005 Dodge Dakota - Passenger side airbag

    2005 Dodge Magnum - Passenger side airbag

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

    Ford

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

    Recalled cars:

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

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

    2005-2014 Mustang - Driver’s side airbag

    General Motors

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

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

    Recalled cars:

    2003-2005 Pontiac Vibe - Passenger side

    2005 Saab 9-2x - Passenger side

    2007-2008 Chevrolet Silverado 2500/3500 - Passenger side

    2007-2008 GMC Sierra 2500/3500 - Passenger side

    Honda

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

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

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

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

    Recalled cars:

     

    Acura:

    2003-2006 Acura MDX - Driver’s side airbag

    2002-2003 Acura TL - Driver’s side airbag

    2003 Acura CL - Driver’s side airbag

    2005 Acura RL - Passenger side

    Honda:

    2001-2007 Honda Accord - Driver’s side airbag

    2003-2007 Honda Accord - Passenger side airbag

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

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

    2003-2011 Honda Element - Driver’s side airbag

    2002-2004 Honda Odyssey - Driver’s side airbag

    2003-2008 Honda Pilot - Driver’s side airbag

    2006 Honda Ridgeline - Driver’s side airbag

    Mazda

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

    Recalled cars:

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

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

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

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

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

    Mitsubishi

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

    Recalled cars:

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

    2006-2010 Raider - Driver's side

    Nissan

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

    Recalled cars:

    Infiniti:

    2003-2005 Infiniti FX - Passenger side

    2006 Infiniti M35/M45 - Passenger side 

    2001-2004 Infiniti I30/I35 - Passenger side  

    2002-2003 Infiniti QX4 - Passenger side  

    Nissan:

    2001-2003 Nissan Maxima - Passenger side 

    2001-2004 Nissan Pathfinder - Passenger side 

    2002-2006 Nissan Sentra - Passenger side  

    Subaru

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

    Recalled cars:

    2003-2005 Baja - Passenger side

    2003-2005 Legacy - Passenger side

    2003-2005 Outback - Passenger side

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

     

    Toyota

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

    Recalled cars:

    Lexus:

    2002-2005 Lexus SC - Passenger side  

    Toyota:

    2002-2007 Toyota Corolla - Passenger side

    2003-2007 Toyota Matrix - Passenger side

    2002-2007 Toyota Sequoia - Passenger side

    2003-2006 Toyota Tundra - Passenger side

     

    Car safety

    • Check for recalls on your car

    • The truth about recalls

    Guide to car safety

    Guide to models offering advanced safety features

     

     

     

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    Rear-Facing Car Seats Are Still the Safest Way for Young Kids to Ride

    A recently released study on rear-facing child car seats may inadvertently be sending the wrong message to parents. The study's results, while meaningful to improving the overall safety of car seats, look at just one small piece of the puzzle, possibly causing some parents to jump to conclusions.

    Simply put: Rear-facing car seats are still the safest way for young kids to ride in a car.

    The study, published in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention, was designed to compare the performance of the different child-seat installation methods—LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tether for Children) versus the vehicle seat belt – in simulated rear-end crashes. But some media coverage may have created doubt for parents concerned about which seating orientation is safest for their children.

    For instance, the Washington Post’s headline “Study of Rear-End Crashes Finds Head Injuries From Rear-Facing Child Seats” could suggest the study was a summary of real-world child injury data in rear crashes. It wasn’t.

    Like much of the child seat testing we do at Consumer Reports, the authors of the study conducted tests that simulate the forces and motion that a child seat and child may experience during a rear-impact crash. Injury values were measured with instrumented child-sized dummies, just as we do. The results indicated that measurements used to predict head injury were higher (worse) for rear-facing seats installed with LATCH than for those installed with a vehicle seat belt. The study also indicated that some of the head injury values for LATCH installed seats exceeded head injury limits that could produce more serious injury in a 6-month-old child.  

    What This Means for Parents

    Don’t prematurely move to forward-facing seats. These results should not be taken as evidence that you should move your child to a forward-facing orientation. Much more data shows that children are safer riding rear-facing and that they should continue to ride rear-facing at least until the age of two—even longer if the seat limits will allow.

    Rear-end crashes aren’t as common. The results are important to consider when thinking of all of the crash scenarios that a child may experience in a car. But rear-end crashes are less frequent and typically cause fewer injuries to children than frontal crashes. Data cited in the article by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicate that rear-end collisions account for just 9 percent of injuries to children in car seats. In comparison, front-end collisions account for about 43 percent and side-impact crashes account for about 33 percent.

    Proper fit-to-vehicle is key. Though this study shows better results for seat belt installed seats over LATCH installed seats, our extensive frontal crash tests and fit-to-vehicle evaluations show just the opposite. Our fit-to-vehicle analysis typically shows that LATCH provides an easier-to-achieve and more secure installation than seat belt installations for most seats. A seat that is securely installed is critical to protecting your child in all types of crashes.

    Front- and side-crashes result in greater head injuries. Though the injury values in this study may sound alarming, we can assure you that the head injury values we see from instrumented dummies in frontal and initial side-impact tests are much higher than those in this study. In our own simulated crash tests, we also compare child seat performance based on a number of injury metrics that includes the head injury measurements used in this study. Based on that data, the contact of the child seat and child into the seatback in a rear-end crash is something to look at, but the potential for reducing injury and fatalities for kids in vehicle crashes appears to still be greater in the more prominent frontal and side crash modes.  

    Key Takeaways

    If your child is two years old or younger, keep them in a rear-facing child seat and make sure you have a secure installation using LATCH. If you aren’t confident in the installation, have a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician double check your installation at a car seat check-up event near you.

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    Buyer Beware: Layaway Plans Can Have Added Costs

    When you go holiday shopping this year, you might be tempted to pay for major purchases using one of the layaway plans promoted by major retailers such as Burlington Coat Factory, Kmart, Toys "R" Us, and Walmart.

    The reason these layaway plans are so popular is because they let you spread payments for large purchases over several weeks and there are no interest charges, says Michelle Corey, president and CEO of the St. Louis Better Business Bureau.

    The layaway concept dates back to the Great Depression when retail customers paid a percentage of the purchase price as a down payment and then spread the balance over several months. The merchant held the item until payments were complete.   

    When consumer credit cards became readily available most stores began to do away with the practice. But during the recent Great Recession, layaway plans came back in a big way. According to a recent National Retail Federation poll, the plans are most popular with consumers  between the ages of 35 to 44.

    If you plan to use a layaway plan, you should understand that terms and conditions vary from one merchant to the next, and can differ from state-to-state. Some retailers limit the type of products that can be put on layaway. The plans always come with rules and some fees, and if you don’t read the fine print, you could get some unwanted surprises.

    Details You Need to Know

    Before you sign up for a plan, check the terms carefully. Make sure you know the answer to these key questions:

    • Is there a fee to open an account? Many stores charge a $5 to $10 service fee to initiate a layaway, which is generally not refundable if you cancel the contract or can't make a payment (which effectively cancels the contract). Some retailers, like Walmart, waive the fee for holiday season if you open an account in one of its stores.
    • Are there minimum spending requirements? At Walmart, your total layaway purchase has to be worth $50 or more. For a Kmart store plan you have to spend at least $300 if you want to spread your payments over 12 weeks.
    • What is the required down payment? Some stores, including Burlington Coat Factory, require a down payment worth 20 percent of the total cost of your layaway goods. At Toys R Us, it's 10 percent. Walmart requires $10 or 10 percent, whichever is greater. Kmart waives its $10 down payment requirement for layaways until November 29 (the Sunday after Thanksgiving).
    • When are payments due? It depends on the plan. Kmart, for example, requires a payment every two weeks. The retailer gives you a grace period of 7 days beyond your due date. If you still don't pay, the item is put back on store shelves and you'll owe a cancellation fee.
    • How long can the item be on layaway? Some items have a time limit, and are returned to store shelves once that deadline hits if you haven't paid it off. At Walmart, for example, you have to pay off the item and pick it up on or before December 14th, or the layaway is canceled.
    • Will the item be placed in a holding area until all payments are made? If not, it could be inadvertently sold to another customer. Kmart wraps up the item when you open a layaway account and places it in a storage area.
    • What happens if the product is not in stock? Find out if it is ordered when your layaway is opened or when the last payment is made. Delivery time frame of the merchandise should be agreed to up front.
    • What it the price drops while you're making payments? Be aware that if the item you've place on layaway goes on sale, you may not be entitled to a price adjustment. In other cases, you may be eligible for one price adjustment within the first week or two. Ask the store about its policy and get it in writing.
    • What if your layaway is canceled? If you or the retailer cancels a layaway plan, your payments will likely be returned, but the store will probably charge you a cancellation fee. At the Burlington Coat Factory, Toys R Us, and Walmart, the cancellation fee is $10.
    • How are my payments refunded if the layaway is canceled? Burlington Coat Factory and Toys R Us put your refund on a store gift card; Walmart refunds your original payment method.

    Layaway Alternatives

    Before signing up for a layaway plan and locking yourself into a payment program, consider other options. You could put an equivalent payment into a savings or high-yield checking account on a regular basis instead of letting a retailer hold onto it. By doing so, you’ll pocket a small amount of interest and avoid possible fees. Then, when you've put enough aside, you could buy the goods with cash.

    While layaway might sound like a good substitute for credit, you could end up paying more in fees than you would pay in credit card interest. Say you want to put a $300 item on layaway and you're required to put 10 percent down ($30), pay $10 to open the account, and pay the balance in 60 days. Essentially, the store is loaning you $270 for two months. That equals an annual percentage rate of over 24 percent. By contrast, the average low-rate card APR is around 12 percent today, while the average reward card APR is around 15 percent, according to Bankrate.com. So consider using a credit card instead as long as you can pay the balance promptly and avoid a finance charge.

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    Roku 4 Review: Is It Worth the Price?

    About two in five American households subscribe to a video streaming service like Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu, according to Nielsen. If you don't own a smart TV, then a streaming media player such as the new Roku 4 is a great way to get that content.

    Priced at $130, the Roku 4 costs more than the Amazon Fire TV ($100) but less than the new Apple TV ($150 and up). The Roku 4 supports 4K streaming content, and it has a some new features that its predecessor, the $100 Roku 3 model, lacked. Roku boxes traditionally stand out for the wide assortment of content they offer, and the Roku 4 is no exception, with nearly 3,000 total channels.

    Obviously, the main reason to pay the extra $30 for the Roku 4 is its 4K capability. You can debate the merits of 4K streamers, since nearly all current 4K TVs are also smart TVs with access to streaming services. But that may not be true for long—and buying a Roku 4 is an exercise in future-proofing. If you do want a 4K streaming box, the Roku is the one to get, with 4K streaming videos from Amazon, Netflix, M-Go, YouTube, Vudu, and Toon Goggles.

    Here are more details on the unit and how it works.

    The Roku 4 has the company's latest operating system, OS7. One upside to the OS is the expanded My Feed, which lets you follow movies and TV shows and receive notifications when they become available for streaming. And the Hotel and Dorm Connect feature lets connect where the Wi-Fi networks require login information.  

    Device design
    The Roku 4 is a flat black box that looks like someone sat on a Roku 3. It’s got glossy black sides and a matte black top with an embossed, shiny 4 in the center. A small button on top activates one of the Roku 4's distinctive features: a remote-control finder that emit a series of sounds from the built-in speaker.  

    The Roku 4's remote control is similar to the Roku 3's: There's a headphone jack for private listening (ditch the mediocre earphones that come with it), and the remote operates via Wi-Fi Direct, so line of sight with the player isn’t required. Sling has replaced the Hulu button on the Roku 3 remote, joining Netflix, Amazon, and Rdio. 

    As with other Roku boxes, most of the Roku 4 connections are on the back of the unit: an Ethernet jack, HDMI output, digital optical audio output, a microSD card slot, and the AC power cord power input. The exception is the side-mounted USB port. You can add storage to the player for apps and games with a microSD card.

    Setting it up
    Setup is a two-step process. First you connect it to your home network—using a Wired Ethernet connection or the box's 802.11ac MIMI Wi-Fi—and then you get a code from Roku.com to finish the process. Once registration is done, the Roku will auto-detect if you have a 4K UHD TV and choose the best possible picture quality. But you can also set the output resolution manually, helpful if you'll be using the Roku 4 with both 4K UHD and 1080p TVs.

    Roku 4 Performance

    The Roku 4 offers speedy performance and responsive control over a wired connection and Wi-Fi. There's not a big difference from the Roku 3, one of the quicker players we've tested. We didn't do a head-to-head with the new Amazon Fire TV, but it seemed comparable to that and other top-performing players.

    In general, the Roku 4’s interface is intuitive and easy to use, and it organizes the content in a straightforward fashion. The new operating system looks and feels very similar to the one currently available on other models. Universal search, which supports voice commands, is improved, so it now works across 20 different channels. It's still more limited than either Alexa (Amazon Fire TV) and Siri (Apple TV), but on the plus side it doesn't prioritize content from one service over another's, as its rivals do.

    Perhaps the biggest changes are the enhancements to the My Feed capability. While My Feed was initially limited to just movies, you can now search for a movie, TV shows, an actor, or a director, and follow them to get alerts when they become available for streaming, or if prices change on pay-per-view services.

    Roku has updated its iOS and Android apps for smartphones. They provide greater control over more of the player's features, including search and Roku Feed.

    Tops for 4K
    The Roku 4 not only offers access to more 4K content than the Amazon Fire TV, it also makes it a lot easier to find. For example, you can find a dedicated section of 4K services within the Roku Channels. There's also a 4K Spotlight channel (shown) that showcases 4K movies, shows, and videos from several services, but not Netflix.

    The Roku 4's 4K performance is comparable to what we've seen from streaming 4K videos on better smart TVs and 4K-enabled streamers, such as the Amazon Fire TV. Images looked sharp, with excellent detail and clarity.  

    However, there is one difference between the Roku 4 and the Amazon Fire TV: The Roku 4 has HDMI 2.0 inputs, where the Amazon Fire has HDMI 1.4. What this means is that the Roku 4 can support 60-frame-per-second videos when they become available, and it's possible that Roku might be able to update the player to support high dynamic range (HDR) content—which requires HDMI 2.0a—at some later date. This is something the Fire TV won’t be able to do, and Apple TV doesn't have 4K support at all. 

    Bottom line
    We expect the Roku 4 to match the performance of the high-scoring Roku 3 when our full evaluations of all the new players are completed. But for $30 less, we think the Roku 3 will likely remain the better deal for many would-be streamers, especially since the player's software will be updated to OS7. You'll just have to keep better track of the remote.

    But consider the Roku 4 if your current UHD TV doesn't support some of the 4K streaming services offered on that device, or if you think you'll be buying a 4K set in the future that might lack streaming capability. So far, this speedy, easy-to-use, and content-rich device is our top choice for a 4K-enabled streaming player.

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    Amazon Prime Subscribers Get a Jump on Black Friday Deals

    If free two-day shipping and unlimited access to streaming movies and TV shows isn't enough to make you an Amazon Prime subscriber, the online retailer just added one more enticement: A 30-minute head start on the general public for some 30,000 Black Friday "Lightning" deals.

    Amazon says the holiday specials, which have already started to appear in its Countdown to Black Friday store, will continue through Dec. 22. (Check out Consumer Reports' Countdown to Black Friday calendar.)

    To date, the deals include:

    • 30 percent off a Sony 55-inch 4K UHD TV bundled with a Blu-ray player.
    • $170 off Sony’s Alpha a6000 mirrorless digital camera with a 16-50mm power zoom lens.
    • 47 percent savings on Jaybird’s X Sport Bluetooth headphones.
    • An Optima HD37 3D 1080p DLP home cinema projector priced under $800.

    How good are these deals? With Amazon, it's often hard to tell, because you don't know whether the savings percentage comes off Amazon's regular price or the manufacturer's suggested retail price. In the case of the Optima projector, though, that's not an issue: The sale price is about $200 less than the price currently listed on Amazon.com. However, you can buy the projector at other outlets for $900 now.

    Shopping for flash deals on Amazon can also involve a fair amount of work, since you have to check back regularly to get updates on specific items. To make things a bit easier this holiday season, Amazon has compiled an Electronics Gift Guide with roughly 600 tech gadgets, broken out by product category.

    If you'll be doing some gift buying this month, be sure to check out our Black Friday shopping tips to get the best deals.

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    Disability Insurance Can Protect Your Income in a Health Crisis

    For most people, their greatest financial asset is their job. But if you were unable to work as a result of an accident or illness, how would you and your family pay the bills? Savings can evaporate fast and parents or siblings may not be able to help.

    The answer could be to plan ahead by taking out disability insurance. It can provide a much-needed safety net by replacing up to 70 percent of income. Yet few Americans even consider such a policy. In fact, disability insurance typically takes a distant third place after life and auto insurance: seven in 10 workers don’t have any long-term disability coverage.

    The chances that you'll need it, though, may be greater than you  realize. More than 25 percent of today’s 20-year-olds will become disabled before reaching age 67 according to the Social Security Administration. And 43 percent of all people age 40 will be sidelined for 90 days or more by age 65, according to data from the Insurance Information Institute.

    Not all people become disabled due to an accident. According to the Council on Disability Awareness, about 90 percent of disabilities result from an illness such as cancer and diabetes

    As medical bills pile up, the expenses have become the leading cause of personal bankruptcy, with three out of five bankruptcies due to loss of significant income as a result of illness. Even scarier, three-quarters of those bankrupted by medical debt actually had health insurance—it just wasn’t enough to replace their paychecks.

    Don't Rely on Social Security Disability Insurance

    Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI, or workers compensation might not provide a safety net. Consider these statistics from the Council for Disability Awareness:

    • Some 65 percent of initial SSDI claim applications were denied in 2012.
    • The average monthly benefit paid by SSDI by the end of that year was $1,130 per month.
    • Because fewer than 5 percent of disabling accidents and illnesses are work-related, the other 95 percent are not covered by workers’ compensation.

    Insurance You Need

    To prepare for an emergency, you should have enough in savings to get you through the initial three to six months without income. After you run through the emergency fund, long-term disability insurance can be a lifesaver—the average disability claim lasts more than 31 months. Disability insurance is available in two forms:  

    • Short-term disability insurance replaces a portion of your income during the initial weeks. Policies cover anywhere from a month up to a year of disability, providing income protection during the waiting period before long-term disability insurance kicks in. The major drawback: Short-term disability insurance is generally offered only through an employer.
    • Long-term disability insurance pays benefits of up to 60 percent of your pretax salary from five years up to, ideally, age 67. Many larger employers provide long-term disability coverage, however only about one-third of workers have access to long-term disability insurance through their employer. Others may want to buy their own disability coverage. Furthermore, because employer-offered plans generally limit the benefit period, sometimes to as little as two years, you may wish to supplement your protection.

    The reassuring news is that the sooner you purchase long-term disability insurance, the less it will cost. Extending the period before you start receiving benefits will also lower the price. Generally, expect to pay between 1 and 3 percent of your salary.

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    Fitness Trackers for Big and Small Budgets

    Millions of Americans rely on fitness trackers to keep them honest in their workouts. That’s why Consumer Reports has reviewed 17 top-selling models, testing their accuracy, ease of use, comfort, and feature sets. The fitness trackers we selected range from simple clip-on sensors to ambitious, wrist-bound plastic or rubber gadgets that add more sensors, more readouts, and a bigger price.

    At the high end, we’ve found some great performers that combine accuracy and robust features. For instance, the watchlike Fitbit Surge ($250) packs GPS, smartphone notifications, and a heart rate monitor into a package that is very comfortable to wear. Among its competitors is the $200 Basis Peak, which won’t track your location but will monitor your heart rate, perspiration (another measure of exertion), and skin temperature. Unlike some other fitness trackers, both of these models have their own displays, so you can check your progress without reaching for your smartphone.

    Among the lower-priced simpler fitness trackers we tested are several that deliver the most critical fitness data and offer other useful features. For instance, the Microsoft Band ($150) not only tracks your steps and heart rate but also lets you get email and text notifications right from your wrist. The stylish Withings Activité Pop ($150) looks like a regular watch but has a small dial that also shows you, on a scale of 1 to 100, your daily fitness progress. 

    However, our tests also revealed some problems. Notably, some models, including the Jawbone UP3, experienced serious smartphone pairing and syncing problems.

    If you’re in the market for your first fitness tracker—or just want to see if you need to bench the one you currently own—check our buying guide and Ratings.

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    Frontier and Spirit Airlines Raise Baggage Fees for the Holidays

    Just in time for the holidays, Frontier and Spirit airlines have announced fee increases for one of the busiest travel seasons of the year. 

    Last month, Frontier Airlines revealed it would also increase both checked and carry-on fees by an additional $5 to $10 for flights scheduled between November 19, 2015, to January 5, 2016.  According to the Denver-based airline’s website:

    Spirit's increased baggage fees are a return of the rate hike it rolled out last year when it raised fees by $2 during the holidays. (Spirit's baggage fees regularly make our Naughty & Nice list, including the 2014 edition.)

    Customers traveling on Spirit from December 16, 2015, to January 4, 2016, will see the $2 increase each way on all standard-sized checked bags. The Florida-based company told FareCompare.com that the reason for the increase is simply because “Christmas and New Year’s is a very high demand period" for the airline.

    Currently, Spirit customers pay $30 for a check bag when booking a flight, $35 before online check-in, $40 during online check-in, $50 at the airport, and $100 at the gate. (Related: Know your airline’s carry-on luggage rules before you fly.)

    These increased baggage fees land as consumers have an already dim view of the U.S. airline industry, according to our latest survey on airline travel, conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. Read our new report on the best and worst airlines to find out which carrier to fly.

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    How an LED Uses So Much Less Energy

    With incandescent bulbs, lighting magic happens before your eyes: Electricity heats the metal filament until it becomes hot, producing light. But with LEDs, technology and sophisticated engineering are carefully packed into the lightbulb.

    Inside an LED Bulb
    The interior of an LED bulb reveals a digital revolution up close, according to John Banta, the engineer who oversees Consumer Reports’ lightbulb tests. Electricity passes through semiconductor material, sparking up light-emitting diodes, while a heat sink absorbs and releases the small amount of heat produced. Unlike with incandescents, most of the energy used by an LED creates light. (Ninety percent of the energy used by incandescent bulbs escapes as heat.)

    While LEDs do not get hot the way incandescents bulbs do, their heat must be drawn away. Known as thermal management, it’s probably the most important factor for an LED to perform well over its lifetime, according to Energy Star. Otherwise, the light fades faster, so the bulb won’t be bright enough to use for as long as the manufacturer claims.

    Shifting Shapes
    LED bulbs come in various shapes as manufacturers work to improve efficiency and light distribution, help manage heat, and lower costs. Among LEDs that are bright enough to replace 60-watt incandescents, the Feit Electric LED is shaped like an incandescent and surrounded by fins that help prevent heat buildup. The Philips SlimStyle is a flat bulb that doesn’t need a heavy heat sink, so it weighs less. Both LEDs are CR Best Buys and cost $7.

    One of the more unusual-looking bulbs we've tested is the Nanoleaf One. A tangle of vines cover this odd-shaped LED, along with uncovered yellow diodes that aim to provide more light. It costs $35 and was the least impressive of the 75-watt-equivalent bulbs in our Ratings.

    Pros and Cons of LEDs

    LEDs do not burn out like other bulbs do. Instead, they fade over time, and when the light has decreased by 30 percent it’s no longer considered useful. (Manufacturers' claimed life is a prediction of when the 30 percent decrease will happen.)

    LED Advantages 

    • Use about 80 percent less electricity while providing the same brightness of the incandescents they replace.
    • Use slightly less energy than CFLs.
    • Brighten instantly.
    • Lifespan not shorted by turning them on and off frequently.
    • Some dim as low as incandescents do.
    • Most claimed to last 20,000 to 50,000 hours when used three hours a day (about 18 to 46 years).

    LED Disadvantages

    • Typically cost more than other bulbs.
    • Not all A-type bulbs (the kind used in lamps and other general-lighting fixtures) are good at casting light in all directions.
    • Most are good but not great at accurately displaying the colors of objects and skin tones.
    • Some are bigger or heavier than other bulb types.

    We've tested dozens of LEDs and CFLs. Before you spend a dime, check our lightbulb Ratings to find the brightest energy-saving bulbs. Be sure to check for utility rebates before you shop, and note that Energy Star-qualified LEDs have a warranty of three years or longer.

    Any questions? Send them to 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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    11 Senators Aim to Block Robocalls to Those With Student Loans

    A new bill aims to keep the tide of robocalls from becoming a tsunami.

    Last week, President Obama signed an emergency budget bill that kept the government from shutting down, which also opened the door to automated debt-collection robocalls to your cell phone. Buried in Section 301 of the Budget Act is a provision that would allow loan servicers and other collectors of federal loan debt to use robocalls and robotexts to contact Americans struggling to pay off student loans, mortgage, tax, and other debt owed to or backed by the federal government.

    The provision allows robocalls not only to those who owe debt but also to their family, references, and even those who get assigned a phone number that once belonged to someone who owed debt.  

    A new piece of legislation hopes to roll that back. Senator Edward J. Markey and ten colleagues introduced the Help Americans Never Get Unwanted Phone calls (HANG UP) act, which protects student loan and mortgage borrowers, veterans, farmers, taxpayers, and others from unwanted robocalls and texts.

    Senators Claire McCaskill (D – Mo.), Ron Wyden (D – Ore.) Robert Menendez (D – N.J.), Richard Blumenthal (D – Conn.), Patrick Leahy (D – Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D – Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I – Vt.), Al Franken (D – Minn.), Amy Klobuchar (D – Minn.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) have cosponsored this bill.

    Currently, per the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) and the Fair Debt Collection Protection Act (FDCPA), it’s illegal for debt collectors to call a cellphone to collect a debt, unless the debtor has granted prior permission. It’s been illegal for other companies to use auto-dialing equipment to call cellphones for nearly a quarter century.  If the budget bill provision is allowed to go into effect, millions of Americans could be subjected to more unwanted calls, according to Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports.  

    Furthermore, there’s a question of how effective debt-collection robocalls would ultimately be. The Office of Management and Budget estimates the program would only net the government $120 million over 10 years—just 0.01 percent of the Federal student loan debt currently outstanding. 

    You can stand up for the HANG UP Act. Use this simple form to send a personal message to your Senators to get behind this bill and repeal the robocall provision before it takes effect. 

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

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    Senator Markey Introduces HANGUP Act to Repeal Robocall Loophole in Budget Bill

    Budget Bill Provision Gives Green Light to Unwanted Robocalls on Cell Phones

    WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Ed Markey introduced legislation today that repeals a provision of the just-passed budget bill that could weaken current rules protecting consumers from robocalls on their cell phones.  If the budget bill provision is allowed to go into effect, millions of Americans could be subjected to more unwanted calls, according to Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports.  

    U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill, Ron Wyden, Robert Menendez, Richard Blumenthal, Patrick Leahy, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Al Franken, Amy Klobuchar, and Tammy Baldwin have cosponsored this bill.

    “Robocalls already drive Americans crazy, but this budget bill provision could make a bad situation even worse,” said Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union.  “This provision could create a huge loophole in the law that could open the door to a flood of unwanted robocalls on cell phones.   We urge the Senate to side with consumers who are tired of being harassed by robocalls and support Senator Markey’s bill.”

    The Telephone Consumer Protection Act prohibits most non-emergency robocalls to cell phones without a consumer’s prior consent.  But Section 301 of the budget bill allows debt collectors to make robocalls and robotexts to Americans with education, mortgage, tax, and other debt owed to or backed by the federal government.   To make matters worse, the provision allows robocalls not only to those who owe debt but also their family, references, and even those who get assigned a phone number that once belonged to someone who owed debt.  Senator Markey’s Help Americans Never Get Unwanted Phone calls (HANGUP) Act rescinds the enactment of Section 301 in the budget bill. 

    Debt collectors sought a similar exception to the law earlier this year when they petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to allow robocalls to cell phones.  Consumers Union and other consumer groups opposed the debt collectors’ effort, which was rejected by the FCC.  

    Consumers Union’s End Robocalls campaign is working to bring relief to consumers from unwanted calls that have become rampant in recent years.  The campaign has called on the top phone companies to provide free, effective tools to their customers to block unwanted calls.

    “Robocalls are a major nuisance and too often result in costly fraud,” said Maureen Mahoney, public policy fellow for Consumers Union.  “The phone companies are in the best position to end the harassment by blocking robocalls before they reach their customers.”

    __________

    Consumers Union is the public policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports.  Consumers Union works for health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace. Consumer Reports is the world’s largest independent product-testing organization.  Using its more than 50 labs, auto test center, and survey research center, the nonprofit rates thousands of products and services annually.  Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has over 8 million subscribers to its magazine, website, and other publications. 

    Media Contacts:
    David Butler, Consumers Union, 202.462.6262 or dbutler@consumer.org
    Kara Kelber, Consumers Union, 202.462.6262 or kkelber@consumer.org
    Michael McCauley, Consumers Union, 415.431.6747 ext 7606 or mmccauley@consumer.org

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