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    2016 Mitsubishi Outlander Review

    Mitsubishi is trying to push its way onto your shopping list by virtue of the Outlander’s standard third-row seat (rare among small SUVs), its temptingly low $23,845 base price, and some big discounts on the showroom floor. That might make the Outlander seem like a lot of car for the money, but don’t be fooled. This is not a competitive model. (Read the complete Mitsubishi Outlander road test.)

    Despite a few updates, the 2016 Mitsubishi Outlander feels old enough to have been cast in a “Friends” episode. Compared with the best in this class, the Outlander is almost the bottom feeder. (The lowly Jeep Cherokee gets that honor.)

    The Outlander now has a slightly improved ride, it’s quieter than it used to be, and it ekes out slightly zippier acceleration and better fuel economy—a competitive 24 mpg.

    But the 2016 Mitsubishi Outlander is reluctant to corner, requiring excessive steering-wheel twirling. And with lots of body lean, it’s one of the clumsiest vehicles we’ve recently tested. The soft suspension’s ride feels initially absorbent, but it can get unsettled to the point of occupants experiencing motion sickness. And the continuously variable transmission amplifies the engine’s nasty howl to that of a Soundgarden reunion.

    The touted third-row seat inside the 2016 Mitsubishi Outlander is okay in a pinch, but it’s so tiny that you shouldn’t count on it for everyday use. It’s also odd that a vehicle with a third-row seat lacks A/C vents for rear passengers. The second-row bench is rather roomy, but the front seats didn’t earn raves and don’t offer lumbar adjustments. As with most other small SUVs, getting in and out of the 2016 Mitsubishi Outland eris a breeze.

    The interior is dated, plasticky, and crude—with the exception of the modern-feeling infotainment system.

    The Outlander’s crash tests earned it a Top Safety Pick designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Forward-collision warning with automatic braking, adaptive cruise control, and lane-departure warning are optional on the 2016 Mitsubishi Outlander.

    These cars sell in so few numbers that we don’t have sufficient data to predict their reliability; Mitsubishis generally hold up well.

    But even factoring in the expected big discounts, we’d rather have a good used SUV. And if you need a third-row seat in the small-SUV class, you’d be better off with a Nissan Rogue than with the 2016 Mitsubishi Outlander.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the February 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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

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    2016 Volkswagen Jetta 1.4T Review

    Hidden within the cloud of its emissions scandal, Volkswagen has a new fuel-efficient powertrain that is a compelling alternative for diesel buyers.

    Since its 2011 redesign, the Jetta sedan has offered more engines than Spinal Tap had drummers. Just introduced is a 1.4-liter, 150-hp turbo­charged four-cylinder gasoline engine, which might be the most satisfying of all of the small turbos on the market. (Read the complete Volkswagen Jetta road test.)

    Despite its small displacement, the 2016 Volkswagen Jetta 1.4T delivers healthy midrange torque. Occasionally the turbo can be caught off-boost, and the transmission may remain in too high a gear, but that is rare.

    More important, for those looking for a high-miles-per-gallon diesel alternative, the 2016 Volkswagen Jetta 1.4T got a decent 32 mpg overall, compared with 36 mpg for the Jetta diesel.

    More impressive is its 47 mpg on the highway—just a shade below the TDI, and without the diesel’s hesitation on takeoff and noisy low-speed clatter. And the 1.4T stickers for $2,850 less than the comparable diesel that was being sold before the scandal broke.

    As such, the 2016 Volkswagen Jetta 1.4T provides an enticing combination of zip, frugality, and refinement, especially when considering the 1.4T’s automatic transmission vs. the jerky dual-clutch setup that afflicts the diesel.

    Volkswagen limits the 1.4T to relatively basic trim levels, and our SE lacked some common features, such as lumbar adjustment in the cloth-only seats. But the infotainment system now works with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

    Overall, this small turbo gasoline engine considerably weakens the case for diesels on more than one level. If VW needs a comeback player, the 2016 Volkswagen Jetta 1.4T could be it.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the February 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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

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  • 12/28/15--03:00: The Best Cars of 2015
  • The Best Cars of 2015

    As the year winds down, we reflect on the cars that topped our road test Ratings for 2015.

    These models outperformed, outscored, and outclassed their competitors, demonstrating all-round excellence. Common among these all-stars are benchmark acceleration, braking, and handling performance, with superior comfort and convenience to boot. Simply put, these are cars we’d love to own.

    Consumer Reports buys all our tested cars anonymously and puts each through more than 50 tests at our 327-acre test facility in Connecticut. Bottom line: No one tests cars like Consumer Reports. And when we say these cars the best, we have the data to prove it.

    They are listed here, counting from 10th place to 1st, based on overall road test score.  

    Audi A6

    Base MSRP price range: $46,200 - $75,300
    With a tempting array of powertrains, from a turbocharged four-cylinder all the way up to a turbo V8, the A6 is a tempting sedan for luxury buyers. We tested an A6 with the 3.0-liter supercharged V6, which provided smooth acceleration. Paired with a seamless-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission, this engine returned 22 mpg overall. We also sampled the turbocharged four-cylinder, which works well, but it has a raspy engine sound. The A6 supplies a hushed, nicely finished cabin with all-day-comfort seats. This is an engaging sedan, thanks to nimble handling and effortless power from the V6. If you want the same virtues in a sleeker package, and are willing to give up a bit of cabin space, the A7 is a hatchback version built on the same platform. We tested it with the 3.0-liter turbodiesel, but we’ve suspended our recommendation for the diesel version until the Volkswagen diesel-emissions ordeal is resolved. Both the A6 and A7 delivered top-notch owner satisfaction scores in our latest survey, with 84 percent of A7 drivers and 82 percent of A6 owners saying they’d buy it again.

    See our complete Audi A6 road test.


     

    Chevrolet Impala

    Base MSRP price range: $27,970 - $36,415
    The Impala has the distinction of being the least expensive car on our list. Base price is around $28,000, and with a bunch of options, it tops out near $40,000. The interior is roomy, comfortable, and quiet. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Impala is how enjoyable it is to drive. The available 3.6-liter V6 is strong. Handling is very responsive, making the Impala feel more like a German performance sedan than old-school Detroit cruiser. Its ride is very luxurious, feeling cushy yet controlled. The full-featured cabin stays whisper quiet, with a sumptuous backseat and a huge trunk. Updates for 2016 include Apple CarPlay capability, making the easy-to-use infotainment system even better. This sedan is an impressive performer; it shouldn’t be confused with the Impalas of the last decade, which were rental-fleet worthy at best.

    See our complete Chevrolet Impala road test.


     

    Audi A8

    Base MSRP price range: $81,500 - $137,900
    Audi’s flagship is one of the sportiest luxury sedans we've tested. Like its competitors, the A8 carries a price premium for its cachet; our tested model rang up at more than $91,000. The A8 provides effortless acceleration. And yet, fuel economy is a commendable 21 mpg overall—even with the weight of the standard all-wheel-drive system. Part of that is because the Audi makes extensive use of aluminum throughout the A8. The big car holds the road tenaciously, with crisp handling. Inside you’ll find a wonderful interior ambience, with high-quality materials and fine craftsmanship. The exceptionally comfortable and supportive front seats have a variety of massage settings. We’d love to take this car on a cross-country road trip, or any other excuse to get behind the wheel.

    See our complete Audi A8 road test.


     

    Chevrolet Corvette Stingray

    Base MSRP price range: $56,395 - $84,395
    General Motors’ all-American sports car keeps getting better. The seventh-generation Corvette has sharp, head-turning styling that, to the casual observer, looks like it came out of the Ferrari design studio. But the heart of this beast is pure American muscle: a magnificent 6.2-liter V8 that produces 455 hp. Its acceleration will blister asphalt, with the 0-60 mph sprint taking just 4.3 seconds, accompanied by a throaty exhaust soundtrack. Handling is pinpoint, making this the most agile Corvette we’ve ever tested. Gone are the days of, “Goes great straight, just don’t ask it to turn.” With adjustable driving modes, the car can be a civilized cruiser or track-ready race car. We’re not sure anyone needs even more power, but a 650-hp Z06 version is also available. With this generation, the interior accommodations finally match the car’s performance, with body-hugging seats, an easy-to-use infotainment system, and the availability of luxurious leather and suede throughout. Keeping tradition alive, coupe and convertible body styles are available, as are automatic and manual transmissions. The only bummer is that the Corvette’s reliability has dropped to “well below average” according to our survey data—although owners nonetheless gave it a 94-percent approval rating.

    See our complete Chevrolet Corvette Stingray road test.


     

    Mercedes-Benz E250 Diesel

    Base MSRP price range: $52,650 - $55,150
    Looking for a luxury car that's super comfortable and loafs down the highway for more than 800 miles without a fuel stop? What if this particular luxury also aced just about all of our performance tests? That car is no unicorn; it’s the outstanding E-Class E250 Diesel. The well-finished interior is plush and feels substantial, and with interior noise levels akin to a clean room, those bladder-busting trips are a calm, serene experience. Seat comfort is stellar for front and rear occupants, and driver visibility is among the best in any luxury vehicle. The ride is serene, and when pressed, handling is secure and agile. Is there anything this car can’t do? Yeah, stay parked. Judging by the number of miles our staff put on this car, it's an undeniable favorite.

    See our complete Mercedes-Benz E250 road test.
     


     

    Porsche 911

    Base MSRP price range: $88,400 - $194,600
    Like the Corvette, the 911 just keeps getting better. Under the iconic (some say timeless) shape sits a thoroughly modern sports car, capable of delivering both stunning performance and unexpected civility. Part of the Porsche madness are the constant additions to the lineup and the powertrain updates. The base car now has a 370-hp six-cylinder, while the Carrera S gets a 420-hp six, both matched with a seven-speed manual. The Carrera S we tested sang a glorious song as we ran it through the gears. Yes, it’s mightily quick: 0-60 mph takes a brisk and grin-inducing 4.1 seconds. The 911 also corners enthusiastically; it’s uncanny how the car dives into corners, with super-quick turn-in response and not a trace of dartiness or the notorious back-end loopiness of its predecessors. You might not think the 911 would be much of a road-tripper, but the relatively supple ride and decent sound deadening mean long rides aren’t particularly taxing. This 911 truly lives up to all of its highly praised status.

    See our complete Porsche 911 road test.


     

    Mercedes-Benz S550

    Base MSRP price range: $95,650 - $224,650
    Judging by the posh and commodious rear seat, we’ll bet that many S-Class owners aren’t always driving the car. But we’d argue there’s more satisfaction to be had from behind the wheel than sitting in back scrolling through the Economist. The powerful 4.7-liter turbocharged V8 delivers effortless acceleration and managed 18 mpg overall in our tests. The ride is arguably one of the best in the land—if not the best—and the cabin is as hushed as a Bundesbank gold vault. Even though it's large and posh, handling agility is commendable. A coupe version is available, and a plug-in hybrid is new for 2016. If you like your fun in the sun, a convertible version is due out in the spring. This top-shelf Mercedes lives up to its billing as one of the finest sedans on the planet.

    See our complete Mercedes-Benz S550 road test.


     

    BMW M235i

    Base MSRP price range: $44,150 - $50,750
    There are doubters who believe BMW has totally lost its way. Clearly, they haven’t driven the M235i. The small coupe has razor-sharp handling and a sense of immediacy that, admittedly, isn’t found in many recent BMWs. The car responds to steering inputs with instant turn-in response and barely any body lean. Our tested M235i’s terrific 320-hp, 3.0-liter turbo six-cylinder engine is simply a gem of a powerplant. Accompanied by a satisfyingly sonorous exhaust, the BMW M235i responds instantly to every prod of the throttle, with smooth, abundant torque and a solid punch at the top end of the RPM range. The manual shifter is also a delight. Yet all of that comes without a fuel-economy penalty: the BMW’s 25 mpg overall is commendable. The beautifully finished cabin is tastefully accented by a scattering of "M" badges, and the sculpted seats provide comfortable support. All-wheel drive and a convertible version are both available. A 365-hp, 3.0-liter turbo six-cylinder M2 is new for 2016. Simply put, the M235i is proof that BMW still knows how to engineer fun.

    See our complete BMW M235i road test.


     

    Tesla Model S

    Base MSRP price range: $70,000 - $105,000
    Look past its slick styling, futuristic controls, rapid-fire acceleration, and superb handling, and you’ve still got a car that gets the equivalent of 84 mpg. With its optional 85-kWh battery, the largest available, it can travel between 180 and 225 miles per charge. It can fully charge in as little as five hours on a dedicated Tesla connector – and in less than 45 minutes on a roadside Tesla supercharger. The interior comes with a huge iPad-like center screen that controls many functions. How fast is fast? Our 362-hp Model S shot from 0-60 mph in 5.6 seconds. That's on par with a V8-powered Porsche Panamera S, Jaguar XJ, or a BMW 7 Series. The Tesla isn’t cheap—starting at around $70,000—but few cars have dazzled more.

    See our complete Tesla Model S road test.


     

    Tesla Model S P85D

    Base MSRP price range: $105,000
    Two Teslas on our Best of 2015 list? You betcha. We didn’t think it was possible, but the 691-hp P85D wowed us even more than the base model Tesla S. The performance geek in us loves that it rockets to 60 mph in just 3.5 seconds while delivering 1.02 g's of horizontal accelerative force in less than a quarter-second. No other street-legal car can achieve that. The hot rod P85D has the same range as the standard 85-kilowatt version and still provides pinpoint handling, and a firm yet comfortable ride. All-wheel drive and Autopilot active safety features are also available. Even though reliability has dropped to below average, our subscribers rate the Tesla Model S as the most satisfying car in our survey. Considering this model’s otherworldly performance, well, that’s not shocking.

    See our complete Tesla Model S P85D road test.

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

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    Can You Put Plasticware in the Dishwasher?

    Q. I hate hand-washing dishes. Can I put plasticware in the dishwasher?

    A. Yes. Just avoid selecting dishwasher cycles such as “sanitize” that use higher washing or drying temperatures. Heat can cause plastic to degrade, says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., Consumer Reports’ director of safety and sustainability. And it can cause worrisome chemicals such BPA (bisphenol A) to leach from some types of plastic containers. Although most food-storage containers are no longer made with BPA, older plasticware may contain it. BPA has been linked to health issues including cardiovascular disease and an increased risk of breast and prostate cancers.

    Containers may also have other chemicals such as plasticizers and phthalates that can leach. Most dishwasher manufacturers recommend placing plastics and other delicate items on the top rack. And here’s some good news: Using a dishwasher instead of hand-washing can significantly reduce your water and energy consumption. 

    For more information check our Dishwasher Buying Guide.

    Send your questions to ConsumerReports.org/askourexperts.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the February 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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

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  • 12/28/15--12:53: Best Dishwashers of 2015
  • Best Dishwashers of 2015

    Not long ago the inside of most dishwashers looked pretty much the same. But lately manufacturers have gotten more innovative, changing the racks and spray arms to get more water coverage and better cleaning.

    Today’s dishwashers also have to meet tougher Energy Star standards that use less water. All the top picks in our tests scored excellent for cleaning and very good to excellent in our noise tests, guaranteeing quiet operation, something consumers told us they want. Here are five dishwashers to consider from our tests.

    Kenmore Elite 12793, $1,200
    In addition to top-notch performance, the Kenmore Elite 12793 offers an industry first: a motorized spray arm that reverses direction if a utensil falls through the racks and blocks the arm's rotation. Other pluses include a stainless-steel interior. Flexibility options include an adjustable upper rack you can reposition using only one hand. Some controls are hidden, and you'll need to clean the filter manually. A normal cycle takes 145 minutes and used about 5 gallons of water in our tests. Caveats: The model was so-so at drying plastic items, and there's no time-remaining display.

    KitchenAid KDTM704ESS, $1,620
    With nine wash arms, this innovative dishwasher achieves excellent water coverage even in hard-to-reach places. It has a so-called “clean water wash system” that continually removes food waste from the wash water. It was an excellent performer in our tests and saves energy and water, too—washing our load of dirty dishes in 110 minutes with just 4 gallons of water. It costs more than the other top picks on our list but you get extras such as a soil sensor, a third rack, adjustable racks and tines, a bottle wash option, and a lighted interior. Take advantage of the delayed start option and time-remaining display.

    KitchenAid KDTM404ESS, $1,200
    Costing less than its brand mate, this KitchenAid also has super water coverage and employs the self-cleaning wash system that gets rid of food waste throughout the cycle. Both models scored an 81 out of 100 on our tests with excellent scores for cleaning and saving energy in a 110-minute cycle that used 4 gallons of water. So what do you give up? The interior isn’t lighted but you won’t really miss that. This KitchenAid has a third rack, adjustable racks and tines, and a soil sensor. The controls are hidden and include delayed start and a time-remaining display.

    Best Dishwashers for Less

    Kenmore Elite 14793, $900
    Like its more expensive brand mate, this Kenmore aced our washing test, cleaning a very dirty load of 10 place settings in 145 minutes using 5 gallons of water. It’s an energy miser and got our top scores for noise, or lack thereof. As far as special features go, the Kenmore 14793 has an easily adjustable upper rack and tines, plenty of flatware slots and a soil sensor. You have to clean the filter by hand but that contributes to the quietness. The interior is stainless steel and indicator lights tell you when it’s running and for how long.

    Bosch Ascenta SHX3AR7[5]UC, $700
    A perennial winner and CR Best Buy, this Bosch dishwasher delivers top performance for a very competitive price. It aced our wash test, and was very good at drying plastic items. It was also among the quietest models during fill, wash, and draining and was especially energy-efficient. Bosch is among the more reliable dishwasher brands. For flexibility, it has delayed start, ample flatware slots, and adjustable upper rack and tines. All controls are hidden, the interior is a mix of stainless and plastic, and you'll need to clean the filter manually. A normal cycle took 95 minutes and used almost 6 gallons of water in our tests. On the minus side, this model doesn't display remaining cycle time. You can buy a similar model, the Bosch Ascenta SHE3ARF[ ]UC at Lowe’s for $540.

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

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    Hot Tech to Watch for at CES 2016

    If you want a glimpse of the technology consumers will be seeing in 2016, pay attention to the news from CES, the enormous trade show taking place in Las Vegas next week. Consumer Reports will be heading out to the show, where we expect to see tons of new tablets, laptops, drones, robots, gaming peripherals, cameras, and other products. While all those categories will generate news, we think that the following trends are the ones that will matter most to consumers.

    4K TVs with HDR, Plus More OLEDS

    Next year, 4K UHD sets will dominate store shelves—and at CES 2016, TV makers are moving on to other ways to enhance their displays. Many will be focusing on high dynamic range, or HDR, technology, which boosts contrast and color accuracy to make the picture more vibrant. Technical standards for HDR have now been set, and that should lead to a big increase in the amount of HDR content available—until now, it's been severely restricted, showing up mainly in a few Amazon Prime shows. (Confusion alert: Video HDR is different from HDR in cameras, in which multiple images with different exposures are combined to create a single, richer-looking photo.) In related TV news, 4K Blu-ray players will launch at CES 2016, and you’ll start to hear a lot about Chinese brands that most Americans don’t know. Finally, we expect to see more OLED TVs, which should be good news for television lovers who failed to buy a plasma TV before that technology disappeared. The rich, deep black levels of plasma have been reborn in OLEDs, which now top our Ratings. However, right now only LG is selling these sets; at CES, we expect to see one or two more manufacturers join in. 

    Virtual Reality, Now on Sale

    Virtual reality headsets and games have been a hot, almost-here technology at CES for the past few years, with companies showing off prototypes or equipment meant for content developers. It was only in 2015 that the Google Cardboard and the Samsung Gear VR put this cutting edge technology in front of the eyes of everyday consumers. At CES 2016, virtual reality is taking over a sizeable corner of the Las Vegas Convention Center. And we expect to see real-people-ready versions of the Oculus Rift, Sony PlayStation VR (aka Project Morpheus), HTC Vive, and other headsets. The primary use for all this technology is gaming, but CES-goers will also see VR used in other applications. For instance, Lowe’s Holoroom, which is already in limited distribution at the company's home centers, lets customers design a room, then explore it in a VR environment. We also expect to see lots of 360-degree cameras for shooting VR content, along with demonstrations of how virtual reality can be used in education.

    The Internet of Things You Wear

    Fitness trackers are mainstream devices now, and smartwatches have moved from a niche category into solid early-adopter territory. But those are just two subsets in the wearable-tech world. At CES 2016, more than 40 companies will be showing off wearables that will range from jewelry to computerized sports clothing to headphones with bio-tracking features—along with devices for measuring blood pressure, sleep cycles, and other health data. Finally, smartwatches will continue to take on fitness tracking features, while some fitness trackers will edge closer to smartwatch territory. 

    The Internet of Everything Else

    Houses that track their owners are either super useful or deeply creepy, depending on your perspective. But many companies at CES are going all in on the concept. Among the many connected products at CES, we expect to see more voice-activated devices such as the Sengled Voice—a microphone-plus-speaker built into an LED bulb—and off-beat products such as the Somabar, an automated cocktail-mixing machine that can be controlled from a smartphone. And, of course, major appliance makers (LG, Samsung) will be showing off their own products. We'll also be watching the development of competing smart-home ecosystems—including Google’s Works with Nest, Apple’s HomeKit, Amazon’s Echo compatibles, and Samsung’s SmartThings.
     

    CES: The First Car Show of 2016

    The Detroit Auto Show takes place just a week after CES, but that doesn’t keep Toyota, Audi, Chevrolet, Daimler Benz and other automakers from showing up in Vegas armed with innovative technologies. The production version of the all-electric Chevy Bolt, which we reported on last year, is set to debut in Vegas—as will a concept vehicle from electric car startup Faraday Future, whose leadership ranks are filled with Tesla alumni. Autonomous parking and steps toward autonomous driving were big topics at CES in 2015. This year, Ford is reportedly going to provide details on a joint venture with Google to build self-driving vehicles. We should also see a new digital-mapping initiative from Toyota, an intro from Volkswagen that could be a new microbus, and advances in user interfaces such as BMW’s AirTouch gesture-control system.

     

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

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    The Most Satisfying Commuter Cars

    Accidents, traffic, road closures, and jerks who won’t let you merge. These are all part of what you can encounter on your daily commute—sometimes within the first few miles. Add an unpleasant driving experience to that mix, and it’s no wonder surveys show that people who commute regularly are pretty frustrated and tired. According to the 2013 American Community Survey, the average full-time worker in the U.S. has a 26-minute commute to work—almost five hours a week for a daily round-trip commute.

    So while commuting is a chore, there are ways to make it more tolerable. Assuming you’re set on driving for whatever reason (schedule, limited mass transit options, can’t bike to work), choosing the right vehicle will go a long way to lowering commute-based stress levels.

    In this year’s Annual Auto Survey, we gathered owner satisfaction data on about 230,000 vehicles less than three years old. One of the things we asked our subscribers was how satisfying their vehicles were for commuting, and to give us specifics about why their vehicle was the ideal commuter car.

    The list is presented in rank order, counting down from the most satisfying, the Tesla Model S.

    1) Tesla Model S

    This sporty four-door luxury car seats five (or seven with the optional rear-facing jump seats) and just happens to be electric. With its optional 85-kWh battery—the largest available—it can travel between 180 and 225 miles per charge and can be fully charged in as little as five hours on a dedicated Tesla connector. Performance is exceptional, with thrilling acceleration, pinpoint handling, and a firm yet comfortable ride. A huge iPad-like center screen controls many functions. Drawbacks include tight access, restricted visibility, and range limitations, especially in cold weather. All-wheel drive, Autopilot active safety features, and the 691-hp P85D performance model are also available. Although tops for owner satisfaction, predicted reliability slid this year to be worse than average.

    Subscribers said:
    “It is a joy to drive: comfortable, agile, responsive, quiet, and ‘green.’”
    “Driver assist and cruise control with tracking are very convenient for routine rush hour stop and go traffic.”
    “Auto Pilot 1.0 keeps a safe distance between my car and others; Quiet; Comfortable; Navigation automatically adjusts to the fastest route (huge when the 405 is backed up).”

    Read our complete Tesla Model S road test.

    2) Chevrolet Volt

    An electric car with a backup engine to extend its typical 35-mile electric range, the Volt is quick, quiet, and responsive, with a taut ride. Its four-seat capacity limits practicality, the rear seat is cramped, and visibility is poor. Once the lithium-ion battery is depleted, the 1.4-liter engine acts as a generator to extend the range by 315 miles. We averaged the equivalent of 99 mpg in electric mode and 32 mpg—on premium—when it switched over to gasoline. Recharging takes 4 hours using a 240-volt supply and 10 hours with 120 volts. For 2015, the battery storage capacity was increased from 16 to 17.1 kWh, probably leading to more EV-only miles. A redesigned 2016 Volt is now on sale, with a promised 53-mile electric-only range.

    Subscribers said:
    “Essentially I gave myself a raise. My electric bill increased about $100 overall. However my employer has free charging stations at work, so I no longer pay the cost of commuting home. The HOV sticker took me about 60 seconds to appreciate.”
    “Able to complete my daily commute using no gas on most days. The car is much more comfortable than I anticipated. Nice to see an American manufacturer stepping up to the plate with a great EV.”
    “My wife uses this car for her daily commute. She can do so easily on battery alone, even on the coldest days. We then recharge overnight in the garage at a fraction of the cost of a gasoline powered vehicle. The car is smooth, comfortable and quiet.

    Read our complete Chevrolet Volt road test.

    3) Nissan Leaf

    The electric Leaf has a 75-mile typical range. A full charge took us six-hours using a 240-volt outlet, but charge times have been shortened since our tests. We measured the equivalent of 106 mpg, and running costs are 3.5-cents per mile at the national average of 11-cents per kWh. The ride is comfortable, but handling isn’t particularly agile. The rear seat is roomy, but the cargo area is rather small. Standard features include a heated steering wheel and seats, and top models get electric heating that uses 30-percent less energy. Unfortunately, the Leaf scored a Poor in the IIHS small-overlap crash test. For 2016, SV and SL versions can be equipped with a 30 kWh battery with a claimed 107-mile range.

    Subscribers said:
    “This car is pretty much a perfect commuter car. Plenty of power, comfortable and super quiet. And of course it NEVER NEEDS GAS!!!”
    “Perfect commuter car, can use HOV lane, CHEAP to operate, enough range for daily commute and more.”

    Read our complete Nissan Leaf road test.

    4) Ford C-Max

    Based on the Focus compact car, the five-passenger C-Max hybrid is a clever, quiet, spacious, and practical hatchback. It rides well and handles with agility. Regenerative braking helps with fuel economy but makes the brake pedal feel touchy. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder and electric motor deliver adequate acceleration and seamless transitions between gas and electric power, and the C-Max can run in electric mode up to about 40 mph. We measured an excellent 37 mpg overall. The Energi plug-in can travel in electric-only mode for about 18 miles before reverting to hybrid operation. It takes six hours to charge on 120-volt and two hours on 240-volt. For the 2016 model year, Sync 3 replaces the much-maligned MyFord Touch infotainment system.

    Subscribers said:
    “Great car, great gas mileage. Plenty of room. This has become the most popular car in the house.”
    “98% of my commuting and local driving is within the approximate 25-mile range for this car to run 100% on a battery charge from when I was last at home. Thus, the vast majority of my use is electric with only a tiny bit of gasoline mileage.”

    Read our complete Ford C-Max road test.

    5) Lexus ES

    Lexus ultimately hurt the ride comfort and made the controls overly complex with the current ES. In our tests, the powerful 3.5-liter V6 and six-speed automatic got a good 25 mpg overall. The ride is on the stiff side and is made worse with the optional 18-inch wheels. Handling is sound but unexceptional. Inside, the quiet cabin looks good at first, but some cheap touches are apparent. The control interface is distracting and convoluted. For those who don’t care about the best driving dynamics, the ES is a simpler, roomier alternative to similarly-priced sports sedans. The hybrid is more appealing, in our opinion, thanks to its combination of size and luxury, and class-leading 36 mpg overall and 44 on the highway in our tests. But after all, a Toyota Camry provides much of the same for less money.

    Subscribers said:
    “Good pickup, blind-spot monitoring, smooth ride, quiet.”
    “Amazingly quiet and gets excellent gas mileage for the size car.”

    Read our complete Lexus ES road test.

    6) Mazda3

    Whether as a sedan or hatchback, the Mazda3 is fun to drive, thanks to its great handling. At 33 mpg, the Mazda3 is the most fuel-efficient compact that isn’t a hybrid or a diesel. It also offers a host of luxury features rarely matched by any other small car, including a multimedia system with a large center screen and active safety features like a blind-spot monitoring system. Despite the owner takes below, our testers found that the Mazda3 tends to be loud on the highway, and ride comfort isn’t stellar. The multimedia controls can be daunting at first and take a while to master, and other compact sedans have roomier rear seats.

    Subscribers said:
    “Excellent acceleration; easy to change speeds in slow traffic; good gas mileage.”
    “Gets great gas mileage, love the car, it's quiet and very comfortable.”

    Read our complete Mazda3 road test.

    7) Subaru Legacy

    The Legacy is one of the roomier, quieter, and more refined midsized sedans, helping it become our top-scoring car in the class. Its ride is better than some luxury cars, and handling is sound and secure. The 2.5-liter four-cylinder is no rocket, but it gets the job done and returns 26 mpg overall. A stronger, quieter 3.6-liter six-cylinder is also available. The unobtrusive continuously variable transmission behaves much like a conventional automatic. The infotainment improvements include a 6.2-inch touch screen and multifunction display with Internet radio and Bluetooth. New safety features include a standard rear-view camera and an available rear radar system with blind-spot, cross-traffic, and lane-change warnings.

    Subscribers said:
    “Excellent visibility, top of the line vehicle with all of the latest safety features, excellent engine and CVT transmission. All wheel drive—expect it will provide excellent traction during upcoming winter.”
    “I love the safety features of the vehicle. They have prevented problems in high-density traffic.”

    Read our complete Subaru Legacy road test.

    8) Toyota Prius

    The Prius is extremely economical, averaging 44 mpg overall and 55 mpg on the highway in our tests. With light throttle input, it can quietly drive on electric power up to 25 mph. The ride is firm yet steady, and handling is sound and secure though not particularly agile. Road noise is pronounced. The interior is roomy, but fit and finish is just so-so and some controls take time to master. The plug-in version typically delivers around 12 miles on electricity, boosting mileage to the equivalent of 67 mpg. When the electric range is depleted, the car reverts to regular Prius performance, averaging 43 mpg overall. A redesigned Prius, with an EPA-estimated 52 mpg combined, goes on sale in early 2016.

    Subscribers said:
    “I can get on the HOV lane when driving alone, which saves me a great deal of time on a very long commute. I save a great deal of money on gas and feel very good about helping the planet.”
    “The Prius is excellent on gas mileage because of it's electric/gas hybrid system. I can now drive to work using gasoline to propel my car, half of the time, saving big on gas costs, as well as helping the environment.”

    Read our complete Toyota Prius road test.

    9) Honda Accord

    The four-cylinder Accord is well-equipped, competitively priced, and performs well, making it one of our top-rated family sedans. It handles responsively, though the ride can be choppy. It has a roomy and well-finished interior, and gets 30 mpg overall with its unobtrusive CVT. The 3.5-liter V6 is lively and refined, and gets a very good 26 mpg overall. But the infotainment system on high-end versions is unintuitive. The Hybrid model returned 40 mpg overall but is on a hiatus for 2016; Honda has promised to bring it back with an updated powertrain in 2017.

    Subscribers said:
    “Excellent handling-sport model. Great gas mileage. Roomy, comfortable, great view on all sides while driving, easy to drive. Feels like quality. Reliability history solid.”
    “Its excellent fuel economy, good handling, comfortable seats, and smooth transmission make it an economical and enjoyable vehicle in which to commute.”

    Read our complete Honda Accord road test.

    10) Volkswagen Passat

    The midsized Passat sedan has a lot going for it, including generous interior space, responsive handling, and a comfortable, quiet ride. The primary powertrain is an energetic 1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder and a six-speed automatic. High-end versions use a powerful 3.6-liter V6. The 1.8-liter turbo averaged a very good 28 mpg overall and 39 on the highway. Front seats are accommodating but very firm. Extra-spacious rear seats are a big plus, and the trunk is huge, but fit and finish is more mundane than spectacular. We tested the Passat diesel, but the evaluation took place prior to the EPA notification of emissions violations. We will retest the Passat once a recall repair is completed.

    Subscribers said:
    “Comfortable, quiet ride with great sound system to listen to back and forth to work. Great gas mileage!”
    “Comfortable ride. Great fuel mileage. Rear leg room and spacious trunk.”

    Read our complete Volkswagen Passat road test.

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  • 12/29/15--06:32: Best Emergency Gear of 2015
  • Best Emergency Gear of 2015

    Generators, snow blowers, and chain saws are something you probably don't think much about until you really need them. Like when you're sitting in darkness while your neighbor's house is lit because his generator is humming along or when you look forlornly at a cleared driveway when yours is still covered in snow. After a few rough storms, or a tree across the driveway, homeowners often come to the decision that it's time to get some emergency gear. Here are some top picks from Consumer Reports' 2015 tests.

    Generators

    The inverter-style, gasoline-powered Honda EU7000is, $4,000, topped our generator Ratings due to its especially quiet running, but for $3,000 less the 6,800-watt Ridgid RD906812B also provides ample power, cleanly and consistently. You get a number of helpful features for the price, including electric start, low-oil shutoff (which protects the engine from overheating if the oil level dips too low), and fuel shutoff, which prevents leaks and keeps gas from getting trapped in the fuel system and spoiling during storage. You also get a low-oil light to tell you why it shut down in that instance.

    You might prefer a generator that kicks in automatically when the power goes out. So-called stationary (or standby) generators check themselves routinely and display a notice or can text or email you if there’s a problem. The Kohler 8.5 RES-QS7, $3,200 not including installation, delivered 7,000 watts of smooth, steady power using natural gas and 1,500 more using propane. It was also among the quietest of the stationary models we tested, and it shuts down automatically if the engine-oil level gets low. An add-on module, $475, lets you monitor your generator’s status from anywhere on your computer.

    Snow Blowers

    The hands-down winner from our snow-blower tests is the gasoline-powered Cub Cadet 3X 30HD 31AH57SZ710, $1,650, which uses a novel second impeller to give this 30-inch, two-stage Cub Cadet super-fast clearing. That plus enough throwing distance for wide driveways are the major perks, along with easy steering. The price includes electric starting and a headlight. It's the perfect pick for large driveways, consistently heavy snows up to about 24 inches—or occasional winter blizzards where you want the ultimate in clearing speed.

    Our snow-blower Ratings also include more compact gasoline-powered models such as the 24-inch Craftsman 88173, $680. For lighter snowfalls and easier storage, consider the single-stage gasoline-powered Toro Power Clear 721E, $570. The 21-inch unit is powerful enough for a moderate-size snowfall, yet light enough to lift onto a porch or deck, with removal speed and plow-pile performance that were tops in this group.

    Chain Saws

    It’s hard to beat the Stihl MS 180 C-BE, $230, for a fine, all-around performing chain saw. While most of the lighter-duty gas-powered models in our chain saw tests cost under $200, ultrafast cutting and a relatively light weight help justify this 16-inch saw’s higher price. Also handy are a chain brake and tool-free chain adjustment, along with a durable blade cover.

    Should you prefer a chain saw for infrequent cutting of fallen branches and other light work, consider a corded-electric saw such as the $100 Worx WG303.1. In addition to being faster and better balanced than its larger 18-inch sibling, the Worx WG304.1, this saw had cutting speed on a par with the fastest light-duty gas saws we tested. Other pluses include a chain brake, tool-free chain adjustment, and a durable bar cover for safe storage. But as with other plug-in saws, you'll need to work within 100 feet of an outlet. One caveat: There's no vibration dampening.

    More choices. If you're new to shopping for any of these products, don't head out to the store or dealership without some familiarity with the functions and features that might matter most to you. For that, see our buying guides for generators, snow blowers, and chain saws.

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    Rules for Last-Minute Donations to Charity

    Procrastinators, take note. If you want to donate to a charity and have it count toward your 2015 taxes, be aware of the different rules that apply to different types of charitable gifts and how they're delivered.  

    If You're Giving Cash

    U.S. Postal Service delivery. If you're mailing a check to a charity through the U.S. Postal Service, your donation is good for tax-year 2015 if the postmark on your envelope or package is before midnight on December 31. That's because your donation conforms with the Treasury Department's "delivered when mailed" rule.

    For proof, though, don't just drop your envelope in the mailbox; it might not get postmarked until January 2. Send it registered or certified mail. Keep the receipt and a copy of your canceled check for your file. Or, send it via Express Mail and keep the receipt.

    • Delivery by private mail service. If you're sending a check to a charity through a private service such as UPS, the IRS's "delivered when mailed" rule doesn't apply. (Notably, it does apply when you send a tax return via a private mail service.) So if you must send a check this way, you'll need to contact the charity before or on December 31 to ensure it received your payment. Ask for a confirmation via email, if possible.

    • Credit card. If your donation appears on your credit-card statement as a December charge, it's good for 2015, says IRS spokesman Eric Smith. That's so even if the charity doesn't get around to processing the donation and sending you a receipt until January.

    • Text. When you donate to a charitable appeal by inputting a code into your cell phone, the donation date later appears on your cell phone bill. If your gift shows up as a charge on your cell phone bill made before January 1, you can itemize it for 2015.

    • Pay-by-phone account. In this case, you respond to a text message by linking to a mobile-optimized web page that takes your credit-card information. So the date of donation is the same as when you pay by credit card. In other words, it's good if it's no later than December 31. You should find that date on your monthly credit-card statement.

    If You're Donating Investment Securities

    • Electronic transfers of securities. When you direct your broker to transfer securities to a charity, it's only considered a done deal when the funds are transferred from your account into another account. "With stock and illiquid assets, they can’t be in transit; someone has to own them." says Karla Valas, a managing director at Fidelity Charitable, a donor-advised fund connected with Fidelity Investments.

    In real terms, the electronic transfer of ownership happens nearly instantaneously with investment securities, Valas says. Many large charities have their own brokerage accounts, so transferring securities from your account to the charity's happens as soon as your broker submits your order.

    If you're dealing with a smaller charity without a brokerage account and you're concerned about your donated stock counting toward this year's deduction, consider contributing through a donor-advised fund, sponsored by a public charity.

    As the National Philanthropic Trust explains, the donor-advised fund is like a charitable savings account; you transfer your securities to it and get a tax deduction immediately. Then you can take your time deciding where the money should go. Once you've decided where the money should go, the fund takes responsibility for distributing your securities to the charities you've named.

    Your donated securities are considered eligible for a tax deduction the moment you transfer them to the donor-advised fund, because the fund is itself a charity by IRS standards. So you get a little edge, time-wise. What is more, the value of your donation for tax purposes stays the same even if the securities drop in value by the time they're actually distributed to your named charities.

    David Yeske, principal of Yeske Buie, a financial advisory located in San Francisco and Vienna, Va., says donor-advised funds are appropriate for anyone who gets a significant tax benefit from charitable giving. Valas notes that setting up such a fund through Fidelity Charitable takes a few minutes and costs nothing. The fund makes its money by charging an annual fee, maxing out at 0.60 percent of assets.

    • Stock certificates. In the rare instance that you're donating actual stock certificates, you'll need to make sure you've properly endorsed them; check with the issuing corporation for directions. If you're mailing those certificates yourself, the same rules apply as for a mailed check: The donation date is the same as the postmark.  

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    Last-Minute Charitable Donation From Your IRA: What to Know

    Legislation signed by President Obama earlier this month permanently enables individuals ages 70 1/2 and older to make a donation of up to $100,000 directly from an IRA to charity. Taxpayers can't get a charitable deduction from this type of donation (called a qualified charitable distribution, or QCD), but effectively they get the same tax break. That's because the QCD amount is subtracted from taxable income.

    The new law had been a temporary measure that got extended annually by Congress for years. It lets spouses each donate $100,000 from their individual accounts toward a QCD, for a total of $200,000 a year.

    Some quirky rules apply to QCDs. For one, unlike regular charitable donations, QCDs must be in cash. So if you're planning one of these, contact your brokerage immediately to ensure there's still time to liquidate holdings and have the donation count. Here's more to know:

    • Donations from cash or money-market accounts. If you're writing a check yourself from your IRA account and sending it directly to the charity, the charity must cash the check before the QCD can be eligible for a tax break. So for a last-minute donation, you'll need to follow up with your brokerage to ensure the check has cleared.

    "It's not true that the charity just has to receive the check," says Maura Cassidy, director of retirement products at Fidelity Investments. "The money has to come out of the account by December 31."

    • Gifts of less than $10,000 from non-cash investments. Your broker can liquidate holdings and send the money directly to the charity; the donation date is when the check is sent. Cassidy notes that in her company's case, the donation envelopes go directly to a postal facility by the Fidelity campus in Covington, Ky.

    • Contributions of $10,000 or more from non-cash investments. Your brokerage firm will have to liquidate the holdings and then mail you a check; you'll then have to post it and get confirmation that the charity has cashed it in time. Unless you've got a personal courier, that might be difficult to do in the next two days.

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    The Best Refrigerators of 2015

    More than 125 refrigerators passed through Consumer Reports' labs this year. We put each through a battery of tough tests—cranking up the temperature in our climate-controlled labs to see how well they keep their cool, checking the decibels coming off their compressor with a noise meter, even taking a tape measure to their interior to see how much storage capacity they really have.

    Refrigerators need to ace those tests to be considered for our best-of-the-year list. But we’re also looking for groundbreaking innovations, design enhancements with staying power, and unique features that make life easier in the kitchen. With that, here are the standouts from 2015.

    Best 3-Door French-Door Bottom-Freezer

    Samsung RF28HDEDPWW $2,700
    This 36-inch-wide Samsung is like the Stephen Curry of refrigerators—it does everything really, really well. Combining superb temperature control, whisper-quiet operation, and exceptional efficiency, it nabbed the highest overall score of all tested models. Plus it’s loaded with innovations, including a door-in-door compartment, so you don't have to reach all the way into the main chamber for beverages and condiments, and an extra-tall ice and water dispenser with a cool blue LED display.

    Best 4-Door French-Door Bottom-Freezers

    LG LPCS34886C, $6,000
    True four-door bottom-freezers are the big thing in refrigerators—and none is bigger than this LG, whose 24.4 cubic feet of usable capacity is the most we’ve ever measured. At 73 inches, it’s taller than most French-door fridges, and it’s priced bigger too at $6,000. The luxury LG features a unique luminous glass finish with integrated LCD display panel, as well as door-in-door compartments on both upper doors. In terms of performance, the LG combines superb temperature control, efficiency, and noise, for a top score among four-door models.

    Samsung RF23J9011SR, $3,000
    Here’s another true four-door that nailed our various performance tests. Where the 36-inch-wide Samsung stands apart from the LG is with its convertible lower-right chamber, which can function as either a freezer or refrigerator, allowing you to change the ratio of available fresh to frozen storage.

    Kenmore Elite 72483, $3,000  
    Most four-door refrigerators still feature a middle drawer, including this 36-inch-wide Kenmore, which aced our temperature and energy tests and is also remarkably quiet. The middle drawer offers four digital settings, ranging from meat to seafood to deli snacks to drinks, making it a versatile storage option for busy households. Like most of our favorite fridges, it also features dual evaporative cooling, which should help keep your food fresh for longer by maintaining optimal humidity levels.

    Best 5-Door French-Door Bottom-Freezer

    KitchenAid KRMF706EBS, $4,000  
    Yes, we just said four-door fridges are the big thing in fridges. But the first five-door refrigerators also came to market in 2015, including this sleek offering from KitchenAid, with a pair of matching soft-close middle drawers. The 36-inch-wide fridge comes in KitchenAid’s new black stainless steel finish, which offers a warmer, smudge-proof alternative to traditional stainless. The platinum interior is also new. Textured handles with iconic KitchenAid medallions burnish the five-door styling even more.

    Best Side-by-Sides

    GE Profile PSS28KSHSS, $1,800
    Side-by-sides remain a popular configuration for compact kitchens, where their narrow door swings are a real space saver; a lot of people also prefer their vertical freezer storage. This GE delivers solid cooling and efficiency and comes loaded with convenience features, including gallon door storage, adjustable glass shelves that slide out to make room for taller items, and all-LED lighting that makes it easy to find items.

    LG LSXS26366S, $1,700
    Though technically a side-by-side, this LG combines that configuration with elements of French-door design—specifically the door-in-door compartment on the fresh-food side. In addition to that convenience feature, the 36-inch-wide model boasts outstanding temperature control and energy efficiency, plus it’s among the quietest models we tested this year. A slim icemaker expands storage space in the freezer.

    Best Built-ins

    Miele MasterCool KF1903SF, $8,600  
    It was a big year for built-ins, including the expansion of Miele into the category. The German-based manufacturer wasted no time taking over the top spot in our Ratings with this 36-inch-wide bottom-freezer. Superb temperature control and whisper-quiet operation distinguished it from the pack. Its features include spillproof glass shelves, touchpad controls, and stylish contoured door handles.

    Jenn-Air JF42NXFXDE, $8,500 
    Breaking from the usual stainless steel interior of the built-in category, this 42-inch-wide French-door model has a black “Obsidian” interior that definitely makes opening the fridge a different experience. Glass shelves and LED lighting create additional contrast and we also really like the soft-close crisper drawers. In terms of performance, the Jenn-Air combines outstanding temperature control, energy efficiency, and quietness.

    Best Top-Freezer

    LG LTCS20220S, $900
    There was a shuffling at the top of the top-freezer category, with the arrival of this 30-inch wide, which also happens to be a CR Best Buy (that’s not something we see very often). It offers pretty basic looks, though you can at least get it in stainless steel. Glass shelves, instead of the wire ones you see in many top-freezers, also add a touch of style. Performance is solid across the board.

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    2015 Automotive Year in Review

    It's an annual tradition for “Talking Cars with Consumer Reports” to look at the test cars that stood out and the ones that we wished we could have avoided completely.

    But first, no year-in-review would be complete without talking about the biggest automotive story of the year, Volkswagen's admission of cheating on Environmental Protection Agency emissions testing with its TDI diesel engines. This scandal highlighted the challenges of making modern diesel engines clean, bringing the value of diesel engines into question.

    Turns out that Volkswagen offers it own alternative to its diesels with a new 1.4-liter turbocharged gasoline engine. As Consumer Reports testing of two different Jettas revealed, this refined and efficient gasoline engine further hurts the case of diesel engines in passenger cars.

    We then move on to discussing the cars that stood out over the last year, mostly from our test fleet. These aren't necessarily the highest-scoring cars in our Ratings, but rather the ones that left an impression on us.

    It was a good year for SUVs, with widespread approval of the Audi Q3, Ford Edge, and Kia Sorento, while the Volvo XC90 proves somewhat divisive among our testers. There was also plenty of agreement about which test cars were let-downs, with universal disdain for the Acura ILX, Fiat 500X, and Land Rover Discovery Sport.  

    As with the other "Taking Cars," this episode is also available free through the iTunes Store. Subscribe to the video or audio. You'll also find the video on YouTube.

    Share your comments on this show below, and let us know if you need any advice for choosing a car.

  • Debating Two Thrilling Mercedes-Benz AMG Cars, episode 83
  • Honda Civic, Lexus RX, & Owner Satisfaction, episode 82
  • Pros and Cons of Tesla's Autopilot, episode 81
  • Car Reliability Trends, episode 80
  • All-Wheel-Drive: What Is It Good For?, episode 79
  • Making Sense of the Volkswagen Diesel Mess, episode 78

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  • 12/29/15--13:35: The Best Vacuums of 2015
  • The Best Vacuums of 2015

    Anyone with a dog or cat—or teenager—appreciates the power of a capable vacuum. To test vacuum cleaners at Consumer Reports we buy special cat hair and embed it in medium pile carpet. Then we put the newest upright, canister, small, and robotic vacuums through a battery of tough tests to see how they perform. But we don’t stop there. We also toss sand on a bare floor and clean it up and we measure the emissions and noise from each model. Here are the best choices from this year’s batch of vacs.

    Best Upright Vacuums

    Best bagged upright
    Kenmore Elite 31150, $350
    Strong airflow for tools, scant emissions, and superb pet-hair pickup are top attractions of this Kenmore bagged upright. While you can get a fine performer for less, its price includes such helpful features as a brush on/off switch, which safeguards a bare floor's finish and prevents scattering of debris; suction control (protects drapes); and manual carpet pile-height adjustment. Kenmore has been a solid performer in our tests over the past several years, though a notch below Miele and LG overall.

    Best bagless upright
    Hoover WindTunnel T-Series Rewind Bagless UH70120, $130
    Impressive cleaning and super pet-hair pickup helped put this bagless upright on our winner's list. This model also delivers lots of suction for tools, manual carpet pile-height adjustment (better for matching the brush to the surface), and a retractable cord—all in a low-priced, relatively light machine that weighs just 18 pounds. Two things this value-priced model doesn't include: suction control for drapes and a brush on/off switch to safeguard bare floors and prevent scattered debris. Among upright brands, Hoover has been a solid performer in our tests.

    Best Canister Vacuums

    Best bagged canister
    Kenmore Elite 81714, $400
    Overall this is a very good canister vacuum cleaner. It did a very good job removing embedded dirt from carpets. When cleaning surfaces such as kitchen and hardwood floors, this model was an excellent performer. Its impressive pet-hair pickup is a benefit for dog and cat owners. This model was judged good for handling and weighs 25 pounds. The Kenmore has impressive suction when cleaning with tools. This model is one of the few that's compatible with the new ultra-plush carpets.

    Best bagless canister
    Kenmore 22614, $350
    Superb cleaning, lots of airflow for tools, and fairly quiet running helped make this bagless canister a top pick. This Kenmore is also a great choice if you have a cat or dog. Key features include manual carpet pile-height adjustment (better for matching brush to surface), suction control (protects drapes when using tools), a brush on/off switch (safeguards bare floors), and a retractable cord. But handling this vac's 23 pounds took some muscle. And emptying a bagless vacuum's bin can be a messy chore. Among canister brands, Kenmore has consistently been among our top performers.

    Best Small Vacuums

    Best hand vacuum
    Eureka Easy Clean 71B, $50
    Eureka's corded hand vacuum was better suited for pickup on bare floors and at edges, but it was impressive overall and fairly quiet. Pluses include a large dust bin, onboard tool storage, and an electric rotating brush that adapts for vertical surfaces. But the exhaust from the powerful motor can blow debris around before it can be picked up. And it’s on the heavy side for a hand vacuum.

    Best stick vacuum
    Dyson V6, $300
    This tall, slim, stick vacuum has the trademark Dyson styling. It aced our tests for carpet, bare floors, pet hair, and edges, thus vaulting it to the top of the stick vacuum group. Its scores for noise were middling and it takes four hours to charge the lithium ion battery, which results in just seven minutes of run time. But Dyson fans will find the V6 is a keeper.

    Best Robotic Vacuum

    Roomba 880, $700
    While on the expensive side, there's no beating this Roomba's ability to clean carpet surfaces and bare floors, including edges. You can set a different program for each day. And, as with the other robotics in our tests, it includes a quick-setup guide. On the minus side, we found programming a challenge, and we needed to clear cat hair from the brush. Still, this robotic is a winner overall.

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    Free Money Moves to Make in 2016

    If 2016 is the year you've vowed to get into financial shape, you might want to start by learning whether there's money out there rightfully due to you. You may be surprised to find that many people can get free money from unexpected places.

    Look for Unclaimed Funds

    One way to start is to check with your state's unclaimed funds department for money left in savings and investment accounts, forgotten rental deposits, and dividends that never were delivered. The first place to look is at the website, unclaimed.org, run by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators. You'll then be directed to your state's unclaimed funds page.

    When I tried this in 2015, I uncovered $231.55 in free money from two investment accounts my grandmother had opened in both our names years ago. I had to wait two months to get the checks from my state, but the actual effort took me about an hour.

    Adjust Your Withholding

    Federal tax refunds for 2015 averaged more than $2,700. Based on refund trends the IRS has reported in recent years, I'd wager that figure will be about the same in 2016. While that can feel like free money to a lot of people, it's actually funds that you could have received earlier in your paycheck, albeit in smaller amounts. By adjusting your withholding, you'll ensure that the extra tax that you've been paying the IRS each pay period lands in your pocket instead.

    The IRS's Withholding Calculator can help you determine the number of exemptions you should be claiming, which is the basis of your withholding. It's then a simple step to fill out a new IRS Form W-9 to establish your withholding and give it to your employer.

    To be sure, this strategy may not be attractive to the many folks who view their refunds as forced savings. But keep in mind that the IRS doesn't pay you interest on the money it withholds. So if you have the discipline, arrange for the extra sum in your paycheck to be direct-deposited each pay period into a savings or retirement account. That way it has the opportunity to grow over time.

    Boost Your 401(k) Contribution

    OK, this isn't exactly free money. You actually may have to kick in more money to your 401(k) plan to earn more. But if, like 88 percent of employees, you participate in a retirement plan that offers an employer match once you contribute, you owe it to yourself to at least get the maximum match possible. That really is free money.

    The Plan Sponsor Council of America, which represents sponsors and servicers of employer-based retirement plans, has estimated that the average match from an employer-based plan is 4.5 percent. Typically, to get that full match, you'll have to contribute up to 6 percent of your own money.

    Check Your Auto Insurance Coverage

    Our exhaustive study of auto insurance pricing showed that you may not always benefit from customer loyalty discounts. So if you haven't shopped for coverage in the last three years, it's worth checking auto-insurance comparison sites to see what you can save.

    Even if you find your own coverage is still the least expensive, you still may find savings within your policy. Depending on where you live, raising a deductible to $1,000 from zero could reduce your collision deductible by as much as 47 percent. Consider dropping collision and/or comprehensive when the annual premium for that portion of that coverage exceeds 10 percent of your car's book value.

    Correct Mistakes in Your Credit Report

    Your credit score, which is based on information in your credit reports, can affect how much you'll pay in interest on credit cards, auto loans, mortgages and other debt; how high a premium you'll be charged for auto insurance; and even whether you'll be offered a job or allowed to rent an apartment. Getting rid of mistakes can translate into paying less. So keeping your reports clean and error-free should be among your New Year's resolutions.

    You're permitted to request a free credit report annually from each of the three national credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Use annualcreditreport.com, the official site to get all your credit reports free. We recommend staggering the reports by requesting one now, the second report in four months, and the third in eight months. For example, you might request the Equifax report now, the Experian report in April, and the TransUnion report in August. That way, you're keeping round-the-year tabs on your credit without paying a service to do so.

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

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    The Year in Review: The Best and Worst Consumer Money Stories of 2015

    2015 was marked by a number of money milestones that will protect and even bolster consumers’ wallets. Among the good news: You can feel more confident about such weighty financial decisions as choosing the best mortgage or saving for retirement. You'll also have more security to protect you from identity theft when using your credit cards. And same-sex couples can now enjoy financial perks no matter where they live or were married.

    Unfortunately, not everything was rosy. Consumers took some unexpected hits, too. That just proves that there’s always a need for vigilance and action.

    As we look back over the past 12 months, here are the money milestones that made our list.

    Milestones to Smile About

    Easier roll-overs to Roth IRAs. The year kicked off with the implementation of a new IRS rule permitting after-tax contributions to 401(k)s to be rolled over to Roth IRAs, where they would continue to grow tax-deferred. The result could mean greater tax savings for you, especially if you make too much money to be eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA in the standard way.

    The beginning of the end of robocalls. In June, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a proposal to protect consumers against unwanted robocalls and spam texts. By ruling that telephone companies face no legal barriers in allowing consumers to use robocall-blocking technology, the commission gave the green light for service providers to offer “do not disturb” technologies to stop unwanted robocalls on consumers’ landlines or wireless phones. In addition, more than 550,000 people have signed on to Consumers Union’s End Robocalls petition asking AT&T, Verizon, and CenturyLink to give customers the ability to block these calls.

    Parity for same-sex couples. Same-sex couples realized considerable financial benefits after the Supreme Court’s June decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide. No matter where they live or were married, same-sex couples can file their state taxes jointly, file for spousal and survivor benefits through Social Security, and enjoy other financial perks that previously belonged only to heterosexual couples or same-sex couples living in states that recognized their marriages.

    Greater disclosures for mortgage-shoppers. Since October, thanks to the efforts by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, lenders are now required to provide new, standardized documents to those looking for a mortgage. The goal: To make it simpler for consumers to compare loans before they borrow. The new rules also require that disclosures clearly show what consumers will owe and how the loan could change over time. 

    Greater security for credit cards.  Credit-card fraud has been skyrocketing in the U.S. Nearly 32 million U.S. consumers had their credit-card information stolen in in 2014more than three times the number in 2013. In October, however, banks and credit companies began sending new and existing customers  cards embedded with a high-tech chip that makes it more difficult for criminals to steal personal information.

    The “myRA” for retirement savings. In November, the Treasury Department rolled out the “myRA,” a new type of IRA for those who don’t have access to a 401(k) retirement savings plan at their job or other employer-sponsored savings plans. The myRA (rhymes with IRA) is a no-fee, no-minimum-balance, nondeductible Roth IRA is meant to be a “starter account.” While the current interest rate barely tops 2 percent, the point of the myRA isn’t so much to bulk up an existing nest egg as to get nonsavers into the habit of building one in the first place.

    Help for student loan debtors. It’s no secret that Americans are struggling under a mountain of student debt. In December, the Education Department launched the Repaye Student Loan Plan to make it easier to retire that debt. The plan caps the monthly payment amount at 10 percent of your discretionary income.  It’s open to anyone with federal student loans, regardless of income or the loan’s date of origin. 

    Milestones to Frown On

    Debt collectors allowed to use robocall technology. The budget bill that Congress passed in November includes a provision to allow debt collectors to use robocall technology to contact delinquent borrowers of federal loans on their phones. The big target: The millions of student loan borrowers who have fallen behind on their loans. At least four senators are already planning to sponsor new legislation that would roll back the student loan robocall provision. If you want to tell lawmakers how you feel about this issue, our colleagues at Consumers Union have put together this form that identifies your relevant members of Congress and allows you to easily send them a message expressing your concerns.

    Higher interest rates on your mortgage and credit cards.  After a great deal of anticipation, the Federal Reserve finally hiked interest rates by a quarter point in December. Behind the move: Unemployment is approaching 5 percent—very close to the point when inflationary pressure typically starts to kick in. The small increase in interest rates could help to ward off inflation. But the rate hike, along with possible future increases, will whack your wallet—from the rate you pay on an adjustable-rate mortgage to the interest rate on your credit-card bill.

    Mandatory arbitration takes a giant leap forward. The U.S. Supreme Court handed a victory to business interests in December, ruling in favor of mandatory arbitration, rather than class-action lawsuits, as a preferred method for resolving issues between companies and their customers. Think it won’t affect you? It may. Forced arbitration clauses are tucked into hundreds of millions of consumer contracts, from Amazon, Groupon, Netflix, and Verizon, to car loans, credit cards, checking accounts, insurance, student loans, and even certain nursing-home agreements. Read the fine print—and weep. 

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

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    Why Does My Shingles Vaccine Cost So Much?

    If you're covered by Medicare, you may feel the pain of a shingles shot more in your wallet than in your arm.

    Prompted by a reader question on why she had to pay so much money for this vital vaccine, we took a closer look at how much it costs. Turns out that the federal program that insures most seniors in the U.S. provides poor coverage on some recommended vaccines. That leaves some older people paying nearly $200 for protection against shingles, a viral infection that often causes a painful, blistering rash and, in some cases, leads to lingering nerve pain and rarely even blindness.

    The vaccine isn't perfect, but for people aged 60 and older it reduces the risk of getting shingles by about 51 percent and the nasty nerve pain by close to 70 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    Read more about the shingles vaccine and two other immunizations adults need now.

    The problem is that unlike the flu and pneumonia vaccines, which are fully covered as a preventive services under Medicare Part B, the shingles shot and other recommended vaccinations are covered as prescription drugs under Medicare Part D and Medicare Advantage plans. Some of those plans provide better coverage than others, but nearly all of them divide their formularies, or list of covered drugs, into tiers according to cost. You'll pay less out of pocket for drugs in tier 1 and 2, which are mainly lower-priced generics and “preferred brand-name” drugs. And you'll pay more for expensive, “nonpreferred brands” in tier 3 or 4. The most expensive drugs are usually grouped into tier 5.  

    And, you guessed it, we found that many Part D plans categorize the shingles vaccine, Zostavax, as an expensive tier 3 or 4 drug. Only one company, Merck, makes the shingles shot and there’s currently no generic version.

    That means if you haven’t met your annual deductible, you’ll likely wind up paying full price for the shot—around $190. But even after the deductible, depending on your plan, we found that consumers may have to pay a significant part of the shingles vaccine cost, up to $100.

    To make matters worse, many healthcare providers haven’t set up billing systems to file claims through prescription drug plans. So if you are vaccinated at your doctor’s office, you could have to pay the full shingles vaccine cost up front and then file to be reimbursed by your insurance.

    Other Types of Plans Do Better

    Other forms of insurance do a much better job covering immunizations. Under provisions of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”), private plans, such as insurance you have through your employer or purchased on a state marketplace, are required to cover recommended vaccinations as preventive medical care, not drugs. That means, as long as you go to a provider in your plan’s network, your insurance will pay for preventive care without a co-pay—even if you haven’t met your deductible.

    “It’s really a shame that older Americans, who are most at risk of contracting shingles and most vulnerable to the potentially serious effects of the disease, often have to pay more than others for the vaccine,” says Consumer Reports’ Medical Director Orly Avitzur, M.D.

    If you’re currently covered by a private health plan, but anticipate going on Medicare in the next five years or so, one cost-saving strategy is to talk to your doctor about updating all your vaccinations now while your insurance provides good coverage, says Avitzur. The shingles shot is recommended for nearly all adults aged 60 and older.

    Don't Overpay: Advice for Medicare Patients

    Three out of four Americans eligible for the shingles vaccination still haven’t gotten it, according to the CDC. Not surprisingly, a 2015 report from the agency found that one of the main reasons adults skip recommended vaccines is the cost.

    If you’ve been putting off getting your shingles shot because you were quoted a high price, check with your Part D plan: You may be able to get it for less.

    “Confusion about insurance coverage for the vaccine can sometimes result in patients paying more than they should,” says Avitzur. 

    In fact, now is perfect time to get vaccinated because you’ve likely met your plan deductible for the year.

    “Don’t delay as the consequences of shingles can be devastating,” advises Avitzur, who as a neurologist has seen first hand the painful effects of lingering nerve damage.

    Your best bet may be to get the shot at a pharmacy in your drug plan’s network. You’ll still need to get a prescription from your doctor, but the pharmacy will bill your insurance company and you’ll pay the lowest out-of-pocket costs available under your plan.

    If you would like to get vaccinated at your doctor’s office, ask upfront about cost. Does your doctor charge more to administer the shot than your plan allows? If so, you’ll be on the hook for the difference. Also, see if the office will bill your Part D or Medicare Advantage plan directly, or work with a pharmacy in your network to handle the billing.

    Finally, if you don’t have health insurance or are experiencing medical or financial hardship, you may qualify for Merck’s Vaccine Patient Assistance Program, which provides free vaccinations to those who are eligible. For details see www.merckhelps.com.

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

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  • 12/30/15--03:00: Best-in-Class Cars for 2015
  • Best-in-Class Cars for 2015

    As 2015 becomes history, Consumer Reports reflects back on the models that are the highest-scoring vehicles in their class, looking at road test scores. Reviewing these best-in-class results, it's clear that you don’t have to spend a ton to get a good performing, reliable car.

    All the models on this list are recommended, which means they excelled in our testing, haven’t failed any crash tests, and have at least average reliability.

    To present these best-in-class cars without fear or favor, we include both reasons to buy one and reasons not to. Click through the car names to read the complete road test and check Ratings for reliability and owner satisfaction, among other things.  

    Subcompact: Honda Fit

    Price range: $15,790-$21,065
    Why buy one:

    • Lots of space in a small footprint, including a relatively spacious rear seat
    • Very versatile interior with unique seat folding configurations
    • Excellent fuel economy
    • Good handling
    • Comes with lots of equipment

    Why not buy one:
    • Slow
    • Noisy
    • Hard riding
    • Frustrating audio system on most trim levels

    Runner-up: Chevrolet Sonic

    Read the complete Honda Fit road test.


     

    Compact: Subaru Impreza

    Price range: $18,295-$23,595
    Why buy one:

    • Standard all-wheel drive; the only small sedan that offers it
    • One of the cheapest and most fuel-efficient all-wheel-drive cars you can buy
    • Comfortable ride, especially for a small sedan
    • Spacious rear seat
    • Good visibility and simple controls make it easy to live with
    • Excellent IIHS crash test results
    • Available EyeSight active safety features

    Why not buy one:
    • So-so fuel economy compared to some other small sedans
    • Lacks the quietness and solid feel of the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, and Volkswagen Golf

    Runner-up: Kia Forte

    Read the complete Subaru Impreza road test.


     

    Midsized: Subaru Legacy

    Price range: $21,745-$29,945
    Why buy one:

    • By far the most affordable all-wheel-drive midsized sedan
    • Little or no price premium for all-wheel drive
    • Comfortable ride with responsive handling
    • Excellent driver visibility
    • Easy controls
    • Well-calibrated continuously variable transmission aids fuel economy without the usual racket
    • Fully up-to-date infotainment system
    • Scores "Good" in IIHS crash tests, helping earn it Top Safety Pick+ status
    • Optional EyeSight options package includes comprehensive electronic safety features

    Why not buy one:
    • Bland styling that looks a lot like the previous generation
    • Leisurely acceleration
    • Clock and outside temperature displays are tiny and hard to pick out

    Runner-up: Toyota Camry Hybrid

    Read the complete Subaru Legacy road test.


     

    Large: Chevrolet Impala

    Price range: $27,095-$40,810
    Why buy one:

    • Very roomy interior with a great rear seat and huge trunk
    • Comfortable cruiser, with a plush ride and a very quiet cabin
    • Surprisingly agile handling
    • Intuitive controls
    • Lots of car (with lots of features) for the money
    • Readily available and attractively priced advanced electronic safety features

    Why not buy one:
    • Rear visibility is limited

    Runner-up: Kia Cadenza

    Read the complete Chevrolet Impala road test.


     

    Luxury Compact: BMW 328i

    Price range: $33,150-$63,200
    Why buy one:

    • Fun to drive, thanks to engaging handling and responsive powertrains
    • Fuel efficient with either the gasoline or diesel four-cylinder engines (the diesel model actually scores 2 points higher, but most will be satisfied with the gas engines)
    • Rides well
    • Very comfortable and well-finished cabin
    • You can still get a manual transmission!
    • Available as a wagon, which is rare in this segment
    • Free maintenance for four years

    Why not buy one:
    • Gets rather pricey with common options
    • Piecemeal options are expensive
    • Rear seat not roomy enough for some families
    • Controls and automatic shifter are complicated
    • Some diesel clatter in the 328d

    Runner-up: Buick Regal

    Read the complete BMW 328i road test.


     

    Minivan: Honda Odyssey

    Price range: $29,275-$44,750
    Why buy one:

    • Very flexible interior, with comfortable seating for eight and a large cargo area
    • Best fuel economy of any minivan
    • One of the most child-seat friendly vehicles available, easily fitting up to three car seats side-by-side in the second row
    • Standard electronic safety equipment, including forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems, on higher-trim versions
    • Handles better than other minivans and many SUVs
    • Very comfortable ride and reasonable levels of noise
    • Clever features, like a cooled beverage compartment
    • Offers a unique built-in vacuum cleaner

    Why not buy one:
    • Confounding up-level radio controls
    • No all-wheel drive
    • Fit and finish is not particularly plush for the price
    • Only way to get blind-spot monitoring is on the top Touring Elite trim

    Runner-up: Toyota Sienna

    Read the complete Honda Odyssey road test.


     

    Small SUV: Subaru Forester

    Price range: $22,395-$33,795
    Why buy one:

    • Class-leading fuel economy
    • Extremely practical package, with a roomy rear seat, simple controls, and spacious cargo area
    • Unusually good view out, especially for a modern car
    • Easy access
    • Very capable all-wheel-drive system, with some limited off-road ability
    • Well-equipped for the money
    • Scores "Good" in IIHS crash tests, helping earn it Top Safety Pick+ status
    • Optional EyeSight options package includes comprehensive electronic safety features
    • Available manual transmission
    • Contemporary touch-screen infotainment system

    Why not buy one:
    • Ride isn't as cushy as previous Foresters
    • Cabin can get noisy
    • Fairly basic and Spartan interior
    • You can only buy a Forester with all-wheel drive, whether you want it or not
    • No blind-spot monitor system available

    Runner-up: Toyota RAV4

    Read the complete Subaru Forester road test.


     

    Midsized SUV: Toyota Highlander Hybrid

    Price range: $29,990-$50,485
    Why buy one:

    • Accommodating interior and simple controls make it easy to live with
    • Lots of features for the money, including a standard backup camera
    • It's likely to be reliable
    • Hybrid version provides excellent fuel economy
    • Comprehensive and easy-to-use infotainment system

    Why not buy one:
    • Effective safety technologies such as blind-spot monitoring and forward-collision warning are only available with the top-of-the-line Limited trim
    • Limited and Hybrid versions seat only seven
    • Some interior trim looks a bit low-rent
    • Not as quiet or plush-riding as the previous-generation model

    Runner-up: Kia Sorento

    Read the complete Toyota Highlander road test.


     

    Large SUV: Dodge Durango

    Price range: $30,495-$44,145
    Why buy one:
    • It's comfortable, refined, and very quiet inside, with lots of luxury features
    • Handles better than you'd expect for such a big SUV and feels surefooted when pushed
    • Towing capacity is higher than most other SUVs, and it tows very well
    • Chrysler's excellent Uconnect touch-screen control system is among the best
    • Available V8 engine is unusual in this class

    Why not buy one:
    • Fuel economy won't win any prizes
    • Maneuvers and parks like, well, a large SUV
    • Rear visibility is so-so

    Runner-up: Chevrolet Traverse/GMC Acadia

    Read the complete Dodge Durango road test.


     

    Compact Luxury SUV: BMW X3

    Price range: $38,950-$46,800
    Why buy one:

    • Retains BMW's trademark agility despite being a SUV
    • Combines strong acceleration and good fuel economy
    • Free maintenance for four years
    • Impeccable fit and finish
    • Comfortable seats
    • Good combination of size and utility

    Why not buy one:
    • Stiff run-flat tires compromise low-speed ride
    • So-so rear visibility but a rear camera is optional
    • Controls take some getting used to
    • Gets expensive, especially once you start adding options

    Runner-up: Audi Q5

    Read the complete BMW X3 road test.

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

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    Facial Recognition: Who's Tracking You in Public?

    The mall is crowded, including the department store that keeps your family supplied with everything from handbags to business suits. Moments after you enter, a saleswoman walks up holding a tablet. She smiles and greets you by name. Are you shopping for yourself or your spouse today? We’ve moved things around since you were here in December—let me help you find your way, she says.

    This is how customer service works in a few high-end stores in Europe, and vendors are now marketing the underlying technology to retailers in the U.S. The experience relies on facial recognition—and whether it sounds appealing or intrusive depends on your perspective.

    Here’s how facial recognition works. As shoppers enter the store, security cameras feed video to computers that pick out every face in the crowd and rapidly take many measurements of each one’s features, using algorithms to encode the data in strings of numbers. These are called faceprints or templates. The faceprints are compared with a database, and when there’s a match, the system alerts salespeople—or security guards if anyone previously caught shoplifting in the store is spotted walking the aisles.

    A company called Herta Security, based in Barcelona, Spain, is one vendor of the technology. Its system is being used in casinos and expensive shops in Europe, and the company is preparing to open offices in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

    Retailers that use the Herta system receive alerts through a mobile app when a member of a VIP loyalty program enters the store—the customers have previously agreed to have their photos entered into the retailer’s database. The screen displays the shopper’s name, a photo just taken from the video feed, shopping preferences, and other details.

    For now, security is a bigger business than customer service, however. Herta’s software was used at the 2014 Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hills Hilton to scan for known celebrity stalkers. The company’s technology may soon help bar known criminals in soccer stadiums in Europe and Latin America. Police forces and national security agencies in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Singapore, South Korea, and elsewhere are experimenting with facial recognition to combat violent crime and tighten border security.

    Beyond Photo Tagging

    Facial recognition is more firmly established online than in the physical world. Facebook has used it to help users tag photos since 2010. Last spring Google launched a photos app that helps users organize their pictures by automatically identifying family members and friends. (The company suffered a public relations humiliation when the system labeled a photo of two black people as gorillas. The search giant rushed to apologize—and fix its algorithms.)

    Looking ahead, MasterCard is experimenting with a system that lets users validate purchases by snapping a selfie. Like fingerprint scanners and other biometric technologies, facial recognition has the potential to offer alternatives to passwords and PINs.

    Those applications can make photo-sharing faster and more fun, and they can add security and convenience to real-world venues. However, the technology has been evolving fast, with little public debate or regulation.

    In that regard, facial recognition today is reminiscent of the World Wide Web of the mid-1990s. Back then, few people anticipated the day when the details of everything we read, watch, and buy online would become commodities traded and used by big business—and frequently stolen by hackers.

    Two decades on, many of us have become numb to the privacy intrusions of the Web. But at least we know we’ve gone online and can control whether or not we have social media accounts and what we share through them.

    Facial recognition has the potential to move Web-style tracking into the real world, and can erode that sense of control. That’s what alarms privacy experts such as Alvaro Bedoya, the executive director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology, and the former chief counsel to the Senate’s subcommittee on privacy, technology, and the law.

    “People would be outraged if they knew how facial recognition” is being developed and promoted, Bedoya says. “Not only because they weren’t told about it, but because there’s nothing they can do about it. When you’re online, everyone has the idea that they’re being tracked. And they also know that there are steps they can take to counter that, like clearing their cookies or installing an ad blocker. But with facial recognition, the tracker is your face. There’s no way to easily block the technology.” 

    No Talk, No Action

    Facial recognition is largely unregulated. Companies aren’t barred from using the technology to track individuals the moment we set foot outside. No laws prevent marketers from using faceprints to target consumers with ads. And no regulations require faceprint data to be encrypted to prevent hackers from selling it to stalkers or other criminals.

    You may enjoy Facebook’s photo-tagging suggestions, but would you be comfortable if every mall worker was jacked into a system that used security-cam footage to access your family’s shopping habits, favorite ice cream flavors, and most admired superheroes?

    Like it or not, that could be the future of retail, according to Kelly Gates, associate professor in communication and science studies at the University of California, San Diego and author of “Our Biometric Future: Facial Recognition Technology and the Culture of Surveillance.” 

    “Regardless of whether you want to be recognized, you can be sure that you have no right of refusal in public, nor in the myriad private spaces that you enter on a daily basis that are owned by someone other than yourself,” Gates says. “You give consent by entering the establishment.”

    In 2014 the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration started to address those issues by organizing talks between trade groups, individual companies, and privacy advocates. The goal was to come up with voluntary standards to allow facial recognition to expand while protecting consumer privacy. But the talks stumbled badly last June.

    Bedoya had been participating in the meetings since they began in 2014. He says that privacy advocates had started worrying at a previous meeting, when trade groups refused to commit to encrypting facial recognition data. “It’s such a basic safeguard that we thought it would sail through,” he says.

    Then, at the June meeting, Bedoya says that privacy advocates asked a hypothetical question about user consent: Let’s say a citizen is walking down a public street. And then a company he’s never heard of wants to snap his photo and check a database to identify him by name. In that case, the company would clearly have to ask first, right?

    “That was an edge case, the most extreme example,” Bedoya says. “But not a single company in the room would agree to it. Stakeholders were meeting in a conference room about two blocks west of the White House, in Washington, D.C. In the afternoon the group took a break, and the privacy advocates didn’t come back. A few days later they announced that they would no longer participate in the talks. “We said, ‘We’re not going to play this game. We’re withdrawing from negotiations, and we’re going to tell the world what’s happening.’” The NTIA meetings have continued—but to date no code of conduct has been adopted. 

    Of Staterooms and Church Pews

    Although facial recognition is still used largely for security, other applications are spreading, particularly in the hospitality industry. On Disney’s four cruise ships, photographers roam the decks and dining rooms taking pictures of passengers. The images are sorted using facial recognition software so that photos of people registered to the same set of staterooms are grouped together. Passengers can later swipe their Disney ID at an onboard kiosk to easily call up every shot taken of their families throughout the trip.

    Kelly Shanahan-Carson, who co-founded a Disney-travel blog called The Main Street Moms, is a fan of the technology. “In the past, they’d print every single shot and place them in racks lining the wall in Shutters, the photo store onboard. You’d have to look through hundreds of photos to find yours. By the last day, it would be nuts.” Disney’s system is built by a company called The Image Group, which also partners with Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, and other companies.

    Starting in 2010, the 1,200-room Hilton Americas-Houston in Texas employed a facial recognition system created by a company called 3VR. Though the system was designed mainly as a security tool, early on the hotel experimented with using the system to identify VIP guests who could be greeted by name by hotel staff, according to 3VR. The hotel wouldn’t comment on whether that program is still active. But facial recognition companies are actively marketing their systems to hotels.

    A surprising use of facial recognition was revealed in the summer of 2015 when a company called Churchix said it had installed a facial recognition system in dozens of churches around the world to track which congregants were attending services. Company founder Moshe Greenshpan declined to put Consumer Reports in touch with any clients, saying that the technology received a “wave of bad publicity, and our clients got a little scared.”

    However, he defended his product. “Tracking members means that churches know who is a regular attendee, and might be open to giving a donation, for example,” he says. “It also means they can know whether a regular attendee suddenly stops coming. The church can call to make sure everything is okay.”

    Surveillance in the pews may seem particularly off-putting, but there’s evidence that facial recognition tends to make people uncomfortable wherever it appears. In a recent study of 1,085 U.S. consumers by research firm First Insight, 75 percent of respondents said they would not shop in a store that used the technology for marketing purposes. Notably, the number dropped to 55 percent if it was used to offer good discounts.

    The aversion people feel to facial recognition may decline as it becomes more familiar, especially if retailers offer enough incentives. Meanwhile, not every intelligent camera system is looking to identify you as an individual. Facial recognition can also help marketers determine the age, sex, and race of shoppers.

    In Germany, the Astra beer brand recently created an automated billboard that noted when women walked past. The billboard approximated the women’s age, then played one of several prerecorded ads to match.

    Retailers can use facial recognition systems to see how long people of a particular race or gender remain in the shop, and adjust displays and the store layout to try to enhance sales.

    Using related technology, some high-end retailers in the U.S. have experimented with “memory mirrors” that perform tricks such as storing images of what shoppers tried on so that they can be revisited, or emailed directly to friends for feedback. 

    A Database of Billions

    If a company wants to tap into a list of thousands of consumers who like stout beers and sports cars, it can do that through a big data broker. But, according to facial recognition vendors and customers, privacy experts, and lawyers we interviewed, marketers that want to combine faceprints with personal data are amassing the information themselves, one customer at a time.

    That’s a slow process, and the customer databases are relatively small. The scale is entirely different online. In 2014, Facebook published a paper on a research project it calls DeepFace (read “How Facial Recognition Works: The Ghost in the Camera”), a system said to be 97.35 percent accurate in comparing two photos and deciding whether they depicted the same person—even in varied lighting conditions and from different camera angles. In fact, the company’s algorithms are now almost as adept as a human being at recognizing people based just on their silhouette and stance.

    How did Facebook get so good? Partly by harnessing the photos uploaded and manually tagged by many of its 1.5 billion users. And some privacy experts consider that a misuse of personal data.

    “Entities like Facebook hold vast collections of facial images,” says Gates, the UC, San Diego professor. “People have voluntarily uploaded millions of images, but for their own personal photo-sharing activities, not for Facebook to develop its facial recognition algorithms on a mass scale.”

    Last spring Carlo Licata, a resident of Illinois, sued Facebook, claiming that the company broke a state law, the Biometric Information Privacy Act, by failing to get his consent to storing, using, and sharing the data. Two other men later joined the suit, which is still progressing through the legal system.

    It’s not apparent what effect such lawsuits might someday have on Facebook and other companies that use facial recognition. What is clear, though, is that just a couple of states have been ahead of the rest of the country in grappling with the implications of the technology. “Illinois is on the forefront,” Licata’s lawyer, Jay Edelson, says. “Texas has a similar statute, although it doesn’t allow consumers the right to bring lawsuits if their rights are violated. Unless there is a new law that’s enacted, people in other states don’t really have many rights protecting the collection and use of their faceprints.”

    And there’s no way to determine what deals online companies may someday forge with walk-in businesses. Could Facebook or another Web-based company use its vast database of faceprints to power real-world facial recognition? Hypothetically, a tech giant wouldn’t need to share the faceprints themselves. It could simply ingest video feeds from a store and let salespeople know when any well-heeled consumer walked through the door. 

    The Surveillance Economy

    Nearly all technologies that come with privacy risks are developed for legitimate and even beneficial purposes. Facial recognition is no exception, but it deserves attention and debate. Simple facial detection could surround you in a bubble of billboards and electronic store displays shown only to people of your race, sex, and age.

    More importantly, facial recognition has the potential to erode the anonymity of the crowd, the specific type of privacy you experience when you stride through a public space, near home or on vacation, and refreshingly, no one knows your name. Marketers already can see every article we read online; do we need to let them record every shop window we gaze through?

    According to privacy advocates, this is the time to consider policy changes, while facial recognition is still ramping up. One step advanced by stakeholders at the NTIA meetings would be to require an opt-in before people are entered into a facial recognition database, with reasonable exceptions for safety and security applications. That idea has already been implemented by some leading technology companies.

    For instance, users of Micro­soft’s Xbox gaming system can access their profiles using facial recognition, but only if they choose to turn on that feature.

    Second, regulations could require companies to encrypt faceprints or institute other strong data protections—after all, a compromised PIN can be replaced, but there’s no ready solution if someone steals your biometric files.

    Special rules could prevent children under the age of 13 from being targeted by facial recognition systems in stores. And consumers should have the right to know who has a copy of his or her faceprint, how it is being used, and who it is being shared with.

    Those are just a few of the proposals that can be debated, and should be. Because right now, there are virtually no consumer protections at all. 

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the February 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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

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    How Facial Recognition Works: The Ghost in the Camera

    Facial recognition is not a single technology. Instead, it’s a broad field in which researchers use 3D modeling, analysis of patterns of light and dark in photographs, and other techniques to first pick out faces from a video stream or still photo, then identify either characteristics of the subject (male or female, age range, race) or a specific identity.

    The most widely used technique relies on taking hundreds of measurements between established facial features. One leading vendor of the technology is Cognitec Systems, which in the past several years has expanded from its home offices in Dresden, Germany, into the U.S., Australia, and other countries. Elke Oberg is the company’s marketing manager.

    “Essentially what is being looked at is a landscape of the face,” Oberg says. “Facial recognition software takes various measurements of each face and turns these into a string of numbers. Then it’s just a matter of comparing one string of numbers with another. The higher the similarity score, the more likely it is that you’re looking at the same person.” The resulting file is called a faceprint or face template—it can consist of thousands of digits, depending on what algorithm is used. Faceprints can be compared with databases for a wide range of purposes: to recognize shoplifters, verify identities to open electronically controlled gates, or simply count how many people are standing in a particular line or crowding around a popular store display.

    A facial recognition research project called DeepFace that was conducted by Facebook and described in a paper in summer 2014 used a computing architecture called a deep neural network. The project was an example of “machine learning.” Researchers didn’t tell the computer to take a predetermined set of measurements of each photo. Instead, they built a system that automatically analyzed millions of images, turned them into 3D models, and then figured out on its own how to pick out which photographs matched.

    The system was 97.35 percent accurate when applied to a publicly available dataset of more than 13,000 photographs collected from online news stories with uneven lighting, shot from a variety of angles.

    That kind of work has the potential to make facial recognition systems faster, more accurate, and easier to scale up to handle huge numbers of images. The computer would know which individuals appeared in almost any photo, taken almost anywhere—and do it almost instantly.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the February 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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

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  • 12/30/15--08:15: Top 5 TV Trends at CES 2016
  • Top 5 TV Trends at CES 2016

    One of the great things about the annual CES electronics trade show is that it helps set our expectations for technology in the coming year. At CES 2016, which kicks off January 5th in Las Vegas, a lot of the news will involve TVs. We should see televisions with brighter images that really pop thanks to high dynamic range (HDR) technology, the advent of 4K Blu-ray players, and new competition in the small but growing OLED TV business.

    We'll also see new players competing for your attention. In the past year, struggling companies such as Sharp and Toshiba have given up on the U.S. TV market, licensing their brands to obscure-sounding TV manufacturers. (Have you heard of Compal, which now sells Toshiba TVs? We didn't think so.) Meanwhile, some Chinese companies, notably Hisense and TCL, are now pushing hard to build their own TV brands. 

    Here are details on the top TV trends we expect to see at CES 2016.

    1. More Brands Will Offer OLED TVs

    We're fans of OLED TVs—they dominated our list of the best TVs of 2015—but so far LG Electronics has been going it alone. We think that will change in 2016 as a few other brands jump into the OLED TV market. No companies have yet announced such plans, but we wouldn't be surprised if Panasonic and Sony were among them. It's also possible that some Chinese TV brands could enter the fray. In any case, we're hoping to see more companies offer OLED, so that manufacturing economies of scale and heightened competition can help drive OLED TV pricing lower.

    2. The First 4K UHD Blu-ray Players Arrive

    At CES last year, we were told the first UHD Blu-ray players would arrive by the end of 2015. For a variety of reasons—ranging from standards to licensing issues—that didn't happen. But we fully expect several companies to introduce their first UHD Blu-ray models in the first half of 2016. Panasonic and Samsung have already shown players, so they are the most likely early candidates. Sony might also join in early, since it owns a Hollywood movie studio. Prices for these early Blu-ray players won't be cheap, but they should come in under $500, which is less than we originally expected. Pricing will be important if Blu-ray players and discs are to compete with 4K streaming options, which will also expand in 2016. But 4K Blu-ray will have a key advantage over streaming media in one important regard: superior picture and sound quality.

    But that's not the biggest reason that UHD Blu-ray matters...

    3. More TVs Will Have HDR and Wider Colors

    The best thing about the upcoming arrival of 4K UHD Blu-ray may be that it has helped push the industry toward finalizing UHD standards, including those for high dynamic range (HDR) and wider color gamuts. HDR is the term used to describe a wider range between the whitest whites and blackest blacks in an image, so contrast is significantly improved. Television manufacturers cite studies indicating that, for most people, HDR and a wider range of colors are more noticeable than increased resolution. Based on our own limited experience with HDR demos on a few Samsung and Sony UHD TVs, when done well the enhancements can sometimes be striking.

    A small number HDR-ready sets have been around, but with the exception of a few film and video clips we use for testing and some HDR streaming there's been very little content available. One of the reasons was that there were at least three HDR technologies—from Dolby, Technicolor, and Philips—competing for acceptance.

    The good news is that we expect that to change in 2016 as new 2016 UHD TVs support the SMPTE standards for HDR, which are named for the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. Those TV makers that also choose to support another HDR technology, such as Dolby Vision, will include that as an extra feature.

    All TVs that conform to that baseline standard will be able to play SMPTE-based HDR content—and that frees up content providers, including Hollywood movie studios, to start investing more in HDR. In a separate effort, the CTA— the consumer electronics industry's trade association—is working with manufacturers to ensure compatibility between brands and different HDR-capable devices, so that if you buy a new Panasonic UHD Blu-ray player with HDR, for example, it will work fine with your Samsung UHD TV.

    At CES, we expect almost all of the major TV brands to announce support for HDR in their top-of-the-line models, though we won't get the details‚ including how much more you'll pay for an HDR-capable set, until we're at the show.

    To round out the technical discussion, we expect all new HDR-capable TVs to have HDMI 2.0a inputs, which will be required for transmitting HDR data. The sets will also support HDCP 2.2—the copy-protection scheme used for UHD content—ensuring that they can play 4K content from a UHD Blu-ray player or USB device.

    HDR Confusion?

    That all sounds good, but if you go shopping for an HDR set a few months from now, you will need to avoid some pitfalls. As it turns out, not all HDR displays will look equally vibrant. 

    In fact, while the CTA has focused on compatibility issues, another organization, called the UHD Alliance, has been working to develop performance benchmarks, meaning that the TVs will have to meet or exceed minimum levels of performance when it comes to things like HDR and a wider range of colors. The UHD Alliance is a diverse group, consisting of TV makers, Hollywood studios, distributors (such as DirecTV and Netflix), and technology companies, so its input should carry a lot of weight.

    We'll find out more about the specific details at CES, but it appears that there will be two levels of HDR performance, including one for "premium" UHD TVs that are able to meet higher minimum quality specifications. One of the sticking points, we've heard, has been the issue of peak brightness, since OLED TVs don't get quite as bright as LED-backlit LCD sets. However, they are capable of much deeper blacks and therefore high dynamic range. We think that there will be a separate, slightly lower brightness requirement for OLED TVs.

    But in a potentially confusing scenario for consumers, other UHD TVs that don't meet the "premium" specifications for things such as HDR and wide color may be designated as "HDR-compatible" sets. This means that they won't have the all the necessary specifications to fully support HDR, but they can process the HDR metadata and make adjustments to their settings—such as those for brightness—to simulate an HDR-like experience.

    Finally, there will also be some non-qualified UHD TVs that simply present a 4K image without any additional enhancements, such as HDR or a wider range of colors.

    So when you go into a store or buy online, how will you know exactly what level of performance your TV can deliver? Again, the details will be announced at CES, but it appears that the UHD Alliance is developing a certification and logo program, so that TVs will be tested to make sure they meet certain performance benchmarks. TV makers will then be able to use a new logo, either on packaging or the TV itself, to let consumers know that the TV can meet either a premium or standard (or "ultra premium" and "premium") level of UHD (and HDR) performance.

    How this will be handled will become a lot clearer at CES, and its certainly one of the things we'll be asking manufacturers about. But it's easy to imagine that consumers could end up facing a mess of new marketing jargon, especially if individual TV manufacturers start creating proprietary names to designate the different levels of performance. That would make TV shopping more confusing for everyone. We're hoping that the logo program will help make this clearer to those of us looking for a top-performing TV in 2016.

    4. Chinese TV Brands Make Their Move

    Chinese TV manufacturers have been on the rise globally for several years now. According to research group IHS Technology, both Hisense—which will control the Sharp TV brand in the U.S. as of January 6—and TCL are now among the world's top 10 LCD TV brands, trailing only Samsung, LG, and Sony. And their shares of the U.S. market are expected to climb in 2016.

    Hisense, which now has a CES presence that rivals that of LG, Panasonic, and Samsung, may be the company to watch. This year, Hisense surprised many in the industry with a 65-inch "ULED TV," the Hisense 65H10B, a quantum-dot-based UHD set that did very well in our Ratings (and even better after a firmware update). At CES the company will show off new Hisense- and Sharp-branded TVs.

    Another brand to watch: TCL, which originally entered the U.S. market using the RCA brand. Now the company is looking to promote the TCL brand. At CES last year the company showed a 55-inch UHD TV—the TCL 55H9700—that also used quantum dots, and which was billed as the first TV to use a 4K version of the Roku TV smart TV platform. As far as we can tell, the TV never shipped here in the U.S. but, like Hisense, TCL will be holding a CES 2016 press conference this year. We're looking forward to seeing what both companies have in store.

    5. You'll Hear More About 4K Broadcast TV

    We've already written a bit about ATSC 3.0, which will eventually be the new digital broadcast standard for over-the-air TV reception. It's something to watch because, at some point, the standard will be rolled out and the tuner in your current TV will no longer work. How long it will take is still something of a question, as standards still have to be finalized and broadcasters will need to upgrade their equipment and existing infrastructure. 

    Among the benefits of ATSC 3.0 are the ability to handle 4K broadcasts, greater interactivity, and the ability for signals to be sent to both fixed and mobile devices simultaneously. Over the past several months we've heard about a few ATSC 3.0 trials, and at CES we expect to see live demonstrations of 4K broadcasts, including some with HDR content. Since additional data streams can be sent along with video, we expect to get a glimpse of other imagined services.

    That's our short wrap-up about some of the key TV trends we expect to see at CES 2016 in January. Our editorial and tech teams will be headed to the show, so keep checking back for all our coverage of the show.

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

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