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    Amazon's Alexa and Dash Services Would Like to Control Your Home

    Amazon hasn’t held any big events or built a big, splashy booth at CES 2016 (which isn’t a surprise, lots of big tech companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft don’t have much of a presence), but the Seattle online retail giant has had quite an influence here nonetheless. Amazon has partnered with multiple companies here to quietly become a major force in home control and automation. By extending the footprint of its nascent Alexa Voice and Dash Replenishment Services, Amazon is turning a bunch of eccentric technologies into a platform that can make life more convenient for consumers—and boost sales for Amazon.

    Amazon launched Alexa in 2014 as the brains behind the company’s own Echo wireless speaker, and Dash was introduced this past year in the form of stick-on wireless physical buttons that let you order supplies from Amazon without having to use a computer, tablet, or smartphone. Both the Echo and the Dash Buttons seemed highly optional and even strange when first introduced—the former is a  speaker that answers questions when spoken to, the latter a bunch of high-tech buttons that serve no purpose but to but to buy stuff from the company you bought them from. Amazon has used those products as a launch platform for an ecosystem of services that it hopes to see built into products from a variety of partner companies.

    Ford, for instance, announced that it would integrate Alexa into its Sync 3 in-car information and entertainment system later this year. Ford demos at CES showed Alexa turning on home lighting and checking the status of a garage door in response to voice commands through the Sync system. Ford's use of Alexa leverages some of the home automation integration Amazon has already built into its Echo speaker. Last summer, the company upgraded the Echo so owners could use Alexa to voice control Philips Hue lightbulbs as well as coffeemakers and other smart devices on Belkin’s WeMo platform. Several new products introduced this week at CES also work with Echo's Alexa voice control, including the new Haiku series of fans and lights from Big Ass Fans.

    If Alexa is Amazon’s play to control your home, Dash is its attempt to keep it automatically stocked with supplies—purchased from Amazon, of course. Whirlpool’s new line of smart appliances have an app that can be linked to the Dash Replenishment Service. When the app estimates that the owner is running low on dishwasher or laundry detergent, it will order more automatically. Other manufacturers have also committed to the service—GE is also making washers that order their own detergent, Brita is creating water pitchers that automatically order new filters, and Brother is making printers that purchase ink when their tanks run dry.

    It’s all part of Amazon’s ever-expanding mandate. The company that started as a bookseller evolved into a major retailer, then a web-services provider, an entertainment company, hardware manufacturer, and now a home-control and automation platform. It's also yet another ingenious way that Amazon has used technology to link convenience and customer loyalty in a way that benefits the company's bottom line—automatically.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Keep Energy Costs Down When Temperatures Drop

    After December eased up on heating bills in many parts of the country, January arrived only to remind us what winter really feels like and how much it costs to keep warm. There are a few things you can do now to save without climbing into a cold attic to add insulation or weatherstripping all your windows and doors, although those are smart moves. Here are some simple energy-saving suggestions from the experts at Consumer Reports and the Department of Energy.

    Replace Your Busiest Lightbulbs

    Replacing just five of the most frequently used lightbulbs in your house with energy-saving bulbs can save up to $75. Energy-wasting incandescents have mostly been phased out and replaced by CFLs and LEDs. LEDs save the most and with prices coming down, they’re a good bet. Some last so long that the LED you put in your baby’s room won’t need changing until she’s off to college. Here are some that impressed in our lightbulb tests.

    60-watt replacement LEDs

    75-watt replacement LEDs

    Use Your Programmable Thermostat

    Setting a programmable thermostat to match your schedule can save at least 10 percent per year on heating and cooling costs. Why crank up the heat at home if you’re at work? If you have zoned heating, turn it down in parts of the house you don’t use frequently such as guest rooms.

    Programmable thermostats have gotten a lot easier to use since Consumer Reports first tested them years ago. The best thermostats in our tests get top marks on our ease-of-use tests, which include setup and routine adjustments. If you haven’t gotten the hang of yours, the best bet is to read the owner’s manual.

    Replacing an old dial thermostat with a digital one is pretty straightforward. If you’re handy you can do it yourself. We test thermostats with remote access and thermostats without, which tend to cost less. Here are some to consider from out tests.

    With remote access

    Without remote access

    Throw Open Your Curtains

    Harness the heat of the sun by leaving your curtains open during the day to let the sunshine in and closing them at sundown. You may be surprised at how much heat you gain. Of course, it helps to have windows that aren’t drafty. Energy Star-qualified windows can lower your energy bills by 7 to 15 percent.

    Consumer Reports tests windows for air and water leakage by subjecting them to heavy, wind-driven rain and winds of 25 and 50 mph at outdoor temperatures of 0°F and 70°F. When you replace your windows, match them to the weather in your area. Here are some top choices from our window tests.

    Windows with wooden frames

    Windows with vinyl frames

    Keep Air Flowing Through the Furnace Filter

    If you have a forced-air heating and cooling system, keep it in tip-top shape by checking your furnace filter monthly and replacing it every three months or sooner. Simply slip out the old filter and slide in the replacement. The recommended filters from our tests did best at filtering dust and pollen without impeding the airflow. Here are the top three, but before you buy check your owner's manual for the right fit.

    Replace Broken Appliances With Energy Star Models

    Okay, replacing an appliance isn’t simple or cheap but if you have a refrigerator or washer that’s on the fritz and it’s more than a decade old, a new Energy Star model will run much more efficiently. Since appliances account for 20 percent of your electric bill it’s smart to take advantage of energy-saving innovations when replacing your kitchen and laundry appliances.

    Energy Star appliances use 10 to 15 percent less energy and water than standard models. You can find Energy Star appliances on our lists of recommended refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, and washing machines as well as estimates of how much each model costs to run annually.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Consumers Union Praises Campbell’s Decision to Label GMOs

    WASHINGTON, D.C. – Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports, today praised Campbell Soup’s decision to label its products made with genetically engineered ingredients nationwide, not just in Vermont where a mandatory labeling law will go into effect in July. The company, the first major food company to agree to label products with these ingredients, often referred to as GMOs, also announced its support for a national, mandatory and uniform labeling system for foods containing GMOs.

    Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives for Consumers Union, said, “Campbell Soup has taken an immense step forward today. Their decision to disclose which of its ingredients are genetically engineered will give consumers the information they want and deserve, even going beyond what’s required in Vermont’s labeling law. This is an important development for consumers, who time and again have voiced overwhelming support for GMO labeling.”  

    Consumers Union has long called for meaningful, mandatory national labeling for GMOs. And consumers have continually voiced support for GMO labeling. A December Mellman Group poll commissioned by Consumers Union and a coalition of consumer and environmental groups found that nine in 10 Americans support mandatory labeling of products with genetically engineered ingredients.

    Halloran said, “While other companies are lobbying to override Vermont's labeling law and keep consumers in the dark about what’s in their food, Campbell’s announcement makes it clear that industry’s arguments don’t hold true. Consumers, no matter what state they live in, should be able to find out what’s in their food. We applaud Campbell Soup for their independent, pro-consumer move today and and look forward to achieving a national, mandatory GMO labeling requirement on all food packaging.”

    Media Contacts:
    David Butler, Consumers Union, 202.462.6262 or dbutler@consumer.org
    Kara Kelber, Consumers Union, 202.462.6262 or kkelber@consumer.org

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    Redesigned 2016 Chevrolet Malibu Sings

    Like a good pop song that yearns to rise above the radio clatter, standing out in the crowded midsized sedan segment requires a hook: terrific reliability, all-wheel drive, miserly fuel-economy, sporty handling, or good-looks-on-a-budget. There needs to be a distinctive reason to buy one sedan over another, or else a car gets lost among the noise.

    Indeed, the outgoing Chevrolet Malibu never found its groove. Hurried updates couldn't fix the car's slab-sided styling, shortness of rear-seat space, or middling fuel economy. Fully redesigned from top-to-bottom for 2016, the new Malibu strives to be more memorable, but we feel like we've heard this tune before.

    Parked side-to-side, you certainly won't confuse the new Malibu for the outgoing model. (That car lingers on, rebadged Malibu Classic for the rental fleets.) Instead, it looks like a shrunken Chevrolet Impala, which enjoyed its own extreme makeover a few years ago. Like the latest Honda Civic, the Malibu's rear quarter flirts with ambiguity: Is it really a sedan or is it a hatchback in disguise? The Chevy's sculpted rear flanks evoke an Audi A7, which certainly is no bad thing.

    While car companies have gotten better over the years with balancing sleek styling and driver visibility, these looks still have a price: swept-back windshield pillars and fairly small side windows. At least rear visibility is augmented by the standard backup camera. Advanced safety gear, including blind-spot monitoring and forward-collision warning with automatic braking, is readily available on mid-level trim lines, although you do need to buy some fairly large accompanying option packages to get this equipment. 

    Cramped rear-seat legroom was one of the Malibu's literal shortcomings. Remedied in the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu, space is now competitive. Surprisingly, given the sloped rear roofline, rear headroom remains sufficient for adults. Up front, a minimalistic dashboard design makes the cabin feel open and spacious, especially if you indulge in the optional panoramic moonroof. Seat fabric swatches on the dashboard add an appealing touch on mid-grade LT models, helping break up an otherwise depressing sea of gray.

    Controls are simple, with giant knobs and buttons for the climate system. GM's MyLink touch-screen infotainment system is straight-forward to use, supplemented with Apple CarPlay. One frustration: The outside ambient temperature display, usually displayed on the center screen, disappears when CarPlay is being used. Maybe a readout could be incorporated in the otherwise full-featured, full-color display between the clear analog gauges.

    Hoping to address the concerns about fuel economy, GM jumps on the small-displacement, turbocharged four-cylinder bandwagon, with the Malibu's base engine becoming a 1.5-liter, 166-hp turbocharged four-cylinder. However, other small-displacement turbos, especially Ford's EcoBoost engines, have had mixed success when it comes to actually returning better fuel economy compared to larger engines. We are keen to see the results of our official fuel economy tests on our own Malibu to see if this turbo engine lives up to its promise.

    Unlike some rivals, GM stuck with conventional automatic transmissions for non-hybrid versions of the Malibu. That sacrifices some fuel economy over a continuously variable unit, but it also rewards drivers with more direct acceleration and typically reduced engine noise. Standard start/stop technology, which turns off the engine automatically when stopped in traffic or at intersections, restarts the engine smoothly and quickly when it's time to carry on. Too bad the engine itself sounds raspy when it's being worked; power from a start feels perky enough, but it runs out of steam as the car approach highway speeds.  

    Complaints about power disappear with the uplevel engine, a 2.0-liter, 250-hp turbocharged four-cylinder, connected to GM's first eight-speed automatic in a front-wheel-drive car. Maybe eight really is enough; unlike the indecisive and bumpy nine-speed automatics found in some competitors, the eight-speed feels smooth and responsive.

    Fuel economy enthusiasts will hold out for the Malibu hybrid. Previous Malibu Hybrids were half-hearted affairs, using a mild-hybrid system that only gave the car a minor boost in power and fuel economy. This time, the Hybrid isn't messing around, using a full-hybrid system that leverages technology from the Chevrolet Volt electric car.

    Despite our complaints about the outgoing Malibu, the quiet cabin and cushy ride comfort made the last-generation Malibu one of the more luxurious-feeling midsized sedans to drive. Happily those qualities carried over to the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu, even with the top-trim Premier's large 19-inch wheels and tires. Handling feels planted and stable, making the car a great choice for ticking away highway miles. While piloting the new Malibu proves more pleasant overall than the rather mundane Honda Accord, it fails to match its cross-town rival, the Ford Fusion, at combining sharp handling with a composed, sophisticated ride.

    Maybe that's our biggest problem with the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu. No question, it's a big step forward for this venerable nameplate, becoming more stylish and rewarding than before. But the Ford Fusion has been climbing these same charts since its most recent 2013 redesign, combining sleek looks, small-displacement turbo engines, and engaging driving dynamics into an American midsized sedan. Given that, the Malibu feels a bit like a very well-done cover of an already familiar and comfortable song. 

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Laundry Innovations That Remove the Daily Drudgery

    The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas is about way more than TVs, cellphones, and drones. Some of the most innovative new products on the show floor this year are the home appliances. And, when it comes to washers and dryers, manufacturers can’t stop upping their game. Here are some of the cool features we found:
     
    Samsung
    Smart design doesn’t just mean connected, some innovation is decidedly low-tech—like Samsung’s new “AddWash” feature, available on some of its front loaders starting in May. You’ll never have that sinking feeling again after you start a load only to turn around and find a lone sock or rogue towel that fell out of the basket on the way to the laundry room. With this little hinged door-within-door, you can just pop any stray items right in after the door has locked and the cycle is underway.

    Whirlpool
    Whirlpool introduced a new set of top loaders and a new front-loader pair. They’re both loaded with fun features that Consumer Reports will test soon, but the one that may be most exciting for the harried laundry-doer is the new “Load and Go” feature that will be connected to Amazon’s Dash order service. Once you fill the detergent dispenser, it allots the right amount for each load all while keeping track of how much you’ve used. When the detergent gets low, the machine lets you know it’s time to order more, at which time Amazon can automatically fulfill the order and deliver it to your door.
     
    LG
    Last year LG showed it’s Styler Clothing Care System, a steam closet that promises to relax wrinkles and remove odors from your clothes in minutes. Now it’s finally in stores. We saw it on sale on the website of Abt Electronics for $1,600, a discount off the regular price of $2,000.

    Marathon
    It’s rare for a new, untested company to enter the large appliance space, so the Marathon dual washer/dryer machine piqued a lot of curiosity. Designed by an Apple veteran, the small capacity machine (2.7 cubic feet) is a combo washer-dryer that promises results you’ll like. It costs only $1,099, so if it works, it could easily cause some disruption in a market where you can easily spend twice that for a washer-dryer pair.

    Laundroid
    While doing the laundry might not be so bad, folding it always feels like a chore. So, the Laundroid could be the machine of your dreams. Toss an item of clothing into the black cabinet and within a few minutes it pops out perfectly folded. The machine is just a demo now, but the company has plans to take over household laundry by 2020. Of course, everyone who saw it at CES wants it now.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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  • 01/08/16--11:46: Car Loans Are Getting Longer
  • Car Loans Are Getting Longer

    Americans set a record for new car purchases in 2015, with nearly 17.5 million shiny vehicles rolling off dealer lots in 2015. Low interest rates, as well as low gas prices, certainly contributed to consumers getting behind new wheels.

    But another, perhaps more dubious, achievement, was reached as well. Nearly 87 percent of new car purchases were financed, according to Experian Automotive. That's up from 80 percent five years ago. And most of those new car loans have terms longer than the typical five years. Six-year car loans are now the most common length for new car loans, comprising 43.5 percent of new car financing. And one-in-four new car loans may take as long as 7 years for owners to repay.

    One likely reason for the lengthier car loans is that it helps to keep monthly payments down. The average monthly payment on a new car loan is $482 today, not much more than the $470 average payment a year ago. But the average amount financed has increased at a greater rate: the average loan of $29,000 for a new car is 4.5 percent greater than a year ago.

    But there are pitfalls to longer auto loans. While lower monthly payments may seem appealing, the interest rate you pay will be likely be higher than if you had a shorter loan. You will also pay more for the car over the life of the loan. And when the time comes to sell your car, the value of the car will have fallen more than if you had paid off the loan earlier and sold the car.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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  • 01/08/16--11:59: Best new car deals
  • Best new car deals

    A great price isn't necessarily a good deal if the vehicle doesn't measure up, so we help you choose a good car at a good price with monthly list of best new car deals. The featured vehicle highlighted below has an attractive incentive that can save you extra money, and it is recommended by Consumer Reports, as are all models detailed below.

    Other trims on the vehicles listed may also present good deals. Although incentives all eventually expire, they are often renewed. Research ratings, reliability, owner satisfaction, and the latest dealer pricing on our car model pages

    See our full list of this month's best new car deals below. 

    Click here to receive an RSS feed with the latest car news and deals.

    2016 Chevrolet Impala

    One of our top-rated sedans, the Impala is roomy, comfortable, quiet, and enjoyable to drive. It even rides like a luxury sedan, feeling cushy and controlled. Engine choices include a punchy 3.6-liter V6 and an adequate 2.5-liter four-cylinder, both paired with a six-speed automatic. The V6 accelerates and brakes capably, with secure and responsive handling. The full-featured cabin stays very quiet, with a sumptuous backseat and a huge trunk. Controls are intuitive and easy to use, but rear visibility is restricted. Advanced electronic safety features are readily available.  

    Model MSRP Invoice price Incentive expiration date Potential savings below MSRP
    2016 Chevrolet Impala 2LTZ $36,415 $35,171 2/1/2016 5%+

    Get dealer pricing information on more than 1,100 models.

    Small cars

    Get dealer pricing information on the vehicles listed below.

    Model name MSRP Invoice Incentive expiration date Potential savings below MSRP
    2016 Chevrolet Sonic Sedan LT $18,420 $18,069 2/1/2016 5%+
    2016 Hyundai Elantra SE $19,085 $18,655 1/12/2016 10%+
    2016 Kia Forte LX $18,525 $17,986 2/29/2016 10%+
    2016 Kia Soul + $20,015 $19,202 2/29/2016 10%+
    2016 Toyota Corolla LE Plus $19,900 $19,153 2/1/2016 5%+

    Sedans

    Get dealer pricing information on the vehicles listed below.

    Model name MSRP Invoice Incentive expiration date Potential savings below MSRP (+)
    2016 Audi A3 Sedan quattro 2.0T Premium $35,125 $33,415 2/1/2016 5%+
    2016 BMW 3 Series 328d xDrive Sedan $42,845 $40,595 2/29/2016 5%+
    2016 Buick LaCrosse FWD Premium I $39,125 $38,361 2/1/2016 5%+
    2016 Buick Verano Leather Group $27,430 $26,900 2/1/2016 5%+
    2016 Cadillac CTS Sedan 3.6L V6 AWD Luxury $56,280 $54,069 2/29/2016 10%+
    2016 Chevrolet Impala 2LTZ $36,415 $35,171 2/1/2016 5%+
    2016 Chevrolet Malibu Limited 1LT $24,710 $24,114 2/1/2016 10%+
    2016 Ford Fusion Hybrid Titanium $31,815 $30,241 4/4/2016 10%+
    2016 Honda Accord Sedan EX-L V6 $31,480 $29,142 2/29/2016 10%+
    2016 Hyundai Azera Limited $40,195 $37,882 1/12/2016 5%+
    2016 Hyundai Equus Signature $62,450 $59,029 1/12/2016 10%+
    2016 Hyundai Sonata 2.4L SE $22,585 $21,920 1/12/2016 5%+
    2016 Infiniti QX70 AWD $48,295 $45,284 2/1/2016 10%+
    2016 Toyota Camry XLE $27,145 $25,632 2/1/2016 5%+
    2016 Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE $30,975 $29,533 2/1/2016 5%+
    2016 Volkswagen Passat 1.8T SEL Premium $35,090 $33,835 2/1/2016 5%+
    2016 Volvo S60 T5 Drive-E $34,890 $33,353 2/1/2016 5%+

    SUVs

    Get dealer pricing information on the vehicles listed below.

    Model name MSRP Invoice Incentive expiration date Potential savings below MSRP
    2016 BMW X3 xDrive28i $41,945 $39,770 2/29/2016 5%+
    2016 Buick Enclave Leather AWD $46,585 $45,215 2/1/2016 5%+
    2016 Chevrolet Traverse AWD 1LT $36,900 $35,820 2/1/2016 10%+
    2016 GMC Acadia AWD SLT1 $43,945 $42,654 2/1/2016 5%+
    2016 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport AWD 2.0T $33,895 $32,501 1/12/2016 5%+
    2016 Kia Sorento EX V6 AWD $34,595 $33,193 2/29/2016 10%+
    2016 Nissan Rogue AWD SV $26,990 $25,844 2/1/2016 5%+
    2016 Toyota RAV4 AWD XLE $28,570 $27,684 2/1/2016 5%+
    2016 Volvo XC60 AWD T6 $43,645 $41,586 2/1/2016 5%+

     

    Minivans

    Get dealer pricing information on the vehicles listed below.

    Model MSRP Invoice price Incentive expiration date Potential savings below MSRP
    2016 Honda Odyssey EX-L $36,825 $34,071 2/29/2016 10%+

    Sports Cars

    Get dealer pricing information on the vehicles listed below.

    Model MSRP Invoice price Incentive expiration date Potential savings below MSRP
    2016 BMW 2 Series Coupe M235i $45,145 $42,715 2/29/2016 5%+
    2016 Hyundai Veloster $19,935 $19,440 1/12/2016 15%+
    2016 MINI Cooper Hardtop Cooper S $24,950 $23,162 2/29/2016 5%+

    Wagons

    Get dealer pricing information on the vehicles listed below.

    Model MSRP Invoice price Incentive expiration date Potential savings below MSRP
    2016 Toyota Prius v Three $28,895 $27,876 2/1/2016 5%+
    Consumer Reports Build & Buy Car Buying Service

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

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    New High-Tech 4Moms Car Seat Installs Itself, Almost

    You may not think of child car seats as the typical new technology on display at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, but a new seat from 4Moms includes just enough technology to make sense for it to be there.

    The innovative company, 4Moms, already markets a number of futuristic-looking child products, including seats, portable beds, high chairs, and tubs. Each includes design and technology features that address key convenience and safety features of the products.

    This week, 4Moms previewed a new rear-facing-only infant child car seat with features that pairs with a smartphone app to automatically tension and recline the seat once it's attached to a vehicle using LATCH.

    For those who have struggled through child seat installation that sounds very appealing. The accompanying app also monitors the status of the seat once the carrier portion is installed on the base.  

    Consumer Reports tests about 40 car seats every year through a comprehensive protocol that includes crash protection based on simulated crash tests using child-sized dummies, as well as ratings of how easy a seat is to use and fit-to-vehicle based on our success in achieving a secure installation in somewhat challenging vehicles.

    Our fit-to-vehicle ratings are based on approximately 1,600 installations each year and though they don’t guarantee a secure fit in every car, we feel those that score highly offer the best potential for parents to get their installation right.

    Data indicates that about 80 percent of child seats still aren’t used correctly, and one of the aspects with the highest levels of misuse is that the seat is not securely installed in the car. A seat that ‘self-tensions’ and ‘self-reclines’ may improve those statistics.

    With an anticipated June 2016 launch date, the 4Moms child seat’s technology comes at a premium price of $499.99, which would make it one of the most expensive rear-facing only infant seats on the market. We will certainly be interested in seeing how it works and how well it fares in our full round of tests once it’s available. In particular, we’ll be interested in how the seat’s "high-tech" features perform with a seat belt installation. For now, color us intrigued. 

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    6 New Year's Resolutions to Stop Scams

    Some new year’s resolutions are as familiar as a lullaby—and are equally sleep-inducing: Go to the gym. Balance your budget. Call your mom. Why not make this year’s resolution a real wake-up call: Resolve to protect yourself and your loved ones from scams and fraud.

    “There is no foolproof way to protect ourselves from all attempts to get hold of our personal information and money," says Howard Schwartz, Executive Communications Director for the Connecticut Better Business Bureau. "But if we look at scam statistics from 2015, we see a pattern of activity that we can avoid for the most part.”  Schwartz says that the number of impostor scams is growing so it's up to consumers to protect their personal information, money and homes to stop scams from affecting them.

    Scammers, Scram!

    Here are six steps to stop scams from stinging you in 2016:

    1. Stand firm. In the IRS scam, which was the top scam of 2015, and the jury duty scam, scammers often threaten you with legal action or arrest if you don’t pay up immediately. Don’t let yourself be pushed or scared into action. The IRS clearly states that it will never call out of the blue; does not ask for credit card, debit card, or prepaid card information over the telephone or email; never requests immediate payment over the phone or email; and will not take enforcement action immediately following a phone conversation. If you get a call or email from someone purporting to be from the IRS, hang up or delete the email immediately.
    2. Don’t be greedy. Many scams appeal to our desire for a jaw-dropping deal or to get something for free. These include phony sweepstakes, prizes, gifts, government grants, and “inheritances.” These scams commonly con you into paying a fee for delivery, processing or insurance. “Common sense tells us that if someone is asking $100 for a high-end product that ordinarily sells for $500, you should be very skeptical before giving them your credit card number,” says Schwartz.
    3. Take control of your telephone. Your phone is one of the most common and easiest conduits for a scam to sneak into your home—telemarketing fraud is estimated to cost consumers $350 million per year. Caller ID is no longer reliable; scammers “spoof” recognized numbers to fool you into answering. Mobile phones, increasingly, are no barrier; the recent Congressional budget bill which allows debt collectors to use robocall technology in certain situations, opens the door to scammers buzzing your cellphone. Your best bet: Unless you recognize the number, let the call go to voice mail. If a scammer gets through, just hang up.
    4. Be proactive rather than reactive. Beware the disaster scam, which manipulates your emotions so that you open your wallet without thinking. (Ditto the grandparent scam, where a scammer calls to say that a relative has gotten into trouble and need emergency cash.) Instead of responding to a heartrending charitable appeal over the telephone or email, make sure the charity has a proven track record in dealing with disasters. Check it out with one of the three major charity watchdogs: The BBB (Better Business Bureau’s) Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, and CharityWatch. Beware of charities whose names are similar to established organizations; some phony charities use names, seals, and logos that look or sound like those of respected, legitimate organizations but are actually allocating funds to non-program activities or, worse, are scams.
    5. Secure your computer. You wouldn’t leave your front door wide open when you head off to work, so why would you have the equivalent of a “Scammers welcome!” sign on your computer? Apply software updates, most of which are designed to close security loopholes, and create strong passwords that contain at least one upper case letter, a number, and a symbol.
    6. Share appropriate information. Never share your personal information or financial information to anyone over the phone or email unless you solicit the call or message yourself. Imposter scams are growing, warns Schwartz, noting that scammers pose as workers in doctors’ and dentists’ offices and even play appropriate background noise to fool you into believing them.

    Share these warnings with your family, friends, and colleagues to stop scams from hurting your finances. “We shouldn’t be afraid to go on with our daily lives, but the more we know how these cons work, the more we can protect ourselves and our loved ones,” says Schwartz. He happily tabulates the growing number of reports from people who were approached by a scammer, recognized a ruse, and hung up. “Every time I hear that, it’s music to my ears.”

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The Truth About Home Remedies for Colds

    If you’re dealing with a cold, you might hope that a home remedy for colds will help you feel better as you wait for the week or two it takes for the viral infection to subside. But which remedies can you rely on—and which are most likely worthless? We spoke to experts and examined the research to find out.

    Sample Some Chicken Soup?

    Evidence suggests that the soup may ease your discomfort. The best-known research, from Nebraska pulmonologist Stephen Rennard, M.D., found that chicken-vegetable soup inhibited the movement of white blood cells that trigger cold symptoms such as a stuffy nose.

    Try it? Yes. “When your mucous membranes are inflamed, your nose can get crusty and dry,” says infectious disease expert William Schaffner, M.D., professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Soup helps loosen mucus so that you can expel it.

    Sip a Hot Drink?

    Do you turn to hot tea when your throat is sore? When the University of Cardiff’s Common Cold Centre in Wales gave 30 cold sufferers drinks that were either hot or tepid, those who sipped hot beverages reported more relief from runny nose, coughing, chills, and sneezing.

    Those results were probably due to a placebo effect, study authors say, but hot drinks do appear to have benefits for sore throats. “The taste promotes salivation and secretions that lubricate and soothe the throat,” says center director Ronald Eccles, Ph.D., D.Sc. “Any hot, tasty drink, soup, or hot meal is likely to be effective.”

    Try it? Sure. “With a little honey, hot tea can be particularly soothing to a sore throat,” says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser.

    Have Honey for a Cough?

    A 2014 review by the Cochrane Collaboration looked at three studies that compared honey with one or more of the following: the over-the-counter cough drugs dextromethorphan and diphenhydramine, no treatment, and a placebo. Their conclusion? Honey was more effective at relieving a cough than no treatment and placebo, and it might be slightly better than diphenhydramine at reducing cough frequency and severity.

    Try it? Maybe. Coughing helps you get rid of excess mucus, so you don’t want to stop it completely, and the reviewed studies involved only children. But if you’re considering an OTC cough treatment, note that the Cochrane Collaboration found little evidence that such drugs were effective and that the American Academy of Pediatrics says they don’t work for young children and may pose a risk.

    Use a Saltwater Nasal Rinse?

    In 2015, Cochrane researchers looked at five studies on the value of cleaning nasal passages with salt water. Just one found that doing so eased nasal secretion and stuffiness, and reduced decongestant use.

    Try it? It might have some value, says Orly Avitzur, M.D., Consumer Reports’ medical director, noting that the sensation can be strange. “I warn people it’s like the feeling you get walking into a big wave. But you get used to it.” And steer clear of over-the-counter products labeled “hypertonic”; some studies have found that those more concentrated solutions can irritate nasal passages. And if you opt to use a neti pot (a vessel you fill with warm water and salt), use distilled or sterile water and clean it between uses.

    Pop a Dietary Supplement?

    Many supplements, including echinacea, ginseng, vitamin C, and zinc, have been touted for cold prevention and symptom control. Research results on the effectiveness of all have been mixed.

    Try it? Save your money. Supplements are not thoroughly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and as a result, researchers can’t draw firm conclusions from data. You don’t always know exactly what’s in supplements, and some might interact with other medication you’re taking. Avoid zinc-based nasal sprays altogether. The FDA says that they may permanently destroy your sense of smell.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    TV Manufacturers Should Stop Showing Off Insanely High-Resolution Televisions

    About a year ago, television manufactures and content creators joined together to create the UHD Alliance, an industry group formed to “promote the benefits of Ultra HD entertainment technology” and “foster the Ultra HD ecosystem.” The very formation of the Alliance was an acknowledgement that consumers were eye-glazingly confused by all the jargon surrounding the new Ultra HD (UHD) format.

    Not only are there at least two names for UHD (it’s sometimes referred to as “4K”), but you also need to know the difference between LCD and OLED, and both LCDs and OLEDs may or may not be HDR. Also, Samsung refers to its top-of-the-line UHD TVs as “SUHD TVs,” while LG refers to them as “Super UHD TVs.” As for the content, you could stream it, pretty soon you can buy it on discs, you can also record it yourself and watch it, although it’s unlikely networks are going to broadcast over the airwaves it anytime soon. 

    I’ll leave it to another article to explain all of that to you, but at CES 2016, there did seem to be some hope. The UHD Alliance codified a standard called “Ultra HD Premium,” which pretty much guarantees that if you buy a TV with that label, you’re getting a fancy set with all the bells and whistles that will work with most of the content for the foreseeable future. Also, UHD Blu-ray players were announced and are coming shortly, and Netflix promised even more UHD content.

    There’s still plenty of confusion to go around and not all the manufactures are hewing to the standard, but it’s enough progress for Consumer Reports to endorse the idea of getting a UHD set if you’re on the market, rather than suggesting you wait for any more dust to settle.

    I’ll tell you what’s not helping though. Right in the middle of all these beautiful Ultra HD sets on the CES show floor, there they were: 8K TVs. That’s right 8K—four times the resolution of 4K UHD sets (which doesn’t seem mathematically right, but trust me, it is). In both Samsung and LG’s booths we were invited to marvel at yet another tier of HD that hints at the obsolescence to come, just when we were all getting comfortable with the new standard.

    And these aren’t even the type of show-offy, engineering experiments you typically find at trade shows—rollable, super curvy, or reconfigurable TVs. LG announced it fully intend to sell these 8K sets within the year (no word on pricing, but, you know, think high). What kind of content such a set would display or even the connections necessary to do so are almost besides the point. Manufacturers who have a business interest in getting us consumers to understand and appreciate the pleasures of UHD shouldn’t want us asking these kinds of questions in the first place. It only leads to discomfort and disgust with the entire upgrade process.

    Many of us have made our peace with frequent product turnover when it comes to smartphones and computers. Apple, LG, and Samsung release new flagship phones each year that promise new and revolutionary functionality. But TVs are supposed to be different. They fill a role in our houses more like that of an appliance than a computing device. And even though a modern TV has an operating system and enough processing horsepower to launch a space shuttle, we want them to do one thing and one thing well—display our favorite content. Predictability trumps innovation. Once you’ve got your TV working right, you don’t want to have to think about it for a while—a long while.

    Which is why, if we’re going to make the switch to 4K UHD, we don’t want to know about 8K. At least not yet.

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    Photos You Can Refocus After You Shoot, Plus More Great Camera Tech

    There were fewer digital point-and-shoot or advanced cameras shown at CES this year than the past—but some of them were extremely innovative. For instance, two new Panasonic cameras let you refocus your shot after you take it.

    The move toward fewer, but more creatively engineered, cameras is being prompted by the same technology that has changed so much else in the tech world: the mobile phone. The cameras in phones have largely taken over the traditional role of capturing snapshots for everyday consumers. That may be the biggest reason that during Black Friday week, the NPD Group found that camera sales were down 15 percent compared with 2014 (mostly due to dismal basic point-and-shoot sales).

    Panasonic isn't the only company taking chances and including models with intriguing new features and, in some cases, even overhauling the whole design of the camera. 

    Here are some of models that are caught our attention.

    If you’ve ever shot photos of a once-in-a-lifetime event, a wedding or graduation, for example, you know how important it is to get your shots in focus. No Instagram filter or Photoshop tweaking can fix a blurry photo of a wedding procession. But two new advanced point-and-shoots introduced by Panasonic—the 18-megapixel Lumix DMC-ZS60, for $450, and 20-megapixel Lumix DMC-ZS100, for $700—include a feature called Post Focus, which allows you to refocus your shot after you’ve taken it.

    These aren’t the first cameras to do this. A few years ago, Lytro introduced its light-field technology camera, which had the same capability. But the Panasonic models achieve this in a different way: Once you turn on the feature, the cameras fire off a burst of 8-megapixel images at 30 frames per second. (The reason for the lower megapixel size is that the cameras are using their 4K video mode.) During this one-second burst, the camera focuses on various focal points, from the back of the scene to the front, and captures 30 nearly identical shots—the only difference is that they have different points of focus. Later, when you refocus the image, you're really choosing one of those many photos.

    Another camera shown here at CES is the Light 16, the first computational digital camera. This bold new camera design got a lot of attention when it was announced a few months ago, but at CES the company revealed a working prototype. The Light 16 has a single camera body with 16 different lenses. As we noted when we first covered it back in October, the L16 marries multiple optics components with powerful software to produce images worthy of an advanced digital camera. It was impressive to see the camera actually working, even if it still is in the early prototype stage of product development.

    There may have been fewer traditional cameras and even fewer camcorders at CES 2016, but one category that appears to be growing is the 360-degree camcorder. We've already reported on the Nikon KeyMission 360, but Nikon wasn't alone. Ricoh had its Theta S at the show and Kodak had its SP360. There were smaller brands as well: For example, IC RealTech has a 360-degree action cam on view called the ALLieCam Go, which captures video in 1080p HD at 30 frames per second and is water resistant.

    One major force driving interest in 360-degree cameras is the growth in virtual reality (VR), which was a prominent theme throughout the entire CES show. The 360-degree videos that these cameras generate can be viewed on a traditional monitor, and viewed by scrolling. But the experience becomes much more immersive when you view the video through a VR headset. And while the much-discussed Oculus Rift has been priced far out of range even for many hardcore gamers at $600, there's a growing number of inexpensive headsets based on Google Cardboard that let anyone with 20 bucks and a smartphone really dive into a 360 video, turning their head to look in all directions. The new cameras will help more people to create 360-degree video content for those headsets. 

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How to Avoid Bank Overdraft Fees

    Ever had a bounced check? Many people have—or have done something similar. You could have written a check, used your debit card, or scheduled an automatic withdrawal from your account, only to find that you didn't have enough funds to cover the payment. The bank sends you a notice of the bad news—it could be an overdraft notice or a message that you had non-sufficient funds in your account.   

    In some cases, while the bank may reject a check you have written, it will still go ahead and make the payment for you, especially if your account isn't short by too much. But then, you get hit with an overdraft fee, which now costs a median of $30 per item.

    Fortunately, there are steps you can take to avoid these charges.

    Say no to overdraft protection. Account holders have the right to opt in or out of overdraft protection. We recommend that you opt out, because this "protection" actually gives your bank a license to authorize overdrafts caused by using your debit card to pay for a retail store purchase or ATM withdrawal. It also authorizes them to slap you with high overdraft fees when this happens.

    If you opt out, the bank will simply deny your debit transaction, which may cause you a brief embarrassment, but will save you from paying $30 overdraft fees.

    There are other benefits as well to opting out. Account holders who opt out pay significantly less in total checking fees than those that opt in–$7 per month compared to $29 per month–according to a 2014 study of 2 million checking accounts at large banks by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

    Get an overdraft line of credit or link your savings and checking accounts. Even if you opt out of overdraft protection, your bank can still charge you overdraft fees caused by paper checks and certain recurring electronic payments. Protect against that with an overdraft line of credit or automatic transfers from a linked savings account that can add funds to your account when you have a shortfall. These options, however, can come with fees and interest charges that are more reasonable than overdraft fees.

    Get a mobile banking app. Get a better handle on your bank balance. One way to do this is to download your bank's mobile banking app to your smartphone and check your balance before making debit card transactions or ATM withdrawals, to make sure you have a sufficient balance.

    If there's not enough money, you can use another form of payment at the store such as a credit card or cash or use the mobile banking app to transfer funds from a savings account to a checking account. You can also use the app to check which paper checks and automatic electronic bill payments have cleared. 

    Sign up for account alerts. Automate your account balance monitoring by signing up for a variety of alerts, such as a low balance alert, sent to your phone by email or text message.  

    Maintain a relationship with your bank. Community banks and credit unions that have a "relationship" with you are more likely to waive overdraft fees, especially if they don't happen often, says Mike Moebs, an economist and CEO of Moebs Services, an economic research firm. A relationship means having your mortgage, credit card, or other personal or small business accounts at the same institution.

    Make the balance good by the end of the day. Another worthwhile alert warns you when your account gets overdrawn. If you get one of these, banks commonly allow you to bring the account back into the black by the end of the banking day without charging you a penalty. But be aware that the "banking day" likely ends well before midnight and might be based on the Eastern time zone.  

    Ask for an exception if you make a mistake. If despite all your efforts, you find you are still being charged overdraft fees, visit your bank branch and ask an officer to waive or refund the charge. Banks commonly agree if you have only a handful of overdrafts scattered over the year or have a good explanation for a cluster that happen all at once, such as complications caused by the holidays or a vacation.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Grows Larger and Goes High Tech

    The new 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class hits the streets with enough fuel economy, safety gear, and comfort technology to keep it among the most sophisticated luxury sedans on the market. Through the redesign, the company’s mainstay “business-class” leader gets a longer wheelbase and more overall length. Fans of past E-Classes will certainly recognize the proportions and familiar silhouette.

    The new base E300 will be powered by the same turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder found in the Mercedes C300 and GLC300, putting out 241 hp. It will run through a nine-speed automatic. We’d also wager that both rear- and all-wheel-drive models and diesel and high-performance AMG variants are on the way.

    An optional driver-selected suspension allows both sport and comfort settings. An air suspension system is also available, with a self-leveling feature that adjusts depending on vehicle load and speed. The company says that highway fuel economy gets boosted, for example, when the car’s ride height is lowered. You can also raise the body to increase ground clearance when driving on rough roads.

    Inside, the dash is dominated by a relatively massive high-resolution screen, measuring 12.3 inches diagonally. The new 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class also gets what the company is calling touch-sensitive control buttons on the steering wheel. According to Mercedes, they’re supposed to act like a smartphone interface “responding precisely to horizontal and vertical swiping movements, allowing the driver to control the entire infotainment system without having to take their hands off the steering wheel.” The goal is to minimize driver distraction.

    As expected in this class, high-brow leather and wood trim abounds, as well as loads of LED interior lighting. You can choose from 64 colors to light up the trim pieces, from the central display and center storage bin, to the front and rear footwells. And if you opt for the super sonorous Burmester “3D” sound system, even the tweeters illuminate.

    Another interior feature that we really liked in the last S-Class we tested was the heated door armrests and center console – part of the optional Warmth and Comfort package, which also includes a heated steering wheel and front seats.

    New safety highlights include a “Car-to-X communication” system, which uses your mobile phone to exchange information with other vehicles further down the road. In theory, this allows the driver to “see around corners” or “through obstacles,” giving the driver more advanced warning if a danger is waiting ahead, like a broken-down vehicle on the edge of the road or pending heavy rain or black ice.

    Other options include a “Remote Parking Pilot,” which allows you to move a vehicle into and out of garages and tight parking spaces remotely using a smartphone app. A benefit to this self-parking feature is to let the driver and passengers get into and out of the car when it looks like a squeeze.

    There hasn’t been an E-Class in recent memory that didn’t wow us with its feeling of substance, delivering enjoyable and agile handling without giving up a smooth and cushy ride. The interiors have always been plush, with excellent seats and fit and finish. So we have high expectations for the new one.

    The new E-Class goes on sale this summer. Pricing was not announced.

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  • 01/10/16--19:22: 2016 Detroit Auto Show
  • 2016 Detroit Auto Show

    The Consumer Reports Cars team is in Detroit in force, covering the 2016 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). Highlights from this major new-car event will be posted here, including notable all-new models and concept cars, with photos and video. In addition, expanded stories will be posted as car news.

    Get the latest car news and show coverage by following us on Twitter @CRCars.


    2017 Audi A4

    As we’ve come to expect of Audi and its A4, the redesigned 2017 model doesn’t look much different from the outgoing car. But dig your nails below the surface and there’s considerable news inside the cabin and under the skin. The ninth-generation A4 has a reworked engine, a new transmission, a lighter body, and numerous advanced safety features, plus the availability of Audi’s customizable digital instrument panel, as already seen in the TT and the 2017 Q7.

    The A4’s 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder has been reworked to produce 252 hp, up from 220. But instead of the previous combo of a CVT automatic for front-drive models and an eight-speed automatic for all-wheel-drive models, all 2017 A4s will come with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.

    Audi has addressed the A4’s cramped rear seat with increased legroom, along with more shoulder and headroom up front, although specific dimensions weren’t given. A new standard infotainment system supports Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto.

    The 2017 Audi A4 goes on sale in the spring, starting at $37,300 for the base front-drive Premium model, with all-wheel drive beginning at $39,400.

    Learn more about the 2017 Audi A4.


    2017 Buick Envision

    The Chinese-made Buick Envision is a midsized crossover that will probably reach American shores as early as this summer. The five-seater will slot between the compact crossover, Buick Encore (made in Korea), and the seven-seater Buick Enclave (made in Michigan), targeting models such as the Acura RDX and Lincoln MKC.

    The Envision will be sold in the U.S. with a 252-horsepower, 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, a six-speed automatic transmission, and all-wheel drive.

    Premium amenities abound, with such notables as active noise canceling, tri-zone climate control, cooled front seats, built-in Wi-Fi, Bose stereo, and panoramic moonroof. Safety features count lane monitor with assist, park assist, and 360-degree surround camera. 


    2017 Chevrolet Bolt

    The Chevrolet Bolt electric car introduces an all-new platform that tucks its batteries neatly below the flat floor surface. GM boasts that the Bolt will have more than a 200-mile range and cost around $30,000, after government incentives.

    Where most small electrics have delivered less than a 100-mile real-world range, the Bolt stands out because its promised travel distance approaches that of a Tesla Model S—a large, luxury electric car that costs about three times as much. Using a fast charger installed in your home or at a public charging station, the battery can reach 80 percent of capacity in 60 minutes.

    The Bolt has 200 horsepower and 266 lb.-ft. of torque, enabling it to run 0-60 mph in 7 seconds.

    Learn more about the Chevrolet Bolt.


    2017 Chevrolet Cruze Hatchback

    Providing an alternative version of the redesigned 2016 Cruze sedan, the 2017 Chevrolet Cruze hatchback will share essential mechanicals and features. The liftgate exposes 22.7 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat, capable of expanding up to 47.2 cubic feet.

    On sale in the fall, the hatch benefits from the same weight reduction measures made to aid fuel economy and performance in the sedan. Both versions boast a generous roster of available high-tech features, such as Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, mobile Wi-Fi, Teen Driver monitor, and a full suite of active safety systems. In addition, there are some luxury touches, such as a heated steering wheel and heated rear seat.


    2017 Chrysler Pacifica

    Chrysler invented the family-hauler minivan 30 years ago and still dominates in a segment that’s shrinking nearly as quickly as crossovers proliferate. Rather than abandon the form (like Ford and General Motors did), Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles ordered up a clean-sheet design to appear in dealerships this spring under the name Pacifica, rather than Town & Country. There won’t be a lower-cost Dodge version.

    And it made this minivan more shapely than the box-it-came-in esthetic of previous models, with a steeply raked windshield and a curving roof profile. It looks somewhat crossover-like except for the sliding doors that can be opened with a kick under the sill, one of 40 claimed “innovations” for the 2017 model. FCA also claims to have the most interior room, with space for 4x8-foot sheets of plywood, and limousine levels of noise suppression and comfort. Yes, your mom’s family hauler has transmogrified into a luxury cruiser.

    A Pacifica Hybrid (arriving 3 to 6 months later) promises plug-in capability for up to 50 miles of all-electric range; when not in hybrid mode, it will be running the same 3.6-liter V-6 and nine-speed automatic drivetrain as the conventional model.  

    Learn more about the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica.


    2017 Ford F-150 Raptor SuperCrew

    Following the rollout of the popular Ford F-150 truck in consumer and commercial configurations comes the F-150 Raptor SuperCrew, which is designed for off-road performance. Like all current F-150 trucks, the Raptor benefits from a dramatic 500-lb. weight reduction over the previous generation, and this four-door Raptor aims to take advantage of the improved power-to-weight ratio.

    The Raptor has a 3.5-liter EcoBoost engine and a new 10-speed automatic transmission. Power will exceed the outgoing 411-horse V8, although exact engine specs haven’t been released. Ford claims the Raptor has the strongest frame in the F-150 lineup, and the company notes that the Raptor is six inches wider than a typical F-150. The massive Fox shocks now measure three inches in diameter, a half-inch larger than previous versions, and boasts increased travel to better absorb harsh trail conditions.

    A new Terrain Management System allows the driver to dial in the truck’s various systems to best tackle street, weather, mud/sand, high-speed desert running, and rock crawling. The new Raptor goes on sale fall 2016. 


    2017 Genesis G90

    Hyundai is kicking off its Genesis luxury brand with the G90, a sedan with relatively conventional construction. Two different engines are available: a 375-hp, 3.3-liter twin-turbocharged V6 and a 430-hp, 5.0-liter V8. Both are mated to an eight-speed automatic, and both are available with optional all-wheel drive, addressing a shortcoming of the rear-drive-only Equus.

    The spacious cabin is bathed in soft-touch materials and flanked with wood and chrome trim. However, it comes up short on wow factor, feeling more conventional than artistic. Thick and wide, like a favorite armchair, the driver's seat has standard 22-way power adjustments.

    However, as is typical for this oft-chauffeur-driven class, the back seat is really the place to be. Power massaging chairs face optional rear seat monitors, and a bank of controls in the center armrest control audio and climate settings. It also includes a complete suite of advanced safety features, despite that rivals typically reserve these features as expensive added-cost options.

    Learn more about the 2017 Genesis G90.  


    2017 Honda Ridgeline

    After a two model-year hiatus, Honda’s unconventional pickup returns in the fall as a 2017 model. Built on the same platform that debuted under the 2014 Acura MDX and 2016 Honda Pilot (and closely related to the hardware underpinning of the Odyssey minivan also being revised this year), the new Ridgeline takes on a more traditional truck profile.

    Owners of the previous model, Honda says, thought the Ridgeline would be more useful with a traditional pickup bed. The new one retains two innovative features of the previous 2005-2014 model: a dual-action tailgate that can swing sideways like a door or fold down in traditional fashion, and a lockable “trunk” space below the the bed floor.

    Even as Honda contends that Ridgeline occupies a unique place in the market where all other pickups use body-on-frame construction, it also says that with V6 power and all-wheel drive, Ridgeline will post “class-leading” towing, hauling, and bed space capacities, while besting other midsized trucks on acceleration and fuel economy. It has at least nailed one aspect of traditional truck marketing: Talking Big.

    The Ridgeline may not appeal to truck traditionalists any more than the first one did, but it moves in that direction just enough to broaden its utility for the rest of us. 

    Learn more about the 2017 Honda Ridgeline.


    2017 Infiniti Q60

    The 2017 Infiniti Q60 is an update to an existing premium sports coupe. First delivered in 2013, the Q60 was a replacement for the G37 when Infiniti re-jiggered the names of its entire lineup.

    Part of the renovation of the brand has been strong emphasis on design, and the Infiniti Q60 definitely fits that bill. Both lower and wider, the body creases are bolder and sportier, emphasizing the promise of performance-oriented, dynamic driving.

    The most significant updates on the Infiniti Q60 are the new powerplant with claims of improved efficiency and a redesigned suspension. The new VR30 engine is a 3.0-liter V6 twin turbo that is available in either a 300-horsepower or a 400-horsepower configuration. A four-cylinder, 2.0-liter engine will also be available with 208 horsepower. The standard configuration is rear drive, though all-wheel drive is available.

    The driving experience can be customized with a new Drive Mode Selector that features six options to adapt the driving dynamics to conditions and personal preferences, from high performance to cruising comfort. The Q60 goes on sale late summer 2016. 


    2017 Kia Forte and Forte5

    Kia has refreshed its Forte sedan and Forte5 hatchback for the 2017 model year updating the small car exteriors with a new front bumper, grille, headlamps, and taillights.

    The Forte sedan sees the adoption of a new S trim level to slot in between the base LX and top-level EX. The S gets a sport-tuned suspension, 16-inch alloy wheels, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob.

    Both the LX and S come with a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine (replacing the 1.8L) with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. The big news for the Forte5 SX, which comes with a 1.6-liter turbo four-cylinder, is the availability of a new seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.

    Both sedan and hatch have access to a new option, Dynamic Bending Lights, which angle the headlamps through corners based on steering wheel input. The 2017 Kia Forte sedan and Forte5 go on sale early this year.  


    Kia Telluride Concept

    Kia has unveiled its idea of what a full-size luxury SUV would look like, if the Korean manufacturer decided to add one to its arsenal of value-packed models. Looking like a giant Kia Soul just back from flair school, the Telluride concept is based on a stretched Sorento platform. (It measures about 10 inches longer than a Sorento, and it rides on a wheelbase that’s a whopping 11.9 inches greater.)

    The Telluride concept uses a plug-in hybrid drivetrain, with a 3.5-liter V6 and an electric motor combining for a blended output of 400 horsepower, sent to all four wheels. Kia says this setup would return 30 mpg on the highway.

    Although the Telluride is a three-row, seven-passenger SUV, the focus was clearly placed on the second-row, which features reclining captain’s chairs with fold-away footrests. Sensors in the seats keep an eye on each occupant’s vital health stats. The data is displayed on door panel screens, and the vehicle can react to address fatigue by changing cabin lighting. Rear-hinged second-row doors create a huge entryway to the interior.

    While Kia is claiming the Telluride is merely a styling exercise, we wouldn’t be surprised to see a full-size production SUV in the near future. 


    2017 Lexus LC 500

    Looking to chase the upper echelon of well-heeled empty-nest car shoppers, Lexus has introduced the LC 500 coupe, going on sale in early 2017 with a projected starting price near $100,000.

    The LC 500 is based on the aggressively styled LF-LC concept sports car of several years ago, and it will be the first model using a new front-engine, rear-drive luxury-vehicle platform from corporate parent Toyota. The body uses a large percentage of high-strength steel, which Lexus says is more resistant to the torsional twisting forces under hard cornering than the carbon fiber used by other supercar makers.

    The 5.0-liter V8 engine is borrowed from the high-performance GS F and RC F coupes, generating 467 horsepower and 389 lb.-ft. of torque. Power is sent to the wheels through a close-ratio 10-speed automatic transmission, enabling a claimed 0-60 mph sprint of less than 4.5 seconds.

    As befitting a high-performance coupe, the driver will sit quite low to the ground. Using run-flat tires means no spare tire, while affording engineers more flexibility in how to design the car. Lexus also moved the battery to the trunk to help balance overall weight distribution and thereby aid handling. The small, 113-inch LC has its wheels pushed to the corners, providing an athletic stance with short overhangs to the overall length. 


    2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class

    The new 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class hits the streets with enough fuel economy, safety gear, and comfort technology to keep it among the most sophisticated luxury sedans on the market. Through the redesign, the company’s mainstay “business-class” leader gets a longer wheelbase and more overall length.

    The new base E300 will be powered by the same turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder found in the Mercedes C300 and GLC300, putting out 241 hp. It will run through a nine-speed automatic transmission. Diesel and hyper-horsepower AMG variants are likely on the way, as well. An optional driver-selected suspension allows both sport and comfort settings. An air suspension system is also available, with a self-leveling feature that adjusts depending on vehicle load and speed.

    Safety highlights include a “Car-to-X communication” system, which uses your mobile phone to exchange information and on-the-road warnings with other vehicles further down the road.

    The new E-Class goes on sale in summer 2016.  

    Learn more about the 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class.


    2017 Mercedes-Benz SLC Roadster

    Mercedes-Benz continues to revitalize, and rename, its product line, with the latest example to be the transformation of the SLK retractable hardtop into the SLC. By adopting the classic SLC moniker, the brand is recognizing the roadster’s C-Class pedigree while aiming to better align the models in its range.

    Of course, the new SLC variants will still feature the SLK’s pioneering “vario-roof,” a mechanical feat that defined the roadster as one the first retractable hardtop convertible sports coupes sold. The top can now deploy or retract at speeds up to 25 mph. The SLC will also offer the Magic Sky Control option from the SLK, which adjusts the opacity of the retractable glass roof to control the amount of sunlight allowed through.

    The SLC300 will have a 241-hp, four-cylinder engine shared with the C300 sedan. Mercedes-Benz claims 0-60 mph sprints in 5.7 seconds.

    Learn more about the Mercedes-Benz SLC.


    2017 Volvo S90

    The S90 is hailed as the beginning of the second chapter in Volvo’s product lineup revamp, on the heels of the XC90 introduction. The S90 and XC90 share the same platform and represent a commitment to Scandinavian design and safety from the Chinese-backed company.

    The technology portion of the sedan’s features are some of the most significant to the brand’s ongoing commitment to active safety technology and zero deaths or significant injuries in its new models by 2020. Active safety system package includes forward-collision warning with automatic braking, adaptive cruise control, distance alert, and lane-keeping feature. Volvo’s CitySafe system will now include a large animal detection option, similar to the pedestrian detection system, to avoid striking moose and other large road-crossing critters. The Volvo S90 will have the same powerplants as the XC90: a four-cylinder, 2.0-liter turbocharged engine called T5 (about 250 hp); a supercharged variant called T6 (316 hp); and the plug-in hybrid variant T8 (410 hp).

    Learn more about the Volvo S90.


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    2017 Audi A4 Continues Its Evolution

    At first glance, the 2017 Audi A4 looks remarkably similar to the outgoing car. But as we’ve come to expect of Audi, and in particular of the A4, its best-selling model ever, there’s considerably more news inside the cabin and under the skin than immediately meets the eye. The ninth-generation A4 has more power, a new transmission, a lighter body, and numerous advanced safety features, plus the availability of Audi’s customizable digital instrument panel.

    Audi’s sweet-and-smooth 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine has been reworked to produce 252 hp and 273 lb.-ft. of torque, up from 220 and 258, respectively. But instead of the previous pairing of front-drive cars with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) and all-wheel-drive versions with an eight-speed automatic, all 2017 Audi A4s will come with the same transmission, a seven-speed dual-clutch setup.

    Audi claims the A4’s handling has been improved thanks to a redesigned front suspension system, along with “significant weights savings” due to a new, lighter body and aluminum suspension components. The car’s standard Audi Drive Select system lets you adjust parameters for transmission shift points and the steering response, as well as for the adjustable suspension and adaptive cruise control, if the car is so optioned.

    We’ve complained of the A4’s tight rear seating in the past, and to this Audi says the new car has better rear legroom along with increased shoulder and headroom up front, although specific dimensions and increases weren’t available. A new option for the A4 is a 12.3-inch customizable instrument panel, previously seen on the TT and the 2017 Q7, which can display a large navigation screen in between traditional-looking gauges in the interest of keeping the driver’s eyes on the road.

    There’s still a seven-inch standard or 8.3-inch optional infotainment display on top of the central dash, as well as the option of a full-color head-up display on the windshield.

    Of course there’s a slew of driver-assistance systems available, including traffic-sign recognition to warn the driver of speed limits, no passing zones, and school zones; an exit assist to warn of a vehicle or cyclist approaching from the rear as you open a door; and a triple-play adaptive cruise control with the ability to control acceleration, braking, and steering below 38 mph.  

    We’ll definitely be looking forward to feeling the thrust of the A4’s higher-output engine, but we’re also keen to see how much extra space the cabin provides and if the interior controls are easier to decipher.

    The 2017 Audi A4 goes on sale in the spring at a starting price of $37,300 for the front-drive Premium model, a $1,400 increase over last year’s base car. All-wheel drive starts at $39,400 with the Prestige Quattro topping the lineup at $48,000. 

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    2017 Chrysler Pacifica Seeks to Reinvent the Minivan

    Minivans don’t have a great image among young consumers, who may have grown up in their parents’ Dodge Caravans and Plymouth Voyagers. A clean-sheet redesign aims to counter that perception with the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica.

    Chrysler hopes that abandoning the Town & Country name helps shed the minivan’s stale image, aided by a shapely, modern body. (However, the Pacifica name comes from a rather lackluster crossover.)

    The 2017 Chrysler Pacifica has a traditional seven- or eight-seat capacity, dual-sliding side doors, and the popular Stow-N-Go folding seats (now with what seem like actual, comfortable seats in the second row). However, the third-row seats are surprisingly hard to use, being heavy and moving with a crash. You really need some oomph to operate them, especially with the reach to access them.

    Chrysler claims it will have the largest interior volume in the segment and be capable of hauling 4x8-foot sheets of plywood.

    Making up ground in the green technology field where the company has been notably lagging, there’ll be a Pacifica Hybrid version three to six months later. It’s a plug-in with up to 50 miles of electric range, Chrysler claims, but when it’s not in hybrid mode (claimed 80 MPGe), it will run the same 287-hp V-6 and nine-speed automatic as standard Pacificas and will perform similarly.

    Chrysler also claims lower levels of noise, vibration, and harshness, a further departure from the rattle-can minivans of yore. Throw in all the modern safety and connectivity technologies Chrysler can muster and plush interior features (yes, there’s even a vacuum like the one Honda Odyssey pioneered), and it’s clear that the vehicular form that was invented as an affordable hauler for growing families has been reconfigured as a luxurious cruiser.

    Bolstering its position as a secure place to transport your family, the new 2017 Chrysler Pacifica offers a 360-degree camera, adaptive cruise control with autonomous braking, and lane-departure and forward-collision warning.

    A convenience feature we’ve come to love—especially when approaching the car with an arm’s full of groceries or carrying a small child—are hands-free sliding doors and liftgate, now available on the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica.

    Keeping kids happy on road trips is a constant challenge for parents, so the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica is available with a rear-seat entertainment system, that includes high-definition 10-inch headrest-mounted touch screens so passengers can watch movies, play built-in games, and connect devices with a built-in Internet connection.

    The minivan segment has been shrinking, while crossovers flourish, but there are still about a half-million sold annually. While Chrysler held on to nearly 40 percent of those sales last year against strong competition from Honda and Toyota, the best bet for long-term profit looks to be selling fewer minivans at higher prices. There won’t even be a lower-priced Dodge version. If this minivan’s future is based on appealing to more well-heeled households that might change its image, too. 

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    Get a Grip With Slip-On Ice Cleats

    Clearing snow is riskier when you can’t keep your balance. Consumer Reports tested four slip-on ice cleats on a sheet of thick ice that we tilted to varying slopes, and also at an ice-skating rink. In addition, we tried walking indoors on linoleum, carpet, and painted concrete to test the potential for slipping and damage to floors. 

    What We Tested

    • Stabilicers Original Heavy Duty Traction Cleat are the most heavy-duty ice cleats and, at $34 per pair, the priciest. They each have two adjustable straps and replaceable traction points that screw in.
    • OuterStar Ice & Snow Grips, $8, have lightweight construction with stretchable rubber and steel studs.
    • Yaktrax Pro Traction Cleats, $18, use a lightweight design with steel coils rather than traction points. Each has a removable strap.
    • Icetrekkers Diamond Grip ice cleats, $27, are described as “made of case-hardened steel alloy and strung on steel aircraft cable,” and there’s a stretchable rubber sling that runs around your foot.

    Slip Resistant

    All four sets of ice cleats improved on the traction that running shoes provide. But they differed in their grip on slopes and indoor surfaces, notably a vinyl-tile floor. Most effective all around was the Stabilicers, which provided a firm grip on every surface and condition we tried.

    With the OuterStar, the least expensive ice cleats, we slipped around the most on icy slopes and vinyl tile indoors. The Yaktrax and Icetrekkers ice cleats held better.

    In later tests on an ice-skating rink, all worked fine for merely standing or walking a few steps slowly. But for anything more than that, the Yaktrax ice cleats provided the least traction of the runners-up.

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    2017 Honda Ridgeline Pickup Truck Looks Conventional, Still Innovative

    Expected in fall 2016, the redesigned 2017 Honda Ridgeline takes on more traditional trappings as it again seeks to be the truck for the common consumer.

    Many weekend warriors were pleased when Honda introduced its 2005 Ridgeline, considered a smaller, lighter pickup than its work-bred competitors. Rather than being a simple machine, like a conventional truck with a body-on-frame design and live rear axle, the Ridgeline uses unit-body construction and an independent rear suspension like a mild-mannered SUV. Customers flocked to it initially, but after a few years it seemed everyone who wanted an unconventional truck had bought one. Ridgeline sales faded so much that Honda dropped it from the 2015 and 2016 model years.

    This new one looks more conventional, with a longer, flatter hood and a flat-topped bed, rather than the sloping sides that consumers found to be obstacles when loading some cargo. But the Ridgeline retains the key ingredients of unit-body construction (sharing its architecture with the Honda Pilot SUV and Acura MDX, also owned by Honda) and innovative features like a tailgate that can swing open like a door or flip down in normal fashion and a lockable trunk-like cargo space beneath the bed floor.

    The independent suspension that makes the trunk space possible also contributes to a more comfortable ride and better handling than most conventional trucks offer—traits the new model should share with the original.

    Honda also claims Ridgeline will outpace traditional midsized trucks in towing capacity and cargo hauling. (The original was limited to 5,000-lbs. tow capacity; the new one will need to pull more than 7,000-lbs. to make good on the boast.)

    The Pilot’s 3.5-liter V-6, rated at 280-horsepower, might be tweaked closer to 300 hp to make good on Honda’s claim it will out-accelerate the pack while its light construction yields better fuel economy. The proof will be in the final product, when it faces Consumer Reports' tests.

    We considered the previous Ridgeline to be among the best compact pickups we've tested. A supple ride, agile handling, responsive engine, roomy cabin, and clever bed gave it real appeal. We hope these virtues remain as Honda aims to be more trucklike in appearance and ability.  

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    2017 Genesis G90 Luxury Sedan Aims at European Flagships

    Just how serious is Hyundai at tackling the luxury market? Very. In fact, they've created an entire Genesis sub-brand, because reconciling upscale luxury with Hyundai's budget-minded origin story makes for a tough sell.

    Eventually, the Genesis brand will have a luxury crossover, a sports sedan to compete with the BMW 3 Series, and a renamed version of the current Hyundai Genesis sedan. First out of the blocks is the new 2017 Genesis G90 flagship, the large sedan replacement for the slow-selling (and mostly forgotten) Hyundai Equus.

    While European prestige brands, like Audi and BMW, use their flagships to showcase weight-reducing aluminium or carbon-fiber-intensive bodywork, the 2017 Genesis G90 remains relatively conventional in its construction. Two different engines are available: a 375-hp, 3.3-liter twin-turbocharged V6 and a 430-hp, 5.0-liter V8. Both are mated to an eight-speed automatic, and both are available with optional all-wheel drive, addressing a shortcoming of the rear-drive-only Equus.  

    While rival luxury brands Acura and Infiniti avoid this uber-luxury segment, the 2017 Genesis G90 goes head to head with the BMW 7 Series, Lexus LS, and Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Competing against those heavy-hitters requires a decadent interior. The spacious cabin is bathed in soft-touch materials and flanked with wood and chrome trim. However, it comes up short on wow factor, feeling more conventional than artistic. Don't look for soft-closing doors or switches that feel silky-damped when you touch them—features that the Germans use to further gild the lily.

    Then again, the G90's interior is no penalty box: far from it. Thick and wide, like a favorite armchair, the driver's seat has standard 22-way power adjustments. However, as is typical for this oft-chauffeur-driven class, the back seat is really the place to be. Power massaging chairs face optional rear seat monitors, and a bank of controls in the center armrest control audio and climate settings.

    The G90's electronics go far beyond entertaining rear seat passengers. Standard equipment counts numerous advanced safety systems, including forward-collision warning with automatic braking and pedestrian detection, a head-up display, blind-spot monitoring, lane-keep assist (similar to Tesla's AutoPilot self-steering system), and a surround-view camera. Despite their high base price, rival sedans typically reserve these features as expensive added-cost options. 

    Interacting with all of the features in a high-end luxury sedan can often lead to frustration. Hyundai strives to provide more driver-friendly controls than peers. Indeed, there are plenty of familiar-looking buttons and knobs, plus a console-located controller knob and a touch screen. Our brief experience playing with the not-done-yet system revealed that finding some common functions, like browsing a smartphone's music library, takes another step or two than desired. The 2017 Genesis G90 also has a unique shifter that isn't totally intuitive; the separate Park button gets hidden from view by the chunky lever.

    Despite our minor gripes, Hyundai is swinging for the fences with their 2017 Genesis G90 flagship sedan. The brand is even offering delivery for test drives, complimentary maintenance, and free pick ups for service. Another goal of Genesis is to develop more driver-oriented cars; the Equus proved to be anything but engaging. We'll see if the G90 lives up to that goal after the embargo on driving impression passes. 

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