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  • 01/28/16--03:00: Can You Trust Your Mechanic?
  • Can You Trust Your Mechanic?

     In September Aaron Edelman of Indiana took his 2009 Volks­wagen Routan minivan to the local VW dealer for a safety recall for the car’s ignition switch. But in addition to the fix, the service department performed a “free multipoint inspection.” According to Edelman, the shop presented a lengthy list of repairs the car supposedly needed. 

    The service adviser informed Edelman that his brake pads needed replacing. The only problem? Edelman had replaced the pads himself only a month before.

    According to Edelman, the car mechanic also spotted a coolant leak near the thermostat, a repair that would cost $376. The mechanic ominously warned that the fix would require removing the valve cover. Edelman knew his car well; the thermostat was easily accessible, held on by only two bolts.

    When Edelman got home, he inspected the leak—the only evidence being a tiny amount of dried coolant residue.

    “I replaced the hose clamp,” he said in an interview, after reaching out to Consumer Reports via our Stori.es social-media platform.

    “It cost three dollars at Advance Auto.” How long did it take him to do the work? “Six minutes.”

    According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, some dealerships are exploiting safety recalls as a “marketing hook” to sell additional repair work or even a new vehicle.

    Today’s cars, like Edelman’s 110,000-mile kid hauler, are staying on the road longer; the average American car is now 11½ years old, according to IHS Automotive. And Consumer Reports data shows that older used cars are remaining reliable for a longer time.

    “The reliability of the vehicles and the components in them has shifted the equation from repair to taking care of maintenance items at the right intervals,” says John Tisdale of test development operations at the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. “Seventy percent of the work being done is maintenance.”

    As a result, the increasing longevity and reliability of today’s cars, coupled with longer maintenance intervals, are squeezing profits of dealers and independent car mechanics alike.

    To be sure, those “free” inspections often can detect problems that might cripple your car down the road. And a trusted car mechanic will help keep your car on the road and safe.

    But some less ethical mechanics are taking those shop visits—often for a safety recall or as part of a routine oil change—as an opportunity to pressure car owners to perform service work that isn’t necessary. (Learn about the 5 auto repair shop scams your mechanic might try.)

    How can you fight back and avoid falling for a money-grabbing ploy by your mechanic? With a little bit of education. It’s often as easy as checking the owner’s manual, which will give the precise schedule of what needs to be inspected or replaced, and when. 

    Beware Recall Add-Ons

    Car owners should take recalls seriously and have them performed at a dealership to ensure their vehicle’s safe operation. But like Edelman, owners should be wary of dealerships that will take advantage of the recall service to bamboozle customers with additional frightening-sounding, but unnecessary, repairs.

    One Los Angeles Mini owner took her low-mileage 2006 Cooper S to her local BMW/Mini dealership for a recall. Upon returning her car, the mechanic informed her that the Mini needed more than $6,000 worth of other work—almost equaling the value of her car. Startled, she took her Mini to an independent mechanic, whose estimate was 76 percent lower—and who told her that most of the work was unnecessary.

    Consumers have told us that certain dealers have refused to perform recall work unless the owner agrees to expensive repairs or maintenance items as well. That’s not only unethical but also a serious violation of the detailed consent orders between NHTSA and the manufacturers.

    “A consumer whose vehicle is under a safety recall is entitled to free repair of that safety defect, period,” explains NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge. If a dealer refuses to provide that remedy, or attaches conditions to it, you should contact NHTSA at safercar.gov.

    NHTSA has even appointed an independent monitor to oversee the massive Fiat-Chrysler and Takata airbag recalls, to eliminate attempts by dealers to upsell customers with unrelated repairs.

    The scams don’t just happen with unscrupulous dealers adding extra work during recall campaigns. A minor service can turn into a major hassle if a shady mechanic gets his way.

    In the past, a typical car needed its oil changed every 3,000 miles. But modern cars can go much longer between services—and with modern synthetic lubricants, oil-change intervals can now stretch beyond 10,000 miles. The annual “tuneup” is a thing of the past because intervals for replacing spark plugs and oil and air filters have also been extended. That means fewer times a dealer gets to make money servicing your car.

    Respect Routine Maintenance

    If your car hasn’t reached the manufacturer’s suggested mileage for a service interval, or the item is outside the scope of routine maintenance, regard recommendations from your mechanic to replace those extra parts with skepticism, even suspicion.

    “If they want to hit you with a bunch of extras that are not in the maintenance schedule, that raises a red flag,” says John Ibbotson, chief mechanic at the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center.

    Although the owner’s manual will tell you what each service interval entails, certain modern cars’ onboard computers will inform you if that period has changed based on your driving habits.

    If your owner’s manual says you are at or past the recommended interval for, say, air filters, it makes sense to replace them. And if your car’s engine has a timing belt, you really don’t want to postpone that major service that should be performed between 60,000 and 105,000 miles.

    You can also crowdsource your maintenance decision. No matter the vehicle, there’s a community of enthusiasts who love to share their knowledge in online forums. For example, PriusChat shares that the hybrid car’s 12-volt battery usually dies after six years or so. Those owner sites are invaluable and often include a discussion of trusted mechanics.

    “You can get an idea of whether the price is in the ballpark and how common the issue is,” Ibbotson says.

    Also, the Consumer Reports Car Repair Estimator can be a great tool—providing local work estimates from shops that meet certain quality standards, and even explaining common parts and services in an online encyclopedia. You'll find it at ConsumerReports.org/carrepair

    Break Down the Breakdown

    If a mechanic says your car isn’t running properly, you’re entitled to a simple explanation. In most cases, he or she should be able to explain the problem in detail, in terms that you can understand.

    “Asking the right question is key,” says Ray Evernham, garage owner-turned-NASCAR crew chief. “You want a written estimate and an explanation. Sometimes just asking these questions keeps a shop from taking advantage of you.”

    If the explanation doesn’t satisfy you, ask the mechanic to show you the worn part in question. If you still don’t like the answer, get a second opinion.

    In the end, Ibbotson says, you can avoid headaches by using your network of friends to find a local mechanic with whom you can build a relationship.
     

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

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

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    5 Auto Repair Shop Scams Your Mechanic Might Try

    “High scare equals high profit,” says John Ibbotson, Consumer Reports’ chief mechanic, who has been in the auto parts and service business since 1990.

    If your mechanic already has you in the auto repair shop for one problem, it’s easy to play with your emotions to indicate that something larger is amiss. Below you'll find some frequent ploys, according to Ibbotson.

    Generalizing ‘Common’ Problems

    Some mechanics won’t bother checking the condition of a car before saying something like, “Most Honda Pilots with as many miles as yours have bad control-arm bushings, so you better replace yours.”

    The ‘Unsafe Car’ Tactic

    State laws vary, but in New York, an auto repair shop must surrender your keys if you have paid the bill for work performed. Your mechanic can call the police if he thinks your car is unsafe, but a garage cannot seize your car. 

    The ‘Transmission Flush’

    If you follow the recommended maintenance intervals, doing a scheduled flush is fine. But don’t start doing flushes if you’ve ignored the intervals. The grime and gunk that collects in unchanged fluid becomes the friction material in an aging clutch pack. Replacing the fluid could cause an old transmission to fail. 

    Brake Replacement

    Often, your “bad” brakes just need new brake pads and a cleaning or turning of the brake rotors, which is a low-cost solution. But sometimes your mechanic will insist you need to replace the pads, rotors, calipers . . . the works. 

    Faking a Leak

    A truly bad auto repair shop will spray coolant on a part of the engine to make you think you have a leaking radiator that needs replacing. Ask for the mechanic to show you exactly where the leak is. 

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

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

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  • 01/28/16--03:00: 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata Review
  • 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata Review

    Twenty-five years ago, Mazda took the idea of the charmingly eccentric British roadster and infused it with Japanese reliability. By remaining true to its nature of fun and affordable performance, the Miata has thrilled and inspired hundreds of thousands of buyers, from money-conscious workaday drivers to weekend racers. With its handling agility, revvy four-cylinder engine, easy-to-fold manual top, and precise manual shifter, it’s the quintessential modern roadster.

    Read our complete Mazda MX-5 Miata road test.

    The cheeky, lithe, and zoomy Mazda MX-5 Miata convertible is the epitome of the expression, “It’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.”

    For a quarter century, the MX-5’s sparkling combination of nimble fun, thriftiness, and reliability has made it a favorite at our test track—and the redesigned 2016 model holds to the standard.

    The 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata is a completely impractical car. It seats two (tightly), it will barely haul a load of groceries, and it’s loud inside. Yet we’re smitten with this plucky ragtop.

    There isn’t a better fun-per-dollar performance car on the market that delivers the Miata’s magic. After a long winter’s nap, the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata will revive your senses the first spring day you drop the top and hit the curvy roads.

    This Mazda is one of the last intimate driving experiences; you feel like part of the machine that’s melding with the road. The Miata’s steering gives immediate turn-in response, and the car remains playful and predictable even when pressing the limits of the tires.

    You’ll have all the power you need from the smooth-revving 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. And while 155 horsepower doesn’t sound like much in a world of high-priced competitors offering almost double that, the svelte 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata weighs only a whisker over 2,300 pounds. That power-to-weight ratio, helped by well-chosen gear ratios, brings responsiveness and a ready smile to all who pilot the MX-5.

    Unlike some turbocharged four-cylinders, power delivery in the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata is a bit gaspy at low-engine RPMs, but it ramps up rapidly as the revs build. The deep exhaust sound belies the small powerplant under the hood.

    Sprinting to highway speed is more enjoyable when you work the short, stubby shifter and effortless clutch. And although an automatic is available, the only proper choice is the manual transmission, a keen indication of the quality of the Miata’s shifter.

    A bonus is that the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata delivers a frugal 34 mpg overall, albeit on premium fuel.

    But all is not perfect in the Miata metropolis. Think twice about using this wee roadster as a daily commuter, particularly at highway speeds, because the ride is so stiff that you’ll wonder whether Mazda ran out of shock absorbers. The wind, road, and tire noise that permeates the cabin and invades the thinly insulated top will also try your patience.

    And although Mazda carved out slightly more space inside the cabin, the Miata still fits like a shrunken pair of skinny jeans. We strongly advise taller drivers to try it on for size before signing any ownership papers.

    Our affection for the Miata doesn’t extend to its rudimentary seats; the car deserves better. The Club trim’s front buckets feel designed for weight savings, not comfort, with minimal padding and adjustability. Opting for the Grand Touring’s leather seats may help out here, but that puts you well past $30,000.

    The tight quarters lead to some other compromises. The placement of the console-mounted control knob for the infotainment system is right where you would rest your wrist when shifting—resulting in accidental changes in radio stations or other settings. And the removable cup holders are a contortionist’s dream, located behind your right elbow.

    The Club version is the Miata that delivers the best value, but the Grand Touring may make sense for those who don’t envision weekends at an autocross course. The GT addresses many of the shortcomings with a softer suspension, heated leather seats, and blind-spot monitoring, but it gives up a bit of handling sharpness.

    Yes, one has to put up with some compromises. But we still have big love for the Miata.

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

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

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  • 01/28/16--03:00: 2016 Audi TT Review
  • 2016 Audi TT Review

    The sculpted and sleek 2016 Audi TT is one of those sports cars that performs as beautifully as it looks. And with such a sophisticated exterior profile, it definitely knows how to make an entrance. The interior breaks new ground with a modern design that’s luxurious and boasts a driver-focused infotainment interface. But while the 2016 Audi TT is entertaining and unintimidating to drive, its reflexes are a step behind sharper sport coupes like the BMW 2 Series and Porsche Cayman.

    Read the complete Audi TT road test.

    Few car companies create modernist elegance like Audi. And few sporty cars look and feel like the 2016 Audi TT.

    This German-bred coupe delivers on its design promise of performance credibility. From its zippy 220-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbo engine and quick-shifting automated manual transmission to its standard all-wheel drive, the TT provides nimble and entertaining transport.

    Dashing to 60 mph from a standstill takes 6.3 seconds—not lightning-fast, but enough to induce a whoop from a passenger. And at 26 mpg overall, the 2016 Audi TT is fuel-efficient—at least among its peers. But the engine lacks the silkiness of a BMW six-cylinder and is missing the brawn of a V8-fortified Ford Mustang. And there’s an odd omission for a sports car: No stick-shift transmission is offered.

    Take it on a winding, swirling back road, and the TT dives into corners with enthusiasm and confidence, staying steady and composed. Changing the driving mode from “Comfort” to “Dynamic” injects an added boost of playfulness, ramping up the responsiveness of the engine and transmission, and amplifying the exhaust sound to a sonorous snarl.

    The TT’s ride is firm but not punishing, with the suspension delivering decent insulation from road imperfections. The car’s structure feels like a quiet, reassuring cocoon. We wouldn’t hesitate throwing two bags in the back and heading out for a long weekend.

    A word of caution for your getaway, however: Your passenger is going to feel left out of the action. The TT’s ergonomics and interface are fiercely focused on the driver. Looking for the traditional center-stack placement for the radio-navigation display and climate controls? They’re not there. Instead, the colorful display lives directly in front of the driver as part of the instrument panel. And the climate-control dials, digital temperature displays, and seat heater controls are intriguingly integrated into the turbine-look dash vents.

    The presentation of this neue-technik instrumentation is neat, uncluttered, and dazzling from a product-design perspective. It works, but it takes getting used to. That also means your passenger will have to crane over your shoulder to glimpse the crisp graphics of Google Maps. And as the driver, you will have your own steep learning curve with the infotainment system.

    The TT’s interior is impeccably finished and filled with thoughtful details, including the diamond-quilted pattern on the leather seats, a chunky flat-bottom steering wheel, and aural delights from the optional Carnegie Hall-worthy Bang & Olufsen stereo system.

    The multi-adjustable front sports seats are extremely supportive. But the rear seat is almost laughably puny—best used for a duffel bag or a dachshund.

    Aside from adapting to the controls, the worst things about the TT are its poor visibility (you’ll want the optional blind-spot monitoring) and seats so low that you need to be a yoga master to get in or out.

    But the toughest call might be the price. A few options took our tested TT past $50,000. For the same money, you can get a BMW M235i—which outpoints the TT in almost every dynamic respect.

    But for pure style, the TT is tough to top.

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

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

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  • 01/28/16--03:00: 2016 Scion iA Review
  • 2016 Scion iA Review

    The badge may say Scion, but this car is built by Mazda and uses Mazda parts. That’s a good thing. A mixed lineage means the 2016 Scion iA represents the Toyota youth brand’s principles of value and frugality, but not at the expense of ride comfort and driving enjoyment like past Toyota econoboxes. With the iA, Scion has done away with the bare-bones economy car, delivering something fresh and fun.

    Read our complete Scion iA road test.

    Owning a budget-minded subcompact car is a lesson in sacrifice. Usually crude, underpowered, and noisy, these cheap-and-cheerful econoboxes are stepping-stones to a better automotive experience a few years hence. But with the iA, Scion has rewritten the rulebook. Based on the new Mazda2 sedan that isn’t offered in the U.S., the iA is a better budget-priced Toyota than Toyota’s own Yaris.

    At less than $18,000 nicely equipped, the 2016 Scion iA is an ideal first set of wheels or economical commuter car—one that’s light on your fuel budget and a snap to park.

    Power comes from a willing 1.5-liter four-cylinder Mazda engine that, while smooth and quiet, isn’t brimming with power. Few small cars accelerate quickly, and the iA’s 10.3-second zero-to-60 time is hardly a sprint, although comparable to other subcompacts. 

    The well-matched gearing of the six-speed automatic downshifts promptly, delivering responsive acceleration. The iA’s excellent 35 mpg overall is bested in the segment by only two cars—the oddball Smart ForTwo and the gruesome Mitsubishi Mirage—both of which are seriously compromised vehicles.

    Unlike almost every other subcompact, the Scion iA doesn’t beat you up with a harsh ride. The suspension provides enough compliance to absorb sharp bumps and does a decent job masking rougher sections of road. Highway trips are mostly uneventful. Our biggest complaint about long trips in the Scion iA is that the cabin can get loud, especially with wind noise.

    While absorbent, the suspension is also taut, contributing to the iA’s sporting character. When you drive it with a bit more spirit, the Mazda DNA is evident in the sedan’s unflappable, athletic nature thanks to prompt turn-in response and well-tuned steering.

    Also, the Scion iA is the rare subcompact with a standard low-speed forward-collision mitigation system. At speeds below 12 miles per hour, the car can apply the brakes to bring itself to a stop if the driver isn’t paying attention to what is in front of him.

    One letdown is the iA’s stopping distances. The brake pedal felt firm, but overall braking performance was just average, with rather long stops, particularly on wet pavement.

    Once you squeeze in through the narrow doors, you’ll find plentiful front-seat headroom. But the small seats are narrow and short on lower-back support, and there isn’t much room to stretch out. Testers also consistently complained about the lack of reach from the tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel.

    Rear-seat space is very tight, with limited knee and leg room, and scant headroom for tall adults. Unless it’s a short jaunt, don’t try to fit grown-ups back there—especially in the center seat—or you’ll make fast enemies. There’s a decent trunk, though it’s bare-bones in terms of fit and finish.

    On the infotainment front, the Scion iA reaps the benefits of its Mazda roots. The system is quick to respond, with a prominent screen and a center control knob for most functions. It takes some getting used to, but this comprehensive system has a clear screen with large fonts.

    As befits a budget car, much of the cabin is covered in hard plastic, though none is cringe-worthy. Because of some soft-touch materials with stitched details and glossy piano-black or faux carbon-fiber panels, the interior feels richer than the iA’s price point.

    In the end, the Scion is a worthy starter sedan. It lacks the versatility of hatchback competitors like the Honda Fit and Nissan Versa Note, but it’s easy on the wallet and offers a dash of fun and a measure of civility.

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

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

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    Consider a Secondhand Timeshare for Sale

    Like buying a new car at a dealership, timeshares sold by developers are pricier than those sold secondhand. That’s because half of the cost of a new timeshare goes toward sales and marketing expenses, which include hefty commissions, says Randy Conrads, co-founder of timeshares reseller ­RedWeek. Roughly 25 percent of the price is the cost of the building, and the rest is developer overhead—and, of course, profit.

    On the secondary market many of those costs are nonexistent, so if you’re thinking of buying a timeshare, you may want to consider a “used” one. Dozens of websites feature properties that owners are trying to exit or that resale companies have purchased to sell for a profit. Some timeshares may sell for 30 percent of what they cost when new; others for as little as $1 (excluding maintenance fees). You can even find a timeshare for sale, such as Disney Vacation Club, at a discount.


    More on Timeshares

    • The Timeshare Comes of Age
    • Is a Timeshare Vacation a Good Value?
    • Timeshare Resale Scams


    Then again, the advantage of buying a timeshare directly from the developer can be significant. For ­example, your points can be spent at any resort within the brand family. That’s not always the case when you buy on the secondary market.

    So though deals abound, buying a timeshare for sale on the secondary market can be akin to purchasing a used car through an online ad. You might not know if the car was in a wreck or dredged from the bottom of a lake. “I’m not a mechanic,” says Howard Nusbaum at the American Resort Development Association. “The property might have old liens against it, and I might not know if I’m legally able to buy it.” So before you buy on the secondary market, hire a company to do a title search to make sure the title of the timeshare for sale is clean and the seller is actually the owner.

    An alternative to buying a used timeshare for your vacations is to rent from an existing owner. We found bargains at various sites. Using Disney’s Polynesian as an example, we spotted a seven-night rental in early January advertised on RedWeek for $1,785. Had we booked similar accommodations at the hotel directly through Disney, the total would have been $3,200 with tax.

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

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

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    Find a Multi-Cooker That Will Win You Over

    Multi-cookers are souped-up slow cookers, and perfect if you’re planning your Super Bowl strategy. Early in the day you can brown ingredients in the cooker and then switch to slow cook, with no extra pots and pans to clean up. The keep-warm setting lets you kick back and watch the game. 

    Beyond slow cook, browning, steaming, baking, and keeping food warm, some multi-cookers can cook rice. All five multi-cookers recently tested by Consumer Reports were good at what they claim to do, except roasting, which two claimed to be capable of. The differences between the multi-cookers are mostly tied to how quickly the cooker heats the food. The more powerful ones did a better job at searing, browning, and cooking at high heat. 

    Here’s a look at the multi-cookers we tested, appearing in descending order of overall performance. We've broken them into two categories: models that cook rice, and models that don't. Depending on the multi-cooker, we cooked stir-fried Kung Pao chicken; slow-cooked beef stew; roasted chicken breasts; steamed broccoli, and made brown rice, white rice, risotto, quinoa, and yogurt. To test speed of heating, we measured how long it took each multi-cooker to bring a quart of water to a near boil.

    Multi-Cookers That Make Rice

    Both cookers have removable metal pots with nonstick cooking surfaces. The lids are hinged and stay with the cooker. Removable steaming baskets can be positioned above the rice while it cooks. 

    T-Fal 10-in-1 Rice & Multi Cooker RK705851, $100
    This cooker has a pot with a 2.5-quart capacity. There are 10 preset programs, including slow cook, steam, risotto, oatmeal, browning, and baking. A programmable timer lets you set cooking functions up to 24 hours in advance. The T-Fal was more powerful and offers a browning function that the 3 Squares multi-cooker doesn’t, so it was better at stir-frying and browning the beef for stew. The T-Fal made excellent rice and quinoa, and the yogurt was creamy and delicious, although you have to heat the milk on a stove then add it to the cooker. Warranty is one year.

    3 Squares Tim3 Machin3 3RC 3010S, $60
    Boasting a 4-quart capacity, this cooker has 10 functions, including a delay timer that can be set for up to 15 hours. The 3 Squares can slow cook, steam, and make oatmeal, yogurt, quinoa, white and brown rice. Our white rice and quinoa were excellent. There’s a quick rice function that can be used when dinner’s ready but you forgot to start the rice. The yogurt turned out thin, not creamy, as it never reached a high enough starting temperature. Warranty is one year.

    Multi-Cookers That Don’t Do Rice

    These cookers have removable metal pots with a nonstick coating, and glass lids that stay with the pots. 

    Cuisinart 3-in-1 Cook Central MSC-600, $159
    This multi-cooker was the best in this group at stir frying and making beef stew. It was the most powerful of the three and better at searing, browning, and sautéing. The Cuisinart has a 6-quart capacity. You can slow cook on high or low, simmer or warm up to 24 hours, cook at high heat up to 400° F, and steam food for up to 90 minutes. Warranty is three years.

    Black & Decker MC1100S, $130
    The pot has a 6.5-quart capacity. You can sear and cook at high temperatures then lower for slow cooking. Temperatures range from 200° to 450° F. There’s a roast and bake function too. Our tests found the Black & Decker was slower at heating and less powerful than the Cuisinart, so the food didn’t turn out as well and took longer to cook. Roasting was disappointing. The chicken was not browned and tasted steamed, since the juices had boiled off. Warranty is two years.

    Oster One Pot Multi CKSTSCMC6-SHP, $85
    With a 6-quart capacity, functions include steam, bake, roast, brown, sauté, and slow cook. Similar to the Black & Decker, the Oster was slower at heating and less powerful than the Cuisinart so the food took longer to cook and didn’t turn out as well. Roasting was unimpressive and the chicken wasn’t browned and tasted steamed. Warranty is one year.

    Stirring the Pot (for more money)
    The KitchenAid KMC4241 multi-cooker has the optional Stir Tower KST4054, which is supposed to free you from stirring risotto, caramelized onions, and other stir-intensive dishes. We paid $400 for the pair. Here’s what our past multi-cooker tests found.

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

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    Is It Harder or Easier to Get a Mortgage Today?

    The federal government has made borrowing money easier for homebuyers with less traditional housing situations and lower incomes while making it more difficult for buyers with burdensome student loan and other debt to get mortgages. The changes are intended to reflect the realities today’s new borrowers face.

    In December Fannie Mae, the quasi-­government mortgage finance giant, launched ­HomeReady, a new mortgage designed for low- to moderate-income borrowers with non­traditional sources of income. For example, ­HomeReady lets applicants report rent from a roommate or tenant as income.

    Borrowers can now count money provided by parents as income in applying for mortgages. Down payment money that doesn’t come from a gift generally must be reflected in the borrower’s two most recent account statements.

    Among the requirements: The property must be in a lower-income neighborhood, or in some locations the borrower’s income must be no higher than the area median income (AMI). In other locations, the borrower’s income can’t exceed 80 percent of AMI. Fannie Mae says its fees for the loan are likely to be the same or possibly lower than market rates, though a lender might charge interest slightly higher than market rates to account for the lending risk.


    More on Home Buying and Selling

    • The Real State of Real Estate
    • 8 Ways to Boost Your Home Value
    • Real Estate Websites Review: Virtual House Hunting
    • How to Fund a Down Payment
    • 10 Tips for Home Buying and Selling



    Meanwhile, the Federal Housing Administration, a major insurer of mortgages to lower-income buyers, has tightened loan standards for its popular FHA-insured mortgage. Among the new rules: Two percent of a borrower’s deferred student debt—loans that are currently not in repayment—must be included in her debt-to-income ratio (DTI), an important figure used to judge mortgage applicants. Lenders usually want borrowers’ debt, including education, auto, home, and other, to be no more than 43 percent of gross income. The rule is intended to ensure that a homeowner can afford mortgage payments once the student debt is no longer deferred.

    Take a mortgage-seeker earning, say, $40,000 per year, or $3,333 monthly. With a debt-to-income ratio of 43 percent, that borrower could afford $1,433 per month in total debt payments. Under the new rules, if the mortgage applicant also had a student-­debt load after college of say, $27,000, she’d have to subtract 2 percent of that amount, or $540, from that $1,433 per month. That would leave $893 per month to cover all debt payments, including the mortgage. On the other hand, the FHA has reduced the premium it charges on the mortgage insurance it provides—a boon to borrowers.

    Dean Weg­ner, sales manager for Academy Mortgage in Scottsdale, Ariz., says the FHA loan is useful for those recovering from financial straits. “A key advantage is the waiting periods after a significant credit event,” he says. For example, the FHA will consider insuring a borrower three years after a short sale; in contrast, that borrower might have to wait up to four years for a HomeReady mortgage.

    How to Improve Your Chances

    Wegner advises his first-time borrowers to buff up their credit score, which is based on credit history, before seeking a loan of any kind. A credit score of 680 will get you a decent mortgage rate, but for the best mortgage rate you’ll need 740 or better.

    To raise your credit score, pay bills on time and keep low balances on credit cards. Regularly check credit reports from the three credit-reporting bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Get errors corrected. Don’t pay a service to actively monitor your reports; order a free report from one of the three companies every four months at annualcreditreport.com.

    The FICO score is the one to get; it’s usually closest to what your lender will use to judge you. Your bank and/or credit card company may provide it free. (Consumers Union, the policy and avocacy arm of Consumer Reports, is pushing for a free FICO score for all.)

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

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

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  • 01/28/16--09:38: How to Fund a Down Payment
  • How to Fund a Down Payment

    More than one-third of respondents in Consumer Reports’ national homeownership survey of more than 1,500 millennials said they didn’t own a home because they hadn’t saved enough for a down payment. They might be surprised to learn that since late 2014, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the quasi-government entities that underwrite at least half of the country’s mortgages, have offered mortgages that require just 3 percent down, a reduction from the 5 percent down required for standard mortgages.

    But a small down payment has its drawbacks. Until your home equity reaches 20 percent, you’ll need to pay mortgage insurance—an annual cost of usually 0.5 to 1 percent of the loan’s value, paid monthly—which compensates the lender if you default. (FHA mortgages require mortgage insurance for the duration of the loan.) You’ll also face larger monthly payments. And a large down payment has an edge with sellers because they perceive the mortgage as more likely to be approved.


    More on Home Buying and Selling

    • The Real State of Real Estate
    • 8 Ways to Boost Your Home Value
    • Real Estate Websites Review: Virtual House Hunting
    • Is It Harder or Easier to Get a Mortgage?
    • 10 Tips for Home Buying and Selling



    An obvious tactic is to generate more income with a second job or part-time business and dedicate as much as possible to your down payment. But reaching your loan goal may require additional strategies and sources.

    • Find a no-interest loan. States, counties, and even municipalities offer low- or no-interest loans—essentially second mortgages—that can be used toward down payment and closing costs. The assistance could even be a grant that doesn’t need repayment. Those programs are often a municipal strategy to make sure educators, first responders, health care workers, and those in other valued professions­­ can afford to live in the community, or to encourage purchases in certain geographic areas. Search to see whether you’re eligible at downpayment­resource.com, which aggregates from about 2,400 programs nationwide. Rob Chrane, the site’s founder, says the loan amount most frequently found on the site is $10,000; each program has its own eligibility terms. In early January we looked for programs in Union County, N.J., not earmarked for specific professions. We found six for a household of four with an annual income of $100,000; at $101,000 there were just two eligible programs.

    • Automate savings. Have your tax refund direct-deposited to a down payment fund. Direct deposit a portion of your paycheck, too. Use the Digit app, which analyzes income and spending patterns, and periodically sweeps a few dollars you won’t miss into an FDIC-insured online Digit account. You can later move the money to an online or virtual bank to earn more interest.

    • Tap family members. Those capable of such generosity can give up to $14,000 to an unlimited number of people each year and still face no federal gift tax. For example, parents could each give a son and daughter-in-law $14,000; that’s $28,000 per person, or $56,000 total. Parents or grandparents with means also could withdraw $10,000 penalty-free from their IRAs to fund qualified costs related to a first home, including closing, finance, and settlement costs; each member of a couple could receive $10,000. But unless the giver is close to retirement and won’t need the money, it’s better to leave it invested and growing.

    • Crowdfund. Of the more than 600 appeals for help with down payments we viewed recently on the free crowdfunding site GoFundMe, the most remunerative requests involved a family facing hard times or a catastrophe. But one relatively successful appeal that didn’t focus on tragedy was “Need closing $$ for baby’s new home,” by a mother in Euclid, Ohio. She posted an engaging selfie in front of her modest dream house and wrote about working two jobs, bargaining with the seller, and exhausting her savings. In four months she raised $510 of her $1,100 goal.

    • Withdraw Roth savings. If you must use retirement savings, withdraw funds first from a Roth IRA. As with gifts from relatives, first-time home buyers can withdraw up to $10,000 from their own Roth or traditional IRAs without penalty for qualified home-buying costs. But such withdrawals from a Roth that has been in place for five years or longer aren’t subject to federal income tax.

    • Borrow from your 401(k). The IRS says certain 401(k) plans can let participants borrow $50,000 or up to half of savings—whichever is smaller—from the vested portion of their accounts. Home buyers can stretch out that loan to as long as 30 years. Pluses: A 401(k) loan doesn’t count toward your debt-to-income ratio because it’s secured, usually by your account balance, and you pay the interest to yourself, not a bank. Your 401(k) loan won’t be reflected on credit reports.

    But the gambit has risks, and costs. Repayment must be made with post-tax dollars. At retirement, you’ll pay ordinary income tax on distributions, including what you borrowed and repaid. So you’ll be taxed twice on the borrowed sum.

    Remember that your borrowings won’t grow along with the rest of your 401(k). The long-term cost of not having that money invested—known as the opportunity cost—can be significant. For instance, a 35-year-old paying back $30,000 over 15 years would have $70,538 less in his 401(k) at age 70 than if he hadn’t borrowed, estimates Michael Chadwick, a financial adviser in Unionville and Torrington, Conn., and Manlius, N.Y. He calculated the historical return of a balanced portfolio of 8 percent, at a 15 percent marginal income tax bracket and a 4 percent interest rate on the loan paid back to oneself. 


    Should Parents Play Mortgage Banker?

    If you have the resources to help a son or daughter buy a home, you might consider lending all or part of a mortgage, or the down payment. Intrafamily loans, as they are called, can benefit both sides financially. If you loaned your child money at, say, 3.5 percent, you’d get a return exceeding the 2.25 percent that a diversified bond portfolio currently yields. Your child would get an interest rate lower than the national average of around 4 percent that banks are now offering for 30-year fixed mortgages.

    What’s more, such loans usually don’t have loan-origination fees, points, mortgage insurance, or other, onerous lender costs. And families can arrange for flexible repayment schedules. Just be aware that the deals must be crafted carefully to avoid IRS scrutiny—and family acrimony.

    Mind the Taxes: You’ll need to ensure that any loan higher than $14,000 is not construed as a gift, subject to the hefty federal gift tax of up to 40 percent. So set the interest rate at least as high as the IRS monthly Applicable Federal Rate (AFR), currently about 2.5 percent for long-term loans. You can find the AFR easily at the National Family Mortgage, a service that helps create intrafamily loans. Second, have an attorney draft a detailed promissory note and record it properly under state and local laws. That way, your child can claim a mortgage interest deduction. You will have to claim the interest portion of the mortgage payments paid to you as income on your tax returns.

    Avoid a Family Flare-Up: Before you draft the paperwork, make sure all interested parties communicate fully, stresses ReKeithen Miller, a Certified Financial Planner at Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Atlanta. A common scenario he has seen is when a parent discusses the loan terms with an offspring yet fails to include his or her spouse in the conversation. Then when the informed parent dies, the adult child insists that the deceased parent forgave the loan. “Now mom has to decide if her child is telling the truth,” Miller warns. He suggests using caution with such arrangements. “I generally advise clients that they probably shouldn’t loan any amount of money they can’t stand to lose,” he says. 

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

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

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    Real Estate Websites Review: Virtual House Hunting

    Real estate websites and their mobile siblings are indispensable tools, whether you’re a serious homebuyer, you’re thinking of selling, or you’re just curious about what your neighbors pay in taxes. You can get a sense of how much your home is worth, and arrange for regular updates when properties in communities of your choosing are listed or have a price change.

    Three of the real estate websites we’ve researched here—Realtor.comTrulia, and Zillow—are portals; they get their information from regional multiple-­listing services (MLSs), ­databases of properties shared by agents and brokers. (Since February 2015, Trulia has been owned by Zillow’s parent company.) A fourth service, Redfin, is not a portal, though you can use it like one to list, search for, and view properties. It works as a real-estate brokerage. If you list with Redfin, your property is posted on MLSs and shared by the portals.


    More on Home Buying and Selling

    • The Real State of Real Estate
    • 8 Ways to Boost Your Home Value
    • Is It Harder or Easier to Get a Mortgage?
    • How to Fund a Down Payment
    • 10 Tips for Home Buying and Selling



    All four real estate websites provide the same baseline property information. They allow you to filter searches in a community by price range, and number of bedrooms and baths. You can save and share a listing, and arrange for regular updates on particular searches.

    All of the services are free. Because not all MLSs participate with any one site, none of the sites provides a complete picture of what’s currently on the market. So we recommend that you try them all. But because time is valuable, here we’ve pointed out unique and potentially useful features—and drawbacks—for each site.

    One tip: Exercise skepticism when using price-valuation tools on real estate websites. Redfin, Trulia, and Zillow can value your home when you type in your address. But we found that the estimates can vary wildly and may not be a reliable prediction of what you’d get if you sold. In a study, Zillow researchers compared selling prices of homes on its database with their original estimates. A third of homes sold at a price within 5 percent of their “Zestimates,” indicating a very accurate valuation; most were further from the mark. For more accuracy, ask a real estate agent for a free, comparative market analysis.

    Realtor.com

    Coverage: Every state and D.C.

    App: For iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch (iOS 8.0 or higher); Android (versions vary by device). Realtor Express app is available for iOS 9.

    Updates data: 90 percent of listings are updated every 15 minutes; the rest are updated daily.

    Unique features: Sponsored by the National Association of Realtors. Users have access to almost 800 MLSs nationwide. The website’s “Request Renovation Report” feature provides home-renovation information gleaned from public records. A new mobile app for iOS 9 has a 3D “flyover” feature for certain areas.

    What we liked: You can easily check property records­ for every house on a street. Property pages prominently list upcoming open houses. Local market data is clear and useful. Realtor.com’s mobile app lets you use your fingertip to outline the area you want to focus on and search for homes by school district.

    Negatives: Online home search tool was not as robust as those of Redfin and Trulia. For example, it has no for-sale-by-owner listings. A representative told us that a few features would be added in early 2016, including the age of the home, search in nearby cities, additional features such as swimming pools and waterfront properties, and the ability to hide certain kinds of listings, such as pending listings.

    Redfin

    Coverage: 75 metropolitan areas. Not in AL, AK, CT, DE, IA, ID, KS, MS, ND, SD, WV, or WY; in MN only in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

    App: For iPhone and iPod Touch (iOS 7.0 or higher); Android (4.1 or higher).

    Updates data: Every 15 to 30 minutes.

    Unique features: Home shoppers who want to view a home in person are connected with a salaried Redfin buyer’s agent. If you buy with the agent, Redfin pays you a rebate based on the home price and your responses to a satisfaction survey. If you use Redfin, your total cost is a 4 to 4.5 percent commission, a discount from the 5 or 6 percent traditional in many places. “Last Call” option informs you when competing buyers weigh in with bids so that you can counter. In markets it serves, it offers free homebuying classes.

    What we liked: Home search tool is fairly robust; among other features, you can specify fixer-uppers, waterfront homes, and homes with views. If a house you covet is not for sale, type its address and “favorite” it; Redfin will send an alert if it gets listed. With “Price Whisperer,” a potential seller can upload his home’s photos and set a potential selling price with a Redfin agent; the agent then polls up to 250 buyers in the area, asking whether they would buy at that price, and reports the results.

    Negatives: Even within states where it operates, Redfin doesn’t participate in every MLS.

    Trulia

    Coverage: More than 350 MLSs nationwide.

    App for iPhone, iPad, and Pod Touch (iOS 8 or later; optimized for all iPhone 6 devices); Apple Watch; Android and Android Wear watch (versions vary by device).

    Updates data: Every 15 minutes.

    Unique features: Focuses on an area’s lifestyle factors, including proximity of particular stores, restaurants, and cafes, as well as crime statistics. You can set a commute time by auto or public transportation to a specific location; the search tool identifies properties with commute times that fit those parameters. When you’re on the move, you can use the Apple and Android apps to identify nearby open houses that are in progress or about to start.

    What we liked: A “walk score” assesses how easy it is to do errands on foot from the home. The site offers deep demographic data, such as where single people in the area live or the prevalence of college-educated residents around a given property. You can limit your search to a particular school district.

    Negatives: Trulia won’t provide a home-value estimate until you agree to have your contact information sent to a real-estate agent. 

    Zillow

    Coverage: More than 350 MLSs nationwide.

    App: For iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch (7.0 or higher); Apple Watch; Android and Android Wear watch (versions vary by device).

    Updates data: Every 15 minutes.

    Unique features: Provides deep analytics and data on individual properties and municipalities, including historical trends. Zillow’s Home Value Forecast, for instance, crunches local properties’ Zestimates­­ to project whether local prices will rise, fall, or flatten. Provides a nationwide real estate agent directory that shows how many recent deals each agent has done, as well as customer reviews.

    What we liked: A “Price This Home” feature lets potential sellers claim their property on Zillow and select their own “comps”—nearby properties that have recently sold—to create their own private price estimate that’s not published on the site. That way, they can take into account local features that the Zestimate algorithm might not have taken into consideration. “Walk score” similar to Trulia’s assesses how easy it is to do errands on foot from the home.

    Negatives: Online search tool not as robust as those of Trulia or Redfin.

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

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

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    10 Tips for Home Buying and Selling

    Buying or selling a home for the first time is like learning to play chess. There are terms to master, skills to learn, strategies to grasp, competitors to outmaneuver. These home buying and selling tips can help you capitalize on strengths and play down weaknesses:

    Buyers: Edge Out the Competition

    Establish a price range. Use Redfin’s home-affordability calculator. This home buying tool considers not only your income and down payment but also total recurring monthly payments such as car payments, student loans, and credit card minimum payments.

    Clean up your credit. If your credit reports are accurate, the home buying process is likely to go more smoothly. Read “Are Mortgages Now Harder or Easier to Get?" for more for information.

    Get preapproved. Usually, that means a mortgage lender has checked your credit reports and determined how much it could lend you. It’s one step better than prequalification, in which a lender just gives you an idea of what you can afford. Lenders use different terminology, though, so make sure you ask for clarification. For instance, EverBank, based in Jacksonville, Fla., uses the term “preapproval” for what other banks define as prequalification. And what most banks call a “pre­approval,” EverBank terms a “credit only approval.”

    Sweeten the deal. Cash offers or large down payments get attention in a competitive bidding situation when you're buying a home. But other considerations, such as flexibility with the closing date and shorter inspection periods, can sway sellers.

    Shop for mortgages. Online sites such as Bankrate and HSH make it easy to find a variety of lenders. Investigate several. Find local credit unions at culookup.com. New standardized loan estimates mandated by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should make it easy to compare terms.  


    More on Home Buying and Selling

    • The Real State of Real Estate
    • 8 Ways to Boost Your Home Value
    • Real Estate Websites Review: Virtual House Hunting
    • Is It Harder or Easier to Get a Mortgage?
    • How to Fund a Down Payment


    Sellers: Put Your Best Square Footage Forward

    Get the best deal from your broker. The traditional 5 to 6 percent sales commission isn’t carved in stone. Our 2015 survey of real estate brokers found that 63 percent negotiated their fees at least half the time. Almost half of agents charged 4 percent or less. An agent may be more amenable if you’ve sent him or her referrals, or have done some legwork, says Lee Williams, an agent with Level Group, a New York City residential brokerage firm. That might involve obtaining property surveys, original floor plans, or tax records.

    Fix the big things. Prior to listing your home, get inspections for roof damage, termites, and other hidden concerns, says Aaron Drucker, a Redfin Realtor based in Miami. Make sure certificates of occupancy are in order.

    Declutter, depersonalize. Remove family mementos from the main living areas. Clear surfaces of daily detritus. Clean out closets, too. “Overstuffed closets, no matter how large, give the impression of a lack of storage,” says Christine Lutz, director of residential brokerage for Kinzie Brokerage, based in Chicago. Taking those simple, cost-free steps could add 3 percent to a home’s value, according to Bree Al-Rashid, a managing broker for Redfin in Seattle. For an edge, hire a home stager. Prices vary, but a 2-hour consultation can cost about $300.

    Post lots of images. A survey last year by Zillow found that listings with fewer than nine photos were 20 percent less likely to sell within 60 days than those with 22 to 27 photos. More than that, the study found, didn’t help much.

    Get squeaky clean. Shampoo rugs, change burnt-out lightbulbs, replace broken switch plates and outlets, and exorcise pet odors, recommends Ann Ferguson, a New York City broker with Klara Madlin Real Estate. 

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

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

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    New Packaging Law Aims to Protect Kids From E-Cig Liquid Nicotine Exposure

    President Obama today signed into law a bill that requires child-resistant packaging for liquid nicotine containers used for e-cigarettes and other vaping devices. 

    Liquid nicotine, used in battery-operated vaping devices such as e-cigarettes and vape pens, is extremely dangerous. One teaspoon is potentially lethal to a child, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

    Poison-control centers last year received 3,067 exposure reports across all age groups. In 2014, poison-control centers responded to 3,783 e-cigarette and liquid nicotine exposure cases. More than half of those involved children under age 6 who might have ingested or inhaled liquid nicotine or gotten it on their skin or in their eyes. In December 2014, a 1-year-old boy from Fort Plain, N.Y., died after ingesting liquid nicotine.

    Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, supported the Child Nicotine Poisoning Prevention Act since its introduction in January 2015 by Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida), Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire), and 20 other senators.

    E-cigs and related devices have been on the market for only about a decade, and experts are still evaluating many aspects of their safety. But “the danger that liquid nicotine poses to young children is undeniable,” says William Wallace, a policy analyst for Consumers Union, which partnered with the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Consumer Federation of America, and Kids In Danger to help educate lawmakers about the threat of young children being poisoned by liquid nicotine.

    “Coming in a variety of bright colors and in flavors like cotton candy and gummy bear, liquid nicotine refills used in e-cigarettes have found their way into the hands of children across the country, causing serious and even deadly health consequences.” says Kyran Quinlan, M.D., chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention.

    Under the new law, liquid nicotine can only be sold in child-resistant bottles and containers packaged in accordance with the Consumer Product Safety Commission's standards. That means that they must meet the same standards as other potentially poisonous household substances as set forth in the Poison Prevention Packaging Act of 1970. Among other stipulations, the law requires that the packaging must be difficult for children under 5 years old to open. Manufacturers have six months to comply.

    The American Vaping Association agrees that requiring child-resistant packaging makes sense. 

    “Parents are recognizing that these products should be kept away from children,” says Gregory Conley, president of the organization. “Requiring child-resistant caps on e-liquid products is a reasonable regulation and is already the law in fifteen states,” he says, adding that, “The Child Nicotine Poisoning Prevention Act [brings] uniformity across all 50 states on this issue."

    Next up: preserving the FDA’s ability to regulate e-cigarettes, which is under threat by some members of Congress. 

    “The new law helps address a known safety risk to children, but e-cigarettes have not been around long enough for us to know the long term effects of using them. It’s critical that the FDA retains the ability to address additional health risks that may emerge with these untested products,” Wallace says.

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

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    Explore the World With a Virtual Reality Headset

    With virtual reality poised to change the way we learn, shop, travel, and socialize—not to mention play video games—this seems like an ideal time to examine the key to entering this bold new domain. After all, without a VR headset, there's no way to step inside the VR world. (Read our report, "Virtual Reality Goes Mainstream.")

    Here are the five options that will be available in the year ahead, complete with info on the platforms that support them and an early look at some content for each device.

     

    Google Cardboard

    Platform: Android, iOS
    Release date: Available now
     

    Samsung Gear VR

    Platform: Android
    Release date: Available now
     

    Oculus Rift

    Platform: PC
    Release date: First quarter of 2016
     

    HTC Vive

    Platform: PC
    Release date: April 2016

    PS VR

    Platform: Sony ­PlayStation 4
    Release date: First half of 2016

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

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

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    The Right Generator Size for Your House

    Power outages are often the collateral damage of severe snow and rain storms and other acts of nature. After you've experienced a few you're more likely to consider getting a generator to keep your home’s electricity humming. But before you buy think about whether you want to power your whole house or if you can get by for a few days with just the basics. Here's what the pros at Consumer Reports recommend when it comes to choosing the right generator size.

    Generators come in two types: portable and stationary, also called standby. Portables cost less to buy and install, but you’ll need to keep it fueled and maintained yourself. A portable also needs to be wheeled outdoors, started, and connected to what you want to power. A stationary model, by contrast, needs to be professionally installed outdoors, which adds expense, but it starts automatically when power cuts off and also performs its own periodic checks—and displays a warning if it needs service. 

    What to Know About Wattage

    To determine generator size, the easiest way is to add up the wattages of everything in your home you want to power with a generator. But some appliances, such as an air conditioner, refrigerator, and sump pumps, require more wattage (called surge watts) when they’re cycling on. It can also be difficult to gauge how much power certain hard-wired appliances, such as your furnace, require. For these reasons we suggest you consult with an electrician, and select a model with a slightly higher rated wattage that will accommodate additional products you might buy.

    Also, figure in a few hundred dollars more to install a transfer switch, which allows easy connections for a portable generator. (Stationary generators often come with one.) This component also keeps utility power from frying the circuits you’re protecting once the power returns—and potentially protects any utility workers who might be working on the line. It also protects your generator.

    Our generator buying guide lists what the various wattage ranges of both portable and stationary generators will support. Another option is our wattage calculator, which adds up the wattages from a list of appliances you check off to help you determine the right generator size.

    Get Wise About Size

    To figure out what generator size you need, follow these simple guidelines. The larger the generator, the more you're likely to pay.

    • Just the basics: Small portable (3,000 to 4,000 watts)
      What it powers: Refrigerator, sump pump, several lights, television.
    • Basics plus creature comforts: Mid-sized portable or small stationary (5,000 to 8,500 watts)
      What it powers: The basics, plus portable heater, computer, heating system, well pump, more lights.
    • A larger load: Large portable (10,000 watts)
      What it powers: Everything above plus small electric water heater, central air conditioner, electric range.
    • The whole house: Large stationary (10,000 to 15,000 watts)
      What it powers: Same as large portables, plus clothes washer, electric dryer.

    Some Top Performers

    Here are some recommended models from our generator Ratings of 43 portable and stationary generators:

    Kohler PRO7.5E, $1,400, a 6,300-watt portable that supplied plenty of power, and cleanly, with less noise than many competing models;
    Generac RS7000E, $900, a 7,000-watt model that performed nearly as well;
    Generac 6237, $2,250 (with transfer switch), a stationary generator that delivers 7,000 watts using natural gas and 8,000 using propane; and
    Kohler 14RESAL, $3,700 (with transfer switch), a larger stationary generator that supplied 12,000 watts using natural gas—and 2,000 more with propane.

    Whichever generator size you choose, don’t wait until a major storm is forecast to buy it. In addition to facing a more limited selection, you’ll cheat yourself out of the weeks you need to plan your purchase and get it installed before you can enjoy the protection of a generator that will serve you for years to come. 

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

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    DeVry University Lawsuit Again Shows Downside of For-Profit Colleges

    It’s getting harder to make the case that going to a for-profit college pays off. For many students, it could turn out to be a very poor financial investment.

    The latest evidence came Wednesday, when the Federal Trade Commission announced a lawsuit against DeVry University, one of the largest for-profit colleges, with tens of thousands of students enrolled at 55 campuses in 18 states. The FTC alleges that DeVry University advertisements deceived consumers about the likelihood that graduates would find jobs in their fields of study and would earn more than those graduating with bachelor's degrees from other colleges or universities.

    On Tuesday, a major whistleblower lawsuit filed last year against ITT Technical Institute, another for-profit institution with more than 100 campuses around the country, was revealed to the public. In that case, ITT’s former dean of academic affairs alleges that the school repeatedly defrauded taxpayers by taking billions of dollars in federal student aid while systematically deceiving students and violating federal regulations.

    In December, the Obama Administration announced it might cancel up to $30 million in loans for former students of Corinthian College who say they were defrauded by the school. Corinthian filed for bankruptcy in May.

    And that’s just in the past month. Dozens of for-profit schools have been targets of government investigations and lawsuits from students. These schools typically offer career-focused certificate programs such as massage therapy or associate degrees in fields such as nursing.

    The problems are so pervasive that in 2014 the Department of Education created an interagency task force for federal agencies and state attorneys general to oversee for-profit colleges. The Education Department also put in place new regulations last July to prod for-profit schools into improving outcomes for students or risk losing access to federal student aid.

    "None of the recent allegations were surprising. We’ve heard them over and over again at different schools and different companies," says Stephen Burd, senior policy analyst of the Education Policy Program at New America, a nonpartisan public-policy institute. "We're finally seeing action and heading in the right direction looking closely at this industry."

    An Education at What Cost?

    All this raises the question: Should you ever consider going to a for-profit college such as DeVry University? These schools promise a fast track to a well-paying job and appeal to students who might not otherwise go to college. The programs offered are flexible, with classes at night, online, and year-around. And they profess to offer targeted training at jobs in demand.

    Just 12 percent of all college students are enrolled at for-profits, according to The Education Trust, an education-advocacy group, but for-profit colleges target a vulnerable population and disproportionately attract low-income and minority students. The increased scrutiny has pushed down enrollments but the schools still have access to billions of dollars in financial aid.

    “For too long, students across the country have experienced fraud and abuse at the hands of many unscrupulous for-profit colleges,” says Suzanne Martindale, a staff attorney at Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, who focuses on education debt issues. “But this is only the beginning. Greater oversight of the industry is crucial moving forward, to prevent future students from suffering the same fate."

    False Promises and Red Flags

    If you are considering a for-profit college, here’s what you need to know.

    • It's an expensive way to earn a degree. Tuition and fees for the 2015-2016 school year average $15,610 at for-profit schools vs. $3,345 at a public two-year school and $9,410 for students at public four-year colleges, according to the College Board. Out-of-state students paid $23,893 at public four-year schools and $32,405 at private ones.
    • Graduation rates are much lower. Just 32 percent of students at for-profit colleges graduated within six years compared with 57 percent at a four-year public colleges and 66 percent at private nonprofit colleges, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
    • Graduates struggle to find jobs. Even if graduates get jobs, the work isn’t well paid. Nearly three-quarters of students who graduate from for-profit colleges earn less than high-school dropouts, according to data released in the fall on 5,000 career for-profit college programs from the Department of Education. That compares to 32 percent of graduates from public schools.
    • Borrowers default rates are high. Students at for-profits account for 31 percent of all student loans but nearly half of defaults, the Department of Education says. 

    How to Evaluate a For-Profit School

    Not all for-profit schools are bad. But you literally need to do your homework before going this route. The National Association for College Admission Counseling offers this advice:

    Look for regional accreditation. Accreditation is no guarantee of the quality of a school. National accreditation groups such as Accrediting Commission for Career Schools and Colleges and Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools have not been successful in finding where students are being abused and many board members are from for-profit schools, says Burd. Regional agencies do a better job, he says. Check for credentials at the Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs. But it's important to check whether a particular program has the accreditation you'd need, especially if the job you're training for requires a state license, says Martindale.

    Understand the costs. Most for-profit schools charge higher tuition than comparable programs at community colleges and public universities yet their students carry significantly more debt. Comparison shop before you enroll and consider less expensive programs at community colleges and public schools.

    Check for complaints. A simple Google search with the school name and “complaint” or “lawsuit” is a start. You can check for formal complaints with your local Better Business Bureau and through the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Paying for College site.

    Beware a hard sell. School recruiters often pressure students into enrolling. Take the time to do the above and if you get the hard sell, that’s a red flag you should go elsewhere. "If a school is making a slick sales pitch, promising you a quick and easy path to a high-paying job, think twice," says Martindale.

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

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    Virtual Reality Goes Mainstream

    Virtual reality has spent so much time in the realm of science fiction (think Star Trek or the Matrix movies) that perhaps the only surprising thing is that it has taken this long to become a real-life consumer experience.

    Within the past 18 months, headsets from Google and Samsung have allowed users to explore the 360-degree, 3D videos that are the defining feature of virtual reality—or just VR, to those in the know. Google’s Cardboard and the Samsung Gear VR cover your eyes much like ski googles or a scuba-mask, immersing you in a new “reality” from all angles. Learn how to explore the world with a virtual reality headset.)

    VR content can be live-action footage, such as the short documentaries the The New York Times has recently started producing, allowing people to experience reporting from around the globe. Or it can be an entirely animated environment such as the spaceship cockpit Eve: Valkyrie, one of the first video games to use VR.

    This year, more VR headsets will come to market, including the much-anticipated Oculus Rift, the product that launched contemporary interest in virtual reality. The company evolved from a 2012 Kickstarter project to a $2 billion Facebook acquisition without ever releasing a consumer product under its own name. (The Gear VR uses Oculus technology, and Oculus has shipped tens of thousands of Rift prototypes to content developers.)

    The Rift and most of the other new headsets coming out are targeted at the video game market, and the companies that produce games are busy creating the content.

    But that’s just the starting point. Movie directors are already experimenting with virtual reality, and the 2016 Sundance Film Festival featured about 30 VR experiences, including feature films. If you’re someone who has repeatedly watched the Lord of the Rings movies, picking up new details each time, imagine what it would be like to study a film in which no corner of the set was ever off-camera. The question is how many people will actually like that experience and feel it’s worth the cost of the equipment.

    Virtual reality isn’t just for entertainment, though. We’ve asked innovators in fields from education to sports to industrial design to explain how they will use virtual reality. Here's what they had to say.

    Education

    “We created Google Expeditions to bring field trips into the classroom. There are so many possibilities. We’re working on allowing high-school students to do virtual visits to colleges and for college students to do virtual career expeditions. One of my favorite use cases is for science classes to be able to go inside the human body. Another is for students learning about ecosystems to see through the perspective of an animal—you’d understand a lot better why certain creatures are the way they are.”—Jen Holland, program manager, Google Apps for Education

    Construction

    “Home remodeling can cause strife and stress, partly because couples can’t agree on their visions. The Lowe’s Holoroom bridges the gap between blueprints and the finished product. Customers can step into an immersive 3D model and look at their kitchen or bathroom with different products or finishes. When they leave, they can take a Google Cardboard viewer home with them to revisit the room and share it with others.”—Kyle Nel, executive director, Lowe’s Innovation Labs

    Empathy

    “For 12 years, we’ve researched how the technology can create empathy in users. There’s a famous concept in sociology called the Contact Hypothesis, which says that if you put two different groups of people together, over time they will learn to share goals and get along. With virtual reality, we can take that to the extreme and literally allow someone to become someone else. Instead of being in contact, you can walk a mile in their shoes.”—Jeremy Bailenson, founder of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University

    Socializing

    "Virtual reality makes us feel like we’re interacting with people on a deeper level. Think about how much better it was to talk on an old landline. The handset cradled your head, there was zero lag time, and you just relaxed and had a conversation in a way cell phones don’t allow. On the other hand, I just went on tour for a month and it was lovely keeping up with family on FaceTime. Even though there’s a delay and the picture quality is low, adding body language creates a real intimacy. VR is going to make that experience much more wonderful and immersive. Communication is the thing that’s going to carry it to ubiquity. That’s what makes the tech much more than a gimmick.”—Adam Savage, co-host, Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters

    Sports

    “If you think about it, traditional film study in sports is unrealistic because you’re watching the action from overhead, way behind the play, or the sidelines. What we do is give the athlete—in most cases, a quarterback—the view they will actually have on the field. In football, there are very tight restrictions on how much time players can have on the practice field, so we’re giving them the ability to get in more mental reps from the right viewpoint by wearing a headset to review practice film. The more reps they get from their actual playing angle, the more they can speed up their decision-making process. We’re also working with basketball, baseball, and hockey teams, and we’ve begun hearing from law-enforcement and the military.”—Derek Belch, CEO and co-founder, StriVR Immersive Performance Training 

    Journalism

    “We first got interested in virtual reality when we saw a refugee camp film made for the U.N. We showed it to some people around the newsroom, and they were just blown away. Hardened editors on the international desk would take off the headset and say, ‘Listen, I’ve edited hundreds of stories about refugees, and I’ve never had an experience like this one.’ One of the bigger surprises for us was how challenging it can be to craft a narrative when you don’t have any of the typical editing moves. There’s no framing the shot. You can’t zoom in or out. So we spent a lot of time in the editing suite trying to get it right. But you can imagine a scenario where VR is simply part of our reporting when breaking news occurs.”—Jake Silverstein, editor in chief, New York Times Magazine

    Engineering

    “So often in the design process, you want to iterate, but it’s frustrating to wait a week for some manufacturing process. Even with 3D printing, it can take a while to make a prototype. With technology like Microsoft’s HoloLens, you can work in 3D in real time. You still want a physical prototype to get a sense for how something feels, but now you can make design decisions earlier.”—Garin Gardiner, senior business development manager, Autodesk; leader of Autodesk’s integration with Microsoft HoloLens

    Car Design

    “Virtual reality is now a standard part of the global product-development process. As a car is designed, the engineers conduct immersive reviews at various stages. We can turn a CAD [computer-aided design] model into a full-scale virtual car that shows components and functions in context. We take a holistic look at the fit and finish, the interior and exterior harmony, and engineering issues. If we’re worried that one part is too close to another, we can look at it analytically. Instead of looking at a CAD model on a flat screen, we get inside a 3D representation of the vehicle.”—Elizabeth Baron, virtual reality and advanced visualization technical specialist, Ford Motor Co.

    Travel

    “For a hotel brand, inspiring travelers to take a trip is an important part of marketing. For so long, people could have only static, 2D experiences—flipping through photos or watching a video. With the Marriott Teleporter, you have a kiosk about the size of a telephone booth that virtually transports people to a black-sand beach in Kauai. In addition to wearing an Oculus headset, they are given the sensation of sun on their face, wind in their hair, the smell of ocean water. Most recently we’ve worked with Samsung to deliver kits to people’s hotel rooms to let them experience VR Postcards, which told the stories of real travelers and experiences that changed them—whether it was in the streets of Beijing or the mountains of the Andes. Everyone took off the headset and said, ‘I want to go there. I want to see that view.’ ”—Michael Dail, vice president of global brand marketing, Marriott Hotels & Resorts

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


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

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    Elegant Water-Saving Bathroom Fixtures

    Whether your fantasy bathroom includes a soaking tub, whirlpool, or several showerheads and body sprays, they all have one thing in common: Water, lots of it. Bathrooms account for nearly 60 percent of the water used in your house. That has the dream of a spa bath colliding headlong into drought conditions and water restrictions in many areas. So it’s not surprising that many of the newest showerheads, faucets, and toilets shown at the 2016 Kitchen & Bath show tout efficiency along with escapism.
     
    “Consumers want to save water and they want the spa experience, even with low-flow products,” says Kohler’s Vicki Valdez Hafenstein. To do that manufacturers are tweaking the technology and introducing more water-saving bathroom fixtures.
     
    Kohler’s Exhale showerheads mix air into the water to create large, warm drops, according to the manufacturer. They're available in 2.0 and 1.5 gallon per minute (gpm) versions, $190 to $220. Speakman’s Reaction showerhead, $25 to 66, uses a built-in turbine to concentrate and boost the velocity of water without letting in cool air. In Consumer Reports' tests, staffers slightly preferred the feel of the 2.5-gpm version over the 2.0-gpm model.

    Slowing the Flow

    Bathroom faucets are also using less water, down to 1.2 gpm for the Townsend faucet from American Standard. That’s compared to 2.5 for standard faucets and 2.2 gpm that meet the EPA’s WaterSense efficiency standards.
     
    Toilets are the biggest water hogs in the bathroom. New ultra high-efficiency toilets (UHETs) from Toto promise to use about one gallon per flush, compared to 1.28 gpf high-efficiency toilets and 1.6 gpf standard toilets. The new Toto Promenade II 2-piece toilet will be available this summer at a cost of around $500 to $700. American Standard’s UHET dual-flush toilet (.9 gallons for liquid and 1.28 for solids) will be out in March and cost $479. Can’t wait? Our tests found several water-saving toilets, available now, that use less water without sacrificing performance. For more information, see our full toilet Ratings and recommendations.

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

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    Super Vacuums for Super-Plush Carpet

    Sink your toes into the newest carpet style, called ultrasoft or super-plush carpet, and you might decide that spending twice what you would on an ordinary carpet is worth the treat to your feet. But that comfort might lead to an additional, hidden cost: You might need to replace your vacuum.

    Many vacuums that work perfectly well on regular carpets stick to this new kind like a big suction cup. That’s because the plush carpet is so dense that air can’t circulate back into the vacuum’s intake, making the appliance almost impossible to move. Because ultrasoft carpets have become more popular—sales have grown to more than 10 percent of the market in the past five years—carpet makers have begun testing and recommending vacuums for them. (Examples of plush carpet include Caress by Shaw and Karastan by Mohawk.) Vacuum manufacturers are making models specifically for ultrasoft carpets, too.

    We bought several square yards of both carpet styles plus two new Kenmore vacuums designed for them, the Kenmore Elite Crossover Ultra 10335 upright, $300, and the Kenmore Elite 700 Series 81714 canister, $400. They both cleaned well and moved easily on the ultrasoft carpet, though we found that they were easier to maneuver on standard (medium-pile) carpet.

    We also ran our push/pull tests on some vacuums recommended by ultrasoft carpet makers. We found three that moved fairly easily: the Maytag M500, $300, the Fuller Brush Mighty Maid FBMM-PWCF, $400, and the Oreck Magnesium, $500. But we don’t recommend them because they aren’t top performers overall.

    If you have a new plush carpet and you aren’t ready to buy a new vacuum, we can suggest a workaround if your vacuum is sticking. Raise the powerhead on models that come with manual height adjustment; the control is usually on top of the powerhead. If your appliance automatically adjusts height and has suction control, you might try reducing the suction instead. Both of those steps may also reduce cleaning power, however, so you might need to spend more time going over the same spot of plush carpet to thoroughly remove dirt.

    For more vacuum choices, including the models that are the best at cleaning carpet, bare floors, and pet hair check our full vacuum Ratings and recommendations.

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

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

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    The Guide to All Your Electric Car Questions

    Once a high-tech novelty, electric cars are becoming increasingly common. In fact, several models from mainstream brands have now been sold for years. But most consumers have limited exposure to electric vehicles (commonly referred to as "EVs") and may have many questions regarding whether an electric car might fit into their lives.  

    With so many questions, we’ve set up this quick-and-easy guide to provide key answers and help you to determine whether an electric car could fit into your life.

    What Models and Types Are Available?

    There are currently about a dozen all-electric cars on the market. They include tiny two-seaters, an SUV, and even a high-end luxury car. But most are traditional small five-passenger hatchbacks:

    Pure Electric vs. Plug-In Hybrid?

    In addition to pure EVs, other battery-enhanced models, known as plug-in hybrids, can use both electricity and gasoline. Equipped with a backup gasoline engine, most plug-in hybrids  can run solely on electricity, but on longer trips can rely on gasoline to extend their range indefinitely. With a 35 mile electric range, Chevy Volt drivers spend most of their time in electric mode, averaging 75 percent of their mileage in all-electric mode. (Learn more in “Hybrids 101.”)

    Several plug-in hybrids are also now on the market or coming soon, including:

    Why Should I Buy an Electric Car?

    Electric cars use far less energy than gasoline-powered cars, generally cost about a third as much as a gas-powered car to run, and often have lower maintenance costs. Electricity in most parts of the country costs the equivalent of about $1-a-gallon gas. You can compare how much you’d save in your state using the DOE’s eGallon tool. And you could save even more if you take advantage of lower off-peak charging rates—in Texas, some utilities even offer free electricity at night.

    In addition:

    • EVs produce no tail pipe emissions and have lower lifecycle emissions than efficient gasoline powered vehicles.
    • EVs are quiet and many models are fun to drive.
    • EVs don’t rely on imported petroleum, and electricity prices are more stable than gasoline prices.
    • Charging at home is convenient and takes less time than going to the gas station.
    • When combined with rooftop solar, “fuel” costs can be completely eliminated.  

    Why Shouldn’t I?

    Electric vehicle selection is still limited and electric models often command a price premium. In addition, several pure electrics may not meet people’s driving needs between charges if they drive more than 70 miles per day and do not have access to workplace or public charging. Plug-in hybrids solve the range problem, but they still need a place to plug in. Unless they are relying entirely on workplace charging, electric vehicle owners generally need to have ready access to an outlet (or 240-volt battery charger) and parking spot for overnight charging. In most areas of the country, this means access is limited to single family or townhomes rather than apartments or condos, although many state initiatives have begun to foster charging and parking solutions for multi-family housing.    

    While statistics show that 78 percent of American drivers travel less than 40 miles a day, and 90 percent drive less than 50 miles a day, single-vehicle households who need to make long  trips even occasionally are probably not the best match for most current EV offerings. Of course, nothing says an EV has to be somebody's only car. A conventional gas-powered car can fill in where an EV falls short—and vice versa. Likewise, a rented minivan could be an alternative for the annual long-distance road trip.

    The main questions to ask yourself:

    • How many miles do I drive each day?
    • Do I have regular access to charging at home or at work?
    • How much would I pay for electricity?
    • Do I need a faster charging option, or can I charge overnight with a regular outlet?

    What's the Cost to Buy?

    Base prices range from $21,750 for the Smart Electric Drive to more than $125,000 for our high-performance Tesla Model S test car. In some cases, that’s thousands more than similarly-sized gas-powered cars. But electric cars (excluding low-speed neighborhood vehicles) are eligible for up to a $7,500 federal tax credit to offset the extra cost. Additional city and state tax credits are available in California, Colorado, Texas, and elsewhere that can make the costs of electric cars very compelling, especially for consumers with a home solar system.

    The most popular electric and plug-in cars are sticker priced at $26,000 to $32,000 before the tax credit. Leases are available for as little as $170 a month (after you sign the tax credit over to the leasing company).

    Plug-in hybrids are sticker priced between $30,000 and $75,000, but they have been advertised with lease deals as low as $170 a month.

    What's the Cost to Drive?

    We’ve seen pure-electric cars return a little over 3 miles per kilowatt-hour, which gives them a cost to drive of about 3.5 cents per mile (for the Nissan Leaf). For comparison, the 32-mpg Toyota Corolla costs about 12 cents per mile.

    Electric cars also require no oil changes and minimal maintenance. Our Annual Auto Survey shows that the low operating costs should offset the cost of buying in just the first year for a Nissan Leaf, for example.

    What Are They Like to Drive?

    We’ve found most electric cars are smooth and quiet, with instant power from a stop. Most ride well, and despite their heavy batteries, most (though not all) handle respectably. Acceleration at speed tends to be leisurely (with the notable exception of the Tesla Model S); driving enthusiastically just depletes the batteries that much faster, anyway. 

    In addition, some EVs have complicated, fussy controls and compromised space inside. Others are simple and straightforward.

    How Far Can They Go?

    Pure EV range varies from about 60 to 100 miles, although some versions of the expensive Tesla Model S can go a lot farther by about 240 miles. Count on range being about 25-percent less than manufacturer claims in the real world. In particular, driving in cold weather will shorten the range noticeably, especially when the heater is used. The headlights, wipers, and defroster can likewise exact a toll.

    Gasoline-fueled cars will typically go 350 to 400 miles between fill-ups and take 5 minutes to fill. Driving an EV requires more planning. But, plug-in hybrids have a combined gasoline and electric range of 400 to 550 miles, and if you plan it right, you may never have to go to a gas station except for long trips.

    How Long Does It Take to Charge One?

    Charge times vary greatly, depending on the size of the battery and the speed of the charger.

    On a typical 240-volt charger, it can take between 4.5 and 6 hours to fully charge a pure-electric vehicle, depending on the car, battery size, and the speed of the charger. (Those figures are based on our test data on Ford Focus EV and the Nissan Leaf, respectively.) But no EV driver wants to experience a completely depleted battery. Plug-in hybrids can take significantly less time to recharge, ranging from an hour and a half charge for the Toyota Prius Plug-in to about 4.5 hours for the Chevrolet Volt.

    Expect a little more than double those times when charging from a standard 110-volt household outlet. Put another way, on a standard household outlet, expect to get about four miles of driving for every hour of charging (and twice that on a dedicated 240-volt charger).

    A wider variety of 240-volt chargers are coming on the market that charge at different speeds, so some aren’t as fast. Others, such as Tesla’s High Power Wall Connector home charger, ramp-up much faster.

    And DC fast chargers, which can power 50 to 70 miles of range in about 20 minutes, are expanding around the country, with a current tally of over 1,300 nationwide. In addition, Tesla’s supercharger network boasts over 500 stations around the country and 170 miles of range in as little as 30 minutes for the Tesla Model S.

    How Much Do They Cost to Charge?

    A full charge at the national average rate of 11-cents per kilowatt-hour costs about $3 for a typical, limited-range electric car. Due to their massive battery packs, charging a Tesla can cost as much as four times that. If you drive the national average mileage, you could expect to pay about $40 a month for electricity for an electric car—less than a single fill-up of gasoline for many cars. And many utilities offer further discounts for nighttime charging. In Texas, at least one utility is even offering free electricity at night in exchange for a slightly higher rate during daytime hours.  You can compare how much you’d save in your state using the DOE’s eGallon tool.

    What About Home Chargers?

    Electric cars achieve the biggest benefits when they’re charged overnight at home when electric rates may decrease. As another benefit, most electric-car drivers say they find it much more convenient to just plug in at home than to have to stop at gas stations.

    It’s easy to charge a plug-in hybrid overnight, even on a standard 110-volt household outlet. Fully depleted, pure electric-car batteries can take almost a full day to charge on such low power. Practically speaking, owning a pure EV means installing a 240-volt, Level 2 home charger. These chargers sell for $400 to  $700, depending mainly on amperage and the length of the cable. Installation can run an additional $300 to $500, or more. These units will allow you to charge in less than half the time of a standard wall outlet, or as little as four hours for some electrics. The latest models will charge four times as fast as a home outlet.

    Public chargers are being installed in some cities throughout the United States, but their distribution varies widely. Convenience and pricing vary, and some may only charge at 1,500 watts, a slow trickle for a full electric car.

    The good news is that the nation has the foundational infrastructure for electric distribution. The problem is just covering the last 50 ft. from the nearest high-powered cable to the car.

    Couldn't Electric Cars Cause a Power Blackout?

    Theoretically, yes, if enough of them were charged during peak times in a local area. But we’re a long way from that in terms of electric-car penetration and smart grid technology is improving management of the grid. And the risk is mitigated by the fact that most people will prefer to do most of their charging at night, when demand on the power grid is much lower.

    According to studies by Idaho and Pacific Northwest National Labs, the United States has enough power to charge at least 1 million electric cars at off-peak times, without building a single additional power plant.

    Utilities are committed to building more infrastructure to meet the demand from electric cars, which they see as expanding their market and possibly providing grid storage through the electric vehicle batteries.

    Can I Buy an Electric Car Near Me?

    Yes, depending on which model you’re interested in. Some electric cars, such as the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, are available in all 50 states. Others are rolling out primarily in California and Oregon, along with several other states in the North East that follow California emissions mandates. Most automakers have plans to eventually market EVs nationwide.

    Why Electric Cars?

    The biggest motivators driving the production of electric cars are cutting petroleum consumption and dependence  and reducing pollution, including carbon-dioxide emissions. 

    Electricity is not a fuel; it is energy produced from a wide array of domestic sources. An increasing percentage of those sources are cleaner than coal or oil, ranging from new natural-gas power plants to increasing wind and solar generation. The power grid in the United States is currently underutilized, having been built for the hottest day of the year. Transportation, particularly charging at night, can utilize that surplus.

    Doesn't the Power Just Come From Dirtier Coal Instead of Gasoline?

    Some does, but mostly not. About 39 percent of America’s electricity today comes from coal, and even in regions with the dirtiest electricity, EV emissions are equivalent to a 35 mpg gasoline vehicle. America’s population centers are on the coasts, where electricity production comes from much cleaner sources, and electric vehicle emissions are equivalent to 51-97 mpg gasoline vehicles. California accounts for 40 percent of the nation’s electric vehicle sales, and California uses no coal and has one of the cleanest electric grids in the country.

    What Does the Future Look Like for Electric Cars?

    New fuel-economy standards, along with zero emission vehicle targets in California and other states, will push automakers to produce increasing numbers of electric cars by the end of this decade. Most will probably be plug-in hybrids. While battery costs still command a price premium for plug-ins, larger-scale adoption is bringing down costs. Breakthroughs in battery technology will drive even lower prices and wider adoption. Also, more public charging options are planned to make charging more accessible.

    EVs will eventually transition from being novel second cars in a household to being more primary-use cars, and a wider variety of types of EVs (including SUVs and sports cars) are certain to expand EVs’ appeal.

     

     

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

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    Gas-Saving Vehicles With the Best Combination of Fuel Economy and Acceleration

    You don't always have to give up engine performance in return for good fuel economy. To prove this, Consumer Reports compiled this list of vehicles that provided the best combination of fuel economy and acceleration in our tests. Vehicles are ranked within each category based on the overall miles per gallon and 0-to-60-mph acceleration times they achieved in our tests. Both were weighted equally.

    For more on saving gas, see our guide to fuel economy.

    Best fuel economy and acceleration by category based on CR tests

    Make & model

    Fuel economy
    (overall mpg)

    Acceleration
    0-60 mph (sec.)

    FUEL-EFFICIENT HATCHBACKS Overall mpg = 38 or higher; 0-60 mph = 12.0 or less
    BMW i3 Giga 139* 7.5
    Ford Focus Electric 107* 10.2
    Nissan Leaf SL
    106*
    10.3
    Ford C-Max Energi
    94* / 37** 8.1
    Toyota Prius Four
    44 10.6
    Toyota Prius C Two 43 11.3
    Lexus CT 200h Premium
    40 11.0
    *=MPGe, **=MPG on gas only    
    SUBCOMPACT CARS Overall mpg = 31 or higher; 0-60 mph = 12.0 or less    
    Smart ForTwo Passion
    36 11.2
    Ford Fiesta SE (3-cyl., MT)
    35 9.0
    Scion iA 35 10.3
    Honda Fit EX 33 10.0
    Ford Fiesta SE sedan 33 10.9
    Hyundai Accent SE (MT) 32 8.5
    Nissan Versa SV sedan 32 10.6
    Ford Fiesta SES hatchback (MT) 32 10.7
    Toyota Yaris LE 32 10.8
    Hyundai Accent GLS 31 10.3
    Nissan Versa Note SV 31 10.9
    COMPACT CARS Overall mpg = 29 or higher; 0-60 mph = 11.0 or less
    Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid SE 37 8.1
    Mazda3 i Touring sedan 33 8.3
    Mazda3 i Grand Touring hatchback 32 8.2
    Volkswagen Jetta SE (1.4T)
    32 9.1
    Toyota Corolla LE Plus 32 9.9
    Mini Cooper (3-cyl.) 31 8.3
    Scion iM 31 10.0
    Volkswagen Jetta SE (1.8T) 30 8.5
    Hyundai Elantra SE (1.8L) 29 9.5
    Nissan Sentra SV 29 9.7
    SPORTY CARS/ROADSTERS Overall mpg = 25 or higher; 0-60 mph = 7.5 or less (Manual unless otherwise noted)
    Mazda MX-5 Miata Club 34 6.7
    Mini Cooper S 30 7.0
    Scion FR-S 30 7.2
    Subaru BR-Z Premium 30 7.2
    Volkswagen GTI Autobahn 29 6.6
    Ford Fiesta ST
    29 7.3
    BMW Z4 sDrive28i 28 6.1
    Volkswagen GLI Autobahn 27 7.2
    Subaru Impreza WRX Premium 26 6.0
    Audi TT 2.0T (auto) 26 6.3
    Ford Mustang Premium (2.3L EcoBoost, auto)
    25 6.4
    Ford Focus ST 25 6.6
    BMW M235i 25 5.2
    MIDSIZED CARS Overall mpg = 24 or higher; 0-60 mph = 11.0 or less
    Ford Fusion SE Hybrid 39 8.3
    Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE
    38 7.6
    Mazda6 Sport 32 7.5
    Nissan Altima 2.5 S (4-cyl.) 31 8.2
    Honda Accord LX (4-cyl.) 30 7.7
    Chrysler 200 Limited (4-cyl.)
    30 9.8
    Toyota Camry LE (4-cyl.) 28 8.6
    Volkswagen Passat SE (1.8T)
    28 8.6
    Hyundai Sonata SE (4-cyl.) 28 9.2
    Honda Accord EX-L (V6) 26 6.3
    Toyota Camry XLE (V6)
    26 6.4
    Chevrolet Malibu 1LT 26 8.1
    Chrysler 200 C (V6) 25 6.9
    Nissan Altima 3.5 SL (V6)
    24 6.3
    Ford Fusion SE (1.5T)d 24 9.2
    UPSCALE/LUXURY CARS Overall mpg = 23 or higher; 0-60 mph = 8.5 or less
    Tesla Model S P85D
    87* 3.5
    Tesla Model S (85 kWh) 84¹ 5.6
    Lexus ES 300h 36 8.2
    Toyota Avalon Hybrid Limited 36 8.2
    BMW 328d xDrive
    35 8.5
    Mercedes-Benz E250 BlueTec
    30 8.3
    BMW 328i 28 6.3
    Audi A7 3.0 TDI 28 6.6
    Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 28 6.6
    Acura ILX Premium 28 7.5
    Acura TLX 2.4L 27 7.4
    Audi A3 Premium 27 8.3
    Mercedes-Benz C300 (AWD) 26 6.8
    Volkswagen CC Sport
    26 7.5
    Infiniti Q70 (V6) 25 5.6
    Acura TLX SH-AWD 25 6.5
    Nissan Maxima Platinum 25 6.5
    Lexus ES 350 25 6.7
    Volvo S60 T5 Drive-E
    25 7.9
    Toyota Avalon Limited 24 7.0
    Buick Regal Premium I (turbo)
    24 7.4
    Buick Verano Leather
    24 8.5
    BMW 535i 23 6.1
    Acura RLX Tech 23 6.5
    Cadillac ATS Luxury
    23 6.5
    Lincoln MKZ 2.0 Eco Boost 23 7.4
    SMALL SUVS Overall mpg = 21 or higher; 0-60 mph = 11.0 or less
    Honda HR-V LX 29 10.5
    Mazda CX-3 Touring 28 9.6
    Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid 28 10.1
    Mercedes-Benz GLA250
    26 6.9
    Mini Cooper Countryman S 26 8.3
    Hyundai Tucson Sport (1.6T) 26 8.4
    Subaru Forester 2.5i Premium 26 8.7
    Subaru Crosstrek Premium 26 9.7
    Mazda CX-5 Touring (2.5L) 25 8.0
    Chevrolet Trax LT 25 10.8
    Toyota RAV4 XLE 24 9.0
    Nissan Rogue SV 24 9.5
    Jeep Renegade Latitude 24 9.9
    Mitsubishi Outlander SEL (4-cyl.)
    24 10.0
    Hyundai Tucson SE (2.0L) 24 11.0
    BMW X3 xDrive 28i 23 7.3
    Buick Encore Leather 23 11.0
    Honda CR-V EX 23 9.2
    Fiat 500X Easy    
    Acura RDX 22 6.6
    Ford Escape Titanium (2.0) 22 8.2
    Ford Escape SE (1.6) 22 9.9
    Jeep Compass Latitude 22 10.3
    Kia Sportage LX 22 10.3
    Jeep Cherokee Latitude (4-cyl.)
    22 10.9
    Kia Sportage SX (turbo)
    21 7.1
    Land Rover Range Rover Evoque Pure 21 7.2
    Jeep Cherokee Limited (V6)
    21 7.7
    Audi Q5 Premium Plus 21 7.9
    Volkswagen Tiguan SEL 21 8.5
    Land Rover Discovery Sport HSE
    21 8.6
    Jeep Patriot Latitude 21 10.3
    MIDSIZED SUVS Overall mpg = 18 or higher; 0-60 mph = 9.5 or less
    Toyota Highlander Hybrid Ltd.   25 8.3
    Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited (diesel)
    24 8.6
    Volkswagen Touareg TDI 24 8.4
    Acura MDX Tech 21 6.8
    BMW X5 xDrive 35i 21 7.4
    Kia Sorento EX (V6) 21 7.4
    Nissan Murano SL
    21 7.7
    Ford Edge SEL   21 8.8
    Honda Pilot EX-L
    20 7.5
    Toyota Highlander XLE 20 7.5
    Hyundai Santa Fe GLS 20 7.6
    Porsche Cayenne (base) 19 7.8
    Infiniti QX60 (3.5L) 19 8.3
    Land Rover Range Rover Sport HSE
    18 6.5
    Mercedes-Benz ML350 18 6.8
    Infiniti QX70 18 6.8
    Cadillac SRX Luxury 18 7.1
    Chevrolet Equinox LTZ (V6) 18 7.1
    Nissan Pathfinder SL 18 7.7
    Toyota 4Runner SR5 (V6) 18 7.7
    Ford Explorer XLT 18 7.9
    Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited (V6) 18 8.0
    LARGE SUVS Overall mpg = 15 or higher; 0-60 mph = 10.0 or less
    Mercedes-Benz GL350 BlueTec 20 8.2
    Dodge Durango Limited (V6)
    18 9.4
    Ford Flex SEL 18 8.5
    Cadillac Escalade Premium
    16 6.1
    Chevrolet Tahoe LT 16 7.7
    Chevrolet Suburban LTZ 16 7.9
    Chevrolet Traverse LT 16 8.8
    Infiniti QX80 15 6.9
    Lincoln Navigator Base
    15 7.0
    Toyota Sequoia Limited 15 7.1
    Buick Enclave CXL 15 7.9
    MINIVANS Overall mpg = 19 or higher; 0-60 mph = 9.0 or less
    Honda Odyssey EX-L 21 8.4
    Toyota Sienna XLE (FWD) 20 8.8
    Kia Sedona EX 20 8.0
    Nissan Quest SL 19 8.4
    Toyota Sienna XLE (AWD) 19 8.5
    PICKUP TRUCKS Overall mpg = 15 or higher; 0-60 mph = 10.0 or less
    Ram 1500 Big Horn (diesel)
    20 9.5
    Chevrolet Colorado LT (V6) 18 7.5
    Ford F-150 XLT (2.7 EcoBoost)
    17 7.0
    Ford F-150 XLT (3.5L EcoBoost)
    16 7.2
    Chevrolet Silverado 1500 LT 16 7.5
    Toyota Tundra SR5 (5.7, V8) 15 6.7
    Ram 1500 Big Horn (V8) 15 7.1
    WAGONS/HATCHBACKS Overall mpg = 23 or higher; 0-60 mph = 11.0 or less
    Toyota Prius V Three 41 10.7
    Ford C-MAX Hybrid SE 37 8.4
    Ford Focus SEL hatchback
    28 9.3
    Fiat 500L Easy
    27 9.5
    Kia Soul Plus 26 8.8
    Subaru Impreza Sport Premium 26 9.4
    Subaru Outback 2.5i
    24 10.5
    Scion xB 23 9.4

     

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