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    7 Affordable Countries to Travel to This Year

    We all have excuses for not traveling. This year, though, cost is less of a factor.

    The reason: The U.S. dollar is at its strongest in more than a decade and airfares are lower than they have been in more than five years, according to Patrick Surry, chief data scientist at Hopper, a company that analyzes airfare trends.

    That means that travel to Europe, South America, and Australia, which may once have been beyond your budget, is now more affordable. “Once you arrive, the strong dollar will allow you to spend less money than if you visited New York City,” says Sibille Duss, an economist at UBS Wealth Management.

    In addition to the strong U.S. dollar and lower airfares, Surry says there are other ways that cost conscious consumers can save even more money when they travel. He suggests considering lower-fare airlines such as Norwegian Air Shuttle and Wow Air, a low-cost Icelandic airline.

    Another strategy, says Surry, is to fly into smaller cities, such as Lisbon or Copenhagen, and then catch a connecting flight or a train to big a European hub such as London, Paris, and Rome.

    One caveat to keep in mind: A currency decline against the U.S. dollar doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a deal. In Argentina, for example, the peso has declined 43 percent against the U.S. dollar in the past year alone. But inflation is rising at about 30 percent annually, wiping out many of the benefits.

    Where the Dollar Buys You More

    So where should you go to take advantage of the strong dollar? Consider the following countries:

    • Denmark, long a costly country to visit, is now much more affordable. The price of a round-trip flight has dropped by more than 25 percent since 2014 to an average of $673, according to Hopper. And once you’re there, your U.S. dollars will go further than they have in years. That’s because the Danish Krone has declined 21 percent against the U.S. dollar since March 2014.

    • Sweden would also be cheaper than in years past. Travel by air from the U.S. to Stockholm has fallen 3.8 percent over the past year to an average of $828. Hopper’s research, however, shows that you can get a flight for as little as $410 with the cheapest tickets available in early May. Once you’re there, hotels and restaurants won’t be as expensive as they would have been just two years ago. Since 2014, the Swedish Krona has declined almost 25 percent against the U.S. dollar.

    • Peru is on sale too. If you’ve ever wanted to go to Machu Picchu, this may be the right time. Flights to Peru have fallen by about 20 percent over the past two years. Round-trip fares from the U.S. are about $588. The Peruvian currency, the sol, has declined almost 20 percent during the past two years.

    • South Africa offers bargains that you couldn’t have had just two years ago. The average cost of a flight has dropped 25 percent since last year—round-trip tickets average about $986. And if a safari is on your to-do list, it won’t be so costly—the rand has declined about 30 percent since 2014.

    • Australia has long been an expensive trip for Americans, partly because it is so far away. But airfares are down by 22 percent since 2014 to cities such as Sydney and Perth—a round-trip ticket runs an average of $1,209. Since 2014, the Australian dollar has declined nearly 19 percent against the U.S. dollar.

    • New Zealand was the setting for “The Lord of the Rings” films—one reason that many people want to travel there. Fortunately, flight prices have been coming down. The price of a ticket has fallen by about 9 percent since 2014. An average round-trip ticket costs about $1,321, according to Hopper’s analysis. The New Zealand dollar has shed 21 percent of its value since March 2014.

    • Canada is so close yet remains an undiscovered gem by many Americans, says Peter Greenberg, the operator of a travel information site. A trip to Montreal could serve as a base for day trips to nearby regions such as the Laurentian Mountains, home to the ski resort of Mont-Tremblant. The average cost of a flight has declined 15 percent to $378 over the past two years and once you’re there, things will seem cheap. The Canadian dollar is down 20 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar since 2014.

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

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    2016 Chevrolet Spark Grows Up and Gains Manners

    When the Chevrolet Spark was introduced in 2012, it was evident that the company was targeting a younger, urban buyer—this Korean-built subcompact was a motorcycle-inspired, touch-screen-focused, Wi-Fi-enabled, candy-store-colored mini car.

    Also obvious was the lack of focus on driving fun or fuel efficiency for a car that was already dated by the time the car hit the U.S. market. The Spark never scored high enough to be recommended by Consumer Reports.

    But with the 2016 Chevrolet Spark, the company is changing things up a bit—this mini car’s tricks aren’t for just the kids.

    First impressions of our newly purchased 2016 Spark, suggest that the urban can also be suburban, and the young can include the young at heart. The redesigned Spark's appeal now extends beyond its low price and surface cheerfulness.

    The notable technologies in the new Spark aren’t the superficial things that Chevrolet touts: Wi-Fi and the Chevrolet MyLink enabled 7-inch touch screen that is compatible with smartphones via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Those features are just the price of entry for any new car these days.

    Instead, the more-mature engineering found beneath the newly creased exterior in the suspension, engine, and transmission is the real story that makes the new Spark feel almost grown-up.

    This mini car has undergone a real redesign. The slightly longer wheelbase and aerodynamically driven lower and wider stance are just part of the secret sauce that makes this new Spark so much more sophisticated.

    Gone are the pastel colors of the prior iteration of the Spark. For 2016, Denim is replaced by the richer Splash and Ice Blue. Lemonade went by the wayside. Consumer Reports' Spark is Kalamata, a deep jewel-tone purple that replaces the sickly pale Grape Ice.

    More important, it is efficient and has been tuned to have a more sophisticated driving dynamics. The 2016 Chevrolet Spark has unlocked a new set of achievements: possibly out-refining the fan favorite Honda Fit—a Consumer Reports Top Pick. Pulling that off with a car meant for city commuting would be a huge accomplishment; we'll see how it really stacks up as formal testing of our 2016 Spark 1LT with an automatic transmission gets underway. 

    Our 2013 Spark returned a disappointing 32 mpg overall. The 2016 Chevrolet Spark is estimated to get a more remarkable 41 mpg highway and 30 mpg city. After pushing the Spark around Connecticut country roads and four-lane routes, keeping an eye on the trip computer's average fuel economy, we saw a range of 36 to 40 mpg. We’ll have to wait until our official measurements for a final verdict here.

    The Spark might be a little car, but it's big on being able to dart around. There is a little hesitation off the line, but the four-cylinder mill gathers power quickly and keeps it. The improved continuously variable transmission mostly mimics a regular transmission by making simulated shifts, cutting down on the droning sound that afflicts many cars equipped with CVTs.

    The ride is a little stiff-legged, as would be expected with such a tiny wheelbase and small tires. When zipping along, it has the kind of handling where you don’t have to slow down too much or too often to tackle curving roads. Quick to turn in and with low body roll, a little more feedback through the steering would level-up the sporty factor even more. That said, it doesn’t rival the Ford Fiesta, our benchmark for subcompact handling.

    You might not that think that adding just 14 horsepower would make such a difference, but the new 1.4-liter small-displacement Ecotec engine boosts the 2016 Chevrolet Spark by 16 percent more horses to a still-modest 98. Changes like those make the Spark more appreciated as the dame of the country road than also-ran of the urban runabouts.  

    The Intelligence Inside

    Getting in the 2016 Chevrolet Spark, there's no doubt it is a narrow car. The very nature of the narrow beam means that the seats tend to be on the shrunken side of comfortable, so don’t expect a full-size seat bottom. Even the footwell is on the tighter side with a foot rest that is so far back that learning to be cozy is a skill.

    The tapered seating is topped by a relatively impressive head room. Even the backseat has a surprising amount of space, although two adults would need to be really good friends to share it because there is only one cup holder. Back seats folded down, the cargo space turns into a space worthy of the finest weekend antique store finds headed home to an empty nest.

    The interior environment is also a more cultivated whole than the curated collection of motorsports-inspired and aspirational techie-inspired elements in the previous Spark. The instrument cluster is simple and the climate controls are straightforward. Easy-to-use buttons are back for both climate and the volume control for 2016. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are just as easy as setting up a Bluetooth connection has always been in Chevrolets; that is to say, unchallenging. Wi-Fi hotspot access, SiriusXM Radio, and OnStar services are all offered for a post-trial period subscription.

    A standard backup camera displayed on the 7-inch screen is a forward-thinking inclusion, making the diminutive car even easier to fit in tight spots. Also standard are 10 airbags. Lane departure warning and blind-spot alert are options, as is forward-collision warning (FCW), but Chevrolet misses the real safety mark by making FCW an option instead of standard. We hope that this automaker– and the others– soon sees the light and makes FCW as standard as the backup cameras in the Spark. (Virtually all cars will have standard FCW and automatic emergency braking by 2022, but we would like to see automakers implement these systems as standard before that.)

    Clearly, efforts were made to raise the bar for the 2016 Spark. Overall, the 2016 is possibly more fit than the Fit and makes the Smart ForTwo and Mitsubishi Mirage seem like klutzes.

    What the 2016 Spark needs now that it is grown up are actual grown-ups to enjoy it—something we intend to do as break-in miles continue, leading to a full road test in the weeks ahead. 

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

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    It's Time to Jump into Spring Cleaning

    With the grass growing and flowers blooming, your house may be looking a bit dingy in comparison. After a winter of wear-and-tear it’s time to throw open the windows and chase the dust bunnies from under the furniture. And with the weather warming, it’s a lot more pleasant to spend time outside assessing any damage from the rough weather we hope is behind us. To help you get started, here’s a spring cleaning schedule from Consumer Reports’ book “How to Clean Practically Anything.”

    Inside

    • Go through closets, discard or donate unwanted clothes; clean winter coats.
    • Pack away winter clothes (or have them stored at a dry cleaner).
    • Rotate mattresses and wash mattress pads and blankets.
    • Hang blankets on a clothesline to air out before putting them away.
    • Wash curtains and draperies or have them dry-cleaned.
    • Clean the oven, if necessary.
    • Dust coils behind or underneath the refrigerator.
    • Clean blades of ceiling fans.
    • Shampoo rugs and upholstery.
    • Clean or replace filters in room air conditioners; vacuum and reinstall units.
    • Clean the bathrooms including the mirrors.

    Outside

    • Clean around central air conditioner unit and have it serviced.
    • Open attic louvers.
    • Secure any loose shingles or siding.
    • Touch up paint on outside of house.
    • Clean gutters and downspouts; clear debris from roof.
    • Remove storm windows.
    • Patch screens.
    • Wash windows.

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

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    Must-Have Car Features, and Those You Can Skip - Consumer Reports

    It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the abundance of features available in new cars, especially if you haven’t been in the market for a few years. It seems there is a new advancement in convenience, infotainment, or safety systems almost every month, making for tough choices, pricey options, and a cavalcade of acronyms. We’re here to help.

    Consumer Reports buys new cars for testing on a near-weekly basis, ensuring our staff has experienced just about every new feature that comes along. Some features are clever innovations that we wouldn’t want to be without, while others can be as much of a nuisance as a help. (Learn about how we test cars.)

    Based on our experience, here are recommendations for features worth considering, as well as those that you should think about skipping.

    See our guide to infotainment systems.

    Must Haves

    Comfortable seats! Drivers can spend a lot of time in the car. If the seats aren’t comfortable, you won’t be happy with your car for long. Be sure as part of your test drive that you spend adequate time evaluating the seat. It’s important that each driver get’s a chance to assess the seats for at least 15 to 20 minutes.

    Power driver’s seat with height-adjustable lumbar support. With greater fine-tuning ability than most manual seats, power seats can help most drivers find a much more comfortable driving position. Height-adjustable lumbar support is another key to long-term comfort. If the lumbar bulge is in the wrong place, it’s no more comfortable than having too little lumbar support.

    Forward-collision warning (FCW) uses laser, radar, or cameras to assess surrounding conditions, as well as the speed of your approach to a potential impact with a vehicle ahead of you. The system alerts you with visual and/or audible signals to a potential crash, allowing you time to react. Some systems also sense and alert you to the potential for a collision with pedestrians. We want to see forward-collision warning standard in every car.

    Automatic emergency braking (AEB) adds to the benefits of forward-collision warning. AEB will sense a potential collision, and if you don’t react in time, the car will initiate braking for you. Auto-braking is another technology we would like to see standard in every car.

    A backup camera is like having eyes in the back of your head, reducing the risk of reversing over or into something that might otherwise be unseen behind the vehicle. It’s both a safety feature and a convenience for parking.

    Rear cross-traffic alert takes seeing behind you to the next level by warning you when other traffic is approaching from the side as you back out.

    Blind-spot monitoring signals when there’s a car in the blind spot beside you on the road. The best systems illuminate little lights in the side mirrors where you should be looking anyway. They emit a chime if you signal a move toward a car next to you. We’ve found these systems to be very effective.

    Apple CarPlay and Android Auto bring the features and usability of your smartphone to the car’s dashboard. The appeal is being able to use interfaces you are familiar with to the larger screen of your car’s infotainment system. The systems allow you to use a selection of car-friendly apps, and make voice-activated texting simple.  

    Bluetooth connectivity lets you answer a cell-phone call hands-free, without fumbling with the phone or risking a law violation. In addition, Internet-sourced audio can typically be streamed to the car wirelessly, provided you took the time to pair the phone to the car.

    360-degree surround-view camera systems help drivers park more easily, and check for obstructions, through a bird’s-eye view from above the vehicle. Multiple cameras positioned around the car show parking lines relative to the vehicle, making maneuvering in tight situations a snap.  

    Head-up displays share redundant information such as current speed, navigation information and audio selections on the windshield directly in front of the driver. This reduces the need for the driver to move their eyes from the road to the dashboard or central display screen, although it may take some getting used to.  

    A USB port can be used to charge a device and play music through the stereo.

    Voice controls can keep you from fumbling either with your phone or the car’s controls when looking for the perfect song or trying to phone home. They’re also handy for entering a destination in the navigation system, even under way.

    Heated seats and steering wheel can be much appreciated during a cold winter.  Trust us, once you try these, you’ll never want to live without them.

    Dual-zone automatic climate control allows the driver and front passenger to fine-tune temperature settings. Set and forget—the system will make adjustments as needed to keep everyone comfortable. It also has a safety benefit – in Auto mode, you’ll be fumbling less.

    Automatic high beams take the stress out of driving on back roads at night by automatically turning off the high beams for oncoming traffic, and then turning them back up once the cars have passed. We’ve found some systems work much better than others, however.

    Spare tire. Lots of cars come without them these days, so check before you buy. In many cases, a spare tire can be added for a fee.

    Keyless entry makes a huge difference when you’re trying to open the car and you have your hands full of bags, babies, or a briefcase. Just walk up and open the doors—sometimes by touching a sensor on the handle. Almost all cars with keyless entry also have pushbutton start. But even if they don’t, it’s easier to fish for the key once your hands are free.

    Features to Skip

    Gesture/character recognition. Some cars are introducing separate touch pads to interface with their center screens, where you can scribe letters to enter addresses, for example. But they’re just as distracting and no easier to use than scroll wheels or simple touch screens.

    DVD player. With all the modern connectivity in cars and the abundance of iPads and tablets, DVD players seem redundant. iPads/tablets can carry movies, as well as games, making rear entertainment systems another unnecessary expense and complication.

    Built-in navigation brings a big screen and integrates with the car’s controls. But phone-based navigation usually has easier input, better points of interest, and voice recognition. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto further negate built-in nav, as these systems transfer the maps from your phone to the car’s screen.

    Apps are feeding into more and more cars. Some of them are handy: Aha, Audible, Pandora, Stitcher, and Spotify, among others, make it easier to control playback rather than just using the direct Bluetooth connection in the car. But as quickly as new apps come along, they can become obsolete before you trade in your car. The systems that seem particularly ridiculous are those that require a separate umbrella app on your phone to interface with any app on the car, such as Toyota’s Entune system.

    Wi-Fi in cars is the latest rage. GM rolled it out across its lineup for 2015, and select luxury cars have offered it for a few years. We don’t get it. Most cell-phone plans offer mobile hot spots. And the signal has to come from somewhere. Wi-Fi routers in your car require their own monthly 3G data subscription in addition to your new car payment.

    Lane-keeping assist monitors the lane lines and electrically nudges the steering wheel to keep you between them. In our experience, lane-departure systems are just as effective at warning you if you’re not paying attention, and they’re less annoying because they don’t give you the eerie feeling that someone else is tugging at the steering wheel.

    —Mike Monticello and Gabe Shenhar

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

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    Low-Cost Treadmills With High-Tech Features

    It wasn’t so long ago that you had to spend thousands to get a treadmill that could do things like track your workout progress and connect to the Internet. But this kind of interaction has made its way to the entry level. In fact, three budget folding models from Consumer Reports' latest treadmill tests feature some form of connectivity, including the category’s new top-rated machine, the Nautilus T616, which sells for $1,000. 

    Of course, you can have the “smartest” treadmill in the world, but if it doesn’t have sound ergonomics, sturdy design, and all the requisite safety features, it won’t do you much good in the long run (and it could even cause you harm). So let’s start with what impressed us about the Nautilus T616 during our performance and safety tests.

    Among its roomy 61-inch-long belt, well-positioned console controls, and combination front and side handrails, the machine should comfortably accommodate a wide range of users and body types (though we always advise trying any exercise machine in the store before buying, be it a treadmill, elliptical, or stationary bike).

    The Nautilus T616 also showed little sign of wear after six months of simulated usage during durability testing. And in terms of safety, the plastic tang style safety-key disengaged without issue and the belt came to a stop after the key was removed in 3.7 seconds on average, compared with an overall average stopping time of 5.7 seconds for all treadmills in our tests.

    That solid all-around performance gave the Nautilus T616 an overall score that’s quite a bit higher than the next best model in our current treadmill Ratings. And as with all folding treadmills, the deck can be raised for compact storage when the machine is not in use.

    Now for the Fun Stuff

    Like all new Nautilus treadmills, the T616 features Nautilus Connect, a free service that lets up to four users save and upload workout data for online tracking. That makes it possible to set goals, measure progress, and more. The technology works one of two ways: either you save your data to a USB stick, transfer it to your computer, and then upload it to the Nautilus Connect website, or download the free app to your smartphone and sync your data to it, via the T616’s built-in Bluetooth.

    If weight loss is part of your fitness goals, Nautilus Connect also syncs with MyFitnessPal, another free service that allows you to track the food you eat. (Check out our report on diet plans to see how it fared against a dozen other options.)   

    When you think about what you could spend on a commercial weight-loss plan and a personal trainer, the $1,000 price tag on the Nautilus T616 looks even better. But the fact that this low-cost treadmill performs as well as models costing two and three times as much is the smartest feature of all.

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

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    People's Picks: 10 Most Popular Cars With Consumer Reports Readers

    Forget about the presidential primaries. Another big contest has taken place—the People's Picks. With this contest, the debate is virtual and the results are clear. The people have cast their votes with mouseclicks, indicating the most popular cars so far this year on ConsumerReports.org.

    Several models dominate the traffic to the ConsumerReports.org car model pages: the Subaru Forester (shown above), Toyota Highlander, Subaru Outback, Toyota RAV4, and Honda CR-V. Each of these models has garnered significantly more page views than all other models. And for good reason.

    These excellent vehicles shine in our tests and surveys, as well as crash tests. Leading the trend demonstrated throughout the list, these People’s Picks are all competitively priced, mainstream models that offer advanced safety features. Clearly, our site visitors are being smart about researching their next new car—and following our guidance.

    Further, these 10 most popular cars on ConsumerReports.org are all recommended models, meaning they did well in our road tests, have average or better predicted reliability, and performed adequately, if included in government or insurance-industry crash tests.

    Plus, all 10 people’s picks earn 2016 Top Safety Pick accolades from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And nine of these vehicles claim IIHS' Top Safety Pick Plus designation, meaning they earned good ratings in five crashworthiness tests, as well as an advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention.

    When it comes to luxury-brand models, the leaders are the Lexus RX (#13), Acura MDX (#17), and Audi Q5 (#26)—again models that earn a Consumer Reports recommendation.

    So if you’re looking for a leg up in researching your next new car, consider these shrewd choices. They're presented here in order of popularity. 

    Subaru Forester

    Small SUVs don't get more practical than the Ratings-topping Forester. Its positives include large windows, big doors, an excellent driving position, and unusually spacious rear seating. In our tests, the 2.5-liter four-cylinder and CVT averaged a near-class-leading 26 mpg overall. The ride is supple and handling is very secure, though not sporty. Engine noise is pronounced at times. Controls are very simple, and the infotainment and connectivity systems have finally been updated with an easy-to-use touch screen. Midtrim Foresters bring a lot of content for the money. The optional X-Mode gives the car some off-road ability. A backup camera is standard. The optional EyeSight system includes lane-departure warning and front-collision warning.

    Read our complete Subaru Forester road test

    Toyota Highlander

    The midsized Highlander SUV handles responsively, the ride is steady and absorbent, and interior space is generous. A wide third row allows seating for eight, or seven with optional second-row captain's chairs. The smooth and punchy 3.5-liter V6 is matched to a six-speed automatic. The Hybrid version uses a continuously variable transmission mated to the V6, and adds a hybrid battery pack and three electric motors. In our tests, the all-wheel-drive V6 averaged 20 mpg overall; the Hybrid version got 25 mpg. It's a long reach to some controls, particularly the standard 6.1-inch touch screen. The Entune system includes a larger 8-inch screen. A backup camera is now standard across the line.

    Read our complete Toyota Highlander road test.  

    Subaru Outback

    This Outback wagon is roomy, refined, and utterly devoid of flash. It rides very comfortably, with secure handling. The 2.5-liter four-cylinder returns 24 mpg overall, and the unobtrusive continuously variable transmission operates more like a conventional automatic. Opting for the 3.6-liter six-cylinder makes the car quicker and quieter but gives up 2 mpg. The controls are all easy-to-use, including the touch-screen infotainment system. A rear camera is standard. Optional advanced safety gear includes blind-spot monitoring and Subaru's EyeSight safety suite, which adds forward-collision warning with automatic braking. Crash-test results are impressive.

    Read our complete Subaru Outback road test

    Toyota RAV4

    The RAV4 uses an energetic 2.5-liter four-cylinder and a smooth six-speed automatic, which returned 24 mpg overall in our tests of an AWD version. Handling is quite nimble and very secure. The ride is compliant and controlled. Inside, the controls are clear and intuitive, and fit and finish is decent. The XLE is a good value with the automatic climate control, sunroof, and power rear tailgate, but the seats lack adjustable lumbar support unless you step up to the Limited trim, which included faux leather and power-adjustable lumbar. Access is very easy, and the rear seat is roomy. A rearview camera is standard. A freshening for 2016 brought improvements, including better noise isolation, as well as a new hybrid version.

    Read our complete Toyota RAV4 road test

    Honda CR-V

    The CR-V is one of the roomiest, most functional small SUVs. The 185-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder and CVT returned 24 mpg overall in our tests. All but the base LX version use a distracting, difficult-to-use, and frustrating infotainment system. Handling is responsive and secure, but the ride is stiff, with bumps coming through in a pronounced way. The interior is somewhat quieter than before, but overall the CR-V is still loud inside. The rear seats are roomy, and folding them is a breeze. Small rear windows hurt the view out back, but the standard rearview camera helps. Reliability has been average of late. Active safety features such as forward-collision warning are only available on the top Touring trim.

    Read our complete Honda CR-V road test

    Toyota Camry

    If you're looking for smooth, dependable transportation that skews toward comfort and convenience, the Camry delivers what you need. Interior appointments have been upgraded and center dashboard controls simplified. Suspension changes made the already comfortable ride steadier, and further isolated noise. Handling is sound and secure. The 2.5-liter four-cylinder delivers ample, unobtrusive power and returned a competitive 28 mpg overall in our tests. The available 3.5-liter V6 is punchy yet still got a very good 26 mpg overall, while the Hybrid gets an amazing 38 mpg overall. The long history of solid reliability and owner satisfaction scores is another asset.

    Read our complete Toyota Camry road test

    Honda Accord

    The Accord is well equipped and competitively priced, and performs well, making it one of our top-rated family sedans. It handles responsively, though the ride can be choppy. It has a roomy, well-finished interior, and gets 30 mpg overall with its mostly unobtrusive continuously variable transmission. The 3.5-liter V6 is lively and refined, and gets a very good 26 mpg overall. EX, EX-L, and Touring trims have an unintuitive-to-use infotainment system. The Hybrid model returned 40 mpg overall but is on a hiatus for 2016; Honda has promised to bring it back with an updated powertrain in 2017. The plug-in version has been discontinued.

    Read our complete Honda Accord road test

    Mazda CX-5

    Spry and fuel efficient, Mazda's mainstay small SUV competes well in this crowded segment. Agile handling, combined with plentiful power from the 2.5-liter, 184-hp four-cylinder, makes it fun to drive; a less powerful 2.0-liter four comes only with FWD and a manual transmission. Updates for 2016 brought slightly improved ride comfort and interior noise but added a more complex rotary dial-controlled infotainment system that takes some time to master. Cabin and cargo space are plentiful, and driver visibility is good, aided by standard blind-spot monitoring on higher trims. The Grand Touring trim offers forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking.

    Read our complete Mazda CX-5 road test

    Kia Sorento

    A 2016 Top Pick, this midsized SUV is functional and refined, and its wide price range makes it an alternative to small and midsized SUVs. Three engines are available: the base 185-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder; a 240-hp, 2.0-liter turbo four; and the smooth and quiet 290-hp, 3.3-liter V6. All use a six-speed automatic. The cabin is quiet, and the ride is comfortable and composed. Handling is responsive and secure. Supportive seats and simple controls help make the Sorento easy to live with. Available safety gear includes adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning, blind-spot detection, and rear cross-traffic alert, as well as a surround-view monitor. Good crash-test results are a plus.

    Read our complete Kia Sorento road test

    Honda Civic

    Redesigned for 2016, the Civic has been significantly improved, and is now a more substantial, refined, and capable car than the previous model. The base engine is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder; a 1.5-liter turbo four-cylinder comes on EX-T and Touring versions. The continuously variable transmission works well with the turbo. The ride is more comfortable, handling is precise, and the quieter interior has a lot more storage space. However, the car's low stance means difficulty getting in and out. In addition, the front seats lack adjustable lumbar, which could cause discomfort on a long drive. Advanced safety features are available, but a full blind-spot monitoring system is not offered. EX trims and above have a complicated radio.

    Read our complete Honda Civic road test

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

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  • 03/21/16--03:00: 10 Safe Family SUVs
  • 10 Safe Family SUVs

    Choosing the best car for your family involves many distinct factors, from comfort to safety—while always being mindful of budget. To aid busy parents in choosing the next ride for their busy brood, the Consumer Reports automotive engineers have analyzed test data and considered the elements that would make for an ideal family SUV.

    We started with the list of SUVs that meet our stringent criteria to be recommended. To earn such a distinction, a vehicle has to perform well in Consumer Reports’ road tests, have average or better predicted reliability, and perform at least adequately (if included) in government or insurance-industry safety tests.

    From there, we further filtered the list to include just those models that have forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking as standard or optional equipment.

    To be included, each SUV has to have been awarded the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Top Safety Pick Plus designation, meaning they earned good ratings in five crashworthiness tests, as well as an advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention.

    We also considered how well child seats install and fit into these vehicles. This proved to be a challenging assignment, as three vehicles that excelled in other family-friendly attributes skewed to the lower end of our child seat scoring spectrum. But given that families come in all ages and sizes, we have included those SUVs here with the caveat that drivers transporting young, car-seat-aged children would be better served with other vehicles on the list.

    Vehicles with some challenges for installing car seats are noted with an asterisk (*). Full explanation is available on their respective model pages.

    With each vehicle highlighted here, we indicate the lowest trim level that offers the advanced safety equipment. When optional, we indicate the price for these recommended features. 

    See our complete SUV buying guide and ratings.

    Acura MDX*

    This functional, family-friendly, and competitively priced luxury SUV is comfortable, quick, and quiet, with generous space for seven. The second row folds and slides forward with the touch of a button for easy access to the small third row. The 3.5-liter V6 is silky smooth and delivers more than adequate acceleration. We measured a very commendable 21 mpg overall with the new nine-speed automatic, but the transmission is not always smooth or responsive. The push-button shifter is unintuitive to use, as is the infotainment system. The FWD version should have better fuel economy. Most trims include safety systems such as lane-keeping assist and forward-collision avoidance. The dual-screen control interface is frustrating to use. 

    Suggested trim: MDX with AcuraWatch Plus
    Cost for forward-collision warning with autobraking: Standard

    Read our complete Acura MDX road test.

    Acura RDX

    Derived from the Honda CR-V compact SUV, the RDX is well-equipped for the price. The very smooth, capable, and sweet-sounding V6 is a bit more powerful for 2016, and will likely still return 22 mpg overall. Handling is not especially agile, and the ride is a little stiff. We also found that the front wheels can easily spin on wet pavement before the AWD system transfers power to the rear wheels. Despite updates for 2016, the interior is rather forgettable for an upscale SUV, lacking some luxury features usually found on its competitors. The freshening also brought Acura's convoluted dual-screen control system. Still, the seats are comfortable and the rear seat is roomy. The Acura Watch safety package is available on all trims. 

    Suggested trim: RDX with AcuraWatch Plus
    Cost for forward-collision warning with autobraking: Standard 

    Read our complete Acura RDX road test.

    Honda Pilot*

    The redesigned 2016 Pilot is quicker, quieter, more fuel-efficient, and more contemporary looking. It keeps its three-row seating configuration and extremely functional interior, but gone are the cheap plastics of the previous generation. Power comes from a slick 3.5-liter V6 that is now rated at 280 hp. We got 20 mpg overall in our tests of an EX-L with the standard six-speed automatic. We found the ride comfortable, but handling ungainly. The infotainment system is unintuitive. Touring and Elite trims get a nine-speed that doesn't shift smoothly and is stuck with an unintuitive electronic shifter. Front- and all-wheel drive are offered, and the optional Honda Sensing safety system includes forward-collision warning with automatic braking.

    Suggested trim: EX with Honda Sensing
    Cost for forward-collision warning with autobraking: Standard

    Read our complete Honda Pilot road test.

    Hyundai Tucson

    The all-new Tucson is a huge improvement over its predecessor. The base SE version gets a 164-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, routing through a six-speed automatic. This version is rather slow and can feel strained. More expensive trims get a 1.6-liter turbo four-cylinder that uses a seven-speed automated manual transmission. This more powerful setup returned 26 mpg overall, but it suffers from a vibration at very low speed, such as in parking maneuvers. Hyundai made major improvements in ride comfort, agility, and refinement. The Tucson has optional lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, and forward-collision avoidance with automatic braking. It scored a Good in the IIHS narrow-offset crash test. 

    Suggested trim: Limited
    Cost for forward-collision warning with autobraking: $2,750 

    Read our complete Hyundai Tucson road test.

    Lexus RX

    The RX got a 2016 makeover, with avant-garde exterior styling and advanced safety features. Its 3.5-liter V6 is now linked to a new eight-speed automatic, delivering ample power and a commendable 22 mpg overall. The fuel-thrifty 450h hybrid gets an excellent 29 mpg overall. Inside, the RX is very quiet and well-finished. Ride comfort is plush whether you get the base car on 18-inch tires or more uplevel versions with 20-inch tires. Handling, however, is ponderous and devoid of any sporty feel. The mouselike controller and interface require a steep learning curve. Rear passengers get lots of leg and knee room. Options include blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and lane-departure warning.

    Suggested trim: Any
    Cost for forward-collision warning with autobraking: $665 

    Read our complete Lexus RX road test.

    Mazda CX-5

    Spry and fuel-efficient, Mazda's mainstay small SUV competes well in this crowded segment. Agile handling, combined with plentiful power from the 2.5-liter, 184-hp four-cylinder, makes it fun to drive; a less powerful 2.0-liter four comes only with FWD and a manual transmission. 2016 updates brought slightly improved ride comfort and interior noise but added a more complex rotary dial-controlled infotainment system that takes some time to master. Cabin and cargo space are plentiful, and driver visibility is good, aided by standard blind-spot monitoring on higher trims. The Grand Touring trim offers forward-collision warning with autobraking. Reliability has been above average, and crash-test results are good.

    Suggested trim: Touring
    Cost for forward-collision warning with autobraking: $1,625 

    Read our complete Mazda CX-5 road test.

    Subaru Crosstrek

    The Crosstrek is a small quasi-SUV version of the Impreza hatchback, with a raised ride height that gives it enough clearance to slosh through deeply rutted roads. It may appeal to those people who live at the end of a dirt road and don't want anything big and bulky. The cabin is rather noisy, the ride is stiff, and the 148-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine occasionally has to work hard, but fuel economy is a gratifying 26 mpg. The costlier Hybrid barely improves on that, at 28 mpg. At least the Hybrid is a little quieter and sounds less strained. Either way, the regular Impreza hatch may be a better choice: It's quieter, quicker, cheaper, and better riding.

    Suggested trim: Premium
    Cost for forward-collision warning with autobraking: $1,995 

    Read our complete Subaru Crosstrek road test.

    Subaru Forester

    Small SUVs don't get more practical than the Ratings-topping Forester. Its positives include large windows, big doors, an excellent driving position, and unusually spacious rear seating. In our tests, the 2.5-liter four-cylinder and CVT averaged a near-class-leading 26 mpg overall. The ride is supple and handling is very secure, though not sporty. Engine noise is pronounced at times. Controls are very simple, and the infotainment and connectivity systems have finally been updated with an easy-to-use touch screen. Midtrim Foresters bring a lot of content for the money. The optional X-Mode gives the car some off-road ability. A backup camera is standard. The optional EyeSight system includes lane-departure warning and front-collision warning.

    Suggested trim: 2.5i Premium
    Cost for forward-collision warning with autobraking: $1,295 

    Read our complete Subaru Forester road test.

    Subaru Outback*

    This Outback wagon is roomy, refined, and utterly devoid of flash. It rides very comfortably, with secure handling. The 2.5-liter four-cylinder returns 24 mpg overall, and the unobtrusive continuously variable transmission operates more like a conventional automatic. Opting for the 3.6-liter six-cylinder makes the car quicker and quieter but gives up 2 mpg. The controls are all easy-to-use, including the touch-screen infotainment system. A rear camera is standard. Optional advanced safety gear includes blind-spot monitoring and Subaru's EyeSight safety suite, which adds forward-collision warning with automatic braking. Crash-test results are impressive.

    Suggested trim: 2.5i Premium
    Cost for forward-collision warning with autobraking: $1,695 

    Read our complete Subaru Outback road test.

    Toyota Highlander

    The midsized Highlander SUV handles responsively, the ride is steady and absorbent, and interior space is generous. A wide third row allows seating for eight, or seven with optional second-row captain's chairs. The smooth and punchy 3.5-liter V6 is matched to a six-speed automatic. The Hybrid version uses a continuously variable transmission mated to the V6, and adds a hybrid battery pack and three electric motors. In our tests the all-wheel-drive V6 averaged 20 mpg overall; the Hybrid version got 25 mpg. It's  a long reach to some controls, particularly the standard 6.1-inch touch screen. The Entune system includes a larger 8-inch screen. A backup camera is now standard across the line.

    Suggested trim: Limited
    Cost for forward-collision warning with autobraking: $1,400 

    Read our complete Toyota Highlander road test.

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    How Long to Keep Tax Records and Other Documents

    Tax season is the perfect time to start culling your paper piles and computer files and getting everything in order. You've already delved into your financial records, so you might as well take the time to organize them. 

    Why, you may wonder, should you make tax season even worse than it already is? There are plenty of good reasons for getting your papers in order. One is that if you haven't yet completed your taxes, getting your paperwork in order will reduce tax-preparation anxiety. And if you have already filed your taxes, you'll want to know how long to keep tax records and other financial papers in case you're audited.

    There are other instances when being organized can pay off. If you're meeting with a financial adviser or an attorney, you don't want to spend hours wading through clutter to find the documents you need. If there's a fire, flood, or theft, you'll need access to essential documents quickly. And if you become ill, well-organized paperwork will make it easier for your loved ones to locate your health-care power of attorney, insurance policies, medical records, and outstanding bills.

    So what should you do? Divide your financial papers into four categories: Papers that you need to keep for the calendar year or less; papers that can be destroyed when you no longer own the items they cover; tax records, (we'll tell you how long to keep tax records) and finally, a category for papers to keep indefinitely.

    How to Organize Your Records

    Keep for less than a year 
    In this file, store your ATM, bank-deposit, and credit-card receipts until you reconcile them with your monthly statements. Once you've done that, shred the paper documents (to avoid ID theft) or securely trash electronic files unless you need them to support your tax return. Keep insurance policies and investment statements until new ones arrive. 

    Keep for a year or more
    You'll want to hold onto loan documents until the loan is paid off. That will often be for more than a year. Then toss those papers out. If you own one or more vehicles hold onto the titles until you sell them. If you have investments in stocks, bonds, mutual funds or anything else, keep the investment purchase confirmations until you sell the investment so you can establish your cost basis and holding period. (If that information appears on your annual statements, you can keep those instead.)

    Keep for seven years
    If you fail to report more than 25 percent of your gross income on your tax returns, the government has six years to collect the tax or start legal proceedings. So when it comes to determining how long to keep tax records—electronic and paper— we recommend seven years, just in case.

    Keep forever
    Essential records such as birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, divorce decrees, Social Security cards, and military discharge papers should be kept indefinitely. Also hold on to defined-benefit plan documents, estate-planning documents, life-insurance policies, and an inventory of your bank safe-deposit box (share a copy with your executor or your attorney).

    How to Store Your Files

    • Use a fireproof safe or password-protected electronic file for the following: Bank and investment statements, estate-planning documents, pension information, insurance policies, pay stubs, tax documents, and your safe-deposit box inventory list.
    • Invest in a safe-deposit box for papers that can't be easily replaced: Original birth and death certificates, Social Security cards, passports, life-insurance documents, marriage and divorce decrees, military discharge information, vehicle titles, an inventory of your home's contents (in case you need to make an insurance claim), and loan documents.

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    Hands On With the LG G5 Smartphone

    Thanks to competitive mimicry within the smartphone industry, many smartphones across leading brands now share the benefits of longer battery life, dazzling displays, better cameras, and other desirable traits. Of course, this tends to makes them a bit too much alike. The LG G5 smartphone is a refreshing mutation, with a clever design twist that allows it to improve substantially while it’s in your hands.

    As we noted in our preview, the LG G5 has a clip-style removable bottom that allows you to swap in new audio or camera hardware in just a few seconds. These modules not only look like they’re natural part of the phone but also act that way: They promise to function smoothly because they plug directly into the phone's core systems.

    The LG G5’s cameras are interesting, too. The phone has a relatively high-resolution, 8-megapixel selfie camera, along with two rear-facing cameras that work in tandem to bring its users the benefits of zoom without the bulk of a single telescoping lens. The 16-megapixel camera has a 78-degree viewing angle used for most shots, while the 8-megapixe ultra-wide-angle camera puts its 135-degree viewing to work when it’s time to zoom out and capture subjects in the outer periphery that would otherwise be cropped out.

    Other forward-thinking features include a USB Type-C port, which support ultrafast data connections of 10 gigabits per second and don’t have that "wrong-side up" insertion issues of the soon-to-be extinct micro USB cables.

    Smarter control layout. The often-confounding, rear-mounted controls that defined LG G-series smartphones has improved . . . slightly. While the fingerprint reader/home button is still on the back, LG mercifully moved the rocker-style volume controls from the back to the upper-left side of the phone, which is significantly easier to reach—at least for right-handed users.

    Twist and tug cartridges. The bottom portion of the LG G5 is designed to easily slide in and out to allow you to swap in new modules, such as the CAM Plus cartridge, which adds convenient camera controls and spare battery power to G5.

    But I had a little trouble with it. While these modules slide into the phone quite easily, pulling them out took a bit of effort, at least on this prototype model. There’s a release button on the lower-left side of the phone, but I still had to tug firmly on the module, alternately pulling from left to right until it came loose. Pulling out the CAM Plus module was not that difficult because its protruding sides gave my fingers an excellent perch. But getting a firm grip on the smooth, nub-like “regular” cartridge was a bit tougher.

    Also, the LG G5’s slab-like 2,800mAh battery has to be inserted into whatever module you are installing on the phone. That means you have to yank the battery out of the old module and insert into the new one before you switch. That process was also a little rough. You have to gently pull on the battery while rocking it from left to right until it pops out of the cartridge. Given how often I anticipate G5 users will be changing cartridges, LG should definitely consider a more substantive eject mechanism for the battery.  

    Nifty camera. We can’t yet say how well the G5’s new cameras will perform until we test the finished retail model, but I was impressed with the dramatic zoom effect delivered via the two-camera combo. Though at close range, subjects captured with the wide-angle lens appear quite distorted, sort of like seeing your reflection in a mirror ball.

    There are multiple ways to switch between regular and wide-angle cameras. For instance, you can toggle between them by tapping either of two rectangular squares at the top of the screen. One has a single pine tree, which activates the regular camera; the other has three pine trees in it for the wide-screen camera.

    You can also launch the zoom feature by placing two fingers on the display and pulling them apart to come in tight, or bring them together when you want to zoom out. The onscreen zoom-range indicator, besides showing your locations on the zoom continuum, also shows you the point at which one camera will hand off to the other. And you’ll want to know that when you’re shooting video because the hand-off is noticeably jumpy.

    Another cool camera feature: You can instantly flip between the main and selfie cameras just brushing your fingers up or down on the touchscreen.

    CAM Plus accessory. Smartphone camera buffs will definitely want to check out the CAM Plus camera module, which includes dedicated buttons for operating the shutter, flash, and zoom functions as well as an 1,200mAh battery that the phone will use first, before accessing the phone’s primary 2,800mAh battery. While the module makes the bottom third of the G5 a notably thicker 0.3 inches, it does make the phone easier to grip when it’s being use as a camera. The buttons work well, too. Gliding your fingers over responsive, well-placed camera controls is definitely less distracting than clawing at a touchscreen. The zoom wheel, in particular, helped me take zoomed video shots appear less jerky. 

    Dropped drawer. Oddly, despite all its useful new features, LG dropped one of the more significant advantages Android has over iPhone: the App drawer. The app drawer helps Android users keep their phone’s desktop tidy by providing an accessible place to keep all of the apps and widgets installed on your phone out of sight yet easily accessible. It appears that the only place LG G5 users will have for hiding little-used apps will be a folder. LG confirmed the app drawer will not be available on the final version of the G5, and we’re still waiting for the reason for its removal. While the App drawer will be MIA on the G5, the new phone does have one interesting app-related convenience: The Recently uninstalled app, which allows you quickly reinstall any apps you removed within the last 24 hours. 

    Always on display. Just like the Samsung Galaxy S7 smartphones, the LG G5 display has an always-on feature that shows the time, date, and battery status continuously when the display goes to sleep. However, its readout appeared a little too dim for my liking, and there didn’t appear to be a way to make it appear brighter.

    Stay tuned for the test results of the full test results of the LG G5.  

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    Software Bug That Hampered Cleaning Fixed in LG WM3170CW

    As wash-day woes go, this one is thoroughly modern. It starts with a software glitch that went undetected, until the pros at Consumer Reports bought and tested a LG WM3170CW front-loader. And then things got really interesting.

    When dirty laundry comes out of the washing machine dirty, consumers get angry. When it happens in our labs, engineers get busy. And that’s how Emilio Gonzalez figured out that the $720 LG WM3170CW front-loading washer had a software glitch.

    “We first tested this machine last spring and our lab technician, Bill Taylor, noticed it used little water. We figured out that a software bug was directing the washer to use so little water that it was unable to clean our laundry and left stains remaining,” says Gonzalez, the engineer who runs our tests of laundry appliances.

    The washer wound up at the bottom of our washing machine Ratings, scoring only fair in cleaning, but excellent in water efficiency.

    LG responded by saying they would correct the software bug in washers in the stores and in customers’ homes. In February 2016 we decided it was time to buy and test another LG WM3170CW front-loader.

    “We found the software problem has been fixed, and the washer did an excellent job cleaning our laundry and water efficiency is also excellent,” says Gonzalez.

    Here's the Score

    This front-loader scored excellent overall, and at $720, it’s half the price of some higher-rated front-loaders, making it a CR Best Buy. But wash time is longer than most of the front-loaders we tested, taking 110 minutes using the normal wash, heavy-soil setting. You’ll save about 15 minutes using the normal-soil setting.

    “Any LG WM3170CW made after April 2015 has new software,” says John Taylor, vice president of public affairs for LG. “There has been a very low number of issues reported, but if consumers have a model made before April 2015 they can call LG’s customer service at 1-800-243-000 for a free software update.”

    The serial number is easy to spot once you open the washer door. The first three numbers indicate year and month made. Serial numbers starting with 502, for example, indicate the washer was made in February 2015. Those made in May 2015 start with 505. Questions? Email me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

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    New Apple iPhone SE and iPad Pro to Arrive Next Week

    Apple today updated its lower-end offerings, improving its smallest phone and standard tablet with higher-end technology.

    New products include the iPhone SE–a spruced up version of the aging iPhone 5s–and a smaller, lighter, and cheaper version of the iPad Pro tablet.

    The least expensive Apple Watch is cheaper still, and comes with new watch bands.

    Finally, there’s news about the iOS 9.3 that Apple hopes will help late-night phone users rest easy. The new phone and tablet can be preordered on March 24 for delivery starting on March 31.

    Here are the details.

    iPhone SE

    The Apple iPhone 5s, still popular among smartphone shoppers who appreciate its small size and price tag, had become like the neglected step-sister in a fable, quietly shoring up company profits while its larger-screened, better equipped iPhone 6 siblings got all of the attention.

    Welcome the iPhone SE, which has an iPhone 5s-size, 4-inch display and trim shape yet manages to cram in many qualities of the iPhone 6-series phones, including the 12-megapixel camera, the faster A9 processor, a promised longer battery life, and NFC and other hardware needed for Apple Pay transactions. With a starting retail price of just $399, it's cheapest new iPhone model you can own.  

    The iPhone SE has the same flat, rounded edges of the iPhone 5s, though the rear side is now made of aluminum, like the iPhone 6 models. It has the same A9 processor and M9 coprocessor found in the iPhone 6s and 6s plus, which Apple says will make it two to three times faster than the iPhone 5s. And in the new phone, the Siri assistant can respond to voice commands without you having to touch the home button.

    The iPhone SE has the same 12.2-megapixel main camera that’s on the 6s iPhones; it can take Live photos and shoot videos in 4K resolution. In our tests of the iPhone 6s, we found the 12.2-megapixel camera was slightly better than 8-megapixel one in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, though there are several Android models with cameras that are better still.

    The SE’s display is the same as the one on an iPhone 5s: 1136-by-640-pixel resolution at 326 ppi, which is very good for a 4-inch screen. 

    In terms of connections, Apple says the SE’s 4G LTE speeds are 50 percent faster than the 5s's, and that its radios support a wider spectrum of  frequencies, which should mean better luck connecting when roaming on global networks. WiFi has been upgraded to 802.11 AC, a standard that supports Internet connection speeds of more than 1.3 gigabits per second. In reality, most devices rarely exceed a fraction of that speed under the best circumstances.

    The 16GB iPhone SE will retail for $399; a 64GB model will cost $499.

    9.7-inch iPad Pro

    The iPad Pro, Apple’s laptop-killing, 12.9-inch tablet, now has a little brother: The 9.7-inch iPad Pro. The new iPad has the innards of the bigger device, but the best-selling screen size of the original iPad. The new version weighs slightly less than a pound and shares the same dimensions with the iPad Air 2. And its display is the same size and resolution (2048 x 1536) as the Air 2’s. But it’s much more capable.

    For instance, the display can adjust its color based on the ambient light, to mimic the way a piece of white paper looks slightly different in different settings. Apple calls this feature True Tone. The tablet also has a 12-megapixel rear camera that can capture Apple’s Live Photos, as well as shoot 4K video. The 5-megapixel FaceTime HD camera can record 720p video. The A9X processor is the same found in the larger iPad Pro, as are the pair of speakers on each end of the device. 

    More important, like its bigger brother, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro works with the $99 Apple Pencil and uses the Smart Connector for attaching accessories like a $149 Smart Keyboard.

    Apple also announced new adapters for the iPad Pro, including its Lightning to SD Card Camera Reader, making it a more feasible laptop replacement for many shoppers.

    The 9.7-inch iPad Pro starts at $599 for 32GB, is available in 128GB and 256GB varieties, and comes in the now ubiquitous grey, gold, silver, and rose gold. iPad Pro models with cellular support will run an extra $130.

    Our prediction: This new entry could mean Apple will be phasing out its less-capable iPad Air models in the near future, as it did with MacBook Pro line.

    iOS 9.3 Upgrade. Apple announced an upgrade to iOS 9.3, available today for all iPhone 5s models and newer. Among the more significant improvements is Night Shift, a feature that automatically shifts the color temperature away from blue to the warmer end of the spectrum. Apple says studies have shown that “exposure to bright blue light in the evening can affect your circadian rhythms and make it harder to fall asleep.” Night Shift kicks on at sunset based on your iPhone’s clock and location. At sunrise, it returns the display to its regular settings. While we may never know just how much of an impact Night Shift will have on sleep patterns, we will be checking its effect on display quality. And we suspect the best display mode for a good night's sleep is Off.

    Cheaper Apple Watch, new bands. Apple dropped the price of the Watch Sport by $50 to $299, and added new choices in bands for the Watch Sport and premium-priced Watch. These include a woven nylon band, new leather straps, and a black version of it Milanese Loop band for the premium priced Apple Watch, as well as a few new colors for the rubber-like bands that adorn the Watch Sport.

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    Toyota to Hit Automatic Emergency Braking Goal Before 2022 Target

    Toyota says most of its models will have forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking as standard features by 2018, well ahead of the target set for automakers last week in an announcement by the Department of Transportation.

    The agreement among government, industry, and safety advocates placed a timetable for voluntarily making automatic emergency braking and forward-collision warning standard in all cars by 2022. Toyota and Lexus, its luxury car division, will beat the Transportation Department's goal by a full four years on the clear majority of its models.

    Starting at the end of 2017, 25 of 30 Toyota and Lexus models will have Lexus Safety System+ and Toyota Safety Sense packages, including automatic emergency braking and forward-collision warning.

    Consumer Reports believes automatic emergency braking and forward-collision warning should be a safety standard for all vehicles. We adjusted our Ratings system in February to give bonus points to automakers for including these systems as standard on all trim levels of every model.

    These technologies are available as options on many cars, and they're often pricey. 

    As part of our commitment to safety, we pledged last week to work with DOT and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration officials, along with executives from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, to hold automakers accountable to the voluntary agreement.

    Cars already equipped with automatic emergency braking and forward-collision warning technologies have reduced rear-end crashes by about 40 percent, and cut bodily injury claims by up to 30 percent, according to IIHS. Those translate into thousands of injuries prevented and lives saved annually. 

    The Lexus GX, and the Toyota 4Runner and Mirai will not receive the standard safety packages. The GX and 4Runner come from the same 7-year-old platform, and they are likely due for a redesign shortly after 2017. (The Mirai is a hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicle designed to show alternate fuel technologies.)

    Toyota-badged models developed with other manufacturers have a different outcome. The Scion iA, co-developed with Mazda, will be rebadged as the Toyota iA later this year and keep its existing low-speed automatic emergency braking feature. The Subaru-partnered Scion FR-S will become the Toyota 86; it's unknown if or when automatic emergency braking and forward-collision warning will come to this low-volume sports coupe. Subaru has indicated that its model lineup will have automatic emergency braking as standard by 2022 but declined to comment on the Toyota model.

    “High-level driver assist technologies can do more than help protect people in the event of a crash; they can help prevent some crashes from ever happening in the first place,” Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota Motor North America, said in a statement.

    We applaud Toyota for setting an example that safety should be available to all consumers, regardless of the price of their cars. We urge all automakers to make automatic emergency braking and forward-collision warning standard as soon as possible.

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    Samsung Galaxy S7 Smartphones Top Consumer Reports' Ratings

    When Samsung ditched water-resistance and a microSD slot for last year’s Galaxy S6 models, the phones lost important advantages the older S5 phones had enjoyed. Those weren't the only problems the Galaxy S6 models encountered: Our testers found that battery life wasn’t as good as it had been on the previous models. Camera performance was just Good.

    Those shortcomings cost the Galaxies points in our Ratings, even though the new phones boasted sleek glass-and-aluminum cases and added convenient wireless and quick-charging options.

    But that's all in the past.

    The new Galaxy S7 and S7 edge bring back water-resistance and expandable memory. They earn Excellent battery life scores, and turn in top-notch performance in other areas. These new models aren't just Samsung’s best smartphones, but, perhaps, the best smartphones. And they now sit atop our Ratings.

    Here are the details.

    The Galaxy S7 and S7 edge's main camera is terrific, despite downsizing in resolution from the S6's 15.9 megapixels to 12.2. It produced Excellent image quality and Very Good 1080p video quality—among the best we've tested in a smartphone. The still images are ultra-sharp, and the camera did very well in low light.

    The camera's optical image stabilizer works well, a real plus in low-light conditions. And the phone can record in Ultra HD (4K)—you'll really appreciate the clarity if you're watching your videos on a 4K TV. Those high-quality images and videos are big files, all the more reason to appreciate the Galaxy S7's microSD slot, which can support large memory cards.

    Drowning is not much of a risk with these phones. Our tests confirmed that the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge can handle immersion for up to 30 minutes in 5 feet of water. They can laugh in the face of sinks, toilets, and scarily deep puddles. And, amazingly, this water-resistance is achieved without physical covers for the USB port.

    Finally, you’re less likely to drop the phones anyway because the sleek-looking glass-and-aluminum cases have smoother, rounder edges than their predecessor, providing a more secure feel in your hand.

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    The Tax-Deductible Service Dog and Other Medical Tax Deductions

    You might consider your dog your "furry child," but the Internal Revenue Service doesn't. Unlike a human child, most dogs—and other animals—don't qualify as tax deductions

    But if your pet is a service dog, you're in luck. You can deduct expenses for a service dog or other service animals if you are visually impaired or hearing disabled, or have another physical disability. Among the tax deductions you can take for a service dog are the cost of buying, training, and maintaining the dog. You can also deduct expenses for food, grooming, and veterinary care, according to IRS Publication 502, Medical and Dental Expenses.

    Note that tax deductions are allowed only for a recognized service dog, not for a therapy animal. (You might also be able to deduct expenses if an animal is part of your business.)

    Unusual Medical Deductions

    Service dog aside, there are plenty of other unusual tax deductions that you might not have considered. Barbara Weltman, an attorney and contributing editor to J.K. Lasser's "Your Income Tax" book series, points out some other esoteric deductions:

    • Wigs prescribed by a psychiatrist to deal with anxiety about hair loss.
    • A special bed or mattress to help your back or sleeping disorder, if prescribed by a doctor.
    • Home improvements to make your home accessible to someone with a disability.
    • New siding on a home where a resident is suffering from mold on the old siding.
    • Remedial reading help for a dyslexic child.
    • Herbal supplements prescribed by a doctor for migraine headaches.
    • Batteries for a hearing aid.
    • Laser eye surgery.
    • In-vitro fertilization treatments for someone who is infertile.
    • The difference between the cost of a gluten-free diet and your old diet if it costs more and if it is prescribed by a doctor.
    • Travel to visit a child in rehabilitation, if a doctor recommends the visit. 

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    2017 Cadillac XT5 Toned and Ready for Luxury SUV Fight

    Self-improvement is big business, promising change as part of the journey. Sometimes big improvements result, while other times the effort falls flat. Think of the 2017 Cadillac XT5 as emerging from a long stay at a tony health retreat, newly honed and toned inside and out, ready to do battle in a harshly competitive world—and with a new identity to boot. We rented a 2017 Cadillac XT5 all-wheel-drive Platinum trim from Cadillac to take a first look.

    Built on an all-new platform, the 2017 Cadillac XT5 replaces Cadillac's top-selling model, the SRX. Like many contemporary GM redesigns, weight reduction was a primary goal. Indeed, when we put the XT5 on our scales, it came in more than 200 pounds less than the last SRX we tested, despite having more equipment. Reduced mass should aid drivability and fuel economy, which were never the SRX’s strong suits.

    Also helping that cause is a new eight-speed automatic transmission, mated to the latest iteration of GM's corporate 3.6-liter, 310-hp V6 engine. Under light throttle, cylinder deactivation cuts fuel to two of the six cylinders. In addition, the engine start/stop system shuts the engine down when stopped, smoothly rebooting when needed. The available all-wheel-drive system can also be switched off to eke out a bit more savings; a dashboard prompt warns owners to turn the system back on in wintry conditions.

    Power is plentiful and the engine revs smoothly. But we're getting spoiled by the low-end grunt packed by competitors' turbocharged engines, like the Lincoln MKX's twin-turbo EcoBoost 2.7-liter V6. The Cadillac lacks that feeling of immediacy. Likewise, while the transmission shifts smoothly, it can be indecisive at picking gears when putting around town. 

    Don't think that losing weight sacrifices a substantial feel. Indeed, the 2017 Cadillac XT5 feels particularly steady and planted on the highway. Twisty roads are met with little protest, with precise steering and little body roll. Outside noises remain where they belong: outside. The result is a very quiet cabin, and the XT5 rides well despite the available large 20-inch wheels and tires. Some credit undoubtedly goes to the continuously-adjusting real-time damping suspension that comes with the big wheels.

    Like the SRX's silhouette, the 2017 Cadillac XT5 employs a rakish look that proves challenging for driver visibility. Although it’s much easier to see out of than the SRX, visibility went from lousy to meh, rather than to great. Windshield pillars are pared down, but still on the thick side, and the chunky rear roof pillars and small back window reduce rear vision.

    Cadillac throws technology at the problem, with a rear-view mirror camera (first seen on the Cadillac CT6) that displays a wide field of view. It's featured only on the top-level Platinum trim, and we're not willing to declare that this display is the solution. The display image isn't as sharp or precise as an actual mirror, and the otherwise self-cleaning cameras can be obscured by rain.

    Nothing hides the decadent interior of our Platinum-trim sample. Resplendent in wood, leather, detailed stitching, and chrome, the cabin feels rich, especially with the sueded headliner that accompanies the top-trim Platinum guise. Superbly comfortable front seats feel soft at first touch, but supply long-trip support beneath. We do have some inside frustrations: the steering wheel should telescope out more, and the left foot rest is a bit too close for comfort. Cadillac's Cue touch-screen infotainment system has been simplified, but we still despise the touch-sensitive volume control. Is a volume knob really so outdated?

    Contemporary safety equipment is available on all but the most basic trim line. A $770 Driver Awareness package adds forward-collision warning, low-speed automatic braking with pedestrian detection, automatic self-dimming high-beam headlights, and lane-departure warning with mitigation. Higher trims offer a $2,340 Driver Assist package that adds adaptive cruise control, self-parking capability, and automatic braking when reversing.

    A mid-level SRX Luxury with all-wheel drive, upgraded paint (annoyingly, you pay extra for any color but silver), 20" wheels with the trick upgraded suspension, navigation, and the basic safety tech package stickers for $53,275. That falls directly in the crosshairs of the Lexus RX, the class sales juggernaut that boasts a well-deserved reputation for reliability. It also rivals the Acura MDX, which gives you a third-row seat, and the newly-refined Lincoln MKX.

    Despite all of the competition, the 2017 Cadillac XT5 feels truly ready to do battle among this monied field. Starting with a clean sheet paid off here, no matter what you call this crossover.  

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    Vizio P Series 4K TVs Come With a Tablet Remote Control

    If you think using a tablet is a smarter, better way to control your TV, then you're going to like the new line of Vizio P series SmartCast 4K UHD TVs. Each of the sets comes with a 6-inch Android tablet that runs the Vizio remote-control app.

    The new Vizio P series sets, which range in price from $1,000 for a 50-inch model to $3,800 for a 75-incher, are full-featured 4K UHD TVs that, like the Reference-series sets, support Dolby Vision HDR. Vizio says an update for both series will enable support for the HDR10 high dynamic range format. LG's new 4K TVs, for example, support both HDR formats, and we expect other manufacturers with TVs that have Dolby Vision capability to follow suit. (Both types of HDR can boost a TV's contrast by improving detail in the darkest and brightest scenes.)

    The Vizio P series SmartCast sets have built-in support for Google Cast, which lets you send content from your phone, tablet, or laptop right to the TV.

    Although the Vizio P series TVs also come with a basic remote, the company clearly intends for you to use the included tablet remote to control the TV. The 6-inch Android tablet has 16GB of storage and built-in speakers, and comes with a wireless charging dock. Using SmartCast, you're able to search for content across multiple apps, instead of looking through each one individually. The SmartCast app is also available for download on iOS and Android devices, so you can use other mobile devices as well as the included tablet.

    All the P series sets have wider color gamuts (called Ultra Color Spectrum), 10-bit panels, and full-array LED backlights with local dimming, with up to 128 zones that can be separately controlled.

    Vizio P Series TV Pricing

    Here's a breakout of the model numbers and pricing by screen size:

    • 50-inch P50-C1 SmartCast 4K TV: $1,000
    • 55-inch P55-C1 SmartCast 4K TV: $1,300
    • 65-inch P65-C1 SmartCast 4K TV: $2,000
    • 75-inch P75-C1 SmartCast 4K TV: $3,800

    Consumer Reports is testing several 2016 TVs, and we're looking forward to checking out these new Vizio P-series sets. In the meantime check our our TV buying guide and Ratings.

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    Graco Stroller Officially Off Consumer Reports' 'Don't Buy' List

    When Consumer Reports tests baby products, safety is paramount. In our stroller tests, we tug on the harness, push the stroller over all kinds of terrain, and stress the brakes on a 20-degree incline. Fortunately, brake failures are rare. But in 2014 the brakes on a double stroller released, posing a potential risk to the pint-sized passengers. At the time we designated the Graco Ready2Grow Classic Connect LX a “Don’t Buy: Safety Risk.” Now, we’re happy to report that the brake problem has been fixed and the Don’t Buy designation removed. Here are the details.

    The Graco Ready2Grow Classic Connect LX is part of a family of strollers that includes the Graco Ready2Grow Classic Connect, the Graco Ready2Grow Click Connect LX, and the Graco Ready2Grow Click Connect that are all compatible with Graco car seats. They can carry two children of different sizes and ages and let one child sit while the other stands.

    The stroller has rear-wheel brakes that can be locked or released with one touch of the foot. When you step on the brake pedal a lever on each side engages the wheel and hub adapter by lodging itself between two spokes. But in our earlier braking tests, we found that some of the wheel hub spokes were actually bending under the weight of two simulated children—we use dummies—allowing the brake to release, and the stroller to roll off the test platform. Imagine that happening with two real passengers on board.

    Retest Results

    We communicated our concerns to Graco and the Consumer Product Safety Commission and asked Graco to let us know when the brake design had been changed. They did not do so but we decided to buy new samples anyway and bought two models of the Graco Ready2Grow Click Connect that were manufactured in 2015.

    We conducted our braking test on the two new samples. This time, both performed adequately and no brake releases were observed. We also examined the wheel hub adapters, which appear more robust, and saw no evidence of the white stress marks or deformation that we observed in the original test samples from 2014.

    As a result we upgraded the safety score for the stroller, which raised its overall score, moving it from the bottom of our Ratings to the middle of the pack and removed the Don’t Buy warning. To compare the Graco to other strollers see our full stroller Ratings and recommendations.

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    Apple TV Update Brings Much-Needed Face-Lift to 4th-Generation Model

    Although the iPhone SE was the star of Apple's somewhat underwhelming press conference yesterday, there was also news for anyone who owns or is thinking of buying an Apple TV 4 (4th generation) streaming device. Apple is updating its tvOS operating system, making it easier to use. The best part: You'll no longer have to peck at a small, annoying virtual keyboard when you want to do searches or enter passwords.

    On another note, one move we applauded when the new Apple TV 4 was introduced was that the company was opening up the Apple TV app store to outside developers for the first time. Yesterday, Apple said that that there are now more than 5,000 apps available for Apple TV 4.

    Here are what we believe are five real benefits of Apple's latest update to the Apple TV 4 software.

    1. Support for Bluetooth Keyboards

    Entering text using the Apple TV remote and an onscreen keyboard has been a pain, and frankly, we were surprised when Bluetooth support, available on the previous Apple TV, didn't make its way to the new Apple TV 4 at launch. Now that's been rectified, so you can sync a Bluetooth keyboard to Apple TV and type away to your heart's content—provided, of course, you have a Bluetooth keyboard.

    2. Siri Voice-to-Text Dictation

    Siri became part of the new Apple TV when it launched, but we've been waiting for the voice-powered virtual digital assistant to become more meaningful. Now it—she?—is. Using the microphone in the remote, you can now use your voice for searches and entering passwords. Although Siri was already capable of launching apps, you can now use voice on Apple TV to search through the App Store.

    3. Organize Apps Within Folders

    This feature lets you organize your Apple TV 4 apps by grouping them together in folders on the home screen, just like you can do on other Apple devices. So, for example, you could keep all your movie apps together in one folder, while games are neatly gathered in another. Folders are easy to create—just choose an app, highlight it by pressing down on the remote's touch screen, and then drag it over to another app you want it associated with. Folders can then be labeled using the text field.

    4. New Look for Switching Between Apps

    Perhaps not quite as important as the other improvements, the new Apple TV OS provides a new, card-style look for the interface you use when multitasking and switching between apps. The new look is more streamlined and intuitive to use, and should be familiar to those who use other iOS devices.

    5. Access iCloud Photos

    If you keep photos in the iCloud Photo library, you can now access all of them using Apple TV 4. Previously, Apple TV’s Photos app only supported My Photo Stream photos, which are timed to expire. So you can now use Apple TV to view all your iCloud Photo pics (and videos) on your TV, just like you can on other Apple devices.

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    If You're Looking for a Bed in a Box, You've Got More Options

    When Casper, Leesa, Tuft & Needle, and other online mattress retailers started selling beds in a box in the U.S., their share of sales was so small that traditional manufacturers brushed them off. But now those same major players have taken notice and are working hard to debut their own online-only foam mattresses. In doing so, they're adopting the most alluring policies of the newer companies while aiming to beat them at their own game.

    Cocoon by Sealy (shown above) is one of 20 mattresses we’ve just bought for testing, but it’s unlike any Sealy you’ve seen before. For one, it comes folded up tightly in a box—as does the typical bed in a box sold online. This Sealy foam mattress comes in two choices, soft or firm, and is sold online only for $850 (queen size), the same price as Casper’s The Casper.

    Another mattress, the Dream Bed, comes from the retailer Mattress Firm, which recently bought Sleepy’s. This bed in a box also comes in two choices. For $829, you can get the Original Dream Bed; for those who sleep hot, the $999 Cool Dream Bed has a gel-infused layer on top. We're testing this bed in a box, too.

    Return Policies

    As with Casper, Leesa, and Tuft & Needle, shipping is free for both the Sealy and Mattress Firm foam mattresses. You get 100 days to decide whether you like the Cocoon, the same as for the $850 Casper, the $890 Leesa Medium Firm, and $600 Tuft & Needle T&N in our mattress Ratings. For the Dream Bed, it’s 180 days. And both companies have matched the return policy of their smaller competitors: If you’re unsatisfied within the trial period, you’ll get your money back. For the Cocoon bed in a box, Sealy will arrange to donate the mattress to charity—as do Casper and Tuft & Needle. You don’t have to put it back in the box. But the Dream Bed goes one better with a promise to donate one bed in a box to charity for every one sold.

    By moving into the bed-in-a-box space, Sealy and Mattress Firm are betting they can absorb more losses over the long run than the smaller companies can. Buying a mattress without trying it out, something we typically advise against, can be risky (though Casper and Tuft & Needle have showrooms), and we recommend that you make such a purchase only if returns are hassle-free.

    It remains to be seen whether these major brands can win the loyalty of millennials, many of whom want to order a mattress the way they order everything—online. They also might view their parents' brands with disdain. The Casper, Leesa, and Tuft & Needle foam mattresses we’ve tested are among our top mattress picks. We’ll let you know whether the bed-in-a-box offerings from Sealy and Mattress Firm make the grade as well.

    Need a New Mattress?

    Our current mattress Ratings include almost 60 innerspring, foam, and adjustable-air beds, and this summer we expect to update our survey-based Ratings of mattress brands and retailers. Be sure to check our mattress buying guide if you haven't shopped for a mattress in a few years.

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    2017 Chevrolet Sonic Hatchback and Sedan Boost Styling, Technology

    The 2017 Chevrolet Sonic hatchback and sedan have been updated, with a freshened look inside and out, plus additional safety and tech features.

    The styling update shows the current corporate Chevrolet grille as well as standard projector beam headlights. The Sonic has always had a youthful appeal, and it can be customized with various options including a wheel choice of 17-inch that can sharpen its look.

    Inside, the gauge cluster loses the old motorcycle-inspired design in favor of more conventional dials. Creature comforts such as keyless entry and push-button start, and optional heated seats and steering wheel bring maturity to the subcompact.

    A standard 7-inch touch screen is backed by Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capabilities, while OnStar and Wi-Fi hotspot are available by monthly subscription.

    Rear camera becomes standard and on the safety front, optional forward-collision warning and lane-departure warning are welcome.

    As for the trim levels, the Sonic sedan is available in LS, LT, or Premier (with an RS package possible), while the hatchback comes as RS with LT or Premier trims possible. The 2017 Chevrolet Sonic goes on sale in the fall.

    In our testing, the Sonic has proven to be one of the better subcompacts.

    Read the road test on the current Chevrolet Sonic.

    See our complete New York auto show coverage.

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