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Consumer Reports
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    2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia Joins the Sport Sedan Race

    Alfa Romeo will soon launch its first four-door model in America in decades, while looking to challenge the German luxury establishment.

    The Alfa Romeo Giulia will be powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine made of lightweight aluminum. Coupled with an eight-speed automatic transmission, this powertrain delivers 276 horsepower. Alfa claims that it will fire the Giulia to 60 miles per hour in under than 5.5 seconds. A six-speed manual will also be available.

    To aid handling, the Giulia has a balanced 50/50-weight distribution, according to the manufacturer. Rear-wheel drive is standard; all-wheel drive is available.

    To save weight, the Giulia also uses aluminum for the front and rear vehicle frames, front shock towers, brakes, suspension components, doors, and fenders.

    Standard equipment includes leather seats, adjustable driving modes (“Dynamic,” “Natural,” and “Advanced Efficiency”), and a very cool flat-bottom steering wheel with integrated push-button start. 

    See our complete New York auto show coverage.

    The range-topping Giulia Quadrifoglio gets a 2.9-liter twin-turbo V6 engine delivering 505 horsepower and an even quicker claimed 0-60 mph time of 3.8 seconds. It also adds a “Race” option to the adjustable driving mode tuning various characteristics, from exhaust note to steering, for high-performance driving. To distinguish the top model variant, the Quadrifoglio also has different exterior and interior trim details from the standard version, and specific wheels/tires and suspension tuning.

    The base model offers forward-collision warning with autonomous braking, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, and lane-departure warning.  

    The Giulia will be offered as a base, Ti, and Quadrifoglio trim lines.

    The car is expected to begin production very soon. There is no official word on pricing, but various enthusiast outlets peg it starting around $40,000 and maxing out at around $70,000. 

    Read our Alfa Romeo 4C first drive.

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

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    Used Car Sales Tactics | Used Car Buying Guide - Consumer Reports

    1. Know the value of the vehicle. Know the true value of your candidate car, regardless of what the seller is asking. Condition, mileage, age, equipment levels, and the region all affect vehicle value. Different pricing guide services can list widely varying "book" values. Avoid the high-ball/low-ball game by asking the dealer to use one guide to determine the value of the vehicle for sale and the value of any trade-in you may have.

    2. Write down your questions. Come in with a prepared list of questions about the vehicle and check them off when they are answered to your satisfaction. Make sure all your questions are answered.

    3. Don't flash your cash. The dealership doesn't need to know anything about your finances during the negotiating process. Do not tell them how much car you can afford, or they'll try to take every penny of it.

    4. Stay on the subject. Never allow a salesperson to change the direction of the conversation to matters other than car buying. Salespeople often gloss over important questions, such as vehicle history and price, by changing the subject.

    5. Don't be rushed. Salespeople's favorite customers are those who seem to be in a hurry, since they tend to be the ones who do not inspect the car thoroughly or don't negotiate the price. Never go to a dealership acting rushed, even if you need a car immediately--they'll take advantage of it. Many salespeople say they won't pressure or rush you into buying, but they usually do it anyway. If you feel the sales process is moving too fast, tell the salesperson that you'll come back at another time. If the car you're interested in is gone, remember that there are many other cars out there.

    6. Be prepared to walk away. Once you've come up with a price you feel is fair, state your offer clearly, and say nothing more. If the seller won't budge, walk away. You shouldn't pay more than what your homework has told you is the worth of the vehicle. If you head for the door, you'll often have a deal you can live with before you reach it.

    7. Be wary of costly add-ons. Service contracts, glass etching, undercoating, and paint sealants are all unnecessary add-ons to help the dealership maximize its profits. Don't buy them.

    8. Check the vehicle's history. Instead of taking the salesperson's word about the history and condition of the vehicle, get a vehicle-history report from CarFax or Experian Automotive. They can alert you to possible odometer fraud; reveal past flood, fire, and accident damage; or tell you if a rebuilt or salvage title was ever issued for the vehicle. But a clean report is no guarantee that a vehicle doesn't have hidden problems. You can also get a free VIN check from the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

    9. Visit a mechanic. After you make an offer, but before you sign a contract of sale, take the vehicle to a qualified mechanic that routinely does automotive diagnostic work. Don't let the dealer tell you they've inspected the car for you. Deduct any needed repairs that the mechanic finds from your offer.

    10. Come with your financing secured. Go to a bank or credit union and be approved for a loan before you go to the dealership. The dealer may even try to beat their rate, which works to your advantage.

    And finally, before commiting to a car, be sure to visit its used-car model page at ConsumerReports.org, where you'll find road tests, reliability, pricing, and more.

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

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    2016 New York Auto Show Reveals a Few Surprises

    Since it's the final major date in the international car show circuit, the New York auto show traditionally plays sweep, catching the leftovers. Pickings were particularly slim this year, but there was still some major news coming from the Big Apple.

    Even though the redesigned Subaru Impreza doesn't look a whole lot different than its predecessor, beneath lurks an all-new structure that will underpin all future Subarus. We'll see if this improved Impreza can hold on to its Consumer Reports Top Pick status.

    Gasoline prices might be low right now, but Hyundai and Toyota used New York to highlight their latest green cars. With three different flavors of electrification, the Hyundai Ioniq attacks the Prius head-on, promising higher efficiency than the Toyota. Meanwhile, Toyota showed their Prius Prime, a plug-in hybrid that promises to improve on the previous Prius' short electric-only range.

    At the other end of their product range, Hyundai-Kia showed two new luxury sedans. Kia redesigns the Cadenza, updating an already good car that that's often overlooked by buyers. Showgoers definitely noticed another car from the Korean automaker: the shapely Genesis New York Concept. This striking model previews the brand's BMW 3 Series sports sedan rival. As we've repeatedly discussed on Talking Cars, this market segment lacks a clear choice that combines being rewarding to drive with strong reliability and easy-to-use controls. Hopefully the Genesis can fill this vacancy.

    Speaking of hard to miss: the gull-winged Lincoln Navigator concept previewed a more luxurious version of the company's seminal big SUV. While the Talking Cars team agrees that the retractable hardtop Mazda MX-5 RF looks great in profile, ever-practical Jake Fisher yearns for the added cargo space of a liftback.

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

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

    What Makes a Car Fun?” episode 89
    Straight Talk on the Best New Cars, episode 88
    Popular Cars and SUVs, episode 87
    Self-Driving Cars, episode 86
    2016 Detroit Auto Show, episode 85

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

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    2017 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV Electrifies the SUV Segment

    After being available in Europe and reaching status as the best selling hybrid plug-in electric vehicle in Europe, Mitsubishi has high hopes that the 2017 Outlander PHEV will build momentum for the automaker's steady but small success in the United States.

    Mitsubishi’s race-tested all-wheel control system, backed by two electric motors, distribute full-time electric power between the front and rear wheels. In addition, a 2.0-liter gas engine supports the plug-in hybrid system, ensuring the battery pack is perpetually charged.

    The automaker announced that this system mitigates range anxiety commonly associated with purely electric vehicles. Actual mileage has yet to be announced. The electric-only range is expected to be about half of that of the Chevrolet Volt, putting it around 25 miles.

    See our complete New York auto show coverage.

    For buyers attracted to the Outlander for its passenger count, it is important to note that the third-row is absent from the PHEV version. Like it’s 2016 sibling, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard.

    The 2017 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV is expected to be in dealerships in fall 2016. Pricing is still yet to be announced.

    Read our complete Mitsubishi Outlander 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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    Is a New Redbox Streaming Service in the Works?

    Redbox, the movie and game-rental kiosk service, might be getting back into the streaming game a few years after its digital streaming service, Redbox Instant, failed. The new Redbox streaming service could be a pay-per-view option for rentals and purchases like Apple iTunes or Vudu.

    The trade publication Variety—which broke the story, citing "multiple sources" familiar with the company—said that the new service will be called Redbox Digital and that Redbox is close to launching a beta of the service.

    Redbox, however, isn't confirming the news. When contacted about a possible launch of such a service, a company spokesperson said in an email: “Redbox continually looks for ways to enhance our customer experience. For tens of millions of consumers, Redbox is their source for new release rentals without a subscription. As such, we regularly conduct tests of potential new offerings, that may or may not be brought to market, as part of our ongoing commitment to provide additional value.”

    The Redbox Instant service, which we reviewed in 2013, was a joint venture with Verizon. We reported that one of the strengths of the Redbox streaming service was the wide number of options it provided. You were able to mix unlimited streaming with four disc rentals each month for either $8 (DVD) or $9 (Blu-ray) a month. Game rentals, which are available in kiosks, weren't part of the plan. Redbox and Verizon pulled the plug on the hybrid service after just 18 months.

    Potential Benefits

    A pay-per-view service, however, is a much different business from a subscription plan, and it appears to be one better suited to both Redbox's core disc-rental business and to its customers. For Redbox, negotiating the rights to pay-per-view titles should be easier than putting the necessary contracts in place for a subscription service. And many Redbox streaming customers already use the company's website to search for and reserve titles. For these users, it would be much more convenient to immediately order a digital version.

    The one big question for consumers is whether Redbox would be able price its streaming selections any lower than its competitors do. One advantage to Redbox kiosks is the price of the rentals: $1.50 for DVDs, and $2 for Blu-ray discs. If there's no savings for users, there would be little reason to choose Redbox over a more established pay-per-view service, such as Amazon Instant, M-Go/FandangoNow, and Vudu, unless perhaps digital rentals are tied to Redbox's customer-loyalty program that lets users earn points toward future rentals.

    Potential customers will also want to see how widely Redbox Digital is supported by streaming devices, given its late entry into the market. Being able to access content on a variety of devices beyond computers is a critical feature for many users.

    This rumor comes as Redbox's parent company, Outerwall, is reportedly exploring a possible sale of the company. We'll have to wait and see if Redbox Digital actually launches, and if so, whether it's a sustained attempt to compete in the pay-per-view video market or simply an effort to boost the company's value to a potential buyer.

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

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    2017 Nissan GT-R Charges Into New York With Updates

    The Nissan GT-R, the automaker’s most legendary marque amongst auto enthusiasts, arrived at the New York Auto Show with some new tweaks for 2017, both inside and out.

    This halo supercar’s exterior updates are a combination of both function and fashion. First and foremost, they better align the GT-R’s appearance with Nissan’s current design signatures. They also simultaneously serve to assist high-performance driving and give a more race-ready appearance. Included in the exterior updates are a new grille, a more sculpted hood, and a new front spoiler lip and bumpers.

    Inside, the 2017 Nissan GT-R gets a new dashboard and instrument panel that bring a premium level of design sure to appeal to the aspiring race-car driver. Steering-wheel mounted shift paddles and simplified switches for the various suspension and drive-mode settings provide a more uncomplicated manner of managing the power from behind the wheel.

    The updated seats are lighter, but more importantly have improved side-support and comfort. As anyone who has sat in a GT-R for any amount of time knows, the seats were too race-car-focused for any long-distance journey.

    See our complete New York auto show coverage.

    The 2017 Nissan GT-R gets a 20-horsepower boost to its handbuilt 3.8-liter twin-turbocharged V8 engine, bring it to a screaming 565 hp with 467 lb.-ft. of torque. Adjustments to the ignition-timing and turbocharger boost are expected to provide increases to the already remarkable acceleration. To further improve the GT-R’s impressive handling, the body has been made more rigid and the suspension is all new.

    New colors, including the showstopping four-stage process “Blaze Metallic” orange in these photos, will be available when the 2017 Nissan GT-R arrives in showrooms this summer.

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

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    Rocket Mortgage Offers Speedier Mortgage Loans

    If you have ever applied for a mortgage you know that expecting to get a loan quickly is not realistic. After you’ve figured out which lender you will apply to the applications can be tedious and require that you search for financial information that could be buried somewhere in your filing cabinet. Your lender's underwriting department then has to verify your gross monthly income, debts, savings, and review your credit report to determine if you qualify.

    But there could be a better way. Quicken Loans Rocket Mortgage is one of a new breed of online services that are trying to streamline the mortgage application process. It wants to make applying for a mortgage as easy as buying a plane ticket online. Others offering similar services include Social Finance (known as SoFi) and Lenda.

    How fast is the process? One particularly flashy ad for Quicken Loans Rocket Mortgage ran during the Super Bowl last month. It promised that you could get a mortgage in just eight minutes and that you’d quickly find out if you were approved for a mortgage loan and if you could lock in a rate.

    While eight minutes may be ambitious, if you’re refinancing a loan, you may get the job done while sipping a latte at a local Starbucks, says Regis Hadiaris, the product lead for Rocket Mortgage. But if you’re starting from scratch, you'll need to get other things done like a home appraisal and a home inspection, which could take weeks.

    How to Apply

    The process works like this. When you visit Rocket Mortgage’s website, you fill in some personal information such as your income and the banks where you have accounts. Rocket Mortgage uses its network to automatically retrieve your bank history, paystubs, and bank statements. It will also get your credit reports. Hadiaris says that Quicken’s network supports almost half of all Americans so the system can import and verify income almost instantly. Quicken Loans can also import asset statements from 95 percent of the country’s financial institutions, so customers don’t have to find those statements.

    While Rocket Mortgage aims to make the mortgage application process faster, it doesn't make it easier to qualify. Quicken Loans doesn't disclose the credit scores of its customers, but the average credit score for its customers is high—around 700, according to Credit Sesame, a credit-monitoring company.

    Shopping Online for a Mortgage

    If you decide to shop online for a mortgage, keep a few points in mind.

    • Don't accept a mortgage loan on impulse. When you go shopping online, it's understandable—maybe even excusable—if you buy a shirt or a pair of socks on impulse. But before deciding on a mortgage, take the time to understand the payment terms, the length of the loan, the annual percentage rate that will be charged as well as the closing costs.
    • Don't expect to save money by going online. An online service doesn't necessarily charge the lowest closing costs or interest rates. While Quicken Loans declined to disclose these details, Erin Lantz, vice president of mortgages at the housing website, Zillow, says that you shouldn’t expect a loan from Rocket Mortgage to be a lower cost option. “You pay for the service,” she says.
    • Get several quotes before making a decision on a lender. Don’t accept a loan just because you qualified for it—from Rocket Mortgage or any other lender. Take the time to understand the terms of the offer. “No one really understands everything about the [mortgage] process,” says Kevin Stein, Associate Director at the California Reinvestment Coalition, a consumer advocacy group based in San Francisco. Good thing, perhaps, that you don't have to make a decision in eight minutes.

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

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    How to Avoid Dangerous Drug Interactions

    You rely on your prescription medicines to help you feel better, so it may come as a surprise that mixing it with an over-the-counter painkiller or a glass of grapefruit juice, can leave you feeling worse, or even land you in the hospital. Interactions between medications and dietary supplements are increasingly prevalent among older adults—the rate of which has nearly doubled in recent years, from 8 percent in 2005 to 15 percent in 2011, according a study published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine.

    But anyone who takes even one medicine is at risk. Drug interactions happen when a drug or supplement affects how a medication works, or when something you eat or drink changes the way a drug is absorbed or broken down in the body.

    One example: Taking nitroglycerin, which treats angina (chest pain due to heart disease) with an erectile dysfunction drug such as sildenafil (Viagra and generic) can cause a dangerous drop in blood pressure. And the popular herbal supplement St. John’s wort can cause fever, heart problems, tremors, confusion, or anxiety when taken with antidepressants, including amitriptyline (Elavil), citalopram (Celexa), and escitalopram (Lexapro).

    The first way to prevent dangerous drug interactions is to "take as little medication as possible," says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser. In addition, "knowing which drugs, supplements, or foods interact with the medications you’re taking can save you lots of misery or even be life-saving."

    The following steps can help with that: 

    Read the Labels

    "Follow the instructions" may seem like common sense, but many studies show that people often misinterpret or ignore drug labels. Thoroughly read the labels and inserts of all prescriptions and over-the-counter medicines you take, paying close attention to active ingredients and warnings.

    Many medicines come with a "Do not take with alcohol" warning. Pay attention to that because while alcohol can make you drowsy, light-headed, and less coordinated, mixing it with certain drugs can magnify those effects, and even increase your medicine’s potency or worsen its side effects. In some cases, alcohol might make a drug less effective or even toxic. For example, just a few drinks mixed with acetaminophen (Tylenol) can damage your liver. 

    Consult an Expert

    In a 2015 nationally representative Consumer Reports telephone poll, 79 percent of people said that when prescribed a new medicine, they had a discussion about the possible side effects with a doctor or nurse, and 70 percent had the talk with their pharmacist. Make it a habit to ask your doctor and pharmacist "Should I expect any side effects or interactions?" Ask your pharmacist about possible OTC drug interactions, too, especially if you’re taking multiple medicines. 

    Have a 'Brown Bag' Office Visit

    Your risk for interactions increases with each medication you take. Once or twice a year get together with your doctor to review all of the medications, vitamins, and supplements you take. Ask about side effects, interactions, and whether you might switch to safer or less costly medicines or even eliminate drugs you no longer need. 

    Go Online

    If it's Friday night, and you're worried about whether it’s safe to pop an ibuprofen while you’re taking blood thinners, there are several websites you can turn to. AARP, CVS Pharmacy, and Medscape are all easy-to-use online checkers that provide detailed information on possible drug, food, and supplement interactions, as well as the level of risk ranging from minor to severe, without requiring you to sign up or divulge personal information. If you discover, with the help of an online checker, that your medications might interact, tell your doctor or pharmacist immediately, rather than stopping therapy on your own. 

    Stick With One Pharmacy

    Our medical advisors recommend filling all of your prescriptions at one pharmacy. Keeping all of the drugs you take in one system allows your pharmacist to alert you of any allergies or potentially dangerous interactions. 

    Editor's Note: This article and related materials are made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by the multistate settlement of consumer-fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).

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

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    Mini Launches Cooper Clubman ALL4 and John Cooper Works Convertible

    The fun-yet-quirky Mini brand used the New York Auto Show to launch its two latest models. The Cooper Clubman ALL4 adds all-wheel drive capability to the largest Mini variant, while the John Cooper Works Convertible brings high performance to the new Mini convertible model.

    Adding all-wheel drive to the Clubman will make Mini’s most spacious model more appealing to buyers who live in climates with plenty of snow and rain. The ALL4’s all-wheel-drive system is shared with the BMW X1 xDrive28i. It distributes power between the front and rear wheels as needed, quickly reacting to changes in traction. For the sake of efficiency, the system defaults to front-wheel drive, but it can send up to 100 percent of the torque to the rear wheels.

    As with the front-wheel-drive version, the Mini Clubman ALL4 is available as a base Cooper with a 134-horsepower, 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder engine, and a Cooper S with a 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder rated at 189 hp. Both versions come with a six-speed manual transmission, with an eight-speed automatic optional. 

    See our complete New York auto show coverage.

    Don’t think the ALL4 system is just for lousy weather, though; it also helps the Cooper S out-accelerate its front-drive counterpart by 0.3 seconds. The six-speed manual hits 60 mph in 6.7 seconds, the eight-speed automatic at 6.6.

    The Clubman model is unique in that it’s both the biggest Mini–6.6 inches longer overall than the Countryman–and the most spacious, with 47.9 cu-ft of max cargo capacity with the rear seats folded. Then there is also the Clubman’s sideways-opening rear cargo doors. While certainly a cool novelty, the split window setup does somewhat hamper rear visibility.

    Pricing starts at $25,900 for the base Cooper Clubman ALL4, with the Cooper S at $29,450. The Clubman ALL4 goes on sale in early April.

    The John Cooper Works version of the new, larger, third-generation Mini Convertible will hit dealers around the same time as the Clubman ALL4. As with the hardtop JCW, the convertible version gets a hopped-up 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo, which, with 228 horsepower, is the most powerful engine ever in a production Mini. With the standard six-speed manual transmission, the front-wheel-drive JCW convertible hits 60 mph in 6.4 seconds; the optional six-speed automatic with paddle shifters is slightly quicker at 6.3 sec., making this the fastest Mini convertible ever.

    The JCW convertible also gets sportier suspension settings for better handling, a less restrictive exhaust system, bigger front brakes, and unique 17-inch wheels. The interior features special sport seats and some unique JCW trim bits. The fully automatic convertible top opens or closes in 18 seconds. And, for the first time, Mini is giving buyers the option to have the Union Jack flag graphic woven into the top of the convertible’s fabric material. The car also comes with a system that keeps track of the amount of time spent with the top down, as a way of guilting you into more open-air motoring.

    Pricing for the Mini John Cooper Works Convertible starts at $35,600. 

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

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    Take a Virtual Tour of Consumer Reports' Test Track

    You can now take a ride around Consumer Reports' test track—at least virtually. Just watch the video above and you'll get a sense of what it's like to climb into the passenger seat beside Auto Test Director Jake Fisher.

    You'll experience our avoidance maneuver, tire testing on a wet track, rock hill climb, and handling course.

    A 360-degree video such as our test track tour is easy to watch, and it gives you a complete view of everything happening around you.

    If you're using a desktop or laptop computer, you can navigate the video above by moving your mouse left, right, up, or down and your perspective will change. The A,W,S, and D keys will do the same thing. Using either type of computer, you can also watch the video on YouTube or Facebook (just make sure you have the latest version of your browser).

    On a mobile device? The video at the top of this page requires the YouTube app to work in 360. Then just move the device and you'll see all around the video.

    If you have an Android phone, you can use a viewer such as Google Cardboard to get an even deeper virtual experience with the YouTube app.

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

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    Best and Worst Walk-Behind Mowers | Mower Reviews - Consumer Reports

    Every year Consumer Reports tests a new batch of mowers at its test lawn in Fort Myers, Florida. This year we bagged more than 1,500 pounds of grass clippings and found out that not every mower measures up to our cutting, mulching, and bagging tests. While even the lowest-rated tractors and riders we tested performed passably, several walk-behind mowers left ugly clumps in their wake and scored just 40 or lower. Here are the best and worst walk-behind mowers from our tests.

    Best self-propelled mowers

    Self-propelled mowers require less effort on your part, especially on graded areas of your lawn. Paying more for the Honda HRR2169VLA, $500, buys superb mulching and bagging, no-prime starting, and an electric-start feature whose battery gets charged while you mow. Among the other multispeed mowers, choose the Toro Super Recycler 20381, $500, for its bagging; Toro Recycler 20333, $400, for its blade-brake clutch; and Troy-Bilt TB-280ES 12AGA26G, $340, for its low price and electric start.

    The Toro Recycler 20339, $380, tops our single-speed picks and offers unique stand-up storage. Also consider the all-wheel-drive Toro Recycler 20353, $400, for steep slopes—as well as the quiet Craftsman 37545, $340, which just missed making our picks—if you mostly mulch and would rather not wear ear protection.

    Best push mowers

    Among push gas mowers, choose Cub Cadet SC100, $250, for its impressive mowing in all three modes, easy handling, and premium engine. The Craftsman 37432, $220 offers fine performance overall for an especially affordable price and the Yard Machines 11A-B9A9, $240, is the  only push mower with superlative evenness in side-discharge mode and was also impressive at mulching and bagging. The Husqvarna LC121P, $250, mulched impressively, producing fine clippings without leaving clumps.

    For battery mowers, pick the EGO LM2101, $500, which handled superbly and was very good in all three mowing modes. For $100 less, consider its brandmate, the EGO LM2000, whose phenomenal ergonomic design makes for effortless handling and easy operation. Also $400 is the Black+DeckerCM 2040, which left behind a few clumps but is still worth a look.

    Worst walk-behind mowers

    Earthwise 60318, $300. Most self-propelled cordless mowers cost more, and for good reason. This one clogged and left clippings when bagging, and we found it hard to maneuver.

    Murray M22500, $170. This gas push mower wasn’t designed to bag, was mediocre in the side-discharge mode, and left visible clippings when mulching. Many push mowers adjust cutting height with one lever per wheel, but for this one you’ll need to remove and reattach each wheel.

    Earthwise 50120, $160. It’s the least expensive of the plug-in mowers we tested, but it’s no bargain. Mulching and bagging were subpar, and—with many leftover clippings—side-discharging was so-so.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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

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    Consumer Reports Finds it’s Too Difficult For Patients To Learn About Physicians’ Disciplinary Records

    Thousands of doctors still practice while being disciplined for sexual misconduct, substance abuse, and making careless, sometimes deadly, mistakes 

    CR survey finds that 82 percent of Americans are in favor of requiring doctors to tell their patients if they are on probation and why

    May 2016 CoverYONKERS, NY—Thousands of doctors are currently practicing medicine while being on probation for issues ranging from sexual misconduct and drug addiction to unprofessional and dangerous treatment of patients. But it’s difficult and time-consuming for consumers to find out if their doctor is one of them, according to Consumer Reports.

    A survey by Consumer Reports finds that 82 percent of Americans are in favor of requiring doctors to tell their patients if they are on probation and why. And 66 percent lean toward barring doctors from seeing patients until their probationary period ends. But state medical boards and the American Medical Association have opposed efforts to create greater transparency around physicians’ disciplinary actions.

    “The onus shouldn’t be on patients to investigate their physicians,” said Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumer Reports’ Safe Patient Project. “Doctors on probation should be required to tell their patients about their status, and explain the reasons behind it.”

    The new report, which appears in the May issue of Consumer Reports and online at ConsumerReports.org, details cases like that of an obstetrician-gynecologist in Southern California. The doctor continues to practice medicine despite a report from the state medical board alleging that his errors of medical knowledge, judgment, protocol and attentiveness contributed to the death of two young mothers who had recently given birth to healthy babies.

    Consumer Reports’ investigation found that people looking for a new doctor online would have a tough time figuring out whether their doctor was being disciplined.

    “What You Don’t Know About Your Doctor Could Hurt You,” available at ConsumerReports.org, is part of Consumer Reports’ ongoing efforts to make it easier for patients to access information about their doctors. The organization is pushing for policy reforms that would make the system more transparent, including requiring doctors to tell patients when and why they are on probation, providing information from state medical board records in a clear and consistent way, and making information from the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) open to the public. The NPDB collects data on physicians’ malpractice payouts and disciplinary records.

    “You can find out more about the safety record of your toaster and whether or not it’s going to catch on fire than you can  find  about  your  physicians,”  said  patient-safety  advocate  Robert E. Oshel, the  former associate director for research and disputes at the NPDB.

    An analysis of NPDB data done for Consumer Reports by Oshel found that less than two percent of the nation’s doctors have been responsible for half of the total malpractice payouts since the government began collecting malpractice information. In total, some $85 billion has been paid out in malpractice cases during that period. While malpractice is considered an inexact indication of substandard care, Oshel says that multiple large settlements against a doctor “can be a warning sign ... suggesting that if licensing boards and hospital peer reviewers were willing to either get these doctors to stop practicing or get retraining, we’d all be better off.”

    Currently, only hospitals, doctors, law enforcement, insurance companies, and a few other select groups have access to NPDB data. Consumers must rely on their state medical board, many of which have complicated websites and require time-consuming processes to get answers about specific doctors’ records. As part of its report, Consumer Reports investigated the state medical board websites in all 50 states and rated them from best to worst. California, New York and Massachusetts websites ranked the highest, with Hawaii’s, Indiana’s and Mississippi’s faring the worst. For complete rankings of all the medical boards, go to ConsumersUnion.org/safepatientproject.

    “The system of disciplining physicians needs to be more transparent, reliable and accessible for patients,” said McGiffert. “Consumers need quick and easy access to this information to make educated choices about the physicians they see and the health of themselves and their families.”

    What Government, State Boards Should Do

    Consumer Reports’ Safe Patient Project is working with consumers across the country to make it easier for patients to learn about their doctors’ disciplinary history. Those efforts are focusing on five areas:

    • Doctors on probation should be required to tell patients that they are being disciplined and explain why.

    • The state medical boards, where consumers must go to file complaints about doctors or investigate their records, should present information in a clear, consistent way, including plain-language summaries of why doctors are on probation.

    • State medical boards should include more consumer representatives. They are now dominated by physicians.

    • State boards should be more aggressive in pulling the licenses of doctors who are clearly a danger to patients.

    • The National Practitioner Data Bank, a federal repository that includes disciplinary actions taken by state boards, hospitals, and other healthcare agencies as well as malpractice payments, should be open to the public.

    • If a patient does suspect he or she has been harmed by a doctor, the person should:

    • Recognize a cause for action. This obviously includes any kind of physical or sexual abuse suffered at the hands of a doctor, or if the doctor is suspected of practicing medicine under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Poor medical care is less clear-cut. The kind of medical harm that warrants a complaint includes when a doctor overprescribes a drug or prescribes the wrong one, is dishonest, or fails to give the results of a worrisome biopsy or diagnosis of a serious medical problem in a timely way.

    • Consider contacting the police and a lawyer. To file criminal charges—for, say, sexual or physical abuse—first contact the police. For a malpractice lawsuit, a lawyer will likely need to be convinced of a strong case with the potential of a payout.

    • Contact the state board. That’s the agency that licenses and disciplines physicians. (To find your state’s board, go to ConsumersUnion.org/safepatientproject.) Some states make it easy to file a complaint against physicians online. If you have trouble navigating the website, call the board for help.

    • Gather your records. It’s a good idea to send a hard copy of your complaint, along with copies of your medical records and other supporting documents, to the board. Once the board receives your complaint it will assign it to an analyst, who may request additional documents or information. Then be patient: The state board must first determine whether your complaint warrants further investigation. And it can take several months or even longer before the board makes a final ruling.

    What Makes a Great Doctor

    What does a good medical practice look like? The Peterson Center on Healthcare and researchers at Stanford University’s Clinical Excellence Research Center worked together to answer that question. First, they collected data from 15,000 U.S. primary care practices. To winnow the list down to the most successful ones, they used 41 accepted quality-of-care measures along with data on healthcare spending. They then sent a team of investigators to a sample of the highest-performing practices to figure out what set them apart. The most successful ones shared these characteristics, which all consumers can look out for:

    • Extended Hours – Flexible schedules help patients avoid trips to the emergency room

    • Careful About Overtreating – Doctors emphasize spending time with patients before rushing to tests

    • Open to Complaints – Patient complaints are treated as valuably as compliments

    • One-Stop Shopping – Top practices perform some relatively minor procedures that other practices often refer out

    • Like-Minded Specialists, and Only as Needed – Patients are only sent to specialists who share the practice’s philosophies

    • Two-Way Communication – Medical offices actively follow up through phone calls, repeat visits, or emails

    • A Team Approach – Teams include an array of healthcare providers, including nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, nutrition counselors, and social workers

    • A Fair Workplace – Physicians aren’t compensated solely on the number of patients they see

    • Spend Wisely – Practices tend to avoid expensive, high-tech devices in favor of devices that encourage efficiency

    About Consumer Reports
    Consumer Reports is the world’s largest and most trusted nonprofit, consumer organization working to improve the lives of consumers by driving marketplace change. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has achieved substantial gains for consumers on health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other issues. The organization has advanced important policies to cut hospital-acquired infections, prohibit predatory lending practices and combat dangerous toxins in food. Consumer Reports tests and rates thousands of products and services in its 50-plus labs, state-of-the-art auto test center and consumer research center. Consumers Union, a division of Consumer Reports, works for pro-consumer laws and regulations in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace. With more than eight million subscribers to its flagship magazine, website and other publications, Consumer Reports accepts no advertising, payment or other support from the companies whose products it evaluates.

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    Take the Pain Out of Window Cleaning

    Washing windows is a rite of spring and one where the effort pays off immediately. Finally, you can look past winter’s grunge and see the flowers blooming in the garden. That is if you learn how to clean the windows without leaving unsightly streaks and smudges behind. Here’s some tips on window cleaning from the experts at Consumer Reports who contributed to, “How to Clean Practically Everything.”

    Start with the window frames. Clean very dirty frames before you start your window cleaning. Vacuum the runners of aluminum window frames and doors, then polish the frames with silicone car polish, which can also be used in channels to help windows slide smoothly. Or lightly oil the channels. Wash painted or vinyl frames with a sponge dipped in warm water and detergent. Rinse with warm, clean water, and towel dry, if necessary.

    Then the panes. How often the outsides of windows need cleaning depends on where you live, but the insides usually need cleaning two times a year. Wash windows on a cloudy day or when the windows are in shade, because direct sun will cause streaking. If your home has many windows, divide the window cleaning job into segments rather than attempting all in one day.

    Your supplies. You’ll need two buckets; a sponge; a good-quality rubber squeegee; a clean, lint-free cloth; a chamois cloth; and a commercial cleaning solution or your own. Take down your curtains—it’s a good time to clean them—or loop them over a hanger, out of the way. Clean windows from the top down. Use a slightly dampened sponge to apply the window cleaning solution. Wipe across the window with dampened squeegee blade, then wipe the blade. Follow with a rinse of clean water applied with chamois. Polish off any remaining moisture with the dry cloth.

    If you’re painting. Remove new paint spatters with a cloth dipped in water or glass cleaner (for water-based paint) or turpentine (for oil-based paint). Use a single-edged razor to scrape old paint, holding it at an angle to avoid scratching the glass. Leave 1⁄16 inch of paint on the edge of the glass to protect the frame from condensation inside and rain outside. Note that glass cleaner can soften water-based paint. If you spray it onto a painted surface, blot, don’t rub; the paint will harden once dry. Wipe away putty marks with ammonia.

    Special windows. Clean small windows or stained-glass windows with a damp sponge first, then wipe with a clean, damp chamois. Polish with a clean cloth. Treat delicate stained glass with care. Painted glass should be gently cleaned with a damp chamois. Most new double-hung windows have tilting sashes, a handy feature that lets you pivot them inward for easier cleaning. With most, you simply flip a lever to tilt the sash in. But with some, you must pull the sash out of the track.

    Skylights. Some high windows and skylights can be cleaned with special extension tools, but it may be practical to hire a professional window cleaner, if only for the out-of-reach windows.

    Window-Cleaning Warning

    In Consumer Reports' window tests, one surprising discovery was that it’s easy to stain some models if you use the wrong cleaner. Ammonia-based formulas, including some Windex products, can cause streaks or film on windows. So before you grab your squeegee, check the manufacturer’s website for instructions. And whichever cleaner you use, pick a cloudy day for window cleaning—sunlight can make a cleaning solution evaporate before you finish—and clean from the top down to prevent drips.

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

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    FTC Charges Volkswagen With False Advertising

    The Federal Trade Commission has filed suit in California federal court against Volkswagen Group of America, seeking compensation for consumers who were deceived by the automaker’s “Clean Diesel” advertising as it cheated on government emissions tests.

    The cheating occurred on VW and Audi diesel vehicles consumers purchased from late 2008 through late 2015. The automaker has admitted that it deliberately equipped the cars with a “defeat device” that would enable them to pass emissions tests even as they spewed nitrogen oxides at up to 40 times the legal limit (pdf).

    VW marketed the 550,000 diesel vehicles sold in the U.S. as environmentally friendly and placed a premium price on them.

    The campaign slogans included claims that the VW Jetta diesel “reduces nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by up to 90 percent,” and that the Audi TDI engines emit "fewer NOx emissions than comparable gasoline engines," and “meet the strictest EPA standards in the U.S.” The campaign also said that such clean vehicles would have strong resale values.

    According to the FTC complaint, Volkswagen promoted its supposedly “clean” cars through a high-profile marketing campaign that included Super Bowl ads, online social media campaigns, and print advertising, often targeting “environmentally conscious” consumers.

    The crux of the suit states that, because of the emissions-defeat device, VW claims about low emissions, nitrogen oxides reductions, emissions compliance, eco-consciousness, and comparative resale value were false or deceptive. As a result, consumers didn't get the benefit of the environmentally friendly car they thought they were purchasing, and resale values likely will fall. (Nitrogen oxide contributes to smog, acid rain, water quality deterioration, childhood asthma, respiratory ailments, and premature death, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.)

    Read: Consumer Reports Tests VW Diesel Fuel Economy, Performance in 'Cheat' Mode

    The company said in a statement, “Volkswagen has received the complaint and continues to cooperate with all relevant U.S. regulators, including the Federal Trade Commission. Our most important priority is to find a solution to the diesel emissions matter and earn back the trust of our customers and dealers as we build a better company.”

    VW has yet to gain approval for a proposed fix to the affected vehicles.

    In October, Consumer Reports pointed out that VW was happy to brag in its publicity efforts about real-world fuel-economy benefits that appear to be a result of the defeat device. We felt that using these claims in advertising was a concern and shared this information with the FTC.

    William Wallace, policy analyst with Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, said “We’re pleased to see the FTC take action as part of the government’s effort to hold Volkswagen accountable.”

    "VW cheated consumers by aggressively promoting 'clean diesel' cars that actually polluted at a rate of up to 40 times the legal limit, and consumers deserve to be compensated,” Wallace added. “We urge government agencies and the court to reach a strong resolution that brings the cars into compliance with emissions standards, offsets environmental damage, and makes consumers whole."

    The suit—filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Francisco Division—also seeks an injunction to prevent Volkswagen from engaging in this type of conduct again. It follows actions by the EPA and Department of Justice against VW for violations of the Clean Air Act.

    The affected vehicles include 2009 through 2015 Volkswagen TDI diesel models of Jettas, Passats, and Touareg SUVs, as well as Audi TDI models.

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

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    Car Headlight Performance Found to Be Not So Bright

    A new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety finds that among 31 vehicles tested for car headlight performance, only one earned IIHS's top Good rating: the Toyota Prius V with LED lamps. Mirroring Consumer Reports test results, this first-ever car headlight ratings evaluation by IIHS shines light on how lamps are underperforming.

    In fact, 19 vehicles received Poor or Marginal scores for their disappointing performance. The worst performer in the IIHS tests was the BMW 3 Series equipped with halogen headlamps.

    If those results are surprising to you, they weren’t to us. Although we would agree that headlights have improved over the past decade, we still feel there is room for more advancement, especially for straight-ahead low-beam seeing distances that matter most. And the 3 Series also scored poorly in our tests.

    Since 2004, Consumer Reports has evaluated car headlight performance as part of our comprehensive battery of tests. Our ratings have provided insight not only into which cars help you see better at night but also how the lighting industry is faring overall and which technologies offer better potential for seeing at night. (Learn more about how Consumer Reports tests cars.)

    Although IIHS conducts its car headlight test a bit differently than we do, the concepts behind it are much the same. Both tests assess how far ahead the headlights illuminate, and both are conducted on dark nights. Further, both ratings evaluate both low and high beams, and they give the greatest emphasis to low- beam seeing distances, reflecting how lights are most often used.

    IIHS notes that spending more money doesn’t necessarily buy improved visibility, as many of the Poor-rated headlights came on luxury vehicles. Our own ratings have found that while newer technologies such as high-intensity discharge (HID) and now LED headlights typically provide brighter and often more visibility to the sides of the road, they don’t necessarily provide added visibility straight ahead. As those higher-tech lights often come on high-end vehicles, our test findings seem to be in alignment.  

    How IIHS' and Consumer Reports' Tests Differ

    Some key differences in the testing methodologies may help explain why some vehicles may not rate similarly.

    • Lamp aim: For the IIHS tests, headlights are tested in an ‘as received’ condition, meaning that the vertical aim of the headlamps is not adjusted from how the car was set at the factory. We center the aim all headlights before our tests. A vehicle where we raise the lamps, for example, might receive better ratings in our tests than in IIHS’ because of that adjustment and vice versa if we were to lower the lamps. By not adjusting the lamp aim, IIHS is hoping to draw added attention to the fact that aim adjustment can help headlight performance and that the consumer shouldn’t necessarily be tasked with making those corrections.
    • Curve evaluation: The IIHS evaluation factors not only the straight-ahead seeing distance (as does ours) but also includes evaluation of seeing distance in a curve. Headlights with a wider beam pattern or adaptive (cornering) capability might do better in IIHS' curve tests, bumping up a score. Although we rate width of the light, it is not conducted while driving in a curve.
    • Extra credit: IIHS provides additional credit in its ratings for vehicles equipped with high-beam assist—a feature that automatically switches between low and high beams as conditions warrant. An accompanying study confirms the potential safety benefits of this feature: Results showed that even when people had the opportunity to go to high beams for added visibility, they did so only about 18 percent of the time. Although we don’t award points in our headlight ratings for high-beam assist at present, we also find this feature among our favorites for providing added safety.

    In the end, because the IIHS ratings for headlights provide added information for consumers regarding which cars can help them see better and that drive improvements in headlight performance overall, we welcome them to the headlight testing party.

    You'll find Consumer Reports' headlight ratings on car model pages.

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

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    Is Pet Insurance Worth the Cost?

    Two years ago, Elizabeth Newsom-Stewart’s cat Fawkes ate part of a lily plant leaf. Newsom-Stewart, then a veterinary student at Cornell University, immediately knew the danger he was in, and rushed him to an animal hospital.

    “Some lily plants are toxic to cats” she says, and may cause kidney failure. “Symptoms can take 12 to 24 hours to show. By the time kidney failure occurs, it’s almost always fatal.”

    Emergency treatment, which included three days in intensive care, medication, tests, and lots of IV fluids, cost $1,783. But just three months before, Newsom-Stewart bought pet insurance, and it covered $1,327 of the bill. And Fawkes, now 4, made a full recovery.

    A serious illness or injury can take a financial toll, even when the patient is a pet. Cancer treatments can easily run $5,000; surgery to fix a torn ACL from, say, a poorly executed jump off the sofa can cost about $3,300. Pet insurance is sold with the promise that by helping to cover some of your pet’s medical bills, you won’t be forced to consider “economic euthanasia” in the most dire circumstances.

    But as helpful and emotionally comforting as it might be, is insurance really worth the price?

    About 1.4 million pets in the U.S. and Canada were covered by a plan at the end of 2014, according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association, a trade group. That’s less than 1 percent of about 174 million pet cats and dogs, but up from 680,000 policies in 2008. Some of the increase may be linked to a surprising fact: Pet insurance is one of the fastest-growing optional employee benefits.

    Major policy providers include the ASPCA (through Hartville), Embrace, Healthy Paws, PetFirst, Petplan, and Trupanion. Most cover only cats and dogs, but one company, Nationwide (formerly Veterinary Pet Insurance), also insures birds, rabbits, snakes, turtles, and other animals.

    How the Plans Work

    Like people insurance, pet policies come with a variety of deductibles, co-payments, and premiums. Unlike people coverage, you usually have to pay the vet bills in full and wait for reimbursement. But Trupanion launched a service in February that can disburse payments directly to vets on the day of service. The company says about 60 percent of its bills are already processed that way.

    The cost of coverage can increase depending on your pet’s breed (purebreds cost more to insure because they’re more prone to some hereditary conditions), age (plans may cost more as your pet gets older), the rising cost of veterinary care, and the coverage options you choose, such as your deductible amount. Embrace and Healthy Paws pay a flat percentage of covered costs after your deductible is met. Other companies calculate reimbursements based on the “usual and customary costs” of vet care in your area. Embrace lets you pick the annual maximum amount it will cover each year ($5,000, $8,000, $10,000, or $15,000); Healthy Paws and Trupanion have no annual ceiling.

    Almost all policies exclude pre-existing conditions and may exclude breed-specific conditions (or charge you more to cover them).

    What They Cover

    You can pick a plan that insures costs due to accidents (such as injuries caused by motor vehicles), or accidents and illness (including arthritis, cancer, and colitis). Some providers also offer wellness coverage for certain routine care, like annual exams, flea and tick treatments, and vaccinations. Eighty-one percent of pet insurance policies are accident and illness plans for dogs; 14.6 percent provide the same kind of coverage for cats and other pets. Only about 4 percent of the market is made up of accident-only and wellness coverage.

    The insurance trade group says that accident and illness coverage per year averaged $473 for dogs and $285 for cats in 2014. Accident-only policies ran $158 and $132, respectively.

    To compare costs, we asked four providers—Embrace, Healthy Paws, Nationwide, and Trupanion—whose parent companies comprise roughly 75 percent of the market, to estimate what their accident and illness policies would cover for a specific dog and cat. After initially agreeing, Nationwide decided it would only provide data for its policy that had accident, illness, and wellness coverage, so we didn’t include the company in our analysis.

    We used the vet bills of Guinness, an almost 12-year-old Labrador mix from Westchester County, N.Y., and Freddie, a mixed-breed cat from Fairfield County, Conn., who’s almost 9.

    Guinness had few health problems over the years until he was diagnosed with skin cancer last fall. Treating him required two costly surgeries and expensive follow-up care.

    Freddie has been relatively healthy; he had one pricey dental cleaning under anesthesia, and has been prescribed cat food and medication to treat infections. We did our analysis assuming that their owners had signed them up for coverage when they were just a few weeks old, and we adjusted each medical-care charge into present-day dollars to judge how their expenses would have been covered.

    Playing the Odds

    For Freddie, only the Healthy Paws policy would have paid out more than it cost, in part because of its lower premiums.

    If you have a pet like Guinness with a costly condition or illness you want to treat, we found that pet insurance may pay out more than it costs you. In our exercise, a Healthy Paws plan was the only one that paid more than it cost.

    But if his owner continues to cover cancer treatments, all three plans may be worth it. In 2015, for example, Healthy Paws and Trupanion would have reimbursed the owner over $3,000 more than they would have charged for coverage. Embrace would have covered more than $4,000 over the cost of its plan.

    Of course, our results are for a single cat and dog; vet bills are different for every animal, and there’s no way to predict whether your pet will become sick or injured. But if you’d like help with unexpected, large vet bills, a plan may be worth considering.

    Talk with your vet about the medical costs your pet’s breed will usually incur, and ask about his experience with different pet insurers.

    Download sample policies from insurance websites and read them thoroughly for limitations, exceptions, and co-payments. Consider skipping wellness coverage if possible and paying for it out of pocket. Last year routine vet care cost cat owners just $196 and dog owners only $235, according to the American Pet Products Association.

    If you don’t want to pay for pet insurance, consider starting an emergency savings fund for pet care instead. If you find you need help with a big pet medical bill, the Humane Society has a list of organizations that may help pay for it.

    More Ways to Save

    Take steps to keep your pet healthy to trim medical costs.

    • Ask your vet which vaccines you can skip. Some effectively prevent serious and costly diseases, says Louise Murray, D.V.M., a veterinarian and vice president of the ASPCA’s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York City. But ringworm, for example, is a mild condition and its vaccine isn’t that effective, she says.
    • Guard against parasites. Fleas can cause life-threatening anemia, and ticks can spread Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. An inexpensive topical solution can keep the bugs at bay.
    • Spay or neuter your pet. Doing so can help prevent health problems, including some cancers. Many sheltersor chapters of the ASPCA provide low-cost or no-cost spayor neuter surgery.

    A Tale of Two Critters

    How much, if anything, would the owners of Guinness the Dog and Freddie the Cat have saved over the years on their healthcare if they had had pet insurance?


    Embrace Healthy Paws Trupanion
    Cost of coverage (including premiums) $10,260 $6,070 $8,290
    Amount paid by insurance $8,450 $7,060 $7,810
    Net gain or loss with insurance -$1,810 +$990 -$480
    Embrace Healthy Paws Trupanion

    Cost of coverage (including premiums)

    $5,440 $2,780 $4,570

    Amount paid by insurance

    $3,270 $3,360 $3,850
    Net gain or loss with insurance -$2,170 +$580 -$720

    How We Crunched the Numbers
    To compare policies, we converted all of the vet charges over the years into 2016 dollars, and checked current premiums for our pets at different ages. We chose a 10 percent co-pay for all three policies, which means the plans cover 90 percent of eligible charges. Embrace has a $200 annual deductible; for Healthy Paws, it’s $250. Trupanion has a $200 deductible per type of illness or accident. Once that deductible is met (say, for a cancer treatment), it covers 90 percent of additional charges for that condition. Healthy Paws and Trupanion have unlimited annual reimbursements; Embrace lets you choose an annual ceiling of $5,000, $8,000, $10,000, or $15,000. In only one year did bills for Guinness go over the $5,000 annual ceiling we used in our example. Note that the premiums of an Embrace plan go up significantly if you choose higher annual ceilings.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 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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    Car Defect Information to Become More Readily Available to Consumers

    The Department of Transportation (DOT) will post online all vehicle Technical Service Bulletins (TSB) and any other automaker communications to dealers about defects in vehicles, regardless of whether the defects are the subject of a safety recall.

    This move by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shines a light on previously shadowy—and sometimes secret—automaker communications to dealerships about potential automotive safety defects. The move improves consumer safety by enabling government and safety watchdogs to identify vehicle problems earlier.

    The announcement is a victory for consumers and safety advocates—especially the Center for Auto Safety (CAS) which has worked for many years to have this information available in a usable form.

    In addition to all TSBs being posted in a more consumer-friendly PDF format to the DOT’s safercar.gov website, the directive also strongly recommends that the manufacturers submit the information in searchable formats.

    Lack of a fully searchable database has been a problem for NHTSA, with other government agencies, consumers, and safety advocacy groups often receiving incomplete or misleading data about defects.

    All of this comes on the delayed adherence to a 2012 congressional mandate directing the Secretary of Transportation to make manufacturer communications like TSBs publicly accessible. Previously, such information was limited to industry professionals, either through direct dealership communications or through paid subscription services for automotive technicians. Now, independent repair shops will have access to TSBs for free. Regular consumers not well-versed in the technical language used in TSBs will also have access, but will most likely need assistance translating what can often be highly complicated and specialized bulletins.

    Read "How to get your car fixed for (almost) free."

    “Disclosure could save lives,” says CAS Executive Director Clarence Ditlow, adding that the database also will “save consumers money for repairs covered by Service Bulletins and dealer communications.”

    But consumer safety is at the heart of this new information gathering tool.

    More than a decade ago, General Motors began installing ignition switches in some car models that soon after began to exhibit “moving stalls.” In other words, the cars would stop running, and power steering, power braking, and airbags would all shut off. In 2005, GM issued an electronic alert to dealers that ignitions could turn off without explanation and issued a TSB. Neither warning was posted by DOT.

    Simultaneously, reports of airbags not deploying during crashes of these GM vehicles began to emerge. It wasn’t until the investigation of a fatal 2007 accident that others outside GM began to put the pieces together—when a Wisconsin state trooper recognized a connection between the faulty ignition switch causing air bags to not deploy. It wasn’t until 2014 that GM announced publicly that the safety defect existed.

    Ditlow explains, “Disclosure of these dealer communications could have saved lives and led to an earlier discovery of the ignition switch defect.”

    “Consumer Reports has long believed that the information in these communications between automakers and dealers are great for consumers so they can identify potential issues with their cars and more quickly be able to remedy them,” says Jake Fisher, director of auto testing at Consumer Reports. 

    Check technical service bulletins (TSBs) for common problems on the new and used car model pages, under the Reliability tab.

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

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    10 Great Refrigerators for $1,500 or Less

    LG LFC24770ST

    You can easily spend $3,000 or more on a French-door refrigerator and not end up with nearly the performance of this 33-inch-wide LG. Temperature control, energy efficiency, and quietness are all exceptional, plus it features dual evaporative cooling, which can extend food freshness by maintaining optimal humidity levels. The LG lacks through-the-door ice and water, plus storage capacity isn't quite what you get with other French-door models. But if you can live with those tradeoffs, the LG LFC24770ST is one of the best options for around $1,500.  

    Samsung RF261BEAE[SR]

    Samsung's 36-inch-wide French-door bottom-freezer combines excellent temperature performance and efficiency. It also features dual evaporators, which can really make a difference with climate control. The Samsung is a bit noisier than other models in the French-door category, a factor that kept it off our recommended list. While it doesn't have an external ice and water dispenser, it has internal water with built in filtration, plus touchpad controls, and spillproof shelves, among other conveniences.

    LG LSXS26326S

    LG's 36-inch-wide refrigerator combines one of the lowest price tags in the side-by-side category with one of the highest overall scores. If you have big storage needs, and appreciate the vertical freezer of the side-by-side configuration, this LG is definitely worth a look. It serves up a generous 20.6 cubic feet of usable capacity and benefits from several helpful convenience features, like spillproof shelves and touchpad controls.

    GE GSE22ESHSS

    GE's 34-inch-wide side-by-side stands out for its exceptional temperature control, which most models in this category aren't able to achieve. It's also extremely energy efficient. Features include a temperature-controlled meat and deli bin, which helps keep food and beverages at the ideal temperature, as well as spillproof shelves. It's a little noisier than other models, which could be an issue if your kitchen is within earshot of other living spaces.

    Kenmore 51813

    This 33-inch-wide Kenmore is one of the least expensive models on our recommended list of side-by-sides, with few tradeoffs in performance. Solid temperature control and quietness combine with superb energy efficiency. Like most side-by-sides, it comes with a through-the-door ice and water dispenser, though you'll have to go without other convenience features, like adjustable shelves and a temperature-controlled meat and deli bin.

    Kenmore Elite 79043

    This 33-inch-wide refrigerator from Kenmore currently leads the bottom-freezer category, thanks to its exceptional all-around performance. Its 17.1 cubic feet of storage capacity feel even roomier thanks to several helpful storage features, including gallon storage and pullout shelves/bins throughout the freezer and refrigerator compartments.

    Kenmore 69313

    If you need to spend less than a $1,000 on a great refrigerator, but don't want a top-freezer, this 30-inch wide bottom-freezer from Kenmore is one of your best (not to mention only) options. Though it doesn't deliver much in the way of convenience features, it delivers superb temperature control, energy efficiency, and quietness. All that, along with the low price, was enough for a CR Best Buy designation.        

    Maytag MBF2258DEM

    This 33-inch-wide bottom-freezer from Maytag earned a spot on our recommended list thanks to its superb temperature control and energy efficiency. Its 15 cubic feet of usable capacity is about average for the category. Storage features include gallon door storage and split shelves, which are helpful for storing pitchers and other tall items, as well as touchpad controls.  

    LG LTCS20220S

    Top-freezers are the classic bargain refrigerator. They're typically smaller in size with fewer features and bare-bones design. This LG bucks that image a bit, thanks to its stainless steel finish, relatively roomy 16.7 cubic feet of usable capacity, and such conveniences as spillproof shelves and touchpad controls. In terms of performance, it combines solid temperature control with superb energy efficiency and quietness. And its 30-inch width makes it ideal for smaller kitchens.

    Frigidaire Gallery FGHT1846QF

    This 30-inch-wide Frigidaire also comes with stainless-steel styling, as well as certain features not found on all top-freezers, like a flip-up shelf that makes it easier to store taller items, and LED lighting. Though a tad noisier than the LG top-freezer included here, it's still very quiet on the whole. Temperature performance is also solid and it's exceptionally energy efficient.     

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

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  • 03/31/16--03:00: 2016 Lincoln MKX Review
  • 2016 Lincoln MKX Review

    Borrowing the underpinnings of the impressive Ford Edge and the athletic chops of the fun-to-drive Fusion sedan, the 2016 Lincoln MKX has nothing to apologize for anymore.

    Lincoln has struggled mightily, despite valiant efforts, to re-establish itself as a credible luxury brand. But its offerings have come across as premium-grade poseurs.

    The new Lincoln MKX crossover, however, is ready for prime time—with a regal street presence, superior handling and braking, effortless acceleration, a plush interior, and a suite of advanced technology.

    How good is the MKX? With a road-test score of 87, the 2016 Lincoln MKX outguns all other luxury midsized SUVs, including the popular Lexus RX 350 and BMW X5.

    Read our complete Lincoln MKX road test and check our reviews of the 2016 BMW 750i, 2016 Honda Civic, and 2016 Lexus RX 350 and RX 450.

    Despite the MKX’s strong road-test score, Lincolns have traditionally lagged in our reliability survey, which sets back its Overall Score.

    The redesigned MKX comes with either a 3.7-liter V6 or a smaller, 2.7-liter EcoBoost twin-turbocharged 335-hp V6. It doesn’t take more than a quarter mile to realize this isn’t your grandmother’s Lincoln. The 2.7-liter pulls strongly. Powerful and refined, it supplies spirited forward thrust.

    Unfortunately, that engine is more about boost than eco. It delivers the oomph, but at a cost. Overall fuel economy came in at 18 mpg; most of the competition in the segment easily gets 20 mpg or better. And the six-speed automatic transmission seems quaint among the segment’s swath of eight-speed offerings.

    When it comes to carving up corners, the 2016 Lincoln MKX proved lively and composed, with a taut and connected feel that is enjoyable and inspires confidence. This Lincoln has no problems keeping up with lusty German competitors on a mountain road. Even when driven with extra gusto, the MKX is so reassuring that our testers wanted to push it harder around our track.

    Ride comfort has an underlying firmness and feels composed, planted, and steady. Even with the 20-inch wheels, bumps and ruts are nicely muted and the cabin stays quiet and tranquil.

    Lincoln has been spiffing up its interiors, and our MKX has a swanky, high-society, hunt-club atmosphere with brown leather seats and rich wood and chrome trim pieces. A large sunroof brightens up the interior. However, the well-padded front seats are narrow and are located too far inward from the door; the driver’s left footwell is cramped.

    Large doors provide easy access, and there’s a spacious rear seat and plenty of room for your stuff. A power liftgate and power-folding rear seats help with loading cargo.

    MKXs being delivered now have the more advanced and intuitive Sync 3 touch-screen info­tainment system, replacing the balky MyLincoln Touch. As for other controls, we’re not crazy about the newfangled push-button shifter, and some dashboard buttons are small and are packed too closely.

    It may be wishful thinking that Lincoln customers will be young enough to not need reading glasses for the fine print on the instrument readouts. And thick roof pillars take a toll on rearward visibility, but the surround view system can virtually peer out of tight spots.

    Our MKX set us back about 55 grand, which is close to the price of established luxury SUVs from the German brands and the Lexus RX. But let’s face it: Those brand names have more cachet than Lincoln. For now, though, consider the MKX to be a legitimate alternative with actual talent and substance.

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

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  • 03/31/16--03:00: 2016 BMW 750i Review
  • 2016 BMW 750i Review

    Traditionally, BMW’s flagship, the 7 Series, has been the sporty driver’s choice among ultraluxury sedans. For 2016 BMW has found the right balance of opulence, performance, comfort, and high-tech features—it will even massage your back.

    With a serene ride, high-tech features that cater to every whim, thoughtful touches in a comfortable and beyond-impeccable cabin, and impenetrable interior silence, the new BMW 7 Series delivers a first-class travel experience.

    After years of trailing the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the 7 Series has outscored the big Benz in our tests. With weight-saving carbon construction, the BMW is not only quick but also fuel efficient. It’s smart enough to steer itself, or brake on its own if you fail to. And its clamped-down, über-­serious driving motif is better balanced with luxury and comfort.

    Read our complete BMW 7 Series road test and check our reviews of the 2016 Honda Civic, 2016 Lexus RX 350 and RX 450, and 2016 Lincoln MKX.

    The 2016 BMW 750i can still claim fast-lane dominance, but its plushness, newfound attention to detail, refinement, efficiency, and relative user-friendliness give it a clear edge. Simply put, it’s a better all-around car than the Mercedes.

    Our loaded $110,645-as-tested 2016 BMW 750i xDrive had a smoother transmission, more intuitive controls, and substantially better fuel economy.

    The gutsy V8 engine slings the 2016 BMW 750i to triple-digit speeds decisively but effortlessly. The engine’s velvet punch is augmented by the precision of the eight-speed automatic transmission, which imperceptibly executes each shift. And yet its 21 mpg fuel economy is on par with smaller V6-powered sedans. The lineup also includes a lower-priced, rear-wheel-drive 740i with a smaller engine.

    A six-figure car should feel indomitable as it glides down the road, and the 2016 BMW 750i features a supremely steady ride—courtesy of the standard air suspension and a tomb-quiet interior. Even at high speeds or over undulating pavement, the BMW reassuringly keeps its composure.

    However, the 2016 BMW 750i trails the S-Class in ultimate ride comfort, a crucial aspect in this class. Though the 7’s handling is secure and responsive, it’s not the sports sedan it used to be. In a bit of a role reversal, the S-Class is nimbler around corners.

    What’s inside an ultraluxury car is just as important. The opulent-yet-modern interior integrates wood and leather, touches of aluminum, and a suede headliner. Front seats have the delightful articulation befitting a Cirque du Soleil acrobat. The sumptuous rear seat befits a dignitary—with massage, heated armrests, lumbar support, and controls for sun shades, climate, and audio. It may be the first BMW in which it’s more fun to be the passenger.

    The iDrive infotainment system now has “gesture control”—allowing you to adjust volume, pause tracks, or take phone calls with an aerial sweep or poke of your finger. Though it may be a redundant gimmick, a new touch screen and useful windshield head-up display combine to make the daunting array of controls more manageable.

    For all of those many reasons, the BMW 7 Series is the new leader of the luxury segment.

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

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    2016 Lexus RX 350 and RX 450h Review

    Lexus, Toyota’s elite brand, was the first manufacturer to bring car-based luxury to a sport-utility vehicle rich in comfort and amenities. It conquered the world. The latest model continues the very civilized experience.

    Despite hordes of imitators, the Lexus RX crossover lineup has continued to win the loyalty of its buyers by delivering a driving experience that accentuates comfort, tranquility, and luxury, topped off with superb reliability. The RX has long been Lexus’ top seller, and the redesigned model faithfully carries the torch, even with its new, slightly menacing grill and exterior styling.

    The 3.5-liter V6 in the RX 350, coupled with an eight-speed automatic, has the smooth and ample power delivery that you expect in a premium SUV. The hybrid version offers added boost and better fuel economy, as it combines the one-two punch of the gas engine and electric drive.

    The RX 450h’s hybrid transmission seamlessly puts power to the pavement, allowing this SUV to dash from 0 to 60 mph in a quick 7.5 seconds, while delivering 29 mpg overall—truly impressive in a class for which the V6’s 22 mpg is considered a benchmark.

    Read our complete Lexus RX road test and check our reviews of the 2016 BMW 750i, 2016 Honda Civic, and 2016 Lincoln MKX.

    You also can poke along in the 450h on electric power only, up to 40 mph—provided you apply a light foot; otherwise, the gas engine kicks in.

    Unfortunately, the RX doesn’t reward drivers with the crisp handling or sharp steering possessed by crossovers offered by the German brands.

    In corners, the soft suspension quickly makes the car lean over, giving the uncomfortable impression that the RX doesn’t hug the road well. It felt clumsy when pushed to its cornering limits—not unsafe, but not confidence-­inspiring, either. And the RX’s brakes produced wet stopping distances that were about a car-length longer than with most luxury SUVs.

    We also drove an “F Sport” variant, which includes a stiffer suspension and firmer seats. But it only ends up compromising ride comfort, rather than making the RX sportier.

    What the RX does do—coddle folks with reliable calmness—it does extremely well. Continuing long-standing RX hallmarks, the interior is bank-vault quiet, and the ride is soft, cushy, and insulating. The interior is tastefully done with materials that look elegant and plush. The seats are comfortable—nay, downright soporific. Big wood panels ornament the center console. The rear seat is roomy; the cargo hold, useful.

    A word about styling. Not everyone will warm to the body’s sharp creases and gaping grill. The company tried to make the bland RX edgier, but the pendulum may have swung back through the wall of the design studio. It also means diminished rearward visibility. We would definitely buy the blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert—which is optional on the RX 350 and standard on the hybrid.

    Also, the infotainment controls are an ergonomic mess. Though some controls can be managed with buttons and knobs, many functions require fiddling with a fussy mouse. As soon as any jostling occurs in the car, the mouse has a hard time placing the screen’s cursor onto the task you desire. It’s unnecessarily distracting.

    While the avant-garde styling may not be everyone’s cup of tea, the new RX continues to be a genteel, cosseting vehicle that’s likely to give years of headache-free ownership.

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

     

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  • 03/31/16--03:00: 2016 Honda Civic Review
  • 2016 Honda Civic Review

    After the last edition of the Honda Civic received such poor reviews that the small car was no longer the go-to choice. The 2016 Honda Civic received a serious makeover, with a return of the affordable elegance we know and love.

    The Honda Civic is back—recapturing its position as a mature, substantial economy car with enough elegant touches that make you feel like you spent more money than you did.

    We tested two versions of the 2016 Honda Civic: the base LX with a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder rated at 158 hp, and the EX-T with the uplevel 1.5-liter, 174-hp turbocharged four-cylinder (the first turbo Honda has offered in the U.S.).

    Read the complete Honda Civic road test and check our reviews of the 2016 BMW 750i, 2016 Lexus RX 350 and RX 450, and 2016 Lincoln MKX.

    Automatic Civics come with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which uses belts and pulleys rather than mechanical cogs. If you prefer to row your own gears, the 2016 Honda Civic LX model offers a six-speed manual.

    The base 2.0-liter engine is smooth, with reasonable oomph, provided you’re not in a real hurry. If you just loaf around, the CVT is a fairly good application of the technology; most are joyless and underwhelming, but this one does a fair job of minimizing the transmission’s inherent rubber-band feel. Still, if you climb a hill or merge quickly, the engine responds with annoying, whiny revs.

    For people who move to the turbo engine, those CVT quirks are well-masked by the engine’s impressive midrange power—making merging a cinch. We like the power of the turbo, and our test numbers backed us up: The EX-T was 1.6 seconds quicker to 60 mph (at a zippy 7.1 seconds) than the base engine. Fuel economy was similar—the LX got 32 mpg overall; the turbo, 31.

    The 2016 Honda Civic handles with newfound confidence, thanks to a redesigned chassis that endows the car with a sense of precision and control. It’s secure and predictable with minimal body lean in the corners. The Civic turns in quickly and responds intuitively, although we wish there were more steering feedback.

    The Civic’s ride is unusually refined for a compact car. The suspension keeps the car steady and composed over all but the nastiest bumps. Braking is responsive and confident during panic stops.

    Inside, the Civic’s interior has been thoroughly updated. The 2012 version looked furnished by discards from Honda’s House of Plastic. The 2016 model features higher-grade materials, and the cabin is quieter and has clever cubbies and nooks. It’s easy to stash an iPad under the armrest.

    Still, the car’s sleek, low-slung styling means that getting in requires almost falling in to the front seat, as well as limbo-dance flexibility getting out. Front-seat lumbar support isn’t available, period. And we disliked the seats’ short bottom cushion. But for a compact sedan, rear-seat room for legs, knees, and heads is excellent.

    The instrument cluster features all gauges on the same eye level, including a large digital speedometer. And the base LX has an intuitive array of knobs and buttons for the audio system. But every other trim has a frustratingly overcomplicated touch screen—although it does work with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto from your smartphone.

    Despite a few gripes, the 2016 Honda Civic brings more civility, better road manners, decent fuel economy, and thoughtful features—all wrapped in a stylish and appealing package.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 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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  • 03/31/16--03:01: A Safer Food Future, Now
  • A Safer Food Future, Now

    Severely obese schoolchildren, E. coli outbreaks, salmonella in ground beef, arsenic in apple juice and rice, poultry sickened by avian flu, hog farms dumping manure into rivers and streams, meatpacking workers routinely injured on the job, the cruelty of factory farms—all of these problems have inspired activists to seek a variety of solutions. But the seemingly disparate problems with America’s food system have a common explanation: The handful of corporations that now dominate the system are imposing their business costs on the rest of society. And the greatest harm is being suffered by the poorest Americans.

    To create a truly sustainable food system for the 21st century, we will have to address not only the well-publicized, harmful symptoms but also their underlying cause. Although it may be tempting to blame those problems on the workings of capitalism, the changes in food production during the past few decades have been largely driven by the elimination of free markets and real competition.

    As the food system has become more centralized and industrialized, the income of ranchers, farmers, and food workers has been squeezed. State socialism is hardly the solution. Communist-led China has been responsible for a series of food scandals that would’ve shocked Upton Sinclair: Three hundred thousand infants sickened by adulterated baby formula, pasta tinted with lead-based whiteners, rat meat sold as lamb, soy sauce made from human hair.

    In the U.S., the misuse of antibiotics in agriculture is one of the most shocking examples of how private interests have triumphed over the public interest. More than three-quarters of the anti­biotics sold in this country are routinely fed to healthy poultry and livestock at factory farms to prevent disease but also to promote growth. The dangers of that practice—the creation of lethal, antibiotic-resistant organisms—have been recognized for decades. And yet the practice continues because the meat industry has successfully blocked strict regulations on antibiotic use. About 2 million Americans are now infected every year with antibiotic-resistant bacteria from a variety of sources, and more than 20,000 are killed by them. The annual healthcare costs stemming from the misuse of antibiotics are estimated to be at least $20 billion. The financial cost pales beside an unacceptable reality: Thousands of Americans have died so that chickens and hogs can grow a little faster.

    The corruption of the political system helps to explain the wide discrepancy between what’s best for the American people and what benefits the leading food companies. Elected officials accept millions of dollars in campaign donations from the food industry; government regulators find lucrative jobs in the industry after leaving office—and as a result, the government now obeys the companies it’s supposed to regulate. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 wasn’t a radical bill. It sought to give the federal government the power to order the recall of contaminated foods and to punish companies that knowingly sold them. It was supported by about 80 percent of the American people and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And yet, thanks to food industry opposition, the bill was stalled in committee for almost two years and gained passage only through the last-minute efforts of a lame-duck Congress. And the new food-safety measures still haven’t been adequately funded.

    The battle over the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) illustrates the threat to democracy posed by our current food system. Twenty-five years ago, none of the processed food consumed in the U.S. contained genetically modified ingredients. Today, about 75 percent of it does. The spread of GMO crops has greatly increased the sale of glyphosate, now the most widely used pesticide in America. Studies have found glyphosate in the raindrops, drinking water, and air of the Midwest. Last year the World Health Organization declared that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans.” More than 90 percent of the American people favor labeling GMO foods so that consumers can choose whether to buy them. Nevertheless, the House of Representatives passed an industry-­backed bill last year that would prevent states from requiring labels on GMO food. George Orwell would’ve loved its name: The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015. [Editor's note: In March, the Senate version of this bill was rejected by lawmakers.]

    A food system reflects the values of the nation that created it. That was the thesis of “Fast Food Nation,” published 15 years ago. The racism and inequality that still plague the U.S. are evident in how we produce our food. Thanks to the lobbying efforts of the restaurant industry, the federal minimum wage is about one-third lower today than it was in 1968, when adjusted for inflation. California is the nation’s largest producer of fresh fruits and vegetables, the foods deemed essential for a healthy diet. And yet the mainly Latino workforce that harvests those crops now lives in abject poverty. In 2012, the last year for which statistics are available, all 800,000 farm workers in California had a combined income about one-third lower than that of America’s top 25 hedge fund managers. A food system based on that sort of injustice is not sustainable.

    Despite these problems, I’m deeply optimistic about the possibility of creating a better food system. A nationwide food movement is now demanding better wages, healthier foods, local and organic production, an end to government policies that subsidize junk foods. I can’t predict what Americans will be eating in the future. But I feel confident that a food system appropriate for the 21st century is gradually emerging. It will be regional, diverse, kinder to livestock, less dependent on pesticides, more respectful of the environment, and far more compassionate.

    In May 1936, the first issue of Consumers Union Reports (as the magazine was called then) warned readers about the dangers of contaminated milk. During the 80 years since then, the organization has uncovered the mysterious ingredients of hot dogs, exposed the false marketing of olive oil, measured the pathogen levels in supermarket meat, and called for a long list of reforms to protect Americans from being harmed by what they eat. Consumer Reports has arduously defended the basic consumer rights outlined by President John F. Kennedy in 1962: the right to safety, the right to be informed, the right to choose, and the right to be heard. In the absence of those rights, market forces are distorted, rewarding unethical business practices and punishing companies that play by the rules. The kind of citizens’ movement led by Consumer Reports is essential for a functioning democracy. As President Kennedy noted, “Consumers, by definition, include us all.”

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 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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    Reforms Come to Reverse Mortgages

    W hen Karen Hunziker’s husband, Charles, died a month after having a stroke in May 2014, she was devastated. Ten days later, she got another shock: a letter from a loan servicing company saying she’d have to pay off the reverse mortgage on her home or it would go into foreclosure.

    The Hunzikers had taken out a reverse mortgage in 2008. Karen, an artist, and Charles, who worked at a local warehouse, wanted to borrow $20,000 to do repairs on their home in Pollock Pines, Calif. The loan allows older homeowners to borrow against the equity in their home. As long as you keep up with your property taxes, home insurance, and house maintenance, a reverse mortgage doesn’t have to be paid back until you move out, sell your home, or die.

    At the time, Karen was 60, two years too young to qualify for that type of loan. So she agreed to be removed from the title so that Charles, then 65, was the sole borrower.

    Karen says the lender repeatedly assured her that she’d be able to stay in the home if anything happened to Charles. But when she contacted the loan servicer after Charles died, she was told that her home was scheduled for auction in 30 days.

    “I barely had a chance to mourn, and I was told I would have to get out of my house,” says Hunziker, now 68.

    Karen’s experience is the kind of horror story that has long led some consumer advocates and financial planners to consider reverse mortgages too risky, a loan of last resort. In addition to problems when a surviving spouse isn’t on the loan, these compounding-­interest loans can be expensive. And seniors who can’t keep up with taxes, insurance, and home upkeep risk defaulting on the loan and losing their house.

    But over the past three years, new government regulations aimed at protecting older borrowers and shoring up the government-­backed loan program have gone into effect.

    To be sure, the loans remain a poor choice for some, and at Consumer Reports we believe more reforms are needed. But some experts say that for certain homeowners, with the new regulations in place, it may make sense to consider a reverse mortgage.

    One high-profile proponent is Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Robert Merton, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who has studied reverse mortgages for more than a decade. It’s an unfortunate reality, he says, that many people haven’t saved enough for retirement. At the same time, a fast-growing number of the 76 million baby boomers, now 52 to 70 years old, are moving into the eligible age range for reverse mortgages, making them a prime audience for the loans.

    Among Americans 55 to 64, 55 percent report little to no retirement savings, according to a May 2015 Government Accountability Office report. But 74 percent of people 55 and older own their homes. Merton has come to see that “home equity could be a solution” for retirees who would like to improve their standard of living. “Will we still have problems with reverse mortgages? Of course we will,” Merton says. “Do we need improved design, lower closing costs, and better regulation? Yes. But a well-­functioning reverse mortgage is going to be key for working- and middle-class people to have a good retirement.”

    If you’re considering a reverse mortgage, it’s critical to know what you are getting into, given the loans’ complexity, cost, and controversial nature. Here’s what you need to know:

    A Troubled History

    Though never a big part of the mortgage market, government insured reverse mortgages—formally known as Home Equity Conversion Mortgages (HECMs)—have been around since 1987. Congress created them with the aim of helping cash-strapped homeowners 62 and older pay for critical everyday living expenses by drawing income from their home, usually their biggest asset.

    The loans took off along with the housing boom that boosted home values in the 2000s. Lenders gave retirees incentives to take all of the money out up front. Some were talked into using the money for ill-advised investments or spent it on noncritical home improvements. About 40 percent say the primary reason they used the loan was for extra income to pay for daily living expenses, according to Stephanie Moulton, an associate professor at Ohio State University who did a study of seniors who took reverse mortgages between 2006 and 2011.

    But after the real estate bust deflated home values and the Great Recession hit, home­owners in shaky financial positions began falling behind on property tax and home insurance payments. Defaults rose by half, from 8 percent in 2010 to 12 percent in 2014.

    “There was no requirement to check to see if a borrower could really afford to stay in their homes,” Moulton says. “Reverse mortgages were supposed to give seniors more financial security, but for some seniors, that wasn’t happening.”

    Meanwhile, the barrage of reverse mortgage ads on radio and TV has continued unabated. The ads, featuring B-list actors such as Henry “The Fonz” Winkler (shown below), aggressively pitch reverse mortgages to seniors as a risk-free way to supplement retirement income.

    Those ads can be misleading, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says. It issued a report last June saying that many reverse mortgage ads are inaccurate or omit important information.

    The CFPB also studied complaints made about reverse mortgages from 2011 to 2014. It found that many consumers were confused about how the loans worked or got the runaround from loan servicers when there were problems.

    “We don’t see reverse mortgages as innately bad. For the right consumer at the right time, these loans may be an excellent choice,” says Stacy Canan, deputy assistant director at the CFPB’s Office of Financial Protection for Older Americans. “But this is a complicated mortgage product and one we see that consumers don’t often understand,” Canan says.

    Tougher New Rules

    It’s not just homeowners who can get into trouble with reverse mortgages. The Department of Housing and Urban Development insures HECMs and is on the hook if a foreclosed home sells for less than the loan’s value. It must reimburse the lender for the difference. The rules it rolled out starting in 2013 and continuing through last year were instituted not just to weed out selling to borrowers unsuited to the loans but also to reduce its own risk insuring them. The new rules include:

    • Tighter borrowing limits. Starting in 2014, most borrowers can take only 60 percent of the loan in the first year. Some may be eligible to take out more but must pay higher up-front costs.
    • Stricter financial requirements. In the past almost anyone with sizeable home equity could qualify for a reverse mortgage. Since April 2015, lenders are required to assess the borrower’s income, cash flow, and credit history to make sure they have enough to pay the future costs of owning the home. If they don’t, they may still qualify if they can put aside money from the loan to cover future taxes, insurance, and maintenance costs. If not, they won’t get the loan.
    • Stronger spousal protections. As Karen Hunziker found out, if a spouse isn’t listed as a borrower and the borrowing spouse dies or moves out (say, to a nursing home) for more than 12 months, the loan has to be repaid immediately or the surviving spouse faces foreclosure. Last June, HUD adopted a policy that allows a non­borrowing spouse to remain in the home as long as it is their primary residence and taxes and insurance are paid.

    If those financial checks and loan limits had been in place sooner, a recent study by Moulton estimates, defaults would have been about 40 to 50 percent lower.

    Still, some consumer protection experts say the reforms haven’t gone far enough and that loan servicers are dragging their feet helping surviving spouses take advantage of the new rules that allow them to remain in their home. A recent National Consumer Law Center survey of elder advocates found that their clients were experiencing that. “We welcome these reforms—they give consumers more options,” says Odette Williamson of the NCLC. “But there is more work to be done on behalf of consumers to make sure that the options are truly available to them without jumping through a lot of hoops.” Norma Garcia, a senior attorney for Consumer Reports, adds that aggressive marketing, loan complexity, and borrower confusion also remain troubling concerns.

    One important change Consumer Reports advocates is a requirement for seniors to fill out a detailed questionnaire walking them through the loan’s possible consequences before filling out a mortgage application. The worksheet, which we helped design with a neurology professor who studies decision-making in older adults, is mandatory in California. Consumer Reports would like it to become a national policy. That would be in addition to required counseling usually done by phone. “This is a much more effective tool that actively engages people in decision-­making and aids counseling,” Garcia says. To see the worksheet, go to canhr.org and click on Free Consumer Fact Sheets, then sheet No. 52.

    A Strategic Approach

    Some academics and financial planners say that reverse mortgages, strengthened by the reforms, can be used strategically by people who are worried about running out of money in retirement.

    For example, rather than take a reverse mortgage as a lump sum, you can access the equity in your home as a monthly payment, says Steven Sass of Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research, where he is director of the Financial Security Project.

    A lump sum is tempting to spend quickly, whereas a monthly payment gives you a regular stream of income that draws down your equity more slowly, he says. Sass recommends first investigating other, less expensive options, such as downsizing your house (see below). But with the stringent financial checks and borrowing limits, reverse mortgages “are safer products,” he says.

    Alternatively, you could set up a reverse mortgage as a standby line of credit, says John Salter, a certified financial planner and professor of personal financial planning at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. That way the money is available if you have big unexpected expenses, such as a health emergency. “It’s there if you need it, and if you don’t, you never need to tap it,” he says.

    Also, Salter suggests that if the financial markets are down, you could take income from a reverse mortgage line of credit rather than from other investments. Once those investments recover, you can repay the loan. You could also put off taking Social Security longer by using a reverse mortgage to supplement income early in retirement. Delaying Social Security allows the benefit payment to grow, which would give you a higher lifetime guaranteed income stream that is adjusted for inflation. As with any transaction involving your home’s equity, you should discuss the implications with an independent financial adviser.

    Having money in reserve is what appealed to Ralph ­Kumano, 71, who took a reverse mortgage on his two-bedroom home in Auberry, Calif., earlier this year. A retired biology teacher, Kumano has no debt, and his home, appraised at $166,000, is paid off. He qualified for an $87,000 loan and set it up as a line of credit. “It’s mainly for emergencies,” he says. Having those funds available also means that if he needs cash, he doesn’t have to take more than the minimum he is required to take from his retirement accounts, which increases his taxable income. “The money from my house is tax-free,” ­Kumano says.

    As for Karen Hunziker, the new regulations appear to have come just in time. The protections for nonborrowing spouses were extended to loans made before Aug. 4, 2014. With the help of Sandy Jolley, an independent reverse mortgage consumer advocate, Hunziker was able to stall the foreclosure until the new spousal guidelines were in place. “The new law was a lifesaver in Karen’s situation,” Jolley says. “She would have lost her home if it weren’t for this change.”


    How to Decide If a Reverse Mortgage Is Right for You

    How Long Do You Plan to Stay in Your House?
    As with a traditional home loan, taking out a reverse mortgage costs thousands of dollars in closing costs and fees. But reverse mortgages come with an additional expense: Borrowers pay 0.5 percent of the loan amount up front and 1.25 percent annually for government mortgage insurance. If you leave your home soon after taking the loan, you’ll lose a big chunk of your home equity to fees for only a small benefit.

    Is There Another Way to Meet Your Money Needs?
    If you’re really strapped for cash, consider downsizing to lower your expenses. According to the Center for Retirement Research, the cost of taxes, insurance, maintenance, and utilities average about 3.25 percent of the home’s value each year. Downsize from a $250,000 home to a $150,000 one and you’ll cut annual expenses about $3,250, from $8,125 to $4,875.

    Will Your Home Suit You as You Age?
    Reverse mortgages make the most sense if you plan to stay in your home a long time. So consider whether you can continue living there independently in your later years. Think about things such as: Does it have a lot of stairs you may have trouble getting up and down? Is it far from hospitals, doctors, or family members who can look out for you?

    Can You Live There If Something Happens to Your Spouse?
    If you’re married and your spouse dies or goes to a nursing home and can no longer contribute income or help with home maintenance, make sure you can afford to live in the home. Interest on the loan compounds, so also consider whether you will have enough equity left to finance long-term-care costs if you need to go to a nursing home.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 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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    Broadband Industry: It's Unfair If Facebook Can Collect Your Data, But AT&T Can't

    Later this week, the Federal Communications Commission will be voting on a proposal intended to protect some of your personal data from being shared by your Internet service provider, by requiring that the ISP first get your permission. As the vote approaches, the broadband industry is trying to make the case that your ISP's collecting and sharing of customer data is no different than Facebook's or Google's.

    The FCC now has privacy jurisdiction over ISPs, thanks to last year's Open Internet rule (more popularly referred to as "net neutrality"), which reclassified broadband providers as "common carriers." Although the Federal Trade Commission still protects consumers' privacy with regards to most services, the FCC steps in where common carriers are concerned. 

    We Know All About You

    The data-heavy services you use online—called "edge providers" in the formal parlance—know a lot about you. Netflix knows what you're watching and what you've searched for. Google and Facebook between them know pretty much everywhere you're going on the web and what apps you have on your phone.

    But ISPs are the conduit for everything you do online, meaning they have access to a lot of potentially sensitive information about you.

    While phone companies have long had access to "metadata" about your calls—what numbers you called, which numbers called you, when these called happened, and for how long—in the 21st century, there's so much more information to collect.

    Your ISP can access data about what sites you visit. When. For how long. How much data you move to or through them. What apps you're using, on what operating systems and devices. And more. 

    No Big Deal?

    The ISPs contend that their ability to know all that data—called Customer Proprietary Network Information (CPNI)—isn't that big a deal because the edge providers like Google and Facebook have roughly equal access to all that same data, pieced together from a different direction. The way they see things, if the FCC regulates how ISPs acquire and use CPNI, it would put them at a competitive disadvantage against the content companies that don't also operate infrastructure.

    The full text of the FCC proposal won't be made public until after Thursday's vote, so much of the debate surrounding this issue has been based primarily on what's disclosed in the single fact sheet (PDF) released by the Commission.

    But that lack of available granular details didn't stop a recent panel at a Consumer Federation of America conference from exploring the topic.

    One panelist, Debbie Matties, formerly of the FTC but now an executive with the mobile industry lobbying group The CTIA, voiced frustration with her industry being singled out.

    "It's different with the voice market because only a small group of businesses has access to the data," Matties explained. "On the Internet the ISP can see that, but it may be encrypted. But your ISP knows, your OS knows, your browser knows, advertisers and trackers know it," so the ISP is not in a unique position that voice service companies once were.

    "The idea that the ISP has this singular view of everything you do is outdated," said Matties. If the ISPs, both mobile and fixed, have to live in an "an opt-in regime for everything" while nobody else does, she concluded, "it's not solving the larger problem."

    Katharina Kopp, from the Center for Democracy and Technology, acknowledged that privacy and consumer advocates would love to see all those edge providers brought in line but, "what we have here [is] the FCC with its statutory duty to act" specifically on ISPs, and so the Commission is regulating what it has the authority to regulate. 

    Paying for Privacy

    The panel discussion grew heated when moderator Ariel Johnson, from Common Sense Kids Action, asked about discount "pay for privacy" programs like the one AT&T now offers, where you can see significant savings on its GigaPower fiberoptic service, but only if you allow the company to share your browsing data.

    AT&T regulatory affairs executive Jacquelyne Flemming took issue with the very premise of the question, saying, "I'm not sure that labeling it 'pay for privacy' is the way to characterize that."

    "We, AT&T, have a broadband Internet access service that we market to customers that if you agree, if you opt-in, to the use of your data for various reasons, then you get a discount," Flemming continued. "That doesn’t mean that other people who don't get the discount are paying for privacy. I wouldn't say that," she explained, even though that is in fact actually the case.

    "I think that there is a benefit to the customer," Flemming finished, "and it's not as if we're talking [all] broadband Internet access services, of which there are a wide range of them that are available to customers. In this particular instance, if you like to get this benefit, then there is a reciprocal benefit to the customer and the company."

    However, most consumers do not have a wide range of broadband services available, which consumer advocate and Georgetown University visiting professor Laura Moy alluded to when she spoke.

    "You shouldn't have to make a choice between privacy protection and going online," Moy said.

    Referencing the "digital divide"—the fact that lower-income Americans lag behind the rest of the country in their access to online services—Moy theorized that "We could end up with something like a privacy divide. If you have pricing tiers that are based in part on privacy options, then you're going to see those that end up with the privacy protections tend to be those who can afford to pay, and that those who don't have them—even if they think they need them or prefer to have them—those will tend to be people who can't afford to pay that extra amount." 

    If You Don’t Like The Boat, Jump Off

    A question from the audience seemed to bolster Moy's position.

    "All of us don't have access to a wired Internet," explained the conference attendee. "Some of us only have over-the-air access. And so it's expensive already and we're already limited in what we can use it for."

    The woman began to explain the concern about the concept of being expected to pay more just to have privacy, when AT&T's Flemming responded that, "If you dislike the way that AT&T is providing that service to you, there are a number of choices you can make."

    "But they're all still expensive, and limited bandwidth," responded the woman in the audience. And as we've shown before, cost and data caps are common problems for satellite and wireless Internet users. "With the caps that all of them have—I don't have access to the same kind of Internet that other people do."

    Flemming responded, "So if there was an ad-supported service available to you that was cheaper, a different model of service—is that something that would seem reasonable to you?"

    "If they're ads that are based on using my information to target things to me," she answered, "then no, I’d rather not have it."

    Flemming challenged, "So you'd rather have ads that are not relevant to you?"

    But the woman in the audience enthusiastically responded, "Yes!" and pointed out that targeted ads are not only intrusive, high-data, and annoying, but also often wrong: they're advertising you a flight you've already taken and returned home from, a shirt you've already bought, or a service that you already subscribe to.

    What "value" is there in that?

    The audience laughed in appreciation, but Moy took the chance to point out the greater policy implications of the issue: "[As has just been] pointed out, whatever privacy options are going to be available to consumers should be available what their income level is and no matter whether they're using fixed or mobile broadband service." 

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

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  • 03/31/16--08:00: How to Keep Flowers Fresh
  • How to Keep Flowers Fresh

    Plunking a penny into a vase of water won’t help your blooms last longer. But here’s what will keep flowers fresh, according to Kristin Schleiter, associate vice president for outdoor gardens and senior curator at the New York Botanical Garden.

    Give Them a Snip
    You’ve probably heard that you keep flowers fresh by cutting the stem as soon as you get them home. Here’s why it’s a good practice: Flowers have a vascular system in their stems that draws up water and nutrients to feed the blooms. If you neglect to cut them, air that has been drawn into the stems while they were out of water can block water absorption. Use very sharp scissors or pruning shears, and snip at least one-half inch off the bottom of the stems to be sure you’re cutting above possible air bubbles. Schleiter suggests doing this if your flowers are delivered in a box or tied with a rubber band.

    Place Them in Water Quickly
    To speed the process, you can cut stems under water to prevent air bubbles from forming in the stems. It’s also okay to put the flowers in a vase of water right after you make the cut. Just don’t dillydally, Schleiter says. Arrange your bouquet first, then cut the stems and put them in water.

    Watch the Water Temp
    Placing stems in hot water will cook them, Schleiter says. Room-temperature water is best, with one exception: Blooms from bulbs that flower during cooler months, like anemones, daffodils, and tulips, will do better if the water is below room temperature. “Using cool water will help them last longer,” Schleiter notes. If you have unopened flowers and want to speed blooming along, perhaps because you plan to use them as a table centerpiece in the next day or two, use warm water to help them open up more quickly. (The trade-off, of course, is that they’ll also die sooner.)

    Remove Below-Water Foliage
    Any plant leaves and flowers you leave in the vase water will rot quickly, which will spread bacteria that will kill your flowers before their time.

    Keep 'Em Cool
    Heat will hasten your flowers’ demise, so place arrangements in cool spots, away from heating ducts and vents. You can also keep flowers fresh by avoiding direct sunlight.

    Change the Water
    As we said, bacteria are the enemy, so wash out the vase and refill it at least every three days, Schleiter advises. Trim another half-inch off the stems while you’re at it.

    Make Your Own Flower Food
    Those little packets that come with many floral arrangements help to keep flowers fresh because they contain sugar to provide a little nourishment; citric acid to keep the pH low and acidic, which helps water move up the stems a bit faster and may reduce wilting; as well as antibacterial powder. If your arrangement didn’t include a packet of food or if you’ve used yours up, you can make your own each time you change the water or before you give the stems a cut. Here’s how: Mix together a few drops of bleach or a clear spirit such as vodka or gin to help fight bacterial growth, add a few drops of clear soda or superfine sugar to feed the flowers, and then crush a vitamin C tablet and add it to lower the pH.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 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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    Ordering Flowers Online: Do the Pictures Match What You Get?

    Mother’s Day is near, and if you’re like a lot of people, flowers are your go-to gift. More money is spent on bouquets around mom’s special day (about $2.4 billion last year, according to a National Retail Federation survey) than on Valentine’s Day ($2.1 billion).

    And more and more of us are ordering our Mother’s Day flowers online. Low prices and convenience are the lure: Virtual flower shops can keep prices down because their website is their storefront, and their flowers are often delivered from central warehouses. (Many of them also keep a portion of the sales placed through their websites that they pass on to local florists.) As a result, revenue for online florists has been growing 2.5 percent annually in the past five years as revenue for walk-in flower shops has dropped by 1.2 percent each year during the same time period, according to market research by IBISWorld.

    Ordering flowers online also makes it easy to see a wide variety of bouquet choices. The photos on these sites are lovely: Lush arrangements of fresh flowers in full bloom, expertly styled. The only thing you can’t do is take a deep sniff. But how can you know how the photo compares with the arrangement that actually shows up at mom’s door?

    To find out, we ordered similarly composed and priced multicolor long-stem roses as well as mixed-flower bouquets from three popular online sites: 1-800-Flowers, FTD, and ProFlowers. We selected arrangements that were supposed to be delivered in boxes (which usually means they’re sent from a central warehouse), representing what many consumers might receive during one of the industry’s busiest times of year. Flowers that arrive in a vase are usually arranged by a local florist.

    All six bouquets were delivered on Feb. 11, close to Valentine’s Day, to match the high-demand Mother’s Day moment as much as possible.

    When the mixed-flower arrangements arrived, we were surprised to find the ones from ProFlowers and FTD were in a vase. As a result, we didn’t include the mixed flowers in our survey because the arrangements represented only what people near our office in Yonkers, N.Y., might receive.

    We took pictures of the three bunches of roses in our photo studio. Then we asked 77 staff volunteers to inspect the arrangements and choose which ones they thought represented the best and worst quality, all under the supervision of our lab experts. We followed with an online survey of 162 staffers who were shown the flowers online pictures (we didn’t identify the websites) next to photos of the roses that were delivered, and asked how similar they were on a scale of one (not at all similar) to five (extremely alike). FTD roses got the best scores; staffers liked the ProFlowers bunch the least.

    ProFlowers

    On the left is the photo of the roses we ordered from the ProFlowers website; on the right are the flowers we received. ProFlowers (which was acquired by FTD in December 2014) says on its website that its flowers are hand-picked in fields and sent directly to your door. In our sample of a dozen roses, however, only five were intact. Almost all of our panelists who rated them in person (97 percent) said they represented the lowest-quality bunch. When we asked in our survey how similar the arrangement was to its online photo, 96 percent gave it a 1 out of 5, or a poor rating. When we called ProFlowers to complain, a customer-service rep apologized and sent us another bunch of roses the next day at no additional charge. The replacement roses were full and intact.

    Total price: $56.48
    ($34.97, plus $12.99 for shipping, $5.53 for tax, and $2.99 for “care and handling")


    FTD

    The FTD roses received the best scores from our survey panelists: 95 percent of those who rated them in person said they represented the best quality of the three rose bouquets we ordered. Sixteen percent of the folks who took our online survey said they were extremely similar to the online picture (on the left); another 36 percent gave them a 4 out of 5.

    Total price: $76.01
    ($49.99, plus $18.99 for shipping and $7.03 for tax)


    1-800-FLOWERS

    The roses from 1-800-Flowers arrived in fine shape, but our survey panelists were less wowed by them than the FTD roses. When judging how similar our delivery (on the right) was to the flowers online photo (on the left), 37 percent of our staffers gave them a good rating (3); 37 percent rated them fair (2). Only three of the 77 people who looked them over in person thought they represented the best quality among our rose bouquets. Only two said they were the lowest quality.

    Total price: $65.01
    ($44.99, plus $14.99 for shipping and $5.03 for tax)


    Smart Shopping Tips

    If you’ll be ordering a bouquet for mom online, keep this advice in mind:

    Go to online flower-delivery websites a few times before you order. We were offered additional price cuts and coupons the more we clicked on the sites.

    Don’t forget to factor shipping and taxes into your total cost. Our shipping fees ranged from $12.99 to $18.99 for a dozen roses.

    Consider having your arrangement arrive a few days before a major holiday. You could save some additional money. Delivery costs escalate in the days leading up to Valentine’s Day, as they probably will around Mother’s Day.

    Ask your mom about the flowers sent. (She may not want to complain to you, or she may just be glad you thought of her.) But if you suspect there was a problem with the bouquet, ask for a photo. Call the company you ordered them from to complain if you or your mother is dissatisfied with a delivery. All three companies we ordered from will replace your flowers or refund your money if you’re not satisfied. All three also provide the same options if their flowers don’t last for seven days.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 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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    Best Cameras to Buy Right Now

    Canon PowerShot N100

    One reason people like snapping photos on their smartphones is that smartphones are "connected" to the Internet, email and message services, making it easy to share their work. This small, portable point-and-shoot uses Wi-Fi to transfer images to phones, tablets, and computers, as well as other PowerShot N-series cameras. It can even upload photos directly to Facebook. It has fun features, too: In Creative Shot mode, it lets you edit your images using various filters and cropping techniques (think Instagram) and save five versions of each shot.

    Nikon Coolpix P900

    With its 83x optical superzoom lens (24mm-2000mm), this Coolpix captures the craters on the moon. Far out, right? To keep your pictures sharp and your video jitter-free, it has an excellent image-stabilization system. And unlike many point-and-shoots, it includes a swiveling liquid crystal display for framing hard-to-reach shots and an electronic viewfinder, useful when bright sunlight washes out that LCD screen. The camera also offers a second zoom control, right on the barrel of the lens.

    Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 II

    Though a bit heavy, this fixed-lens Sony nonetheless has benefits that make it an attractive alternative to an SLR or mirrorless camera. For starters, its 8.3x optical zoom (24mm-200mm) is longer than the lens you'll find in most kits. It also has a constant f/2.8 aperture, which delivers better low-light shots by letting more of that glow into the lens over the length of the zoom. By creating a shallow depth of field, even at the telephoto end of the zoom, it also produces more professional-looking images.

    The camera has lots of other nifty features too, including a high-quality electronic viewfinder, the power to fire off 14 frames per second in burst mode, the ability to capture 4K-resolution video, and various high-frame rate video settings for dramatic slow-motion effects.  

    Olympus Stylus TG-4

    A waterproof point-and-shoot lets you go where smartphones dare not tread—like, say, a waterpark or a river rafting expedition. This point-and-shoot is rugged enough to survive a deep dive of roughly 50 feet or a freefall of seven feet.  

    lt shoots photos of very good quality and has a good flash. Plus it can capture images as RAW files, a feature found mostly on advanced cameras. Unlike a JPEG, this uncompressed format isn't processed inside the camera and can yield the best quality images.

    Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4

    If you're not put off by the pricetag (especially when the unit is paired with the 14-140mm lens), this wireless mirrorless camera has all the bells and whistles one could want. It captures stunning stills, even in low light, and can shoot 4K (ultra high definition) video at 30 frames per second. It comes with a fantastic, swiveling, touch-screen OLED display and an excellent electronic viewfinder. And, if you don't want to miss a single moment of the drama in that viewfinder, you'll be glad to know the Lumix DMC-GH4 can capture 12 frames per second.

    Nikon D750

    Thanks to a full-frame-sized sensor (24mm x 36mm), this pricey-but-powerful, 24-megapixel SLR can handle a wide variety of lighting situations. Even without a flash, images shot in low-lamp conditions were sharp with no visual noise. The camera has a large, 3.1-inch LCD screen, built-in WiFi, and it can fire off 6.5 frames per second in burst mode.

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

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