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    6 back-to-college health tips

    Staying healthy at college is no easy task between busy schedules, limited budgets, and lots of germs. Here are six ways to maintain your well-being when you head back to college:

    1. Get vaccinated. The Tdap vaccine (which protects against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis), HPV vaccine, meningitis vaccine, and seasonal flu vaccine are among those vaccinations we recommend to adults, which includes college students who are 18 years of age or older. Some states require additional vaccinations. Use the state requirement search from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to make sure you’ve gotten all the vaccinations that your school’s state requires before heading off this fall.

    2. Stay clean. Dorms, cafeterias, and academic buildings can carry lots of germs. To give yourself a fighting chance at avoiding infections, keep your things clean, as well as surfaces including door handles and light switches. Avoid wasting money and precious storage space on tons of products and instead stock your dorm room with some simple cleaning supplies such as disinfectant wipes or paper towel and some all-purpose cleaner. Bounty and Pine-Sol Original were both top performers in our paper towel and all-purpose cleaner tests, respectively.

    Check out our ratings for microwaves and toasters, which can be serious time-savers when it comes to preparing meals for college students. 

    3. Eat healthy for less. Underclassman heading back to dorm rooms will most likely have a meal plan. Prevent college weight gain by refraining from overeating at the all-you-can-eat facilities and by keeping only healthy snacks in your dorm room. For upperclassmen moving off campus, buying and cooking groceries will probably become a new responsibility. On the bright side, making healthy choices will be easier without all the greasy foods from the cafeteria tempting you. And you don’t have to spend a lot to eat healthy. Look for cheap proteins, such as beans and eggs, which cost less per serving than pasta. If you have space in your freezer, buy meats in bulk on sale and freeze them for later use. Frozen vegetables are another good product to buy in large amounts. For quick frozen meals, our testers recommend Birds Eye Voila Chicken Florentine, which was the best value and was rated very good for nutrition. Frozen waffles, like our top rated Trader Joe’s Multigrain, are another quick fix that can make a healthy breakfast option.

    4. Drink to good health. Some schools have banned sales of bottled water on campus and have instead installed water bottle filling stations. If your school hasn't done so yet, consider investing in your own water filter and refillable water bottle. By cutting out all those bottled water purchases, you'll be saving money and the environment. You can easily fill up the water filter and keep it in the fridge in your dorm room or off-campus apartment. The Clear2O CWS100A, $23, was a Best Buy in our water filter tests. You can spend all the money you’re saving from your water filter on some much-needed coffee to get you through the semester! 

    Visit our diet and nutrition page for more healthy and budget friendly tips.

    5. Keep essential medications and supplies on hand. Before heading back to school, prepare a little first aid kit with the basic stuff that you might need during the semester, including pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic), ibuprofen (Advil and generic), or naproxen (Aleve and generic), skin cleansers and ointments, bandages, allergy medicines, heartburn drugs, antidiarrheal tablets, and cough lozenges. Take a look at our OTC medication guide to take the guesswork out of what to pick when you’re sniffling, coughing, fighting pain, or suffering from heartburn.

    6. Protect yourself. Prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs) by being prepared with condoms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are 20 million new sexually transmitted infections each year in the United States alone and that worldwide, in 2008, there was a total of 110 million new and existing infections. While four of the infections analyzed can be easily treated and cured when caught early (Chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, trichomoniasis) they often show no symptoms. Untreated STIs can cause further health issues, such as an increased chance of infertility in women. And remember, there are STIs that cannot be cured. For more information on different STIs and how to prevent and treat them, visit The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s STI page.

    —Ciara Rafferty

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    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Homeowners insurance covers more than you think

    You probably know that homeowners and renters insurance covers property inside your home from losses due to theft, fire, and other calamities. But you may not be aware that it also protects you from other types of situations, including many losses that occur outside your home, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

    That’s why it’s a good idea to read your policy. You’ll probably find some big surprises. Here are some examples.


    Away-from-home losses. Property outside your home typically is protected for up to 10 percent of your policy’s total personal property coverage. So if your possessions are covered for $125,000, belongings outside your home are typically insured for up to $12,500, including possessions in your car and vacation rental home, and your child’s property while it's in a college dormitory. (Possessions in a dorm may not be subject to the 10 percent limit. Check the policy).

    For more information, check our homeowners insurance buying guide and Ratings.

    Liability outside your home. Did you accidentally injure somebody away from your home? Did your dog bite someone or damage another person's property? You’re probably covered for that too, including the cost of defending yourself in court and any court awards. (Certain breeds of dog or dogs with a history of causing bite injuries may not be covered, so check your policy.)

    Credit card losses. You’re typically covered for up to $500 of unauthorized use of your credit, debit, or ATM card.

    Counterfeit money. You’re also covered if you receive counterfeit cash or you’re a victim of a forged check (including if your signature is forged on a stolen check). The protection generally is limited to $500 to $1,000, although your deductible usually doesn’t apply.

    Trees, plants, and shrubs. These typically are covered up to five percent of the insured value of your home, up to $500 per item, although losses due to wind or disease are excluded.

    When pondering these protections, don’t forget to review your coverage limits and adjust them if needed. Also, think about adding special coverage for certain items, such as fine art and valuable jewelry, which may not be adequately covered under a standard policy.

    Anthony Giorgianni

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    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    What's the right investment mix of retirement funds?

    When choosing where to invest my 401(k), I put 70 percent in an index mutual fund that is tied to the S&P 500. The remaining 30 percent I put in index funds tied to international, small-cap, and mid-cap stocks. I'm in my late 40s; do you think this is a smart move?—A.T., Arlington, Texas

    We don't think that anyone should have 100 percent of his or her 401(k) money invested in stocks, because a more diversified portfolio will help protect it from getting pummeled in economic downturns.

    If you were in your 20s you could afford to be heavily invested in stocks, but as you get closer to retirement you should probably shift to a more conservative, bond-centric portfolio. Many people in their 40s should consider placing about 30 percent of their investments in bonds. To achieve this you could take roughly half of the money you have invested in the S&P index fund and move it into a low-cost index bond fund.

    Grow your savings by learning how to stop 401(k) fees from cheating you out of retirement money.  

    —Consumer Reports

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    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How do I investigate 401(k) investment choices?

    My 401(k) is dropping a mutual fund in which I invested. The plan administrator has given me the option of a growth and income fund that is “managed exclusively for the fund.” There’s no ticker symbol. How can I vet the fund with an independent rating site? And are those funds common in 401(k)s?  —D.S., address not disclosed

    Almost half of the assets in 401(k) plans aren’t invested in mutual funds, according to the Investment Company Institute, a mutual-fund industry trade group. Increasingly, assets are invested in products that aren’t always as transparent as mutual funds. Your plan may have chosen to replace your fund with what’s known as a collective investment, which is managed by a trust or a bank, perhaps to reduce overall costs. Although you might not have access to the day-to-day performance of those replacements, the Department of Labor still requires 401(k) providers to furnish participants with certain performance data and costs. You should ask your employer for those details. —Consumer Reports

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Michelin dominates our latest tire Ratings

    Consumer Reports has just published the latest results of 49 tested models of ultra-high-performance (UHP) summer and all-season tires, and performance winter tires. The big winner? Michelin. But Goodyear, Nokian, Pirelli, and others have traction, too.

    As summer winds down, it’s time for our annual new tire ratings, revealing the industry’s best performers. These new ratings replace the previous results on ConsumerReports.org, reflecting most current models you can buy today. (See our complete tire ratings in nine categories.)

    All tires were put through our standard regiment of tests, including braking and handling on dry and wet pavement, resistance to hydroplaning, and grip on snow and icy surfaces (for all-season and winter tires). We also measure rolling resistance—a factor in fuel economy. Finally, we do our own vehicle tread life (for summer and all-season models) evaluations since tread wear warranties are rare among UHP tires, and Uniform Quality Treadwear Grades are difficult to compare across brands.

    UHP tires come in a ZR-speed rating, suitable for speeds beyond 149 mph. But more relevant to consumers is the higher levels of grip and handling precision that come with these high-speed tires, making them a perfect match for sports cars and sporty sedans. By definition, summer tires provide the ultimate dry and wet grip. All-season tires make some concessions for at least some moderate traction on snow and ice. Summer tires don’t work well in cold weather and have dreadfully poor snow traction. If you need to drive in winter weather, then consider an all-season model— you won’t sacrifice much performance on dry and wet roads, and they can at least get through a mild snow storm. For more severe weather, consider performance winter tires.

    Here’s a brief summary of test findings.

    UHP summer tires: The Pirelli P Zero and Michelin Pilot Super Sport are tops among 21 tires in the summer category. The P Zero has excellent ratings for dry and wet braking and handling. Top-rated in our last test cycle, the Pilot Super Sport continues to impress with its precise handling on dry and wet surfaces. It offers the best tread life of any summer tire we tested.

    UHP all-season tires: The Michelin Pilot Sport A/S 3 stands out among the 21 models of all-season tires for its excellent dry braking and handling—even better than many hard-core summer tires. Some other all-season tires have longer tread life, but the Michelin still achieves a very good rating here. The Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric All Season comes in second with slightly lower dry braking and handling, but it still offers impressive all around grip, commendable handling and long tread life.

    Performance winter tires: Looking for reliable winter traction while maintaining reasonably good grip and handling on cleared roads? Check out the Nokian WR G3 and the Michelin Pilot Alpin PA4. If you drive routinely in snow, then the Nokian Hakkapeliitta R2 offers outstanding winter grip, though at the expense of handling and grip on cleared roads.

    Read our complete tire buying guide, and see all the tire ratings for these categories, and many more.  

    Gene Petersen 

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    Granite countertop cleaning tip

    What’s the best way to clean granite?—Elizabeth Mendelsohn Arlington, Va.

    Use a mild all-purpose cleaner, following the directions. Dry the surface, and disinfect as needed. Seventh Generation Natural All Purpose Cleaner did well in our tests for a spray product; Pine-Sol was the top liquid.

    If you're remodeling or considering putting new countertops in, know that granite is still among the most desirable or must-have kitchen features, according to a recent study from the National Association of Home Builders.

    For more information, read about countertop materials that stand up to years of abuse, plus check out our kitchen and bathroom countertop buying guide and all-purpose cleaners buying guide and Ratings.

    —Consumer Reports

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    2014 Kia Soul adds refinement, technology, and elbow room

    Kia’s funky Soul has grown up for 2014. The new model is not only about a smidge bigger all around, but it’s also a lot more refined. We recently had the chance to sample an early example at our test track (for a fee), and we found the new car much more pleasant than the old version, while still retaining its mod personality.

    The boxlike styling looks quite familiar, with some visual refinements, such as LED headlamp accents and tail lights. The new model gained an inch in length, width, and wheelbase. These slight changes give the redesigned Soul a more spacious backseat and more room all around for drivers and passengers. Kia claims an increase of almost 29 percent in body stiffness, which should go a long way toward improving the ride and handling. (We liked the handling of the old car, but found the ride pretty stiff.) On initial drives, the new one felt smoother, sounded much quieter, and still had good steering and handling.

    Two four-cylinder engines will be offered: 130-hp, 1.6-liter and 164-hp, 2.0-liter. You can get the base engine with a choice of a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. The uplevel engine is matched with the automatic. In the outgoing Soul, this combination returned 26 mpg overall in our tests.

    Perhaps the more significant news for small-car buyers is all the new high-tech equipment that’s available. Kia’s updated UVO infotainment system uses the Android platform, with a high-definition touch screen that users can swipe to scroll.  For the first time in a Kia, the system can display audio and navigation controls side-by-side. Aiding navigation, turn-by-turn directions appear in the instrument cluster, as with some upscale cars. Live traffic and weather streams are provided via a three-month subscription to Sirius/XM satellite radio. The new system also integrates Pandora Internet radio, so users can control playback using the Soul’s center screen or voice controls. A backup camera is available on midtrim Plus models.

    Replacing the trim formerly known as ! with the pronounceable name Exclaim, top models are available with front and rear heated seats, a heated steering wheel, and dual-zone automatic climate control.

    The previous 2013 Soul, along with the newly redesigned 2014 Kia Forte, just rated Poor in the latest round of small-offset front crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. We hope Kia has also addressed these safety issues with this latest model.

    Check out the video for more first impressions.

    Eric Evarts

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    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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  • 08/19/13--09:59: PlayMG MG review
  • PlayMG MG review

    The MG from PlayMG is a new portable Android gaming device designed for kids. For $180, you get what is essentially an Android smart phone without the phone. Though it doesn’t have the high-end specs of popular phones such as the Apple iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S4, the MG is a good choice kids who love playing phone games, and it lets parents keep their pricy phones in their own pockets.

    Design

    The MG is similar in size and form to most cell phones, so it will easily fit into a pocket. It has no special controls for gaming; the play experience is just like playing a game on any Android phone. Its 4-inch, 480x800 screen makes the MG a good size for smaller hands to use.

    Kids can attach a lanyard to the top of the MG for easy portability. You can also order cases for the device to add some personal flair ($15 on the PlayMG website).

    Highs

    While there are many tablets designed for kids, there aren't many pocket-sized devices. The MG addresses a need that hasn't gotten much attention.

    To get games for the MG, you sign up for a SpendSmart prepaid debit card, which you or your child uses to make app and in-app purchases from the device. Using the MG’s Family Collaboration feature, you can track how much money is available and what it's being spent on, though you can't approve purchases ahead of time. Parents also receive a weekly e-mail with updates on their child’s activities on the MG.

    The MG has full access to the Google Play Store, so there are many games available, including free ones. Google Play offers several free messaging apps too, so the MG could be used for texting, something older kids and young teens will probably enjoy.  

    For more gaming tips and advice, visit our guide to video games, consoles, and tech toys.

    Lows

    The MG's price puts it in competition with popular devices such as the Amazon Kindle Fire HD and older generations of the Apple iPod Touch, which offer more features and flexibility.

    While the MG gives you the ability to track what your child is doing, it lacks other parental controls, such as the ability to restrict Web browsing.  

    Bottom line

    The MG is best for younger kids. My daughter is just a toddler, and she is constantly trying to pry my phone out of my hands; but teens and even tweens will probably already be clamoring for whatever is the hottest smart phone on the market, and this device won’t satisfy them. Littler ones won’t care too much about the branding and will enjoy playing the games that the MG can offer. For parents who don’t like the idea of their kids playing with their very expensive smart phones, this is a good alternative.

    —Matt Ferretti

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    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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  • 08/19/13--13:59: Average gas prices
  • Average gas prices

    Gas prices are down in all areas across the country except the Midwest this week. The national gasoline average is down one cent from this time last year and from last week. Premium gas is $3.87, down slightly from last week. Diesel fuel is about 13 cents lower than this time last year.

    See our guide to fuel economy for advice on saving gasoline, including reports on how to get the best gas mileage and where to find the cheapest gas. Learn about future technologies such as electric and hydrogen fuel cells in our guide to alternative fuels.

    National regular gasoline prices Price Change from last week
    Regular gasoline/gallon $3.55 ↓  .01
    Diesel fuel/gallon $3.90 0
    Regional regular gasoline prices Price Change from last week
    East Coast $3.55 ↓  .02
    —New England $3.74 ↓  .02
    —Central Atlantic $3.63 ↓  .02
    —Lower Atlantic $3.45 ↓  .01
    Midwest $3.50 ↑  .02
    Gulf Coast $3.37 ↓  .02
    Rocky Mountain $3.64     0
    West Coast $3.78 ↓  .06
    —California $3.83 ↓  .07

    Source: Energy Information Administration, 8/19/13. Figures rounded to the nearest cent.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Get the most cash back from your credit cards

    Choosing a rewards credit card isn’t always just as simple as picking the one in the ad that seems to pay the most back. Making your points grow involves knowing how to take advantage of signup bonuses and strategize your spending. You'll also have to know which pitfalls to avoid so your points aren’t taken from you or you miss out on cash back you could have earned. Follow these tips and tricks to maximize your rewards.

    • Wait for a big signup offer. Log on to sites such as thepointsguy.com and frequentflier.com to find the best point deals. For example, in May, thepointsguy.com posted a link to an unadvertised card offer for 75,000 American Express points that lasted just 24 hours. But also check your snail mail. Amex sends its most lucrative 100,000-point offers through direct mail with invitation codes only the recipient can use.
    • Watch for seasonal bonus categories. For example, the Chase Freedom, Discover It Card, and Citi Dividend Platinum Select each give 5 percent back in seasonally rotating categories, some of which might be gas spending in the summer months, or home improvement expenses in the spring. But you have to opt in each quarter, or you get nothing. And there are caps (often $1,500) each quarter. And one card, the Citi Dividend, limits rewards to a stingy $300 in total earned per year, so despite its 5 percent back in certain categories, you’ll never earn that much. But if you would benefit from the seasonal categories, put the signup date on your calendar and attach a post-it to the card in your wallet with that quarter's categories so you’ll remember to use them.
    • Understand spending thresholds. Besides the Citi Dividend mentioned above with its $300 annual cap on total rewards, many other cards have caps in individual spending categories. For example the Amex Costco gives 3 percent back on up to $4,000-worth of gas purchased in a year, but then just 1 percent back on gas purchases beyond that. Conversely, some cards give higher rewards when you spend more than a certain amount. The Walmart Discover pays just .25 percent on total annual purchases up to $1,500, .50 percent on total purchases from $1,500.01 to $3,000, and then 1 percent on total purchases over $3,000. Some premium cards, such as the Citi Prestige, pay extra to big spenders. The Prestige gives bonuses if you spend more than $50,000 and even more if you top $100,000 in a year.
    • Find unconventional things to spend on your card. You may be able put your rent, mortgage, college tuition, car payments, health-care expenses, or utility bills on your credit cards. But check for “convenience” fees, which might negate any possible benefit. If the fee is just 1 percent and you earn 2 percent back on your credit card, it would be worthwhile. A new strategy is to buy prepaid cards with your credit card, rack up the points, and then use the prepaid cards to pay for bills you are barred from paying for with a credit card. The better prepaid cards offer online bill pay and free checks. But, prepaid cards can carry their own fees, so pick one wisely.
    • Redeem points in the right place. Card issuers may give you bonuses, or discounts, for spending points through partner retailers, or their own travel agency. For example, earning 40,000 points with the Chase Sapphire Preferred gets you $500 worth of travel spending if used through Chase’s travel agent, but only $400 with an outside site such as Kayak.com. Shopping at a card issuer’s “online mall” may earn you extra cash.
    • Don’t neglect your points. Check your card’s terms and conditions to see if you lose any points you don’t use in a calendar year. If you’re planning to cancel a card, try to use points before you do; they’re likely to be wiped out when you close an account. And some cards cancel rewards for late payments, so set up payment alerts and reminders.
    For more tips, see our rewards card buying guide.
     
    —Chris Fichera

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  • 08/20/13--02:59: Kia Cadenza review
  • Kia Cadenza review

    The Cadenza banishes any lingering thoughts that Kia is just a manufacturer of cheap, unrefined cars. This modern large sedan is well-rounded and thoroughly likable. And it scored near the top of its category in our testing, edging out the Toyota Avalon, which was once a benchmark in this segment. Thanks to the Cadenza’s better ride and handling, it also outscores the Hyundai Azera, which shares its platform and powertrain.

    Pulling off that high score requires a long list of positives and very few faults. The cabin is quiet, well-finished, and spacious, and it has super-simple controls, which is rare in a loaded luxury sedan. The refined 3.3-liter  V6, which is mated to a smooth six-speed automatic transmission, delivers ample power and a respectable 22 mpg overall.

    Ride comfort is very good, but the Cadenza lacks the placid isolation of the best-riding cars, such as the Buick LaCrosse and Chevrolet Impala.

    Despite Kia’s traditional emphasis on value, our $39,030 Cadenza lacks some features we expect for the price, such as blind-spot monitoring and comprehensive seat adjustments. To get blind-spot monitoring, you need to ante up for the Luxury and Technology packages, which cost $3,000 each.

    We don’t yet have reliability data on this new model.

    Plush interior

    Though the Cadenza provides secure, responsive handling, it’s not particularly agile. The body remains controlled in corners, and the steering provides decent, if vague, response. When pushed to its relatively low handling limits, the sedan exhibits notable body lean and understeer.

    Inside you’ll find a plush, attractive interior. Drivers can stretch out, although those who are taller might find head room to be a bit tight. Some drivers wished the telescoping steering wheel pulled closer, and shorter people had trouble adjusting the seat cushion for a comfortable driving position.

    The large, well-padded front seats fit most people well, although the front passenger will have to do without lumbar or bottom-cushion tilt adjustments. Rear-seat passengers will enjoy plenty of leg room and head room, and the seat is wide enough to fit three adults across.

    Controls are refreshingly easy to use, with large, well-labeled buttons and simple radio knobs. Even the touch screen has big onscreen buttons and intuitive logic. Pairing devices via Bluetooth is easy, and you can stream music and podcasts through an iPhone or Android device. You can also control phone, navigation, radio, and iPod functions through voice commands.

    The trunk is roomy, but the space can’t be expanded by folding the rear seats. There’s only a narrow pass-through for long items.

    More test findings ConsumerReports.org subscribers. Sign in or subscribe to read this article.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Chevrolet Cruze Turbo Diesel review

     

    Here’s the quick take on Chevy’s new diesel-powered compact sedan: If you spend a lot of time driving on the highway and want to really stretch your fuel dollars, you might consider putting it on your short list. But if you mostly do around-town driving, it’s much less compelling.

    In our testing, the Turbo Diesel delivered an excellent 49 mpg on the highway, which is among the best we’ve seen in any vehicle. With its 15.6-gallon fuel tank, you could drive this Cruze about 760 highway miles before needing to fill up. And while cruising it provides a pleasant, civilized driving environment, with a compliant ride, smooth power delivery, and impressive isolation from road noise. Overall, that combination helps the miles ease on by.

    We measured 33 mpg overall in the Turbo Diesel, which is good but only a little better than some less-expensive gas-powered cars. Also, at slower, urban speeds, you’ll notice a fair amount of diesel clatter that gets masked at highway speed and an uneven power delivery that tends to be unresponsive or abrupt, making it difficult to drive smoothly.

    Inside, front occupants have ample space in the Cruze, although rear-seat room is very tight. Controls are mostly simple to use. And though the Turbo Diesel is competent in routine handling, it’s less agile than other Cruze models when pushed to its handling limits; it tended to run wide in our track’s corners, with a lot more understeer.

    The Turbo Diesel comes well equipped, with heated, leather seats; a six-way power adjustable driver’s seat; a sunroof; and a backup camera. Our car cost $27,300, which is about $2,300 more than an equivalent gas-powered Cruze.

     

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    Three-row SUVs: Acura MDX, Mercedes-Benz GL350 BlueTec, and Mitsubishi Outlander

    SUVs are known for versatility in carrying people and cargo. And adding a third-row seat boosts that capability another notch. Depending on the model, a third-row seat lets the vehicle carry up to seven or eight passengers. That’s handy for a large family, car-pooling duties, or mobile play dates. And when you don’t need the extra seat, it folds conveniently into the rear cargo floor. With a split-­seatback design, you can fold one section down and still let someone sit in the other one.

    But the third-row seats in most SUVs are small, tight, and best left for kids. It can be cumbersome to climb into and out of them. When they’re up, cargo space can be slashed to a fraction of a vehicle’s normal volume. So you might be able to carry half of the local youth football team but not its gear.

    For this report, we tested three recently redesigned models at different prices that show the range—and limitations—of the choices in this category.

    The midsized Acura MDX, $49,460, for example, has a pretty typical third-row seat. It’s sized for kids. Adults can fit in a pinch, but the sitting position is a bit awkward. Leg, head, and foot room are tight.

    The Mitsubishi Outlander, $27,180, is the only compact SUV that currently offers a third row. But this one is tighter still, with the owner’s manual warning that the row is designed only for shorter people. Moreover, to carve out enough leg room for people in that row, you have to slide the second-row seat forward, which impinges on leg room there, too.

    The Mercedes-Benz GL350 BlueTec, a diesel-powered luxury SUV costing $73,020, is the rarity here. It has a roomy, minivanlike third row that comfortably accommodates two adults. The seat is easy to climb into and out of.

    If you really want a three-row SUV and you don’t have a luxury-car-level bank account, a couple of affordable models that did well in our testing are the redesigned Hyundai Santa Fe and Kia Sorento, although both are too new for us to have reliability data.

    The full article is available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers. Sign in or subscribe to read this article.

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    Don't get ripped off by credit card skimming at gas pumps

    Being able to pay by credit or debit card at the the gas station is a nice convenience. But when you swipe your card at the pump, you actually may be handing crooks what they need to steal money from your bank account at an ATM or go on a spending spree on your dime.

    Credit card skimmers that thieves install where you swipe your card to pay at the pump can copy the account data from the magnetic stripe on the back of your card, along with your PIN if you type that in for a debit card transaction. In fact, what crooks prize most is capturing debit card data complete with PINs so they can make counterfeit cards to withdraw cash from your account at ATMs. “It’s an easy way to steal money with no guns or blood involved, and it’s also more lucrative than stealing credit card data to sell on the black market,” says Avivah Litan, a senior analyst at Gartner Research who specializes in fraud detection and prevention.

    Just how lucrative? Two men indicted in July for a credit card skimming operation they set up at Murphy’s gas pumps in the parking lots of Walmart retail stores in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas raked in $400,000 from April 2012 to January 2013, according to court documents filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma. (This interactive map illustrates how widespread card fraud is nationwide.)

    The defendants, Kevin Konstantinov and Elvin Alisuretove, would leave skimmers in the gas pumps for one or two months, then retrieve them and wait another month or two before transferring the skimmed card information onto counterfeit cards they then used to withdraw cash from multiple ATMs, according to the court documents. On a single day in September 2012, for example, they used 75 counterfeit debit cards containing account data they’d obtained from gas pump skimmers to withdraw $45,280 from ATMs in the Oklahoma City area, the indictment states.

    Criminals running skimming operations have been improving the technology they use to make stealing card data even easier, so card issuers and gas station owners need to step up their game to fight back, security experts say. Many different gas pumps can be opened with the same master keys, so crooks need only get copies of a limited set of master keys to get into pumps to install skimmers. Increasingly, they are using wireless internal skimmers that transmit the card data to them via Bluetooth devices, so they don’t even have to take the risk of retrieving the skimmer from the pump to download stolen card data.

    “They just need to be within 30 feet of the skimmer, so one guy can go in to buy a Slurpee and distract the clerk while his partner sits in their car near the pumps downloading all of the stolen card data,” said Al Pascual, senior analyst of security risk and fraud at Javelin Strategy & Research.
     
    Some gas stations are beginning to upgrade to pumps that have payment terminals equipped with antitampering devices, but that change is only occurring gradually because upgrades can cost $4,000 to $12,000 per pump, according to Litan.

    How to minimize risks posed by debit and credit card skimmers

    • To totally avoid becoming a skimming victim at the pump, use cash when you buy gas, which also should knock down the price per gallon you’ll pay.
    • Use a credit card rather than a debit card at the gas pump, and preferably one that provides an attractive cash-back rate for gas. It's rare to see a lower price at the pump for debit-card transactions compared with credit-card transactions, according to Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores. While some stations offer discounts both for cash payments and PIN-based debit transactions, Lenard said in most cases, discounts apply only when you pay with a specific convenience store’s debit cards tied to a loyalty program, such as those offered by the Savannah, Georgia-based Parker’s chain.
    • If you must use a debit card, never type in your PIN. Instead, select the option on the screen that allows you to have your debit card purchase processed as a credit card transaction. The purchase still is debited from your checking account, but you won’t need to enter your PIN, which is what the bad guys need to withdraw cash from your account at an ATM.
    • Monitor your bank and credit card accounts regularly to spot unauthorized charges or cash withdrawals and report them immediately. Under federal law, delays in reporting fraudulent transactions can increase your liability for losses. For more details on your legal liability for fraud-related losses on credit and debit cards, see this helpful advice from the Federal Trade Commission.

    —Andrea Rock

    Why the U.S. has become a magnet for ATM and credit card skimming
    The credit and debit cards most Americans use rely on decades-old technology that makes them susceptible to being skimmed and counterfeited. In most cases, your credit- and debit-card account data is stored unencrypted on a magnetic stripe on the back of each card, which thieves can easily and cheaply copy.
    But most other countries in the world now use or are shifting to Europay MasterCard Visa “smart cards,” which have multiple layers of security to prevent skimming, starting with a computer chip in each card that stores and transmits encrypted data. In the first year after EMV cards were introduced in France in 1992, total fraud losses there dropped by 50 percent, and card counterfeiting fell by 78 percent.
    Because of U.S. banks’ continued reliance on outdated magnetic-stripe technology, America now has become the prime target for organized criminals who run skimming operations. A European ATM Security Team report released in July found that ATM-related fraud continues to migrate away from countries using the more secure EMV card technology, while the U.S. is the top location for ATM-related fraud losses, followed by the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Thailand.
    “As long as the shift to EMV is being put on the back burner in the U.S., we’re going to continue to attract criminals from overseas who are withdrawing millions in cash-out fraud at ATMs in the U.S.,” said a Javelin security analyst, Al Pascual.  
    For more on the skimming risks you face and why U.S. banks have been slow to update to more secure technology, read " House of Cards" and watch our related video (from 2011) at the bottom of this page. —A.R.

    The map here identifies card-fraud hotspots, where the actual theft of card and PIN data occurred in 2012. It is based on data from FICO Card Alert Service, which analyzes more than 65 percent of all ATM transactions in the U.S. each day. "Criminals engaged in card fraud are migratory and while they still are spending a lot of time hitting locations in the Northeast, we're also currently seeing an increased amount of skimming and other card fraud occurring in Southern California and Florida," says John Buzzard, client-relations manager at FICO Card Alerts. Click on your state to see how prevalent card fraud has been or on the hot spots for more details about where these crimes most often occur.—A.R.

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  • 08/21/13--02:59: Sodium: How low to go?
  • Sodium: How low to go?

    Most Americans consume too much sodium: 3,400 milligrams a day, on average, equivalent to about 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt. They should reduce that to about 2,300 mg, says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., chief medical adviser for Consumer Reports. Cutting back on sodium can help lower your blood pressure, a marker for cardiovascular disease.

    But going too light on sodium might actually harm certain people, according to the Institute of Medicine, a group that advises the nation in health matters. In a review published in May that focused on research about how sodium consumption affects health, an IOM committee pointed out that many of those studies had shortcomings. Still, the findings raise important questions.

    Lowering your sodium intake may reduce your risk of heart disease through means other than your blood pressure, according to the institute’s president, Harvey Fineberg, M.D., Ph.D. Available evidence is inconsistent, and more research is needed to clarify links between sodium intake levels of 1,500 mg to 2,300 mg and health outcomes. But the research reviewed fails to support recommendations that people should reduce their sodium intake to 1,500 mg daily, a level that’s reached by less than 1 percent of Americans. The IOM couldn’t determine a "healthy" range for sodium because of a lack of consistency in the studies it analyzed.

    Read more of our advice on food, vitamins and other dietary supplements.

    The new studies support earlier findings that reducing sodium from high to moderate levels improves health, says Brian L. Strom, M.D., M.P.H., chairman of the committee and executive vice dean of the medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. "But they also suggest that lowering sodium intake too much may actually increase a person’s risk of some health problems," he says, including heart disease and stroke.

    The review found no support for federal recommendations to slash sodium intake to 1,500 mg a day for people who are particularly sensitive to a rise in blood pressure because of salt.

    Consumer Reports says: Most people—especially those over 50, African-Americans, and those with a family history of hypertension—should reduce sodium consumption to about 2,300 mg daily, Lipman says. Those under a doctor’s care for chronic kidney disease, congestive heart failure, diabetes, or hypertension should follow individualized advice on sodium restriction.  

    How to slash salt

    Here are a few ways you can reduce the sodium in your diet, according to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
    • Read the Nutrition Facts labels on food when grocery shopping.
    • Consume more fresh fruit and vegetables, which are naturally low in sodium.
    • Prepare more food yourself using less salt. When eating at restaurants, ask for lower-sodium options, if available.
    • Eat less pizza, bread, and other processed food.
    •Track what you eat. (In Consumer Report's recent diet Ratings MyFitnessPal, a free smart-phone app and website, got one of the top satisfaction scores.)

    Editor's Note: This article appeared in the September 2013 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

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    Tesla Model S aces government crash test

    Tesla Motors has shaken the automotive industry to its very frame, showing that a new company can truly challenge the status quo. The American car company’s latest accomplishment is to achieve 5-star safety ratings in the front, side, and side pole crash tests and rollover evaluation conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And this isn’t just a rounded-up score, as is common, but the Model S genuinely aced every main test and subtest. (Learn more about car safety.)

    In 2011, NHTSA made its test more stringent, as most vehicles were coming through the program with 5-star ratings. That is not the case now. And yet, Tesla Motors says that based on the overall Vehicle Safety Score provided to manufacturers, the Model S achieved a new combined record of 5.4 stars. (Learn more about government and insurance industry tests in "Crash Test 101.")

    Just as the Model S had distinct advantages in our road test program by being an electric car (noise, fuel economy, etc.), the car’s design gives it an edge in crash tests, as well. Up front, there is no engine to manage in a crash, just crumple space. Likewise, at the rear, there is no fuel tank. The electric motor is only about a foot in diameter, and the battery pack is centrally located.

    More impressive, the Model S achieved a "Good" rating for the side pole test, which simulates the car striking a narrow object like a utility pole or tree. This 20-mph test concentrates crash forces on a small area, and it can humble many cars. Tesla cites the nested designed of the aluminum side rails as enabling the car to preserve 63.5 percent of the driver space.

    It is no surprise that the Model s did well in the rollover test, aided by a wide stance and low center of gravity.

    Tesla Motors points out that its "lithium-ion battery did not catch fire at any time before, during, or after the NHTSA testing"—an obvious dig against issues that had arisen with competing electrified models. Further, the company is unaware of any occupant fatalities with it original Roadster or the Model S.

    Separately, Tesla Motors had a roof crush test performed by an independent facility, whose machine failed before the roof was compressed. Tesla claims the proven protection is equivalent to stacking four Model S vehicles on top of the test car.

    The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has not tested the Model S, and it reports that it has not current plans to do so.

    An outstanding car by any measure, the Model S is the highest-scoring car in our ratings, earning 99 out of 100 points overall. And the government tests show it to be the safest vehicle on the market by their measures. That only leaves reliability as an open question . . . one we hope to answer this fall, when our latest data is published.

    Read our complete Tesla Model S road test.

    Jeff Bartlett

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    TiVo Roamio DVRs, now with out-of-home streaming

    TV addiction can be tough, especially when you're away from home and missing your favorite shows—but TiVo feels your pain. Among the features in its new family of Roamio DVRs will be the ability to access cable shows and recorded programs on your iPhone or iPad even when you're traveling. Support for Android devices is expected to begin later this year or early next year.

    There are three models, starting with the entry-level Roamio, which costs $200 (plus a $15 per month TiVo subscription). This DVR has a 500GB hard drive, good for about 75 hours of HD recording, and four built-in tuners, so you can record four shows simultaneously. The Roamio Plus ($400) and Roamio Pro ($600) let you record six shows at a time and have 1TB or 3TB hard drives, respectively.

    All models have built-in Wi-Fi and access to several streaming services, including Amazon, Hulu Plus, Netflix, and YouTube. The basic Roamio requires a separate TiVo stream adapter ($129) to enable streaming to mobile devices. TiVo works with most major cable services and Verizon FiOS, but you'll need a cable card to access cable channels.

    Choose the right television for your needs and budget with our TV buying guide and Ratings.

    The ability to stream shows from a Roamio to an iPhone or iPad requires the free TiVo Stream app, which includes a 30-second commercial skip feature. While previously you could stream content to an iOS device, it was limited to the network inside your home. TiVo says that some, but not all, content will be available to subscribers outside the home when the services start in October or November, and there will be limitations on the number of devices that can be used for streaming. But there are plans for streaming via cellular networks and Wi-Fi. The ability to watch shows donwloaded to an iOS device outside the home is also in the works.

    In addition to the out-of-home streaming feature, the new Roamio DVRs are faster and have a new look, plus improved search, guide filters, and Wish List management. The DVRs now support HTML5 video, and the remote controls use RF rather than IR technology, so they don't require line-of-sight with the DVR. Thus you can place the recorder behind a cabinet door or in an A/V closet.

    The Roamio DVRs are now being sold online by Amazon, Best Buy, and TiVo, and they'll make their way to Best Buy stores in the near future.

    —James K. Willcox

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    Stationary generators you can monitor from afar

    Stationary generators routinely check themselves and display any issues on their control panels. But what if there’s a problem while you’re away? We looked at three remote options from Briggs & Stratton, Generac, and Kohler that let you check on them remotely—and can even e-mail or text you or a servicing dealer if something goes awry.

    Briggs & Stratton InfoHub. Optional on Briggs & Stratton, GE, and some other models, this add-on module monitors the generator and alerts your cell phone if service is needed. A smart-phone app also lets you check the generator and schedule service from afar. All this adds convenience. But you pay for it: $280 initially plus $13 a month ($10 monthly for a three-year deal).
    Tested model.
    Power delivery on the Briggs & Stratton 40445, $2,200, was excellent and it was easy to use but the power quality was not as good as that of other models we tested.

    Generac MobileLink. Like InfoHub, Generac’s $280 system uses cellular signals to send data. But it first goes to a secure Generac website that subsequently relays it to you via text or email. You can also check your generator's status yourself on the website. Service for the first year is free; after that, you pay $12.50 a month (or $100 per year in advance).
    Tested model.
    The Generac 6237, $2,250, is a CR Best Buy. Power quality and delivery were both excellent and the controls were intuitive.

    Kohler OnCue. At $475 up front, this is the cheapest option in the long run. But it’s the only one that requires a hard-wired Ethernet connection to a router or switch in your home. And it requires software (shown above) that works only on a Windows PC. The good news? You can still get text alerts by phone or e-mail.
    Tested models.
    The Kohler 8.5 RES-QS7, $3,200, was our top small stationary generator and the Kohler 14RESAL, $3,700, was our top-rated large stationary generator. Both had excellent power delivery and quality.

    —Ed Perratore

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    10 cool things you can do with 3D printers

    You’ve heard the expression, "the shape of things to come." Where could it be more appropriately applied than to 3D printers? This fascinating technology is poised to hit the mainstream, but it's already being used commercially and by design-savvy enthusiasts to build a mind-boggling array of products.

    Read on for a brief tour of what’s possible now and in the future. And check out what our lab testers thought of three affordable desktop 3D printers.

    1. Print a car: Solidoodle user Ivan Sentch is designing and piecing together a life-size replica of a 1961 Aston Martin DB4. It will serve as a mold for the body of the car, and with added engine parts, will actually be drivable. Check Sentch's blog for updates. 

    2. Save a baby’s life: Researchers at the University of Michigan 3D-printed a custom-designed "tracheal splint" to help an infant with a collapsed bronchus to breathe freely. The splint is made of a biopolymer material that will eventually be absorbed into the child’s body.

    3. Make beautiful music: Will a guitar made with a 3D printer sound as good as one made with natural materials? Olaf Diegal thinks so; he sells some great-looking custom-made 3D-printed guitars at Cubify. (To be fair to natural materials, the necks and fretboards are made with sustainable wood.)

    4. Replace appliance and car parts: If your dishwasher or your aged car needs a part that’s no longer made, why not just print out a replacement? You can find many car- and appliance-part designs online at sites such as Cubify and Thingiverse—or if you’re skilled at CAD (computer-aided design), design them yourself. (Jay Leno is a 3D printing fan!)

    5. Print precious-metal jewelry: Today’s home 3D printers are limited to plastic, but at Shapeways, an online service that does the 3D printing for you, various other materials are available. To honor the introduction of new jewelry-grade metals, the site is holding a design competition: Be creative and create the pendant of your dreams, and you could have it printed out in sterling silver or gold-plated brass.

    6. Dish up dinner: NASA gave a contract to an organization called Systems and Materials Research Consultancy to study the feasibility of using 3D printing for creating food—in space. OK, this one is years away from being a reality, but imagine the possibilities of dining on demand! It sure beats takeout.

    7. Go bionic: Princeton University scientists reported that 3D printing may lead the way to the future of tissue engineering, not only lab-building new organs but also integrating electronic circuits into them that could give people extra abilities: for example, a bionic ear that could detect frequencies a million times higher than the normal range of hearing.

    8. Print your own head: Not a replacement for your actual head, but a replica—for posterity and all. Makezine.com has step-by-step instructions on how you can manufacturer a 3D version of your noggin: You take 30 or 40 digital photos of it and go from there.

    9. Build a house: DUS, a Dutch architectural firm, wants to be the first to build a 3D-printed house. Each component is first printed in 1:20 scale and then full-size; DUS expects to have finished the house’s front facade and lobby by the end of this year.

    10. Design high fashion: Paris Fashion Week in January saw the debut of the Voltage 3D collection: an 11-piece collaboration, including a skirt and a form-fitting dress, fabricated entirely on 3D printers. Check designer Iris van Herpen’s website for more visuals. 

    What would you want to make with a 3D printer? Get creative and tell us on our Facebook page!  

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    Talking kitchen knives with Kenji López-Alt

    We recently invited Kenji López-Alt, chief creative officer of Serious Eats, whose weekly column The Food Lab explores the science of home cooking, to test a pair of Consumer Reports-recommended knife sets from Henckels and Ginsu. During the video shoot in López-Alt's studio (watch the video below), we also asked him about knives in general. Here's what López-Alt had to say.               

    Where do you shop for knives?
    Most of my knives are custom-made. I find them at flea markets and antique shops. I do also keep some branded knives on hand. The one of I probably use most is a Misono Santoku knife. It’s a Japanese knife made with Swedish stainless steel. I also have a couple Global knives, the ones with the all-metal construction and dimpled grips.

    How do Japanese knives differ from Western ones?
    Japanese knives have a flatter blade that’s better for chopping. Western knives have a wedge shape blade conducive to rocking and slicing. The Santoku is a modern Japanese knife that combines elements of traditional vegetable, meat, and fish knives. It's meant to handle all types of food relatively well. Most Santokus also have a Granton edge, with little air pockets on the side of the blade that keep foods from sticking.

    Do you buy knives individually or by the set?
    I only use two or three knives on a regular basis so a set doesn't appeal to me. I'd rather spend $75 on a high-quality chef's knife than get more knives of lesser quality. Once you become adept with a chef's knife, it will do most of what you need. Plus I like to pick and choose my equipment from different brands, since the company that makes the best chef knife or Santoku probably doesn't make the best bread knife or pair of kitchen shears.
        
    What kind of metal do you look for in a knife?
    I like carbon steel the most. A lot of knives are made out of stainless steel, meaning the steel has been forged with aluminum, chrome, or some other metal. That prevents rusting and pitting, but it also makes for a hard, brittle blade. Carbon steel is softer, allowing for a super-fine edge, though the blade will need to be sharpened more often.

    How do you know when it’s time to sharpen knives?
    I can feel the blades getting dull. There’s also the newspaper test, whereby you check the blade’s sharpness by cutting through a sheet of newspaper. An onion is another good test. If a blade is dull, it will slip off the onion before biting into it. The average home cook only needs to sharpen his or her knives once a year. I do it more frequently, especially my chef’s knife, but I’m using it all day every day.

    What other maintenance is required to make knives last?   
    You need to hone the blade. The honing steel doesn't actually take any material off the blade—it simply realigns it. So it's fine to hone before each use. As for cleaning, never put knives in the dishwasher, where their blades could get nicked or chipped. I always wash my knives by hand, then dry them right away before returning them to storage.

    Any final thoughts on choosing the perfect knife?  
    Knives are extremely personal, so you really have to go to a store and see how they feel. Most high-end cutlery stores will put out cutting boards for you to chop on. Remember, the best knife is the one that feels right in your hand.

    You have a new book coming out early next year. Can you tell us about it?
    It will be similar in spirit to my column, The Food Lab, which is all about food science for home cooks. I like challenging myths and preconceptions of cooking, for example the belief that you shouldn't poke a steak with a fork while cooking it. The amount of juice you lose from poking is negligible compared with other aspects of cooking—for example, overcooking the meat by a quarter degree will lose a lot more moisture. So the book has a lot of science and experiments, along with about 350 recipes.

    —Interview by Daniel DiClerico  

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