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Consumer Reports

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    Winter Olympic exercises for nearly everyone

    If all the snow we’ve had around the U.S., along with the coming Winter Olympics, has you craving outdoor exercise, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are two good options. Hate the idea of cold weather workouts? Elliptical exercisers give you the feel of cross-country skiing indoors.

    If there’s enough snow where you live, you might be able to cross-country ski and snowshoe around your neighborhood. You can also find contact information for more than 150 cross-country ski resorts and snowshoe trails in 25 states from the nonprofit Cross Country Ski Areas Association. Ask for their prices of daily trail passes, cross-country ski and snowshoe rentals, and instruction.

    Wear layers when you go. Start with long underwear and socks made of a synthetic fabric that wicks moisture away from the skin. Wear a wool or lightweight synthetic fleece as a middle layer. Add a wind- and water-resistant zippered jacket made of nylon or a breathable synthetic such as Gore-Tex. A vent flap across the back will help release excess heat and sweat. Put on a hat and gloves or mittens for protection. And be sure to use sunscreen and wear sunglasses that block 99 to 100 percent of UVA and UVB rays.

    Elliptical exercisers are part cross-country-ski machine, part stair-climber. Read more about exercise, say the experts at Consumer Reports.

    You can cross-country ski and snowshoe at a leisurely pace or push harder for a low impact, aerobic workout. But remember to stop before you become fatigued. Here are some basics about:

    Cross-country skiing

    You glide your skis across the terrain as if you were skating, using poles to push and stabilize your stride. The Olympic Winter Games in Sochi will feature 12 cross-country events including 50-kilometer mass start races, and a 1.5-km sprint.

    Snowshoeing

    If you can walk, you can snowshoe. Just avoid stepping on your snowshoe frames when you do. Some ski areas have separate trails reserved for snowshoers. Choose trails that are flat, hilly, or steep, based on your ability and fitness level.

    If you like the idea of skiing, but not exercising in the cold, there are indoor alternatives. You can always work out on a top-Rated exercise machine while watching the Winter Olympic Games. Read more about ellipticals, treadmills, spin bikes, rowing machines, and activity trackers, such as the Fitbit One.


    —Doug Podolsky

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Thermador range brings the grilling inside

    More outdoor gas grills include side burners and other features that help bring your kitchen out to your yard or deck. Thermador’s Grand and Pro Harmony pro-style ranges bring barbecuing inside with an optional built-in grill, complete with drip pan and lava rocks. The hybrid unit was on display at Design and Construction Week in Las Vegas.

    Two independently controlled electric heating elements let you grill veggies at low temperatures on one side while searing steaks on high on the other.

    According to Thermador, this is one grill that delivers the smoky flavor people love without the flare ups, since the grates completely cover the heating elements to keep grease from dripping onto them. And unlike the grates on your outdoor grill, these are dishwasher safe, according to the company.

    The Grand and Pro Harmony pro-style ranges include a spectrum of models in 36- and 48-inch widths priced from roughly $6,000 to $16,000. You can also get this grill/cooktop combo in a Thermador range top that’s built into a kitchen counter. Is the luxury of cooking and grilling in your kitchen worth that price? We hope to find out for ourselves by testing the Thermador in our kitchen range tests.

    —Kimberly Janeway

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Viking adds pro-style features to its consumer line

    Last year Viking was acquired by Middleby Corporation, a maker of commercial restaurant equipment. At Design and Construction Week, Viking introduced a number of new products that incorporate commercial technology into consumer products. It will be interesting to see if consumers want these high-end features.

    Viking’s new 7 Series range features 23,000 BTU elevation burners adapted from the commercial line. That’s the highest we've seen in a residential range. Also on display are wall ovens with the new side-swing French doors, a common style found in restaurant kitchens.

    The Viking Professional Turbo Chef oven uses technology similar to the ovens found in Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts that are used to heat sandwiches and treats. All of these products are at the extreme high end of the market and Consumer Reports will consider bringing them into our appliance labs as they roll out this year.

    —Michael DiLauro

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Electrolux speeds up cooking and cleaning times

    One of the major themes at Design and Construction Week is appliances that save time for busy consumers. Electrolux showed us a number of new appliances including ovens that preheat faster, cooktops that speed water to a boil and dishwashers, washers, and dryers with shorter cycles.

    The Electrolux dishwasher on display has a 30-minute quick cycle that claims to get dishes just as clean as a normal cycle. The company says that consumers have been clamoring for shorter wash times. Consumer Reports is currently looking at a number of these faster cycles to see how they compare to the typical dishwasher cycle.

    Electrolux also featured a matching washer and dryer that it claims can launder two outfits in less than a half hour. The washer has a 15 minute cycle and the dryer takes 14 minutes to complete its task. We'd like to test those claims as well in our washer and dryer tests.

    But our favorite new feature was the no-smudge stainless steel finish on the Electrolux line, which can save time and effort cleaning up all those fingerprints.

    —Michael DiLauro

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Generac generator cuts down on noise and fuel

    Home generators can help you sit out the next blackout in style, but they can also be gluttons when it comes to using fuel—and loud when they’re running. A patented variable-speed technology on Generac’s Guardian Synergy generator promises to address both those concerns. Generac announced the new model at Design and Construction Week in Las Vegas.

    Most generators run at a constant 3,600 revolutions per minute to produce current. Generac’s new whole-house model can toggle down to just 2,700 rpm when less power is needed.  Slower engine speeds mean less noise and lower fuel consumption plus smoother power, according to Generac. The company also claims you can install it as close as 18 inches from the house if local laws permit.

    Generac’s Guardian Synergy generator costs about $5,200. But with 20,000 kilowatts, it should power everything in most homes, and then some. It also includes the transfer switch that you’ll need for direct hookup. And—yes—you can monitor it right from your smart phone. For more information on Generac, see the results of our generator tests.

    —Ed Perratore

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    DuPont embeds chargers in its Corian countertops

    Wouldn’t it be great if you could put your smart phone on the counter and have it charge while you’re cooking dinner or paying bills? That’s the promise of DuPont’s new Corian countertops with wireless chargers that are seamlessly embedded. The countertops created some buzz at Design and Construction Week in Las Vegas.

    This is one of the chemical giant’s first forays into consumer electronics and it got there through a partnership with the Power Matters Alliance. DuPont will embed Powermat wireless chargers into its popular Corian countertops, which can be found in residential kitchens as well as offices, hospitals, and other public and commercial spaces.

    In Consumer Reports tests of countertop materials, quartz and granite performed better than solid surfaces like Corian. Still, it’s an affordable alternative that many consumers like for its versatility and the choice of colors and patterns.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Can lithium batteries be used in smoke detectors?

    Q. Do you recommend using 9-volt lithium batteries to replace standard batteries in smoke detectors so that the replacement cycle can be extended?—William P. Bivins, Greenville, NC

    A. Lithium 9Vs aren’t recommended for smoke detectors unless you follow a strict battery replacement schedule. Those batteries maintain a high voltage until the end of their usable life, so they provide a much shorter “low battery” warning to alert you that it’s time to swap in a fresh one. Alkaline batteries, by comparison, have a more gradual voltage drop-off, prolonging the “low battery” alert and greatly increasing the odds that you’ll be nearby to get the alert.

    Send your questions to ConsumerReports.org/askourexperts.

    —Consumer Reports

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Secrets to a better night’s sleep

    How do you get a good night’s rest? Consumer Reports recently posed that question to 8,900 people who reported having few sleep difficulties (or none) in the previous 30 days. Here’s what we found: Good sleepers are more likely to exercise during the day, go to bed and wake up at a set time, unwind for 30 minutes before going to sleep, and engage in sexual activity before bed.

    To help you create a sleep environment that is truly conducive to good rest, here are some tips from sleep specialists, our readers, and the experts in Consumer Reports’ labs.

    If you’ve slept on the same mattress for more than eight years and wake up stiff and sore, you should think about getting a new one. Worn-out mattresses don’t supply the same comfort and support as newer ones. And as we grow older, our bodies become more sensitive to pressure points, so a cushiony mattress might provide a better night’s sleep than a rock-hard bed.

    Where should you go to buy one? In our recent survey of 12,000 mattress shoppers, respondents ranked The Original Mattress Factory’s mattresses first. They also gave high scores for quality to Costco, Ikea, Denver Mattress, Tempurpedic, Select Comfort, and Sleep Train.

    Watching TV before climbing under the covers might seem like a great way to relax, but it can cue your brain to feel alert rather than drowsy. If you use an e-reader in bed, consider features and apps that display white text on a black background, which is less stimulating than the usual brightly lighted white background. To dim the glare of street lights or early-morning sun, use blackout curtains or wear eyeshades.

    White noise can improve sleep quality by reducing the time it takes to fall asleep and the number of times you’re awakened while sleeping. Of the readers in our 2012 survey who tried sound machines, 43 percent said that they helped them sleep better. The machines—which can make you feel like you’re in a forest or at the beach—worked almost as well as insomnia drugs for putting respondents to sleep.

    In our tests several years ago, all three of the units we looked at, made by Brook­stone, Homedics, and Marpac, blocked out at least some unwanted sounds. You can also try turning on a fan or simply using earplugs.

    Keep a consistent schedule of wake-up time and bedtime, and don’t vary them by more than an hour each day. Adjust the temperature in your bedroom to between 68° F and 70° F, which is the ideal range for sleeping. Avoid exercising, eating a big meal, or drinking alcohol or caffeine within 3 to 4 hours of going to bed. And put your dog or cat in a separate sleeping spot and snuggle up with your significant other instead. You’ll sleep better. 

    When to consider sleeping pills

    If lifestyle measures aren’t enough, you might try an over-the-counter sleep aid that contains the antihistamine diphenhydramine (Nytol, Simply Sleep, some Unisom products, and generics) or doxylamine (Unisom SleepTabs and generic). Those are generally better than combination products such as Advil PM and Tylenol PM. If an OTC remedy doesn’t help, talk with your doctor about zolpidem, the generic version of the drug Ambien. But avoid taking any sleeping pills for more than seven consecutive days. If problems persist, see your doctor to determine whether you have an underlying condition that’s causing your sleeplessness.

     

    This article appears in the February 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

     

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Top 5 trends from the 2014 Builders’ Show

    Some 75,000 builders, designers, remodelers, and more descended on Las Vegas last week for the 2014 International Builders’ Show. For the first time ever, the show shared the stage with the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show. Add in a steadily improving housing market, and there was plenty of pep on the floor of the convention center. There was also a lot of ground to cover, including 1,220 exhibitors spread across 650,000 square feet. Our editors and market analysts managed to identify the key themes and hottest products. If you’re considering a move, a remodel, or a brand new home, be sure to take note.

    Speedy appliances. Pressed for time during meal prep? We saw a bevy of appliances that could short cut the process, including the pricey Viking Professional TurboChef Double Oven, which uses the same high-speed cooking technology used in places like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. Viking claims the commercial unit can cook food 15 times faster than conventional ovens. It should be out in late 2014 for over $10,000.

    If that’s not in the budget, consider a new steam oven, which Bosch CEO Michael Traub called a “key ingredient of the changing American kitchen.” Besides faster cooking, the roughly $3,000 Bosch Benchmark Steam Convection is being promoted as a healthy compliment to your conventional oven, one that will preserve nutrients, flavors and colors in food and retains moisture. See how other new steam ovens did in Consumer Reports' tests, as well as additional tips for creating a time-saving kitchen.   

    When it comes time for clean up, Electrolux has a new QuickWash dishwasher with a 30-minute quick cycle that claims to get dishes just as clean as a normal cycle. And for your laundry room, Electrolux also featured a matching washer and dryer that it says can clean two outfits in less than 30 minutes.

    Greater connectivity. There were more products than ever at the show with Wi-Fi enabled remote control. Our favorites included programmable thermostats from Lennox and Honeywell that are hoping to compete with the Google-owned Nest Learning Thermostat, which is one of our picks.

    The ability to monitor your home’s generator remotely also makes a lot of sense (imagine a storm hits while you’re away on vacation). In addition to that feature, Generac’s Guardian System also offers variable-speed technology, making the unit quieter and more fuel-efficient than other models.

    Home security and automation were also on display at the show. AT&T announced the expansion of its Digital Life service to 58 markets. The customizable service lets you monitor a host of products, including security systems and cameras, thermostats, lights, and even water valves so that you’ll be alerted to leaks.

    Shades of gray. The color gray should have a big year in 2014, according to the latest Kitchen & Bath Style Reports, presented by the National Kitchen & Bath Association. It will be the fastest growing color scheme in the kitchen, says the trade group, taking the top spot from white and off-white. Gray will also be number one in bathrooms, jumping up from its third place finish in 2013.   

    The prediction definitely played out on the floor of the show, where we saw an abundance of gray-toned finishes and surfaces. Among the most eye-catching were quartz countertops from Caeserstone’s Motivo line with embossed patterns, including lace and crocodile. We also spotted a slate-gray countertop from Cosentino called Dekton, an ultra-compact surface that can be used both indoors and outdoors because it is resistant to UV rays, claims the manufacturer.   

    And there were a lot of gray cabinet finishes, including Pumice from Omega, MasterBrand’s custom cabinet line. The semi-translucent, spatter gray is supposed to offer a softly weathered look that works well in contemporary and transitional kitchens alike.

    The color gray was also heard metaphorically throughout the week, in reference to the aging baby boomer cohort, and the impact they’re sure to have on the home building industry. A couple of compelling facts: buyers aged 55 years and older will account for 25 percent of the home-buying market this year, according to Jonathan Smoke, chief economist at research firm Hanley Wood LLC. And boomers will retire at a rate of 10,000-per-day for the next 19 years.

    Smart fixtures. The term “smart appliances” is so 2008, but there was a lot of talk about smart fixtures at this year’s show. For example, the winner of the KBIS Best of Bath Gold Award was Delta Faucet’s Temp2O. Its digital temperature display features LED color indicators to signal different water temperature ranges for easy, visual indication. That’s peace of mind for parents of young children during bath time.

    Another very cool faucet innovation came from Kohler, whose sweep spray kitchen faucet replaces the familiar circular pattern spray with a wide, forceful blade of water. That makes it easier to rinse pans and other large items, in addition to spraying down the sink when the dishes are done.

    Then there was InSinkErator’s new 3N1 hot water faucet, which gives you hot, cold, and near boiling water in a single tap—a first of its kind in North America, according to the manufacturer. Note that the Italian-designed faucet must be paired with the InSinkErator stainless steel Instant Hot Water Tank and Water Filtration System or a new high performance (HP) steaming hot water tank.

    High-tech homes. The gee-whiz winner of this year’s show had to be DuPont’s Corian countertop with an embedded wireless phone charger. It won’t be out until the end of the year, according to DuPont, but it could be a staple of the future kitchen.

    We also like the Auto Hoop, a basketball hoop that automatically retracts into the side of your garage with the press of a button. That’s nice if you or the kids like to play hoops, but you’re not crazy about the look of a backboard and rim hanging off the side of the garage.   

    Last but not least was Velux’s GDL Cabrio balcony system, a roof window that opens out to create a small roof balcony, great for lofts and other tight attic spaces. That’s just the kind of inventive thinking that made the 2014 Builders’ Show one of the most exciting in years.

    —Daniel DiClerico and Michael DiLauro 

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How manufacturers make dishwashers so quiet

    Shop for a low-cost dishwasher today, and the model you choose will probably have a filter—the component in the bottom of the tub that catches food bits so they won’t adhere to clean dishes. The filter cleans itself. But pay $700 or more, and you’ll have to periodically clean the filter yourself. Why pay more to do extra maintenance? There’s a very good reason.

    Self-cleaning filters don’t need your attention because they have a grinder, often called a macerator, which pulverizes the debris into small bits that easily go down the drain. While you might find this convenient, that chopping adds to the noise. And if you haven't bought a dishwasher in the last 10 years or so, you’ll find even the middle range of models are far quieter than what you had before. And some pricier models are so quiet you might need an indicator light to know they’re running.

    Besides being quieter, though, there’s another advantage to today’s manual-clean filters. With their newer, more innovative designs, today’s manual-clean filters don’t need cleaning quite as often. Check the owner's manual to see what’s recommended.

    But while the newer filters need less attention, you should still inspect them often. Whenever you pull out the bottom rack to remove items, in fact, a quick spot-check is a good habit. Neglect the filter long enough, and you might notice odors from the grungy buildup. You might also notice diminished performance from reduced water flow.

    Shopping for a dishwasher? Check out our buying guide before hitting our Ratings of 228 dishwashers, topped by such models as the Kenmore Elite 12793, $1,350, and the Bosch Ascenta SHX3AR7[5]UC, $730. There’s also a short video, below, about our tough dishwasher tests.

    —Ed Perratore

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Consumer Reports' Best in Show vacuums

    There’s plenty of fur flying at the the 138th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York this week but when Consumer Reports tests vacuums it forgoes Fido’s fur and uses cat hair instead. Our vacuum testers take the long fur of the Maine Coon cat, rake it into carpeting and then make 14 passes with a vacuum to remove it. Even with so many chances, some vacuums fail the test. But the top dogs in our vacuum tests pick up the fur like a champ.

    Canisters. Our top-rated bagged canister vacuum, the Kenmore Progressive 21714, $400, got excellent scores on our pet hair test. It was also excellent at cleaning bare floors and very good at carpeting. Other Kenmore canisters earned similar marks while the  Panasonic MC-CG937, $300, performed very well overall but fell a tad short on pet hair removal.

    Uprights. Miele’s bagged uprights, however, got top marks for pet hair removal including the Miele S 7210 Twist, $475, and the aptly named Miele S 7260 Cat & Dog, $715. They were both beasts at getting carpet clean although the Cat & Dog model was better at bare floors. As a rule, uprights do better on carpeting because they have more weight over the powerhead.

    Small vacuums. In our tests of hand and stick vacuums, the Shark Pet Perfect II SV780, $60, wasn’t quite so perfect at picking up pet hair but it did very well. Its brandmate, the Shark Navigator Freestyle SV1106 stick vacuum, $140, however, was excellent at pet hair pickup as was the top-rated Hoover Platinum LiNX BH50010, $160.

    In New York, Kelso, a 7-year-old border collie from Maine won the first agility contest held by Westminster on Saturday night. The show continues tonight and tomorrow when Best in Show will be crowned in Madison Square Garden. Meanwhile we already have our winners at Consumer Reports where our vacuum testing goes on all year long.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    10 safety checks to make before you buy

    You need to consider several factors when evaluating a vehicle's overall safety. They range from how it performs in an emergency-handling situation and how it protects its occupants in a collision to how easy it is to secure a child seat. When comparing vehicles, it's important to look at all the appropriate variables, including safety-related ratings and features. Below, we list 10 safety checks that are worth reviewing before you make your final buying decision.

    1. Insurance-industry crash-test ratings
    The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is a safety-research group that conducts its own series of crash tests. In its frontal-offset crash, the IIHS runs a vehicle at 40 mph into a deformable barrier. Instead of engaging the whole width of the car's front end, the barrier covers just the 40 percent of the car in front of the driver.

    Using a deformable barrier simulates a car-to-car, driver's-side-to-driver's-side collision, which is a common form of fatal crash. By focusing the crash on only a portion of the car's front, this test severely stresses the car's structural integrity and its ability to protect the area around the driver without collapsing.

    The IIHS scores its frontal-crash results as Good, Acceptable, Marginal, or Poor. You can find ratings for all tested vehicles on the IIHS Web site, at www.hwysafety.org.

    Since 2002, the IIHS also has conducted its own side-impact tests, which simulate a vehicle being struck in the side at 31 mph by a vehicle the height and weight of a typical SUV or pickup. The test is more severe than the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's side-crash test (described below), which simulates a vehicle being hit in the side by a vehicle the height and weight of a typical family sedan.

    For more information on crash testing and ratings, see our Crash test 101 report.

    2. Government crash-test ratings
    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conducts two types of crash tests: full frontal and side impact. Each is scored on a five-star scale, with fewer stars indicating a greater likelihood of serious injury. You can check the scores for all crash-tested vehicles online at www.safercars.gov.

    NHTSA's frontal test is a good indication of how well a vehicle's safety belts and air bags protect the occupants in specific types of impacts. The frontal test runs vehicles into a rigid barrier at 35 mph. That simulates a head-on collision between two vehicles of similar weight, each traveling at 35 mph. Instrumented crash dummies in the two front seats record the crash forces they sustain and scores are assigned for the driver and front passenger.

    NHTSA's side-impact test simulates an intersection-type collision using a 3,015 pound barrier moving at 38.5 mph into a standing vehicle. Scores are assigned to the driver and the left-rear (impacted side) passenger.

    Both the NHTSA and IIHS frontal crash-test results are comparable only to vehicles within the same weight class as the tested car. If vehicle weights are very dissimilar, the results could be very different.

    For more information on crash testing and ratings, see our Crash test 101 report.

    3. Electronic stability control (ESC)
    CR's auto experts highly recommend electronic stability control, particularly on SUVs. ESC is designed to help keep the vehicle under control and on its intended path during cornering, and prevent it from sliding or skidding. If a vehicle begins to go out of control, the system selectively applies brakes to one or more wheels and cuts engine power to keep the vehicle on course. On SUVs, stability control can help prevent the vehicle from getting into a situation that could lead to a rollover. While electronic stability control has improved the emergency handling on the vehicles we have tested, it's not a cure-all for inherently poor-handling vehicles. Its effectiveness depends on how it is programmed and how it is integrated with the vehicle. It also cannot overcome the laws of physics.

    Automakers often refer to their stability-control systems by different names (see our guide to safety features), so if it's not clear be sure to ask if a vehicle has electronic stability control. To make it less confusing for the consumer, the Society of Automotive Engineers has asked that all manufacturers use electronic stability control, or ESC, as common terminology when referring to their stability-control systems. Consumer Reports supports this move because it will help consumers know what they are buying.

    A number of studies of ESC have been completed and all point to a substantial reduction in accidents and deaths. The IIHS has estimated that if all cars had ESC, it would save 10,000 lives per year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has announced plans to require ESC as standard on all vehicles by the 2012 model year.

    4. Rollover resistance
    Taller vehicles, such as SUVs and pickups, are more likely to roll over than passenger cars. According to the IIHS, SUVs have a rollover rate that is two to three times that of passenger cars.

    A taller vehicle has a higher center of gravity, which makes it more top-heavy than one that sits lower to the ground. In a situation where a vehicle is subjected to strong sideways forces, such as in a sudden cornering maneuver, it's easier for a taller vehicle to roll over.

    To give consumers a way of telling which vehicles have a higher rollover propensity than others, NHTSA has developed a five-star rating system called the Rollover Resistance Rating (RRR). That rating used to be based solely on a vehicle's "static stability factor (SSF)," which is determined from measurements of its track width and center of gravity. Because the SSF is based on measurements of a stationary vehicle rather than on a dynamic road test, the rating doesn't account for vehicles' different suspension designs, tires, or the presence of a stability-control system—any of which can make a significant difference. Beginning with the ratings for 2004 models, NHTSA combined the SSF with a dynamic rollover test performed with moving vehicles.

    NHTSA's rollover ratings can be found at www.safercar.gov. For specific information about a vehicle's star rating, click on "Search 5-Star Safety Ratings," then select the vehicle class, such as SUV, then its year, then the make and model. Scroll down to the heading Rollover, and a chart there will tell you whether the vehicle tipped (under Dynamic Test Result), and also its likelihood of rollover expressed as an exact percentage rather than a star.

    You can also see comparison lists of all tested vehicles within a class (passenger car, SUV, etc.). From the www.safercar.gov home page, click on "Search 5-Star Safety Ratings" then select just the class, or class and model year.

    We believe that vehicles that tip up in NHTSA's test have a potential stability problem and CR will not recommend them, regardless of their star rating. In order for an SUV or pickup to be recommended, it must either have been included in NHTSA's test and have not tipped up or, if it has not been tested, it must offer electronic stability control.

    5. Antilock brake system (ABS)
    CR's auto experts highly recommend getting an antilock brake system (ABS), which is available as standard or optional equipment on nearly all vehicles. ABS prevents the wheels from locking up during a hard stop, something that can cause the driver to lose control of the vehicle. ABS almost always provides shorter stops, but, even more importantly, the system helps keep the vehicle straight and allows the driver to maneuver during a panic stop.

    6. Accident avoidance
    A vehicle's ability to help you avoid an accident is just as important as its crashworthiness. Key factors to consider are braking and emergency handling, although acceleration, visibility, driving position, and even seat comfort (which affects driver fatigue) also play a role.

    Consumer Reports evaluates these factors on every vehicle it tests.

    7. Air bags
    By law, every new passenger vehicle comes equipped with dual front air bags. But the sophistication of the systems can vary. It's worth checking what type of air-bag systems a vehicle has.

    Most upscale vehicles and many others now have some version of a "smart" air-bag system. It uses electronic sensors to gauge several variables, which, depending on the model, include crash severity, safety-belt use, the position of the driver's seat, and the weight and/or position of an occupant in the front-passenger seat. This information is used to tailor the deployment of the vehicle's front and side air bags.

    Dual-threshold and multistage front bags can deploy with varying force, depending on crash severity. In a less-severe collision the bags inflate with less force. In a more severe crash, the bags inflate with more force and more quickly. Many systems withhold deployment on the passenger side if the seat is unoccupied (to save money on replacement) or if the seat is occupied by a person below a certain weight (to prevent possible injury from the bag). The government mandated "advanced" front air bags to be phased in all cars between the 2004 and 2007 model years. They deploy less aggressively or not at all, depending on a front passenger's size or position.

    Side air bags are now common for front occupants. The basic side air bag deploys from the seatback or door, and is designed to protect a person's torso. Separate side bags that protect the have become commonplace as well. The standard design is a side-curtain bag that drops down from the headliner and covers both the front and rear windows. Consumer Reports highly recommends head-protection side air bags where they're available.

    8. Safety-belt features
    Three-point lap-and-shoulder belts provide the most protection in a crash, and most vehicles now have them in all seating positions. A few, however, still have only a lap belt in the center-rear position, which allows the upper part of the body to move forward in a crash or panic stop. The comfort of the belts is also important, because some people won't wear them if they're uncomfortable. Some vehicles, for instance, have front belts whose shoulder portion retracts into the seatback instead of the car's door pillar. Their advantage is that they move with the seat when the seat is adjusted fore and aft. But they can tug down uncomfortably on the shoulder of someone with a long torso.

    Many vehicles also include safety-belt pretensioners and force limiters, which work with the air bags to protect you in a crash. Pretensioners automatically take up the slack in the seat belt during a frontal crash, helping to restrain and properly position people for the air bag. Force-limiters relax the safety-belt tension slightly following the initial impact, so they can help absorb some of a person's forward thrust. That helps prevent chest and internal injuries caused by the belt itself.

    9. Head restraints
    A car's head restraints are vital for guarding against the whiplash neck injuries that often accompany a rear-end collision. Restraints need to be tall enough to cushion the head above the top of the spine. Many cars' head restraints adjust for height. Look for those that lock in the raised position—a legal requirement for cars made since September, 2009. Those that do not can be forced down in a crash, losing effectiveness. Many cars' rear restraints are too low to do much good, which Consumer Reports notes in its road test reports. The IIHS Web site (www.hwysafety.org) provides head-restraint or rear-crash ratings for many models.

    10. Child safety
    Child-safety seats save lives and should be used until a child is big enough to use the vehicle's regular safety belt. The conventional method of attaching a child seat uses the vehicle's safety belts. Often, incompatibilities between the car's seat and the child seat make a good, tight fit difficult and sometimes impossible to achieve.

    For some years all new vehicles have had a universal system called LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) that is designed to make attachment easier and more secure. But the system doesn't work equally well in all vehicles. Consumer Reports has found many cars with the LATCH attachment points sufficiently obscured that it's not easy to use them. CR comments on the ease of installing child seats in its test reports. But the key is to try out a new car seat in your existing vehicle, or try out your existing car seat in a new vehicle before you buy either.

    Another child-safety consideration is power-window switches. Children have accidentally activated a power window while leaning out and have been killed or injured by the window closing on them. The easiest types to inadvertently trigger are horizontal rocker and toggle switches on the door's armrest, which raise the window when pushed down or to the side. Lever-type switches, which are flush with the surrounding trim and only raise the window when pulled up, are a safer design.

    You need to consider several factors when evaluating a vehicle's overall safety. They range from how it performs in an emergency-handling situation and how it protects its occupants in a collision to how easy it is to secure a child seat. When comparing vehicles, it's important to look at all the appropriate variables, including safety-related ratings and features. Below, we list 10 safety checks that are worth reviewing before you make your final buying decision.

    The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is a safety-research group that conducts its own series of crash tests, to the front, side, and rear. The primary frontal crash series runs a vehicle at 40 mph into a deformable barrier. Instead of engaging the whole width of the car's front end, which the government’s traditional front-crash test does, the barrier covers just the 40 percent of the car that’s in front of the driver.
That’s known as a frontal offset crash.

    Using a deformable barrier instead of a rigid one, the test simulates a car-to-car, driver's-side-to-driver's-side collision, which is a common form of fatal crash. By focusing the crash on only a portion of the car's front, this test severely stresses the car's structural integrity and its ability to protect the area around the driver without collapsing.

    The IIHS scores its frontal-crash results as Good, Acceptable, Marginal, or Poor.

    In 2012 the IIHS inaugurated a second set of frontal offset crashes, one that engages just 25 percent of the car’s front end. Think of it as a head-on crash between two vehicles that meet left-headlight to left-headlight, or a single-vehicle crash into a utility pole or tree. In a crash like that the driver’s foot well can deform, causing serious injury to a driver’s lower legs, and the car pivots to the side, throwing the driver against the front door and window. It will take some time for the IIHS to accumulate enough results from the small-overlap tests to make meaningful comparisons across the car market. But early results show a wide range of performance from Good to Poor. You can find ratings for all tested vehicles on the IIHS website, at www.hwysafety.org.



    Since 2003, the IIHS also has conducted its own side-impact tests, which simulate a vehicle being struck in the side at 31 mph by a vehicle the height and weight of a typical SUV or pickup. Two dummies representing small (5th percentile) women or 12-year-old children are positioned in the driver seat and the rear seat behind the driver.

    IIHS also compiles rollover ratings by measuring roof strength.  The test uses a metal plate pushed down on one front corner of a vehicle's roof to see how much weight the roof can withstand.  Top scores go to vehicles that can withstand four times the vehicle’s weight without much deformation.

    New for 2014, the IIHS is evaluating forward collision warning systems based on performance in tests at 12 mph and 25 mph. Additional points are awarded for autobrake. Those vehicles that offer this next level of safety can now earn the Top Safety Pick+ award

    For more information on crash testing and ratings, see our Crash test 101 report.

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conducts a full frontal crash test, a side impact and rollover assessment. Each is scored on a five-star scale, with fewer stars indicating a greater likelihood of serious injury. You can check the scores for all crash-tested vehicles online at www.safercar.gov.

    NHTSA's frontal test is a good indication of how well a vehicle's safety belts and air bags protect the occupants in specific types of impacts. The frontal test runs vehicles into a rigid barrier at 35 mph. That simulates a head-on collision between two identical vehicles, each traveling at 35 mph. Instrumented crash dummies in the two front seats record the crash forces they sustain and scores are assigned for the driver and front passenger.

    NHTSA's side-impact test simulates an intersection-type collision using a 3,015 pound barrier moving at 38.5 mph into a standing vehicle. Scores are assigned to the driver and the left-rear (impacted side) passenger. In 2011, NHTSA improved their ratings evaluation and also added a side-pole test using different sized dummies.

    Both the NHTSA and IIHS frontal crash-test results are comparable only to vehicles within the same weight class as the tested car. If vehicle weights are very dissimilar, the results could be very different.

    For more information on crash testing and ratings, see our Crash test 101 report.

    Consumer Reports' auto experts highly recommend electronic stability control, particularly on SUVs. ESC is designed to help keep the vehicle under control and on its intended path during cornering, and prevent it from sliding or skidding. If a vehicle begins to go out of control, the system selectively applies brakes to one or more wheels and cuts engine power to keep the vehicle on course. On SUVs, stability control can help prevent the vehicle from getting into a situation that could lead to a rollover. While electronic stability control has improved the emergency handling on the vehicles we have tested, it's not a cure-all for inherently poor-handling vehicles. Its effectiveness depends on how it is programmed and how it is integrated with the vehicle. It also cannot overcome the laws of physics.

    Automakers often refer to their stability-control systems by different names (see our guide to safety features), so if it's not clear be sure to ask if a vehicle has electronic stability control.

    A number of studies of ESC have been completed and all point to a substantial reduction in accidents and deaths. The IIHS has estimated that if all cars had ESC, it would save 10,000 lives per year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration now requires ESC to be standard on all new vehicles.

    Taller vehicles, such as SUVs and pickups, are more likely to roll over than passenger cars. According to the IIHS, SUVs have a rollover rate that is two to three times that of passenger cars.

    A taller vehicle has a higher center of gravity, which makes it more top-heavy than one that sits lower to the ground. In a situation where a vehicle is subjected to strong sideways forces, such as in a sudden cornering maneuver, it's easier for a taller vehicle to roll over.

    To give consumers a way of telling which vehicles have a higher rollover propensity than others, NHTSA has developed a five-star rating system called the Rollover Resistance Rating (RRR). That rating used to be based solely on a vehicle's "static stability factor (SSF)," which is determined from measurements of its track width and center of gravity. Because the SSF is based on measurements of a stationary vehicle rather than on a dynamic road test, the rating doesn't account for vehicles' different suspension designs, tires, or the presence of a stability-control system—any of which can make a significant difference. Beginning with the ratings for 2004 models, NHTSA combined the SSF with a dynamic rollover test performed with moving vehicles.

    NHTSA's rollover ratings can be found at www.safercar.gov. For specific information about a vehicle's star rating, click on "Search 5-Star Safety Ratings," then select the vehicle class, such as SUV, then its year, then the make and model. Scroll down to the heading Rollover, and a chart there will tell you whether the vehicle tipped (under Dynamic Test Result), and also its likelihood of rollover expressed as an exact percentage rather than a star.

    You can also see comparison lists of all tested vehicles within a class (passenger car, SUV, etc.). From the www.safercar.gov home page, click on "Search 5-Star Safety Ratings" then select just the class, or class and model year.

    CR's auto experts highly recommend getting an antilock brake system (ABS), which is now standard on all new vehicles and has been standard on most for some years. ABS prevents the wheels from locking up during a hard stop, something that can cause the car to spin out. ABS almost always provides shorter stops, but, even more importantly, the system helps keep the vehicle straight and allows the driver to maneuver during a panic stop.

    A vehicle's ability to help you avoid an accident is just as important as its crashworthiness. Key factors to consider are braking and emergency handling, although acceleration, visibility, driving position, and even seat comfort (which affects driver fatigue) also play a role.

    Consumer Reports evaluates these factors on every vehicle it tests.

    By law, every new passenger vehicle comes equipped with dual front air bags. All new cars have some version of a "smart" air-bag system. It uses electronic sensors to gauge several variables, which, depending on the model, include crash severity, safety-belt use, the position of the driver's seat, and the weight and/or position of an occupant in the front-passenger seat. This information is used to tailor the deployment of the vehicle's front and side air bags.

    Many systems withhold deployment on the passenger side if the seat is unoccupied (to save money on replacement) or if the seat is occupied by a person below a certain weight (to prevent possible injury from the bag). The government mandated "advanced" front air bags to be phased in all cars between the 2004 and 2007 model years. They deploy less aggressively or not at all, depending on a front passenger's size or position.

    Side air bags are now common for front occupants. The basic side air bag deploys from the seatback or door, and is designed to protect a person's torso. Separate side bags that protect the head have become nearly universal as well. The standard design is a side-curtain bag that drops down from the headliner and covers both the front and rear windows. Consumer Reports highly recommends head-protection side air bags where they're available.

    Three-point lap-and-shoulder belts provide the most protection in a crash, and most vehicles now have them in all seating positions. A few, however, may have only a lap belt in the center-rear position, which allows the upper part of the body to move forward in a crash or panic stop. The comfort of the belts is also important, because some people won't wear them if they're uncomfortable. Some vehicles, for instance, have front belts whose shoulder portion retracts into the seatback instead of the car's door pillar. Their advantage is that they move with the seat when the seat is adjusted fore and aft. But they can tug down uncomfortably on the shoulder of someone with a long torso.

    Many vehicles also include safety-belt pretensioners and force limiters, which work with the air bags to protect you in a crash. Pretensioners automatically take up the slack in the seat belt during a frontal crash, helping to restrain and properly position people for the air bag. Force-limiters relax the safety-belt tension slightly following the initial impact, so they can help absorb some of a person's forward thrust. That helps prevent chest and internal injuries caused by the belt itself.

    A car's head restraints are vital for guarding against the whiplash neck injuries that often accompany a rear-end collision. Restraints need to be tall enough to cushion the head above the top of the spine. Many cars' head restraints adjust for height. Look for those that lock in the raised position—a legal requirement for cars made since September, 2009. Those that do not lock can be forced down in a crash, losing effectiveness. Many cars' rear restraints are too low to do much good, which Consumer Reports notes in its road test reports. The IIHS web site (www.hwysafety.org) provides head-restraint or rear-crash ratings for many models.

    Child-safety seats save lives and should be used until a child is big enough to use the vehicle's regular safety belt. The conventional method of attaching a child seat uses the vehicle's safety belts. Often, incompatibilities between the car's seat and the child seat make a good, tight fit difficult and sometimes impossible to achieve.

    For some years all new vehicles have had a universal system called LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) that is designed to make attachment easier and more secure. But the system doesn't work equally well in all vehicles. Consumer Reports has found many cars with the LATCH attachment points sufficiently obscured that it's not easy to use them. Consumer Reports comments on the ease of installing child seats in its test reports. But the key is to try out a new car seat in your existing vehicle, or try out your existing car seat in a new vehicle before you buy either.

    Another child-safety consideration is power-window switches. Children have accidentally activated a power window while leaning out and have been killed or injured by the window closing on them. The easiest types to inadvertently trigger are horizontal rocker and toggle switches on the door's armrest, which raise the window when pushed down or to the side. Lever-type switches, which are flush with the surrounding trim and only raise the window when pulled up, are a safer design.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Electrolux innovations can make you a better cook

    Electrolux had a dream kitchen at Design and Construction Week featuring all the fancy professional appliances it markets to restaurants and commercial kitchens. Called Grand Cuisine the line includes steam ovens, induction cooktops, high-powered gas brass burners, a vacuum sealer, blast chiller, and a griddle. Electrolux is trying to gauge consumer interest in these technologies, which cook foods faster, seal in more of the natural juices and can make a home chef a better cook.

    Currently, in Consumer Reports’ cooking labs we are testing a number of steam ovens and induction ranges, and we’re seeing the benefits of these cooking advances. Although the prices for induction cooktops and ranges are trending lower, they still cost more than traditional gas and electric models. Induction ranges and cooktops have some of the highest scores in our tests, but the products have yet to take off with the consumer, and account for a small percentage of the overall market.

    Steam ovens are equally as promising, producing great results on some of the foods we've tested so far. Here prices are even higher for these specialty built-in appliances, upwards of $3,000, and the small capacity ovens can't handle large baking tasks. We’re planning a battery of tests of the steam ovens in the coming months.

    We saw similar commercial cooking technology in consumer appliances in a big way at the Viking booth and we expect this trend to accelerate as the economy improves and high-end brands compete for cache. Will these commercial cooking technologies take off with consumers, or will the high price points limit them to a niche occupied only by wealthy gourmands?

    —Michael DiLauro

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Farrow & Ball showrooms are as posh as their paint

    Like many local hardware stores, mine is a hodgepodge of stuff, with drawers full of nails and sacks of peat moss stacked near the door in spring, replaced by bags of salt in winter. The paint, brushes, and paint chips are always in the same spot and that’s often true of the colorblind clerk who matches my colors and mixes my paints. None of this prepared me for my visit to the Farrow & Ball paint store in Manhattan.
     
    When a gallon of paint costs $105, that’s the first clue that you are in a rarefied place, a showroom, not a store, where words such as alchemy are part of the chatter. Farrow & Ball’s paints are made and tinted at a factory in England and have names such as calamine, described in the brochure as a color that appeared regularly in country house boudoirs from the 1870s to Edwardian times, in case you were wondering. Churlish green, mizzle, and rectory red are a few of the other color names. There are only 132, unlike some American brands that offer thousands, but the Farrow & Ball brochure says, “We strive to make your decision a quandary by making every paint, perfection.” A quandary? Now there’s a sales pitch.
     
    But here’s how I knew I was a hayseed blown in from the suburbs into the most affluent parts of New York. After I admired the 132 panels of color on the wall, the saleswoman asked me about the natural light that streams into the room I was going to paint, was it northern light, southern? I had to think, and as she explained the different effects light have on color I was still trying to answer her question. And when a woman with a lovely English accent asked me about my rooms, as I stood there surrounded by beautiful colors and handcrafted wallpaper, I wanted to say I had a grand place in the country or a modern city loft with breathtaking views, but I don’t.
     
    And so it was back to my small house in the suburbs and the man at the local store who mixes my paints. Which is okay, because I can’t afford paint that costs $105 a gallon, and the Farrow & Ball interior paints didn’t do that well in our interior paint tests.  In fact, they were the worst at hiding old paint. But I'll let the paint Ratings tell you the rest of the story.
     
    —Kimberly Janeway

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    Valentine’s Day gifts that save precious time

    Granted, giving a small appliance for Valentine’s Day isn’t the most romantic of gifts. But what if that coffeemaker, blender, or chopper let your loved one speed through food prep and other chores? Single-serve coffeemakers and personal blenders do just that and so do other top-rated kitchen gear that we've tested in our labs. Or just choose a robotic vacuum so your honey can sit back and sip a cool beverage while the machine does the work. Here are some of the best time-savers from our tests.

    Single-serve coffeemakers
    Three models of Delonghi Nescafe Dolce Gusto perked to the top of our pod coffeemaker tests and a fourth wasn’t far behind. The top-rated DeLonghi Nescafé Dolce Gusto Genio EDG455T, $130, and its brandmates turned out first cups of coffee quickly and were just as speedy at making the second. We also liked them for their temperature consistency.

    Toaster ovens
    Speed up breakfast with the Panasonic FlashXpress NB-G110P, $125, toaster oven. Its quartz and ceramic heating elements cook more efficiently than conventional coil-heated ovens and don’t require any time for preheating. It’s a remake of a popular model that was discontinued in 2006 and the compact shape means it takes up less space on the counter.

    Personal blenders
    None of the personal blenders in our tests spun to the top of our Ratings but the Hamilton Beach Single Serve Blender 51101, $20, is worth a look. It’s convenient, makes very good purée and a similar model comes in a host of colors. Some of the other personal blenders in our tests have to-go cups that you can take with you without having to transfer your smoothie to another container.

    Microwaves
    Our quickest microwave oven was the GE Profile PEB2060DM[BB], $270, which was the only one in our tests to get excellent marks for speed. It was easy to use and very good at defrosting and evenly heating food. It's relatively quiet on high and has a sensor that determines when food is done.

    Robotic vacuums
    Two of the three robotic vacuums we tested made our list of top vacuum picks, the Roomba 760, $450, and the LG Hom-Bot Square LrV790R, $800. The Roomba edged out the LG Hom-Bot Square on floors and carpet but the LG bot was quieter. And think of the entertainment value you’ll get watching them skitter across the floor.

    Space heaters
    Given the winter we’ve had, a space heater that quickly warms up a room can make a welcome gift. The fastest in our tests was the Ambia ACH-120, $60, which was the most effective at heating a standard-sized room in 15 minutes. It was also very good at spot heating.

    Steam irons
    A steam iron with a fast steaming rate can help you get ready for a big date in no time. Our top-rated Panasonic NI-W950A, $220, had an excellent steaming rate and was also top-notch at ironing fabric. For a lot less, you can buy one of our two CR Best Buys, the Singer Expert Finish EF, $60, or the Rowenta Effective Comfort DW2070, $50, which scored similar to the Panasonic.

    Gifts with more romance
    If none of the above appeal, take a look at our taste tests of boxed chocolates, sparkling wines, and craft beers. We haven’t tested flower delivery services lately but last time we did, we discovered that the flowers most likely to look the way they do on websites were roses, orchids, and tulips. Mixed bouquets tended to have more substitutions than the others, so if you order a mixed batch you may not get what you want.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Toyota recalls 1.9 million Prius hybrids for shutdown risk

    Toyota announced today that it is recalling about 1.9 million 2010 to 2014 Prius hybrids, 700,000 of which were sold in the United States, because current software settings could cause higher thermal stress in certain transistors, leading to damage. If this happens, the vehicle can enter a failsafe mode, potentially causing the system shut down while the vehicle is being driven, resulting in the loss of power and the vehicle coming to a stop.

    Toyota said it would update the motor/generator control ECU and hybrid control ECU software on affected Prius vehicles.

    If your Prius enters the failsafe mode, quickly pull over to a safe location, exit the vehicle, and call for help. We suggest you exit the vehicle in this situation because you don't want to be in or near a car on the side of the road in case another vehicle careers into it.

    Toyota is also recalling 260,000 2012 RAV4, 2012 to 2013 Tacoma, and 2012 to 2013 Lexus RX 350 vehicles in the United States to address a separate issue. A potential electronic circuit condition can cause the stability control, antilock brake, and traction control functions to intermittently turn off. (If these systems are off, standard braking operation remains functional.) Toyota said it would update the skid control ECU software on affected RAV4, Tacoma, and Lexus RX 350 models.

    Toyota has received no reports of accidents or injuries associated with either condition.

    Owners of vehicles affected by these recalls will get a free software update, and they will be notified by first class mail when updates are available at their dealers.

    For more information, vehicle owners can visit toyota.com/recall or call 800-331-4331. Lexus customers can visit lexus.com/recall or call 800-255-3987.

    You may can search for car recalls on ConsumerReports.org for reports and explanation, either through the recalls hub or via the appropriate model page.

    Maggie Shader

     

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Little red coffeemaker makes tiny cups of coffee

    The Elite Cuisine Dual Cup Pod Brewer EHC-233, $35, is “perfect for tea, coffee, or pod coffee,” the manufacturer Maxi-Matic says. Among the claims made for this diminutive red machine are its ability to dispense into two 8-ounce ceramic mugs at once and its overheat protection. But in our coffeemaker tests, we found both claims wanting.

    For starters, the two 8-ounce ceramic mugs that come with the coffeemaker are actually only 6 ounces. And presuming you follow the manual’s explicit instructions not to add water above the reservoir’s maximum-fill line, you can only add about 10.5 ounces of water—which in our tests yielded about 9.5 ounces of coffee. That means each serving is less than 5 ounces.

    If that serving size is okay with you but you prefer it all in one cup, the machine can dispense into a single cup. But that cup can be no taller than 3½ inches. (Most machines we’ve tested allow about 5 to 7 inches of clearance.) This eliminates the usual 12-ounce ceramic coffee mug and even the most common size of polystyrene cups. And what if you break one of the cups that come with the coffeemaker? Slim 6-ounce mugs aren’t a common size and may be difficult to replace.

    When it came to dispensing coffee, the Elite Cuisine Dual Cup Pod Brewer EHC-233 was slower than normal at delivering the first serving. And the machine’s own overheat protection keeps you from quickly initiating a second brew if you want to add more coffee to your travel mug. We waited about two minutes of cool-down time before the on/off switch would reengage and let us start brewing again.

    You might say we're expecting too much from a bargain-priced machine and it's true that the coffeemaker can conveniently accommodate tea bags, Senseo-type soft coffee pods, and loose coffee. If you want a low-cost machine that offers lots of choices in coffee preferences, consider the Hamilton Beach FlexBrew 49995. At $50 it costs a bit more and wasn't any faster for brewing but you can fill cups up to the size of a travel mug.

    In addition to the Elite Cuisine, we tested the $180 Keurig K75 Platinum Brewing System, a K-cup coffeemaker, and two drip models: the $50 Kenmore Programmable 367101 and the $40 Oster Stainless Steel Programmable BVST-JBXSS41. Whichever type of coffeemaker strikes your fancy, check out our buying guide for coffeemakers before viewing our Ratings of more than 110 models.

    —Ed Perratore

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    4 products on deep discount in February

    You might think that because you faithfully compare prices online before buying, download coupons to your phone, and watch for deep discounts on yesterday's inventory as new models appear in stores, you're getting the best deals you possibly can.

    Still, deep discounts for some products go by the calendar. Consumer Reports' product-research experts, who track prices all year long, have compiled a list of items that are typically discounted most deeply in February. 

    Want to know what's on sale the rest of the year? Check our calendar of deals.

    —Mandy Walker

    Furniture is on sale this month because stores need to make way for new lines that will arrive after the spring High Point Market (April 5 to 10 this year).

    Where you shop makes a difference. Catalog retailers, for example, have been around for several years, sometimes as an adjunct to a chain of stores. Mass-market retailers, including Ikea, Levitz, Value City, and Walmart, tend to stress price. Expect a fairly limited fabric selection on upholstered furniture.

    Find the best furniture stores, and check this interactive guide, which includes details on upholstered furniture, styles, and furniture-care tips. 

    The moving hand grips and adjustable resistance on an elliptical machine allow you to turn cardiovascular exercise into a full-body workout.  

    Budget and midpriced ellipticals are sold at large retailers such as Dick's Sporting Goods, Sears, Sports Authority, and Walmart. For more expensive brands, you'll generally need to hit a specialty fitness store.

    Whether you want to shop online or purchase a machine from the store, be sure to try it out in person first. You might notice a problem that you couldn't detect by sight or reviews alone. For more shopping tips and a product comparison, check our elliptical buying guide and Ratings.

    A piece of home exercise equipment can be a big purchase, as our tests of treadmills show. Our top-rated nonfolding treadmill costs a cool $4,000.

    Spending that much can get you sturdier construction, better hardware, and more features. But you can get a decent machine that provides a great workout for less than a third of that price.

    Our treadmill Ratings include dozens of models that we evaluated on construction, ease of use, ergonomics, exercise range, and safety. Our treadmill buying guide has information on different types and brands, features to look for, and other shopping tips.

    A humidifier can relieve itchy eyes, sore throat, and cracked skin by adding moisture to dry, heated air.  

    Before you buy, check the features. A humidistat—if it's accurate—can help you maintain relative humidity between the optimal levels of 30 percent to 50 percent.

    And put substance over style. Models resembling a radio can liven up your decor but their output might be too low for the area you need to humidify. Some models with a touch of whimsy, however—like the top-rated Penguin model from Crane (shown)—also delivered on performance.

    Check our humidifer buying guide for more tips on finding the right model in our Ratings. To learn how we test humidifiers in our labs, watch the video below.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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  • 02/14/14--07:14: Find the best snow shovel
  • Find the best snow shovel

    Even people with a snow blower need to shovel sometimes, and our snow blower testers have plenty of advice on which snow shovels work best. When shopping, keep in mind that lighter weight means easier lifting, a rigid shovel is best (in the store, push a corner of the shovel into the floor to test for flexing), and a cheap shovel won’t be great. You’ll probably need to spend $30 or $35. Beyond that:

    The handle: “Ergonomic” may not mean easy. Bent handles can make the pushing angle hard to adjust, and twisting the shovel to toss snow aside can be difficult. A shorter handle makes snow-throwing easier; longer is better for pushing—you can better tweak the shovel’s angle and use your weight. A wood handle is handsome but heavy, metal is cold, and plastic or fiberglass is often just right.

    The grip: D-shaped. Be sure it fits your hands, especially if they’re unusually small or big. A padded grip is nice, as is an extra grip lower on the handle.

    The scoop: Sturdy. Metal is generally more rigid than plastic but heavier. Steel on the leading edge can extend a shovel’s life and make it more effective in hard-packed snow, though the edge may scratch a delicate surface such as decking. A scoop about 24 inches across is good for a few inches of light snow; narrower is better when snow is deep or wet and heavy. A deeply curved scoop can clear a lot of snow; a shallow scoop is OK for pushing snow but spills when lifted. High scoop sides contain snow and can reduce flexing.

    Bottom line. Look at our lineup below, and consider buying more than one shovel depending on anticipated need—one for lifting, another for pushing, for example, or one for dealing with regular snow and another for an icy plow pile at the end of your driveway.

    1. Versatile. Throws, lifts, or pushes. Scoop sides keep snow from escaping. Fiber core handle is lighter than wood.
    2. Garden-variety. Slices heavy snow and is good for other outdoor work, but the wood handle is heavy and short.
    3. Cheap, plastic. Plastic may flex too much and wear over time. Without a steel edge, the scoop won’t bite well into icy snow.
    4. He-man heft. It could actually be too big. You can use your foot to push it into a plow bank, but it takes a very heavy scoop.
    5. Wide, wobbly. Quickly fills with snow, and the one we tried wobbled. OK for a little light fluff on a hard surface.
    6. Ergonomic handle. The bend makes it hard to maintain an effective angle and awkward to throw to the side. You’ll need strong wrists.
    7. Yellow midsize. An ergonomic handle that’s better than the dogleg version; and you’re not forced into one grip.
    8. A pusher. The width and lack of sides mean it isn’t good for lifting snow. It will do for up to 4 or 5 inches of light snow.
    How to shovel—and do so safely

    Try to shovel when the snow is still light and powdery. Also:

    • Dress appropriately. Light, layered, water-repellent clothing provides both ventilation and insulation. It is also important to wear the appropriate head coverings, as well as mittens or gloves and thick, warm socks. Take a break if you feel yourself getting too hot or too cold. Avoid falls by wearing shoes or boots that have slip-resistant soles.

    • Use good timing and technique. When lifting snow, bend your knees, keep your back as straight and vertical as possible, and stand up. The closer your hand is to the scoop, the lighter the load will feel. When pushing snow, keep the handle low, in your hip area, and push using your legs. Take small amounts of snow. And do not throw the snow over your shoulder or to the side—the twisting motion can stress your back.

    • Pace yourself and watch for warning signs. Take frequent breaks and replenish fluids to prevent dehydration. If you feel pressure or pain in your chest, or discomfort spreading to your shoulders, neck, jaw, arms, or back, call for an ambulance immediately, chew and swallow an aspirin, and lie down. You could be having a heart attack. People often shovel first thing in the morning, when heart attacks are more likely. That's why the American College of Emergency Physicians advises against shoveling if you have a history of heart attacks. In this case, it’s probably best to enlist someone to remove the snow for you.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Protect yourself against injury from snow and ice

    Ready to clear the snow from your walk or driveway? If you’re dealing with wet, heavy “heart attack snow,” first make sure you’re healthy enough for the task. If not, try to find someone who is, to do it for you. Besides the snow and the cold, even a thin coating of ice can cause serious injury. Keep these 3 safety tips in mind:

    Use the right shovel or snow blower for your needs. Our testers have plenty of advice on which work best, and safer snow-shoveling techniques.

    Take it easy in cold weather.
    Your body is already working hard just to stay warm, so don’t overdo it, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you have heart disease or high blood pressure, follow your doctor’s advice about avoiding hard work in the cold.

    Avoid ice. Slipping and falling on ice-covered sidewalks, steps, driveways, and porches cause many cold-weather back, hip and knee injuries. You can attach cleats to your shoes or boots to make walking outside less treacherous. And use rock salt, sand, or another chemical de-icing compound to keep your steps and walkways as free of ice as possible.

    —Doug Podolsky

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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