Consumer Reports states that all tested products are purchased at retail by its staff, that no free samples are accepted from manufacturers, and that this avoids the possibility of bias from bribery or from being given "better than average" samples.
ConsumerReports.org, the related website, claims more paid subscribers than any other publication-based Web site. Most of its information is available only to paid subscribers.
ConsumerReports.org provides updates on product availability, and adds new products to previously published test results. In addition, the online data includes coverage that is not published in the magazine; for example, vehicle reliability (frequency of repair) tables online extend over the full 10 model years reported in the Annual Questionnaires, whereas the magazine has only a six-year history of each model.
Magazine copies distributed in Canada include a small four-page supplement called "Canada Extra," explaining how the magazine's findings apply to that country and lists the examined items available there.
In 2002, Consumers Union launched the grant-funded project Consumer Reports WebWatch, which aims to improve the credibility of Web sites through investigative reporting, publicizing best-practices standards, and publishing a list of sites that comply with the standards. WebWatch has worked with the Stanford Web Credibility Project, Harvard University's Berkman Center, The Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, and others. WebWatch is a member of ICANN, the W3C and the Internet Society. Its content is free.
In 2005 Consumers Union launched the service Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs, which takes publicly available (but difficult to comprehend) studies on pharmaceutical effectiveness and combines them with pricing information with a goal of having an easy-to-read format.
Also in 2005 Consumers Union launched the service Greener Choices, which is meant to "inform, engage, and empower consumers about environmentally-friendly products and practices." It contains information about conservation, electronics recycling and conservation with the goal or providing an "accessible, reliable, and practical source of information on buying “greener” products that have minimal environmental impact and meet personal needs."
Also, in a 2003 issue of CR, they tested the Nissan Murano crossover utility vehicle. They didn't recommend it because of a problem with the power steering, even though it had above-average reliability. The specific problem was that the steering would stiffen substantially on hard turning. Nissan fixed the problem on '05 Muranos, and they were now recommended.
In 1996, Consumers Union (CU) published a report indicating that the 1995-96 Isuzu Trooper sport utility vehicle had demonstrated a "tendency to roll over in certain situations" in its tests, and that it had determined that this was "not acceptable". In a press conference, it called on Isuzu to discontinue sales and recall Troopers already sold, and continued to issue warnings about the Trooper, advising the public not to buy the vehicle, and suggesting that federal officials should launch an investigation into possible product defects. Isuzu filed a lawsuit against CU as a result of the article; the court ruled that CR had made "numerous false statements" and had put the Isuzu through tests that competitors were not subjected to, but though eight of ten jurors wanted to assign punitive damages, they did not find enough evidence of malicious intent and did not assign Isuzu cash damages.
In December 1997, however, the Trooper distributor in Puerto Rico sued CU, alleging that it had lost sales as a result of CU's disparagement of the Trooper. But the trial court granted CU's motion for summary judgment, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the favorable judgment, on the grounds that CU had mentioned only Isuzu and the Trooper, not the distributor specifically; since the challenged statements were not "of and concerning" the distributor, they would be precluded from suing for any injuries suffered as a result of the statements.
Related to this suit, in 1988, CU published that the Suzuki Samurai had demonstrated the same tendency to roll and deemed it "not acceptable." In July 2004, this suit was settled and dismissed with no money changing hands.
In 2003, Sharper Image sued CR in California for product disparagement, over negative reviews of its Ionic Breeze Quadra air purifier. CR moved for dismissal on October 31, 2003, under California's Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) law, and the case was dismissed in November 2004, on the grounds that the Sharper Image "has not shown that the test protocol used by Consumers Union was scientifically, or otherwise, invalid," and had not "demonstrated a reasonable probability that any of the challenged statements were false." The decision also awarded CU $525,000 in legal fees and costs.
On January 28, 2007, Joan Claybrook, who served on the board of CU from 1982 to 2006 (and was the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1977 to 1981), discussed the sequence of events leading to the publishing of the erroneous information. The magazine contracted with Calspan to do the actual testing; due to miscommunication, the tests were conducted (using test sleds) at an actual speed of 38 miles per hour. In fact, since automobiles in a crash continue to move after the crash—rather than absorbing all the energy of impact as a test sled does—a test sled impact of 38 miles per hour is considered equivalent to an automobile crash of 70 miles per hour; to replicate an automobile crash of 38 miles per hour, as was intended, the test sled crash should have been carried out at 20 miles per hour.
Claybrook admitted that the magazine should have been motivated to double-check the surprising results; however, she also pointed out that CR was attempting to execute what should have been NHTSA's work. "Consumer Reports does not conduct crash tests save for low-speed bumper-impact tests," she stated. "It has limited expertise in designing such [crash] tests." She further noted that in 2000 Congress had mandated NHTSA to define a set of tests and issue a set of safety standards for child restraints within two years, but that NHTSA still had not yet done so, "though it took less than ten days to evaluate Consumer Reports’ testing and find the error."
In 2006, Consumer Reports said six hybrid vehicles would probably not save owners money. The magazine later discovered that they had miscalculated depreciation, and released an update saying that four of the seven vehicles would save the buyer money, if the vehicle was kept for five years (including the federal tax credit for hybrid vehicles, which expires after each manufacturer sells 60,000 hybrid vehicles). In February 1998, the magazine tested pet food and claimed that Iams dog food was nutritionally deficient. They later retracted the report claiming that there had been "a systemic error in the measurements of various minerals we tested – potassium, calcium and magnesium."
In July 1996, Consumer Reports tested motor oils in a fleet of taxi cabs. In their article, they noted that "Big-city cabs don't see many cold start-ups or long periods of high speed driving in extreme heat. But our test results relate to the most common type of severe service - stop-and-go city driving." They were unable to see a "meaningful" difference between any brands of oil which carried the API starburst symbol, but suggested that synthetic oil is "worth considering for extreme driving conditions high ambient temperatures and high engine load or very cold temperatures." This research was criticized by a Chrysler-oriented Web site, which claims that the research method did not include enough engine-damaging cold starts to be representative of personal vehicle use. In addition, oil reseller Amsoil noted that "designed its study around wear control only and chose to ignore the issues of fuel economy, extended drain intervals and performance enhancement." Amsoil noted that Consumer Reports made some statements regarding the need to conform to ASE standards and change oil regularly to avoid buildup of contaminants, without supporting these statements with research; and had not tested either low-end or high-end oils other than popular synthetics. Amsoil speaks out on Consumer Reports Article. Retrieved on 2008-06-25..
Consumer Reports' Auto Price Services Analysis of GM 'Value Pricing' Finds New Program's Prices Aren't Always a Better Deal; List of 10 Best, 10 Worst Deals Available Free at www.ConsumerReports.org.
Feb 17, 2006; Byline: Consumers Union YONKERS, N.Y., Feb. 17 (AScribe Newswire) -- Despite the hype, more than a third of the new-car models...