Consumer Reports picks fitness equipment Best Buys, calls Icon products "lemons"

This year taking on both treadmills and ellipticals in it annual fitness equipment rating, Consumer Reports magazine picked four treadmills as "Best Buys" -- one each from Horizon, Vision, Life Fitness and Schwinn -- and one elliptical as a "Best Buy" from Schwinn.
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This year taking on both treadmills and ellipticals in it annual fitness equipment rating, Consumer Reports magazine picked four treadmills as "Best Buys" -- one each from Horizon, Vision, Life Fitness and Schwinn -- and one elliptical as a "Best Buy" from Schwinn.

In fact, the same Schwinn 820p treadmill and the same Vision T9200 came away with their second year with Best Buy stamps of approval -- the only two at all a year ago -- which means the membership-based, advertising-free magazine found the combination of features and price are ones that the right consumer should consider as a top pick.

"We certainly are pleased to have two of the five cardio products listed as 'best buys,'" said Tim Hawkins, chief marketing and customer officer for The Nautilus Group. "We hope to do even better next year."

The mood at the Horizon Fitness office was also upbeat, since this was the first time ever one of the company's products had made it through the gates at Consumer Reports, let alone received a Best Buy.

"Yes, we had a good week here at Horizon," said Bill Sotis, vice president of product and marketing. "As you know, we are unable to influence CR's opinions and their ratings of our products. The product must speak for itself, and it certainly did in this case. We are all very proud of the accomplishment."

Two other first-timers in the treadmill ratings in the December 2004 issue, at least in recent years, was Spirit Fitness for its Inspire IN400, although the price is $1,300 rather than the $1,650 listed by Consumer Reports (CR), and Keys Fitness, with its Ironman M4, which was part of the M line that is no longer sold as of late July. Although Spirit ended up in the No. 12 spot of 22 treadmills and Keys was down the line in the No. 19 position, both were pleased -- despite a small slap to each by the magazine in a sidebar pointing out slight mechanical failures.

Just being included was a big first step for both.

"At least we made the list," said Woody Fisher, vice president of sales. "This is always a treat for us."

Added Jay Hurt, marketing director, "We still rated well. It's in there with some big boys."

Dave Williams, Keys vice president of sales and marketing, said he didn't regret being included but lamented the lack of communication by the magazine so it never found out the product listed isn't being sold anymore.

"By the time they get a hold of it, we're on to another generation," Williams said. "They tend to be a bit out of step."

Consumer Reports shops, chooses and buys its products like any consumer -- at retail -- and other than sometimes a call placed by the company early in the process -- in this case, in July -- no other contact is made or accepted. No company is allowed to "sell" its product or its features to the magazine staff and testers, although some companies do send materials to the magazine to help it become aware of a product or brand in the hope of being included in a later review. CR hopes to eliminate bias in this way and tests its equipment in the lab for durability and functioning as well as usually in its staff workout center for casual user feedback. CR staff members have told SNEWS® in the past that ratings of workout equipment have proved popular among its readers, with the result apparently being more frequent reviews.  

Why do companies care so much about reviews by one magazine? CR impacts the general public's purchases, with retailers finding consumers marching into stores with a copy of the magazine in hand -- whether they're searching for chain saws, garbage disposals or home gyms. Manufacturers rated are also expressly prohibited from using any ratings "in advertising or for any commercial purpose, including any use on the Internet." Its testing center in Yonkers, N.Y., is the largest non-profit center like it in the world, the magazine reports on its website, www.consumerreports.org.

Icon gets slammed
In a half-page sidebar titled "Closeup: Too many machines don't work properly," the magazine wrote that the tests this round seemed to include a "dismaying number of lemons…. Many of the problem-prone machines were from Icon Health & Fitness, the maker of Nordic Track, Pro-Form, Reebok, Image and Weslo machines…" About half of the text goes on about various problems with various machines, and pictures a Nordic Track 7600R with the caption "Not recommended." Six of 22 treadmill models were Icon brands, and three of 10 elliptical models were by Icon.

Nevertheless, the magazine still included one, the Image, as a "quick pick" as "fine for walking."

The sidebar also compliments slightly higher-priced machines: "By contrast, the machines we bought for $2,000 and more through specialty fitness equipment stores had very few sample defects."

In conclusion, the magazine states: "Meanwhile, Icon and makers of other problem machines must improve quality control."

Icon did not return numerous emails and phone messages by SNEWS® to offer a comment about the ratings for this story.

Treadmill lists expands
This year's ratings included 22 models, compared to 16 in the last treadmill rating in the February 2004 issue (see SNEWS® story, Jan. 26, 2004, "Schwinn, Vision take 'Best Buy' in Consumer Reports rating").

The top two spots were claimed by the same companies that ranked in February 2004 -- No. 1, Landice L7 Series Pro Sports Trainer, and No. 2, True 400 HRC. Next up this round were two Precor models, the M 9.33 and the M 9.31 (last round only the 9.33 was reviewed and was in fourth overall). Horizon Fitness Elite 5.1T took the No. 5 spot and its Best Buy, with the Precor and Horizon models bumping the Life Fitness T3i/T3 from third to sixth overall.

Vision was No. 7 (also a Best Buy) and the Nautilus NTR500 was stuck in No. 8, same as last year. The Life Fitness Essential FT6 was in ninth, down from last year's fifth-place, but still took a Best Buy. And 10th overall went to Star Trac's TR901, down from seventh last round.

Next up were: 11, Trimline T350HR; 12, Spirit Inspire IN400; 13/Best Buy, Schwinn 820p; 14, Nordic Track E2500; 15, Pro-Form 5-Star; 16, Horizon Fitness CST4; 17, Pro-Form CS11e; 18, Evo by Smooth Fitness EVO2; 19, Keys Fitnesss Ironman M4; 20, Image 15.0; 21, Weslo Cadence C62; and 22, Nordic Track 7600R. The Nordic Track is called out as "not recommended because samples required repeated belt-tension adjustment, a big inconvenience." All machines from Nos. 2 through 17 still earned a "very good," with the only excellent rating being the Landice. Nos. 18-21 were still rated "good."  

Obviously MIA were SportsArt, Woodway, Cybex, Bodyguard and Body-Solid's Endurance line, while newbies such as Lifespan, Fitness Master and Bladez might just be too new for CR to have on its radar.

Ellipticals included in ratings
Among ellipticals -- the first time the magazine has rated higher-priced elliptical trainers -- the Precor EFX 5.19 nabbed the No. 1 spot, followed closely by Life Fitness' X3/X3i. But of the 10 rated, none earned a rating of "excellent."

In order following are: 3, Nautilus NE 2000; 4, Vision Fitness X6600HRT; 5, New Balance 9.5e; 6/Best Buy, Schwinn 418; 7, Keys Fitness, HealthTrainer 840EL; 8, Nordic Track, CS990; 9, Reebok RL 525; and Pro-Form 1080S. The top six were called "very good," while the last four were rated "good."

According to the small print, an overall score is based mainly on ease of use, ergonomics, quality and exercise range.  

In addition to the ratings, the magazine prefaced the story with a solid and consumer-friendly story titled "Making Workouts Work," discussing what has helped some people lose weight and keep it off, as well as tips about how to get around hurdles such as lack of time. It also included a short sidebar on the importance of lifting weights.

CR also upped its price criteria slightly from a year ago, noting that "treadmills under $1,000" are generally suitable for walkers. In January 2004, the article stated that "a basic $300 to $700 piece is 'best for walkers on a budget'" and that an $800 to $1,000 treadmill is best for walkers and occasional runners.

SNEWS® View: Certainly many of us sneer a bit at the CR ratings, yet they carry enough clout with consumers that we still sit on the edge of our seats, hoping against hope for a positive word. OK, so not all the manufacturers are going to be exactly beaming in response -- last year, one called the ratings a "crap shoot," since you can't every make sure Consumer Reports has the right information even -- and, yes, we can pick all kinds of holes in what it says or the accuracy of what it prints. Still, it is making a huge commitment by staking that many pages in one issue on fitness issues and equipment. Just being out there in a truly mainstream, middle America publication like this with that much easy-to-read info that tells everyone they should work out is a great step for awareness.

We also aren't sure if any of the rated equipment -- even the stuff at the bottom of the lists -- will actually be too damaged. They still got "good" ratings, and that ain't chopped liver. Once a consumer realizes he or she can get something ranked "good" for no more than perhaps $1,300 or so, they may weigh out the cost-value and still opt for one of these lower-ranked machines over the nearly $3,000 top-rated treads or the $2,500 ellipticals in the lead. And one has to applaud the conservative magazine's encouragement of looking at higher-end equipment as a possibility depending on your needs and taking the time to shop at specialty stores, although one still may question the legitimacy of comparing a $600 piece with one that goes for nearly $3,000.

Either way, this will likely once again raise a firestorm of response. We can't wait. And we know the magazine must have an office set up just to acknowledge response and complaints. But just think about all those Americans who will be turning these pages and reading carefully between bites of mincemeat pie and fruitcake as they consider their New Year's resolutions to come.

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