Schwinn, Vision take "Best Buy" in Consumer Reports rating

In the latest round of ratings of fitness equipment in Consumer Reports magazine (February 2004 issue), treadmills took center stage, and only two of 16 rated – the Landice Pro Sports Trainer L7 and the True 400HRC – managed "excellent" ratings in all four areas tested. Several other brands (the rest of the top seven tested) still managed overall excellent ratings each: Life Fitness T3i/T3, Precor M9.33, Life Fitness Sport ST55/Essential FT6, Schwinn 820p, and the Star Trac TR901.
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In the latest round of ratings of fitness equipment in Consumer Reports magazine (February 2004 issue), treadmills took center stage, and only two of 16 rated – the Landice Pro Sports Trainer L7 and the True 400HRC – managed "excellent" ratings in all four areas tested.

Several other brands (the rest of the top seven tested) still managed overall excellent ratings each, despite slight slips in one or two of the four areas broken out. These are: Life Fitness T3i/T3, Precor M9.33, Life Fitness Sport ST55/Essential FT6, Schwinn 820p, and the Star Trac TR901.

But "CR Best Buy" tags – the carrot that often gets consumers cruising into stores with magazine in hand -- went to the Schwinn 820p (actually 6th overall on the list) and the Vision Fitness T9200 (even farther down at 9th overall).

"We are very excited that our Schwinn treadmills, especially the 820, got such wonderful reviews in Consumer Reports," Kevin Lamar, Nautilus Health & Fitness president, told SNEWS®. "It verifies the belief we have that we make a quality product, and for a group like Consumer Reports to recognize that is wonderful for us."

The highest-priced treadmill rated was the Precor with a listed retail of $3,500, and the lowest-priced treadmill appearing was the Weslo Cadence 70e with a listed retail of $280 (and also rated 16th of 16 treadmills).

Others included, in order from 8th place down to 16th, were: Nautilus NTR 500 ($2,300), the Vision piece, Reebok RX 9200 ($2,000), NordicTrack E3800 ($1,700), Evo by Smooth Evo2 ($2,600), NordicTrack C2200 ($1,000), Image 10.0 ($400), Weslo Cadence 450 ($300) and the previously mentioned Weslo Cadence.

Prominently missing was product from SportsArt America, Bodyguard, Pacemaster, Horizon Fitness, or Theradyne, among others. Evo by Smooth managed to eke its way into the flock this round, after not being included in the May 2003 ratings. Note also that of 16 treadmills, six are made by Icon Fitness.

"It does not surprise us that our TR 901 has stiff competition in the consumer market because our development effort over the past years has been focused on creating cardiovascular products for the institutional market," said Terry Woods, Star Trac senior product manager. "In fact, our best selling consumer treadmill is our top of the line Pro Series model."

The magazine in its "Guide to the Ratings" said that the overall score is based mainly on controls, exercise flexibility, ergonomics and construction, including durability using an accelerated-use test. The magazine defines "controls" as ease of use and program selection; "exercise flexibility" as range of incline and speed, stability, how flat the deck lies and heart-rate monitor effectiveness; "ergonomics" including factors such as belt design, foot rails, safety features and folding; and "construction" as motor HP, wiring, welds, deck thickness, and durability.

This is the third treadmill review by the magazine in about 13 months. Last year, a representative of the magazine told SNEWS that fitness equipment has proved to be a popular area for its readers. Note that in the May review last year, the Guide said overall score was based on slightly different criteria, naming exercise usability, ergonomics, and safety, and construction, including durability.

In the magazine's article with the ratings, it also noted that a basic $300 to $700 piece is "best for walkers on a budget," that an $800 to $1,800 treadmill is "best for walkers and occasional runners," and that a high-end one for $2,000 to $3,500 is "best for frequent, dedicated runners." Then it points out what it calls "Quick Picks" in each area: It notes the Image as "fine for walkers," the Life Fitness Sport, Schwinn and Vision as "fine for most running and walking," and the top three -- Landice, True and Life Fitness -- as "best for runners."

Consumer Reports is a subscriber-only publication that accepts no advertising. Its website
( www.consumerreports.org ) is also subscriber-only, and separate from a magazine subscription. Although the article mentions a code to input for special "extra" material (last year, it was pictures of the rated treadmills' consoles), there is no special material despite the code -- or wasn't as of Jan. 24.

SNEWS View: Hmm, well… where do we start? Heck, whatever we say, we know there will be a firestorm of peeved folks. There always is controversy over ratings, whether good or bad -- and we aren't going to say these are "bad" overall since they are certainly better than those done by most others. But you can't make everybody happy all of the time, right? Still, we'll wait for the emails, which we know will come firing at us.

Several manufacturers with whom we spoke called these ratings "a crap shoot," because they never know what will happen or how features or the machine will be tested or compared – especially with CR, which buys the equipment on its own via retail (if available at retail), and only contacts the supplier when the process is complete to make sure the machine will be on the market when the issue comes out and to confirm price. (We do like this method overall.) But it seems to be a roll of the dice that many still like to take since a good rating or – gasp! – a Best Buy can mean exponential increases in website traffic, inquiries in stores and, of course, sales. Nevertheless, even being listed means the name is in front of a consumer's eye, and he or she will likely forget down the road whether the rating was "good" or "bad" and will only remember, "Oh, yeah, I know that name." Even that can be helpful.

Other manufacturers have complained about the fact that they aren't contacted since, if they were, they could suggest the right model for the review and its desired criteria or audience. Of course, we know that can turn into a sales routine, so we're not sure we agree with that course of action. We've seen what happened when Runners World magazine tried that (See our story from Nov. 4, 2002 and follow-ups from Feb. 17 and March 10, 2003).

As always we applaud the fact that Consumer Reports now looks at solid treadmills over $1,000 and even at those reaching above $3K to boot. But how can it begin to compare apples to oranges by matching a Weslo or even an Image against a Landice or Precor? If it does that, why not include a StarTrac or Cybex or other club-quality ones that go for $5,000 or $7,000 or more? And how can it begin to say that a $400 treadmill is "fine for walkers" (as if a walker doesn't need more?), and then imply that a runner shouldn't really consider anything for $1,800 or less. We know of some mighty fine treadmills less than that threshold that take some hard running abuse – not that one for $3,000 might not one-up 'em, but let's not discourage someone from the start by saying "don't bother if it's less than X dollars." Heck, we also know some pretty big men who jog regularly on treadmills that cost much less than that threshold.

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