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PERFORMANCE TOASTS FASHION IN BREAD BIZ

The toaster is getting a fashion makeover. Manufacturers of this humble one-trick pony aren't focusing so much on technological innovation as on style, hoping you'll be inspired to update.

Yet style didn't figure into our ratings when we put 21 two-slice toasters to the test to see which performed the best. Indeed, some of the priciest, most fashion-forward models in our lineup finished near the bottom of the stack, bowing to a host of toasters that cost $60 or less.

The best toasters, we found, excel at the basics. They provide not only a wide range of doneness - very light to very dark - but also consistent color in all the slices of a batch. The best also keep the same color for consecutive batches. (Less-adept toasters cause batches to get darker or lighter over time.)

Among the best, only one model scored "excellent" overall in tests that emphasized performance, convenience, cleaning and safety. The top-rated Cuisinart CPT-60 ($60) has several features that set it apart from others in our lineup. It has one long slot for two slices, rather than the more common side-by-slide slots. Its electronic touchpad controls are more convenient than the numberless shade dials found on some models. And its plastic housing is less likely to retain heat and feel hot to the fingers than those made of metal.

Joining the Cuisinart on our list of recommended toasters are the Krups FEM2B ($60) and the Proctor-Silex Cool-Touch 22450 (at just $15, it's a CR Best Buy). Like the Cuisinart, both are consistent and convenient. All three have a removable crumb tray and a bread lift (a push of the lever lets you raise popped-up toast even higher), and they prevent you from lowering toast if they're unplugged. That's a nicety for people who may not be fully awake at toast time. The Krups has especially deep toaster wells (good for oblong slices), while the no-frills Proctor-Silex has a plastic housing.

If style matters most in your toaster, consider the Kitchen Aid KTT340 ($50), the GE 106808 ($25) and the Braun Impressions HT600 ($60). All earned a score of "very good," and all have a slide-out tray and a warm/reheat feature. The Kitchen Aid's traditional design comes in tangerine, cobalt and other colors, in addition to white. The GE has a retro look, while the Braun sports the professional or industrial style you'd expect in a restaurant kitchen. A contemporary look like that of the Russell Hobbs RHG2T ($100) might complement a sleek glass electric cooktop. Watch out for its exposed metal top, however: It remains quite hot well after toasting.

A toaster is the right choice if you want mainly to toast bread, bagels and English muffins. Toaster ovens do more - all the ones we tested will melt a cheese sandwich, and most will broil a hamburger or roast a 4-pound chicken - but they generally don't toast bread as well, leaving tiger stripes on one side, and taking longer to do the job.

If you want to bake, broil, roast and toast in small quantities, any of the following very good toaster ovens should do nicely. The Delonghi XR640 ($120) has a porcelain interior that makes cleanup after broiling especially easy. The Kenmore KTES8 ($80, from Sears) isn't fancy, but it does everything well and is easy to use. The Toastmaster TLWTOB6 ($70) has four positions for its rack (the others have two) so you can place food more precisely. It and the Kenmore qualify as CR Best Buys.

Another very good Toastmaster oven, the TOV211 ($80) is larger and features convection cooking that saves time when baking and roasting.

By the editors of Consumer Reports at www.consumerreports.org.

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