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IRONING OUT THE BEST STEAMERS

The rumpled look doesn't stand a chance with most new steam irons. We tested 21 models ranging in price from $20 to $150, and almost all were judged very good or excellent at wrinkle removal.

Features once found only on fairly pricey irons are now available on less-expensive models. (About 90 percent of U.S. households have an iron, so manufacturers are offering more add-ons for less money to encourage you to buy a new one.)

Some, like more vent holes in the soleplate and higher wattage, don't add to performance.

Others do:

An auto shutoff turns off an iron if it's left motionless. Many irons cut off in 30 seconds when left face down and 10 to 15 minutes when upright. Others don't do so for up to 60 minutes in any position. Some lose power if tipped sideways, a feature called three-way shutoff. We recommend auto shutoff so strongly that most of the irons we test have it.

A separate steam control lets you adjust steam output, or shut it off when you're ironing fabrics that don't require steam.

A burst of steam lets you boost steam output at the touch of a button to remove stubborn wrinkles.

A manual self-cleaning button helps you remove unused water and built-up deposits in the iron.

An indicator light that stays on or flashes while the iron is plugged in is better than a light that goes off when the iron cycles off to maintain a set temperature.

You'll also find more irons equipped with cords that retract into the base, extra-long cords (12 feet) that give you room to roam, and cords that pivot down or to the side so they don't hit your wrist or drag over just-pressed items.

You can do without a cord altogether, but some cordless irons we've tested in the past haven't performed well. The two models we tested this time -- the $150 Maytag MLI-7500 and the $45 Panasonic NI-L40NS -- were very good overall, matching some corded counterparts in all but steaming, where they scored merely "fair."

Another downside: You need to reheat a cordless iron in its base every few minutes for a minute or more, which can be tedious and time-consuming.

While all the corded irons in our tests vanquished creases eventually, the amount of effort varied. We tested each model with linen, cotton, a cotton-polyester blend and silk. The fewer passes needed without resorting to bursts of steam or spray, the better an iron scored. Whether an iron's soleplate was metal or a non-stick surface made little difference in the ease with which it glided over fabric, although the non-sticks are easier to clean.

Our highest-scoring irons were prodigious steamers, good gliders and easy to use, thanks to clearly marked controls and well-designed water tanks. Some selling for $20 to $30 scored better than others priced at $60 to $100 or more.

Topping all models was the Black & Decker Digital Advantage D2020 ($50). The only iron judged excellent overall, it's a fine choice for heavily wrinkled items and features a digital control for setting temperature.

Very good irons that provide solid value include the Hamilton Beach Steam Excel 14770 ($30), the Sunbeam 3956 ($25), the GE 106671R (at $20, sold only at Wal-Mart, it's a CR Best Buy), the Sunbeam Simple Press 3035 ($25) and the Black & Decker Quick Press S560A ($25).

The feel of an iron is a personal preference, so be sure to get a hands-on experience before you buy. And don't be swayed by weight: Our tests found no connection between an iron's heft and its performance.

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