Sales of grills have been lackluster lately, but many of the models Consumer Reports tested were anything but.
Inexpensive grills offered impressive cooking, and midpriced models were loaded with premium features such as searing burners, lights and thicker stainless-steel grates.
But CR did see trade-offs, including smaller cooking areas, thinner shelves, more painted metal and less stainless steel and lower grades of stainless, which past tests found are more prone to rust and corrosion than more expensive stainless.
CR’s findings include:
*Boutique brands take top spots: Vermont Castings, a relatively small company, makes CR’s highest-scoring grill, the Signature Series VCS322SSP, $1,000, a midsized model. Huntington’s Patriot 658184 grill, $700, a CR Best Buy, is its finest-performing large grill. Huntington calls itself a "barbecuing family," though that family is part of the grilling behemoth Onward Manufacturing. Both aced CR’s cooking tests, producing nicely seared steaks and moist chicken and salmon cooked over low heat.
*When "made in the U.S." matters: Nearly three-quarters of Americans CR recently surveyed said they had tried to buy a U.S.-made product in the past year, and 60 percent said they always or sometimes would rather buy U.S.-made goods than those made elsewhere. Some of CR’s recommended grills were made in the U.S., including the Vermont Castings and Huntington Patriot, and Weber’s Genesis E-330, $800; Genesis S-330, $950; and Summit S-470, $1,900 grills. Among the small models, the Fiesta 24025, $100, is also American-made and offers fine grilling. But so-so indirect cooking kept it from being recommended.
*Char-Broil outshines its sleek sister: Saber’s website says its grill is "designed and built for discerning consumers who want an exceptional outdoor cooking experience." The three grills CR tested from Saber, Char-Broil’s upscale sibling, were very good but hardly exceptional, though they’re made with premium stainless. And in most instances, the Saber grill was outperformed by a less expensive Char-Broil model.
*Two Napoleon grills flare up: To test for flare-up, CR cooked fatty steaks on a preheated grill for 6 minutes with the lid closed. But testers stopped on the Napoleon Prestige P500 after just 3 1/2 minutes because they saw excessive amounts of black smoke and flames. After the grill cooled, they found that the firebox had melted and deformed in several places and that the igniters and burners were damaged. They bought and tested a second P500 and a P500RSIB, which has the same firebox and burner design. Though the grills flared up excessively (but not as much as in the first test), they were able to complete the test on both grills. Neither grill was damaged.
CR Best Buys include the Char-Broil Red 463250511, $400, and the Brinkmann 810-2545-W (Wal-Mart), $250, in the medium category. Char-Broil Red Patio 463250211, $250, dominates in the small category. In the large category, in addition to the Huntington’s Patriot 658184, the Master Forge 3218LTN (Lowe’s), $600, and the Kenmore 16136, $600, are CR Best Buys.
*Consider the cooking area. While larger grills usually have bigger cooking surfaces, there are exceptions. The Brinkmann Vertex Sear 810-3885-S is nearly 6 feet wide yet its cooking area fits just 20 burgers.
*Think beyond Btu. The Btu tells you how much gas a grill uses and the heat it can create, but CR’s tests have found that more Btu doesn’t guarantee faster preheating or better cooking.
*Keep infrared claims in perspective. Infrared burners typically emit intense heat to sear and cook food, though designs differ by manufacturer. CR hasn’t found one infrared burner design that’s better than other infrared designs or better than standard burners.
*Put safety first. Test a grill’s sturdiness with a gentle nudge in several places. Check for sharp corners and edges. Press down on the side shelves to see how well they’ll support a heavy pot. And check to see if the handle places your hand too close to a hot lid.