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Thursday, July 3, 2008

BMW reveals 5th generation 7 Series

MUNICH, Germany — It has been six years since BMW rocked the luxury-car establishment with its bold fourth-generation 7 Series. Now the German carmaker has unveiled a high-tech replacement that ushers in a new design lineage, a revised range of gasoline and diesel engines, and substantive chassis and in-car entertainment innovations — all of which promise to see it more closely challenge the likes of the Audi A8, the Lexus LS and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

Code-named F1, the new 7 Series is planned to make its public debut at the Paris Auto Show in October. No exact time frame has been placed on North American sales, although officials at BMW's headquarters in Germany point toward a March introduction for the U.S.

Slightly longer and lower than its predecessor and with longer front and rear tracks, the fifth-generation 2009 7 Series also rides on a wheelbase that has been increased by a considerable 3.3 inches. BMW is making much of the new car's complex construction, pointing to the extensive use of high-strength steel in its floorpan and inner structure. The body is fashioned primarily from aluminum, which is used for the hood, roof, doors and fenders.

In engine options, there are 326-horsepower twin-turbo 3.0-liter gasoline and 245-hp 3.0-liter diesel versions of its traditional inline six-cylinder engine, in the 740i and 730d respectively — neither of which is planned to figure in the initial North American lineup. U.S. customers will be offered just one engine, the 400-hp twin-turbocharged V8 first unveiled in the X6 xDrive50i. With 442 pound-feet of torque, it is claimed to propel the top-of-the-line 750i from zero to 60 mph in less than 5.2 seconds and up to a top speed of 155 mph.

EPA-certified fuel figures are yet to be released, but going on those announced for European versions of the big new BMW, expect average consumption to be around 20 mpg.

There is no official word on what other engines BMW is planning for its new flagship sedan, but insiders confirm plans are progressing on a gasoline/electric hybrid version. Details are scarce, though it is said to draw on the two-mode hybrid technology developed by BMW in cooperation with General Motors and Mercedes-Benz's parent company, Daimler.

BMW has thoroughly reworked the 7 Series' underpinnings, which instead of the traditional MacPherson-strut setup has a new double-wishbone arrangement up front and multilinks at the rear. Other highlights include an advanced damping control system that alters the compression and rebound characteristics independently — a process BMW claims has led to vastly improved ride quality.

The biggest chassis development, however, concerns the steering. As well as receiving the latest incarnation of BMW's Active Front Steering, the new 7 Series also receives an optional rear-wheel-steering system called Integral Active Steer. The speed-sensitive system is capable of altering the angle of the rear wheels by up to three degrees. It is claimed to provide the new 7 Series with improved maneuverability at low speeds around town while enhancing its reaction at high speeds for improved handling.

Hoping the 7 Series will gain ground with business-minded buyers, BMW has provided it with a new second-generation iDrive system that can be used to gain access to the car's on-demand Internet function. Driver-assist systems on the new car include active cruise control with a new stop-and-go capability, lane departure warning, blind spot detection, head-up display, night vision with pedestrian detection and sideview and reversing cameras.

What this means to you: Sales of the outgoing 7 Series never lived up to expectations. BMW hopes for more success — especially from multitasking business customers — with this one. — Andreas Stahl, Correspondent

Pumped up Audi TTS

SIEGEN, Germany — Renowned Audi tuner B&B Automobiltechnik pumps up the Audi TTS with its latest conversion kit.

Extra power can be had in three different stages — 306, 324 or 362 horsepower — and the Stage-3 kit manages R8-fighting numbers with a 0-60-mph time of less than 4.6 seconds. A top speed of 174 mph is reached thanks to a custom turbo, high-flow catalytic converters and a tuned ECU.

B&B spices up the peach-colored exterior with R8-style side markings and body accents, which give the car a more aggressive look with the help of B&B sport springs that can lower the ride height by more than 1.5 inches. Exclusive 19- or 20-inch wheel sets complete the new look for the Audi.

Check out B&B's Web site for more information.

Audi is reportedly working on a higher-performance version of the TTS, which is expected to get a turbocharged five-cylinder with 308 hp.

What this means to you: Another clean go-fast tuning package from B&B. — Mike Lysaght, Correspondent

Happy Independence Day weekend- Van Damme Friday

Be Safe everyone- from your shidoshi to mine.

The Carlton Dance!

There is more here on Alfonso Ribeiro than I ever needed to know, yet I laughed. Below is just a taste of the Carlton Dance!

Happy 22nd Lindsay- a day late

A ChisBlasster fav- here's hoping to another great year!

Six things never to say at a car dealer.

1. I love, love, love this car

Even if a car has your heartstrings in a white-knuckled stranglehold, never let on. Stay calm and pretend you're looking over a microwave oven.

By admitting that you're smitten, you've given a salesman - and the sales manager and everyone else in the process - the combination to your personal safe.

The salesman will, of course, sympathize and want to help you out. But he'll tell you the sales manager, you see, well... That's a really hot car and we had someone in here just the other day and... He just won't take less than...

They know you're not about to walk away. Bottom line: Cars you're not in love with are usually a lot cheaper.

2. I need to get a car by tomorrow

If there's anything worse than being in love, it's being in desperate need. Letting on that you need a set of wheels immediately is, basically, telling the salesman "I won't be thinking too much about any of this."

He knows you won't be looking too closely at the particulars of the deal and you aren't likely to drive across town to try to get a better price.

It also means you're more likely to accept whatever he shows you from the dealership's inventory even if it doesn't exactly suit you. In other words, you may be presenting yourself as an opportunity to unload a bit of slow-moving inventory.

Even if you really do need a car quickly, act like you have a month to decide. But you would consider buying today if you found a car that really pleases you at a price you like.

3. I need a monthly payment of...

It's understandable that many car shoppers are "payment shoppers." Most of us have no idea how much car we can afford except by looking at how much it would cost us each month.

But saying "I want a payment of less than $350 a month" is like going into a box store and asking for a two-inch box. You'll notice that some dimensions are missing. You could end up with a box that's 12 feet long.

Almost any given monthly payment is possible provided the loan is long enough and the downpayment is big enough. Over the course of, say, seven years, $350 a month can add up to a lot more than $350 a month for three or four years.

To understand how much car you can really afford, you need more than a monthly payment figure. Know what monthly payment you want, for how long and how much you want to pay up front. You also need a fairly good idea of what your trade-in is worth.

To keep it really simple, just figure out what price you can afford for the car -based on your monthly budget and trade-in value - and negotiate that one big number. Talk about downpayment and monthly payment and negotiate the value of your trade-in after that.

4. My trade-in's outside

A salesperson will usually want to know, early on, if you have a vehicle to trade in. If you tell him that you do and that it's parked, conveniently, right outside, he'll ask you for the keys.

That way the used car manager can assess its value while you're negotiating. It'll save time.

Well, he has a point there. But consider the downsides. You've just handed the salesperson your car keys and he's given them off to someone else.

Guess what's going to happen if you reach an impasse in the negotiations and decide it's time to leave. You'll have to ask for you car keys back. And, odds are good, they will have been misplaced.

You'll be negotiating a while longer.

5. I don't know anything about leasing

Even if you're never going to lease a car, you need to know about leasing, if only to know exactly why you're never going to lease a car.

That's because there's a good chance someone will try to sell you on the idea. And they might be right. It could be a good choice for you. But it probably isn't.

First of all, leasing makes sense only for people who know - really know - they will not be keeping a car for more than a few years.

Beyond that, you need to understand the terminology and costs of leasing beyond the monthly payments, the number salesperson will focus on. You need to know how many miles are included in the lease and if there's additional money you need to pay up front or at the close of the lease.

6. My credit's a little spotty

Many people underestimate their own credit rating - and they're the people who are big moneymakers for car dealers. Part of the interest you pay is shared with the dealership, so they might be pleased to confirm your belief that you don't qualify for a low interest rate.

To make sure you're getting the best financing deal, secure your own financing before you start shopping. Having another loan in place - one you can use if you don't like what the dealership is offering - gives you negotiating power. It also lets you know exactly what you qualify for.

In most cases, a dealership's finance office - working with a manufacturer-affiliated auto financing company - should be able to get you a more-than-competitive rate. To top of page

Hvar, Crotia

Rush Limbaugh= $400 million???

Who says radio is dead?

On the verge of the 20th anniversary of his conservative talk show, Rush Limbaugh has re-upped with Clear Channel Communications and the deal worth some $400 million to rant on through 2016 -- that's the next three presidential elections and everything in between.

Word of this phenomenal payday -- almost certainly the richest in radio and rivaling even that of even network TV stars like David Letterman -- comes from the New York Times, which interviewed Limbaugh for an article for the Sunday magazine published online Wednesday.

The Times' Brian Stelter reports that Limbaugh's $50 million a year paycheck is a hefty raise from his $14.4 million annual salary in an eight-year contract that ends next year.

Garbage in, Megawatts out- Gassification a GO

Easy viewing: Gasification plants that convert municipal waste into energy and by-products can be built squat and stackless, according to Canadian developer PlascoEnergy. This artist’s rendering shows the 400-metric-ton-per-day facility that PlascoEnergy plans to build in Ottawa, Canada’s capital.
Credit: PlascoEnergy

This week, city counselors in Ottawa, Ontario, unanimously approved a new waste-to-energy facility that will turn 400 metric tons of garbage per day into 21 megawatts of net electricity--enough to power about 19,000 homes. Rather than burning trash to generate heat, as with an incinerator, the facility proposed by Ottawa-based PlascoEnergy Group employs electric-plasma torches to gasify the municipal waste and enlist the gas to generate electricity.

A few waste-to-energy gasification plants have been built in Europe and Asia, where landfilling is more difficult and energy has historically been more costly. But PlascoEnergy's plant would be the first large facility of its kind in North America. The company's profitability hinges on its ability to use a cooler gasification process to lower costs, as well as on rising energy and tipping fees to ensure strong revenues.

PlascoEnergy's approval marked the latest in a string of positive developments for waste gasification projects in recent weeks. Last month, Hawaii okayed $100 million in bonds to finance a waste-to-energy plant using plasma-torch technology from Westinghouse Plasma, based in Madison, PA, that is already employed in two large Japanese waste processing plants. Meanwhile, Boston-based competitor Ze-gen reported the successful ramp-up of a 10-metric-ton-per-day pilot plant in New Bedford, MA, that uses molten iron to break down waste.

Most gasification plants work by subjecting waste to extreme heat in the absence of oxygen. Under these conditions, the waste breaks down to yield a blend of hydrogen and carbon monoxide called syngas that can be burned in turbines and engines. What has held back the technology in North America is high operating costs. Plasma plants, using powerful electrical currents to produce a superhot plasma that catalyzes waste breakdown, tend to consume most of the energy they generate. As a result, the focus of plasma gasification plants has been to simply destroy hazardous wastes. "There was really no thought of being able to produce net power," says PlascoEnergy CEO Rod Bryden.

PlascoEnergy started looking at gasification for municipal solid waste five years ago, when it determined through simulation that cooler plasma torches could do the job. "The amount of heat required to separate gases from solids was much less than the amount being delivered when the purpose was simply to destroy the material," says Bryden. PlascoEnergy tested the models on its five-metric-ton-per-day pilot plant in Castellgali, Spain (jointly operated with Hera Holdings, Spain's second largest waste handler). In January, the company began large-scale trials in a 100-metric-ton-per-day demonstration plant built in partnership with the city of Ottawa.

Here's how it works. First, bulk metals are removed, and the rest of the shredded waste is conveyed to a 700 ºC gasification chamber. Most of it volatilizes to a complex blend of gases and rises toward a plasma torch operating at 1200 ºC--well below the 3000 to 5000 ºC used with hazardous wastes. The plasma reduces the complex blend to a few simple gases, such as steam, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen, plus assorted contaminants such as mercury and sulfur; subsequent cleanup systems remove the steam and mercury and scrub out the soot before the syngas is sent to an internal combustion engine generator.

The waste that doesn't volatilize forms a solid slag and drops to the bottom of the gasification chamber. The slag is then pushed to another plasma torch, which drives off remaining carbon in the slag before the slag is cooled and vitrifies. The resulting glass can be blended into asphalt road surfacing or cement.

Under its deal with Ottawa, PlascoEnergy will cover the estimated $125 million that it takes to build the plant, which could be operating within three years, while the city will pay only standard tipping fees--on the order of $60 per metric ton.

Ze-gen plans to avoid the challenge of handling complex municipal wastes by focusing first on an easier-to-handle feedstock: construction and demolition wood wastes. The company has filed seven patents on its molten metal gasification technology and waste-to-syngas process, but the equipment itself is standard for the steel industry, which uses molten iron to catalytically drive off impurities from ore. Ze-gen's pilot plant processes wood waste using a standard electrically heated steel-industry crucible full of molten iron.

Ze-gen CEO Bill Davis estimates that a full-size plant just slightly bigger than PlascoEnergy's commercial plant will produce enough syngas to create 30 megawatts of electricity, but he says that the syngas is also of sufficient quality to be used in other applications. As examples, he cites synthetic gasoline, diesel production, and refinery applications.

Speech Prosthesis- not a pipe dream

Speaking out: Scientists at Boston University are designing a speech prosthesis that may one day translate thought into spoken word for people with certain speech-related disorders. The team scanned the brain of a paralyzed patient and found that, within the motor region of the brain involved in speech (between the red and yellow lines), certain areas light up (orange) according to various sounds that the patient mentally voices.
Credit: Frank Guenther, Boston University

For more than eight years, Erik Ramsey has been trapped in his own body. At 16, Ramsey suffered a brain-stem injury after a car crash, leaving him with a condition known as "locked-in" syndrome. Unlike other forms of paralysis, locked-in patients can still feel sensation, but they cannot move on their own, and they are unable to control the complex vocal muscles required to speak. In Ramsey's case, his eyes are his only means of communication: skyward for yes, downward for no.

Now researchers at Boston University are developing brain-reading computer software that in essence translates thoughts into speech. Combined with a speech synthesizer, such brain-machine interfacing technology has enabled Ramsey to vocalize vowels in real time--a huge step toward recovering full speech for Ramsey and other patients with paralyzing speech disorders. The researchers are presenting their work at the annual Acoustical Society of America meeting in Paris this week.

"The question is, can we get enough information out that produces intelligible speech?" asks Philip Kennedy of Neural Signals, a brain-computer interface developer based in Atlanta. "I think there's a fair shot at this at this point."

Kennedy and Frank Guenther, an associate professor at Boston University's Department of Cognitive and Neural Systems, have been decoding activity within Ramsey's brain for the past three years via a permanent electrode implanted beneath the surface of his brain, in a region that controls movement of the mouth, lips, and jaw. During a typical session, the team asks Ramsey to mentally "say" a particular sound, such as "ooh" or "ah." As he repeats the sound in his head, the electrode picks up local nerve signals, which are sent wirelessly to a computer. The software then analyzes those signals for common patterns that most likely denote that particular sound.

The software is designed to translate neural activity into what are known as formant frequencies, the resonant frequencies of the vocal tract. For example, if your mouth is open wide and your tongue is pressed to the base of the mouth, a certain sound frequency is created as air flows through, based on the position of the vocal musculature. Different muscle positioning creates a different frequency. Guenther trained the computer to recognize patterns of neural signals linked to specific movements of the mouth, jaw, and lips. He then translated these signals into the correlating sound frequencies and programmed a sound synthesizer to project these frequencies back out through a speaker in audio form.

So far, Guenther and Kennedy have programmed the synthesizer to play back sounds within 50 milliseconds--that is, almost instantaneously--from when Ramsey first "voiced" them in his head. This audio playback feature has allowed Ramsey to practice mentally voicing vowels, first by hearing his initial "utterance," then by adjusting his mental sound representation to improve the next playback. Jonathan Brumberg, a PhD student in Guenther's lab, says that while each trial has been slow-going--it takes great effort on Ramsey's part--the results have been promising. "At this point, he can do these vowel sounds pretty well," says Brumberg. "We're now fairly confident the same can be accomplished with consonants."

However, as there are four times as many consonants as vowels, it may take years for the team to decode all the sounds, not to mention string them together to recognize and produce fluent speech. Brumberg says that the team may need to implant more electrodes, in areas solely devoted to the tongue, lips, or mouth, to get an accurate picture of more-complex sounds such as consonants.

"The electrode is only capturing about 56 distinct neural signals," says Brumberg. "But you have to think: there are billions of cells in the brain with trillions of connections, and we are only sampling a very small portion of what is there."

The team has no immediate plans to implant Ramsey with additional electrodes. However, Guenther is also exploring noninvasive methods of studying speech production in normal volunteers. He and Brumberg are scanning the brains of normal speakers using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). As volunteers perform various tasks, such as naming pictures and mentally repeating various sounds and words, active brain areas light up in response.

Guenther and Brumberg plan to analyze these scans for common patterns, zeroing in on specific regions related to certain sounds, with the goal of one day implanting additional electrodes in these regions. The researchers say that decoding signals within these areas may help translate speech for people with disorders such as locked-in syndrome and other forms of paralysis.

"For patients with certain kinds of speech-related disorders originating in the peripheral nervous system, this approach is highly promising," says Vincent Gracco, director of the Center for Research on Language, Mind and Brain at McGill University. "There is the potential to provide a useful means of communicating for patients with no functioning speech, in ways that have not been explored."

Searchable Flash

Credit: Technology Review

The Web would be useless without search engines. But as good as Google and Yahoo are at finding online information, much on it remains hidden, or difficult to rank in search results. On Tuesday, however, Adobe took a major step toward opening up tens of millions of pages to Google and Yahoo. The company has provided the search engines with a specialized version of its Flash animation player that reveals information about text and links in Flash files. It's a move that could be a boon to advertisers, in particular, who have traditionally had to choose between building a site that's aesthetically pleasing and one that can be ranked in a Web search.

The new software is required only to index Flash files, not to play them, says Justin Everett-Church, senior product manager for Adobe Flash Player. Web surfers don't need to download a new Flash player, and content providers don't have to change the way they write applications. "For end users, they're going to see a lot more results and a lot better results," says Everett-Church. "The perfect result may have been out there but trapped in a SWF [Shockwave Flash file]. But now they can find it."

Currently, Google indexes nearly 71 million Flash files on the Internet (this number can be acquired by searching "filetype:swf"). These files have, to a limited degree, always been searchable. Before Adobe's announcement, search engines were able to look at a Flash file and extract static text and links from it. But they couldn't tell where on the Flash site the text fell--on the main page, for instance, or deep within the site--which made it difficult to evaluate its importance. Search engines would also miss moving text inside animations.

Adobe gave Google and Yahoo new Flash player technology that works in conjunction with the "spiders" that search engines use to index Web pages. (Microsoft, which has developed its own competitor to Flash, called Silverlight, is not publicly involved in Adobe's initiative.) Spiders are autonomous programs that browse through the Web in a systematic fashion. Adobe's new player allows these spiders to load Flash files, read the text and links, and click any buttons or tabs. This allows the spider to make inferences about the context in which a word or link occurs--something it couldn't do before.

"Previously, content providers have had to make a trade-off between using a SWF [pronounced 'swiff'] and searchability," says Everett-Church. But now, he says, Adobe hopes that more people will feel comfortable developing visually appealing sites without forgoing search rank.

nalysts agree that it's important to make more of the Web searchable, and Adobe's move is crucial. However, it's an intermediate step, says Peter Elst, a Flash platform consultant. While the move opens up more text and links to search engines, site designers should have "control over what exactly gets indexed and how it should be interpreted by a search engine," Elst says. With conventional Web pages, designers exert that control by adding metadata and tags that describe their sites. But, Elst says, that's not yet possible with the new Flash tools.

At this stage, says Elst, many Flash programmers are concerned about how Google and Yahoo will use their newly acquired information to rank sites. "As far as we know," he says, "the data that gets indexed is just a raw dump, and no context is applied, making it difficult to figure out how you can actually use this to do search-engine optimization and get higher page ranks."

Google has dropped some hints about how it will handle Flash searches. For instance, its spiders currently will not load Flash applications that use the language JavaScript, so those applications may not get indexed. But in the end, people and businesses that want to promote their websites may need to use trial and error to figure out how to build Flash sites that search engines will rank highly, adjusting their tactics as Google's and Yahoo's algorithms change. But then that's what they had to do with traditional HTML sites anyway.

MotiveMag on the new 911

Every so often a newcomer makes noise about toppling the Porsche 911 from its well-earned position in the sports car pantheon. And every so often the wizards of Weissach, Porsche's epicenter of engineering, respond by tinkering with the 45-year-old design just enough to ensure it remains the world's most engaging sports car.

The 911 seems an easy target, burdened as it is by a design locked in the iron grip of Porsche tradition and by an engine that should have been placed anywhere else but in the tail. But, just when some upstart figures it's got Porsche dead-centered, the 911 finds fresh legs and runs off, out of range of even the most avid hunters.


The newest 911 arrives in America in September, initially with a four-car lineup of rear-drive models. The Carrera Coupe and Cabriolet receive the smaller of the two new engines, a 3.6-liter horizontally opposed 6 with 345 horsepower, while the two Carrera S models are powered by a 3.8-liter variant of the boxer rated at 385 horsepower. Prices range from $75,600 to $96,800 for models with the standard six-speed manual transmission; add around $4000 for the optional seven-speed automanual gearbox (more on that in a few paragraphs).

Though it's built around the same architecture as the outgoing version, the new 911 gets a family of more powerful, more efficient six-cylinder boxer engines. Identical in size to the outgoing powerplants, the new engines are otherwise (to be redundant in the interest of accuracy) totally new, built from 40 percent fewer parts — which is totally cool if you're the production manager and cool, too, for the driver, who benefits from the more compact engine's reduced height and lower mounting points and, thus, improved center of gravity.

The entire powertrain is 22-percent more rigid (without chemical aids!) and 12 pounds lighter than before, and the sucks, squishes, bangs, and blows are far more controlled, efficient, and productive. Credit the first use of direct injection in a Porsche sports car engine, a high compression ratio, and reduced engine friction for the lowered fuel consumption, which measures between 12 and 13 percent on the European test cycle for both motors. And credit the same list for the increase in power, along with the contributions from a new electronic fuel pump (good for 3 hp), freer-flowing intake system, lower-pressure exhaust, more effective dry-sump oiling and, of course, the computer geeks who rewrite the software to make all these pieces work so well together. The 3.6's 345 hp represents a 6.2-percent increase in power, while the 3.8's 385 hp is more than 8 percent greater than before. Torque for both engines is up by about five percent, and the curve has been reworked for more accessibility and longer duration.

Previous Porsche sixes were renowned for their elastic powerbands, but this new engine takes the fun-per-rpm quotient to new heights due to such elements as "seven percent fewer rotary moved masses" (a reference to lower rotational inertia, not the worldwide fall-off in RX-7–club membership). The new six begins its song in a lower register, and when the throttle is pressed the muted bass crescendos into a roar of meticulously balanced explosions. Students of mechanical engineering should study its sonic profile so as to better understand how design can be transformed into emotion. The whipsawed soundwaves raise pitch as swiftly as the revs increase, which is swift indeed, but, even when every bit of power is unleashed, there's not a single shriek of stress or complaint about an overzealous throttle. Only the soft bump of the rev limiter reveals it's time to pay attention to the gears.

And attention is worth paying, because the new Porsche-Doppelkupplungsgetriebe twin-clutch automatic (PDK) is a vast improvement over Tiptronic S, Porsche's outgoing, and generally unloved, manumatic. Built by ZF, PDK successfully bridges the gap between workaday commuting and weekend track sessions, delivering a freshened level of performance, efficiency, and refinement.

Porsche pioneered this technology back in 1983 in its 956 racecar and won some races in 1986 with it in a 962, but it wasn't until recently that Porsche and ZF were able to refine the concept for mass production, ease of use, and comfort. PDK is 22 pounds lighter than Tiptronic; so efficient it requires no auxiliary cooler (except for a small oil chamber that cools the two integrated "wet" clutches); and has a very tall seventh gear for exceptional highway mileage. A range of shift strategies, initiated by the driver, vary from full automatic (and most fuel efficient) to full sport (when fitted with the optional Sport Chrono Plus package), which changes gears up to 60 percent faster than the torque-converting Tiptronic could manage. But perhaps the PDK's most revealing number is the Carrera S's 0-60-mph time: 4.3 seconds, a full 0.2 seconds quicker than the same car with a manual six-speed. Traditionalists won't be disappointed with the new car's six-speed manual, which has been reworked for crisper throws, but even those die-hards should consider test-driving a PDK-equipped 911 to see how rewarding automanual gear selection has become.


Porsche's styling department didn't stand by and watch this new 911 take shape without its own fiddles, most of which subtly yet effectively transmute a familiar presence into something fresh. The front bumper has larger air intakes, and the larger rearview mirrors are mounted with double arms, but it's the daytime LED running lights, brake lights, and now standard bi-xenon headlamps that give this generation of 911s its signature look.

Changes inside the cockpit include a new touch-screen Porsche Communication Management system and fewer buttons to figure out; a new three-spoke steering wheel that houses the PDK's shift switches at the apex of the lateral arms and the rim; and lots of new options, including a carbon-fiber sports bucket that is both comfortable and ideal for resisting the pull of high g forces.

Our first sample of those forces came at Porsche's famous Weissach test track. A new Porsche 911 Carrera 3.8 coupe throbbed quietly at track's entrance, an open door and carbon-fiber bucket beckoning. A young man who looked like last night's waiter on his way home from work walked up and asked, "So, are you prepared?"


This was a Porsche test driver?

As we approached the car, I mimicked the twist of a steering wheel to inform him I'd be the one doing the driving. He thought that was hilarious. Ach, but who could imagine such a thing? his laugh said as he climbed behind the wheel. I flashed him a sour look and retreated to where I was told to be, on the passive side of the cockpit.

I was tempted to make the young man understand the irony of the situation. I've been an acolyte of the Porsche faith for more than three decades, longer than he's been alive, and I've spent many hours on racetracks in 911s and countless other types of Porsches. And I believe Weissach, the epicenter of Porsche engineering, to be hallowed ground. I wanted to make him see why it was so excruciatingly frustrating to sit beside him, in the wrong seat, for my first taste of a new 911.

It was as though I'd finally gotten Angelina Jolie naked, but all I was allowed to do was study her tattoos.

I realized it was a management decision. Weissach is narrow and tough, and there's nothing to be learned from journos out there testing airbags (and I'd get my chance in the car the next day on the wild and woolly roads of Germany). But this youngster looked like he could be slinging schnitzel instead of flinging cars. If I couldn't be at the wheel, at least let it be an old hand, like Hurley Haywood.

Worse, I'd just signed a release absolving everyone of anything if something happened. I was at the total mercy of someone who undoubtedly never felt the bite of trailing throttle oversteer in its prime.


During our first lap together, this kid did little else but drone on about the new 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, guide me through the multitude of buttons and switches for various permutations of performance, grip, and climate, and suggest I admire such aesthetic and ergonomic embellishments as the color-coordinated seatbelts and new, larger touch-screen infotainment interface. All pertinent stuff, sure, but stuff I could get in the press kit. Was this guy a test driver or Porsche's new animatronic sales manual?

Slices of real life managed to slip through his narrative: The engine sounded divine. Like no other 911 engine before it there was no whine. PDK gear changes in full automatic mode were so smooth they were sensed rather than felt, and manual shifts were confirmed only by watching the driver thumb the steering-wheel-mounted switches, themselves a huge improvement over the wimpy buttons of Tiptronic. Plus, it was pleasant to rediscover how comfortable it is just to motor along in a 911, even one fitted with 19-inch wheels. Still, the driver was going so slowly I was tempted to catch up on some of the sleep I missed flying in the previous night from L.A.

Just as I was getting worked up (I've hit turbulence over Iceland that was more fun than sitting beside this human book on tape), he completed the first lap, braked to a halt, turned to me, and his eyes lit up like the 911's new LED brake lights. I thought he either was going to go completely off script (say, bust out of Weissach and race the polizei to the border), or we had arrived at that part of the movie he likes — the car chase in the third act.

"Now," he announced, "I vill show you ze new Launch Control, ze Sports Chrono Package, und ze effects of ze optional limited-slip differential."

And suddenly we were pushed forward with a turmoil of unrelenting force, the sort of physical displacement the rational person expects will lead to a bad end. Some primeval part of our brains still remember that, not long ago, 62 mph in 4.3 seconds meant a cliff, the suck of gravity, an uncertain landing...


pdk6_right.gif To elaborate on that theme, achieving a similar measure of speed over time in the new 911 was no more complicated than jumping off a cliff, but the ease of doing so did little justice to the sophistication of the interceding electronics. Launch control withholds and then releases the powertrain's energy with the brutal efficiency of a short right to the chin — only it was our backsides, snug within the carbon-fiber sports buckets, that took the brunt of the hit from the 385-horsepower boxer. Launch control is, asking no pardon for the expression, a kick in the ass.

Before I could lift my eyes from the speedometer, we were approaching the braking zone for the Northern Curve at about a buck thirty. On our first lap the driver had revolved through this constant radius U-bend like the lazy waiter he resembled, but on this second lap, he channeled some inner fire and directed it through his right leg to alternately punish the two pedals with resounding slaps of shoe leather.

I appreciated the irony he was throwing back in my face. Maybe I wasn't dreaming my dream of driving Weissach, and maybe the guy shaved once a week, but he was damn quick, quicker than I'll ever be. And he was teaching me things that would have remained beyond my fumbling search toward the limits.

As we continued the fast lap, he demonstrated the miracle of Porsche brakes (larger now to rebut the more powerful engines), and the safety net provided by Porsche's stability management system. Even through corners that tried to pull the car offline, when lateral forces rose well above 1.2 g and the fluid in my inner ears sloshed violently, the 911 tracked as solidly as a rock rolling down a drainpipe. The recalibrated stability control is a marvel of communication. Instead of eliminating the fun by reducing the car's ability to approach its limits, the system guides the driver through a corner with slight, transparent nudges to maintain equilibrium. Those with enough faith in their skill can turn it off completely to appreciate fully the new 911's prescient feel for the road.

Which I never managed to do the next day on public roads. Pesky policemen and heavy traffic prevented the car from stretching its legs properly, and a light drizzle prevented me from trying anything stupid on the winding back roads, but despite the frustrating limits imposed by the interests of safety and self-preservation, it was clear the newest 911 retains the world's-best steering, superlative chassis kinematics, and pavement-gathering brakes. Once again, the 911 is ready to scoff at the challengers and run out of range.

2009 Corvette S Limited- exclusive for Japan

GM may have a host of activities planned in the U.S. to celebrate its centennial, but we like how the company is marking the milestone in Japan: with the special-edition 2009 Chevrolet Corvette S-Limited.

Essentially nothing more than a trim package, the S-Limited adds a few unique touches for the Japanese market, including split five-spoke alloy wheels clad in an aluminum gray finish, a rear decklid spoiler evocative of that on the ZR1, and chromed mesh inserts for the front grille, rear exhaust port, and side vents. Color choices for the S-Limited are, appropriately enough, limited; customers can choose either an arctic white or black exterior. Arctic white cars come with a white-on-black two-tone interior, while the black cars sport interior highlights in sienna.

Also limited are the S-Limited's production figures. Only 30 examples are slated for assembly - 15 in each color combination. Buyers interested in purchasing an S-Limited will have to plunk down ¥7,980,000 ($75,240). Considering basic Corvettes sticker at ¥7,130,000 ($67,226) in Japan, style and exclusivity apparently don't come cheap.

WCD-One Day, Six Exotics and Anyone Can Do It

There they are, lined up like exotic seafood entrees on the planet's most glorious buffet table: Aston Martin V8 Vantage Roadster, Callaway C16, Ferrari F430 Spider, Ford GT, Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder and Spyker C8. It's the sort of smorgasbord we all dream of facing — and there's nothing between you and the delicacies. Not even a sneeze guard.

"You know they're all rentals," says the anonymous-looking, Dockers-wearing guy. "I know," I respond. "I'm one of the guys renting them. Sort of."

With that he looks at me with a sort of envious incredulity, crosses the hotel parking lot and heads straight into the Westlake Village Hyatt where I'm sure he's going to spend the day listening to paper company product presentations. Sucker.

No PowerPoint presentations for me. Not today. Today I'm going to drive these exotics around the Southern California hills between Westlake and Malibu, thanks to the guys at World Class Driving (WCD).

WCD is set up as a club that maintains a fleet of between 10 and 14 exotics. That fleet then roves the country (by transporter) descending on locations where club members can drive the cars a half-day at a time along surrounding public roads, for the measly sum of $1,495.

There's no way that this is going to be a bad day.

Affordable Exotics
Head on over to your local Ferrari dealer and you can buy a new F430 for $211,525 — plus tax and license and whatever extortionate mark-up the dealer feels he can suck out of you. Or you can rent one from Beverly Hills Rent-A-Car for $2,500 a day plus $2 for every mile past the first 50. Um, of course you'll also have to pay for any gas the F430 slurps at the rate of 11 mpg in the city and 16 on the highway. Cede this to World Class Driving: There simply is no less expensive way to experience the latest exotic cars.

Last year World Class put together 83 driving events and it's on course to do as many as 140 (30 percent of which are corporate events for companies looking to motivate their employees) in the United States this year. The Westlake Village event counted as WCD's 53rd during the 2008 calendar year.

The cars themselves are always rotating in order to keep the latest stuff in the fleet — they usually rotate out after they've accumulated between 16,000 and 20,000 miles on their odometers, says WCD co-founder Jean Paul Libert. "We operate like a race team," Libert continues. "But because you're behind the wheel of an exotic doesn't mean you have to be an aggressive driver."

Who, me? Aggressive. Not with the waiver WCD had me sign promising not to do any burnouts or donuts or hard launches or any other speedy exhibitions. It also brought with it a $5,000 deductible should I do any damage to a car. "Hey," I thought silently to myself as that was explained to me, "If it looks like there's $4,500 damage to the car, I might as well go ahead, have some fun and total it."

Of course WCD reserves the right to not put traffic felons, drunks or hyperactive teenagers behind the wheels of its cars. And if you do something moronic during the drive, they'll yank you out and call you a cab.

Group Driving
With seven drivers and six cars in the driving rotation, I actually start the day riding shotgun with WCD's chief driving instructor Didier Theys in the rented Chrysler 300 being used to pace the pack. The Chrysler 300 may not be all that exotic, but how often do you get to ride with a Belgian legend who has driven CART Champ Cars and won both the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring?

Leaving the hotel, Theys sets a relatively swift pace in the under-tired and underpowered beige Chrysler. Rising up through Thousand Oaks toward the Mulholland Highway, he rarely has the 300 dipping below 35 mph as he speeds along with all the smoothness expected of a world-class endurance racer. But he never goes faster than 60 either. Still, that's enough to absolutely run away from the driver behind us in the Ferrari.

The truth is, when you drive in a group, you can only go as fast as the guy in front of you. And in my group, the slowest guy is really, really dead dog slow. I couldn't even have imagined it was possible to go that slow in a Gallardo.

And the Slow Guy becomes the recurring theme of the day and a topic of endless discussion — all strictly whispered behind his back, of course.

Perspective Dealt Here
But if Slow Guy is the day's obstacle, everything else is dang wonderful. Driving swiftly and smoothly, and well within these high-performance cars' limits, you do get a feel for each of their personalities. "I wasn't expecting the Ferrari to feel so nimble," says Jeff Kenney, 26, who brought along his brother, Casey, 24. "I was expecting it to be, well...I don't know what I was expecting. But it was better than I expected."

Jeff Kenney drives a modified S2000, so he's a guy who's used to a car with quick reflexes and likely expected that a car with quick reflexes would handle a lot like his Honda roadster. But expectations seldom line up perfectly with reality.

"Most of what I had heard about how Ferraris are, I had heard from guys who are hard-core Ferrari lovers," Jeff Kenney explains. "So I sort of discounted it. But the Ferrari was fun to drive. And it was easy to drive."

What World Class delivers is perspective. It's the nasty whack that comes every time the Gallardo's transmission is triggered and the heavy feel of its steering. It's how the Ford GT feels like the relatively large car that it is and rides like a Town Car compared to the other exotics. It's the scream of the high-winding Ferrari and Aston V8s in sharp contrast to the low-end grunt of the Ford GT's supercharged, large-displacement V8.

In sum, it is all about knowing by lunchtime that in your soul you're not a Lambo guy, but a Ferrari dude. It's knowing that while you'll never turn down a chance to drive an Aston Martin or get behind the wheel of a Ford GT, they're not the cars you'd empty your IRA to own. It's the difference between being an enthusiast and being someone who actually knows what he's talking about.

Plus, of course, it's a plain good time. "It's awesome," summarizes Jeff Kenney at the end of the day. "The most fun I've ever had."

Oh yeah, fun. In fact, Jeff Kenney paid for his brother Casey as a birthday present — and it's a hell of a birthday present. My brother got me bookends for my last birthday. They're no fun at all.

It's on the Bucket List
After a day with World Class Driving, the bottom line about what the club offers is this: You go to your grave being able to say you drove some really exotic cars. When your friends start bench racing, you'll be the one who can say, "Well, when I drove the Gallardo, I was really impressed by how it bit coming out of tight turns." When you hear others wistfully dreaming about some day driving an Italian thoroughbred like the F430, you can chime in and let them know that it's really better than they even imagined. Go ahead, rub it in.

It can even go on your tombstone. There are, after all, worst epitaphs than "He once drove a Ferrari."

In short, it satisfies your curiosity. And that sort of satisfaction is cheap at $1,500.

Fitzy's Wicked Pissah Red Sox 2008 Mid-Season Review

As I sit here and watch Manny Delcarmen try and piss this lead away against the Rays, it only reminds me how important all the nonsense I said in this video really is. Well, sorta. Whatever.

Just friggin' watch it!

Happy 4th everyone, and GFY!



PS - Suck it, Skanks!