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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Need a mortgage now? Bring lots of cash

NEW YORK ( -- Are you ready to buy a house in this crazy market? Better bring a boatload of money to the closing.

In a brutal real estate market where all the players want to hedge against the tremendous risks, down payment requirements and up-front fees and have soared, shutting many potential home buyers out of the market.

"I have as many people calling me for financing as ever," said George Hanzimanolis, a Pennsylvania mortgage broker, "but I'm putting less than half of them into loans."

That's happening all over the country, and may slow the housing market's recovery. Indeed, in a survey released today, potential home buyers said high down payments were the second biggest obstacle, after high home prices, to buying a home.

These days, home buyers almost always have to make a substantial down payment, at least 5%, according to Rich Wordman, president of the Florida Association of Mortgage Brokers. The days of no-down loans are over.

In deeply declining markets, lenders are reluctant to issue loans unless borrowers put at least 10% down, he said.

JP Morgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500), for instance, now asks for a minimum of 10% down in most markets, according to a spokesman, and for 20% in hard-hit areas. In Reno, Nevada, which has been devastated by the housing crisis, the bank requires 25%.

Even bigger jumbos

For expensive homes, the down payments are disproportionately more. Lenders issuing jumbo loans, which are too pricey to be sold to Fannie Mae (FNM, Fortune 500) or Freddie Mac (FRE, Fortune 500) in the secondary market, are asking for at least 20% down, according to Ed Craine, a San Francisco mortgage broker. In the most expensive markets, where jumbo loans are over $729,000, that means a minimum down payment of $148,500.

Higher interest rates on jumbo loans are also making them more expensive than they normally would be - with interest rates a full point to a point and a half higher than non-jumbo loans, said Mike Tacconi, a mortgage advisor with lender CMG Mortgage Services based in San Ramone, Calif.

And buyers purchasing homes for investment purposes are getting clobbered. Lenders are telling them to come up with at least 25% of the purchase price, according to Tacconi - and sometimes as much as 35%, depending on the kind of loan.

"Rents are high where I am," said Pennsylvania mortgage broker Hanzimanolis, "so people are having trouble saving enough for down payments."

Those high down payments are are being driven in part by the private mortgage insurance companies, according to Jay Brinkman, chief economist for the Mortgage Bankers Association, which have themselves hiked their down payment requirements. These firms insure loans when borrowers put less than 20% down, making lenders whole when homeowners default.

In the past, these companies, such as MGIC Investment Corp (MTG). and PMI Group (PMI), often guaranteed mortgages when borrowers put no money down. Today they require 5%, 10% in steeply declining markets, according to Jeff Lubar, spokesman for the trade association Mortgage Insurance Companies of America.

In addition, private mortgage insurers are also charging higher insurance rates. Historically, PMI cost about 0.5% of a home's purchase price. Now, a borrower putting 5% down can pay about 0.75% for the first year.

Higher rates

And although interest rates are relatively low, industry experts say that they're higher than they should be, thanks to concerns about the solvency of Freddie and Fannie, which buy about half of all outstanding mortgages in the U.S.

The average 30-year, fixed-rate loan carried a 6.37% interest rate last week, according to Freddie Mac, up nearly a point from the year's low of 5.48% set last January and up from under 6% in late May. At the same time, yields on 10-year treasuries, which mortgage rates usually track, have trended down.

From June 12 to July 10, 10-year treasurys fell from 4.20% to 3.81%, while mortgage rates actually increased, inching up from 6.32% to 6.37%. Borrowers are probably paying at least a half point more than they ordinarily would, according to Keith Gumbinger of HSH Associates, a publisher of loan information.

That's because the questions surrounding the future of Fannie and Freddie have made the investors who buy their loans - hedge funds, pension funds, and banks - wary. They're demanding higher interest rates to take on the added risk they perceive.

Freddie and Fannie have also imposing higher up-front fees for riskier borrowers, based on credit scores.

As of June 1, buyers with scores of less than 620 with less than a 30% downpayment must pay a fee of 2.75% of mortgage principal, up from 2%. Between a 620 and 640 credit score, borrowers pay 2.5% (up from 1.75%); 640 to 660, 1.75% (1.25%); 660 to 680, 1.25% (0.75%); and 680 to 720, 0.5% (0).

"The fees are costing consumers a considerable amount of money," said Mark Savitt, a mortgage broker there and current president of the National Association of Mortgage Brokers.

All these added expenses are slowing an already moribund real estate market. That means it's going to take even longer to get rid of the tremendous inventory of unsold homes, according to the MBA's Brinkman, especially in areas that were overbuilt during the boom.

Cities hard hit by the housing bust, like North Las Vegas, Stockton, Calif. and Tucson, Ariz, may have to suffer through many more months of stagnant prices and increased foreclosures before they return to better times.

And these higher costs are going to stick around long after housing recovers, according to Brinkman. From now on, they'll just be the price of doing business. To top of page

One Hundred Push Ups Takes You from 0-100 in Six Weeks

one-hundred-push-ups.pngWeb site One Hundred Push Ups details a training plan for going from 0 to 100 push-ups in a matter of six weeks. We've discussed why the push-up belongs in your fitness routine, but we didn't offer you a good road to push-up bliss. One Hundred Push Ups takes a graduated approach to 100, with a very detailed plan and several levels depending on your fitness going into it. It's sort of like the previously mentioned Couch to 5k for your muscles.

iPhone 3G: Sold out in 21 states

Shoppers hunting for iPhone 3Gs can still find them — if they’re willing to get up early and, in some cases, drive long distances.

As of 6:00 a.m. EDT Tuesday, all three models (8GB black, 16 GB black or white) of the hot-selling device were sold out in 21 states, according to Jim Neal, a retired PR man living near Kansas City who took the time to check each of Apple’s 188 U.S. retail stores using the company’s iPhone availability widget.

“All told,” he writes, “117 Apple stores reported having sold out of all models and only 27 stores indicated they had all three models in stock.”

The states reporting no stock on hand were Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin.

Apple (AAPL) advises shoppers to check availability after 9:00 p.m. the night before they visit an Apple retail store – and, if necessary, get up at the crack of dawn.

“Shipments arrive most days,” according to the site, “but be sure to arrive early since iPhone 3G is sold on a first come, first served basis.”

1,800 AT&T (T) stores also carried iPhone 3Gs, but they were “virtually” sold out the first day of sales, according to a company spokesman, and there is no word on when they will be restocked.

UPDATE: Jim Neal did another survey Wednesday morning. As of 7:00 a.m. EDT, 146 Apple stores in 23 states were completely out of stock.

Prehistoric Human Skull, Qafzeh, Israel, 2001

Photo: Human skull

This 100,000-year-old skull was found in a cave in Qafzeh, Israel, along with other fossils, including a horse tooth and burned flints. Cutting-edge techniques were used to date the fossils—revealing that modern humans left Africa much earlier than had been thought, even coexisting with Neanderthals, once believed to be our ancestors.

(Text adapted from and photo shot on assignment for, but not published in, "How Old Is It?" September 2001, National Geographic magazine)

Sunny Day for Solar

Engineers develop more efficient, cheaper “solar concentrator”
Solar Concentrator: By putting the cells only on the edge of the dye-painted concentrator, the cost and efficiency both improve. Photo by MIT

When I was eight years old, my uncle told me that I’d get a solar-powered car for my sixteenth birthday – and that it would be affordable. When I turned 16 in 2002, though, solar power was still inefficient and expensive, and I landed a bike instead. It's taken impossibly high fuel costs, global warming, and some serious engineering developments, but six years later, solar power is finally becoming a viable alternative to oil.

MIT engineers have recently helped up the feasibility of widespread solar power by developing a new “solar concentrator.” The concentrator, which is a flat glass panel spread across a large area, gathers light at the edges of its surface. Expensive solar cells only need to sit on these borders – a difference that lowers costs and increases efficiency by 10 to 15 percent.

Scientists rerouted light to the panel’s edges by painting the surface with two or more organic dyes. By joining forces, these dyes absorb light from different wavelengths, thus harnessing as much power as possible. The panels can even be placed on existing solar-power systems – which could increase each cell’s power-capturing ability by 50 percent. Meaning maybe that car's not such a pipe dream after all.

Via PhysOrg

Stadium of the Future

Check out the cutting-edge features that might just make tomorrow’s stadiums worth the outrageous price of admission with our animated fly through
Frankenstein's Dome: We combined the best design and technology features from a dozen cutting-edge stadium plans to create the ultimate Stadium of the Future, seen on these pages. Photo by Graham Murdoch
Now that fans can enjoy high-def sports action from their living rooms, stadium owners need to offer more to potential patrons than $8 beer. What can you expect from the stadium of the future? Comfortable seats close to the action, interactive screens that provide real-time game stats, sustainable design, and architecture that directs the roar of the home crowd onto the field.

Check out our animated fly through, below, then launch the gallery for the six top innovations in the stadium of the future.

Blurred Out: 51 Things You Can't See on Google Maps

For all of the places that Google Maps allows you to see, there are plenty of places that are off-limits. Whether it's due to government restrictions, personal-privacy lawsuits or mistakes, Google Maps has slapped a "Prohibited" sign on the following 51 places.

read more | digg story

How to Wiki-- Optimize your Surround Sound System-

Step 1: Map Your Layout

Achieving a truly immersive audio experience is one part movie magic and three parts acoustics. Most of the work in balancing your new system lies in understanding how sound behaves in the space you've chosen. A square room with minimal obstructions between speaker and listener is most ideal, but most systems are flexible enough to accommodate a number of different setups. Just keep in mind that you want enough space for the speakers to create individual audio fields without the audio getting mushy or echo-ey.

Geekwrench: Some surround sound systems incorporate their own "pink noise" systems, and can calculate the setup for distance using an included microphone. for example, the Sony STR-K790.

Step 2: Balance the Front

As the driving force of your system, the front left and right speakers are the best starting point. In general, you want the speakers far enough apart so you can distinguish sounds coming from the left versus sound from the right. Using an asymmetrical room? It's likely you'll have to compensate for unevenly placed speakers. Some receivers handle this automatically by allowing you to input the left/right speaker distances, but some tinkering with the channel's panning and volume levels should do the trick.

Step 3: Work the Center

Center speaker in a surround system placed under the TV. Photo by William Hook via Flickr

Center speaker in a surround system placed under the TV. Photo by William Hook via Flickr

With the left and right channels squared away, it's time to situate your system's dark horse -- the center channel. As the primary source of dialog and the center piece of your system, the placement of the center speaker is crucial. Common setups have this speaker situated either above or below the screen, but you can experiment to figure out what works for you. Just make sure to equalize the channel with the front speakers in mind. Otherwise, you're in for a nasty surprise the first time you hear a sweeping left-to-right pan.

Step 4: Finish With the Surrounds

Contrary to common belief, surround speakers aren't meant to inundate you with audio like the front and center channels. Instead, they're designed to enhance atmospheric and off-screen audio to create the illusion of being immersed in the film at key points. As such, placing the speakers to the left and right of your sitting area and facing them in is the best quick and dirty placement.

It's not uncommon to hit a few bumps while testing the surround channels with live audio. Volume levels can be set easily enough by playing a film with a heavy score. But if you're looking to equalize them for things like atmospheric sound effects it can be a little more tricky. Your best bet is to invest in a home theater test DVD so you can run persistent audio through the speakers.

Step 5: Place the Sub

SVS SB12 subwoofer, photo by Roytex via Flickr

SVS SB12 subwoofer, photo by Roytex via Flickr

Whereas the front and surround channels have roughly predefined locations, the sky's the limit for the subwoofer. A corner placement is often best for carrying bass through a room, but it's rarely that easy. X-factors like furniture placement, carpeting and even the construction of the room's walls can play big roles. But while you're lugging your sub from corner to corner to find the ultimate sweet spot always remember: clean, punchy bass is the goal. Rattling windows and shattering dishes? Not so much.

Geekwrench: I have found that placing the sub-woofer near the seating locations makes the best impression. for example near the sofa or between the recliners. At one location i built the sub-woofer into the chair itself.

A Fruit with 6X Vitamin C of Oranges & 2X Calcium of Milk

By Sophie Borland
Last updated at 11:58 AM on 15th July 2008

It is one of the strangest fruits under the sun and has been revered in Africa for thousands of years.

Now the bounty from the baobab tree is heading to our supermarkets after the EU agreed to allow it to be imported for the first time.

The fruit, which from the outside looks like a coconut, contains six times more vitamin C than oranges and twice as much calcium as milk.

Enlarge baobab

The tart pulp inside the velvety but hard shell of the baobab pod encases small round seeds

In its native Africa, it has provided health benefits for generations.

The pulp, which is white, powdery and has a cheese-like texture, is extremely nutritious and high in anti-oxidants, iron and potassium.

The baobab (or upside-down tree, as it is also known) is cherished by locals who believe that its spirit protects villages. Only specially trained climbers are allowed to scale the branches to retrieve the fruit. Once the hard outer shell has been broken the flesh can be eaten straight away, although it has a slightly sour flavour.

In some parts of East Africa the fruit is covered in a red, sugary coating and sold as sweets.

Because the shell is so hard to crack, it will not be available to buy as a whole fruit in Britain.

Instead, it will provide ingredients for smoothies and cereal bars.

The fruit was finally allowed to be imported into the UK following extensive lobbying by Phytotrade

Under current legislation, foods which have not been commonly consumed in the EU before 1997 have to be formally approved before they can go on sale or used in European food and drink products. The organisation submitted an application for the fruit to be imported in 2006 and the EU yesterday announced its approval.

Enlarge Baobab graphic

It is hoped that the demand will enable millions of poor families in Africa to earn a living growing and harvesting the fruit.

Gus Le Breton, chief executive of PhytoTrade Africa, said: 'The EU decision is a crucial step to developing the global market which could be worth up to £500 million a year.

'Baobab is an ideal ingredient for smoothies and cereal bars, and its well documented nutritional benefits provide manufacturers with a new opportunity to target the booming market in healthy foods.

'Dozens of companies have shown interest in baobab since we submitted the application and many have already conducted initial research.

Now that approval has been given, they can progress to full-scale product development.'

Set Up Push Email, Contacts, and Calendar on iPhone free!

If you don't want to shell out $100 for MobileMe and you don't have a Microsoft Exchange server lying around, you're stuck pulling data or manually syncing it to your computer. But, if you're willing to roll up your sleeves, you can set up push email and wireless contact and calendar syncing using the free Microsoft Exchange service Mail2Web.

read more | digg story

NEW Star Wars: The Clone Wars Posters

We've been provided with two cool posters for the upcoming CG-animated movie "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" which will have a theatrical release in August.

Check out the posters below.

On the front lines of an intergalactic struggle between good and evil, fans young and old will join such favorite characters as Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Padmé Amidala, along with brand-new heroes like Anakin's padawan learner, Ahsoka. Sinister villains – led by Palpatine, Count Dooku and General Grievous – are poised to rule the galaxy. Stakes are high, and the fate of the "Star Wars" universe rests in the hands of the daring Jedi Knights. Their exploits lead to the action-packed battles and astonishing new revelations that fill "Star Wars: The Clone Wars."

Produced by Lucasfilm Animation, "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" takes audiences on incredible new "Star Wars" adventures, combining the legendary storytelling of Lucasfilm with an eye-popping, signature animation style.

The theatrical debut of "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" is only the beginning of all-new "Star Wars" adventures that continue in the fall when the long-awaited television series premieres on Cartoon Network, followed by airings on TNT.



Apple finally sues unlicensed Macintosh cloner Psystar

By David Chartier | Published: July 15, 2008 - 11:24AM CT

Apple's adventures with Mac clones had at best, mixed results, and Steve Jobs quickly ended the program in 1997 after his return as CEO. While a company named Psystar ignored that memo when it decided to release its own unofficial Mac clones earlier this year, there's no way it's going to miss Apple's latest memo, which came in the form of a just-uncovered lawsuit filed earlier this month.

This past April, Psystar made instant waves by announcing a bargain-basement Mac clone for $399 that could run Leopard, the latest version of Apple's Mac OS X. Psystar's PC is an upgradeable tower with a respectable amount of features which, at face value, starts $200 lower than Apple's cheapest—and highly unconfigurable—Mac mini at $599. Despite drawbacks like incompatibility with some Apple software updates, a flood of orders brought the company's site down for days at a time.

While Apple's EULA forbids running Mac OS X on non-Apple hardware, Ars received a "no comment" from Psystar in April about the issue, and the company's clones eventually began shipping. Even Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak who is no longer with the company said that he "may get one." Shipments have reportedly remained slow and steady since the initial storm that met the clones' launch. Meanwhile, Apple remained tight-lipped about the issue—until now.

A ZDNet reader tipped the site to the fact that Apple has finally filed suit against Psystar in the US District Court for the Northern District of California. The lawsuit accuses Psystar of violating Apples licenses and trademarks, as well as copyright infringement. While the lawsuit comes as no surprise, the fact that Apple waited to file suit until July 3 to sue Psystar is. Strangely enough, a copy of the complaint is not yet available on PACER, although there's no indication that it's under seal.

Reached by phone, Psystar declined to comment to Ars, and attempts to reach the company's CEO have been unsuccessful. Apple has also yet to respond to our requests for comment on the lawsuit. Psystar has not filed its response to Apple's complaint. According to court documents seen by Ars, initial filings are due in October, with a case management conference scheduled for October 22.

Self Assembling tissues

Living Legos: Polymer building blocks studded with cells self-assemble into structures whose complexity mimics that of human tissues. The cross-shaped gel contains cells stained green; the rod-shaped gels, which are about 200 micrometers across, contain cells stained red.
Credit: Ali Khademhosseini

Tissue engineers are ambitious. If they had their way, a dialysis patient could receive a new kidney made in the lab from his own cells, instead of waiting for a donor organ that his immune system might reject. Likewise, a diabetic could, with grafts of lab-made pancreatic tissue, be given the ability to make insulin again. But tissue engineering has stalled in part because bioengineers haven't been able to replicate the structural complexity of human tissues. Now researchers have taken an important first step toward building complex tissues from the bottom up by creating what they call living Legos. These building blocks, biofriendly gels of various shapes studded with cells, can self-assemble into complex structures resembling those found in tissues.

"Living tissues have repeating functional units," says Ali Khademhosseini, a bioengineer at Harvard Medical School. The liver, for example, is made up of repeated hexagonal lobes. Each has a central branching vessel that brings in blood for filtration; the vessel and its branches are surrounded by toxin-filtering cells surrounded by canals that transport filtered blood to other vessels leading out of the organ. Traditional approaches to tissue engineering, says Khademhosseini, "rely on the cells to self-assemble and re-create structures found in the body." Bioengineers seed cells onto the outside of polymer scaffolds in the hopes that they will migrate inside and organize themselves. Cells do self-organize to some extent, but such top-down attempts have had limited success.

Khademhosseini is trying to re-create complex tissue structures by carefully controlling cell organization from the bottom up. He mixes cells into a solution of a biocompatible polymer called polyethylene glycol, then pours the mixture into molds shaped like blocks, stars, spheres, or any other shape. When exposed to a flash of light, the polymer blocks solidify. The living Legos can then be built up into more-complex structures and exposed to another flash of light that bonds them together. But assembly is painstaking: each block is only about a hundred micrometers across.

So Khademhosseini and a group of researchers at MIT and Harvard have come up with a simple two-step process to make the living Legos self-assemble. Their method, described in a paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, relies on the basic fact that water and oil don't mix. When water is dropped into a pool of oil, it will form a sphere, the shape that minimizes its interaction with the oil, says Khademhosseini. The polymer building blocks are hydrophilic--they easily absorb water and resist interacting with oil. But they can't change their shape, so when Khademhosseini places them in an agitating bath of mineral oil, the blocks clump together in order to minimize their contact with the oil. The polymer blocks, now assembled into branches, cubes, and other shapes, are bonded together with another flash of light. The organization of the resulting structures can be controlled by varying the shape and size of the building blocks and the agitation speed.

By repeating the process, Khademhosseini can build up larger and larger structures that resemble, for example, blood vessels running through tissue. And by combining building blocks of different shapes that fit together like a lock and key, Khademhosseini can build even more complex structures. Spherical blocks made by the MIT and Harvard researchers slip into the corners of star-shaped blocks.

"This will be an effective way to put the cells where we want them to be," says Hai-Quan Mao, a materials scientist at Johns Hopkins University. "You can probably generate a tissue with a higher complexity" using the new method than is possible with a scaffold that has to be seeded with cells, he says.

"This initial demonstration is inspiring," agrees Suichi Takayama, a biomedical engineer at the University of Michigan. Researchers have had success with self-assembling materials for nonbiological applications such as computer chips. "People have thought of self-assembling biological materials, but he's actually done it," says Takayama of Khademhosseini. However, both caution that the work is in its early stages, and scaling the process up to larger, ever more complex structures will be a challenge.

Mao says that the self-assembling cell blocks could also be used to study how adjacent cells influence each other during development. Creating structural complexity isn't the only hurdle that tissue engineers face. They also need a better understanding of the chemical and environmental signals that will help them grow tissues from stem cells in the lab: just what influences a stem cell's decision to become a liver cell or a blood-vessel cell? Signals from other cells play an important role, and Khademhosseini's structures, through which cell-communication molecules such as growth factors readily diffuse, could be used to study how the tissue environment influences stem cells.

Khademhosseini is currently working on making more-complex self-assembling structures that resemble the repeating units of the liver, the pancreas, and the heart muscle.

All Chevy Volts to be made in the U.S.

General Motors officials told Automotive News that all iterations of the Volt, even those destined for export sales, would be built in a U.S. facility.

That facility is likely to be GM's Hamtramck Assembly Center, located just outside of Detroit. Constructed in 1985, the factory is presently home to the Cadillac DTS and Buick Lucerne sedans. Both products are expected to be terminated in time for Volt production.

Volts sold in Europe won't wear a Chevrolet bowtie, however; officials have confirmed that the plug-in hybrids will be distributed in Europe through GM's Opel and Vauxhall brands.

Both marques showed the Flextreme concept--a crossoverlike vehicle using the Volt concept's E-Flex hybrid drivetrain--in 2005, but it's unlikely that the production hybrids will differ so radically from the Volt. Instead, the cars could merely be badge-engineered versions of the domestic product (as is the case with the Opel/Vauxhall GT), but there's a good chance the export cars may be slightly restyled to match Opel/Vauxhall styling cues.

M3 Convertible with DCT transmission- a fat, shallow, $82,000 dollar compromise. Is it even M badge worthy?

We're on final approach into a tight corner, and our left index finger stretches for the minus paddle behind the 2008 BMW M3 Convertible's small, fat-rimmed steering wheel. All we want is a quick, rev-matched, 3-2 downshift from the car's seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.

Our downshift arrives in a violent, noisy spasm, a come-on to every sport biker in the canyon. Yet it still feels like one of the most precise gearchanges we've ever been able to take credit for. It also makes the BMW M3's 4.0-liter V8 very happy. Back down in 2nd gear, the free-revving engine howls to the bikers, and even through gusts of wind and gnats, we hear it tell us how much it hates neutral throttle. If you're not working this V8, you're killing it softly.

Messy emotions are inevitable when you're driving a hardtop-convertible version of a legendary performance car, as the thrill of a sunburn on a summer day has a way of obscuring unfortunate realities like excess curb weight and reduced structural rigidity.

But there's nothing messy or emotional about BMW's new dual-clutch gearbox (abbreviated as M DCT, or M DKG if you're German), which is all business in all of its 11 shift modes. It's also such an effective replacement for the 2008 BMW M3's conventional manual transmission that we wonder if it's not a greater threat to M-division purists than a bulky retractable hardtop.

Let's Doppelkupplung
Perhaps "threat" is too strong a word. But unlike the E46 M3's SMG transmission, the dual-clutch transmission in the 2008 BMW M3 Convertible weans you off the third pedal with disturbing ease.

It works like the dual-clutch gearboxes in the Nissan GT-R, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR and Volkswagen R32. But BMW's transmission is as smooth as a real automatic in city traffic, and with five settings for shift speed available in "D," the transition from one gear to another doesn't have to be aggressive unless you want it to be. The M DCT even allows you to creep a bit while parking your M3.

And while the M3's dual-clutch gearbox separates you from the physical involvement that comes with shifting a true manual transmission, it denies you none of the drivetrain performance. Shifts are superhumanly quick and sledgehammer firm in the sequential M5 and M6 modes, and the ergonomically designed shift paddles (upshifts on the right and downshifts on the left) are always in reach if you keep your hands near nine and three on the steering wheel.

The M DCT is even geared like a real manual transmission, with a short-ratio 4.78 1st gear (compared to the 4.055 gear in the six-speed manual) and closely spaced ratios for 2nd through 6th gears. Seventh is a direct 1.00:1 gear — there's no overdrive for this dual-clutch gearbox. At the same time, the DCT car has a taller final-drive ratio than the manual-transmission car (3.154 versus 3.846), so the effective rpm at cruising speed is much the same.

These numbers tell us that an M3 with the dual-clutch transmission should be quick. But the DCT won't be available on the coupe or sedan until 2009, and this 2008 BMW M3 Convertible outweighs those cars by an average of 500 pounds. With its complete plate of options, our $81,970 test car also takes M3 pricing to a whole new level. The M5, you'll note, starts at $83,900.

It Gets Respect; Does It Deserve It?
Evidently, word hasn't yet spread about the hardtop M3 convertible's weight problem, because in two weeks of driving, we get only two challenges to our accelerative authority and both come from drivers in supercars — a Ford GT and a Ferrari F430.

We can keep the ruse going in freeway traffic, but it's a good thing we don't have to face them on the drag strip. Here, the DCT M3 convertible hangs with the manual-shift M3 sedan to 60 mph with a 4.8-second run (or 4.6 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip). The M3 coupe was 0.2 second quicker.

Our M3 convertible doesn't lose much ground through the quarter-mile, which it dispatches in 13.0 seconds compared to 12.9 in the sedan and 12.7 in the coupe. The convertible's 107.9-mph quarter-mile speed is much slower, though, as the M3 sedan hits 111 mph while the coupe is at 112 mph. Were this hypothetical drag race to continue beyond the quarter-mile, the M3 convertible would eventually fall farther behind. Even less flattering is the realization that we've timed a BMW 335i coupe with an automatic transmission at 13.3 seconds at 105.9 mph.

The drivetrain is not the problem here, as the convertible's 4.0-liter V8 is tuned identically to the other M3s and offers 414 horsepower at 8,300 rpm and 295 pound-feet of torque at 3,900 rpm. Further, BMW's internal performance estimates suggest a DCT-equipped M3 convertible has a couple tenths of a second advantage over a manual-shift version. So we think our test car's 4,140-pound curb weight is the issue here, which also drags fuel economy down to a 15-mpg average over 800 miles.

Launch Control
Depending on the weather and your own level of patience, you can also blame the performance on the dual-clutch transmission's launch control feature. Launch control is the key to the quickest acceleration numbers, but we discovered the learning curve is steep.

Here's what you do. First, make sure the stability control is completely off, as this unlocks the fastest M6 shift mode. With your left foot on the brake pedal, press the console shift lever forward. Hold it there and a checkered flag appears in the instrument panel, indicating launch control is active. Continue holding the shift lever and press the gas pedal to the floor, which revs the engine to 5,500 rpm. Now with your left hand, adjust the launch speed in increments of 100 rpm by pressing the cruise control stalk forward or back. You can't launch any lower than 5,000 rpm or any higher than 6,000.

Now comes the delicate part: Release the brake, wait a couple nanoseconds, and then release the shift lever. This sounds easy, but the combination of foot and hand motions is counterintuitive, and there's an initial tendency to pull both feet out, cancelling the launch. Get it right, though, and you feel like you've been fired from a gun turret. Keep the gas pedal pinned and the transmission upshifts automatically (and abusively) at the 8,400-rpm redline.

Cool, huh? But as discovered in our testing, hot weather seems to make the launch control behave erratically, so sometimes the 265/35ZR19 Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 rear meats spin until they melt, and sometimes the gearbox fails to upshift. And sometimes, particularly if you've already launched the M3 a couple times, it won't work at all.

This is normal, BMW officials tell us, as company engineers set very specific operating thresholds to protect the driveline against damage. If any of the engine, transmission and differential fluids are deemed too hot, the DCT locks you out — or does its best to discourage you. This isn't wholly unreasonable, but in practice, this is the most finicky of all the launch-control setups we've tested.

And Then We Cut Loose on the Back Roads
Fortunately, there are other things you can do with a 2008 BMW M3 Convertible. In contrast to other M3s, none of the electronic damper settings on the convertible are too firm for public-road use, so it's easier to talk people into riding along with you — an indication of our baser human nature, but why buy a four-place convertible if you're going to drive around by yourself?

Start adding some speed through corners and you shouldn't get any complaints from your passenger. The M3 convertible is as balanced and athletic as you'd ever expect a 2-ton BMW without a top to be. It doesn't feel quite as structurally rigid as we'd like, but overall, it's quite pleasant to hustle through turns.

And since the folding metal top distributes some 54 percent of the M3 convertible's weight over the rear wheels, you're rarely more than seconds away from a powerslide. Given free range on a road course, the M3 convertible spends most of its time sideways. If you have $82K to spend on a drift car, it should be perfect.

But if slalom and skid pad numbers are important to you, the 2008 BMW M3 Convertible will seem highly imperfect. Its 67.8-mph slalom speed and 0.86g on the skid pad fall well short of the M3 sedan (71.8 mph; 0.93g) and M3 coupe (73.3 mph; 0.95g), even though it wears the same tire model and size. Worse, it's also significantly less agile than the civilian-spec 335i coupe (68.4 mph; 0.88g). Curb weight and softer suspension tuning (compared to the other M3s) are in play here, and you either accept the sacrifice or you don't.

Braking, at least, forces less of a compromise. Our M3 convertible's 108-foot stopping distance from 60 mph is a bit longer than the others (104 feet for the M3 sedan; 100 feet even for the coupe), but pedal feel is excellent and the brakes work well when they're hot.

The M3 You'll Love To Hate and Hate To Love
On a gut level, you want to accept the 2008 BMW M3 Convertible's limitations, because it delivers so many of the right sensations — the insistent tone of the workaholic V8, the exhaust pop on downshifts, the beads of sweat that form on your sunburned forehead.

Yet, for all the benefits of its retractable hardtop, this M3 is too heavy for its own good, so its handling performance numbers simply aren't those of a serious performance car. And when the asking price balloons past $80,000, they really need to be.

But we suspect BMW knows exactly how to play this hand. Hard-core types like us will stick to the M3 coupe and sedan, while this M3 convertible draws a slightly less demanding crowd. And that slick dual-clutch transmission will bring us together and eventually eradicate those evil three-pedal cars altogether.

Audi Punks out with R8 Targa

How to take something so perfect and completely ruin it!

SANTA MONICA, California — With the launch of the elusive 2008 Audi R8 coupe in full swing and a high-powered V10 model on the way shortly, it's no surprise that an open-top model is in the works for 2009.

In order to preserve the Audi R8's superior handling characteristics, expect the future open-air R8 to use a removable targa top instead of a full convertible like the Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder.

The R8 targa will likely share the coupe's mechanicals, including a 420-horsepower 4.2-liter V8 engine.

What this means to you: At least a year away from production, the R8 targa is sure to be as popular as the sold-out coupe. — Kelly Toepke, News Editor

Amazon debuts Universal Add to Wish List Button

Get the Universal Wish List Button
It's the essential tool for adding items from any website to your Amazon Wish Lists.

Add to Wish List

Just drag this button to the bookmarks toolbar in your web browser.

Don't worry if you see a can't move symbol as you move it across your screen.
Add to Wish List
Don't see the bookmarks toolbar in your web browser?
Select View > Toolbars > Bookmarks Toolbar in your web browser menu to see it.

Did you drag the button up there?
Now click the button you just dragged to make sure everything worked.

Ready for the fun part?
Go to any online store, and when you see something you want, click the "Add to Wish List" button in your Bookmark Toolbar. Unless you need to quickly log in, that's all it takes to add it to your Amazon Wish List.

An Air Car You Could See in 2009: ZPM’s 106 MPG Compressed-Air Hybrid

Compressed-Air Powered cars could take you over 800 miles on a single fill-up, at speeds of up to 96 mph. They should refuel in less than 3 minutes, and at speeds over 35 mph emit about half the CO2 of a Toyota Prius. Best part? You could see them in the US at the end of next year.

Car-tech aficionados may already be familiar with Zero Pollution Motor’s (ZPM) compressed-air powered car. For those that haven’t heard of it yet, read on:

“The compressed air vehicle is a new generation of vehicle that finally solves the motorist’s dilemma: how to drive and not pollute at a cost that is affordable!”

What happens when you replace the explosions in your car’s combustion chamber with clean compressed air? Well, as long as you lighten things up by replacing heavier parts with aluminum, you end up with a clean, efficient way to power a vehicle.

The world’s first commercial compressed-air powered vehicle is currently being produced by India’s largest automaker, Tata Motors, who is licensing the technology from European-based company MDI (a company powered by the innovation of ex-Formula One engineer Guy Nègre). They anticipate having about 6000 of these vehicles on city streets in India in 2008.

How does an Air Car Work?

Although potentially revolutionary it really isn’t that complicated. What a compressed-air car does is use the force of super-compressed air to move the engine’s pistons up and down, as opposed to explosions produced from injecting a small amount of fuel.

To get things moving on compressed air, weight reduction is a top priority. MDI’s aluminum-based engine weighs half what a normal engine does, and the frame is also built out of lightweight materials (US version will be aluminum?).

ZPM’s US model will store about 3200 cubic feet of compressed air in carbon fiber tanks at 4500 psi. Carbon fiber tanks are used for safety reasons since they tend to split open (as opposed to explode) when punctured.

Air Car Engine

Compressed air from the tanks will run directly to the engine under speeds of 35 miles per hour. That means that under 35 mph the car qualifies as a zero emissions vehicle. At higher speeds the engine will burn a small amount of fuel to create more compressed air, sort of like how a plug-in hybrid like the Chevy Volt produces on-the-fly electricity. The hybrid air-car setup should be able use any number of fuels, including gasoline, propane, or ethanol.

1 tank of air + 8 gallons of gas = 848 mile range

The car’s compressed air tank can be refilled in about 3 minutes from a service station. To fill it up at home the car would be plugged in, where an onboard compressor would refill the tank in about 4 hours, at an electrical cost of about $2.

If you aren’t sure whether turning electricity into compressed air is really that clean, here are some numbers: at speeds over 35 mph the air car emits about half the CO2 per mile as a 2007 Toyota Prius (0.141lbs of CO2 per mile, while that the Toyota Prius emits 0.34 lbs of CO2 per mile).

Will we actually see a US-model Air Car in 2009/10?

New York startup ZPM, like Tata motors, has licensed technology from Luxembourg-based MDI. MDI also has plans to release these cars in Europe in 2-, 4-, and 6-cylinder models, starting under $15,000.

Despite lightweight construction that could be of concern for passing US safety tests, it appears that air car technology could be available in the US in late 2009. ZPM told earlier this year that it expects to produce the first US model air car at the end of 2009 or early 2010. (Btw, ZPM’s model is also a candidate for the $10 million Automotive X Prize.)

ZPM wants to produce a 6-seater, 75-hp model with a 1000 mile range at 96 mph, all for just $17,800.

The big question I think we all have is: will this car make it through US safety testing? ZPM’s website says that air car models will meet the same safety specifications of all cars driven in the US. As with most of these new hyper-efficient models we’ve seen (like Aptera’s Typ1 or VW’s 1L Car), ZPM claims the vehicle’s “tubular body provides increased resistance in the event of a crash.” The car will also come with Air Bags and ABS braking.

It’s another case of wait-and see, and we can only hope ZPM follows through.

For more info, check out a great youtube video about air cars (embedded below):

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