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Monday, December 1, 2008

Dow off 600 as recession called officially

NEW YORK ( -- Stocks tumbled Monday afternoon, with fears about the economy driving a selloff as manufacturing slumped to a 26-year low and the U.S. economy was officially declared to be a recession.

Paulson: Feds to Expand Financial Rescue

NEW YORK ( -- The federal government is reviewing applications from hundreds of banks seeking rescue funding and is "actively" developing new programs to right the nation's unsettled financial system, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said Monday.

"Today we continue to work through a severe financial crisis," Paulson said, speaking in Washington, D.C., at the Fortune 500 Forum. "While we are making progress, the journey ahead will continue to be a difficult one."

Paulson, addressing one of the key criticisms of the government's massive $700 bailout effort, said that officials are hopeful that banks will begin lending more to consumers and businesses.

"We expect banks to increase their lending as a result of these efforts and it is important that they do so," Paulson said. "This lending won't materialize as fast as any of us would like, but it will happen much, much faster as confidence is restored."

Paulson's comments come a week after the government announced another round of dramatic measures to prop up the financial system.

Last Tuesday, the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve unveiled a joint program to spur purchases of consumer loans bundled into securities. The effort calls for the Federal Reserve of New York to lend $200 billion to investors in securities backed by consumer debt, such as student loans, car loans and credit cards. The Treasury Department will allocate $20 billion to cover any losses that the New York Fed might suffer if that debt defaults.

In addition, the Federal Reserve, announced it will purchase up to $500 billion in mortgage backed securities that have been backed by Fannie Mae (FNM, Fortune 500), Freddie Mac (FRE, Fortune 500) and Ginnie Mae, the three government-sponsored mortgage finance firms set up to promote home ownership. It will also buy another $100 billion in direct debt issued by those firms.

A day earlier, the Treasury and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said it would rescue faltering Citigroup. It agreed to guarantee some of the firm's losses in its $300 billion portfolio of troubled assets. Also, Treasury will make a fresh $20 billion investment in the bank on top of the $25 billion it already injected into the Wall Street bank.

Paulson has used nearly half of the $700 billion in funds Congress allocated to stabilize the financial markets. He has said he would not ask lawmakers for the remaining $350 billion, leaving it for the administration of incoming president Barack Obama to use.

It's Official- Recession since Dec '07

NEW YORK ( -- The National Bureau of Economic Research said Monday that the U.S. has been in a recession since December 2007, making official what most Americans have already believed about the state of the economy .

The NBER is a private group of leading economists charged with dating the start and end of economic downturns. It typically takes a long time after the start of a recession to declare its start because of the need to look at final readings of various economic measures.

The NBER said that the deterioration in the labor market throughout 2008 was one key reason why it decided to state that the recession began last year.

Employers have trimmed payrolls by 1.2 million jobs in the first 10 months of this year. On Friday, economists are predicting the government will report a loss of another 325,000 jobs for November.

The NBER also looks at real personal income, industrial production as well as wholesale and retail sales. All those measures reached a peak between November 2007 and June 2008, the NBER said.

In addition, the NBER also considers the gross domestic product, which is the reading most typically associated with a recession in the general public.

Many people erroneously believe that a recession is defined by two consecutive quarters of economic activity declining. That has yet to take place during this recession.

This downturn longer than most

The NBER did not give any reasons or causes of the recession. But it is widely accepted that the housing downturn, which started in 2006, is a primary cause of the broader economic malaise.

The fall of housing prices from peak levels reached earlier this decade cut deeply into home building and home purchases. This also caused a sharp rise in mortgage foreclosures, which in turn resulted in losses of hundreds of billions of dollars among the nation's leading banks and a tightening of credit.

The current recession is one of the longest downturns since the Great Depression of the 1930's.

The last two recessions (1990-1991 and 2001) lasted eight months each, and only two of the 10 previous post-Depression downturns lasted as long as a full year, according to the NBER.

In a statement, White House Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto said that even though the recession is now official, it is more important to focus on the steps being taken to fix the economy.

"The most important things we can do for the economy right now are to return the financial and credit markets to normal, and to continue to make progress in housing, and that's where we'll continue to focus," he said. "Addressing these areas will do the most right now to return the economy to growth and job creation."

President-elect Obama's transition team did not have an immediate comment on the recession announcement. But other top Democrats said this is further proof of the need for another economic stimulus package, which Obama has advocated.

"With rising costs of living, rising unemployment, record foreclosures and depleted savings, we must do more to help families make ends meet," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in a statement. "With the cooperation of our Republican colleagues, we intend to send a plan to the White House as soon as possible following President-elect Obama's inauguration next month."

How long will it go?

Nonetheless, several economists said the real concern is that there is no end in sight for the downturn.

Some suggested that the best case scenario for the economy is that it would reach bottom in the second quarter of 2009. And even if that happens, that would still make this recession the longest since the Great Depression.

Rich Yamarone, director of economic research at Argus Research, said the only good news for the economy is that some of the steps already taken by the government earlier this year could start to spur growth soon. For example, he said interest rate cuts by the Federal Reserve, which started in September 2007, "should be working their magic any day now."

In February, Congress passed a $170 billion tax rebate meant to stimulate the economy. But that only boosted GDP during the second quarter.

The financial market and credit crisis worsened during this summer, prompting Congress, the Treasury Department and the Fed to pump trillions of dollars into the economy through a variety of programs, including a $700 billion bailout of banks and Wall Street firms and hundreds of billions of lending by the Fed to major companies and lenders.

But Lakshman Achuthan, managing director of Economic Cycle Research Institute, said that at this point, the only solution for the recession is time.

"All the hand waving and real cash that policymakers are throwing at the problem won't change the fact we're stuck in this nasty recession," he said. "The ultimate cure of a recession is letting it run its course."

Achuthan's research firm tracks weekly leading economic indicators that are supposed to signal a change in direction for the economy four or five months ahead of time. Those indicators are continuing to fall at a record pace.

Still, he said he's not worried about the current recession turning into a depression, as many Americans fear.

"Even with indicators in a tailspin, this still is only a very severe recession," he said. "There's lots of gloom, but we don't see doom." To top of page

RX-8 R3 a handling delight, but can we get some Turbos and direct injection for this thing

I find it fitting that on the same night I offer up an engagement ring to my girlfriend, we hop in Mazda's RX-8 R3 for a football weekend in Michigan. Like marriage, buying an RX-8 is only for those ready for a serious commitment. And not just any kind of commitment — we're talking about the marrying-a-stripper sort of dedication. (For the record, I am now engaged to a lawyer.) Driving an RX-8 is a rollercoaster of emotions, peaking with crisp turn-ins and screaming, 9000-rpm shifts, while plummeting down with torque-less launches and frequent stops for fuel. I deliver a disclaimer in the parking garage: "Sorry we're driving this car. . . it's kinda uncomfortable, kinda annoying, and drinks a lot of gas for how little it is." My fiancée counters, "Annoying and gassy? Sounds like a perfect match for you."



Having debuted in 2003, the RX-8 isn't ancient, but it's middle-aged in car years. Thankfully, it still looks like it's from the future with space-age curves and mini-doors that flip out backwards for rear passengers. A facelift also came for the 2009 model year, so this is a well-disguised old broad. The old grilles — a large center opening and two smaller flanks to the sides — have been photocopied at 120 percent and new headlights have a more intimidating glare. Around the corner, the car's tall, thin fender vents have been smashed into a small triangle that houses a relocated side turn indicator. The R3 model, a post-redesign addition, wears the new smile best. HID headlights and a front splitter distinguish its front end from lesser RX-8s, while side skirts and a deck wing carry the additions aft. Unique 19-inch wheels are some of the most attractive Mazda has ever made and draw their spoke designs from the car's rotary engine.

Along with the rotor-shaped space between the R3's wheel spokes, all RX-8s have that shape integrated here and there throughout the design. A hood bulge looks vaguely like Wankel's great invention, and inside the cabin, manual-equipped RX-8s have a rotor-shaped shift knob. Mazda's base front seats also have a rotor-shaped opening in the headrests, but the R3 ditches that little styling touch for a wonderful set of Recaros. By "wonderful" I mean they look great, provide incredible lateral support, and are comfortable for short hauls. On longer drives, though, the seats are spine numbing.

Only one color combination — black leather, gray inserts, and red stitching — is available inside the R3, but the paint colors are comparatively plentiful. Blue, black, and red metallic are the three R3 exterior choices. As you can see, this top-level RX-8 isn't about choices; all R3s comes with a manual transmission and options are limited to Sirius radio, a spare tire, and a variety of cargo organizers. No moonroof, sorry — it adds weight and detracts from helmet space. And no navigation, either, because racetracks go in circles.


If you're asking yourself, "Rotor? I thought engines had pistons?" then maybe you should pause here to read our rotary engine tech article. But if you're caught up on the Wankel engine, know that the R3's rotary goes unchanged from the same 1.3-liter dual-rotor unit in every other RX-8. Because this model is manual-only, I don't need to tell you that you shouldn't buy an automatic because it's detuned to 212 hp, down from 232. Both versions spin out 159 lb-ft of torque, and all manuals — regardless of trim level — get a new 4.78:1 final drive ratio.


There actually aren't many mechanical components setting the R3 apart from its less track-oriented brethren, mostly because all RX-8s are pretty good track cars. The 19-inch forged aluminum wheels are the most obvious change, but there are also R3-specific Bilstein dampers. And the front suspension crossmembers, though they're the same, are filled with urethane foam for increased ride comfort — probably to counteract the harshness of the big wheels and stiff dampers.

The RX-8 R3 will grab your heart instantly on your first encounter. Move inside the attractive bodywork and have a seat in the driver's side Recaro. It hugs your sides tightly as you twist the little plastic knob that replaces a conventional key. The raspyweeeeeerrrrrr of the rotary cranking is a reasonable facsimile of an F1 engine firing up, though a progressive rev limiter designed to protect the cold engine limits the spins to well below the 9000-rpm redline for the first five minutes of operation.

Swing the stubby shifter over to first and the near-perfect action of the linkage makes itself known — Mazda's rear-drive small cars have some of the best shifter biomechanics offered. The movements from first to second, second to third, third to fourth, are all clean and direct, accompanied by a linear clutch take-up. The 2009 model year's numerically higher final-drive ratio provides a bit more jump off the line, and we saw 0-60 mph numbers between 6.8 and 7.1 seconds. Also as a result, shifts come faster and cruising in sixth on the highway happens at higher engine speeds — around 3500 rpm.

The R3 would rather live in corners than on the highway. The rotary engine loves to wind out and welcomes downshift rev-matching, wailing like a New Year's noisemaker. Frequent downshifts are necessary because the low-torque engine really doesn't come alive until 5000 rpm. That said, the top half of the tachometer is as addictive as the bottom half is uneventful.

Turn-in, like the RX-8's shifts, is quick and crisp. This Mazda is easy to place in a corner. On tracks, it begs to scrape the edge of every apex. On public streets, it requires minimal concentration to avoid slipping over any strips of paint. The steering wheel is thin by modern standards, but it seems to fit the car's delicate, light personality. The entire chassis is as responsive as the steering, too. It loves to dance, loves to get just light enough in the rear to rotate controllably, and deals with quick transitions like few cars in the $30,000 price range. A snaking riverside road, with the engine working between 6000-9000 rpm and no traffic, is RX-8 heaven. Its tossable nature makes the car's 3064-pound curb weight seem like Mazda's scale is out of calibration.

The honeymoon doesn't last forever, though, which is why the RX-8 R3 is such a serious commitment as a daily driver. I find it hard to wrap my head around the concept of a 1.3-liter, rear-drive sports car delivering fuel economy that barely beats most full-size pickups. On a weekend of 90 percent highway/10 percent city driving, my fuel economy doesn't break into the twenties. A 600-mile trip from Chicago to Detroit and back takes two-and-a-half tanks of fuel. As a daily means of transportation, the practicality trade-offs are few: the trunk is small, though not as small as versions sold with a spare tire in place of this car's air pump and puncture sealant. The rear seat is surprisingly comfortable considering the car's dimensions, but it isn't exactly spacious. Slow-moving traffic makes driving the car laborious by making the driver choose between of the noise of high revs or the lack of torque down low. At least the rotary engine runs smoothly.


And at least the R3 doesn't ride as badly as we'd expected. Sure, it's harsh, but a 106.4-inch wheelbase wards off the seesaw effect of highway expansion joints familiar from some smaller sports cars. The wide Bridgestones, however, do get pulled into ruts formed by heavy trucks. The biggest issue with long drives is the seats, which are so wonderful for shorter, more interesting drives, but whose lack of padding, tight dimensions, and limited adjustability will do a number even on young backs over the long haul.

The R3 is the most entertaining RX-8 available, and if you're able to deal with its flaws, you're in for a real treat. As a track toy and weekend companion, this car would rank near the top of the list of best buys among the Motive staff because at just over $30,000, not many cars are this raw, this thrilling, or this passionate. It's the kind of car that's easy to love, but impossible to settle down and live with day-to-day. Some people could do it, but you'd have to be committed enough to the car's endearing qualities to put up with all the flaws: the fuel economy, the power delivery, the lack of space, and the lack of comfort. The RX-8 will certainly appeal to a certain kind of enthusiast, and we'd love to fool around with one occasionally — we just wouldn't take one home to mom.

Pete Johnson to debut budget priced Tatuaje cigar

By Gregory Mottola

Budget-conscious fans of Tatuaje cigars have a new economy-priced brand to look forward to: Ambos Mundos, a long-filler cigar priced for hard economic times. While the cigar may seem to be debuting at just the right time, Tatuaje owner Pete Johnson says he didn’t make Ambos Mundos just because of the current economic downturn.

“My original idea for the Tatuaje brand was for it to be not as expensive as it turned out to be,” said Johnson, “but having it made in Miami kind of set that expensive precedent, so I made this [new] cigar partly due to the economy and partly because this is where I originally wanted the cigar to be priced.”

Ambos Mundos, which translates to “both worlds,” will come in only two sizes: a 5 inch by 50 ring Robusto and a 6 by 50 Toro. They will retail for $4.75 and $5, respectively.

Both will be offered in either a Nicaraguan Habano or Ecuadoran Sumatra wrapper, hence the name of the cigar. The initial shipments will contain boxes of 50 cigars, half with Nicaraguan wrapper and half with Ecuadoran. All other shipments will come in bundles of 25.

Stogie Guys Quick Smoke Review for 11/28

Chismillionaire agrees with the assessment below but in contrast has not found a bad Pepin Garcia labeled stick yet.

Each Saturday and Sunday we’ll post a Quick Smoke: not quite a full review, just our brief take on a single cigar.

After having a pleasant, though not fantastic, experience with the Robusto from this line, I’ll admit it has been a bumpy road with these Cuban Classics. Some that I’ve smoked have tasted unrefined and not up to Don Pepin’s usual standards. Others, like this lovely Belicoso (and the others from the same box), have been magnificent. It has delicious peppery spice and a core of cedar earth. To top it all off, the physical properties were also superb.

Verdict = Buy.

-Patrick S

Truck stop of the Future- Don't Bet on it!

Genetically Modified Peanuts could save Lives

By Aaron Rowe


Genetically engineered peanuts may help fight the most common cause of fatal allergic reactions to food in the United States. While the research is unlikely to result in the creation of completely allergen-free peanuts, it could result in fewer outbreaks and even fewer deaths.

For years now, government scientists have been testing ordinary peanuts in the hope of finding one that cannot cause the deadly allergic reactions which kill more than 50 Americans every year. But nature may not be able to provide an answer.

Horticulture expert Peggy Ozias-Akins at the University of Georgia in Tifton is taking a different tack by using genetic engineering to grow hypoallergenic peanuts.

Most allergic reactions to peanuts are triggered by the same eleven molecules. In theory, peanuts without the genes responsible for those molecules would be far less likely to trigger allergic reactions.

"Some proteins cause more severe allergic reactions than others," said Ozias-Akins.

Tackling the worst offenders first, her team has made and tested peanuts that do not produce two proteins that are among the most intense allergens. The research appears in The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

The biologists shot a customized DNA sequence into the plants with a gene gun, causing the legumes to produce hairpin-shaped RNA molecules, which halt the production of the two proteins.

Messing with the genetic code of a plant could potentially cause the seeds to develop improperly, change the taste of the crop, or render it more susceptible to fungal infections. But Ozias-Akins' team found that they grow normally and can resist a common mold without any problems.

Still, getting rid of every allergy-causing substance in peanuts would not be easy, Ozias-Akins said. "Given the number of allergenic proteins in peanuts, I doubt that developing an allergen-free peanut is realistic."

Although it may be impossible to make a perfectly safe peanut, clipping the right genes out could make food accidents far less common.

How Gadgets helped the Mumbai Attackers

By Noah Shachtman

Article109071902a4c96a000005dc862_4 The Mumbai terrorists used an array of commercial technologies -- from Blackberries to GPS navigators to anonymous e-mail accounts -- to pull off their heinous attacks.

For years, terrorists and insurgents around the world have used off-the-shelf hardware and software to stay ahead of bigger, better-funded authorities. In 2007, former U.S. Central Command chief Gen. John Abizaid complained that, with their Radio Shack stockpile of communications gear, "this enemy is better networked than we are." The strikes that killed at least 174 appears to be another example of how wired today's "global guerrillas" can be.

As they approached Mumbai by boat, the terrorists "steered the vessel using GPS equipment," according to the Daily Mail. A satellite phone was later found aboard.

Once the coordinated attacks began, the terrorists were on their cell phones constantly. They used BlackBerries "to monitor international reaction to the atrocities, and to check on the police response via the internet," the Courier Mail reports.

The gunmen were able to trawl the internet for information after cable television feeds to the two luxury hotels and office block were cut by the authorities.

The men looked beyond the instant updates of the Indian media to find worldwide reaction to the events in Mumbai, and to keep abreast of the movements of the soldiers sent to stop them.

Outside of Leopold's Cafe, "one of the gunmen seemed to be talking on a mobile phone even as he used his other hand to fire off rounds," an eyewitness told The New York Times.

The terror group then took credit for the bloodshed with a series of e-mails to local media. They used a "remailer" service to mask their identities; earlier attacks were claimed from cyber cafes.

[Photo: AP; plugged in: CA, Giz]

Pentagon puts $22 Million into Guided Bullet

By Noah Shachtman

Specwarnetcom50pic What if a sniper could fire a bullet that changed course in midflight, to hit its target? The Pentagon is handing out nearly $22 million to try to find out.

Darpa, the Defense Department's far-out research arm, announced a pair of contracts last Tuesday, to start designing a super, .50-caliber sniper rifle that fires guided bullets. Lockheed Martin received $12.3 million for the "Exacto," or Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance, project, while Teledyne Scientific & Imaging got another $9.5 million.

If the system works, it'll "provide a dramatic new capability to the U.S. military," Darpa says. "The use of an actively controlled bullet will make it possible to counter environmental effects such as crosswinds and air density, and prosecute both stationary and moving targets while enhancing shooter covertness. This capability would have the further benefit of providing increased accuracy and range while reducing training requirements."

"In other words," Danger Room's Sharon Weinberger wrote last year, "it would be the ultimate sniper round."

Darpa won't say, publicly, how far, how long and how accurate they want the new bullets to be — all that information is classified. But they will say that Exacto should contain a next-gen scope, a guidance system that provides information to direct the projectile, an "actively controlled .50-caliber projectile that uses this information for real-time directional flight control," and a rifle. "Technologies of interest may include: fin-stabilized projectiles, spin-stabilized projectiles, internal and/or external aero-actuation control methods, projectile guidance technologies, tamper proofing, small stable power supplies, and advanced sighting, optical resolution and clarity technologies."

Exacto is one of several projects Darpa is developing to make snipers more accurate and more deadly. The agency has earmarked $7.5 million for a laser-guided bullet program. Darpa gave Lockheed $2 million for advanced sniper scopes that could boost kill rates by tenfold, or more. If the system works out as planned, it would actually allow snipers to remain virtually invisible, lost in the "heat haze" in between them and their targets. Our own David Hambling called the project the "next war's secret weapon."

From the MIT Tech Blog- Fixing the Economy with Green Jobs

Fixing the Economy with Green Jobs

A new report suggests that investing in clean energy could put people to work and stimulate economic growth.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
By Kevin Bullis

President Elect Barack Obama recently called for stimulating the economy in part by direct government investment in clean energy, specifically in projects "building wind farms and solar panels." Through various "green" policies and investment he hopes to create 5 million new jobs.

A new report from Deutsche Bank supports this approach. It argues that it's possible to address challenges related to climate change, energy security and the financial crisis at the same time by investing in four specific areas: energy efficient buildings, electric power grid, renewable power and public transportation. The report cites figures that suggest investing in these areas creates more jobs than investing in conventional energy sources because much of the old energy infrastructure is already in place. It says that "a $100 billion investment in energy and efficiency would result in 2 million new jobs, whereas a similar investment in old energy [such as coal or natural gas] would only create around 540,000 jobs."

What's more, the report continues, when the government invests in a project, other investors line-up to invest as well. It "unlocks" private sector funding and partnerships.

Detractors say that clean energy can have a negative effect on jobs, since it tends to cost more. If energy costs are high enough, it could force companies to cut jobs.

Improving Pre Natal Testing

Color coding: Microarrays like the one above are used to test for chromosomal abnormalities. Each spot represents a different DNA segment. If the fetus has an extra copy of a particular segment of DNA, then the corresponding dot is red. If the fetus is missing a DNA segment, the dot appears green. The color yellow indicates that the fetus has the correct number of copies of the DNA segment.
Credit: Sau Cheung

Many pregnant women have their unborn children screened for genetic abnormalities, such as Down syndrome. But standard tests cannot identify all problems, and many extremely serious conditions go undetected until birth. In a new study, researchers from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston used DNA chips to test unborn babies for more than 270 genetic syndromes. They found that this procedure provided a more detailed and accurate view of the fetus's genetic profile than the approach commonly used today.

The process normally used for prenatal diagnosis is karyotyping, which looks at the overall size and shape of chromosomes to identify problems. Sau Wai Cheung, director of Baylor's Cytogenetics Laboratory and one of the leaders of the new study, says the new research shows that DNA chips can reliably detect far smaller chromosomal abnormalities than karyotyping allows. And while these abnormalities may be small in size, they can have a big impact. "A lot of the diseases that we tested for [in this study] cause mental delays and problems with physical development," said Cheung. Angelman syndrome, for example, can result in significant developmental problems and seizures.

Arthur Beaudet, who led the study with Cheung and is chair of Baylor's Department of Molecular and Human Genetics, says some parents want an early diagnosis so they can decide whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. Others simply want the information to prepare for their child's special needs.

The DNA chip used in the study performs a process known as array comparative genomic hybridization (aCGH), which involves looking for an abnormal number of copies of particular segments of DNA. Normally, humans have two copies of each segment. Having extra or missing copies can result in serious medical problems. Each DNA chip contains hundreds of single-stranded DNA segments, each embedded in a piece of glass at a precise location. The researchers then add single-stranded, fetal DNA segments, usually taken from amniotic fluid. These strands are labeled red. Single-stranded DNA reference segments, which act as a control group and are labeled green, are also added to the chip. Once the fetal and control strands are bound with the embedded DNA, the arrangement of colors on the chip is imaged and analyzed by a computer.

"Basically we measured the color signal intensity," said Cheung. If the fetus has an extra copy of a particular segment of DNA, then the spot on the chip that corresponds to that DNA segment will appear more red than green. If the fetus is missing a DNA segment, the corresponding spot on the chip will appear more green than red. And if the fetus has the correct number of copies of the DNA segment, then the spot should appear yellow.

Beaudet says that aCGH is already used in pediatric medicine with great success, but it has only recently been investigated for prenatal diagnostics. While the Baylor study sample was small--only 300 cases--the researchers say it is the largest of its kind to date. In the study, published in the current issue of Prenatal Diagnosis, the researchers identified seven cases where the aCGH results provided new information about the risk of disease, including two cases that would otherwise have been missed.

"In general, it's a great study," said Dr. David Chitayat, head of the Prenatal Diagnostic and Medical Genetics Program at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, Canada. "But we need to expand it."

Most of the patients involved in the study sought out the testing because of advanced maternal age. Chitayat says he would like to see results for a wider array of patients. Chitayat was not involved in the Baylor study, but he's working on another research project involving aCGH for prenatal diagnosis, and he hopes to publish the results soon.

As with any prenatal diagnostic testing, aCGH brings with it a host of questions about how much information is too much.

"The downside of aCGH is you pick up these copy-number variants that may or may not have clinical significance, and in the worst case [the impact] may be unknown," says Diana Bianchi, professor of pediatrics, obstetrics, and gynecology at Tufts University School of Medicine and the editor in chief of Prenatal Diagnostics. Knowing that an unborn child has genetic abnormalities but not knowing how those might affect the child's development could leave many parents scared and confused, Bianchi says.

Price is another factor that could impede the use of aCGH. Beaudet says that an array currently costs $1,600. That's far more than a karyotype, which costs between $500 and $700. (The tests reported in the study were performed on a fee-for-service basis.) But Beaudet believes the price of an array could drop significantly if the volume of tests performed increases.

Currently, karyotyping and aCGH also require invasive procedures--either extracting amniotic fluid or going into placental tissue--to retrieve samples for testing, and miscarriage can result. "The next big breakthrough would be to be able to [test] a maternal blood sample or a maternal Pap smear," says Beaudet, so that the baby wouldn't be put at risk. Several research teams are currently working on techniques for isolating fetal cells that float around in a pregnant woman's bloodstream.

Making an Old Brain Young

Credit: Phaedra Wilkinson

New ways to manipulate neural plasticity--the brain's ability to rewire itself--could make adult brains as facile as young ones, at least in part. Drugs that target these mechanisms might eventually help treat neurological disorders as diverse as Alzheimer's, stroke, schizophrenia, and autism. But first scientists will need to figure out how to harness this rewiring capacity without damaging vital neural circuitry.

"Once we understand the mechanisms behind plasticity, we can design therapies to tap into it more specifically," says Joshua Sanes, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School.

The brain experiences a "critical period" of heightened malleability during development, when outside experiences--such as sights and sounds--are necessary for different brain systems to develop normally. Infants and toddlers between the ages of one and three need regular visual stimuli, for example, in order for their visual systems to form the appropriate neural circuits. If one eye is impaired during this time, such as with lazy eye (also called amblyopia), vision may be permanently faulty.

Studying the equivalent of lazy eye in rodents, Takao Hensch and his colleagues at Children's Hospital Boston discovered two mechanisms that control this critical period. While some drugs were already known to accelerate the onset of this critical period--for example, valium, an anxiety drug that targets the brain's inhibitory signaling system--Hensch's work helps explain why and provides specific targets for new treatments.

Like children, rodents with one eye covered during their critical period never recover normal sight. Scientists use this fact to measure treatments that affect the timing of developmental neural plasticity. Treatments that extend the critical period, for example, allow adult animals reared with only one functioning eye to regain normal sight. Hensch's group has previously shown that a specific cell type, called a large basket cell, triggers the onset of neural plasticity. These cells are surrounded by molecular nets. "The critical period ends when the net wraps around [the cells] very tightly," says Hensch. So molecularly severing the nets with an enzyme called chondroitinase can restore plasticity in adults.

Hensch and his collaborators have now found that basket-cell development is controlled by a protein called Otx2. Overexpressing this protein can trigger a critical period of plasticity, while removing Otx2 halts it. While the findings are specific to the visual system, Hensch notes that different sensory systems also possess basket cells, and those might function the same way.

A second mechanism for manipulating neural plasticity in adults is blocking inhibitory molecules that the nervous system produces to stop neural growth. "The nervous system is hostile to growing new axons [the long neural projections that connect cells], which is why recovery after spinal-cord injury is so challenging," says Hensch.

Myelin cells, which form an insulating layer around axons, secrete some of these inhibitory molecules. By experimenting with certain drugs that loosen myelin, Hensch and his collaborators found they could make the normally stable visual system of adult rodents become plastic again, allowing amblyopic rodents to recover. (However, the drug used in the study is toxic, making it unlikely to be a useful therapy.)

Given the usefulness of recapturing the neural facility of youth--the ability to quickly learn a new language, for example--it may seem odd that the brain would have evolved multiple mechanisms for preventing major rewiring in adults. But the capacity to easily overhaul neural circuits could have a downside, perhaps erasing memories. "You might lose the identity you've built," says Hensch. "We want you to be able to keep what you know."

To successfully co-opt the plasticity of youth, scientists will likely need to target treatments very precisely. "Maybe we can do a careful release of the critical period," says Alison Doupe, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved in Hensch's research. For example, "maybe you could turn on [plasticity] only when learning Russian."

In addition to suggesting ways to enhance mental agility in old age, the findings may provide a new explanation for developmental disorders, such as autism.

Scientists have recently discovered that several strains of mice genetically engineered to mimic rare inherited forms of autism have an imbalance in levels of excitatory and inhibitory neural signals. Hensch's previous research suggests that this kind of imbalance can throw the critical period out of whack. "Maybe different brain regions become plastic too early or too late [in autism]," says Hensch. That might also explain why disruptions to such different molecules can trigger similar symptoms, he says. "Maybe they have a common wiring problem."

The researchers are now studying these imbalances in greater detail. For example, they found that mice from one of the strains, genetically engineered to show symptoms of autism, have too many neural connections in a specific part of the brain, although each connection is individually weak. "That could lead to too much variability," says Hensch. "Maybe we can use that property to repair the circuit."

What's Good and What's Bad

Bottled Water: Brett Weinstein (CC Licensed)

Also, laying off makeup, slurping up bottled water, and more, in today's link roundup.

  • If you're pregnant, some people in Europe believe that you should avoid certain cosmetics. (Although even if you're not pregnant, the finding that British women absorb five pounds of makeup a year through their skin and mouths might be enough to make you want to stop.)
  • Time to get out the bow and arrow: Eating the original free-range meat could be harmful, as lead in bullets used to slay deer can contaminate the meat.
  • Urine, though, could be good for us. The astronauts' pee-recycling technology could make sense on Earth since, when you think about it, urine isn't that much nastier than the other upstream entities that eventually become our drinking water.
  • In Switzerland, voters decided that prescription heroin would be good for addicts.
  • Canadian groups are filing a complaint against Nestle, which is running ads stating that bottled water is "the most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world." We think the company's position is that you should stop saving up to buy that hybrid car, and just spend all the money on bottles of water instead.

The Anatomy of a Marshmallow

Just-Poured Marshmallows: Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot

Most American children are familiar with marshmallows. These fluffy, chewy treats are sold in bags in the supermarket, often for use in Rice Krispie treats and s'mores. Marshmallow Fluff is a spreadable marshmallow product, often found nestled on shelves beside the peanut butter used for lunchbox confections, adding a sweet, viscous layer to sandwiches and brownies. Around Easter, marshmallow Peeps, with their softer structure and crunchy sugar coating, appear in stores. In many homes around the country, marshmallow-covered sweet potatoes are a staple at the Thanksgiving table. So what better time to learn more about them, and perhaps make some yourself?

The original marshmallow was named for the inclusion of marshmallow root in the recipe. The roots and leaves of the marshmallow plant contain mucilage, a slimy-textured demulcent best known for its use as a homeopathic cough suppressant. Marshmallow root is considered to be soothing and mildly antimicrobial. It has long been used as an herbal treatment for minor digestive issues and skin irritations, although its use in the creation of its namesake confection has long since fallen by the wayside.

At their most basic, marshmallows are simply comprised of a sugar solution beaten together with a food gum, such as gelatin or xanthan gum. You can add egg whites for structure -- since they are able to hold large volumes of air, their addition allows for much lighter marshmallows -- and various colorings and flavorings for flair. Essentially though, marshmallows are made from sugar, water, and a food gum. A percentage of glucose or inverted sugar is needed for stabilization. This is beneficial because it attracts moisture and keeps the sucrose or table sugar used in the candy-making process from crystallizing. A basic form of glucose can be created at home by making a simple syrup, which is simply sugar and water boiled together. The addition of cream of tartar or citric acid will help stabilize the inverted sugars by discouraging the formation of sugar crystals. This effect can also be achieved with a small addition of corn syrup to the sugar syrup mixture. These ingredients are not strictly necessary though, simply an added assurance of success.

Once the sugar solution is created, it must be heated to the proper temperature. Marshmallows are made with sugar that is heated to a temperature of 116°C/241°F, otherwise known as the soft ball stage. We recommend using a thermometer to determine the temperature, for maximum safety and efficiency. Once the sugar has been heated to the proper temperature, it is beaten into the melted gelatin. This is a strong mechanical process that requires a mixer, preferably a standing mixture to achieve the proper texture. The beating incorporates air into the structure, creating small bubbles throughout, much like those seen in well-made bread. This structure is what gives the marshmallow its light, fluffy texture. In addition to creating structure, the amount of beating will control the moisture content of the finished marshmallow. Longer beating times will translate into a drier, more chewy marshmallow with a longer shelf life.

Once the sugar has been absorbed and the desired texture has been achieved, the marshmallows are poured into a mold and left to set. Before pouring the marshmallow, you need to generously coat the mold or tray with loose cornstarch. The starch will have a drying effect on the outer surface of the candy, allowing it to set more rapidly and dry on the outside so that it can be easily handled. The skin-like coating that forms on the outside of the confection helps increase its shelf life and usability.

Marshmallows are actually quite easy to make at home. The addition of powdered and liquid colors and flavorings allow cooks to create a dazzling display of these spongy delights. Powdered additions may be added to the gelatin while it is bloomed in hot water. Liquid additions are best added during the beating process.

Since recipes for sweet marshmallows are easily found in cookbooks and on the Internet, in honor of Thanksgiving we have included a recipe for the slightly more savory and spicy Szechuan Peppercorn Marshmallow.

Szechuan Salt: Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot

Szechuan Peppercorn Marshmallows

15 grams silver leaf gelatin
3 grams salt
1.5 grams Szechuan peppercorns
100 grams apple cider
305 grams isomalt
135 grams liquid glucose
cornstarch for coating the marshmallows

Line an 8-by-8-inch pan with parchment paper and dust the bottom and side generously with powdered sugar. Have more powdered sugar available to dust the top of the marshmallows.

Cover the gelatin sheets with cold water and let them soak until softened. The amount of water used should be just enough to hydrate the gelatin.

Place the salt and the Szechuan peppercorns in a skillet. Turn the heat on medium and toast the peppercorns until they start to release a fragrant smoke. When the peppercorns are just beginning to smoke, remove the pan from the heat and pour the salt and peppercorns onto a plate to cool. When the salt and pepper have cooled, place them into a spice grinder and grind together to a fine powder. Sift the powder through a fine mesh strainer to remove any large particles.

Heat the apple cider to a simmer. Squeeze out the bloomed gelatin, add it to the hot cider, and stir to melt the gelatin. Weigh the spice mixture and sprinkle the spice blend over the cider-bloomed gelatin. Pour the gelatin mixture into the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.

Place the isomalt and glucose in a pot and place over a medium-high flame. Bring the mixture to a boil and lower the heat to medium. Using either a candy or a digital thermometer, cook the mixture until it reaches 116°C. When the glucose mixture reaches 116°C, remove it from the heat and carefully pour it into the gelatin mixture. Turn the mixer on low, slowly stirring the hot sugar syrup. When the sugar syrup cools to 100°C, increase the speed to medium high. Whip the mixture for ten minutes until the mixture grows in volume and takes on the appearance of whipped marshmallow topping. The marshmallow will cool significantly during the beating process.

Pour the marshmallow into the prepared pan, using a lightly greased silicone or heatproof rubber spatula to help get the marshmallow out of the bowl. Coat the top of the marshmallow heavily with cornstarch. Cover the pan lightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 3 hours or until completely cool. Turn the marshmallows out onto a cutting board generously dusted with cornstarch, and cut into individual pieces using a sharp knife or a pizza cutter. Dust the cut edges with cornstarch to absorb excess moisture and prevent sticking.

Isomalt and glucose are available from,, and

Young Sports Fans Embrace Science

Harnessing football fever to help kids learn

Linebacker Tedy Bruschi addresses a class at Patriot Place: The Hall at Patriot Place

The Boston sports fan has been spoiled rotten over the past decade. Now middle school students in Beantown are receiving similar treatment with a unique program that uses sports to teach science at Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots.

The Hall at Patriot Place is a museum for all things Patriots. From Brady to Belichick, adoring fans both young and old can relive their recent and past success with a technically impressive display. In addition to helping to fund the Hall, Raytheon has teamed up with the Patriots to start the youth outreach program "Science of Sports," aimed at mentoring kids in the greater Boston area Boys and Girls Clubs.

At the heart of the outreach are visits being made by Raytheon employees to help inspire a sports-science fair with entries from the local area. The fair will be held at the hallowed grounds of Gillette, with winning teams receiving $1,000 scholarships.

"Raytheon is committed to instilling in students a lifelong passion for math, science, and technology, and our proud support of the 'Science of Sports' program is just one of the myriad ways in which we are doing this," said Kristin Hilf, vice president of public affairs for Raytheon. "It is critical to engage young minds now, during their formative years, to build within them the skills that will help them achieve greater success in school, their careers, and throughout their lives."

The hall itself has a series of high-tech exhibits worthy of their own recognition. A 45-foot panoramic projection screen plays an opening video while a geodesic dome houses an exhibit about the infamous snow game. Fans can also compare their vertical jump to that of their favorite player, go under the hood to review plays like an NFL official, and listen to their hero Tom Brady call plays from the huddle. Now if only one of those students can come up with a fix for that darn ACL.

Living Large on Smaller Budget

Luxury is a malleable concept. After all, the details that impressed back in the Seventies and Eighties—tufted leather seats, digital dashboards, vinyl roofs, and opera windows—have become ironic jokes. But two aspects of luxury never go out of style: quality and performance. And in a worldwide economy that’s stutter-stepping around the abyss of a recession, it’s possible to get both for a low price. Ridiculously low.

The trick for those lucky enough to be prosperous in perilous times is to find products that fulfill their appetites without rubbing it in the unwashed faces of the downtrodden hoi polloi. Showing up for dinner at Ruth’s Chris in a block-long luxury flagship may have been the dream way back in 2007, but right now the smart money is staying with the premium brands, but going mid-size and ordering the New York strip at Outback. As to big V-8s, forget ‘em. No one with half a brain believes the current drop in oil prices will last, and today’s sixes are plenty good anyhow. There are bargains to be had. For you surviving plutocrats out there, here are five of the best.

2009 BMW 535i

The new-in-2008 BMW 535i is simply the best six-cylinder 5-series ever built and yes, that includes a couple of M5s. And all that goodness is directly attributable to the 300-hp, twin-turbocharged, direct-injected, 3.0-liter inline six under the 535i’s hood.

Of course this is the same turbo six used in the smaller 335i sedan, and it pulls from just off idle to redline with such luscious and velvety smoothness that it could have been engineered by Nestlé. It’s also wicked quick, ripping to 60 mph in just 5.4 seconds when this magazine tested an automatic, all-wheel-drive 535xi. There’s no reason to think that a rear-driven 535i wouldn’t easily match the 360-hp, V-8–powered 550i’s 5.2-second blitz from 0 to 60, even given less traction at launch.

Now here’s the kicker: The 535i’s $51,625 base price is a staggering $9200 cheaper than the 550i’s—and the 550i doesn’t include much more standard equipment. Meanwhile, the EPA rates the six’s fuel mileage at 17 mpg in the city and an excellent 26 on the highway. This one’s on the short list for world’s best overall car.

Ideal Buyer: Tenured MIT physics professor looking to blow some of his MacArthur Fellowship genius grant on something inconspicuous.

2009 Hyundai Genesis

Drive the new Hyundai Genesis while blindfolded—go ahead, the first 30 feet are fun—and you’d swear it was a new Lexus you’d just run into that telephone pole. The eerie silence, the slightly numb steering, the floating-on-cash suspension movements, all seem to have been lifted straight from Lexus’s Big Book of Disengaged Driving Sensations. Remove the blindfold and the Genesis kind of looks like a Lexus, too. Take a whiff and it. . . okay, it smells like a Hyundai.

But once past that olfactory disappointment, the Genesis is impressive in a staggering number of ways. However, the way it’s most impressive is price. Although it’s only 2.1 inches shorter than a Lexus LS460, the rear-drive, 290-hp, 3.8-liter V-6–powered Genesis’s base price of $33,300 is actually $2145 cheaper than that of Lexus’s front-drive ES350. Opt for the 368-hp, 4.6-liter V-8 in the Genesis, and you’ll surpass the Lexus by less than $3000. If you’re buying your next luxury car on a dollar-per-square-inch basis, you’ll want to shop Hyundai.

Of course, Hyundai’s complete lack of prestige may hinder some buyers. But others may think that only makes the car more attractive.

Ideal Buyer: Lottery winner trying to live anonymously.

2009 Infiniti M35

The Infiniti M35 is a car for connoisseurs; an assembly of finely tuned parts that delivers a sublime driving experience without any flashy spoilers, wings, or decorative tape. It’s not the sort of car that impresses everybody, but it does impress the right somebodies.

Built around Nissan’s FM architecture that puts the engine behind the front axle line, the first advantage the M35 has over its V-8–powered M45 brother is a slightly lighter curb weight and slightly less of that weight over the front wheels. That leads to a lighter steering feel, even if there isn’t much difference in the way the car sticks on a skidpad or caroms through slalom cones.

The M35’s second advantage is that it’s powered by a 3.5-liter version of Nissan’s justly famed VQ engine family, rated at 303 hp. The M45’s 4.5-liter V-8 offers only 23 more horses, and the M35’s powerplant never feels strained or compromised in any way, and boasts an eager personality missing in many other luxury V-6s.

But the big advantage here is price, with the 2009 M35 starting at $46,615 and going up only modestly when options like the “Sport” package are ordered—the M45 starts at $52,965. For people who know how well the 35 drives, that it does so at a keen price makes it just that much more impressive.

Ideal Buyer: The guy who sets low times at the local gymkhana and also has a thriving dental practice

2009 Jaguar XF

Jaguar’s XF sedan is the first new Jaguar to look really “new” since the 1961 E-type. There’s nothing about this wedge-shaped car that harkens back to some mystical moment in Jag’s past, there are no sops to tradition in any of its lines, and while there’s still plenty of mouth-watering wood and aromatic leather inside, that goofball J-shifter is finally gone to be replaced by the volume knob off the boombox you had in college.

All XFs sold in America are powered by a 4.2-liter V-8 in either naturally aspirated 300-hp or supercharged 420-hp form. There’s no denying that the blower amps up the action, but the unforced induction is wholly adequate with its sporting nature supported by an excellent, paddle-shiftable six-speed automatic transmission. The suspension meanwhile is both expectedly supple in ride and surprisingly tenacious in corners.

Finally, skipping the blower saves a buyer between $14,500 and $8,500, depending on how the XF is ordered (base price is $49,975). You can buy a lot of books about Jaguar’s glorious past with $14,500.

Ideal Buyer: Someone who sold her mortgage brokerage in late 2006.

2009 Mercedes-Benz GL320 BlueTec

The only politically correct Chevy Suburban around today is the one carrying Barack Obama’s security detail. Otherwise, full-size SUVs are largely vehicular lepers. Except, of course, for Mercedes-Benz’s excellent GL320 BlueTec, which combines the utility of a Cadillac Escalade with the restrained luxury of Mercedes and an easygoing 3.0-liter V-6 turbo-diesel engine.

The all-wheel-drive GL320 is huge and, at first glance, the 210-hp turbo-diesel doesn’t seem like much to haul around its nearly 5600 pounds. But that engine produces an outstanding 398 lb-ft of torque and Mercedes’s seven-speed automatic transmission does a superlative job of keeping the engine in the meat of its power band. And the EPA-rated 17 mpg in the city and 23 on the highway is astonishing for a beast this big. Sure, it’s not cheap to buy, with a $59,075 base price, but at least it should be relatively cheap to operate.

How well does it drive? We clocked 0-to-60 time of 8.6 seconds in our long-term 2008 GL320, which isn’t bad. And it’s good enough for a GL320 to be newly crowned F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton’s daily driver.

Ideal Buyer: Anyone with a family so huge, they have their own show on TLC.

2010 Audi TTRS- Update

Five-cylinder engines have long been an Audi trademark. First used in 1977 in the Audi 100/5000, five-cylinders took Audi upmarket and clearly differentiated the brand from the competition. The Audi 200 Turbo, with its 170-hp inline-five, became the world's fastest four-door in 1984; the 315-hp, Audi 80–based RS2 Avant of the mid-‘90s was the most extreme station wagon of its time; and Audi won several rally championships with the five-banger Quattro—the S1 Pikes Peak had almost 600 hp.

In the mid-‘90s, Audi dropped the five-cylinder engine and its characteristic, subdued growl in favor of more conventional four-cylinder and V-6 engines. Brand aficionados howled in futile protest, and engineering guru Ferdinand Piëch, who had developed the five-cylinder engine but later moved on to become head of VW, said he never quite understood why the engine had been dropped.

It’s Back!

As of March 2009, a five-cylinder will be back in Audi's range in the form of a 2.5-liter unit with direct injection; it is based on Audi's modular engine architecture. The transversely mounted engine is force-fed by a single turbocharger and will make 330–340 hp. Torque is rumored to be around 330 lb-ft. That's enough to significantly set the TT RS apart from the lesser TTS with its 265-hp, 2.0-liter TFSI four-cylinder engine.

The TTS coupe is claimed to run from 0 to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds, and the fixed-roof TT RS—which will be built as either a 2+2 coupe or roadster—should jet to 60 at least a half a second quicker. If customers request it, top speed will be raised to 174 mph; the TTS is governed to 155. Curb weight will be around 3000 lb and Quattro all-wheel drive will be standard. Power will be transmitted through a six-speed manual transmission; it is unlikely that the dual-clutch transmission will be adapted to the TT RS.

Expect minor but significant changes to set the TT RS apart from the TTS. It needs even more air, so the front intakes will be larger, and it will sport the two large oval exhaust tips which identify Audi's RS models.

Headed For a Geneva Debut

Just a few months back, a tussle strained Audi and Porsche's high-tension relationship even further: Porsche threatened to take legal action against Audi's use of the RS moniker. Porsche had long ago managed to protect the RS nameplate for its exclusive use and allowed Audi to use it only in conjunction with a number, as on the RS 4, RS 6, and so on. Audi engineers went ballistic, and Porsche backpedaled, allowing the TT RS to keep its name. Listen for a five-cylinder rumble at the 2009 Geneva auto show next March, which is where the TT RS is scheduled to make its first public appearance.

The American M5- Pontiac G8 GXP

2009 Pontiac G8 GXP Front Three Quarters View

By Matt Stone
Photography by Julia LaPalme

Strafing along a straight-as-a-string highway at about a buck-fifty, confusion struck. Were we in America aboard Pontiac's forty-or-so-grand, Pontiac G8 GXP circa 2008, or flogging a previous-generation BMW M5-a car that cost $70,000 eight years ago-on a German autobahn? Not sure. There's plenty of high-speed stability here, yet nice ride quality. A rumbling 400-plus-horsepower V-8 engine and six-speed manual transmission. Just-right-size four-door packaging, supportive leather sport seats, big brakes. Then the radio news guy said "Obama," and we realized that this was indeed the here and now. The badge on the steering wheel confirmed it. Mention BMW's seminal sport sedan and a Pontiac in the same breath? In this instance, without hesitation.

By now, you know the G8 is based on GM global rear-drive-chassis architecture born and bred in Australia. The base V-6 and 361-horse V-8 GT versions are currently on sale and playing to solid reviews. No, the G8 wasn't designed or built in Michigan, but that doesn't mean it's not a Pontiac. The car business continues to globalize, and variations on this theme are sold as Holdens, Daewoos, Opels, Vauxhalls-even Buicks in China and Chevys in the Middle East, so get over it.

Under the hood of the GXP version rests as American a powerplant as was ever born, the latest and (nearly) greatest version of the Small Block Chevy, now called the LS3. At 6.2 liters, it grunts out 415 horsepower and the same amount of torque. Why "nearly" the greatest? Only the ZR1 and Cadillac CTS-v's supercharged version could be any greater. While the G8 GT is served only with a six-speed automatic transmission, clutch-and-shifter types can opt for a six-speed manual. We tested both and found their accelerative performance nearly identical, favoring the stick by never more than a tenth or two. And the GXP does its thing on regular-grade fuel, although it will earn a gas-guzzler tax (final pricing was not confirmed as of this writing).

The GXP designation signifies more than an engine upgrade. With more go comes more stop, in the form of Brembo brake calipers, clamping 14.0-inch rotors front and 12.8-inchers aft. The G8 GT's suspension is already competent, but is retuned for GXP duty; the biggest change is larger front and rear anti-roll bars. The shocks are stiffer, and the rear balljoints are revised. Nineteen-inch alloy wheels are standard, as is summer-rated performance rubber (all season tires are also available). Calibration of the power rack-and-pinion steering is unchanged.

Styling cues are modest: The front and rear fascias are GXP-specific. There's too much fakery here for our taste: fake hood scoops, fake diffuser treatment in back, non-functional gills on the front fenders. But Pontiac isn't the only one to play that game. A matte-black or body-color side window surround would add back some stealth, but overall, the G8 GXP is a great-looking piece, with strong shoulders, a brand-proper face, and muscular stance.

Inside you'll find thickly bolstered sport seats that really hold you in place. Rubber-trimmed alloy pedals look good and grip your Pilotis, but the beefy GXP steering wheel is a disappointment. It's square on the bottom and has cutouts for your thumbs, trying to emulate the tillers on banzai runners like the C63 AMG and BWM M3. But the lumps and bumps are all in the wrong place, creating more discomfort than benefit. The engine maxes out at 6600 revs, but you wouldn't know it from the redline-less tach that's marked to 8000.

Want more M5 references? The Pontiac is an inch and a pound larger in every direction, but nips the BMW in most performance categories. The previous-gen M5 ran 0-to-60 in 4.5 seconds; the trans G8 GXPs match that. The Bimmer grips to 0.84 g on the skidpad, the Pontiacs stick to 0.88-0.90 g. The BMW stops from 60-0 in 116 feet, the Pontiacs from 111-117. This is all the more impressive given the M5's near 200-pound weight advantage. Sure, the premium German performance kings have moved on from that previous-gen M5, but look what they cost. Before we forget, the LS3 sounds magnificent too; deep at idle, all pops and burbles on the overrun, yet never over the top.

As noted, we sampled both transmission offerings and find each appealing for different drivers. The manual's short, meaty stick has a crisp, direct shift linkage, although several staffers feel the clutch takeup is light and lacking engagement feel. The gear ratios are spot on. On many cars, GM cranks in an overly aggressive throttle tip-in curve that gives the impression of super-quick response, fading to nothing as the pedal goes further to the floor. In this application, it feels unnatural and jerky. The G8 GXP is legit fast -- why fake it?

The automatic offers standard Drive, Sport Drive, and Manual modes. Drive is responsive yet smooth; ideal for normal running. Sport shifts quicker, holds gears longer, and downshifts sooner. Kudos for GM delivering a true manual mode, too. Click the shifter to the manual gate, and it'll hold gears right to the rev limiter without upshifting. And it won't downshift however hard you mash the gas. It's too bad that manual gate is on the far side of the console on left-hand-drive cars. Shifter paddles would have been fun too.

There's no griping about the G8 GXP's ride and handling balance. In spite of some musclecar DNA, there's worldly breeding here. This machine is quiet at speed, with a minimum of wind noise or road rumble. The steering's weight, feel, and response are satisfying. The chassis tells you what's going on, and when the high limits are nearing. Weight distribution is a well-balanced 52 front, 48 rear. And it all comes in a package you can live with. Rear leg/headroom is excellent, even for tall occupants. The 17.5 cubic feet of trunk space is flat and useable. The audio and infotainment packages are acceptable, if not class leading, and we'd take a good touch-screen nav over OnStar's turn-by-turn directional guidance any day.

Pontiac's maximum strength G8 is a few details shy of legend, but that doesn't diminish its huge appeal and sophisticated, capable performance. The G8 GXP is a terrific, all-around sport sedan that runs with high-priced Germans. Its strong value message isn't a qualifier either, just a bonus. You could also think of the G8 GXP as a four-door Corvette of sorts. No matter, it is the best-performing, most well-balanced production Pontiac ever. That tells you all you need to know.

Base price $39,900 (est)
Price as tested $41,500 (6M, est), $40,800 (6A, est)
Vehicle layout Front-engine, RWD 5-pass, 4-door sedan
Engine 6.2L/415-hp*/415-lb-ft* OHV 16-valve V-8
Transmission 6-speed manual
Curb weight (f/r dist) 3969 lb (52/48%)
Wheelbase 114.8 in
Length x width x height 196.1 x 74.8 x 57.7 in
0-60 mph 4.5 sec
Quarter mile 13.0 sec @ 109.6 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 117 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.90 g (avg)
MT Figure Eight 26.4 sec @ 0.70 g (avg)
EPA city/hwy fuel econ Not yet rated
On sale in U.S. February 2009
*SAE certified