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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Top 10 300+ Horsepower cars for under $10,000

Not so many years ago, cars that produced 300 horsepower or more were considered rather rare and desirable things. Generally only the top tier of sports car or the very most posh boulevardiers had engines that could muster such prodigious output, and the price tags of the vehicles reflected it.

These days though, thanks to depreciation, a decade-long power race, and newly changing customer tastes, 300 horsepower cars can be had for much more reasonable rates—often less than $10,000. Those power and dollar figures are exciting starting places for those second-hand shoppers who may be looking for a deal on a performance machine, which is why we picked them as our two markers for making this list.

We’ve gotten our pricing estimates from the good folks at Kelley Blue Book, though we understand that in some cases much better deals can be had. Unless otherwise noted, the prices we’ve listed represent the private party value of a car in “excellent” condition with about 80,000 miles on the clock. We’ve also strived to get the best combination of power and newness when selecting between discrete model years, all while keeping a close eye on the budget. Click through our gallery above to read about our 300 horsepower/$10,000 picks, and then be sure to let us know which gems we may have missed, in comments.

1991 BMW 850i, 300 horsepower, $9425 (fair condition)

You’ll have to search a bit to find an 850i that comes in under our budget, but you’ll likely be plenty happy once you do. Those efforts can net you one of BMW’s most singular designs, 5.0-liter V-12 power, and a car that stickered for six-digit prices when new. Looks really good in black, too.

1996 Nissan 300ZX Turbo, 300 horsepower, $9795

We still believe that the twin-turbo 300ZX is one of the most beautifully designed sports cars to ever come out of Japan, as well as being one of the most lauded. This Fairlady carried on the Z tradition in fine fashion, winning award after award from the motoring press, and high praise from the buying public. Two of the Nissan’s main competitors made our list as well (Corvette, Stealth, we’re looking at you), but we know where we’d spend our ten gees.

1999 Lexus GS400, 300 horsepower, $9675

The Lexus attraction has always relied heavily on parent-company Toyota’s reputation for building with quality, a huge plus when looking at a second-buy. The GS400 may only just make the cuts for both pricing and power, but the Lexus is liable to be a sound and stately cruiser for many more years.

1996 Corvette, 300 horsepower, $9975

While the last year of the C4 Corvette could actually be had with the badder, 5.7-liter 335 horsepower LT4 V-8 with a six-speed manual transmission; estimates for the pricing of that package go slightly north of ten grand. Still, there’s a lot of love out there for both the venerable LT1 engine and the C4 body style—especially at this price.

1988 Porsche 928 S4, 315 horsepower, $9450 (fair condition)

As beautiful and high performance a car as any on this list, the stellar 928 also offers more in the way of badge cachet as well. You’ll have to search more in the “fixer-upper” segment of the market to keep the price below the $10K cutoff, but you’ll still be spending half as much as you’d need for a 911 of the same era.

1996 Dodge Stealth R/T Turbo, 320 horsepower, $6875

When Dodge put its logo (and little else) on the twin-turbo Mitsubishi 3000GT during the 1990’s, it inadvertently created a performance bargain for the used car shopper of today. At less than $7000 the Stealth is far and away the cheapest car on our list, even though its Mitsubishi twin would almost always command five-figure cash. You’d have to be a huge fan of the triple diamond to pass on the Stealth then, an all-wheel driving tour de force, yours for just chump change.

2002 Chevrolet Camaro SS 35th Anniversary Edition, 325 horsepower, $9695

Another depreciation special, this is the top-of-the-line, all the bells and whistles Camaro was new just six-years ago. Now the unsubtle Camaro can be had for a veritable song. Muscle car lovers will dig the tail-happy SS power, and the stripy 35th Anniversary paint job, though they'll pay a bit more if they want the convertible version.

1993 Mercedes-Benz 600SEC, 389 horsepower, $8540

Maybe the only car we could offer on a list of near-400 horsepower cars for under $10,000, the V-12 engined big Mercedes coupe is one of the best power buys out there. Whether is because of the faintly unlovely, brick shithouse styling or the drug dealer overtones, the 600SEC can be had for well under our five-figure price limit. Potentially monumental servicing costs notwithstanding, these big-body Benz’s were built pretty well too, meaning your eight or nine thousand dollars will buy you a car that’s likely to continue to age well.

1995 Jaguar XJR, 326 horsepower, $6715

Stunning Jaguar depreciation helps to make the supercharged XJR one of this list’s horsepower/dollar leaders, with 326 ponies on tap for less than $7K. A dogged adherence to classic Jag styling means that this XJ doesn’t look much different than the model that’s on sale today, at least on the outside.

1999 Ford SVT Lightning, 360 horsepower, $9190

Heroically fast, brutally styled, and wonderfully silly, the second generation SVT Lightning was a product that could only happen in the US of A (yeah yeah, it was built in Canada, you know what we mean.) The only pickup truck on our list, the supercharged, F-150 based Lightning also happens to be one of the most powerful, with its 360 horsepower and 440 pound-feet of torque. Giddyup.

First Alfa 8C Competizione Delivered in U.S.

GREENWICH, Connecticut — The first Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione to come to the United States has just reached the hands of its new owner: car collector James Glickenhaus, who is known for his one-off Ferrari P4/5 designed by Pininfarina.

Glickenhaus said he was proud to be the first American to receive an Alfa, and, immediately after the exchange, carried out a road test of the new Italian machine.

The sport coupe was designed by the Alfa Romeo Centro Stile in Italy and will have a limited production of 500 units. It features a powerful 4.7-liter eight-cylinder engine that makes 450 horsepower and is mated to a six-speed robotized gearbox. Glickenhaus also had Alfa Romeo paint his 8C the same red color as his Ferrari P4/5.

The other 84 Alfas bound for the U.S. will be delivered to their owners by the end of the year, Alfa Romeo said.

Inside Line says: Keep your eyes peeled for one of these now that they have officially hit the States. — Mike Lysaght, Correspondent

Conde Nast Traveler's- 32 Trips of a Lifetime

Venice, Italy: Venice, anyone? In St. Mark's Square.


Gorillas in the Mist
Visit the regional headquarters of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP), a conservation program that studies and monitors the health of the endangered mountain gorilla. After a tour of the research facilities and a Q&A session with the staff, go into the mountains for two days of gorilla tracking. On the eve of the second day, Dr. Lucy Spelman, former director of the National Zoo at the Smithsonian, or another senior staff member, will join you for dinner at your lodge. Cost: $10,900, including five nights' lodging, meals, and transfers from Kigali, and a $1,000 donation to the MGVP. Source: Ryan Hilton, Admiral Travel Gallery (941-951-1801;; BEST FOR: Adventurous types who have a true interest in the research the MGVP is doing. BUT BEWARE: This trip is physically taxing—at a minimum, you must be able to climb ten flights of stairs uninterrupted.

An Elephant Encounter
Take a tour of Daphne Sheldrick's Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi. Sheldrick was the first person to hand-rear orphaned newborn elephants successfully and release them back into the wild. Most visitors watch the elephants from behind ropes; you'll be able to approach them and talk to their keepers, who sleep side by side with the animals. Cost: $250, as a donation to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Source: Dan Saperstein, Hippo Creek Safaris (866-930-9124;; BEST FOR: Families, particularly kids. BUT BEWARE: Get ready to be sprayed with red clay and slobber.


Dine Around Town
Have a private, progressive dinner across Buenos Aires: Each of your four courses will be served in a different restaurant, opened early just for you. At every stop, you'll have a chance to talk to the head chef about his or her inspiration and philosophy of cooking. Venues will be tuned to your taste but might include such noteworthy establishments as Casa Cruz, Thymus, and Oviedo, as well as several private, closed-door eating societies. Your sommelier guide, a well-known food critic in the city, will choose wines to match each restaurant's signature dish. The night will end at her home with dessert and a late-harvest wine. Cost: $1,320. Source: Vanessa Guibert Heitner, Limitless Argentina (202-536-5812;; BEST FOR: Die-hard foodies and oenophiles who want one-on-one attention from the city's finest chefs. BUT BEWARE: Because it would be prohibitively expensive to close the restaurants during dinner service, you'll be eating in the late afternoon.

Rock of Ages
Visit the mysterious, nearly perfect stone spheres that have been found along Costa Rica's southern Pacific coast with Adrian Bonilla, the Palmar Sur site's lead archaeologist, at a location that is accessible only with permission from the community. Hundreds of these spheres, known locally as Las Bolas and ranging in size from bowling balls to 15-ton boulders, have been discovered since the 1940s; Bonilla, who works for the National Museum in San José, found the most recent one a year ago while excavating the remains of a pre-Columbian village. Though early theories speculated that the stones were carved by aliens or by Mother Nature, Bonilla believes they are the work of the native Chiriqui people. Cost: $2,000, including a donation to the project. Source: Richard Edwards, Green Spot Travel (877-891-3539;; BEST FOR: Amateur archaeologists and conspiracy theorists looking for the straight story. BUT BEWARE: Don't come in September and October, when the rains are so heavy that your charter flight to the site might not even be able to take off.

Seeing Stars
'Imiloa Astronomy Center can arrange for a handful of individuals or couples a year to visit the Mauna Kea Observatories, accompanied by an astronomer. A tax-deductible contribution is requested. Contact Gloria Chun Hoo at 'Imiloa for details (808-969-9705).


Aboriginal Artifacts
Take a private tour of Adelaide's South Australian Museum, which has the most comprehensive collection of Australian Aboriginal artifacts—as well as the best opalized fossil collection—in the world. The museum's indigenous-culture expert will show you around, and you'll also visit an off-site warehouse full of items, including thousands of boomerangs and spears from across Australia. Finally, you'll stop at Marshall Arts, a gallery that specializes in contemporary Aboriginal pieces. Cost: $1,415, including lunch. Source: Drew Kluska, Outback Encounter (61-8-8354-4405;; BEST FOR: Those who don't have the time for a trip into the Outback but who want a taste of Aboriginal life. BUT BEWARE: Gazing at stack after stack of artifacts can be overwhelming if you don't have at least a passing knowledge of (or a passion for) the culture.

Challenge a Champion
Play table tennis with Zhang Yining, the current women's team and singles Olympic champion. You'll spend 60 to 90 minutes playing a few rounds, with time for photo ops and a chat about her Olympic experience. Your visit will include a tour of the facility where Olympic badminton and martial arts hopefuls also train, and the chance to meet and speak with the center's staff and coaches. Cost: $16,500; also available is a similar experience with Wang Tao, the '92 Barcelona Olympics doubles champion, for $9,800, and a two-hour lesson with Wang Tao's former coach for $500. Source: Guy Rubin, Imperial Tours (888-888-1970;; BEST FOR: Those who want bragging rights—how many people can claim to have played an Olympic champion? BUT BEWARE: Because of her rigorous training schedule, Zhang Yining has limited availability January through September.

Opera Starring You
Attend a training school to learn about Peking opera, a traditional art form that combines music, singing, mime, dance, martial arts, and acrobatics. Recruited students attend in lieu of junior high and high school, and you'll visit some of their classes, talk with teachers and students, and watch an acrobatics training session before donning a traditional costume and elaborate makeup to try your hand at a musical piece or dance. Cost: $1,100. Source: Gerald Hatherly, Abercrombie & Kent (852-2865-7818;; BEST FOR: Anyone with a flair for the dramatic and the performance bug; to prep, watch Chen Kaige's epic Farewell, My Concubine. BUT BEWARE: Visits are restricted during exam periods (Dec. and late May–early June), the Chinese New Year holiday, and summer break (July–Aug.).

A Royal Birthday Bash
Attend the birthday party of Crown Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, the first openly gay member of India's royal class. Held at the prince's ancestral palace outside Mumbai, the two-day celebration is a festival of India's art, music, and food, with live entertainment and a socially diverse and international guest list—including artists, Indian celebrities, and often several Bollywood actors. You'll also be granted a short visit with the prince himself. Varying with the Indian calendar, the birthday festival is held on a weekend in September or October. Cost: $1,800, including two nights' accommodation and a $500 donation to the prince's charity dedicated to HIV/AIDS education and prevention. Source: David Rubin, DavidTravel (949-723-0699;; BEST FOR: Social, high-energy types who are enthralled with India's culture and want an immersion in it like no other. BUT BEWARE: This experience is not for wallflowers—you'll need to introduce yourself to other partygoers and be comfortable in a crowd of strangers.

Spend a morning at a tea plantation in Shizuoka or Uji—two of Japan's most renowned tea-growing regions—with a tea expert and an English interpreter. You'll walk the fields, learning how to select and handpick the leaves. You'll also tour the processing plant to see how the leaves are dried and packed, learn about different grades and types of tea, and, if you like, take part in a tea ceremony. Cost: $2,600, including transportation by bullet train and private car. Source: Ashley Isaacs Ganz, Artisans of Leisure (800-214-8144;; BEST FOR: Passionate tea quaffers interested in learning the fine points of sencha and gyokuro. BUT BEWARE: Though this trip is available year-round, try to time yours to when the leaves are being harvested (late April–early May).

Mastering Manga
Take a two-hour private lesson with a master of manga (Japanese comics, the print version of anime), a passion of Japan's pop culture. You'll learn to draw the cartoon figures' expressive eyes and distinctive hair with an instructor from Kyoto Seika University, and have a private tour of the Kyoto International Manga Museum with a curator and translator. Cost: $1,200. Source: Ashley Isaacs Ganz (see also "Teatime," Japan). BEST FOR: Families with kids in their early teens, who are likely already fascinated by manga and anime. BUT BEWARE: This is not Manga 101—you should have some familiarity with the art's aesthetic before you attempt to draw your own.

Power to the People
Spend two days with Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, the winner of the prestigious 2007 Goldman Environmental Prize and a 2008 National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Just a few years ago, Munkhbayar was a yak herdsman on the steppes of Mongolia when he founded the Onggi River Movement, a grassroots environmental organization working against 37 gold mining companies with operations in the Onggi Basin. Thanks to his work, all but one of the companies have shut down operations, and the once-dry river is now flowing again. You'll drive along the Onggi with Munkhbayar and visit the reseeding projects he's initiated to prevent erosion along the banks. Cost: $7,000, including a donation to the Onggi River Movement. Source: Jalsa Urubshurow, Nomadic Expeditions (609-860-9008;; BEST FOR: Greenies who want one-on-one time with a true hero of the grassroots environmental movement. BUT BEWARE: The river and reseeding projects are much more impressive in spring and summer.

Birds of Prey
Spend two days with a Kazakh eagle trainer as he prepares for the annual Golden Eagle Festival. You'll learn how the hunter improves his bird's speed and accuracy and will spend time with his family as they tend livestock and construct a ger (you can even stay in one). Cost: $4,500. Source: Jalsa Urubshurow. BEST FOR: Travelers who want a glimpse of the routine of daily life for traditional Turkic people. BUT BEWARE: Accommodations are fairly basic.

The Art of War
Spend a day learning about Maori warfare and weaponry. Your guide, a descendant of a legendary Maori war chief, will take you to a historic fortified village (where you'll tour some private homes) to learn about the 5,000 Maori who lived at the site—and about the times of war and the tactics used to defend it against rival tribes. Next, you'll visit the Auckland Museum, where an expert in Maori art will show you different kinds of weaponry and explain the designs on them. After lunch, your day will end in a sea-cliff cave, where you will undergo a traditional wero challenge (to ascertain whether you, the visitor, came for war or for peace) and will have the chance to learn how to use the rakau (fighting stick). Cost: $1,050. Source: Donna Thomas, New Zealand Travel (215-741-5155; BEST FOR: Travelers who have some knowledge of Maori culture and want an in-depth exploration of it. BUT BEWARE: You must be able to walk 30 minutes—on sand—to reach the cave where the wero challenge takes place.

Costume Party
Score an exclusive invite (attendance is by invitation of the mayor only) to the Grand Masquerade Ball in Rijeka during Carnival. Each year, the mayor symbolically hands over the keys to the city to the master of ceremonies, who leads Rijeka in outrageous revelry for several days before Lent. At the ball, held in the seventeenth-century Governor's Palace, you'll mingle with heads of state, politicians, ambassadors, and representatives from around the world. The next day, watch from the City Hall balconies as the parade of colorful delegations from around Croatia and as far away as Japan goes by. Cost: $3,400, including three nights' accommodation, breakfast, airport transfers, and a donation to the Grand Ball Charity of the Year. Source: Wanda S. Radetti, Tasteful Croatian Journeys (718-932-6893;; BEST FOR: Party people who want an upscale, old-world alternative to New Orleans or Rio. BUT BEWARE: You'll need to have elaborate costumes and masks made that relate to the year's theme.

Husky Helper
Spend a day at a husky breeding and training farm in Saariselkä, 150 miles above the Arctic Circle. You'll get to follow the caretakers as they feed and groom the farm's 250 dogs, and drive a team of six huskies. Cost: $1,800, including one night's accommodation and all meals. Source: David Rubin (see also "A Royal Birthday Bash," India). BEST FOR: Those with some prior large dog experience—although you will of course get husky instruction. BUT BEWARE: You'll be outdoors in frigid temperatures.

Art on the Riviera
Take a VIP tour of the art scene in St-Paul-de-Vence, a famous artists' colony outside Nice. You'll start at the private home of the owner of Angle Gallery, one of the most respected sources of modern and contemporary art in town. Here you'll see pieces by Warhol, Cézanne, Miró, and David Lachapelle. After lunch at La Colombe d'Or, the restaurant's owner will show you his own art collection and explain how his grandfather and father acquired the pieces from Picasso, Matisse, Utrillo, and other artists. Cost: $750, including a three-course lunch with wine. Source: Anthony Bay, Abercrombie & Kent (33-4-92-35-59;; BEST FOR: Lovers of twentieth-century art who want to admire works without being pressured into buying. BUT BEWARE: This experience is available only from April through October.

Looking Good
Take a private tour of the Paris fashion world with a guide who specializes in the history of fashion. You'll start with a VIP visit to an haute couture fashion house such as Chanel (the exact boutique will vary based on availability), where you'll be greeted by the manager and given a behind-the-scenes tour. Then you'll visit the Pierre Bergé–Yves Saint Laurent Foundation and have access to the private archives of the famous designer. The final stop will be Louis Vuitton's flagship boutique. Cost: $3,020, including afternoon tea. Source: Anthony Bay (see the preceding). BEST FOR: Fashion addicts who care about today's styles and where they came from. BUT BEWARE: Dress appropriately (no sneakers); many shops close in August.

Bohemian Rhapsody
Dine with Fürstin (a princess in Hapsburg nobility) Suzanne Lobkowicz, who lives on her family's lands near Sopron, just across Lake Neusiedl from Austria. Her Szechenyi ancestors (the Fürstin's maiden name) famously led the Magyars against their Turkish occupiers in the seventeenth century; the beautiful Szechenyi Bridge in Budapest is named after them, and there are statues of family members in many Hungarian towns. Her former husband, Fürst Ottokar Lobkowicz (now deceased), came from another famed Bohemian family with a castle north of Prague. The Fürstin can tell you about her years in Geneva while the Communists ruled Hungary, her work as a horse trader and farmer, and her son's Ludmilla winery, as well as centuries of aristocratic family history. Cost: From $1,025. Source: Ellison Poe, Poe Travel (800-727-1960; BEST FOR: Aficionados of the much-celebrated House of Hapsburg. BUT BEWARE: Do your homework so that you sound reasonably knowledgeable in the presence of this elegant princess.

A Feast of Flowers
Participate in the town of Spello's Corpus Domini celebration. Each year on a designated date in late spring, the feast is marked by laying extravagant floral carpets (infiorate) over the streets. Floral artists create larger-than-life depictions of religious themes or re-creations of sacred art using only the petals and seeds, laboring all night on the eve of the Infiorata, when the Host is carried through the streets in a procession. On Saturday night, you will be able to work on the murals with the flower artists, and on Sunday morning, you will watch the procession from the private palazzo of one of Spello's most respected families. Cost: $2,200. Source: Maria Gabriella Landers and Brian Dore, Concierge in Umbria (212-769-4767;; BEST FOR: People who respect and are intrigued by ancient traditions in Italy's villages. BUT BEWARE: Participating in the entire experience means going to bed late and rising early the next day—don't plan on getting a good night's sleep.

The Bag Lady
Design your own leather handbag with Laura Gori, president of the Leather School of Florence. Once you've chosen the leather (options include calf, lambskin, deer, ostrich, python, and alligator), colors, threads, pockets, closings, and decorations for the bag, your creation will be handcrafted by a master artisan. Cost: From $1,100, depending on the materials. Source: Giuseppe Massa, Tuscany by Tuscans (39-0572-70467;; BEST FOR: Fashion enthusiasts with a real appreciation for artisanal traditions. BUT BEWARE: Brand-name snobs need not apply; a custom-made creation costs at least as much as a Prada but lacks the bragging-rights hardware. And don't expect instant gratification—your finished bag will be mailed to you and might take up to six weeks if the desired materials are not in-house. This experience is not available on weekends in August.

Fashion House
Tour the Pucci Palazzo, the family home of the late designer Emilio Pucci and the current residence of his brother, Puccio. The palazzo, by the same architect who designed the facade of the Pitti Palace, has been lived in by the Pucci family since its construction in the sixteenth century—one of a very few Florentine palazzi still owned by the original family. The charming Marchese Pucci will greet you and may join you on your tour of his home, during which you'll view the antiques-filled common areas and the family's personal effects, as well as art that stemmed from the Puccis' patronage of Florentine artists since the fifteenth century. Cost: $1,485, including guide and driver. Source: Maria Gabriella Landers and Brian Dore, Concierge in Umbria (see also "A Feast of Flowers," Italy). BEST FOR: Italian art and architecture buffs. BUT BEWARE: Those more interested in fashion than in architecture may be disappointed; the focus is on the palazzo itself rather than its famous former resident. Also, the elderly marchese's health will determine whether he's able to join you for the tour of his home.

Insider Politics
Take a private behind-the-scenes tour of the Campidoglio (City Hall)—the center of Rome's political life—accompanied by both a historian with extensive knowledge of Roman history and art and a uniformed Campidoglio official. You'll spend half a day visiting the mayor's private offices and rooms in the Campidoglio, which are furnished with rarely seen art from across the centuries, and admiring the view of the Roman Forum from the mayor's private terrace. Your visit also includes a guided tour of the Campidoglio Museums, where some of ancient Rome's most prized art is housed. Cost: $2,400. Source: Maria Gabriella Landers and Brian Dore (see also "A Feast of Flowers," Italy). BEST FOR: Politics junkies, but the visit is worthwhile for the view of the Forum alone. BUT BEWARE: This is available only on days when the mayor is not in his office and no ceremonies are being held; it can be confirmed only a couple of days in advance; and maximum group size is four people.

Boys to Men
Visit the Maltese Chapel at the Suvorov Military Academy, Russia's equivalent of West Point. The academy is part of St. Petersburg's Vorontsov Palace, built by the famous Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli in the mid-eighteenth century. The chapel was added by fellow Italian Giacomo Quarenghi in 1800 for Czar Paul I. Since 1810, the Suvorov has admitted talented 13-year-old boys and trained them to become the country's military elite. Although the academy is closed to the public, you'll be ushered through as a guest of the chaplain, Father Alexandr. Cost: $1,000 as a donation to the Children's Hospice (founded by Father Alexandr, it provides support for terminally ill children and their parents). Source: Greg Tepper, Exeter International (800-633-1008;; BEST FOR: Families—especially those with precocious teenage boys—interested in a living piece of Russian history that survived the Soviet era. BUT BEWARE: Large sections of the academy are inaccessible in August, when the cadets are on summer break.

Art of the Ottomans
Take a private class with Leman Dinçtürk, the country's leading miniaturist. This Turkish art was most prevalent in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and few artists continue to produce it today. The style involves straight lines, bright colors, and—in opposition to Islamic tradition—human figures. (The name refers to the details in the paintings, not to the size of the works themselves.) The main characters in Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk's novel My Name Is Red are miniaturists in the Ottoman Empire. You'll spend several hours watching Dinçtürk work and learning about the tradition; then you'll try your own hand at watercolors rather than the more difficult inks that she uses. Cost: $1,540. Source: Earl Starkey, Sophisticated-Travel (212-409-9587;; BEST FOR: Ottomaniacs—this is one of the few aspects of the secretive Ottoman culture that is still in existence. BUT BEWARE: Easel newbies need not apply; the lesson, which lasts five hours, will be exhausting for those without some prior art training.

Middle Class Tax Cut May Come Soon

NEW YORK ( -- Remember all the talk during the presidential campaign about a middle-class tax cut? It could be showing up in your paycheck early next year.

As the debate heats up over how to pull the economy from the ledge, it's likely that tax cuts for the middle-class will play a central role.

President-elect Barack Obama hopes to have a massive economic stimulus plan waiting for his signature when he takes office on Jan. 20. It's expected to include hundreds of billions in spending on infrastructure and green energy, but he also made clear last week that he wants it to also feature tax cuts to lower- and middle-income Americans.

Tax cuts are "part and parcel of what we need when it comes to stimulus," Obama said last week.

"We're going to be putting money in people's pockets so that they can spend on buying a new computer for their kid's school, so that they can, you know, make sure that they are able to deal with heat and groceries and all the other strains on the family budget," he added.

The long-term benefit, in his view: It would create more fairness in the tax code.

One promise he made but may hold off on for awhile: the reversal of some of the Bush tax cuts for high-income taxpayers, who are roughly defined as individuals making more than $200,000 and couples making more than $250,000. Specifically, Obama has said he would increase the top two income tax rates and the capital gains rate to their pre-2001 levels.

Mindful that a tax increase during a recession might do more harm than good, he and his advisers have left open the possibility that they might wait to implement the increases until 2011, rather than next year. "Whether [the tax rate changes are] done through repeal or whether that's done because the Bush tax cuts are not renewed is something that my economic team will be providing me a recommendation on," Obama said at a press conference last week.

Tax cut considerations

Some economists think tax cuts for the middle class might be one way to create or save some of the 2.5 million jobs Obama has promised over the next two years if lawmakers put together the kind of stimulus package he envisions.

Others say it's a bad idea.

"It would be a serious mistake to enact tax cuts aimed at increasing already excessive consumption," wrote Stephen Roach, chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, in the New York Times last week. "The Obama administration needs to encourage the sort of saving that will put consumers on sounder financial footing and free up resources."

So what kind of tax cuts are being considered? Obama's transition team isn't offering details yet and one Democratic aide on the Hill told that specifics have not yet been discussed.

But in talking about his economic recovery package, Obama has mentioned his campaign promise to offer a "net tax cut" for "95% of American workers."

One option that could get Obama a good way toward that 95% is his proposed Making Work Pay credit -- a centerpiece promise in his campaign. The credit would essentially work as a payroll tax credit equal to $500 for individuals and $1,000 for couples.

The credit would have an income threshold. Only those making $75,000 or less ($150,000 or less for couples) would get the full credit. Individuals making between $75,000 and $85,000 (and couples making between $150,000 and $170,000) would get a partial credit.

The credit also would be refundable, meaning that even tax filers without any tax liability -- typically very low-income workers -- would receive one.

Rather than mail out checks to consumers, the IRS, together with employers, could coordinate a change in how much money is withheld from workers' paychecks, so they'd simply get a bigger paycheck.

Economist Mark Zandi, however, believes a payroll tax credit like the kind Obama has proposed could be tricky to implement because it's based on income. As a result, it could take longer to take effect than, say, an across-the-board payroll tax holiday -- a temporary suspension of the payroll tax viewed by some as another way to boost spending.

"Under the Obama payroll tax credit, payroll and other accounting software would have to be recoded and implemented across many businesses," said Zandi, chief economist for Moody's

Even though the short-term impact of such a credit could be muted, it has more potential bang for the buck in the long run than a tax holiday.

"A payroll tax credit would provide more of a spending boost since it is a permanent change in the tax code," Zandi said. "Households are more likely to spend a tax cut if it is the result of a permanent change rather than a temporary one." To top of page

Geek Hotels that Pass the Nerd Test

By Brita d'Agostino and Lewis Wallace Write to the Author

Whether your fantasy hotel is a Star Wars-style cave dwelling or a Hobbit hole in New Zealand, specialty accommodations around the world will fulfill your nerdy needs.

Other hotels geek out with crazy gear, from Apple- and Microsoft-themed suites to virtual golf courses. And while WiFi has become a common hotel offering, a high-tech hotel in the Middle East extends internet access all the way to its private beach.

These and other specialty accommodations make's list of top geek hotels.

Hôtel Sidi Driss, Matmata, Tunisia

Above: The Tunisian town of Matmata is riddled with troglodyte dwellings, vertical caves dug out by humans and turned into homes. The Hôtel Sidi Driss is one such desert delight.

Geek factor: Does the cave hotel look strangely familiar? The interior was used as a Star Wars filming location — it's the Lars' homestead on Tatooine.

Ten more here

Europe Backs Super Grids

Wind boost: This wind farm in Galicia, Spain, is among the developments that make Spain the largest wind-power producer in Europe. Europe’s goal of reaching 20 percent renewable power by 2020 will require new transmission links to balance wind’s fluctuating power output with conventional power sources across large regions. A new link between Spain and France will help.
Credit: Arnejohs

Last month, the European Commission (EC) called for construction of regional electric transmission connections across the North Sea, around the Baltic region, and around the Mediterranean Sea, to distribute solar and wind power to and across Europe. It's all part of a plan to boost renewable energy from 8.5 percent of European energy consumption to 20 percent by 2020--and even more thereafter.

But the EC, the European Union's executive body, acknowledges that getting these so-called supergrids built will mean forging new agreements between European countries for transmission planning and investment--much as the United States needs more cooperation between states to, for example, move wind power from the Midwest to major cities. "The wind power which consumers demand cannot be delivered without new networks," the EC report says, and "there is little strategic planning" between nations to build the required connections.

However, several recent developments suggest that progress on transmission between European nations is possible. This summer, for example, a negotiator appointed by the EC convinced France to accept a new transmission connection with Spain, breaking a 15-year impasse over expanding power exchanges between the countries. Use of high-voltage DC (HVDC) technology will enable planners to bury the new line and thereby overcome local opposition to conventional overhead AC transmission lines.

The French-Spanish connection will help both countries balance power supply and consumption--especially Spain, which struggles at times to accommodate its installations of highly variable wind power, the largest in Europe. EC negotiator Mario Monti estimated that the link, called an interconnection, would reduce reliance on the countries' least efficient power plants, thus avoiding 1.5 million tons per year of carbon-dioxide emissions (roughly the annual emissions of 600,000 cars).

Christian Kjaer, CEO of the European Wind Energy Association, a Brussels-based trade group, calls it a "major breakthrough" that shows how Europe can overcome entrenched opposition to such interconnections. "It's a good example of why we need more than a national approach," says Kjaer.

Meanwhile, proposals for HVDC grids to deliver clean power from offshore wind farms to European consumers are getting more detailed. In September, for example, Brussels-based environmental consulting firm 3E mapped out a blueprint for what a North Sea offshore wind-power grid might look like. In 3E's design, 3,500 miles of underwater HVDC cables crisscross the North Sea, forming a network capable of hooking up 68,000 megawatts' worth of new offshore wind farms--enough generating capacity to meet 13 percent of the region's power consumption.

Still, political challenges remain. Kjaer points to a set of wind farms for Kriegers Flak, a shallow sandbar in the Baltic where the territorial waters of Denmark, Sweden, and Germany converge. Each country plans to build three of the world's largest offshore wind farms--up to 640 megawatts each, about the size of a medium-size coal plant--within a few miles of each other, yet without coordinated transmission. "They are talking about taking one grid into Sweden, and one into Germany, and then you have the Danes," says Kjaer. "It makes no sense."

A coordinated link, Kjaer says, would cost less to build than three separate lines, and would provide considerable extra value by linking Northern Germany's variable wind-power production with Sweden's hydropower riches. Germany could export excess wind power to Sweden via a Kriegers Flak interconnection when it has more than it can absorb, then import hydropower from Sweden when the wind dies down. The EC has appointed a mediator--as it did for the French-Spanish interconnection--to work on the issue.

Such efforts could pave the way to an entirely fossil-free power supply in Europe, much as Al Gore has proposed for the United States. Modeling by Gregor Czisch, an energy consultant in Kassel, Germany, shows that in theory, Europe and North Africa can source all of their electricity from renewable sources using a supergrid with conventional HVDC lines that can shift power thousands of miles with minimal losses. In this vision, wind power provides 70 percent of Europe and North Africa's energy needs, and Scandinavian hydropower serves as the backup battery, while African solar farms and distributed biomass-fueled power plants play supporting roles.

Notably missing from the supergrid vision? A role for the conventional power plants that provide most of today's power. "The utilities are thinking about the supergrid," says Czisch, "but not too fast." Czisch says that the utilities prefer a short-term approach to transmission planning that is more protective of their existing investments, whereas the public needs a bold new approach to planning at a European or at least regional level: "We really need an independent organization which can do the calculations necessary."

First Light Driven Nano Machine

Photon power: This photonic circuit includes a new light-driven nanomechanical resonator. Pictured in the inset scanning-electron-microscope image, this nanoscale silicon beam oscillates when laser light shines on it, modulating the light signal carried through the circuit.
Credit: Hong Tang/Yale University

Since the 1980s, researchers have used lasers to stop molecular vibrations, so that the molecules can be observed in their natural environment. Now researchers at Yale University have used the same kind of nanoscale optical force to control an integrated circuit. Their device could form the basis of fast, low-power optical chips, just as transistors are the building blocks of today's electronic circuits. The new device, a light-driven nanoresonator, could also be used as an extremely sensitive chemical detector. The work is a major landmark in uniting mechanical and optical forces at the nanoscale.

Chips that use light instead of electrons to carry data should be faster and consume less power than traditional integrated circuits. But so far even the fastest optical chips have incorporated electrical elements called modulators. These modulators encode light with data by converting the signal from light into electrons and back again. This extra step makes optical chips complex and drains power. A circuit developed by Yale researchers led by electrical-engineering professor Hong Tang incorporates a modulator that's driven by light, not electrons.

The Yale group began its work by creating a silicon optical chip. To make the modulator, they etched a small portion of the waveguide, the thin silicon road along which the photons travel, into a 500-nanometer-wide bar. This silicon beam, which is suspended from the chip's surface so that it can flex, has two functions. It both carries the optical signal and modulates it. Tang and his colleagues sent a light signal through the integrated circuit, then shone laser light onto the nano-optical modulator, causing it to oscillate up and down. These oscillations modulate the speed of the light traveling through the beam.

The Yale team is the first to demonstrate the existence of this optical force on an integrated circuit--and the first to exploit it to make a working device. "The light force can be put to real use," says Tang. His group has also demonstrated that it can make arrays of hundreds of working resonators on a single chip.

Optical tweezers have been very useful for manipulating free-floating nanoscale objects in solution, but they're very complex, requiring a high-power laser and an entire benchtop. Although it still requires input from a laser that isn't yet integrated on the chip, the Yale setup is simpler than that required for optical tweezers.

Described in the journal Nature, the Yale circuit "represents a technical breakthrough," says Columbia University mechanical-engineering professor James Hone. "It opens up a new way to make opto-mechanical switches that can reroute one optical signal using another." Hone says that such devices could be the building blocks of optical circuits. Adam Cohen, a professor of chemistry, chemical biology, and physics at Harvard, agrees--as long as making these devices proves compatible with standard semiconductor processing. The traditional approach, which involves converting the optical signal into an electrical one and back again, "slows things down and is more complicated," Cohen says.

Because the mechanical oscillation of the beam changes the way that light flows through it in a measurable way, the beams could be developed into very sensitive chemical sensors, says Hone. The Yale group has not demonstrated a chemical sensor. In theory, however, arrays of the on-chip silicon oscillators could be decorated with antibodies that bind blood proteins characteristic of diseases such as cancer. If a blood sample placed on the chip contained a small amount of the protein, it would bind to the silicon beam, changing the frequency of its oscillations--and thereby causing a measurable change in the speed of light carried through it. Other nanoscale sensors work on a similar principle, picking up differences in the flow of electrical current through oscillating silicon beams or carbon nanotubes when they bind to molecules of interest. Optical resonators might be even more sensitive, says Hone, because optical devices are "better behaved," giving clearer signals than electrical devices do.

However, such applications are many years away. The device is still in very early development in Tang's lab, where his group is refining its mechanical properties.

Amazon aims at Content Delivery

Credit: Technology Review

Amazon has become a major player in cloud computing in recent years. Many Web startups have come to rely on its pay-as-you-go hosting and computing services rather than investing in costly and complex infrastructure of their own. The newest offering from Amazon Web Services, called Cloudfront, may provide insight into Amazon's long-term business model. This new product offers companies that are already hooked on Amazon storage and processing the ability to distribute their content and thus make themselves more stable and reliable.

Cloudfront is a distributed content-delivery network. It improves the performance of a website by strategically placing copies of that site's content on servers around the world. A user of such a site who is located in Europe, for example, might see an improvement in performance by loading that data from a European server, rather than from the original server hosted in the United States.

The giants of content delivery--companies like Akamai and Limelight--need a lot of infrastructure, not to mention clever algorithms, to provide services to massive Internet companies such as Google and Microsoft, and this makes it difficult for new entrants to challenge them. Amazon has servers dotted around the world and says only that it has "invested significantly" in building capacity for Cloudfront.

However, rather than take on the giants of content delivery directly, the new service is a fairly simple add-on to the company's existing storage solution, Amazon S3 (Simple Storage Service). "[Customers] asked us for a service that complemented Amazon S3's high-durability storage with even higher performance delivery, by storing and delivering popular content from edge locations close to where their customers make requests," says a company spokesperson. "That is why the service was built."

Cloudfront reflects the fact that it is basically an extension of an existing solution in that it offers a fairly basic content-delivery service. The infrastructure can be used to distribute large files but not live streaming video, and it is not as large or complex as the content-delivery network offered by Akamai, for example. However, Amazon says that other features are on the way, again as an outgrowth of existing uses of Amazon infrastructure. "We intend to add streaming in later versions of the service," the spokesperson says. "Many Amazon Web Services customers already use Amazon EC2 [Elastic Compute Cloud] to stream content live or on demand."

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The customers that Amazon has chosen to test Cloudfront give some clue to the target audience. Woot, an e-commerce site that offers a different deal every day, is using the service to cope with spikes in traffic that occur right when a new deal is posted. "We're not [photo-sharing site] Flickr," says Woot's retail IT director Luke Duff. "We're just doing our sale images for products. As far as performance, we only really care about the current day's items." Since Woot already used other features of Amazon Web Services, he says, it just made sense to try Cloudfront, especially since the cost was "quite a bit less" than other services that the company investigated. And because of the site's volatile traffic patterns, pay-as-you-go works well for Woot, Duff adds.

Amazon isn't the only company hoping to fill this niche in content-delivery networks with a pay-as-you-go business model. Voxel, based in New York, has offered, for about a year, pay-as-you-go content delivery, including support for streaming video. Voxel CEO Raj Dutt says that he expects pay-as-you-go content delivery to appeal particularly to customers with unpredictable traffic patterns.

James Staten, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, believes that Cloudfront is likely to attract startups that are new to using content-delivery networks. But this might not be a bad thing for more-established players. "If I was Akamai, I wouldn't be too worried," Staten says. "Because [Cloudfront] is a limited implementation, it becomes a nice on-ramp for customers, when they mature, to move up to Akamai." Growing companies may eventually move on, he says, because "the value of a content-delivery network is directly related to how many locations it provides you." More-established content-delivery companies are currently much better than Amazon at providing sophisticated access to a wide variety of locations, Staten says.

But even though Amazon Cloudfront may be less sophisticated, Staten says that Amazon's popular S3 and EC2 products are "absolutely" going to draw companies into trying Cloudfront and any other add-ons that Amazon develops in the future. "If you're drinking the Kool-Aid and the experience is good," Staten says, "there's no point in not trying the additional services that they make available to you."

The First Micro Video Projectors Compared

Two Pocket Projectors: Sean Captain

Having watched the slow development of pocket projectors for years, I'm thrilled to have not one but two real-life models to play with. 3M's MPro110 ($360) debuted in September and earned a grand award in our Best of What's New roster for 2008. This week, Optoma will start selling the first competing product, its Pico PK-101 projector, for $400.

In two or three years, we'll probably look back at these first contenders with the same nostalgic chuckle that we reserve for 56K modems or the brick-like first-gen iPod. But now is the time of wonderment at the birth of a fun new product category. Each of these projectors delivers the wow factor, and they are equally good performers, although in different ways.

3M's model, with its utilitarian, pale-gray plastic case, looks like a 1970s prototype rather than a 21st-century shipping product. You won't get many style points for carrying it around. But one of those utilitarian features, a VGA adapter for laptops, makes it the natural choice for a lot of customers--and not just people who can only speak in PowerPoint. The laptop link would be equally handy for showing DVDs or Hulu broadcasts, for example. The big, ugly focusing knob up front also provides an advantage: It's easy to grip for making fine adjustments. (The Pico's elegantly recessed focus dial is hard to get at.)

Optoma's Pico wins the beauty contest. In fact, there is no contest. The sleek, black-metal case with silver trim looks like it came, if not from the future, then at least from the present. At 2 x 4.1 x 0.7 inches, it's 30 percent smaller than the already tiny 3M model, and at 4 ounces, it's 1.6 ounces lighter. Yet that tighter package makes room for a handy extra feature: a little half-watt speaker. Though feeble, at least it takes the Pico beyond the days of silent movies. (The best plan with either projector is to plug headphones or speakers into the video source, such as an iPhone.) But Optoma doesn't include a VGA port. The only input (also present on the 3M) is a composite video plug for devices like cameras, camcorders and iPods or iPhones (an adapter for Apple's handhelds is included). It's useless with most laptops: Only a handful have composite or S-Video ports.

Performance-wise, the battle is a draw. 3M has higher resolution. Its 640-by-480 projection matches standard-def TV and is twice as high as the Optoma's 480-by-320. But the difference isn't so dramatic when you're projecting either a little 8-inch image right in front of you or a 50-inch image on a wall five feet away.

In the ultimate overkill, I used as my source the one video device I had at the office: an LG BD300 Blu-ray player loaded with the Ironman disc. After squeezing that 1080p, HD-color feed out the composite port and into the mini projectors, I saw slightly richer color on from the Optoma--for example, in the gold of Tony Stark's metal suit, which looked more like platinum with the 3M.

That wasn't surprising. The Pico, as the first pocket-sized DLP projector, makes images by mixing rapid flashes from red, green and blue LEDs. 3M uses a single white LED that starts out with a lesser color gamut and picks up weaker colors from RGB filters on its LCoS image chip. The quality differences are minor though.

Optoma's image quality drops quite a bit when you shift it from the 11-lumen regular mode to the 6.5-lumen power-save option. Lots of details, sometimes even faces, disappear into the shadows. But that does extend battery life from one hour to almost two. The 3M has a single, bright playback mode that the battery can power for about an hour.

With higher resolution, more inputs and a lower price, the 3M Mpro110 is a slightly better deal. But the Pico has a small advantage in color and portability. Ultimately, it's a thrill to see big, color images popping from your hand using either device.

A Pack of Smokes or a Share of Stock?

I saw a sign for a pack of smokes the other day and it was real close to $7 for a pack of smokey treats. That got me thinking-with markets like they have been, could I easily buy a share of a great company for the same price as a pack of cigarettes. Not possible you say. Well let's take a look shall we.

A quick screen of stocks trading at less than $7 per share with a market capitalization of more than $1 Billion reveals quite a list. In fact, there are 41 companies in the result set. While that does not mean they are all great investments(some are rightfully cheap) you can cetainly find a few gems and pick up a few hundred shares for less than a 4 night vacation for 2.

Here's a sample:

C Citigroup
MOT Motorola
BSX Boston Scientific
XRX Xerox
F Ford
CX Cemex
S Sprint Nextel
MTU Mitsubishi
GM General Motors
M Macy's
TSN Tyson Foods
HIG The Hartford
LPL LG Displays
WIT Wipro

If Detroit brought this Article to Congress, they might just get their money!

2009 Cadillac CTS-V - Front

Once you get your hands on a supercharged 556-horsepower 2009 Cadillac CTS-V, you know that you need a 500-hp 2008 BMW M5 with which to measure it. It's a matter of practical science.

Of course, there's a sizable price difference between the $59,995 CTS-V and the $86,675 M5, and we don't want to get our comparison results skewed by mere money. Maybe we should add the 507-hp 2009 Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG to our science project. Trouble is, this Merc's $86,875 price tag still doesn't put the CTS-V under any pressure.

We had a better idea. We opted for the more nimble 2009 Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG. This compact sedan cranks out only 451 hp, but it weighs almost 400 pounds less than the E63, and its base price of $58,075 rings up about $2,000 cheaper than the CTS-V.

Is the 2009 Cadillac CTS-V a true benchmark in the super sedan category? Measured against the pure performance of the 2008 BMW M5 and the value of the 2009 Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG, we knew the truth would come out.

The Fast-Moving Blue-and-White Target
Cadillac frankly admits that the target for the new CTS-V is the BMW M5, as the blue-and-white roundel has been the bull's eye in this super sedan category since the E60 version of the M5 was introduced in 2004. Say what you will about its SMG automated manual transmission and its iDrive cockpit controller, but there's nothing like the warble of its 500-hp V10 or the athleticism of its chassis. This M5 always manages to perform better than the sum of its parts would suggest.

The M5 has also changed the way car owners in this category think. One of us learned this recently while stopped in a left-turn lane with the M5. A friendly horn toot drew his attention to a brand-new, black-on-black 2009 Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG. Our man expected some kind of fraternal salute from the AMG, as a meeting of two such cars is pretty special, even in Los Angeles. You know, that cool little lift of the chin that rich guys affect.

Instead, the Merc driver casually flipped off our man with a smile and then proceeded to lay down the biggest smoky burnout with his C63 ever seen on a crowded public boulevard in the middle of the day.

So there's that, and you gotta hand it to that C63 driver. He knows that it's all about humiliating the M5 in any way you can. Either that, or our man Magrath just rubbed him the wrong way. (Magrath is like that sometimes.)

Enter the Challengers
We've already tested both the six-speed automatic and six-speed manual versions of the 2009 Cadillac CTS-V and those preliminary tests showed the V-spec's supercharged 6.2-liter V8 has plenty of straight-line performance to challenge the M5's 5.0-liter V10. The Nürburgring-tested brakes and suspension are also first-rate.

Our test car has an automatic transmission, just like the car that set a lap record at the Nürburgring, and it also has a bottom line of approximately $64,160 (official pricing is still forthcoming) thanks to the hard-drive-based navigation system, suede-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, plus high-performance brake rotors.

We've also seen a Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG a time or two prior to seeing one etch a giant number 11 in rubber on Venice Boulevard recently. We love its snarling, AMG-designed 6.2-liter V8 and the telepathic abilities of its seven-speed automatic transmission, but have found the suspension setup that's part of the AMG Performance package too harsh for daily use.

Our C63 test car with the standard suspension has had its price pumped up with metallic silver paint, an iPod integration kit, TeleAid, the P02 Premium Package, the 318 Leather Pack and the 320 Multimedia Package for a total of $66,880.

Power is wasted if you can't wield it with precision or are burdened by weight. Our calculations show that the 4,315-pound, 556-hp CTS-V with 7.8 pounds per horsepower should be the quickest car here, and so it proves to be. The M5's weight-to-power ratio is 8.3 pounds/hp and the C63 checks in with 8.9 pounds/hp in fighting trim.

The CTS-V outpaced its competitors in the sprint to 60 mph with a dominant 4.3-second performance (4.0 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) supplemented by a scorching quarter-mile performance of 12.4 seconds at 114.7 mph. The next quickest to 60 mph proved to be the Mercedes with a 4.5-second tear (4.2 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip), while the BMW stopped the clock in 4.8 seconds (4.5 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip).

The three different transmissions couldn't have behaved more differently, and they definitely influenced the outcome. The M5's seven-speed single-clutch automated manual required perfect throttle/shift coordination for a decent launch, not to mention constant vigilance against redline excess while shifting as well as forgiveness for harsh upshifts. In comparison, the Mercedes' seven-speed automatic obliged consistent launches and seamless shift action, while the Cadillac's six-speed automatic makes the task as easy as the Mercedes, yet it shifts nearly as hard as the BMW.

The quarter-mile finishing order was CTS-V, C63 and M5 just as it was to 60 mph, and 0.2 second separated each car (12.4, 12.6 and 12.8 seconds, respectively). At the end of the quarter-mile, however, the M5 began to reel the others in with a stout trap speed of 115 mph compared to the CTS-V's 114.7 mph and the C63's 112.3 mph.

Getting a 2-ton car to go fast in a straight line is easy; all it takes is horsepower plus big shoes. Making it dance like a sports car is another thing entirely. Both the BMW and Cadillac come standard with driver-adjustable multimode shocks, and the M5 utilizes multivalve dampers with three distinct levels of suspension firmness.

Cadillac uses dampers with specially formulated oil that can vary viscosity within the shock absorber like a $105,000 Corvette ZR1 or $300K Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano to cope with the demands of high-speed driving. The Cadillac's two-mode active system constantly monitors wheel motion and fluctuates between compliance and firmness in milliseconds. It works miraculously well.

The BMW has three-mode adjustment for its suspension. Only in Europe is the C63 available with driver-adjustable dampers. Even so, the taut-riding U.S.-spec C63 (without the spine-jarring $3,990 AMG Performance package) can be driven comfortably every day.

Truth be told, however, both the BMW and Cadillac performed better in their "Normal" settings, especially on the racetrack where chassis control and suspension compliance rule over brutal stiffness. Put to use on our slalom, all three cars were tantalizingly close to the magic 70-mph barrier and equally close to 0.90g on the skid pad. On paper, it was a virtual tie, but the tiebreaker would be found at the Streets of Willow road course.

Track Day for the Roundel
We strapped our VBox satellite-based data-acquisition equipment to each of the three super sedans and let the manmade stars tell us which one was quickest around the 1.8-mile Streets of Willow on a perfect day in the high desert.

With the M5's M-menu selections on maximum performance, we turned our first hot lap in the BMW with its suspension in the firmest setting, but found the car skittish through a couple of the track's undulating, high-speed corners. Knocking down the suspension firmness a notch earned a few tenths of a second. The SMG transmission functioned brilliantly on the kind of road course for which it was designed, ripping upshifts and matched-rev downshifts.

The M5 chassis behaved manageably during the four hot laps our testing protocol called for, but understeer and brakes held it back. As the notes from our logbook record, performance testing on the drag strip had turned up the tendency of the car to lose a little bit of grip as the tires heated up, while the skid pad revealed stubborn understeer at the limit.

To compensate, we reverted to one of the oldest mantras in the racer's rulebook: slow in, fast out. The problem is, this driving technique negated the M5's potential advantage in one crucial part of the track, a high-speed straightaway followed by hard, hard braking and a 90-degree corner. The VBox recorded a top speed of 104.8 mph for the M5 in this section, while the car recorded a best lap of 1:30.36, just 1 second behind the time set by the 2008 Porsche 911 — a remarkable performance for a 4,100-pound sedan.

AMG: All Mighty Goodness
Next, the C63 AMG headed out for its session.

The 4,001-pound car was noticeably more capable in the tight turns and rotated its nose adroitly not only under hard braking but also while powering out of corners. The C63 could've been driven sideways through almost any corner, but a little restraint led to a quicker lap time. The brakes were never an issue, and neither was the seven-speed automatic transmission, which earned near-identical lap times in both full-manual and sport-automatic modes.

We were able to stand on the V8's loud pedal longer in the high-speed section, reaching 104.2 mph before jumping on the unflappable brakes. What the C63 apparently lacked in horsepower, it made up for in braking and control. The result proved to be a lap time of 1:29.53, beating the mighty M5 by almost a full second.

Cadillac? Are You Serious?
Finally, it was the Cadillac's turn. Could it put it all together, or would the CTS-V prove to be a paper tiger?

As with the M5, the CTS-V's first hot lap was timed with the suspension in its firmest setting, but subsequent quicker laps were turned in the softer mode. And though the six-speed automatic has a manual mode, we found both up- and downshifts too slow to arrive and too upsetting to the chassis when they did. As former GM test-driver John Heinricy has advocated, the car's best performance came in automatic mode.

The CTS-V felt almost as if it was loafing around the track. (Not because we felt comfortable — to the contrary, the driver seat was about as supportive as a beach chair.) The supercharged V8 never sounded like it was working hard, the suspension was so good at soaking up bumps that the track felt smoother, and the transmission did all the thinking so we only had to gas-brake-turn, gas-brake-turn, and so on.

And because the maximum-strength CTS has the brakes to match its power, the Caddy flew through the speed trap at a crushing 107.5 mph and stopped on a dime for the approaching corner. Initially we weren't persuaded we had cut a very quick lap, but the downloaded data proved that the Cadillac had recorded a best of 1:29.24, some 0.29 second quicker than the Mercedes and 1.1 seconds quicker than the BMW.

Uh-oh. This is so embarrassing for the Europeans.

It's Academic
If you're looking for the short answer, here it is; the 2009 Cadillac CTS-V is undeniably faster, more nimble and between $27,000 and $32,000 less expensive than the BMW M5 it was designed to beat. The M5's price/performance ratio really penalizes it in this comparison.

Is the CTS-V really better than the C63 AMG? Well, once you look at the score cards, you'll find one 1st-place score in the M5's column (earned in our evaluation category), three 1sts for the CTS-V (features, performance and price), and two for the C63 (editors' personal and recommended picks). The winner would seem a forgone conclusion then. But have a look at the 2nd- and 3rd-place scores.

The C63 snatched four 2nd-place scores to the CTS-V's three 3rds. Because of the way we weight the final scores, the Cadillac ekes out a 1.6-point margin over the Mercedes-Benz. We've declared such close scores an effective tie in the past, but the Cadillac's dominance in measured performance tests plus its uncommon comfort, comprehensive list of features and even best observed fuel economy of this trio combine to earn it our fullest endorsement as the winner of this comparison.

"Sport Sedan Standard of the World" now wears a Cadillac wreath and crest

A European Tax?

Like it or not, there's only one way we're going to be able to pay for our ballooning deficit: a value-added tax.

By Shawn Tully, editor at large
Last Updated: December 2, 2008: 9:27 AM ET
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- It's highly possible, if not inevitable, that Americans will soon live under a radically different tax system - one that the pundits and politicians aren't talking about.

It's called a value-added tax, or VAT, and it's been used for decades to pay the bills and sustain the immense growth of governments around the world, from France to Mexico to Australia. Created in 1954 by a French economist, the VAT is the most potent, efficient machine for revenue generation yet invented.

And if there's one thing the U.S. government needs as the federal budget balloons, it's a ton of new revenue. "The bottom line is that the income tax cannot support the level of spending that's projected, something other countries faced years ago," said Roberton Williams of the Tax Policy Center, a non-partisan research institute. Today the VAT raises almost half of the total government revenue in France, and a similar share in most of the developed world.

The VAT is essentially a sales tax, except that it's charged at each stage in the development of a product instead of at the moment when the product is sold.

Take, for instance, a car with a sticker price of $30,000 and a value-added rate of 10%. Ford might buy its steel and other materials for $8,000 plus $800 in a VAT tax. A dealer then pays $25,000 plus a $2,500 tax for the finished vehicle. Ford takes an $800 credit for the tax it already paid and sends $1,700 to the government. A buyer then pays $30,000 for the SUV and $3,000 in taxes. The dealer collects the $3,000, takes a credit for the $2,500 worth of taxes already paid, and sends $500 to tax authorities. Ultimately, the government pockets $3,000, or 10% of the retail price of the car, in taxes.

The genius of the VAT is that, while the consumer pays it, the actual cash is mostly collected from producers before it reaches the retailer. Since the VAT is essentially a hidden charge embedded in the price of goods and services, raising the VAT doesn't arouse nearly the uproar caused by increasing income taxes.

The ease with which a VAT can be increased points to one of its big drawbacks: Governments see it as an easy way to pay for increased spending, which is a potential drag on economic growth.

Even so, the VAT would be better than the other likely alternative: A higher retail sales tax. If the national sales tax were raised to, say, 20%, consumers would cheat by paying cash to avoid it, and retailers would submit because they'd sell more goods by cutting the price 20%. With the VAT, every step of the manufacturing (and tax collection) process is documented.

Make no mistake: A VAT may be unavoidable in the United States. The reason is that spending is rising far faster than the revenue that can conceivably be generated by the current tax regime.

Keeping the budget afloat

Let's examine the numbers. Under our current tax system, receipts are projected to remain pretty flat, at about 18% to 20% of GDP, far into the future. But spending is slated to rise to 24% of GDP in 2030 and 28% in 2050, excluding interest on the federal debt. If taxes aren't increased enormously, future deficits, and the enormous borrowing they require, will swamp the budget with ruinous interest costs.

Today, the income tax raises around $1.1 trillion, or around 9% of GDP, with payroll and corporate taxes contributing the balance. The deficit now stands at around $580 billion, including the Social Security surplus that's helping to pay the bills. But that surplus is also rapidly disappearing. So to balance the budget, America would need to raise income taxes by 53%, assuming the other taxes remained at current rates.

The gap gets far larger in the future, chiefly due to rapidly rising costs of Medicare and Medicaid. To pay for those costs, we'd need to raise taxes by an extra 2% of GDP. That would require an additional $270 billion in income taxes.

All told, that's a total tax increase of $870 billion, or almost 80%. That's not including the estimated $240 billion cost of President-elect Barack Obama's healthcare plan through 2018.

The rub is that the fiscal pillar America has relied on since 1913 - the federal income tax - can't possibly support the looming new era of spending. All economists agree that when top income tax rates get too high, Americans will work, save and invest less. Tax collections would increase far more slowly than rates, and eventually level off completely.

The VAT may be the only answer. "We're moving towards European levels of spending," said Andrew Biggs, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute "If you go there, you need a more efficient way to raise revenue."

But the VAT, on top of encouraging bigger government budgets, has another problem: Middle class taxpayers would be hit harder by a VAT because they spend more of their income on goods like clothing and cars than high-earners. That's especially distressing to Obama and Democrats, who have pledged to make the tax system far more progressive by raising rates for the wealthiest Americans.

One partial solution would be to exempt staples such as food, gasoline or fuel oil from the VAT and impose extra-high charges on yachts and jewelry. To help middle-class taxpayers, the federal government could also send subsidies to tens of millions of taxpayers based on their incomes. The French, for example, mail checks to families depending on how many children they have.

But given the nature of politics, said Biggs, "the problem is that those rebates might be tied to some social agenda, not to making the system fair."

European governments have typically seen VAT hikes as an easy way to raise revenues during a recession. In some countries, government spending is more than 50% of national income. The results have been fiscal stability, but lackluster growth and a dearth of dynamism and entrepreneurship.

Given the budget numbers, the United States has already chosen a path of far bigger government. The trap has been set. It's unlikely America can escape without a VAT. To top of page

BMW X6 to get First M Turbo Powerplant

Rumors of BMW's M division moving away from its high-revving, naturally aspirated powerplants and towards turbocharged motors have been swirling for some time now, but unlike previous reports, the first model to get such an engine has recently been revealed to be the M-tuned X6, dubbed the xDrive M.

2009 BMW M3

As expected, the reasoning behind the divergence from its traditional engine lineup is a result of increased pressure to improve fuel economy and emission standards. Also playing a role are growing automotive manufacturing costs.

The upcoming xDrive M is expected to utilize a twin turbocharged V-8 making at least 500 hp -- or roughly the same amount of power as the current M5's 5.0L V-10 with better fuel economy and more torque. It's still unclear as to when both the current M3's 4.0L V-8 and its bigger M5 brother will be powered by turbocharged powertrains, but we wouldn't be surprised if it happens fairly soon in their product cycles.

Also in the works at BMW's M performance division are auto start/stop, brake energy regeneration, and hybrid systems designed to bump fuel efficiency ratings.

Source: Autocar

Nissan GT-R Spec V Specifications Leaked

2010 Nissan GT-R Spec-V Specifications Leaked

According to GTRBlog, the new Spec-V variant of the Nissan GT-R will not increase engine output, instead remaining at the 478 horsepower standard on the Series II GT-R. An Overboost button will replace the transmission mode selection button, indicating the Spec-V will be stuck in the "Race" setting. The base price of 15,750,000 yen (approx. $167,849) can be increased to 16,978,000 yen (approx. $180,705) with all options equipped.

According to the leaked specifications, Nissan has attempted to address the GT-R's biggest weakness with the Spec-V model: its weight. The rear seats in the Spec-V are replaced by a carbon fiber shelf, while the grille and rear wing are also replaced with carbon fiber alternatives.

20-inch forged aluminum wheels and an upgraded Bilstein Damptronic suspension package are standard, while Dunlop tires a no-cost option. Other options include a Thatcham alarm system and a Bose audio system upgrade. Ultimate Black Pearl paint is a new 577,500 yen ($6,148) option.

If these specifications are correct, Nissan has decided to forego power modifications altogether-a proposition which goes against other rumors we've heard about a Spec-V tuned to the sound of at least 520 horsepower. Given this list of specifications and pricing, we're not sure the Spec-V offers the same value as the base GT-R (read our review of the 2009 Nissan GT-R), which can be had for 7,770,000 yen (approx. $82,698). We'll have to wait until Nissan releases the official specifications for the 2010 Nissan GT-R Spec-V to find out for sure.

It is unknown whether the Spec-V will be made available stateside, but according to GTRBlog, the 2010 Nissan GT-R Spec-V will be available in Japan on January 8th, 2009.

Source: GTRBlog