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7:29 AM

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Aston Martin One-77 concept set for weekend reveal

Rafay Ansar

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Aston Martin’s ultra-limited One-77 concept is set to be unveiled in the at the Concorso d’Eleganza event in Italy this weekend.

We’ve seen pictures, and a technical cut-away was shown at the Geneva motor show. Now Aston promises everything.

Just 77 copies of the One-77 will be built, and they’ll cost $1.75 million each. Power is drawn from a 7.3-liter V12 that pumps out a 700 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque.

The lithe supercar will check in at 3,300 pounds and hit 60 mph in 3.5 seconds. Top speed should be better than 200 mph.

Just six of the 77 cars will come to the United States.

”This is a major step in One-77’s engineering programme, showing the first complete car and will demonstrate new benchmarks in many different fields of automotive design," Aston Martin Chief Executive Ulrich Bez said.

11:59 PM

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Rolls-Royce revives Ghost nameplate for new sedan

Rafay Ansar

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Rolls-Royce is reaching into its heritage for the name of the new, smaller sedan that's been known as the RR4 and the 200EX until now--the Ghost.

The original Rolls-Royce Ghost was produced from 1906 to 1925, with 7,876 units built in England and Springfield, Mass.

Production of the new Rolls-Royce Ghost will start this fall at the automaker's factory in Goodwood, England. The Ghost will have its own final assembly line, but share the paint, leather and wood workshops with the Rolls-Royce Phantom.

At the Geneva motor show in March, Rolls-Royce said the Ghost would be powered by a twin-turbo 6.6-liter V12 that will be rated at more than 500 hp. The engine will be mated to a ZF eight-speed automatic transmission.

Other Ghost specs:

Overall length: 212.6 inches

Width: 76.7 inches

Height: 61.0 inches

Wheelbase: 129.7 inches

We expect to see production versions of the Ghost, in sedan and convertible form, at the Frankfurt motor show in September.

8:17 AM

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2009 Toyota Venza: a short stint review2

Rafay Ansar

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OUR TAKE: The Venza is a pleasant surprise. We’ve always been fans of station-wagon utility, the sort that doesn’t force you to compromise by having to drive a truck. The same applies here: The trunk easily swallowed up all the goodies from a once-a-month shopping spree at the local everything-under-one-roof store. The sharp exterior is more appealing in person than in photographs, and the interior is well thought out, with quality touch points, materials and controls. The cabin feels quite roomy, though three people might be a little too much for the back seats to accommodate for long hauls. But four adults can ride in this with no problem, and there’s plenty of cargo room to boot.

Fun to drive? Not really, though our test car suffered from an apparent misalignment that caused the Venza to pull to the left constantly; we assumed the problem was not due to some inherent fault of the vehicle. Still, combined with Toyota’s typically over-boosted and artificial-feeling electronic steering, it was irritating. The brakes also feel awful, with a mushy pedal and slow response.

So, enthusiasts should stay away. But buyers in need of a fair amount of utility and practicality wrapped in a stylish skin should add the Venza to their shopping list.

As-tested price: $38,444

Drivetrain: 3.5-liter V6; AWD, six-speed automatic

Output: 268 hp @ 6,200 rpm, 246 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm

Curb weight: 4,045 lb

Fuel economy (EPA): 21 mpg

Options: Premium package 2 including leather seats, four-way power front passenger seat with lumbar support, driver and front passenger seat heaters, satin mahogany wood-grain-style interior trim, leather-wrapped steering wheel, leather-wrapped shift knob with inlay, HID headlights with auto high beam feature, smart-key system with push-button start, power rear door with jam protection, chrome-accented door handles, back-up camera, anti-theft system, color-keyed foldable power heated outside mirrors and windshield wiper de-icer ($4,345); voice-activated touch screen DVD navigation system with JBL Synthesis surround sound AM/FM four-disc in-dash CD changer and integrated satellite radio, MP3/WMA playback capability, hands-free phone capability and music streaming via Bluetooth wireless technology and 13 speakers ($2,590); panoramic glass roof with front power tilt/slide moonroof ($1,050); floor mats ($269); prep package ($220)

11:08 PM

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Ex Ford, Mazda designer to head styling at Renault

Rafay Ansar

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Former Ford Motor and Mazda designer Laurens van den Acker will succeed Patrick le Quement as head of design at French automaker Renault.

Van den Acker, 43, quit as head of design at Mazda earlier this month. He will join Renault on May 15 and assume le Quement's full responsibilities starting on Nov. 1.

Van den Acker, a Dutch native, is an experienced designer who had led Mazda's corporate design since 2006.

Before taking the Mazda post, van den Acker was chief designer for Ford's Escape platform and was based at Ford's design center in Dearborn, Mich. He has also done exterior design work for Audi in Germany and worked with specialist design companies in Turin, Italy and California.

Le Quement, 64, who is retiring, leaves a contrasting history after 22 years steering Renault's design activities.

On the positive side, the French designer was responsible for some of Renault's design successes such as the Twingo city car and the first-generation Scenic, which launched the European compact minivan segment.

But some of le Quement's designs won fans and critics in equal numbers. His second-generation Megane compact hatchback had a bulging rear end that horrified many people, but the car still sold well.

Le Quement's Avantime and Vel Satis luxury cars had distinctive designs that did not go down well with buyers.

Le Quement likely will be most clearly remembered for creating a global network of design centers to help Renault tailor the design of its cars to local markets. He also implemented digital design at the carmaker.

10:34 AM

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Infiniti's new G37 drop-top has distinct appeal

Rafay Ansar

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We're cruising through Beverly Hills, Calif., in the new 2009 Infiniti G37 convertible, top down, sunny day, following a beautiful Ferrari 360 Modena. Up next to us pulls a 40-ish woman with hair so orange it could be on a traffic cone. She is driving a ratty '90s Celica GT convertible, also with the top down. Does she even look at the Ferrari? No. Instead, Carrot Top's sister yells out, "Beautiful car!" and gives a thumbs-up to the Infiniti. She didn't even see the Ferrari.

So, maybe buyers to whom this svelte cabrio appeals will be more interested in style than in performance. Now, the G37 convertible is no slouch in the performance department. It shares a drivetrain and a rear-wheel-drive platform with the magnificent Nissan 370Z. It's powered by a 325-hp, 3.7-liter V6 driving the rear wheels through your choice of a six-speed manual or a seven-speed automatic. We are on record as liking the coupe version of the G and loving the 370Z.

This version is nearly as powerful and graceful under hard tromping as its fraternal coupe twin with the roof, but it's considerably heavier. Curb weight is listed at 4,095 pounds, 453 more than the coupe. When they chopped the top and added all of those trusses and staples to hold the magnificent carcass together, it slowed the whole thing down--not by a huge amount but enough that you won't mistake it for a Z. You might not even mistake it for a G coupe, at least from behind the wheel when you're paying attention to the corners through which you fly.

A more aggressive final drive ratio tries hard to compensate for the added weight. We're estimating 0 to 60 mph at six and a half or seven seconds, given speeds for the lighter G37 coupe and the Z. And the G does hunker down and grip well when it has to. It's just that the sheer mass of it makes it a persnickety grand tourer

We're guessing that none of this matters to buyers likely to get behind the wheel. The car's appeal--to them--is evident when it's just sitting there. It is a stylish and gracious enough beast to behold regardless of how tossable it is.

When that retractable hardtop folds into three pieces of sheetmetal in the trunk in 30 seconds, it goes from a near-coupe look to full open tourer. But once the top is stowed, say good-bye to your trunk space, which shrinks to two cubic feet. An average adult can sit in the back seat, though there's not enough headroom with the top up. The front seats are comfortable and supportive enough for the tasks at hand.

Like the old Mazda RX-7, the G37 convertible has a sound system made just for topless cruising. The 13-speaker Bose system includes speakers in the headrests, as the Mazda did, and noise-compensation technology to limit outside interference. On our drive, it sounded a little front-heavy, despite playing with the fader. You can use it to drown out the compliments you'll get from orange-haired 40-something Jack in the Box workers.

The car goes on sale June 19. Pricing will be announced this month, and we expect it to be in the $40,000-to-$50,000 range. You could buy a lot of orange hairspray for that.

SPECS

ON SALE: June 19

BASE PRICE: $40,000-$50,000 (mfr est)

DRIVETRAIN: 3.7-liter, 325-hp V6; RWD, six-speed manual

CURB WEIGHT: 4,095 lb

0-60 MPH: 6.5-7.0 sec (est)

FUEL ECONOMY: N/A

10:43 AM

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Formula One: Hamilton apologizes, blames suspended team member for incident

Rafay Ansar

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Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton apologized to the FIA, the media and his fans in the aftermath of his disqualification from the Australian Grand Prix results for deliberately misleading race stewards who looked into the events that led to Toyota's Jarno Trulli passing Hamilton behind the safety car with just a few laps remaining in the race.

Hamilton, speaking at a press conference in Malaysia ahead of this weekend's race, also laid blame at the feet of McLaren sporting director Dave Ryan, who the team has suspended for his role in the incident.

"In Melbourne, I had a great race. As soon as I got out the car, I had the television interviews at the back of the garage, and straight away I gave them a good account of what happened during the race," Hamilton said.

"Straight after that, we were requested by the stewards, and while waiting for the stewards, I was instructed and misled by my team manager to withhold information [about a radio conversation regarding letting Trulli by me], and that is what I did. I sincerely apologize to the stewards for wasting their time and for making them look silly. I am very, very sorry for the situation: for my team, for Dave, because he has been a good member of the team for many years, and whilst I don't think it was his intention--he is a good guy.

"I went into the meeting . . . I just wanted to tell the story and say what happened. I was misled and that is the way it went. I would like to say a big sorry to all my fans who have believed in me, who have supported me for years, who I showed who I am for the past three years, and it is who I am. I am not a liar. I am not a dishonest person. I am a team player.

"Every time I have been informed to do something [by the team], I have done it. This time I realize it was a huge mistake and I am learning from it. It has taken a huge toll on me. I apologize to [the media]; I didn't speak to you yesterday, but there was a lot to take in and a lot to deal with. I am here to apologize to everyone and I assure you it won't happen again.

"For me, the situation is definitely the worst thing I've experienced in my life. That is why I am here. It is right for me as a human being and as a man to stand in front of you all and tell you exactly what went on and put up my hands. I cannot tell you how sorry I am. I'm sorry to my team and my family for the embarrassment. It is a very, very embarrassing situation."

2:56 AM

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The next F1: McLaren plans replacement for legendary supercar

Rafay Ansar

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Formula One powerhouse McLaren secretly has begun work on a replacement for its legendary F1 supercar, while it also gears up to become a mainstream sports-car maker.

McLaren's Technology Center in Woking, England, has been building just 100 McLaren SLR supercars a year for Mercedes-Benz, but McLaren boss Ron Dennis reportedly has his sights set on producing 1,000 of its upcoming Ferrari F430-fighting P11s a year starting in 2011. The number, Dennis said, will rise to 4,000 cars by mid-decade as future models such as the Porsche 911-challenging P8 come on line.

At the top of those future models, according to McLaren Automotive Design director Frank Stephenson, will be an all-new version of the F1, the 240-mph exotic that rewrote the supercar rules when it arrived in 1992.

In an interview at the Geneva motor show, Stephenson said he is sketching ideas to replace the legendary Peter Stevens-styled F1. So, while spy photographers have been busy snapping pictures of P11 prototypes, Stephenson has moved on to the challenge of replacing one of the most revered cars in automotive history.

"For the F1 replacement, there are not the restrictions on us, like with P11," Stephenson said. "I am looking at a clean sheet of paper for the F1 replacement, and we are still trying to see what directions we want it to go in, in terms of its design.

"This one will be my influence from start to finish."

Stephenson, who led design for BMW's first Mini, the original BMW X5, the reborn Fiat 500 and the Maserati MC12, said that McLaren has more road cars to come.

"The P11 is the building block for the whole of the McLaren automotive range," he said. "It's really a Ferrari F430 competitor, and there's plenty of room above that."

In spite of its glittering engineering reputation, though, McLaren's automotive division has yet to achieve a commercial success. The original F1 never sold in the numbers McLaren had hoped. Its last project, the Mercedes-Benz McLaren SLR, was equally stunning, but Mercedes has chosen to use its in-house AMG performance division to design and engineer replacements, including the 2011 gullwinged SLS.

With the P8, the P11 and the next F1, McLaren has a chance to change all of that.