Monday, May 16, 2011

Alfa Romeo Giulietta QV

Shear English - Finally, there's a worthy Italian alternative to some of the default hot-hatch choices, writes Bruce Newton. Alfa Romeo has been living on its past glories for some time now. The driving experience promised by some sublime shapes has failed to materialise.

The Giulietta QV is Alfa's latest attempt at Italian soul-stirring. Thankfully, it is neither a rehashed Fiat like the MiTo city car, nor a compromised production version of an exquisite concept such as the Brera coupe.  

Price and equipment
The curvaceous five-door Giulietta replaces the aged 147. The base model is priced from $36,990 (plus on-road and dealer costs) and the Quadrifoglio Verde - or four-leaf clover - version tested here is pitched at a competitive $41,990.

While the name is from Alfa's past, the Giulietta sits on a new platform. The QV leaves no doubt about its intentions, housing a 173kW/340Nm turbocharged 1.7-litre petrol engine.

It combines with a six-speed manual gearbox and some tricky electronics to ensure the front-wheel-drive chassis isn't overwhelmed by all that urge.

Alfa's 'DNA' system manages this electronic suite and can alter engine, braking, steering, stability control and gearbox characteristics depending on the mode. D is for dynamic, N for normal and A is all-weather.

The QV's exterior gets the hot hatch treatment courtesy of 18-inch alloys, red brake calipers, side skirts and two bazooka-like exhaust outlets. Inside there are leather sports seats, Bose audio with MP3 compatibility and a USB port, Bluetooth and aluminium pedals.

The Giulietta is a five-star NCAP performer. It also has six airbags, lap-sash safety belts for all occupants, stability control and anti-lock brakes.  

Under the bonnet
Measuring up at 1.7-litres, the latest iteration of Alfa's TBi double overhead camshaft four-cylinder engine uses direct injection, variable valve timing and variable geometry turbocharging to produce an exceptional 173kW and up to 340Nm (300Nm in N or A mode).

Alfa claims a 0-100km/h time of 6.8 seconds and an average fuel consumption of just 7.6 litres per 100 kilometres. Our long country run into the mountains and back to town produced a very respectable 8.3L/100km average.

Mated to a six-speed manual that shifts sweetly once you adapt to the late clutch take-up, the engine delivers strong acceleration from idle through the middle-rev ranges. It's very smooth too, with no temperament or lag. Shifting to D mode simply adds urgency.

Alfa engines traditionally sing their way into the heavens, prepared to sacrifice some lower-end tractability to do so. But not in this case, with the rev limiter cutting in at just over 6000rpm.

How it drives
The QV employs a 10-millimetre-lowered sports-tuned version of the Giulietta's MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension.

Add big brakes, low-profile rubber and an electronic front differential activated by D mode and this is the most cohesive Alfa driving experience in years. Time and again its sure handling, sensitively tuned electric steering and uncorrupted power delivery remind of the Golf GTI.

It's not as sharp or intimate as the brilliant Megane - not even in D mode - but then, nothing this side of a Ford Focus RS is. Rougher roads do stretch the link to the GTI. The Alfa copes OK but there is a tendency for some bang and crash.

Back in the 'burbs, the QV is lightly manoeuvrable but difficult to see out of. Thankfully, rear parking sensors are standard.  

Comfort and practicality
The QV's dark and deep cabin brings with it a striking new interior design. However, functionality and ergonomics are inconsistent.

We love the red backlit instrumentation tubes that face the driver and the toggle switch controls in the centre stack for things such as foglights. However, the aircon controls seem inspired by the grille of a Toyota FJ Cruiser and there's no turbo boost gauge.

The driver is looked after by a supportive seat and the small three-spoke steering wheel adjusts for reach and rake. But there is no left footrest and the pedal positions seem too high and too far to the right. Reflections from the dash are writ large across the windscreen.

Taller rear-seat passengers will find headroom restricted by the curved roof-line. Exit and entry is restricted by small doors.

If you're sitting behind a 180-centimetre-tall driver, knee-room will also be limited. At 350 litres, boot space is class-competitive, and the split-fold rear-seat ensures much bigger loads fit. Cabin stowage for mobile phones, iPods and the like is limited, if acceptable. 

Online Broking Booming

Shear English - Price is one factor that attracts investors but websites are also offering goodies to help pull in even more punters, writes Bina Brown.

Online brokers are now the preferred trading method for almost half of the country's shareholders. Whether it is a transaction over the internet or via a phone, about 46 per cent of investors use online brokers as their main method of trading, according to the Australian Securities Exchange 2010 Australian share ownership study.

The head of retail distribution at CommSec, Brian Phelps, attributes rising trading volumes online to the growing disenchantment with the advice investors received throughout the global financial crisis?.

"A lot of people have decided to make decisions themselves," Phelps says. "And the beauty of online broking is they can do it in their own time and in their own space; all the tools are there."

With more investors looking to take control of their own investment decisions, competition for your online broking dollar is fierce. But with so much choice, where should you ? start? Independent outfits such as Canstar Cannex provide useful starting points for your own research (see "online trading stars").

Much depends on the type of investor you are or plan to be – whether you wish to buy and sell shares daily, or invest on a multi-year time horizon. And, of course, cost plays its part. The bottom line

While the ASX survey didn't ask what it is about online broking that attracts investors?, independent research suggests price has a lot to do with it.

"Price is important but an online broker has to have a good, reliable service, otherwise it wouldn't get past the starting gate," the? chief operating officer at research house Investment Trends, Tim Cobb, says.

Cobb says its latest online broking report reveals competition is intense between online brokers, which should spur existing providers to improve and innovate, as well as luring new entrants into the industry. All of which is positive for consumers.

And with a lot of investors still sitting on the sidelines, another area of competition is the interest rate ?brokers are prepared to pay ? customers with a linked cash account.

"There has been some very successful and competitive pricing going on between the providers," says Cobb, who adds? that market leader CommSec is doing well to hang on to its 50 per cent market share despite the competition.

After CommSec, 18 per cent of people who use an online broker say they use E*Trade, 8 per cent use Westpac, 7 per cent use National Australia Bank and 5 per cent use Bell Direct.

"If you haven't got the service or the product suite, then people will just get up and walk," Phelps says. He puts the online broker's continuing dominant position down to offering a broader product range to its 1.5 million clients.

CommSec's partnership with the Royal Bank of Scotland in international shares has been a big winner with its clients.

"Brokerage has been very strong because of the genuine interest by Australian investors to get involved in some of the big US companies and pick up some of the exchange-rate differential," Phelps says.

As well as rolling out a new website in the coming months, CommSec will be unveiling new offerings to its high-value customers including better research and charting to support its contracts for difference (CFD) and option-trading clients.

Cost is clearly a consideration to Westpac Online Investing, which recently slashed its brokerage from $24.95 to a starting rate of $19.95 for those customers who also hold their cash with the bank.

"Not only has brokerage become competitive but cash is an attractive proposition," the head of Westpac Online Investing, James Staltari says.

The 5.65 per cent interest paid by Westpac Online Investing is made up of a flat rate of 4.75 per cent for any cash balance, plus 0.9 per cent when a customer trades three or more times a month.

Staltari says while brokerage is clearly competitive, feedback from its customers is that price is not the only thing they look at when ?choosing an online trading platform.

Westpac has been focusing on expanding its ?research, range of investment options and building its mobile application. He says while shares remain the main focus of customers, increasingly they are wanting to invest in a broader range of assets, including foreign exchange, commodities, indices, contracts for difference, international shares, exchanged traded options and managed funds. 

Beyond brokerage The features you'll want from your online broker will tend to differ depending on whether you are a casual or active trader. Regardless of your investment style, the amount of company information and research available online is likely to be a useful springboard for your own thinking, the managing director of E*Trade, Stuart Sayers, says.

E*Trade has joined Commsec and Westpac in offering international share trading. A tax-reporting tool is also offered by E*Trade.

Customers who get the subscription service can also get access to 'what if' scenarios that detail the tax implications of selling certain parcels of shares depending on when they were bought.

A financial analyst at Canstar Cannex, Joshua Zenas, says providers are ultimately trying to bridge the gap between what they offer in relation to their competitors. Some standard offers include the dynamic trading platform, research and analytical tools and educational resources. The offer of a linked margin loan and competitive interest rates for the cash sitting in settlement accounts is another enhancement.

Essentially, they are catering to the need of an investor who does not want to miss the opportunity to trade at a particular price and time, Zenas says.

Interest rates on settlement accounts range from 1 per cent from Macquarie Bank to 5.65 per cent from Westpac. CommSec and Westpac Securities also offer upfront credit for trading. Online brokers' main pitch is the ease with which clients can trade and the provision of tools required to make an informed decision - and all that with competitive pricing.

Providers are also keen to keep abreast with technological trends and developing applications so trades can be made using iPhones, iPads and Android smartphones.

All in a day's work
ANGELO CARAPELLA prefers to call himself a short-term trader rather than a day trader - even though he does most of his share trading in one day.

Most days start at 7am as he assesses what has happened in global markets overnight and predicts the likely impact on the local exchange.

Seated in front of three monitors - one for CommSec where he does his trading, one for 'watchlists' of the stocks he's interested in and one for live company announcements and newsfeeds - his busiest times of day are at the market opening and close.

'As a short-term trader I look to enter a stock and take a small profit before I sell it and I might do that with the same stock several times a day,' he says.

Having traded for himself for almost 10 years and with 20 years' experience in the financial markets, he has developed his own criteria for what and when to buy.

'I like high volume and a lot of liquidity. I like to know that when I buy a stock I can sell it just as easily. I also look for positive momentum and positive announcements associated with the company, which might drive the price up,' Angelo says.

He has also learnt to stay disciplined and do nothing if he has to.

Angelo estimates 70 per cent of his time is spent reading and researching stocks.

When it comes to choosing which provider to go with, Angelo says: 'It's the total package really. It's not just about the brokerage rates but if there is a technical difficulty with the trading platform, I know I can make a phone call and help will be there.'

Battle on over fees
ONLINE brokerage pricing is no doubt a competitive area, with all players chopping and changing to boost their client base. With fees forming such a large part of their share-trading experience, this is good news for users.

Average brokerage fees on trades ranging from $1000 to $100,000 have fallen by 14.22 per cent this year.
CMC Markets led the charge by more than halving their brokerage from $19.95 to $9.90 for trades up to $9900.

Traders spending more than this also benefited from a drop in trades above $990 to 0.1 per cent. Canstar Cannex says this dramatic move in rates charged forced others to rethink their pricing.

Westpac and E*Trade followed CMC into the war in an effort to increase their market share. Westpac Securities reduced its brokerage of $24.95 and $29.95 to $19.95 for trades up to $18,137 and 0.11 per cent for higher amounts.

E*Trade moved a little differently by adjusting brokerage based on the number and value of trades. E*Trade's standard brokerage rates have dropped from $32.95 to $19.95. Brokerage is now $19.95 on trades up to $5000; $24.95 on trades between $5001 and $10,000; $29.95 on trades between $10,001 and $28,000; and 0.11 per cent for larger trades. The charge for a second trade and any subsequent trade each month is $19.95 on trades up to $18,000. After that, it is 0.11 per cent.

Canstar Cannex says the brokerage will affect different users in different ways. For infrequent low-value traders, a higher fee will lengthen the time required to break even. Those with high trade volumes will find large brokerage rates will eat into their overall return.

The best platforms for market players
CANSTAR CANNEX rated 35 online broking platforms to determine which offered the best value for three different user profiles: casual investors, active investors and traders.

Casual investors transact about 10 times a year with an average transaction value of about $10,000. For them, education tools, simplicity of use and cost really matter. Active investors average 60 trades a year, at about $35,000 a transaction. They use the latest market information and data to determine their portfolio holding, so the quality of research tools and cost are important.

Traders are those who transact on average 480 times year, averaging about $15,000 a trade. They use the latest market information to determine their portfolio holding. The availability of derivatives and a dynamic trading platform are also key considerations.

Canstar Cannex awarded brokers five stars across the three investor profiles. For casual investors, best value were CMC Markets' trader account, Bell Direct's silver platform and CommSec's internet preferred platform.
For active investors, Canstar's picks were Morrison Securities' htmlIRESS platform, CommSec's internet preferred platform, Westpac Securities integrated account platform and E*Trade's standard platform.

For traders, CMC Markets' trading account, Amscot Discount Stockbroking's AmscotOnlineValueRate and First Prudential Market's webIRESS platform got five stars. 

Bali's Hidden Magic (Eight New Fish and One New Coral Species)

Shear English - Scientists from Conservation International have discovered eight new fish and one new coral species off Indonesia’s Bali island. The new species include eels and damsels, the colourful little fish that dart among coral branches and help give reefs their dazzling appearance while playing a key role in reef ecology.

“We have carried out a marine survey in 33 sites around Bali island. We have identified 952 reef fish, and among them we discovered eight new species,” team senior adviser Mark Van Nydeck Erdmann said.

The surveys were carried out off the popular tourist island’s northeast coast at Tulamben, a well-known recreational dive site, as well as Nusa Dua, Gili Manuk and Pemuteran, at depths of 10 to 70 metres (11 to 77 yards).

Erdmann said the new fish species had not been named but they were in the genuses of Siphamia, Heteroconger, Apogon, Parapercis, Meiacanthus, Manonichthys, Grallenia and Pseudochromis. In their two-week marine survey which ended Wednesday, the team also found a new species of Euphyllia or bubble coral.

Indonesia is a massive archipelago of 17,000 islands which form part of the so-called Coral Triangle, an area of rich marine biodiversity deemed vital to the health of the seas and global food stocks. Tulamben is the grave of the US Army Transport ship Liberty, which was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in 1942. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

HOT, Fully Naked, IMF Chief to Rape A Maid in Hotel

Shear Blog - IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, widely expected to run for the French presidency next year, was charged Sunday with the sexual assault and attempted rape of a chambermaid at a New York hotel, police said.

The charges included “criminal sexual act, unlawful emprisonment, attempted rape” and “assaulting a 32-year-old girl in a hotel room,” Ryan Sesa, a police deputy spokesman, told reporters.

Strauss-Kahn, a 62-year-old Socialist who had been leading French opinion polls for the 2012 elections, was escorted off an Air France flight Saturday just minutes before it was to leave John F. Kennedy International Airport, officials said.

“We took him into custody and we handed him over to the New York City police department,” an official for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Authorities were investigating an alleged attack on a maid at the Sofitel New York hotel earlier in the day, police said. A maid in the hotel alleged she had been assaulted by the IMF chief when he got out of his shower naked.

According to an account published by local media, the maid entered Strauss-Kahn’s suite believing it was unoccupied. As she worked in the foyer, he came out of the bathroom, fully naked, and attempted to sexually assault her, according to The New York Times.

According to the maid’s account, the IMF chief grabbed her, pulled her into the bedroom and onto the bed and then locked the door. She managed to fight him off, but he dragged her down the hallway to the bathroom, where he sexually assaulted her a second time.

MSNBC television reported that in the bathroom, Strauss-Kahn forced the maid to perform oral sex on him and tried to remove her underwear. At some point during the assault, the woman broke free and fled, reporting the incident to other hotel personnel and calling the 911 police emergency line.

According to police sources, Strauss-Kahn left the hotel room in a hurry leaving behind his mobile phone and personal effects. Strauss-Kahn, a well-known figure on the French political scene popularly known by his initials DSK, has not officially thrown his hat into the ring to challenge center-right President Nicolas Sarkozy in next year’s presidential race.

But the former French finance minister had been widely expected to stand, and polls out earlier Sunday before news of his arrest broke had put him narrowly ahead of the pack if he ran with 26 percent of the vote. In Washington, an International Monetary Fund (IMF) spokeswoman had no immediate comment.

The Port Authority official said Strauss-Kahn, who has headed up the IMF since 2007, was removed from the flight 10 minutes before departure, at 4:45 pm (16:45 GMT). It was unclear when Strauss-Kahn bought the plane ticket, but he had been due to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Sunday to discuss an aid package for debt-laden Greece.

He was then due to attend a meeting of EU finance ministers on Monday and Tuesday in Brussels. It is not the first time that the silver-haired political veteran, who is married to a high-profile journalist, has been tainted by scandal.

In 2008, he was discovered to be having an affair with an Hungarian IMF economist. The affair was investigated by the IMF, which concluded he had not exerted pressure on the woman, but noted his inappropriate behavior. John Sheehan, director of security at Sofitel New York, told AFP by phone that they are cooperating with the probe.

“The Sofitel is working very closely with the NYPD with their investigation,” Sheehan said. “The safety and security of our clients and team members are of the utmost priority to us.” Strauss-Kahn’s stint at the helm of the IMF in Washington does not officially end until September 2012, several months after the scheduled date of France’s vote.

But the French political world has been buzzing with speculation that he would end his tenure early to stand as the Socialist Party’s candidate. Sarkozy’s party has launched virulent attacks against the IMF boss denouncing him as a rich “champagne socialist,” and arguing he has been away too long to still be in touch with France.

Strauss-Kahn became head of the International Monetary Fund in November 2007, pledging to push reforms of the 187-member country institution that helps oversee the global economy. The first-round of the elections will be held on April 22 next year with the second round run-off on May 6, 2012.

3,000 Female Fetuses Aborted in Taiwan in 2010

Shear Blog - Up to 3,000 female babies were presumed “missing” from Taiwan’s population last year due to illegal sex-selective abortion, an official was cited by media as estimating Sunday. Abortion practices caused the gap, Chiu Shu-ti, director-general of the Bureau of Health Promotion, was cited by the United Daily News as estimating.

The Bureau last month launched an investigation after it found that 10 out of every 11 babies delivered in a clinic in New Taipei City last year were boys. Nine out of every 10 babies delivered in a Taipei City hospital during the same period of time were also male.

Government officials suspected that doctors at the two medical institutions might have conducted the illegal abortions after expectant parents had viewed ultrasound scans which allowed them to predict the sex of their baby. Under Taiwan’s law, any doctor found guilty of conducting such an abortion may face a fine of up to Tw$500,000 ($17,368).

But despite the law, the practice has been in common on the island, as in China and some other Asian countries, due to traditional cultural norms which value males more than females. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

To Celebrate 35 Years of Golf GTIs, Volkswagen, Have Released the Golf GTI Edition 35

Shear English - Volkswagen says happy 35th birthday to its ever-popular hot-hatch with a more powerful special edition. Volkswagen has marked 35 years since the debut of its Golf GTI by releasing a more powerful edition of the popular hot-hatch.

The Edition 35 produces 173kW from the same 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, giving the anniversary model a small power advantage over the regular, 155kW GTI.

The German car maker hasn't revealed whether the GTI 35’s performance and fuel economy figures are affected. (The standard model flaunts a 6.9 second 0-100km/h time and economy numbers of 7.7L/100km for the manual model and 7.6L for the DSG.)

The GTI 35 sees new-style, 18-inch wheels added as standard, with new-look headlights with LED running lights and a redesigned front bumper, and LED rear tail-lights – the same seen on the Golf R and the Golf Cabriolet.

There are also “35” badges on the side of the car, while the interior gains the same signature emblazoned on the seat uprights and door sills. The golf ball-dimpled gear-knob – as seen in the original GTI model from 1976 – also returns.

It’s not yet clear whether the new 35 model will be available in three- and five-door versions – VW Australia isn’t sure and the company’s official media site only shows images of the three-door.

The German brand’s local arm has confirmed the new model will be available in Australia, but spokesman Karl Gehling remained tight-lipped about how much the new model will cost as well as how many examples of the car will be available.

“We’re still waiting to see how many we can get,” says Gehling. “And the price isn’t confirmed yet.”

German pricing , however, has been released, with the limited release 35 model priced about $4000 higher than the regular GTI, meaning the 35 model may be priced closer to $45,000 when it goes on sale here later this year.

The three-door GTI starts from $38,990 plus costs. VW also produced 20th- and 30th-anniversary versions of the GTI, and the latest model will make its public debut in early June at the brand's annual GTI Meet in Worthersee, Austria.

The GTI has been one of the world's most successful hot-hatches since it launched in 1976. It also accounts for about one in every four Golf sales in Australia. 

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