One of the newest entries in the electric-car market, the Fisker Karma, is a sleek, muscle-bound sports sedan that will turn a lot of heads with its good looks. And it ought to, considering what you’d pay to own one: The Karma’s list price is $87,900. But while the car is clearly meant for a certain class of buyer, Fisker Automotive will be making cars that cost half as much — and ostensibly sell in much greater numbers — within the next few years. The company is among a group of nimble startup automakers that are effecting a sea change in the industry and bringing a new wave of green autos to the masses — “a new kind of American car company,” Forbes called these innovators in a recent profile of Fisker founder Henrik Fisker.
Fisker is billing the Karma as “the world’s first premium plug-in hybrid electric vehicle,” yet don’t let the “hybrid” part make you think this is just a fancy Prius. The Karma runs exclusively on electricity for its first 50 miles before switching to a gas-fueled electric drive, dubbed the Q Drive, meaning that a motorist with a daily round-trip commute less than that could go for long stretches without refilling the tank. The machine has serious sports-car credibility, too, having been designed by Fisker himself, who also crafted the Aston Martin DB9 and the BMW Z8, two sweet rides favored by international spy James Bond.
At a Minneapolis event celebrating the car’s debut, part of a national rollout tour, a crowd of gawkers — some journalists, some green-car geeks, and some moneyed buyers kicking the metaphorical tires — gathered around the first Karma any of them had seen. Already that day, three buyers had committed, joining the 17 already on “sold” list at Borton Fisker, the Minnesota Volvo dealership that signed on to sell the Fisker line. The buyers won’t see their cars till early next year.
Kjell Bergh, Borton’s chairman, paid a visit to Fisker’s California headquarters after being handpicked and asked to be a dealer.
“When I saw the car I said, ‘Where do I sign?’” says Bergh, who was also impressed by the Fisker team — “hardcore car people,” he calls them.
Fisker is benefiting from federal policies meant to encourage green-car development and to realize President Barack Obama’s stated goal of 1 million plug-in autos by 2015. The company recently was approved for federal loan of $528.7 million, which will go toward developing lower-priced plug-in hybrids and purchasing a former General Motors assembly plant in Delaware, which is projected to employ 2,000 workers.
But Fisker is also benefiting from a lean business structure, outsourcing much of its work instead of taking the centralized, infrastructure-intensive approach of the ever-smaller Big 3 automakers. Henrik Fisker is in this sense the anti-Ford, dismantling the myth that all cars are made in gigantic factories in Michigan.
Fisker’s marketing of the Karma stresses the green message, starting not least with its name. “‘Karma’ implies that if you do good things, good things will happen to you,” suggests a glossy one-sheet sales pitch for those needing a Buddhist primer. The flyer also states that “Environmentalism has never been more beautifully infused with elegance and style” and sums up the car in three adjectives: “Luxurious. Sensuous. Accountable.”
Karma-dealing sales reps are also clearly selling against the Tesla, the car’s obvious competitor in the upscale electric segment and a bitter corporate rival of Fisker.
“No one matches this technology, not even Tesla” says Borton Fisker sales manager Gene Kaganovsky, noting that Tesla’s high-end Roadster doesn’t have a plan B when batteries are spent. “When it runs out, you call someone from the side of the road.”
Kaganovsky also mentioned the personal money troubles of Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk, which were recently and embarrassingly detailed in the New York Times—though Tesla insists that it sits on solid financial ground apart from its founder.
Fisker’s sales force, though, is also selling against a common perception about hybrid vehicles. “The problem,” says Bergh, “is that hybrids have been butt ugly.” Fisker is clearly out to change that.
Photos by Alex Bellus.