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Fisker Automotive: The road less traveled for hybrids--in style

Wed, 21 Oct 2009

Fisker Automotive is taking a reverse approach to hybrids.

Traditionally, green machines have been small fuel-sippers that hardly quicken the pulses of enthusiasts. Not so fast, says Henrik Fisker, CEO of the startup automaker and a designer who made his mark with eye-catching products at Aston Martin and BMW.

He visited AutoWeek on Wednesday, and his approach is clear-eyed and focused: “I want to make a car that is so sexy and so exciting you want to drive it.”

At first glance, he's pulled that off with the Karma sedan, a plug-in hybrid due on the market in June 2010. The head-turning car is taking aim at European luxury marques such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz, rather than traditional green cars such as the Toyota Prius, the Honda Insight and the soon-to-arrive Chevrolet Volt.

Part of that is the price. The Karma starts at $87,000 and has swoopy fenders and dramatic lines that evoke imposing luxury yachts of yesteryear. But Fisker also promises that it will be fun to drive--not a yawner like some fuel-sippers. Look for plenty of torque early on, and its one-gear automatic transmission should deliver smooth acceleration.

The appearance does matter, Fisker argues, and his car is a luxury sedan that's also a hybrid; it's not a green car without a soul.

In another break from tradition, Fisker say the engine is secondary, which is contrary to a century's worth of practices saying the motor is the soul of the car. The Karma uses a 2.0-liter Ecotec sourced from General Motors, and Fisker say that's probably a bit much for his product, which can run 50 miles on a single electrical charge and has a total range of 300 miles.

He envisions a future where hybrids will get their own niche powerplants, specially tuned to the need of alternative technologies. A hybrid for example, probably doesn't need to rev to 8,000 rpm.

Fisker considered a diesel for the Karma, and it's possible it could show up in a future product. The company has a hardtop convertible version, the Karma S (for Sunset), set to arrive in 2011, and a lower-cost, family-oriented luxury sedan set for 2012. The third car will sticker around $40,000, when factoring possible tax breaks.

Down the road, a premium vehicle priced at about $25,000 also is possible, Fisker said.

But make no mistake, the company will double-down on eco-technology. It's not the sole identity of Fisker, but it is an advantage considering the ute-laden lineups of most other luxury-car makers. He expects it will take several years to burnish a green shine, if Fisker products take hold in the market.

“We have three or four years to build this as a pure green brand,” he said.

By Greg Migliore