Fisker Karma: Ready to Roll?

Fisker Automotive finally closed on its $528.7 million Energy Department loan April 23, and now the biggest item on the to-do list is to actually produce its $87,900 plug-in hybrid car, the Karma, by the end of the year.

Fisker was founded in the summer of 2007, and many people have been eagerly anticipating the Karma. And why not? The car is undeniably attractive, with a compelling environmental story and (at least on paper) rip-roaring high performance. Henrik Fisker, the chief executive, is also a charismatic figure. But just months from the car’s debut, very few people outside the company have driven it. (The crown prince of Denmark got a Karma ride to a climate conference.)

Popular Science wrote about the Karma in its May issue, calling Fisker’s secrecy “worrisome.” The magazine also posed questions and noted that the company “is on its third battery supplier in three years.” In the positive column, the article cited “a highly respected founder, attractive prototypes and a half-billion-dollar loan.”

Russell Datz, a Fisker spokesman, said the car is being kept under wraps until near its public introduction “because we are a new company and it is a new car. We want people to drive the finished product.”

Will the Karma be a hit in the marketplace? It could be instructive to look at Tesla Motors. Tesla’s all-electric Roadster, aimed at a similar buyer to the Karma but somewhat more expensive, has sold 1,200 cars worldwide. March, said Khobi Brooklyn, a Tesla spokeswoman, “was our best month ever.” But Fisker anticipates much higher sales than Tesla — Fisker has set a target of 15,000 annually in 2011.

“The Karma is in the high-end trendsetter market, and products like that are appealing,” said John DeCicco, a senior lecturer at the University of Michigan and a former auto strategist at the Environmental Defense Fund. He offers “a qualified yes” when asked if the Karma can be a hit. “The big question is, how big is the market for a car like that, and what comes after it?” he said.

For Fisker, what comes after is a line of perhaps three smaller Project Nina cars, supported by the second stage of the Energy Department loan and due to be produced in Fisker’s newly acquired (and former General Motors) Boxwood plant in Delaware. Mr. Datz said that securing the federal loan has the effect of moving up the start of Nina production by as much as three years, from 2014 or 2015 to late 2012.

The Karma’s plug-in hybrid drivetrain is put together by Quantum Technologies, whose chief operating officer, David Mazaika, said he didn’t see any “showstoppers” in meeting Fisker’s performance targets and deadlines. “All is going according to plan,” Mr. Datz said.

“The Karma uses a lot of outside components, including a General Motors gasoline engine, so the challenge is getting everything together and integrating it,” said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Michigan. Mr. Cole said that the prospects for the Karma — and for plug-in hybrids in general — would be considerably enhanced by a reduction in battery costs. “If a 15- or 16-kilowatt-hour battery could be brought down to $4,000 or $5,000, that would help Fisker when it is selling cars in the $30,000 to $40,000 range, where the real volume is,” he said.

The Fisker Karma and Tesla Roadster are “well-executed cars with good people around them,” Mr. Cole said.