Plug-in Fisker Karma car is stylishly environmental

Even as Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Rolls-Royces prowled the avenue, the obscure silver sedan parked at the curb gathered its share of stares and curiosity.

The Fisker Karma, as it is called, has looks that rival a Mercedes-Benz roadster. Yet the key to what makes it different is emblazoned on the sides in chrome letters: Plug-in Hybrid.

The maker, Fisker Automotive, is trying to carve out a niche in what is fast becoming a crowded field of next-generation electric vehicles: a high-performance eco-car loaded with style.

The company has taken more than 1,400 refundable deposits so far for the Karma, which has a starting price of $87,900 and can top $100,000. The car can be driven for 50 miles on electric power alone before its auxiliary gasoline engine fires up to generate more juice and extend the range to up to 300 miles. The engine never directly drives the wheels.

Depending on the individual owner's daily driving mix, the company boasts, Karma could easily top 100 miles per gallon.

But the journey from concept to commercial production is not proving any easier for the Fisker than it is for others attempting plug-ins:

•Delays. The Karma's schedule has already been pushed back six months, with deliveries expected to start in June.

•Integration. The company views its area of expertise as design; many of the high-tech components are being outsourced. The approach could complicate integrating pieces from various sources to make sure the whole thing works.

•Affordability. Henrik Fisker, the luxury-car designer who founded the company, says production of a lower-priced, mass-market Karma sibling could be pushed back three years if the company's application for Energy Department loans fails.

Fisker has kept his company largely out of the limelight. Much of the attention involving plug-in electric cars has gone to Tesla, a start-up based 100 miles north of Monterey and maker of a $109,000 all-electric roadster, and to General Motors, which plans to sell the Chevrolet Volt next year.

The Fisker Karma prototype made its driving debut earlier this month before auto fans gathered for the Rolex Monterey Historic Automobile Races. Fisker spokesman Russell Datz said the lap around the track and the crowd response went so well that executives decided to drive the prototype around and park it on the street to attract attention.

But with its high price, the Karma is aimed at a pretty exclusive club of well-heeled motorists, even with potential eligibility for a $7,500 federal tax credit. And the company has been so low-key that even electric-car advocates aren't sure what to make of the Karma.

It may be a great car with lots of promise, but "they are either flying way under the radar or they are having problems," says Sherry Boschert, who serves on the board of advocacy group Plug In America and is author of Plug-In Hybrids: The Cars that Will Recharge America.

Adds Roland Hwang, transportation program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council: The Fisker Karma "looks very, very cool, but the drivetrain (is) unproven."

Unlike GM and Tesla, Fisker is building on its founder's expertise as the designer of Jaguars and BMWs and outsourcing a lot of the technology.

Karma's 2.0-liter Ecotec gasoline engine comes from GM. The batteries will come from EnerDel of Indianapolis. The car will be assembled by contract auto builder Valmet Automotive in Finland. Much of the powertrain integration is being provided by Quantum Technologies of Irvine, Calif. The enterprise is being overseen by Fisker's 50 employees from its headquarters, also in Irvine.

The Monterey cruise marked a big occasion for the start-up. "This is the first time we drove it in the street," said Henrik Fisker, once head of design at Aston Martin. "We're really showing (that) the technology works (and) is ready for the streets."

Some electric-car experts aren't bothered by Fisker's low-key approach. Having shown the Karma at the big Detroit auto show in January and now having shown that it can tool around a racetrack, Fisker is sticking to the playbook of most automakers, says Ron Cogan, editor of the Green Car Journal.

"If we don't hear much from Fisker, it's because he's not generating artificial things to say," Cogan says. "He has a great design, has surrounded himself with professionals. It appears he is doing everything right."

Fisker Automotive was founded a couple of years ago with seed money from two Silicon Valley venture-capital firms, Kleiner Perkins and Palo Alto Investors. It since has gone through three rounds to raise more, with total capital of about $100 million as of about six months ago, the last time the figure was disclosed, the company says.

Still, that's not going to be enough to retool an auto plant in the U.S. to expand the line with its plug-in mass-market sedan, Fisker says. That's why the company seeks a loan from the government's Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program. Tesla, along with Nissan and Ford Motor, already have received loans totaling more than $8 billion out of $25 billion allotted for the program. Automakers and suppliers have submitted more that 100 applications for the remainder.

Fisker wouldn't disclose the amount his company is seeking, and the Energy Department says the applications are confidential.

But Fisker says granting the loan would be an opportunity to show "America can again take the lead" on automotive technology.

Fisker, he says, will survive without it, but "if we don't get it, we have to wait three years" before the company expects it can raise the money to build the plant for the lower-priced car.

In the meantime, Fisker has plans for two other products that would be built off the upscale Karma's chassis. One is a two-door convertible called the Sunset.

The other isn't being disclosed, spokesman Datz says.

After all, it is a low-key company.

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