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Fisker's High-Performance Karma Hybrid is Still Behind the Curtain

IRVINE, CALIFORNIA -- As production approaches for its heralded high-performance plug-in hybrid, Fisker is being unusually protective of its car. No journalist has yet driven one, and even the final spec sheet is something of an unknown. Reporters are left trying to read the tea leaves at Fisker's evolving website. While this no doubt increases Fisker's mysterious appeal, it also raises questions about what exactly is behind that black curtain. My recent visit to Fisker headquarters in California failed to penetrate the force field.

The Karma, which will sell for $87,900 (before a $7,500 federal income tax rebate), will be marketed to much the same customer base as Fisker's arch-rival, the Tesla Roadster (sales of 1,200 cars to date). The company says it has 2,000 advance orders, which isn't surprising, given Fisker's exotic appeal, and a small but enthusiastic dealer network. To ramp up sales past the early adopters, however, it has to build a reputation for engineering excellence, thrilling performance on the road, and green achievement matching the 100 mpg equivalent claimed on the company's website.

I am in what looks to be a giant office park, punctuated by the occasional Starbucks Plaza. The Los Angeles smog hovers, as I pull into the parking lot of one of the many square boxes on Corporate Park. It wouldn't look like the headquarters of a hip, high-performance car company, but the Maserati in the parking lot and the boldface name "Fisker" on the building gives the game away.

As it prepares to unleash its plug-in hybrid Karma early next year (and provide test cars to journalists, hopefully sooner rather than later), Fisker is still mightily quiet. The lobby (where they parked me) was a gateway through which I did not pass. It was considerably enlivened with the presence of a Fisker Sunset, the convertible version of the Karma. It's production-intent, but there's no date on that yet. The car is beautiful but lacks any useful rear-seat legroom -â€" could they stretch the chassis in production?

I briefly met Marti Eulberg, vice president of global sales and marketing, but she was "slammed" with meetings and I haven't been able to talk with her in depth (an interview is scheduled for Aug. 17). This is unusual, in my experience: more commonly, EV companies bring out everybody but the janitor to talk with me. Instead, I went out to lunch with Russell Datz, the company's spokesman.

"Everything is going great," Datz said. The challenge, he admitted, is making all the car's systems -- the internal-combustion engine, the regenerative brakes, the nano-engineered battery pack sourced from A123 -- work smoothly together and fit into the allotted space. "A123 is building to our specs," Datz said. "They've delivered near-to-final packs."

Datz said Fisker expects to sell 14,000 to 15,000 cars worldwide in 201l. Henrik Fisker, the company's Danish founder, says that the company could make a profit on that volume, but he also claims that's "only the beginning." By 2013, he said the volume will be 100,000 a year, with six models for sale by 2016.

The second model is the Nina, which is supposed to sell for $40,000. The Nina will be built in Fisker's newly acquired former General Motors factory in Delaware, for which it obtained a Department of Energy loan of $528 million. The Nina is even more mysterious than the Karma -- there's practically no available information on it.

Datz offers even bigger numbers than Fisker: 115,000 by 2013, which breaks down as 15,000 Karmas and 100,000 Ninas.

Asked what cars he expects to compete with, Datz points to the Porsche Panamera (the company's first four-door sedan). "It will be seen as the responsible alternative," he said. The Panamera, of course, is able to ride on Porsche's long history of engineering excellence and considerable prestige. It's very similar in price ($89,800 in rear-wheel-drive form) and horsepower (400 to Fisker's 403) but green, it's not. For that audience, Porsche just announced it will produce the 918 Spyder, also a plug-in hybrid. But that car is likely to be considerably more expensive than the Karma.

Perhaps surprisingly, Datz says a lot of Fisker customers will be replacing not a Porsche or Mercedes, but a Toyota Prius. The company's research, he said, shows that many Prius buyers could actually afford something far more expensive, but chose the Prius for its unbeatable green aspects. "It was the only thing available to them," he said. The Karma gives them another option.

I asked Datz to tell me something he hadn't told anyone else, but his mission remains to keep the press at bay until the curtain is raised. Datz has told me that the company feels it has one shot at first impressions, and it doesn't want to blow it with a half-baked car. I understand that, but the schedule now ensures a cliffhanger -- we get to see the car just before it goes on sale.

I imagine a scene, just beyond the waiting room in which I sat: Engineers frantically shoehorning systems into the car, working around the clock, as Eulberg and her troops mainline coffee finishing the marketing materials. Maybe that's all wrong, but as of right now I have no other image to counter it.

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Photo: Russell Datz