Hollywood's Hybrid Dealer Gears Up for the Fisker Karma

Last Updated Jul 8, 2010 12:28 PM EDT

Los Angeles-based super-dealer Mike Sullivan (a/k/a "LA Car Guy") is building a state-of-the-art green store in Santa Monica for the Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid (complete with solar panels). He's investing based largely on visual appeal, because he hasn't gotten behind the wheel, and won't until November -- just before the Karma goes on sale. Given LA's demographics, though, it seems like he can't miss.

Sullivan, whose 10 current dealerships (Toyota, Lexus, Volkswagen) are in Santa Monica, Hollywood and Los Angeles, will know how to draw in the film community and music celebrities whose ownership has added panache to the competing Tesla Roadster. Sullivan, the largest-volume hybrid dealer in the U.S., is greening in a big way. Three of his existing dealerships (plus Fisker when the time comes) will be offering free Clipper Creek electric car charging to first comers (who can stay for an hour or two). The Fisker showroom will be completely off the grid. That won't be hard at first, because the store will be small, with space for just one or two cars until production ramps up.

EV sales early on could be quite lopsided, with more than half of sales in California (which has both early adopters and state subsidies). Sullivan predicts great things there for this plug-in hybrid (technically related to the Chevrolet Volt), which he thinks solves the "range anxiety" problem with 50 miles of electric-only range and then a gas engine to keep the batteries charged for 250 more miles. Sullivan says that despite a relatively high price (subsidized by a $7,500 federal tax credit) the Karma will easily sell out its first-year production of 15,000. He's holding on to 160 deposits himself, nearly a tenth of the 1,900 total.

"It's a sensational design, and if it drives like it looks, we're in good shape," Sullivan said. "If they slap a V-8 into it, we could start selling it tomorrow." That's something nearly everyone agrees on â€"- the $87,900 car is pretty in a very upscale way, a home run from Danish-born Henrik Fisker, a designer with experience at BMW and Aston Martin.

The Karma probably would sell fairly well as a conventional car, but Fisker is after bigger game. By combining brutish good looks and luxury with an environmental halo, the glamour wagon is aimed straight at bi-coastal elites, especially the 90210 variety. Tesla has done fairly well drawing eco-minded celebrities into its orbit. Early buyers included Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Vincent DiCaprio and one of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The Karma should do at least as well.

Fisker isn't saying much these days as it rushes the car to the market, but spokesman Russell Datz opined, "We expect all of California to be a very strong market for Fisker. The Karma and future Fisker vehicles [presumably including the smaller Project Nina car, to be built in Delaware] address concerns about the environment without compromising a passion for driving."

Fisker claims that its early "premium" orders are sold out (but that was for cars that were supposed to have been delivered late last year). Rocket-like sales (followed by an equally successful IPO) would be sweet vindication for Fisker, who is Elon Musk's arch-rival. I would expect the two companies, both California-based, to fight it out for celebrity attention spans.

Sullivan says he would have become a Tesla dealer, too, if Musk hadn't decided to go it alone with company stores. "I would have been interested in partnering with them, yes," he said. Tesla has sold something like 1,100 cars, and Sullivan says that's OK considering the Roadster is an electrified Lotus. "When they're introducing their own car [the Model S sedan], that would be disappointing," Sullivan said. "Tesla is moving smoothly and cautiously, and I think that's smart."

Early adopters could be aided by a $5,000 rebate from the state of California, but Sullivan isn't sure that money will hold out in a state that is "out of money for everything else."

But even without state subsidies, no one can tell Sullivan that green cars don't sell. His Toyota dealership moves 180 hybrids a month, out of 350 to 360 total cars sold. His Hollywood Toyota store sells 140 hybrids a month, with a total volume of 330 to 340. For both, the Prius is the big seller. If the Karma could build an image locally as the luxury Prius to be seen in, LA sales should be healthy indeed.


Photo: Courtesy of Mike Sullivan