About six years ago, a California automaker was preparing to enter into uncharted territory and launch an all-new, sleek sedan that was going to break real ground in the EV world. With a loan from the U.S. government, a charismatic founder, and a traffic-stopping design, it looked like the company had nowhere to go but up. While this story may sound similar to another California automaker’s, this is the tale of Fisker Automotive, which today has become little more than a footnote in the EV story. Unlike its former rival Tesla, Fisker fell victim to nearly every pitfall that Elon Musk and company seemed to avoid. As a result, it has spent the last few years stuck in a state of suspended animation.
But now, in a story that’s stranger than fiction, Fisker has a new Chinese owner that wants to restart production, and pick up right where Fisker left off when it closed its doors back in 2012. This however, may be easier said than done.
Back in 2009, it looked like Fisker had a better chance of survival than Tesla. The company was the brainchild of Heinrik Fisker, a Danish designer who played a major role in designing the Aston Martin DB9, and BMW Z8. He left Aston Martin in 2005 to start a coach building company, which evolved into Fisker Automotive by 2008. When Fisker debuted the Karma as a concept in 2009, it was a sensation. It was to be a true American-built, mass market plug-in hybrid, and its looks were as novel as the concept itself.
It opened its headquarters in Anaheim, California, secured a $529 million loan from the U.S. government, and bought a former General Motors plant in Wilmington, Delaware. After several years of delays, the Karma entered production in Finland (the Delaware plant wasn’t ready yet) in July 2011, and was seemingly an instant success.
With a price tag of over $100,000, it was far from cheap, but it was one of the most forward-thinking cars on the road. The 200 horsepower gasoline engine was used primarily as a generator for the batteries, and the car could move from zero to 60 in under six and a half seconds, with a limited top speed of 125 miles per hour. It had solar panels on the roof to help power auxiliary systems, and the “eco-friendly” interior was accented with salvaged wood trim.
James May of Top Gear named it his 2011 pick for Car of the Year, and it won Automobile Magazine’s Design of the Year award. But it was the beginning of the end for Fisker. It was beset with quality control issues, and in the government froze payment on its loans in May 2011, for the company’s failure to meet certain requirements. The company shut down production in July 2012 after about 2,500 cars were built, and it was later reported that the company lost over half a million dollars on each one sold. While it searched for new investors, 338 cars were destroyed at the Port of Newark during Hurricane Sandy, resulting in a loss upwards of $33 million. It was the final nail in Fisker’s coffin, and the company declared bankruptcy in April 2013.
But the story was too strange to end there.
For some, the Fisker Karma was just too pretty of a car to let die. In 2013, former GM chief Bob Lutz and business partner Gilberto Villarreal announced that they will begin building Karmas sans electrical systems, calling the car the VL Destino. The stock gas engine and batteries are removed, replacing the car’s green tech with a 6.2 liter V8 from the Chevy Corvette. While the project has been in the works for two years now, the cars have yet to be built.
After the company went bankrupt, it was sold by the U.S. Department of Energy to Chinese company Wanxiang, the country’s largest maker of auto parts. And with plenty of financial backing, the company was relaunched as the Fisker Automotive and Technology Group (FATG), and plans to restart Karma production in California. While Wanxiang also owns the Fisker’s former Delaware plant, the company is intent on building an all-new facility near FATG’s new Costa Mesa headquarters. FATG has launched an all-new customer support website, and sources say that production could start as early as mid-2016.
In the span of six years, Fisker went from automotive supernova to footnote. But three years after its untimely death, the Karma’s beautiful styling and untapped potential are alluring enough for a lot of people to take a risk on it, even as the auto industry continues to evolve faster than ever before. While former rival Tesla prepares to launch two new models, and a number of major automakers now offer plug-in hybrid versions of their premium sedans, can the dated Karma hope to compete, especially if it’s sold for anything close to its original six-figure price tag? Only time will tell, but after coming so far, Fisker still has a very long road ahead of it.