'Green' and 'Luxurious' in the Same Sentence
By LAWRENCE ULRICH
WHEN hybrid cars make a green statement, they tend to proclaim penny-pinching mileage and shared sacrifice. But mass-market hybrids like the Toyota Prius have been about as luxurious as a recycling bin, as racy as hemp Birkenstocks.
Now, in the face of stricter mileage standards, a new generation of luxury hybrids and plug-ins is looking to convince affluent buyers that they can have their green cake and eat it, too. Even luxury automakers that once publicly scorned hybrids, especially diesel-centric European companies, are readying electric-bolstered cars for showrooms.
Mercedes, BMW, Infiniti, Audi, Porsche, Cadillac and Land Rover are among the brands whose inaugural hybrids are either hitting the market or in the works. Fisker Automotive, the brainchild of the auto designer Henrik Fisker that is based in Irvine, Calif., is aiming at June for deliveries of its $80,000 Karma plug-in hybrid sedan. Even the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid, set for sale in November 2010, is pegged by many analysts as a roughly $35,000 car, well above the price of typical family transportation.
Those cars will battle a growing lineup of Lexus models, including the new HS 250h sedan, that until recently had the luxury hybrid field to itself. "There's no rule that an environmental car has to be small and dorky," said Mr. Fisker, the former Aston Martin design chief.
Previous luxury hybrids, he said, have often failed to deliver either the significant design or mileage gains that would justify premium prices. The Karma and Karma S convertible, by contrast, look voluptuous and exotic. The Fiskers can travel up to 50 miles on their lithium-ion batteries before a small gasoline engine kicks in to extend driving range to 300 miles. The company expects a federal economy rating of about 67 m.p.g., but better than 100 m.p.g. for drivers who charge the car nightly and have modest commutes.
"It's more efficient than any Prius, but beautiful like a Ferrari," Mr. Fisker said, adding that today's customers want their high technology in a smartly designed package.
"If the iPhone had been ugly, it wouldn't have captured the market," he said.
Mercedes has begun selling the S400 Hybrid. This huge, sumptuous sedan can deliver 29 highway miles per gallon in real-world driving, a significant 6-m.p.g. gain over the V-8-powered S-Class. In November, Mercedes will offer a hybrid version of its ML-Class crossover S.U.V. The first entry from BMW, the ActiveHybrid X6 crossover S.U.V., goes on sale in December. This spring, BMW will market a roughly $100,000 version of its flagship sedan, the ActiveHybrid 7-Series, promoting it as the world's fastest hybrid.
The Mercedes S400 aims to dodge common hybrid pitfalls, like huge, weighty nickel-metal-hydride batteries that hog trunk space or add several thousand dollars to the vehicle's price. Combining a compact, power-dense lithium-ion battery - the same chemistry used by the Volt, Fisker and Tesla Roadster electric car - with a downsized V-6 engine, the Mercedes does save fuel. While it's expensive, starting around $89,000, the S400 costs about $4,000 less than the V-8 gasoline S550 version.
"In the past you had to sacrifice something to get a hybrid," said Rob Moran, a Mercedes spokesman. "Now cars can offer size, performance and luxury, and still the feel-good of owning a hybrid."
INDUSTRY analysts say regulatory pressures, perhaps more than consumer demand or automaker altruism, are driving the luxury hybrid market. Achieving fuel economy standards proposed by the Obama administration will be a particular challenge for exclusive luxury and sports-car makers like Mercedes and Porsche, which cannot offset thirstier models with sales of tiny economy cars. (Mercedes does sell small numbers of the Smart two-seater.)
In response, automakers are hedging their bets by developing a range of alternative fuel technologies. Automakers complain that volatile gas prices and a lack of a national energy policy are making it hard to gauge demand for high-mileage cars.
"As long as gas is less than $3 a gallon, demand for hybrids will remain fairly low," said Mike Omotoso, global powertrain analyst at J. D. Power & Associates.
Despite heavy publicity and anxiety over fuel prices and global warming, hybrids still hold less than 3 percent of the market. J. D. Power expects that to jump to 9.3 percent by 2015, driven by a huge influx of new models, including plug-ins. And Mr. Omotoso said luxury hybrids could provide ideal green cover for an otherwise conspicuous lifestyle. "Because of the financial meltdown, and people pointing the finger at fat cats, a hybrid S-Class or 7-Series says, 'Sure, I'm rich, but socially responsible,' " he said.
Luxury hybrid makers also view their cars as test beds for technology that can trickle down to everyday machines. Earlier this year, Fisker received $529 million under a federal loan program for advanced technology cars, with Tesla receiving $465 million. Ford got $5.9 billion and Nissan $1.6 billion in low-interest loans, the latter to build a plant in Tennessee for the coming Nissan Leaf all-electric car.
Some critics have questioned taxpayer-financed loans for boutique companies building small numbers of cars for elite buyers. Yet both Fisker and Tesla defend the loans as crucial to advancing lithium-ion technology and creating more-affordable models. While the Karma is being built in Finland, Fisker will use $360 million of the loan to develop and build a lower-priced plug-in at a retooled plant in the United States. (Under the loan terms, no money can be spent outside the country.) Fisker estimates that the new sedan, code-named Project Nina and scheduled for sale in 2012, will cost $40,000 after a $7,500 federal tax credit.
Tesla is using its loan to develop the Model S, an all-electric sedan due in 2011 and priced below $50,000 after its own tax credit.
Mr. Fisker has big dreams for his juiced-up cars, envisioning annual worldwide sales of 15,000 for the Karma and 75,000 or more for the Project Nina. Even those totals are a drop in the oilpan by Toyota or Chevy standards. But he says the companies that will reinvent the automobile must start small - and with big prices.
"The early adopter will take the risk and pay the price," he said. "But one day we'll see plug-in hybrids for $20,000."
Gallery: Detroit 2009: Fisker Karma S
[Source: Southeast Automotive Media Organization, Fisker]
2009 Concept Vehicle of the Year Award Winners Announced
DEARBORN, Mich., June 23 /PRNewswire/ -- The eighth annual North American Concept Vehicle of the Year Awards were announced this evening at the Automotive Hall of Fame. Organized by the South East Automotive Media Organization, the awards recognize those vehicles most likely to shape the future of the automobile industry. A jury of automotive journalists selected the winners from 23 Concept Vehicles and 11 Production Preview Vehicles that debuted during the 2009 North American Auto Show season.
A bellwether for the auto industry's second century, Fisker Automotive takes the honor of 2009 Production Preview Vehicle of the Year with its Karma Sunset Concept. According to juror Michael Bettencourt, "A company run by a designer should have beautiful cars, concepts and prototypes. Henrik Fisker's firm certainly does the Fisker Karma Sunset is just drop dead gorgeous."
Fisker preparing low-cost hybrid based on Karma
Fisker starts taking orders for the Karma S Convertible
First seen at the 2009 Detroit Auto Show as a concept vehicle, the Karma S by Fisker, is currently taking orders. It looks like the Karma S has received a favorable media and public reaction hence the quickness by which it approved the car for production.
Fisker requires a $25,000 deposit for the Karma S, which is about 4 times more than that required for the Karma four-door plugin hybrid sedan. The price for the Karma S has not yet been fixed, says Fisker. The first 250 units produced will be ?specially configured,? and what that means is anybody?s guess. However, there are understandings that these units will be designated as first-run cars and possibly be denominated. The Karma S is a four-seater with a retractable hard top and comes with a plugin hybrid powrtrain named Q-DRIVE by Quantum Technologies. The Q-DRIVE permits the car to travel 50 zero-emission miles with only one charge and up to 430 miles (692km) using its two 403hp (296kW) electric powerplants. Deliveries will be seen in the later part of 2011.
FISKER AUTOMOTIVE RECRUITS FIRST U.S. RETAILERS TO REPRESENT PREMIUM GREEN BRAND
IRVINE, CA ? March 24, 2009:
Premium green automaker Fisker Automotive has appointed its first group of U.S. retailers to market and service its luxury plug-in hybrid vehicles, beginning with the $87,900, 100mpg Karma sedan later this year.
Thirty-two award-winning retailers have confirmed their intent to carry the Fisker marquee. The number puts the carmaker close to its goal of having 40 locations across the country by the end of June 2009.
All Fisker retailers are well-established operations familiar with premium brands, new technology and discerning clientele. Many are family-owned, each is active in giving back to their communities, and all understand the need to offer premium customers a vehicle that reduces environmental impact. A full list can be found at www.fiskerautomotive.com
Fisker Board member Vic Doolan has been instrumental in guiding development of the company?s retail network. Doolan led BMW NA and Volvo Cars NA to record sales in the 1990s and 2000s, and in so doing built solid relationships with top retail principals. ?Our retail partners are our most important assets,? he said. ?To our customers, they are the face of the company. For that reason, we?ve chosen those who will give Fisker owners the comfort and confidence to drive the future.?
By keeping startup costs low and not requiring floor-planning beyond demonstrator
and display cars, Fisker is able to attract new franchises even in tough economic times. President Obama?s recent pledge of $2.4B to support development of plug-in hybrid vehicles and battery technology is added incentive.
Fisker showrooms will reflect the company?s concern for the environment and their vehicles? emission free capabilities. ?They will be Eco-facilities, not Ego-facilities,? Doolan said. Architecture calls for natural and sustainable materials like wood and textiles. An available solar-powered car port can keep demonstrator vehicles clean, dry, fully charged and ready to go.
Fisker Automotive Retail Network, Charter Members:
? Barrett Holdings, Inc. Charles Barrett San Antonio, TX
? Bergen Jaguar Dennis Squitieri Bergen County, NJ
? Bergstrom Corporation John Bergstrom Wisconsin
? Borton Automotive Kjell Bergh Minnesota
? Capitol Cadillac Company Daniel Jobe Maryland
? Century Automotive Group George Jones Alabama
? The Dorschel Automotive Group Richard Dorschel Rochester, NY
? Elder Automotive Group Rob Elder Tampa Bay, FL
? Fields Auto Group Dan Fields Illinois
? Fields Auto Group Dan Fields Orlando, FL
? Fields Auto Group Dan Fields British Columbia
? Frank Kent Motor Company Corrie Churchill Fort Worth, TX
? H.A. Ott Motor Cars LLC Chip Ott Philadelphia, PA
? Jaguar of Great Neck Jack Weidinger Long Island, NY
? M2 Motors, Inc. Bernardo Moreno Ohio
? Manhattan Motor Cars Brian Miller Manhattan, NY
? Marvin K. Brown Auto Center Dave Grundstrom San Diego, CA
? O?Brien Auto Group Mike O?Brien Washington
? Palm Beach Motor Cars Ltd. Robert Simpson Palm Beach, FL
? Patrick Dealer Group Martin Stilwell Illinois
? Price Family Dealerships Tom Price San Jose, CA
? Price Family Dealerships Tom Price San Francisco, CA
? Price Family Dealerships Tom Price Sacramento, CA
? Rickenbaugh Cadillac Volvo Mary Pacifico-Valley Denver, CO
? Roger Beasley Highline Group David Stein Austin, TX
? Ron Tonkin Family of Dealerships Ron Tonkin Oregon
? Serra Automotive Joe Serra State of Michigan
? Serra Automotive Joe Serra Pasadena, CA
? Shelly Automotive Group Damon Shelly Orange County, CA
? Sullivan Luxury Cars LLC Mike Sullivan Beverly Hills & Santa Monica, CA
? Ted Britt Auto Group Raymond Britt Northern Virginia
? Warren Henry Automobiles Warren Zinn Miami, FL
ABOUT FISKER AUTOMOTIVE, INC.
Fisker Automotive, founded in 2007 by Fisker Coachbuild, LLC and Quantum Technologies (QTWW), is a privately owned American car company producing premium green automobiles. Global headquarters are located in Irvine, Calif., with Henrik Fisker as CEO. The company is backed by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Palo Alto Investors and the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA). More information is available at www.fiskerautomotive.com.
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