Fisker's sexy Karma hybrid will begin production on March 21 and ship to customers soon thereafter.  (Source: Fisker Automotive)
Fisker appears back on track and following in the footsteps of Tesla

For better or worse Tesla Motors Inc. pretty much provided the blueprint of how to start a successful electric vehicle company -- have wealthy donors fund an initial corporate launch; gather venture capital; seek government grants and loans; launch your vehicle; achieve profitability; launch an IPO to raise more capital; use government loans and venture capital to make the jump to large production numbers if desired.

Fisker Automotive seems to be following a similar path to success, though its road has been a bit rockier.  Now with the impending launch of the sleek Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), let's take a look at the past present and future of this company and its flagship vehicle.

I. Hype and Inflated Expectations

Fisker, much like Tesla was founded by an iconic figure.  While Elon Musk built a fortune off of internet startups like Zip2 and PayPal, Fisker's founder Henrik Fisker built a reputation design sleek sports cars, such as the Aston Martin DB9, Aston Martin V8 Vantage, and BMW Z8.

Founded in 2007, Fisker rapidly raised a couple hundred million in venture capital and secured a $529M USD loan initiated by the Bush administration U.S. Department of Energy and finalized in 2009 under the Obama administration.  With a sexy hybrid, dubbed "Karma", in the works, Fisker was lauded as Tesla's key rival.

In reality this might have been a bit of an unfair role to place Fisker in, though it seemed happy enough to play along.  Tesla Motors had been founded four years earlier and was only able to launch its Roadster after years of delays and losses.

Unsurprisingly, Fisker began to show similar signs, and some in the public began to write it off as another startup bust.  The release date was originally slotted for 2009 at a price of $80,000 USD.  Then last year Fisker said it would be ready to produce 15,000 EVs this year, priced at $87,500.  Clearly it missed that mark.

II. Success at Last

Still, Fisker appears to be turning the corner.  It has a solid relationship with battery supplier A123 Systems in Watertown, Mass. who will be providing it with production battery packs.  By contracting virtually every component of its vehicle to other companies (e.g. General Motors designs the door handles) Fisker has cut its development costs from $1B USD to $333M USD, and cut its development time from 5 years to 2.5 years.

And the Fisker Karma PHEV is at last complete.  At a recent press event Fisker showed off the attractive luxury sports sedan on the track.

Now it has released more details about the upcoming launch of the completed vehicle.  Production will begin March 21 and vehicles will begin to ship and sell in either March or April.  The final assembly will take place at contractor Valmet Automotive in Finland.

Actual production numbers are likely to be nowhere near the 15,000 Fisker originally promised; the U.S. government expects 1,000 Karmas to ship this year.  Still, the public seems eager to buy the vehicle -- the government has had to close a pre-order program it was ordering after over 3,000 customers placed $5,000 USD reservations for the vehicle.

The price point at the vehicle was bumped to $95,500 USD in December and that appears to be official price it will launch at.

While Fisker won't make the 15,000 vehicles a year mark this year -- the point it says it needs to achieve to become profitable -- it's a very real possibility for next year.

III.  The Vehicle Itself

The final version of the Karma sports a 50-mile all electric range and can accelerate for 0 to 62 miles per hour in under 6 seconds.  The vehicle has power aplenty.  Its twin electric motors produce 1,300 newton meters (960 lb-ft) of torque, more than the 1,250 N·m (920 lb-ft) mustered by the Bugatti Veyron.

The vehicle sports an estimated 50-mile all-electric range.  It gets approximately 50 mpg after that, with a gasoline generator feeding current to the twin electric motors.  The total range is expected to be similar to the 2011 Chevy Volt -- around 350 miles.

Billed as the "world's first luxury plug-in hybrid electric vehicle" the Karma offers some slick perks, such as a solar panel roof.  Like the roof on the Toyota Prius, it provides power to the in-cabin electronics.  But its higher-quality panels also provide enough juice to provide 4-5 miles of extra range over the course of a sunny week of driving.

But probably the biggest thing the Karma has going for it is looks.  The Porsche/Bugatti design heritage is clearly apparent in this vehicle's gorgeous lines.  While the Roadster 2.5 is certainly a good looking electric vehicle, the Karma may be the best EV on the road, helping wash away images of the bulbous Volts and LEAFs from the minds of the public.

IV. The Future

Top venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers and New Enterprise Associates this month valued Fisker at $600M USD and gave the company an additional $150M USD in venture capital funding.

Some expect a initial public offering of stock to be in the works and arrive shortly after the first run of vehicles finishes.  States Scott Sandell of New Enterprise Associates in an interview with VentureWire, "[The company has] potentially a huge return in a fairly short order. … Tesla is worth $3 billion. … The public markets want a few more of these. I think it could be a blockbuster IPO."

Fisker will face stiff competition from Tesla, but its lower price, longer range, design heritage, and different category (PHEV v. BEV) should help differentiate it from its foe.

Fisker, like Tesla has mass-market aspirations.  It's currently working on something called "Project Nina", which looks to launch an entry-level luxury sedan priced at $47,000 USD and delivered in higher volume.  That vehicle was originally to be released in 2012, but if the Karma's history is any indication, that date may slip to 2013 or later.

Still, Fisker seems to have a clear roadmap ahead of it to achieve profitability and then take the plunge into the red to reach the mass market.  And while it and Tesla have a bitter legal history (Tesla claimed Fisker stole its technology and used it in the Karma, but lost the suit), Fisker has Tesla to thank for illustrating the path to success (and convincing venture capitalists of the validity of that path), in some regard.

"We don't know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk." -- Apple CEO Steve Jobs

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