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Fisker Doing Brisk Business in Tesla Territory

With horsepower and hybrid technology, luxury motorists have best of both worlds at new Palo Alto dealerships.

Two luxury car companies have come under one Palo Alto franchise to offer wealthy car enthusiasts their choice of a 400-horsepower hybrid or the fastest car on the road—oh, and they're right down the street from Tesla's headquarters.

McLaren Automotive, the British maker of the MP4-12C beast that tops out at 205 miles-per-hour, and Fisker Automotive, producer of the Karma gas-electric hybrid, are test driving both models out of their new location at 4190 El Camino Real, on the corner of Arastradero Drive. They opened their doors about a month ago.

Inside the sparkling new showroom, Gary Anderson, the managing director for both dealerships, hustles between phone calls while prepping for an 11 p.m. test drive with a potential buyer. The sleek and curvaceous Karma EcoChic is parked outside, plugged into a power source.  

Things are hectic, he said, because Fisker and McLaren landed a sweet spot in this week's San Francisco International Auto Show.

"We have had so much interest," Anderson said, referring to the the more affordable Fisker hybrid.

Before the customer arrived, Anderson took the silver four-door hybrid for a spin. The EcoChic is Fisker's flagship model. Leather and suede interior. Twenty-two inch rims. A pounding, touch-screen stereo system and a push-button drive-park-reverse mechanism that looks more science fiction than shifter.

The engine barely sputtered a sound as he accelerated on the way to 60-miles per hour in 6.1 seconds. Even with that raw power, the Karma manages 112 miles-per-gallon under optimal conditions, according to the company.

"It is the most amazing vehicle I have driven," Anderson said. "And I have had the luxury of driving almost everything with four wheels."

True speed freaks, however, might want to shop next door at McLaren. The company set a record in 1998 with its F1 model, which maxed out at  243 miles-per-hour. The slightly slower MP4-12C — a car Anderson called a "Ferrari beater" — has a 3.8 liter V8 engine that boasts just under 600 horsepower. 

But with an average price of $275,000, many wealthy buyers will be priced out of the ultra-luxury line.

Fisker's three Karma models, on the other hand, run between $98,500 and $112,000. And Palo Alto packs the consumer spending power to make Fisker a mover, Anderson said. Since it opened, the Palo Alto location has received close to 80 orders.

On Tuesday alone, three people test drove the Karma and two put down the required $5,000 deposit to buy one. Anderson said buyers should expect a three-month shipping period. 

The company would not release overall sales or production numbers, but a company spokesperson said Fisker hopes to hit the 15,000 sales mark in the next two years, once the assembly line pumps out three new hybrid models, including a convertible and possibly a SUV. The Karma line is manufactured in Finland, but Fisker bought and is currently overhauling a former GM plant in Delaware to manage the future models.

Fisker developed and uses "EVer," a technology similar to Toyota's "synergy drive" found in its Prius line. Karma's internal combustion engine, for example, charges the battery while running.

The battery, which runs the length of the car and weighs 900 pounds, charges in six to 14 hours and offers a drive range of roughly 50 miles. At that point, the gas engine aids the dual-electric motors, boosting the range to about 300 miles. If plug-in stations can't be found, Fisker hybrids can run on gas alone in a pinch.

That aspect separates Fisker from its high-end competitor and bitter rival Tesla Motors, which makes smaller, all electric cars for roughly the same sticker price. For buyers looking for a pure-green machine, Tesla has a showroom in Menlo Park.

The Fisker-Tesla feud dates back to a 2008 lawsuit filed by Tesla against Fisker's Danish-born owner Henrik Fisker, claiming he stole and used Tesla technology while working for the company as a consultant. Fisker had been hired for $875,000 to design the exterior of Tesla's first car. The case was thrown out of court later that year, resulting in Fisker winning $1.44 million in attorney's fees.

"It's not a friendly rivalry," Anderson said. "But our cars are very different. Fisker is hybrid, so our customers have no range-anxiety."

A Tesla representative could not be reached for comment.

Despite that bad blood, both companies share something substantial. They are start-up leaders in the rebirth of the American auto industry. From the Smart Car to the Chevy Volt to the Nissan Leaf, hybrid and pure-electric technology is emerging throughout the auto market. 

The shift caught the eye of the Obama administration and the Department of Energy, which loaned Tesla and Fisker $465 million and $529 million, respectively. 

The loans, designed to spur development and create jobs, originated in a $7.5 billion congressionally-approved reserve fund created to cut American dependence on foreign oil, said Dan Leistikow, the department's director of public affairs, in a statement last month.

"These are start-up companies that intend to grow over time," he said in the statement. "So they are following a common pattern for emerging companies: starting with a premium product for a smaller customer base, and eventually moving to lower cost, mass-marketed products as they gradually scale up operations."

In Palo Alto Tuesday, Anderson agreed that prices for hybrid and electric cars will steadily drop into most consumer price ranges. With its tech-savvy, wealthy residents, Palo Alto alone is expected to sell between 200 electric and hybrid cars and many thousands in the next few years, Mayor Sid Espinosa said, quoting a study by the California Energy Commission.

And it could bring a windfall to the city if car shoppers buy local. With close to 80 Fiskers on order from the Palo Alto location alone, the city stands to bring home $80,000 in sales tax this financial year.

"We are planning for this increase," Espinosa said.

The city has been in the coming years. , and the .

In the meantime, car buyers have another popular alternative to the dominant Tesla. Whether Fisker can truly make a dent, however, remains to be seen.

Preeva Tramiel November 23, 2011 at 04:40 PM
Anyone interested in how plug-in cars can help the planet should come to the talk Felix Kramer is giving at Etz Chayim this Friday.
Adam Bryant November 24, 2011 at 02:48 AM
Test drove the Fisker Karma last week. Amazing car! I left the deanship with 11 mi lift on the battery and returned with 17 mi. I used the stealth mode to get up to 90 on the HWY. The Hill Mode actually charged the battery quite substantially. Torque was very impressive too. P.S. - I ordered one!!!

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