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First Plug-in Hybrid to Be Sold in the United States

In November, Fisker Automotive will begin sales of a car with 50 miles of battery-powered range.

The first plug-in hybrid to be sold in the United States will likely be the Fisker Karma, which is due out in November. Fisker Automotive, which unveiled the concept version of the Karma in January, recently raised $87 million to help put it into production. A number of other plug-in hybrids, including models from GM, Chrysler, and Toyota, are scheduled to come out in the next few years.

The price of green: The Fisker Karma, on display at the New York Auto Show, is a plug-in hybrid that can run on batteries alone for 50 miles. Price: $87,000.

The Karma, a luxury four-passenger sedan, can be recharged by plugging it in; it can then be driven on power from a battery alone for 50 miles. After that, an onboard gasoline generator kicks on to recharge the battery, extending the range by 250 miles between fill-ups. Power from optional solar cells on the roof will be used primarily to cool the car when it’s parked, but they could also partially recharge the battery. The car will run on a lithium manganese oxide battery made by Advanced Lithium Power, based in Vancouver, BC. The battery is similar to the one selected for the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid due out in November of 2010.

Henrik Fisker, a car designer and cofounder of the company, said at the New York Auto Show last week that the car is part of his effort to show that environmentally friendly cars need not be small and underpowered. To go with its performance, the car carries a hefty price tag of $87,000.

The car will indeed be fast, but it won’t be quite as green as some of the other plug-ins that will come out soon, in large part because of its size. Two 150-kilowatt electric motors together deliver 403 horsepower–enough to accelerate to 60 miles per hour in 5.8 seconds. (It takes the Volt about 9 seconds.) But that kind of acceleration is available only in something called “sport” mode, which uses power from both the battery pack and the gas-powered generator. Drivers will need to select the “stealth” mode to rely exclusively on electricity stored in the battery.

The stealth mode is a holdover from the origins of the vehicle’s propulsion system. The Q-drive system was developed by Quantum Technologies for military vehicles designed to have a quiet electric mode for “clandestine operations.” When the gas generator and battery are used together, the vehicle gets between 35 and 40 miles per gallon. That’s still better than conventional performance vehicles, but not as good as the Chevrolet Volt; when its gas generator kicks in after a 40-mile all-electric range, the Volt will get 50 miles per gallon.

Fisker Automotive is one of several small companies attempting to challenge established automakers by producing plug-in hybrids or electric vehicles. The most promising of these, according to Mike Omotoso, senior manager of power-train forecasting at JD Power and Associates, are Fisker Automotive and Tesla Motors, a company that is already producing its first car, the electric Roadster, a small, very high-performance car that can accelerate to 60 miles per hour in less than four seconds. The Roadster runs exclusively on power stored in its battery: it does not have an onboard generator to extend its range. In spite of Tesla’s lead in getting a car to market, it is expected to sell fewer cars than Fisker, Omotoso says. That’s because the plug-in hybrid design will make the Karma more appealing to consumers who want to travel long distances. (The Tesla Roadster can go 244 miles on a charge, but recharging it takes hours. The Karma can be refueled quickly.) JD Power estimates that Tesla will sell 500 to 800 cars next year, while Fisker Automotive is expected to sell more than 10,000.

Sun roof: An optional solar panel will generate enough electricity to cool the car when it’s parked in the sun. In the background is the new convertible plug-in hybrid from Fisker.

Fisker could have a narrow window of opportunity in which to establish itself, Omotoso says. GM, Chrysler, Toyota, and other major automakers have plans to produce plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles in the next few years that will likely be far less expensive than the Karma. Yet Fisker will have a few limited advantages in competing with the established automakers, Omotoso says. Unlike GM and Chrysler, it won’t be loaded down by legacy costs–overhead from large factories and bills for retiree pensions and health care, for example. It will also be able to draw on the same suppliers, so that as demand for GM plug-ins increases production and drives down costs for parts, those costs will also come down for Fisker. Eventually, the company intends to sell less expensive cars to a wider market. Last week, Henrik Fisker said that it may be possible to use very simple engines to recharge the battery and extend range. These could cost as little as $500, he said–far less than the $3,000 that a conventional engine can cost.

Fisker won’t be the first car maker to manufacture plug-in hybrids: a Chinese company called BYD, which is backed by Warren Buffett, is already producing plug-in hybrids in China. But Fisker will be the first to sell them in the United States. “With the first car that hits the market, people will judge the level of enthusiasm based on sales, and try to project from that what the future of these cars is,” says Felix Kramer, the founder of CalCars and a plug-in hybrid advocate. “If they stumble, if they have quality problems or people are disappointed in the product, then it sets everyone back.” Omotoso expects that consumers will pay particularly close attention to whether the cars have the advertised range and to whether the lithium ion battery packs prove safe and reliable. “If the consumer gets spooked by safety issues, consumers might say, ‘Let’s just stick with [conventional] hybrids,’” such as the Toyota Prius, Omotoso says, especially since they’re cheaper than plug-in hybrids. “The plug-in market could be strangled at birth if there are significant problems with the Fisker [Karma],” he says.

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