Somewhere in cyberspace, an anonymous scribe is preparing an entry for Fisker Automotive, Inc. in Wikipedia’s List_of_defunct_automobile_manufacturers_of_the_United_States.
Fortunately for investors in Fisker Automotive, this week the media’s attention is focused on much more serious events happening in Boston. Sure, Fisker’s filing for bankruptcy will make the news, just not for nearly the number of news cycles usually devoted to this kind of failure. Bloviating “experts” will excoriate the Obama Administration for giving Fisker a $528.7 million Department of Energy “Advanced Technologies Vehicle Manufacturing” loan. Automotive executives will say that they knew Fisker had bad karma. Blah, blah, blah….
In Los Angeles, we have different tea leaves that pick winners and losers in the rarefied niche market of advanced technology hybrid and electric vehicles. Roaming our streets on a daily basis is a never-ending parade of beautiful, fast, exotic, expensive and classic cars – not to mention the countless hybrids. LA has a large enough market for low-volume high-tech, advanced drivetrain vehicles that low volume, expensive cars have a place here. If we like it here, the vehicle and/or its underlying technology stand a good chance of expanding and flourishing.
On any given day driving around Metro LA, you can see exotic cars like the Honda FCX Clarity, a Tesla Roadster or a Mercedes-Benz B-Class FCV (Fuel Cell Vehicle). The Chevy Volt is more popular than the Chevy Cruze. The BMW ActiveE isn’t a stranger. Last year, the Toyota Prius was the best-selling vehicle in California – no surprise to anyone as you can’t drive anywhere without being surrounded by them.
When CODA Automotive opened up its first store in the fall of 2011, in the Century City Shopping Mall, I visited the store and tested the Coda – the company’s first offering, an all-electric sedan. That was November 2011 and I pronounced the Coda dead-on-arrival. The $45,750 (later reduced to $37,250) Coda was far to expensive, even with up to $10,000 in federal and state tax credits. It borrowed styling from a decades-old still-born Mitsubishi econobox and I found it primitive and uncomfortable. It was a battery and a drivetrain in search of a body. No one bought it.
By the time CODA Automotive abruptly ceased nearly all operations in December 2012, the LA Times reported that it had sales of no more than 78 vehicles based on a recall notice issued by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. I never saw one on the open road.
By contrast, the Nissan Leaf was less expensive, thoroughly modern, futuristic-looking and far better equipped. And the Leaf was backed by an extensive network of Nissan dealers. Last year, Nissan sold 9,819 Leafs. Last month (March 2013), Nissan sold 2,236 Leafs. Today, the Leaf is a common sighting in LA.
With the arrival of Fisker Santa Monica in 2011, the stage was set for “volume” sales of the highly-anticipated Fisker Karma, an extended-range electric vehicle. Suddenly the Fisker Karma was all over the wealthier areas of Metro LA. Justin Bieber bought (or was given) one painted in bright chrome and was notoriously chased by the paparazzi. Leonardo DiCaprio had one. Wealthy Santa Monica entertainment executives with the need for a green veneer but a disdain for a common Toyota, were customers.
In 2012, the curvaceous cramped, four-door, six figure, five thousand three hundred pound Karma became a common sight in LA. It was like the iPhone 5 of the wealthy eco-conscious car buyers. Flash with a bit less guilt.
But as with everything in the tech industry, things can change instantly and customers are fickle. The batteries caught fire. Consumer Reports bought a Karma and it bricked. Battery packs were recalled. Fisker stopped production of the Karma and lost thousands of cars in Super Storm Sandy. On October 16, 2012, A123 Systems, Inc., the supplier of the battery pack for the Karma, did the corporate version of bricking.
Even if 2012 had been clear sailing for Fisker, its fate was sealed when the pure electric $100,000 Tesla Model S debuted last July. With the 85 kWh flat-floor battery pack, an EPA certified range of 265 miles, a much larger interior and gobs of cargo capacity, that stunning 17 inch infotainment/control display and sports car handling, suddenly the $100,000 Karma’s 32 mile EV range and “extended range” of up to 300 miles didn’t seem so impressive.
A black hole has been sucking the Karma off the streets of LA and like the Big Bang, the Model S has exploded on the city, everywhere I go. A shady, apartment lined street in West Hollywood. Abbot Kinney in Venice. BOA Steak House. The Palm Springs Art Museum. Ralph’s parking lot. Sunset Plaza. USC. The 405. The 10.
Range anxiety? Not with that big battery pack and the $1,200 optional Tesla Twin Charger that can double the charging speed at home or the office. And if you’re on the road, locate one of Tesla’s Supercharger Stations that can recharge the 85 kWh battery – more than 250 miles of range – in one hour. Pretty awesome.
We are witnessing very rare automotive history here in Los Angeles with the life and death of Fisker and the Karma and the rise of the Tesla Model S. I’ve never seen a car become so hot so fast and then nearly disappear to be replaced by another even hotter car — not even when the Hummer disappeared with the fuel spikes in 2008 to be replaced by the Prius.
I kind of feel bad for the Karma. She got dumped for a virgin electric with a bigger battery, a dazzling infotainment interface (17 inches!) and sports sedan handling good enough for the exclusive six-figure German mash pit. However, I don’t see too many Karmas being sold into indentured servitude on the resale market. Only a few thousand were ever produced and sold, and none really saw hard time, so while you won’t see many on the road, most will find their way into private collections and museums.
As the bankruptcy vultures prepare to dismantle Fisker, we can be sure that Hernik Fisker, while a talented designer, is not destined to be the Henry Ford of ER/EVs, despite sharing his initials. Fisker Automotive will take its place in the sprawling automotive graveyard among such former luminaries as Packard, Duesenberg, Tucker, Studebaker, Pontiac and Plymouth. The automotive business is complex and cut-throat and few start-ups survive. R.I.P. Fisker Automotive.
April 25, 2013, Editor’s note: On April 1, 2013, Tesla announced that it had delivered “more than 4,730 Model S Cars” for the first quarter of 2013. For the same period, the competition sold:
- Audi A8 – 1,462
- Audi A7 – 2,083
- BMW 7-Series – 2,338
- BMW 6-Series (including the Gran Coupe) – 2,071
- Lexus LS – 2,860
- Mercedes-Benz S-Class – 3,077
- Mercedes- Benz CLS – 1,695
So when you look at the $100,000+ luxury class, the Tesla Model S seems to be ahead of the class. These statistics support my observations that the Model S has transcended the EV range anxiety and it’s overall excellence is attracting its share of the luxury market. This is an amazing accomplishment for the first mass-produced car from a start-up manufacturer.