Independent carmakers lead the way on plug-in hybrids

Henrik Fisker, chief executive of Fisker Automotive, poses with one of his most recent creations, the Tramonto.
(Irfan Khan / LAT)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Yet another environmentally friendly automobile is headed your way -- if you have a spare $80,000 or so.

Irvine-based car designer Henrik Fisker just announced plans to unveil a plug-in hybrid at the Detroit auto show in January and to have his high-performance gasoline-electric sedans ready for sale in the U.S. within 18 months.

If Fisker’s hybrid is too rich for your blood, and you’re patient, no worries.

Industry veteran Malcolm Bricklin, who introduced America to both the Subaru brand and the Yugo, also announced plans for a luxury plug-in hybrid sedan, saying his cars would be available in the U.S. by 2010. And he said the sticker price would be about $35,000.

Whatever the price, suddenly, the plug-in hybrid market looks crowded.

The hybrids on the road now are powered by a gasoline engine that is assisted by an electric motor and can run short distances at low speeds on electric power alone.

The plug-in hybrids on the drawing board will feature much more powerful battery packs that can power the car on electricity alone for many miles at highway speeds. And unlike electric cars, when the battery gives out, the gasoline motor takes over -- either to drive the wheels directly or to produce electricity to power the electric motor. The batteries could be recharged overnight at a household outlet.

Both Fisker and Bricklin are aiming for electricity-only ranges of 45 to 50 miles -- far enough to allow many drivers to spend most days cruising on electrons alone.

“Our car can become your main car,” Fisker says. “If you decide this afternoon, ‘Hey, I want to go to Las Vegas,’ you can do that. You can’t do that in an electric car.”

Plug-ins could be just the thing to satisfy car buyers looking for relief from high gas prices -- and for auto companies facing the possibility of much tougher fuel economy standards from the federal government.

General Motors Corp., Toyota Motor Corp. and Ford Motor Co. are pursuing plug-in technology but aren’t expected to have models in showrooms until shortcomings of the current generation of batteries are overcome.

Fisker is a well-known designer of high-end sports cars, including the BMW Z8 and the Aston Martin DB9 and V8 Vantage. To produce the plug-in hybrid, he has formed a joint venture with Irvine-based Quantum Technologies, which will provide the crucial battery and powertrain design.

While providing few details, Chief Executive Alan Niedzwiecki said his company had developed a lithium ion battery pack that solves the overheating problems that have complicated development of plug-ins.

“There are few automotive companies that have their own battery, and we’re one of them,” he said.

The joint venture, named Fisker Automotive Inc., will contract out the production of the cars to a vehicle manufacturer. Initial plans are to build 15,000 of the premium-priced vehicles a year, and then in four to five years introduce a second plug-in design priced at $35,000 to $40,000.

Fisker wouldn’t discuss financing, other than to say the company has attracted interest from venture capitalists and has enough cash for initial operations.

Bricklin, whose up-and-down auto industry career has earned him comparisons to P.T. Barnum, is raising money from a network of dealer-investors and also plans to announce more investors this month. He originally planned to build the cars in China but now is considering other sites.

Fisker said he was confident he could find buyers for his pricey plug-ins, especially because he plans to market the car heavily in Europe. He expects the car to be popular with movie stars and other wealthy individuals who want to be “eco chic.”

“We wanted to create a vehicle that’s environmentally correct but looks good and performs better than the car you’re driving today,” he said.

Another high-end, eco-friendly carmaker, Tesla Motors Inc. of San Carlos, Calif., is finding a receptive audience for its $98,000 electric roadster. The company has received nearly 600 orders for the high-performance car, which will be built in England and have a range of more than 200 miles.

“That’s way more than what we were anticipating,” said Darryl Siry, head of marketing and sales for Tesla. “We’re very happy with it.”

Tesla hopes to ship the first roadster this year and has plans to introduce a less expensive vehicle -- although still priced at more than $50,000 -- by 2010. That car will be assembled in New Mexico.

Rumors are swirling that the car, code-named Whitestar, will be a plug-in hybrid, which could give it a broader appeal than the electric-only roadster. Siry declined to comment on the rumors.

Jack Nerad, an auto market analyst at Irvine-based Kelley Blue Book, said independent carmakers like Fisker and Tesla are aiming to meet demand from consumers who are tired of waiting for GM, Toyota and the other auto giants to bring new technology to market.

“There’s a thirst from a segment of the public for environmentally friendlier vehicles than what is now available from the big manufacturers -- even beyond what is available in hybrids,” Nerad said.

“And this is fueling the entrepreneurial spirit. There are people who think they can make money at this.”