The car got even bigger attention in July when pop singer Bieber was cited for reckless driving by the California Highway Patrol on the 101 freeway in Los Angeles. The chromed car was an 18th-birthday gift to the teen idol from his manager -- presented to Bieber on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
On a rainy night during November's Los Angeles Auto Show, Fisker sought to cash in on its star power by throwing a bash at the Santa Monica home of TV personality Lisa Ling, but it became just as much a showcase for the brand's challenges.
At the house, Henrik Fisher urged owners and press to dismiss the naysayers, saying there is everything to love about a plug-in car that drives gas-free for up to 50 miles. (The EPA rates Karma's electric-only range at 33 miles.) He said sales showed promise in the Middle East. And he urged everyone to take a peek in the garage to see the company's future, the Atlantic, looking very much like a slightly smaller version of the Karma.
In the living room, however, Posawatz was candid about the struggles. The longtime GM executive who headed the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric car program there took the top job at Fisker last summer, about six months after former Chrysler executive Tom LaSorda had taken the reins.
In particular, Posawatz was talking about the problem of finding a source for the batteries in the Karma. Without a restart of A123's production, Fisker will simply run out of cars to sell. At the auction for A123 Systems last month, Wanxiang Group outbid American rivals with a bid of $256.6 million for the defunct battery maker. But the U.S. government, through the Committee on Foreign Investment, would need to approve the deal that could transfer technology to China, home to a vibrant and emerging auto culture.
Until the battery issue is resolved, Karma production has been halted at about 2,500, far from the 15,000 cars a year that Fisker had predicted it would be selling when it was getting off the ground.
Before the recent holidays, Posawatz embarked on a tour of Europe to try to find a partner or rustle up investors for Fisker Automotive. In addition, the company has engaged Evercore, an investment banking firm with expertise in restructuring, for the search. Posawatz has denied Fisker will file for a bankruptcy restructuring, but the search underscores the company's troubles. It has also gone into cost-saving mode: Its workforce, which peaked in 2011 at about 600, has been cut in half.
Fisker's challenges seem to underscore the realities of automaking that have dissuaded newcomers since the days of Tucker. "The automotive industry is pretty old school," says Rebecca Lindland, the New York-based research director for consulting firm IHS Automotive. "It's not this glam, newfangled industry, but, man, is it an expensive place to live."
Automakers constantly underestimate capital requirements, she says. Even established automakers are constantly wheeling and dealing with each other to share plants or models, or find other ways to cut capital costs.
Fisker, on the other hand, arrives as basically a boutique maker that can't achieve those scales of operation. "Fisker is finding that even if things are going well, you still need billions of dollars," Lindland says. In the end, she says it's the basics that matter -- management, personality and marketing -- despite all the hype. Even then, "not everyone can win. We are going to have failures."
With a little help from DiCaprio, Bieber and other fans of plug-in cars, Fisker is working to remain one of the survivors.
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