Fisker’s real problem

Fisker Karma

I don’t want to mimic what everyone else has been saying because I think Fisker’s problems lie deeper than everything you’ve seen on the news. Sure batteries catching fire, faulty management, government money, and all of that is very exciting, but for me it is all just the icing on top of the cake which is their true fundamental problem. So for this article, just forget all of the recent news you’ve heard regarding Fisker, and let’s take a look at the car itself. Let us inquire as to who exactly would buy a Fisker Karma to begin with.

To start with, we should look at the Karma for what it is: a luxury sedan with a base price around $100,000. It has a gorgeous, sleek design, but its interior, while very eco-friendly, doesn’t match the level of quality found in other cars in its segment. The back seat is also pretty cramped, compromising its viability as a four door sedan. The Karma uses the same extended range hybrid design as the Chevy Volt, just with a lot more to give. On paper it would seem it has some serious grunt, with 402hp and 960ft/lbs of torque on tap.  However, its performance is compromised both by its 5300lb curb weight and its traction control system constantly having to keep the reins on that astronomical torque figure. The result is a relatively lackluster 5.9 second 0-60 sprint, and a top speed of 125mph. With a full charge, the Karma can go 50 miles without using any gas, but once the gas motor is active it will see around 30mpg. Objectively, that is what the Karma is, and that is what your money actually buys you.

Fisker Karma compared to a Lexus LS

Now, of course Fisker did have a grandiose vision of his car becoming the must have accessory for wealthy tree-hugger types the world over. The Karma was meant to be as much a lifestyle and political statement as a mode of transportation. Conceptually this was a great premise on which to found a car company.  In reality, both the car and the customer base didn’t deliver. The car was supposed to get around 100mpg, but it wound up getting one-third of that. Also, rich people were supposed to rise to the call of environmental responsibility, but instead most of them have continued to buy the fast, outrageous gas guzzlers they’ve always loved.

The truth about Hybrid cars, and I mean at any price point, is that they are really all about saving you money from week to week. Sure, there are a certain percent of owners who wear their cars smugly as statement to society, but most of the customer base just wants to cut down on transportation costs. Now, let that sink in….

When driving through a neighborhood with large houses, you will usually find as many Hondas and Toyotas as BMWs, Mercs, and Audis. Wealthy people who don’t have a special interest in cars tend to see cars purely as a mode of transportation, just like anyone else. They also tend to be pretty good at managing costs, especially if they are self made. That means they will want a car that gets great fuel economy, so they won’t be spending unnecessary funds on simply getting from place to place. Sounds like they might want a Karma, right? Wrong, because nobody with that sort of mindset would ever justify spending $100 grand on a car. For the record, a loaded Camry Hybrid is a far better fit for them, costing around $35 grand, with more useable space, just as much comfort, and far better fuel mileage. The point is that simply having a lot of money will not make you interested in a Fisker Karma. There needs to be some interest in having a flashy car in order to justify spending six figures.

Fisker Karma

Ok, so now that we have narrowed down the perspective market a bit, what if you are rich, and do want a flashy car?

Well, you could have a Karma, or you could have a number of equally flashy, but infinitely more fun, cars for the same price. Just to name a few, you could have one of just 300 Jaguar XFR-Ss that are being built, a Mercedes CLS 63 AMG, or the upcoming Audi RS7. All of those cars have speed, and sound great when you open the throttle, which makes them a much, much more thrilling experience for your $100,000.

Oh right, but what about gas mileage? Come on silly, have you forgotten?…. You’re rich!!! Going to the gas station is a minor inconvenience, not a life and death budgeting decision. Oh, and just think how much more time you’ll have with a faster car because, naturally, you will get everywhere quicker. Yea, forget the Karma….

“But… but…. what if I want to be one with Mother Earth, because I love her and all of her animals and stuff?” If you are wealthy, and are on the greenie bandwagon (or if your publicist says you are, so you need to appear that way), then the Karma does seem like an attractive option. There is just one little problem, called the Tesla Model S, which can be had fully loaded for the starting price of a Karma. The Model S will appeal more to the hardcore eco-friendly types because it uses no gas at all, whereas the Fisker still has a gasoline generator on board. The Tesla also happens to be significantly faster than the Karma in acceleration, and has a gorgeous exterior design that was penned by… wait for it… Henrik Fisker. The Tesla hasn’t proved perfect, but I think it is definitely a better option, and value for money, than the Fisker. Also of note, I believe the onset of Model S sales, and Fisker’s accelerated decline took place at around the same time… coincidence?

As an object, I really love the Fisker Karma. It has a beautiful presence about it, especially when you see one go by amongst normal traffic. The problem is that it is still a car built by a young start-up company, and that means there will be major quirks under its stunning facade. In my opinion, its biggest flaw turns out to be not something tangible, but a fundamental miscalculation at its conceptual core. The Karma was made for a hopelessly small market niche, a market niche that it has since been eclipsed from by Tesla. Now pile on top of that the Karma’s underachieving MPG numbers, and all of the fires, lawsuits, and other problems that have plagued the company in recent years, and you have the perfect recipe for bankruptcy.

Fisker Karma

So what can we learn here?

First off, people spending six figures on a car don’t want to compromise on the image, performance, and quality that they get from other cars in the range. If it is going to be green, it had better be fast, flashy, and screwed together tightly as well.

Secondly, don’t found a company based on solving a problem that doesn’t exist. Making an expensive car that will save wealthy people a few bucks on gas is, and always will be, entirely pointless. An expensive car that gets good mileage is great, but it needs to have more desirable characteristics as well. Look at the Porsche 918, supposedly it will see 78mpg, but it’ll also do 0-60 in 3 seconds and 200+mph.

Third, don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Fisker promoted the Karma so much before it launched, and they made very public claims of it getting around 100mpg. So naturally, it was quite damning when the EPA came back with mpg numbers in the 30s.

Lastly, starting a car company in the right area of the market is everything. Costs are high, so large scale production is usually not realistic, but in the case of Fisker they went a little too high-end in my opinion. There is a sweet spot in the $50k-$100k range where your higher costs are acceptable, but enough people can still afford to buy your car. If you go higher than this, you basically need to be in the stratosphere of the automotive market, like Pagani or Koenigsegg, and then branch down from there. In my opinion, Fisker probably should have started with their proposed Atlantic model, which would have been in that ideal price range I mentioned. That would have put their product within reach of a far bigger, more relevant clientele.

I will definitely miss Fisker, but it will be a valuable business case for future generations. The Karma seems to be destined to become one of those obscure cars that you will see at car shows from time to time; like a Delorean, but with less cocaine.

-Nick Walker

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