The recession nearly killed the old Detroit, but it had been in decline for decades. Now a bunch of new Californian carmakers, technology companies and investors that think they can do things better: that they can build cars in America that are not only environmentally acceptable but desirable too.
America hasn’t made many of those in recent years.
Fisker – founded by former Aston Martin designer Henrik Fisker, whose new Karma extended-range electric vehicle we’ve just driven – is based in LA with AC Propulsion, which pioneered the electric drivetrains that underpin the Tesla and the Mini E.
Tesla is based in San Francisco, along with Better Place, which is building electric-car infrastructures around the world and pioneering new ways of paying for your motoring. The Silicon Valley venture capital firms like Kleiner Perkins and Draper Fisher Jurvetson that made their money with start-ups like Google are now putting their billions behind these new, clean-tech car companies, and some of the guys who founded those firms have put their own money in too.
So is California the new Detroit?
Will the next great automotive leaps come from these firms, and not the old-economy carmakers? And could one of them go supernova, Google-style, and become the next Toyota?
It’s easy to dismiss the idea when, until the launch of the Karma, only Tesla had actually put any cars on the road, and then only a couple of thousand £100,000 sports cars. But technology start-ups don’t follow normal growth patterns.
Henrik was getting ready to start building the Karma when the global financial crisis struck. But instead of wrecking his plans, it supercharged them. He had already designed the next Fisker, a smaller ER-EV codenamed Nina, available as a saloon, coupe and crossover and likely to cost around $40,000, or £35,000 when it comes to Europe.
He got a half-billion dollar low-cost loan from the Federal program designed to aid the ailing automotive industry, which has allowed him to get Nina ready for production way sooner than he could ever have hoped.
He was also able to buy a factory in Delaware shuttered by GM in the downturn in which he’ll build up to 100,000 Ninas each year. It cost him just $20m, instead of hundreds of millions, and he attracted nearly as much in grants for taking it on.
So along with Tesla, Fisker looks set to establish itself as one of only two successful new American car companies since the Second World War.
If Fisker succeeds, it won’t be despite the downturn, but because of it. But until now, he hadn’t built a single car. At a maximum of around 15,000 cars each year and with the manufacturing outsourced to Valmet in Finland, which also builds the Porsche Boxster, the Karma might seem a distraction compared to what Henrik plans next. But as he says, ‘this is our icon, our Porsche 911.’
It had better be good.
It is. To keep battery costs down, an extended-range electric vehicle has a smaller battery than a pure EV and the Karma will only travel around 50 miles after an overnight charge. But that’s enough for the daily needs of the vast majority of drivers.
After that, the Karma’s 2.0-litre, 260bhp turbocharged GM petrol engine cuts in, but it only acts as a generator, charging the battery and allowing you to drive as far as you like. But if your regular commute is fewer than 50 miles, or you can top-up with charge between trips, the petrol engine might never need to start.
It looks sensational, but you can see that for yourself.
It’s a four-door with supercar proportions; inside you sit low and snug and the view down the long hood is sensational. Hit the start button, then press ‘drive’ on the central console. A paddle behind the steering wheel selects either stealth mode in which propulsion is purely electric, or sports mode, in which the gas engine runs to maintain the battery’s charge. This allows you to choose when to use your electric range; you might want to save your tailpipe-emissions-free running for town. The paddle to the right of the wheel engages ‘hill’ mode, which offers two stronger levels of regenerative braking.
This becomes one of the most relaxing aspects of driving any type of EV; by anticipating, lifting off the throttle early and allowing the stronger ‘engine’ braking to do its work, you seldom have to shift your foot to the brake.
In Stealth mode the Karma is eerily refined; the noise and vibration of a regular engine are simply, oddly absent. It isn’t entirely silent though; there’s a little road noise from the huge tyres and you can occasionally hear the strange, sci-fi, metallic hum that’s being played to pedestrians to alert them to your presence.
Like other electric cars, the Karma delivers all its huge torque instantly, with a seamless, single-gear surge of acceleration; it has more than a standard Bugatti Veyron.
But at 2539kgs it’s a heavy car, and it only has one gear, so it can’t deliver supercar pace. Top speed is limited to 125mph but a 0-60 time of 5.9 seconds feels plenty brisk enough. As does every other aspect of its dynamic performance; the Karma’s steering, ride, handling and braking are all amazingly accomplished.
Henrik insisted on hydraulic power steering rather than the more efficient electric assistance more common in new cars in order to give better steering feel.
And there are a bunch of cool details you just won’t find on normal cars. The solar roof really stands out and is useful too, powering the air-con and audio and giving up to 200 miles of extra electric driving each year. The speakers that pipe the Karma’s synthesized soundtrack look like exhausts: a visual joke from Henrik. A glass panel in the centre console lets you see the lithium-ion battery built into the car’s ‘backbone’; concentrating the mass in the centre of the car improves handling. And a vegan trim package is an option.
Criticisms? The boot is tiny, the rear seats cramped and the noise of the petrol engine can be intrusive. Oh, and there’s the attention it gets. Even at a sedate pace through the centre of Milan, we got pulled over by a couple of motorcycle-mounted, car-enthusiast carabinieri. Pity stealth mode doesn’t make the Karma invisible.
The future of the US car industry?
The markets think these firms might be. In June 2010, Tesla became the first US carmaker since Ford in 1956 to go public, and it’s now valued at around $3bn on the strength of its plans to build 20,000 of its new Model S each year from a former Toyota plant in ‘Frisco, starting next year.
Henrik is busy retooling his factory for the Nina. This is real; it’s happening, and he and won’t discuss an IPO which means it probably isn’t far off. Most importantly his Karma feels like the future to drive, and it has the looks and the quality and the technological appeal to be that rare thing; a desirable contemporary American car.