As Fisker buys GM plant, Big Auto sees its plug-in hybrid future
Far from its roots building Pontiac, Saturn and Opel sports cars for GM, the factory will produce a car code-named "Project NINA," a family-oriented plug-in electric vehicle. The car will be targeted to a very different consumer for Fisker, which has yet to bring a product to market. Its first concept, a gorgeous-but-spendy plug-in sports car called the Karma, received raves for its beauty and shock for its impracticality when the company secured a $528 million Department of Energy loan in September. The company is taking pre-orders for the car, which should be delivered in 2010.
And on Fisker's website, the focus is decidedly high-end: the company calls itself "a green American premium sports car company with a mission to create a range of beautiful environmentally friendly cars that make environmental sense without compromise." Project Nina, then, may be an afterthought. The new family sedan will be sold at a much more accessible price point: around $40,000 after a $7,500 tax rebate. Company officials say that "Nina" is a reference to Christopher Columbus' ship, "symbolic of the automobile industry's transition from old world to new."
This is a transition indeed, if by "old world" one is referring to the old guard of Detroit. Though the $528 million DOE loan raised hackles of consumer and business groups when it was initially granted -- the Karma seemed out of reach for most consumers, and is being completed in Finland -- it paled in comparison to the conditional loan commitments handed out to Ford ($5.9 billion) and Nissan ($1.6 billion). Tesla Motors, whose first car was targeted to an even more extravagant audience than Fisker, also received a commitment of $465 million. The loan will be used for a car that sounds remarkably similar to Fisker's Project Nina, "an all-electric family sedan that carries seven people and travels up to 300 miles per charge," at $49,500 after the tax rebate.
It's hard to find a more worthy use for DOE money than to buy a just-mothballed GM plant. The plant cost $18 million and will result in an investment of at least $175 million in the local economy by way of plant upgrades; ultimately, 3,000 local folks will be employed to produce a green car worthy of the American family. And it's a huge win for blue-collar Wilmington, which Fisker says it picked because of its "access to shipping ports, rail lines and available skilled workforce," as well as the factory's "size, production capacity, world-class paint facilities."
The only open question now is whether the American family will be able to afford more than 100,000 of the $50,000 electric family sedans a year. Tesla hasn't said how many cars a year its facility will produce, though it plans to employ about 1,000 workers somewhere in California. They can build it, but will they come?