Fisker rebrands, eyes late 2016 return

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A renewed focus, a new brand, a California-based factory and a growing market for luxury alternative-powertrain vehicles have former automaker Fisker eyeing a strong return in 2016.

But when the luxury line and its stunning plug-in hybrid offering hits dealerships, it won’t be as a Fisker Automotive offering but rather from Karma, the original handle of its first and only nameplate.

“It’s in our DNA,” the company explains. “It’s a name that respects our past, while simultaneously reinventing our future. An awareness of what we are doing, and how and why we are doing it. It’s old. It’s new.”

The Fisker story began in the late 2000s. Designed by Danish co-founder and namesake Henrik Fisker, the company was headquartered in Anaheim, Calif., but built its cars at a facility in Finland. Its one and only nameplate, Karma, hit North America after Environmental Protection Agency certification issues ended in late 2011.

The cars carried a base price that topped $100,000 and quickly became a favourite of celebrities and automotive journalists alike. Movie star Leonardo DeCaprio became an equity investor and brand ambassador while Top Gear Magazine named it luxury car of the year in late 2011.

The sleek and luxurious four-door plug-in electric hybrids featured eco-friendly extras like a solar paneled roof and reclaimed lumber accents. Powering the sedans were two 120-kW motors from battery supplier A123 and a 2.0-L turbocharged VVT DI engine.

Its retail network was a forbearer in many ways to what Tesla has done around the world with many dealerships set up in traditional retail locations like shopping malls.

Unfortunately for Fisker and its fans, financial woes hobbled production after just 2,450 Karmas rolled off the line. Its battery supplier A123 Systems filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in October 2012.

Confounding the drama that month was the destruction of the 338 units parked at Port Newark, New Jersey when Hurricane Sandy pounded the north-eastern U.S. coastline.

Recalls, vehicle fires, funding missteps and unfortunate twists of fate eventually forced the company to file for bankruptcy in 2013. Chinese auto parts giant Wanxiang Group acquired Fisker’s assets for $149.2 million (U.S.) in 2014 with the goal of restarting the company under the Karma banner.

Intentions took a large step to fruition this summer when Wanxiang inked an 11-year lease on a factory in Moreno Valley, Calif.

Units rolling off the line there could reportedly be offered for sale as early as the middle of next year.

Exactly what will follow in terms of product remains a debatable topic. Aside from an updated Karma, analysts and industry watchers are wondering what car will come next if its sales market returns.

Former co-owner Fisker has previously stated Wanxiang employs upwards of 20 of the brand’s original designers and owns several of his designs as a part of the Chapter 11 purchase.

Norman Hebert, chief of Quebec’s Groupe Park Avenue dealership group, was one of only four Canadian Fisker retailers during its first run. He says that despite the passage of time, demand remains surprisingly high for the models he characterizes as timeless.

“I think we were the only dealer in Canada that continued to service their customers. We were only in business about six months and sold close to 30 vehicles,” he explains. “It seems sometimes there isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t have customers looking for used Fiskers. We are very excited to have that brand come back.”

The market for expensive, alternatively powered cars has certainly grown in the past few years. Tesla says it has pre-sold the first 15,000 units of its new Model X while numerous hybrid and electric offerings are beginning to flow forth from brands like Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, BMW, Audi and Lexus.

While questions remain about how its retail network will develop, becoming production ready and gaining certification will have to be the first of many vital steps to any kind of major comeback.