The Sexy Green Car

James Bond owes a debt to Henrik Fisker, a renowned designer of cars built by BMW and Aston Martin—including two driven by 007 himself. Now Fisker is turning his considerable experience to the as-yet untapped market for luxury green cars. In 2005, Fisker left as design director for Aston Martin to found his own company, Fisker Coachbuild, in Irvine, California. Teaming up with Quantum Technologies, a producer of alternative-fuel engines, Fisker wowed the Detroit Auto Show last month with the Fisker Karma, a plug-in hybrid electric sedan that not only runs 50 miles without gas, but looks good at the same time.

Fisker says the Karma will be available by the end of 2009, ahead of other plug-in hybrid offerings from bigger players like General Motors' Volt. With a price tag of $80,000, the Karma would be the first green luxury car on the market. Fisker talked with NEWSWEEK's Christopher Flavelle about whether the world is ready for plug-in luxury. Excerpts:

Flavelle: Why did you choose to build a plug-in hybrid car, instead of using other green technologies like hydrogen fuel cells?
Fuel cells are too far out in the future. This is about what we can do now to make a drastic impact on the environment and to cut the import of foreign oil. For me, that's plug-in hybrid technology.

What makes the Fisker Karma unique?
The Karma is the first environmental car that involves absolutely no sacrifice for the consumer. It's the first sexy green car on the planet.

You said in January that the Karma would be the first plug-in hybrid on the market. Do you still expect to beat GM?
We're going to be on the market at end of 2009. I don't think it's important for GM to beat us, because we're in a different market, the luxury market. I think GM will probably be the first one in the mass market. But I think it would be important for BMW or Mercedes or Lexus to beat us, because that's their market. And they won't beat us.

How do you compete against the bigger automakers?
We're a smaller team, we're more efficient, and we can move faster. And the drive train had already been developed by Quantum. Therefore we're able to make money with an $80,000 car, where maybe a large manufacturer would not be able to because they have a higher overhead. And they have a much longer development period, which creates a much larger budget.

Al Gore has already ordered one of your cars. Any other celebrity orders?
What I can tell you is that since we showed the car in January, we're getting about a hundred orders a week. Considering that we're an unknown brand, that shows a huge untapped market for good-looking environmental cars. Right now the image of an environmental car is a bad-looking, tiny little vehicle.

Lithium ion batteries used in laptop computers have been known to burst into flames. Are you worried about convincing people that those same batteries will be safe in cars?
We're using different chemistry than what's used in laptop computer batteries. We've solved the issues with overheating. And we've solved the lifespan issue, which is now a minimum of ten years for our battery.

Bricklin has promised a plug-in hybrid car that can run 50 miles on a single battery charge – the same distance as the Karma, but for just $35,000. Are people going to pay a $45,000 premium for the Karma?
We'll always have different [market] segments of cars. You will always have a Volkswagen, you will always have a BMW, and you will always have a Ferrari. Those are three different markets, and you will have the same with plug-in hybrid cars. But the reason we made an $80,000 car is because the drive train alone is very expensive. At this point, I don't see a business case for a plug-in hybrid vehicle that would be $35,000, because the power train is so expensive.

You've trumpeted the Karma as a car with an environmental conscience. But by targeting the luxury market, aren't you limiting the benefit of that green technology?
I wanted to create a car in the luxury market because I feel that the people that are most responsible to make a change are the people who can pay for the new technology to make that change. The guy who works at McDonald's, I don't think it's his responsibility to be the first guy out there to pay for this technology. I think it's the people who have the money. These people are the trendsetters everybody else will follow.

When you worked at Aston Martin, you designed the car that James Bond drove in "Casino Royale." Do you think Bond will ever take time between villains and martinis to plug in his car?
I'm sure James Bond has to plug in his cell phone at night just like everybody else. If he can plug in his phone, he can plug in his car. I think we'll have heroes driving around in plug-in hybrids, because with a plug-in hybrid you can drive completely silently. Which is very good when you have a secret mission.