As Fisker buys GM plant, Big Auto sees its plug-in hybrid future

When a General Motors plant in Wilmington, Del. shut down this July, it left 550 people out of work. But the city isn't mourning the loss of Big Auto so much anymore because Very Little Electric Auto is taking its place. Fisker, maker of small plug-in hybrid cars, announced Tuesday it was buying the recently-shuttered GM plant in Wilmington, and in 2012 would have 2,000 people working there. By 2014, the plant could be making 100,000 cars a year and employ 2,500 workers.

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?

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