Why it may not be a good idea to re-launch the old Fisker Karma

The Fisker Karma is making a comeback, as the company’s new owners plan to bring the plug-in hybrid sedan to life once more next year. Will the rush to get the Karma back to market hurt its chances of success?

The new owners of Fisker Automotive, a once-promising startup electric carmaker, seem to be willing to stop at nothing to get the sleek Fisker Karma back into production as soon as possible. The current timeline rather optimistically targets a re-launch in early to mid 2015.

Wanxiang Group, a Chinese auto parts company that purchased Fisker for $149 million in February, has high hopes for the resurrection of the Fisker brand – but will consumers be prepared to buy a second iteration of the original problem-plagued Karma?

Out with the old, in with the...slightly less old

A report by Reuters citing sources close to the company suggests that the new Karma will be a lot like the old one, which was last seen as a 2012 model and made it into the hands of 1,800 customers before being shut down due to a whole host of problems.

“It will have to be nearly identical to the 2012 model, or it would need to go through (safety) testing and certification again," a person close to Fisker's suppliers said. The source indicated that essentially re-using engineering and old inventory would save both time and money.

One former supplier is skeptical of the new Karma’s chances without a significant upgrade to the original features: “You wouldn’t be buying something that’s ‘state-of-the-art’ necessarily.”

That is certainly a valid point, and should be a real concern for Fisker as it hopes to capture new customers who have high expectations of high-end automobiles. The luxury market in 2015 will not be the luxury market of 2012, and attempting to sell even a moderately outdated model for a six-figure price tag could be challenging at best.

However, a source close to Fisker did tell Reuters that the new Karma will be new in some respects. “Not 100 percent identical," the source said. "The new Karma will be different in many key areas. It will have noticeable upgrades.”

We certainly hope that source is right.

Does it have a chance to succeed?

The Fisker Karma and its new owners have quite a few obstacles to overcome if the new Karma is to erase the painful memories of its predecessor. For one thing, Wanxiang America president Pin Ni indicated last month that there are about “250 bugs” to work out before the Karma can see a production line once more.

The old Karma developed a reputation for glitches, and earned a scathing review from the influential magazine Consumer Reports. The name Fisker also doesn’t carry the most positive connotation as a result of the company’s failure and subsequent bankruptcy, particularly since it took a great deal of taxpayer money down with it.

Then there is the issue of dealing with disgruntled former suppliers, many of whom scrapped their tooling for the previous Karma after it went under along with their investment.

Finally, the biggest hurdle Wanxiang must clear in its quest to bring back the Karma is actually selling the vehicle. The previous edition sold just 1,800 out of an expected 11,000, and now the new iteration will have to win over skeptical customers who will likely be aware of the vehicle’s reputation and will have an increasing number of plug-in options to choose from.

Simply reintroducing the old 2012 Fisker Karma would be a mistake. It would save development time and money, but Wanxiang has made no secret of the fact that they will “burn as much cash as it takes to succeed,” as chairman Lu Guanqiu has said. And though the new owners are clearly eager to reach production as soon as possible, haste is rarely the best policy in the auto industry.

The Karma won’t sell on the merits of being a plug-in hybrid alone – a vehicle with a $100,000 price tag has to offer uncompromised luxury and refinement, driving experience, or both. The new Karma will require significant upgrades and near-perfect execution to have a chance at restoring honor to the Fisker name.

Or, maybe Wanxiang could just change the name...

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