Thursday, September 20, 2012

Can Karma Be All About Looks?

I just saw my first Fisker.

A Fisker Karma.  Silver.  With a black glass roof lined with metallic circuitry.

This Karma Ain't No Chameleon

Fisker Karma is a brand-new hybrid luxury sedan that can get up to 52 mpg, despite its sprawling dimensions.  I saw my first Fisker today while gazing out a third-floor window in none other than Arlington, Texas, a city better known for sports and chain restaurants than exotic automobiles.

Who knows - the driver may have been a sports celebrity.  He was a fairly short, muscular white guy with a thick head of black hair.  I watched as he pulled into a bank's narrow parking lot, and found his Fisker was too wide to fit between a poorly-parked black pickup truck and an idling armored truck.  The driver waited for a while, and then got out of his car (that's how I know how tall he was), motioning for the driver of the armored truck to move up just a few feet.  But the driver in his burly rig just stared at him.

Was that karma, maybe?

Finally, the Fisker guy got back into his swanky ride, backed away, and drove off.  Since I was up high, I could see him soon coming around the back way into the bank's drive-through area.

Maybe he had to make a deposit to cover his first month's payment.

We have a hazy sky here in north Texas this afternoon, but still plenty of sun to keep the solar cells built into the Fisker's roof drinking up the energy rays.  That's why, from above, the car's roof looks like a sleek circuit board hovering over the passenger compartment.

Developed for around $1 billion by a team of automotive and ecological engineers headed by Danish designer Henrik Fisker, the Karma represents the leading edge of a brave new world of ultra-luxury low-emissions vehicles.  At least, if you view hybrids and all-electric cars apart from the coal and gas-powered factories powering the massive electric plants essential for this new automotive technology.  We may all be fooling ourselves that "green" cars are really helping to save our planet, considering that somewhere along the way, fossil fuels still play a huge role in how they operate.  But if the ride into our environmental fantasy is going to be in cars like the Fisker, we'll at least be stylin' our way around the proverbial bush.

Immediately, looking out the window from my perch, I could tell this was a different car, even before I could recall it's name.  Fisker is brand-new to the automotive world, completely separate from the Big Three and any foreign legacy car makers, except for its GM-produced engines that power each car's generator.  Its fluid, sexy styling invokes flashbacks to the Jaguars of old, and comparisons to today's Aston Martin Rapide - at twice the price - or maybe a late-model Maserati Quattroporte.  In any event, these are all relatively rare cars, even in the exotic environs of haughty north Dallas, where elite nameplates seem to breed in valet parking lots.

Earlier today, I was chided by a reader of an essay of mine about Mitt Romney and his $250 million fortune.  My reader thought I sounded jealous of Romney's wealth, which seems to be the typical reaction these days from conservatives who think pointing out millions of dollars in assets is akin to class warfare.

Chill, people!  Who's the one who preaches on this blog that it's the love of money that's the root of evil, not money itself?  Like many things, money is relative, and I only wish I had a relative with lots of it!  Okay, bad jokes aside, as long as anybody with money - whether it be somebody working a minimum-wage job or somebody with Warren Buffett wealth - tithes the portion of that money God directs them to, how they spend what's left over is more a matter of being responsible to God than being restricted by Him.

And "being responsible" is laden with cultural variables.

In the United States, spending $25,000 for an automobile is considered relatively normal and prudent, and hardly extravagant.  But in India or Bangladesh, spending that amount of money would be seen as absurd by most of the populace that barely earns that amount in their entire lifetime.  Meanwhile, spending $100,000 on a car like the Fisker is low-balling it, at least in the orbits of New York City's hedge fund titans, or the technology wonks out in Silicon Valley.

What Effect is This Cause Having?

Maybe it's because I've always had a weakness for cars, but if somebody can honestly afford to buy something like the Fisker, I say "congratulations, and enjoy it!"  Having said that, if I personally had the money to buy one, I'm not sure I would.  But not directly because of the cost.  Being the cynic I tend to be, I'd be anxious about some crazy uninsured driver hitting it.  And speaking of valet parking, I don't even let valet employees park my humble Honda Accord anymore, after one of them scuffed the bumper of my last Honda in the back lot of a Dallas restaurant.

It's also valid to point out that cars like the Fisker have a history of introducing new features and engineering to the broader, mass-consumption market.  I'm not crazy about professional car racing, but I can't deny that many of the safety standards and equipment we drivers and passengers enjoy today have come from NASCAR and other real-world racing venues.  Who knows yet the amount of technology Fisker and other new hybrid car manufacturers are pioneering that could make ordinary cars more environmentally-friendly in the future?  Indeed, a lot is riding on cars like Fisker's in more ways that one.  The fight over hybrid technology is so fierce these days, one of Fisker's competitors, Tesla, alleged in a lawsuit that Fisker had stolen some of its secrets.

As new as this technology may be, however, at least one part of the Fisker story seems to smell of the same old bad politics that have corrupted other environmental projects.  Fisker won half a billion dollars in guaranteed loans from our federal government, like the now-defunct Solyndra did.  Fisker also received $193 million in taxpayer-funded incentives to provide "green" jobs, even though the Obama administration knew Fisker is building these Karmas in Finland, of all places.  A mothballed GM plant Fisker purchased at a government fire sale will ostensibly be used for future cars in Fisker's pipeline.

That is, if Fisker can hold out that long.  Within weeks of its debut last fall, Fisker had to issue a recall, and has issued two more since then.  At least one fire has been definitively linked with their vehicles, and another fire may have been.  Such numbers wouldn't mean much for a mass-market vehicle, but Fisker has only sold a few thousand of their Karmas so far.

Some people with $100,000 to spend on a vehicle might let the car's incredible looks overrule a more pedestrian logic, and indulge themselves with one.  However, if you've earned that money yourself, you're probably also smart enough to consider your other, more time-tested options in this price class.

I spotted that gorgeous Fisker right away out of a parking lot full of cars, and a four-lane avenue teeming with traffic.

Maybe that kind of attention is still worth it to the guy who couldn't even get an armored truck to move a few feet out of his way.

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