Road Car News

Electric storm brewing
Technology pioneers face contrasting fortunes. By Andrew Frankel

In recent weeks, two very different fortunes have visited America's two main players in the premium all-electric car market.

For Fisker, the news appears bad to the point of being potentially terminal. Fisker, you may remember, is the company started by former BMW and Aston Martin designer Henrik Fisker. The idea of the man who brought you the current Aston Vantage and BMW Z8 was to produce a four-door car styled like a coupe and powered by electricity, backed by an internal combustion engine acting as a generator when the batteries ran dry. The result was the fine looking Fisker Karma. I drove it a couple of years ago and, despite its weight and the curious noise made by the petrol engine when it cut in, found myself pleasantly surprised by its performance, refinement and build.

Of course the Karma was built largely with other people's money — including that of the American taxpayer — but orders rolled in and all seemed in order until last year. Indeed at the New York Auto Show Fisker showed its new saloon, the Atlantic, volume sales of which held the key to the company's long-term prosperity. But then the battery company that supplied Fisker, A123 Systems, filed for bankruptcy, stopping production of the Karma back in July.

The situation was salvageable but only by doing a deal with another car company to buy Fisker in whole or in part. For a while it looked like the Chinese giant Geely (which also owns Volvo) was going to step into the breach, but it apparently baulked at the terms of an almost $200 million loan from the US Department of Energy.

Next, Henrik Fisker himself left the company, though it's not clear whether it was due to his unhappiness at the prospect of being pushed aside in the ultimately abandoned Chinese deal or because of other unspecified disagreements with his fellow directors. It depends who you talk to.

Then in April Fisker announced it was laying off 75 per cent of its staff at its headquarters in Anaheim, California, in what many now see as a prelude to filing for bankruptcy.

A few hundred miles away in Palo Alto, the situation for Tesla could hardly look more different. Within the last month it has announced that demand for its all-electric Model S saloon is running ahead of target and that in the first quarter it delivered some 4750 vehicles compared to the 4500 estimated. Far more importantly, it has also indicated that, for the first time ever, the business is now profitable.

How has one company done so well while the other stumbled and, I fear, is on the brink of falling? There's no doubt that some of the reason is simple bad luck and another part is that Tesla is owned by Elon Musk, a South African billionaire entrepreneur with the resources to get such an ambitious project underway and then keep it there. It's worth noting also that Tesla has succeeded in getting an electric saloon on sale and is reaping the volume rewards it has brought, while Fisker's equivalent, the fine-looking Atlantic, has yet to look like going on sale.

If Fisker made a mistake, however, it was by choosing a brand-new venture to supply its batteries, exposing the company to a level of risk that Tesla, whose batteries come from good old Panasonic, was never likely to face.

What inferences can be drawn from these two distinctly different tales about the likely future success of the more affordable electric cars currently on sale or about to be sold in the UK? Not much, I fear. Progress on this front is still painfully slow as buyers shy away from high asking prices (even with government loans) and remain panicked by the idea not only of running out of current but also the many hours still required to replace it. Even Tesla's achievements would barely register on the sales charts of a large maker of conventional cars. In short, the case for electric cars, big, small, expensive or cheap is as yet far from being made.

Big chances at Maserati

Maserati has chosen a great name from its past to usher in the most radical business transformation of its 99-year history. If all goes according to plan by the middle of this decade, the new Ghibli saloon (above) and its Levante SUV counterpart will be the principal drivers behind an increase in annual sales from a little more than 6000 units per year today (fewer even than Ferrari) to about 50,000 — and all within the next two to three years.

The Ghibli comes first and has its sights set firmly on removing at least some sales from the established mid-sized German premium players such as the BMW 5-series, Mercedes E-class and Audi A6. Based on a shortened version of the platform already used by the full-sized Quattroporte, the Ghibli will be the first Maserati to come with the option of four-wheel drive. And while the all-wheel-drive option will probably not be available on UK cars, the diesel certainly will. And if you blanch at the idea of a diesel-powered Maserati, you're doing no more than imitating Porsche purists at the idea of a Stuttgart SUV 10 years ago: the resulting Cayenne was the most successful product launch in Porsche's history.

The diesel will be a 3-litre V6 and will certainly take the lion's share of sales in Europe and the UK. But Maserati's eyes will be focused on the lucrative sales grounds of China and America, where a similarly sized, turbocharged petrol V6 will account for almost all sales.

In time we can expect highperformance versions featuring the V8 engine already under the bonnet of the Quattroporte, while logic suggests a sleek estate in the style of a shooting brake would prove popular too.

Maserati's move is bold but could well succeed. The purists might hate the idea of a diesel Maserati saloon, but there are likely to be many more who need such a car in their lives and would be delighted for it to come with the cachet of having a trident on its nose. If it fails however, Maserati's next move is extremely hard to see.

Range Rover Sport arrives

Land Rover's new product offensive shows no sign of easing. After the runaway freight train success of the launches of the Evoque and new Range Rover, Land Rover will be aiming for a hat trick with its new Range Rover Sport unveiled at the New York Auto Show in March.

With styling that subscribes closely to Land Rover's new design language, the new Sport aims to pick up where its predecessor left off as the brand's most profitable car.

Unlike the old Sport, however, it is not based on the heavy Discovery platform but the lightweight aluminium underpinnings of the new Range Rover.

Land Rover's aim was to broaden the Sport's abilities in every area. Crucially it will be marketed as by far the most sporting model in the line-up to put clear air between it and the more luxury-orientated Range Rover. So while powertrain choice will be similar once the range is fully established, the Sport will be set up to prioritise maximum handling prowess rather than outright ride and refinement. But it will be more practical too, offering the option of two occasional seats in the boot to make it the first seven-seat Range Rover officially to go on sale.

Sales are due to start this summer, with prices ranging from £59,995 for an entry-level 3-litre V6 diesel (the same engine in a Range Rover costs £71,295) extending up to £81,550 for a top-of-the-range model with a supercharged 5-litre V8.

Boost for Cowley's future

When William Morris built his first car at a new facility at Cowley, Oxford, he could hardly have imagined that a century later it would have built 11,650,000 cars wearing the badges of 14 different marques.

Of course today it is known as Plant Oxford and a measure of its success is that of those cars, more than 2.25 million are Minis that have been built there in the last 12 years.

Today the factory churns out 225,000 Minis per year and supports 3700 jobs on site and thousands more in the supply chain. BMW has already committed £750 million to the next generation of Mini, the majority to be invested in production facilities at Cowley including the installation of 1000 new robots.