A small, upstart carmaker has just received the kind of positive image and auto industry credibility which no new company could afford to buy, but only hope to develop over decades.

One of the nation’s largest auto dealer groups, Ron Tonkin Automotive in Portland, Ore., has signed with Fisker Automotive to sell their Karma luxury sedan and hardtop convertible plug-in hybrids, which will use an extended-range gasoline/electric hybrid system similar to that developed by General Motors for their Chevrolet Volt and, in Europe, the Opel Ampera.

When a well-known dealer opts to carry an all new and unfamiliar make or model, it immediately lends respectability to that carmaker.

And the young carmaker says achieving 100 mpg with Karma is not out of the question.

The cars will not come cheap, with base prices well north of $85,000; GM’s Volt is expected to start at over $40,000 when it debuts in 2010, if and when it does indeed become a reality.

As for Detroit-built high-milers, Chevrolet’s 2009 Malibu hybrid starts at $25,555 and Ford’s 2010 Fusion hybrid is expected to have a base price of $27,270 when it becomes available later this year.

“Early adopters” of all kinds of high-tech products tend to be college-educated with high incomes; that means Santa Monica, as it already is with Asian-made hybrids, will be a hotbed of sales for Karma. Wonder if Buddhists get a discount or a bucks-off coupon to use for a Karma purchase in their next lives?

Fisker wouldn’t answer our questions concerning potential dealers in the Santa Monica area, but anyone interested in the cars can visit the corporate Web site at www.FiskerAutomotive.com or call the company’s Irvine headquarters at (714) 888-4255. Fisker has financial backing from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Palo Alto Investors and QIA.

According to dealer Ron Tonkin, also a former president of the influential National Automobile Dealers Association, the Fisker factory has already received orders for 931 Karmas. How influential is NADA? At their recent annual convention in New Orleans, former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton both addressed the dealers and took part in a panel discussion.

Henrik Fisker, a former designer for BMW, Ford and Aston Martin says each Karma, both the four-door, four-seat sedan and two-door, four-seat hardtop convertible S model, will be built to each customers’ specifications.

According to Fisker, “Karma uses ‘q-drive’ plug-in hybrid technology, developed for Fisker by Quantum Technologies. A fully-charged Karma burns no fuel for the first 50 miles. Venture further and the small gasoline engine acts as a generator to keep the lithium ion battery pack charged.

“Once the 50-mile electric range has been exceeded, the car operates as a normal hybrid vehicle. This balance of electric and gas range makes it entirely possible that Karma drivers who charge their car overnight and commute less than 50 miles a day will achieve an average fuel economy of 100 mpg per year.”

The Karma sedan’s base price is $87,900. Karma may be eligible for a $7,500 tax credit. The Karma S hardtop convertible is planned to start production at the end of 2011. Though no price has yet been set, the company says the drop-top will be priced “significantly higher” than the sedan.

Karma’s bodies will be built in Finland, by automotive R&D and small-production run specialist Valmet; Porsche uses Valmet to produce their super-tight Boxster and Cayman models.

Fisker lists some impressive specs for the new rear-wheel drive cars, claiming 0-60 mph in less than six seconds, a top speed of 125 mph and two driving modes: efficient economy and sport. As in other hybrids, regenerative brakes capture heat produced by braking and uses that energy to help recharge the lithium ion battery pack; as is planned for the next-generation Toyota Prius. Solar panels on Karma’s roof will help charge the batteries and aid in running the air conditioning system, too. Fisker adds a low center of gravity provides an “optimal sport vehicle driving dynamic.” Karmas are expected to have a range of over-300 miles.

Green Car Journal has selected the Karma as a finalist in its annual Green Car Vision Award competition.

Quick, someone call Larry David!

 

Steve Parker has covered the world’s auto industry for over 35 years. He’s a two-time Emmy Award-winner who reported on cars for almost a decade at both KTLA/TV5 and KCBS/TV2. He is a consultant to the NBC-TV show Whipnotic and the show’s companion website, www.Whipnotic.com. He created, writes and moderates the only all-automotive blog on The Huffington Post at www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-parker. Contact Steve through his own automotive issues Web site at www.SteveParker.com.