Fisker Automotive

There's no doubt that Tesla is downshifting while Fisker has been grinding its gears. But it wasn't always that way.

In the wake of Tesla's recent success, it's easy to forget that there were once two California electric carmakers with bright futures.

Remember Fisker Automotive?

Both companies were back in the news this week. Tesla confirmed it will team with Panasonic to build a battery factory, and Fisker won approval of its bankruptcy plan to pay creditors and allow it to have a fresh start with Chinese investors, Wanxiang Group.

There's no doubt that Tesla is downshifting while Fisker has been grinding its gears. But it wasn't always that way.

Five years ago, many observers thought Fisker had just as much potential to make a go of it as Tesla. Elon Musk was still known as the SpaceX and PayPal guy who supposedly knew nothing about cars. Fisker, meanwhile, was founded and led by Henrik Fisker, an industry celebrity who designed sexy sports cars like the Aston Martin DB9 and the BMW Z8.

Separated by about six hours of California highway, Tesla and Fisker were billed as the new wave of American manufacturing, two electric carmakers that could do what the Rust Belt-anchored Detroit Three could not. Their rivalry became so heated, Tesla even sued Fisker in 2008 alleging theft of technology, with Fisker emerging as the nominal victor, netting $1.1 million in court fees from Tesla.

As recently as 2012, Tesla only had one car, the Roadster, which was built on a Lotus chassis with an electric-powered motor in place of a traditional engine. It was the definition of a niche product. That year, however, Tesla followed up with another car, the Model S. With an all-electric range of 265 miles and the capability to sprint to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds, the Model S was a runaway hit. It had the size and power of a BMW 5-Series, and it didn't burn a drop of fuel.

While the Model S earned accolades and sales took off, it's easy to forget Fisker got its sedan, the Karma, in the hands of some consumers first, in late 2011. Fisker bought an old General Motors factory in 2009 in Delaware. Tesla did the same thing the next year in California. Unfortunately for Fisker, everything it did first, Tesla soon did better. And after the launch of their sedans, their fortunes diverged sharply. Despite beating the Model S to the market by about six months, the Karma, which could run on all-electric power but also used a four-cylinder engine to charge its batteries, was rife with problems. Fisker collapsed into bankruptcy in 2013, while Tesla became one of America's spotlight companies. Musk has become a transcendent star, and his company's stock trades at eye-popping levels. His onetime counterpart, Henrik Fisker, ended up resigning from his own company.

While the Model S earned accolades and sales took off, it's easy to forget Fisker got its sedan, the Karma, in the hands of some consumers first, in late 2011.

At this point, there is no competition. Tesla won not by beating Fisker head-to-head, but by surviving and carving a niche in the automotive industry as a legitimate player.

Still, there's hope for Fisker, which has ambitious plans for a comeback. Called "The New Fisker," the company says it wants to restart production of the Karma "as fast as possible," though it's still working out quality issues. Fisker also wants to launch some of its models that never made it past the concept stage, like the Sunset convertible, Surf station wagon and Atlantic sedan. This is all aggressive, and it would require serious investment by Wanxiang. But if it comes to pass, Fisker might finally realize some of the success that at one time seemed within reach.

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