In addition to the production version of its plug-in hybrid sedan, the Fisker Karma, Fisker Automotive plans to show a concept car called the Fisker Karma S (for “Sunset”) at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit next month. What’s unusual about the Sunset is not that it’s a hybrid — the show will feature a gang of those from big automakers this year — but that it appears to be a convertible (suggested by the missing B-pillar).
If the concept car makes it to real-world production, it could help Fisker forge a distinct path in the green car market — one that leads to a small luxury niche, rather than mass-market scale. According to the most recent available data from auto industry research firm R.L. Polk & Co., convertibles make up only about 2 percent of light-vehicle registrations. For most automakers, they serve more as halo vehicles (designed to boost brand image and lure people into showrooms) for automakers than real sales drivers. For a startup like Fisker, sticking to niche markets could be a smart post-recession bet, as becoming large enough to mass produce vehicles has proven capital intensive enough to cause competitors like Tesla to reconsider broader more mass market plans.
But convertibles themselves aren’t necessarily a solid bet. Polk analyst Lonnie Miller told BusinessWeek back in the spring, when the previous year’s slumping demand appeared to be carrying over into 2008, convertibles fare worse than most in a gloomy economic climate. Convertible registrations dropped by nearly 9 percent in 2007, compared with only a 2.5 percent drop in light vehicle sales for the same period. “We joke that a convertible is a midlife crisis car; it’s a feel-good emotional car,” she said. “There are all these psychological factors, and if people are uncertain, it falls to the bottom of the priority list when it comes to transportation needs.” So while the Karma went from concept to production in a year flat, rollout of the Sunset may best be delayed until the clouds of recession clear.