Fisker to convert a GM plant in Delaware to build plug-in hybrid cars

Out with the old, in with the new. California electric-car startup Fisker Automotive will announce plans tomorrow to turn an old General Motors plant in Wilmington (Dell.) into a hybrid electric-car plant, says a source with knowledge of the announcement. Fisker plans to use the 52-year-old factory to build its $48,000 Project Nina plug-in hybrid starting in 2012.

Readers will recall that I have been pretty skeptical about electric cars and high-mileage plug-in hybrids. It’s not that the technology isn’t great. It is. But the economics still don’t work so well. Fisker wants to use the plant, which until recently assembled the Saturn Sky and Pontiac Solstice roadsters, to build a mid-sized plug-in hybrid. With a $528 million credit line coming from the Department of Energy, Fisker should have the cash to get the project off the ground.

My question is about sales. Even after getting a $7,500 tax credit, a Nina buyer (that won’t actually be the car’s name, it’s a code name right now) will cost $40,000. That’s at least a $12,000 premium over a mid-sized family car. A 26-mpg Chevrolet Malibu costs $1,500 a year to gas up at today’s fuel prices. If Fisker’s car gets over 100 mpg, it would save about $1,200 a year at the pump. That means the owner needs to drive it for a decade to get the savings back. That’s one hurdle for CEO Henrik Fisker’s and his mission to sell 100,000 copies of Project Nina a year. He does want to sell half the volume overseas, where the business case is better. But it’s still going to be tough for these expensive fuel savers to hit big sales numbers.

Mr. Fisker does make another case for his cause. Nina and his company’s first car, the $88,000 Karma sports car, will both be upscale. The Karma will actually be a luxury sports car. So there’s more to it than just selling fuel economy, he says. And he makes a good point. Fisker thinks his selling point will be a green alternative for luxury buyers. Prius owners have high incomes and can afford much more than their $25,000 hybrid. So there may be some willing buyers.

There will also be a lot of competition selling expensive greenery. Tesla Motors makes the same pitch as Fisker. GM will have the Chevy Volt, Toyota will be selling plug-in Priuses priced around $50,000 and Nissan also has an electric car coming. Ford will have some high-tech alternatives coming.

Fisker will fine some buyers, no doubt. But will the company find enough to make its bold plan work? I’m still skeptical.

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