x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Is the UAE ready for electric cars?

Why the Fisker Karma may be the electric car most likely for success in the UAE.

Fisker Automotive has sold 1,500 Karmas worldwide. Courtesy of Fisker Automotive
Fisker Automotive has sold 1,500 Karmas worldwide. Courtesy of Fisker Automotive

The UAE isn't exactly the place you'd expect to find an electric car, what with fuel prices being ridiculously low and residents' penchant for giant SUVs and powerful sports cars. In fact, Chevrolet has yet to market its extended-range electric Volt out here, and Toyota still hasn't taken a chance on its hybrid Prius. You can order a hybrid BMW, but the company doesn't stock them here and has sold 50 across the Middle East since 2010. Only Porsche offers its hybrid Cayanne and Panamera, but you can count those yearly sales on your fingers and toes. For myriad reasons, no car company has been willing to take a serious chance on selling a hybrid or electric car in this region - until now, that is. But then again, the Fisker Karma isn't your usual electric car.

And Henrik Fisker, the founder of the company, isn't your usual auto executive. He can't be. Since he started Fisker Automotive in 2007 with Bernhard Koehler, it's been a constant struggle for him to find financing for his extended-range electric Karma saloon, and much of his job is drumming up investors. The company already sells its cars in North America and Europe and now it has announced it will be selling them in six locations across the Middle East through Al-Futtaim Trading Enterprises, the exclusive dealer here. Those locations will include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt and the Levant; the Dubai showroom, located in Festival City, will be the first to officially open later this year, (it will start taking bookings on October 24). Fisker Automotive also announced it will be making inroads into China with other partners.

At the Paris Motor Show last week, two Fisker Karmas sit on the company's small stand, tucked away across from the Subaru space that has four of its cars on display. Fisker, the executive chairman, and Koehler, the chief operating officer, sit in a small office in a corner of the stand to talk about the new moves and the Karma. Fisker, dressed immaculately in a blue suit with no tie, his blond hair perfectly combed, is a natural talker, a real salesman, obviously passionate about promoting his company and his car.

"I remember I was in Abu Dhabi for the World Future Energy Summit, back in 2009 or 2010," he recounts. "I remember talking to a young, wealthy Emirati and he wanted to order a Karma. And I asked him straight out, 'Why would you want to buy an electric car here?' And he said that it's not like they didn't want to drive environmentally friendly cars, but he thought the car was beautiful. He also liked that he could drive the car emissions-free in the city but he could still drive to Dubai with no worries. So that really sparked an interest with me."

The Karma isn't built like a Toyota Prius; it's a series hybrid, meaning the wheels are powered only by two electric motors, fed by a battery. But an on-board, petrol-powered engine that generates electricity means that, before the battery runs flat, the generator fires up to produce electricity, meaning there's no worry of being stranded with a dead battery and having to wait hours for it to charge at a plug. Only the Chevrolet Volt works in a similar way. The Prius and other hybrids have their wheels driven by both the electric motors and the petrol engine.

But the appeal of the car isn't just technical. Fisker himself is a former car designer with BMW and Aston Martin, and the Karma's luxury and style were just as important to him as the powertrain.

"I don't think our car is just about being an electric car," says Fisker. "A lot of people buy our car just for the beauty. It's a choice. It's a little bit like the style, the way the iPhone came out. It's a new technology, it's stylish, it shows that you are a trendsetter, you are ahead of the curve. I think a lot of that resonates in the Middle East, where people like to have the latest things. So our brand is not just built on technology, like other electric cars. I think of us as a new type of lifestyle brand that is all about 'you can look cool and still be environmentally friendly'."

And there's no question the cars are beautiful. When it's right there in front of you, especially, you get an appreciation for how low and curvy the Karma is, with its hulking fenders and huge, 22-inch wheels. It's certainly distinctive from the cars it will be pitted against here - the Mercedes CLS, the Porsche Panamera, the BMW 7 Series and the Audi A8. Plus, Fisker will offer an exclusive "Diamond Dust" paint which, instead of metallic flakes, has crushed, recycled glass embedded in the pigment to give the impression of diamonds glittering in the sun. The rooftop solar panel, meanwhile, is not only striking but is also the largest curved solar panel in production, according to the company, and produces 130W of power. It's capable of not only running fans to cool the interior when the car is off, but also adding 300 kilometres to the driving distance in a year.

The inside is just as distinctive, though considerably tighter and cosier than its rivals. The battery runs down the centre between the seats, the gauges are TFT screens with futuristic patterns and the surfaces are covered in aluminium, recycled fabrics and reclaimed wood - it all combines for something never really seen before in a production car. The quality is good, though it doesn't quite reach the levels of Audi, a benchmark in this regard.

But how will they perform out here? Will they be reliable? Batteries are susceptible to extreme temperatures, and the torturous summer heat in the UAE already means normal car batteries have a much shorter lifespan. In the last couple of years, the Karma has come under scrutiny with a series of battery recalls and, this year, for spontaneously catching fire in a few cases, a problem Koehler attributed to a faulty fan that has now been changed. And only last month, Consumer Reports magazine slammed the Karma after it broke down during a test, saying it was "full of flaws" and giving it the magazine's lowest grade for luxury saloons.

But both Fisker and Koehler adamantly dismiss worries of the Karma's reliability in the Middle East.

"We went to the Ford Motor Company in Dearborne [Michigan, US] to test for hot weather and sand," says Koehler. "We did it all in the wind tunnel and a climate chamber. We've made some small changes for local rules, such as a fire extinguisher, and we put a larger fan in the front."

Colin Cordery, the managing director of Al-Futtaim's Trading Enterprises, agrees. In a telephone interview after the show, he says the UAE company has no worries about the car's ability to take the heat and dust of the Middle East.

"We are 100 per cent sure of the testing that's been done on the car. Our experience of bringing cars suitable for this area is quite extensive, so the Karma, like a lot of cars that have been brought here, have been tested in Arizona for dust and heat. I have no questions about it.

"We've also had cars here for a period of time and we've done our own local testing on the car. But that's just a peace-of-mind thing for us."

Fisker is also excited to reveal that he has secured an additional US$100 million (Dh367 million) in financing for the company, which he says will go not only towards the move into the Middle East and China, but will also be funnelled towards the engineering of the Atlantic, a second, smaller car in the company's plans (he says more announcements on that will come later in the year). Though he won't get into specifics on who invested, Fisker does say the Qatar Investment Authority, already a stakeholder in the company, had bought into more of Fisker Automotive to become one of its largest investors.

And although Fisker will happily tell anyone that 1,500 Karmas have already been sold abroad (including to Justin Bieber and Leonardo DiCaprio, who is also an investor), he remains coy about his expectations of the new markets. "We're a small company that can adjust quickly; if Al-Futtaim calls us and asks for more cars in six months, we can adjust and produce more cars. We'd rather be a little more conservative and we want to engage with Al-Futtaim. But we don't want to go out to the public and say, 'We're going to sell X amount of cars', and then sell 20 less and have people say we didn't meet our targets. We're not really in that business, we're not a public company. Obviously, we have internal targets but it's not something we want to make public."

Cordery, however, is a little more forthcoming. "Their nearest market to us is Europe," he says. "In the Netherlands, so far since launch, they've sold about 130, so if we can get numbers like that in the first 12 months we'd be reasonably happy."

Cordery also says that, while a definite price hasn't been decided on yet, expect to put down around Dh500,000 if you really want the Karma in your driveway.

Only time will tell if the Karma will be a success here, and whether it will remain as reliable as its company overseers predict. But if you do decide to take one home, Fisker, ever the entrepreneur looking to push his product, brings up a good point that is not possible with most other car brands.

"You're buying into the future; how often are you able to take part in a new and upcoming car company, where you're actually one of the first ones, you're part of making history? One of the things in the Middle East is that very few people have had the chance to make history with a new car company. Most people in Europe, they have parents that were part of the history of various cars; now, the Middle East has the chance to experience what somebody could experience in Europe, when their dad bought that first Lamborghini."

 

Road Test: a quick glimpse of the future

"You will not drive a smoother car than this one," effuses Simon Rochefort, Fisker Automotive's manager for European sales, in a Parisian accent so thick it almost sounds like he belongs in a Monty Python skit.

Rochefort is referring to the Fisker Karma's single-gear transmission, as I buckle my belt in the driver's seat of one of the extended-range electric cars. I'm finally getting a chance to drive one - albeit only around the back lots and service alleys of the Paris Motor Show, as I won't be insured on the city streets. No matter, I'll take what I can, and I push the start button.

Nothing. No engine firing, no noise at all. But it's on, and when I press the Drive button on the gear selector, a flick of my right foot sends the car forward, smoothly and eerily silently. What an odd feeling, but certainly not disagreeable.

The cockpit is very tight and low; the steering wheel is thick and covered in a very pleasant-feeling suede-like material; the front fenders loom in front of me and, while very cool, they do impede the view. Under a light rain, the car effortlessly moves forward, picking up only the noise of the tyres and wind.

A thrust of the throttle shoots it ahead with authority, though I have to brake seconds later as a man pushing a cart appears suddenly. Rochefort is right, to a point - the car is very smooth, and the ride is very comfortable. But I find at crawling speeds - those where you're creeping into a parking space, for example - the car has an almost imperceptible bucking, like you've left a traditional manual gearbox in too high a gear.

After about five minutes, I'm done. I've travelled as far as I can, and haven't gone above 20kph - but I'm left wanting another drive, and I'll have it at the end of the month- when the Dubai showroom opens on October 24. You can read the full road test at the end of this month.