Electric Cars Eschew Ads for Events, Websites

High-End Marketers Tesla and Fisker Are Already Selling in U.S.

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DETROIT (AdAge.com) -- Although the glitz was dialed way down during the press days of this year's North American International Auto Show, the optimism about the future of electric plug-in cars was everywhere.

Automakers from Ford to China's BYD unveiled their EV cars at the show last week. Most of the models won't go on sale to consumers for another year or two, except for a pair of small companies already selling plug-in cars in the U.S.

Power of Karma: Fisker model also has a gas engine.
Power of Karma: Fisker model also has a gas engine.
The offerings from Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive aren't cheap. Tesla's roadster starts at $106,000, while the base price of Fisker's Karma four-seat sports sedan is $87,900. Unlike Tesla's pure-electric system, the Karma also has a gasoline engine that can propel the car beyond the 50-mile, emission-free range of the electric charge.

"Our goal was to create eco-friendly cars without compromising performance and style," said CEO Henrik Fisker.

Indeed, the plain designs of other alternative-powered cars took a hit when Clint Eastwood said last week on CBS's "The Late Show With David Letterman" that "Nobody ever made a sexy hybrid." But the actor plugged Tesla's roadster, calling it a "kind of sexy little car."

Neither carmaker has an advertising agency of record; both rely heavily on the press and their websites to attract buyers.

Still, Fisker hired a contractor to create simple boards showing the car at two terminals at Los Angeles International Airport over the holidays, said Vic Doolan, director-retail development at the automaker and former CEO of Volvo Cars North America. He said most of the 1,300 orders for the made-in-Finland Karma came through the website, fiskerautomotive.com, with delivery starting at the end of this year.

In the next 12 months, Fisker plans to show the Karma at auto shows, charity and environmental group events, as well as at its 22 U.S. dealers.

Tesla has delivered 150 roadsters since last fall to owners, who include California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and "Who Killed the Electric Car?" director Chris Paine. Another 1,000 people are waiting for the roadster, which is sold out through November 2009, said Tesla founder Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, at the Detroit show.

Tesla got the nod from Germany's Daimler to supply 1,000 battery packs to its Smart EV car, which could be on the market at the end of this year or 2010, Mr. Musk said. Daimler's acceptance of the startup's battery pack "is a significant endorsement of Tesla's technology."

Jesse Toprak, senior industry analyst at Edmunds.com, said he's most excited about Tesla's sedan plans because more consumers could afford the car if they can bring it in at under $50,000. He called the two automakers' early adopters "critical" to the entire EV segment moving to the mass market, which demands more proof of a new technology's durability and performance in real-life driving conditions.

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