Tesla CEO Elon Musk Slams The Fisker Karma

You could say Elon Musk is fairly busy these days: bringing the Tesla Model S to production, not to mention sending Space X cargo ships into orbit, requires 100-hour work weeks. But the billionaire CEO carved out a few moments last week to throw a few bombs at nemesis Henrik Fisker and the plug-in electric rival to his Model S, the Fisker Karma.

“It’s a mediocre product at a high price,” Musk said in an interview with Automobile Magazine. “The car looks very big, and yet it has no trunk space and is very cramped inside, particularly in the rear seats.”

The rivalry between Tesla and Fisker dates back to the origins of both sedans. Tesla unsuccessfully sued Henrik Fisker, CEO of the eponymous car company, for developing the Karma while he was under contract for the design of the Model S. “We were paying someone to do styling for his own car,” Musk alleges. Tesla hired former Mazda and General Motors designer Franz von Holzhausen to pen a completely new, battery-electric Model S, which is now rolling off Tesla’s Fremont, California, assembly line with a base price of $95,400 (in the Signature trim level; a $57,400 version with a smaller battery goes on sale this fall). Musk sees a critical difference between it and the $103,000 Karma—and between himself and Fisker.

“The fundamental problem with Henrik Fisker — he is a designer or stylist…he thinks the reason we don’t have electric cars is for lack of styling. This is not the reason. It’s fundamentally a technology problem. At the same time, you need to make it look good and feel good, because otherwise you’re going to have an impaired product. But just making something look like an electric car does not make it an electric car.”

Alluding to the fact that the Karma leans heavily on suppliers, Musk continued, “[Fisker] thinks the most important thing in the world — or the only important thing in the world — is design, so he outsourced the engineering and manufacturing. But the fact is…that’s the crux of the problem. And he’s outsourcing to people who don’t know how to solve the problem.”

The Karma’s plug-in hybrid powertrain was developed by Quantum Technologies and employs a General Motors–sourced 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder for its gasoline engine. Contract manufacturer Valmet assembles the car in Finland. Tesla employed a somewhat similar model in producing its Lotus Elise-based Roadster, installing its own electric motor into a Lotus-supplied chassis. But for the Model S, Musk has gone to extreme lengths to vertically integrate production. Everything from the electric motor to the aluminum-intensive chassis and the seventeen-inch touch screen were developed by Tesla, which has grown from some 500 employees in 2009 to about 2000 today.

Musk allowed that the Karma, our 2012 Design of the Year, is well styled. “It looks good. Particularly from the side it looks good. I don’t love the front. It looks too much like a caricature of a Mexican Bandito—the grille.”

We ran Musk’s comments by Henrik Fisker, who responded via e-mail:

“Firstly, to set the record straight, Fisker won in court…a judge threw out the case and awarded costs to Fisker.

Secondly, we are delighted that Elon thinks the Karma is a good-looking car.

Obviously, Tesla and Fisker are appealing to two different customer bases with two totally different technologies. Tesla has pure EV and Fisker has a range-extended offering with no compromise on range. We are proud to have delivered over 1000 Karmas to customers in the U.S. and Europe and are now moving into the [Gulf Cooperation Council countries] and Chinese global markets.

We wish Tesla all the best with their latest model and hope that both companies go from strength to strength as they challenge the automotive rulebook.”

The truth is that both fledgling automakers have far bigger concerns than each other. But the enmity certainly makes things interesting. Who do you think builds a better environmentally friendly luxury sedan? Read our review of the Karma here and our first drive of the Model S here. Our complete interview with Musk is here.

—David Zenlea

By Automobile Staff