Independents leading the way to plug-in hybrids

Yet another environmentally friendly automobile is headed your way &

if you have a spare $80,000 or so.

Car designer Henrik Fisker just announced plans to unveil a plug-in hybrid at the Detroit auto show in January and to have his high-performance gasoline-electric sedans ready for sale in the U.S. in 18 months.

If Fisker's hybrid is too rich for your blood, and you're patient, no worries.

Industry veteran Malcolm Bricklin, who introduced America to both the Subaru brand and the Yugo, also announced plug-in hybrid sedan plans, saying his cars would be available in the U.S. by 2010. And he said the sticker price would be about $35,000.

Whatever the price, suddenly, the plug-in hybrid market looks crowded.

The hybrids on the road now are powered by a gasoline engine that is assisted by an electric motor and can run only run short distances at low speeds on electric power alone.

The plug-in hybrids on the drawing board will feature much more powerful battery packs that can power the car on electricity alone for several miles at highway speeds. And unlike electric cars, when the battery gives out, the gasoline motor takes over &

either to drive the wheels directly or to produce electricity to power the electric motor. The batteries could be recharged overnight at a household outlet.

Both Fisker and Bricklin are aiming for electricity-only ranges of between 45 and 50 miles &

far enough to allow many drivers to spend most days cruising on electrons alone.

"Our car can become you main car," Fisker says.

Plug-ins could be just the thing to satisfy car buyers looking for relief from high gas prices &

and for auto companies facing the possibility of much tougher fuel- economy standards from the federal government.

General Motors Corp., Toyota Motor Corp. and Ford Motor Co. are actively pursuing plug-in technology but aren't expected to have models in showrooms until shortcomings with the current generation of batteries are overcome.

Fisker is a well-known designer of high-end sports cars, including the BMW Z8 and the Aston Martin DB9 and V8 Vantage. To produce the plug-in hybrid, he has formed a joint venture with Irvine, Calif .-based Quantum Technologies, which will provide the crucial battery and powertrain design.

While providing few details, CEO Alan Niedzwiecki said his company has developed a lithium ion battery pack that solves the over-heating problems that have complicated development of plug-ins.

"There are few automotive companies that have their own battery, and we're one of them," he said.

The joint venture, named Fisker Automotive Inc., will contract out the actual construction of the cars to a vehicle manufacturer. Initial plans are to build 15,000 of the premium-priced vehicles a year and then in four to five years introduce a second plug-in design priced at between $35,000 and $40,000.

Fisker wouldn't discuss financing, other than to say the company has attracted interest from venture capitalists and has enough cash to finance initial operations.

Bricklin, whose up-and-down auto industry career has earned him comparisons to P.T. Barnum, is raising money from a network of dealer-investors and also plans to announce more investors later this month. He originally had planned to build the cars in China but now is considering other sites.

Fisker said he's confident he can find buyers for his pricey plug-ins, especially since he plans to market the car heavily in Europe. He expects the car to be popular with movie stars and other wealthy individuals who want to be "eco chic."

"We wanted to create a vehicle that's environmentally correct but looks good and performs better than the car you're driving today," he said.

Another high-end, eco-friendly carmaker, Tesla Motors Inc. of San Carlos, Calif ., is finding a receptive audience for its $98,000 electric roadster. The company has received almost 600 orders for the high-performance car, which will be built in England and will have a range of more than 200 miles.

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"That's way more than what we were anticipating," said Darryl Siry, head of marketing and sales for Tesla. "We're very happy with it."

Tesla hopes to ship the first roadster later this year and has plans to introduce a less expensive vehicle &

although still priced at more than $50,000 &

by 2010. That car will be assembled at a plant Tesla plans to build in New Mexico.

Rumors are swirling that the car, code-named Whitestar, will be a plug-in hybrid, which could give it a broader appeal than the electric-only roadster. Siry declined to comment on the rumors.

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Jack Nerad, an auto market analyst at Kelley Blue Book, said independent carmakers such as Fisker and Tesla are aiming to meet demand from consumers who are tired of waiting for the auto giants to bring new technology to market.

"There's a thirst from a segment of the public for environmentally friendlier vehicles that what is now available from the big manufacturers &

even beyond what is available in hybrids," Nerad said. "And this is fueling the entrepreneurial spirit. There are people who think they can make money at this."

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