DETROIT – With General Motors Corp., Toyota Motor Corp. and several Chinese auto makers tackling the lower end of the bourgeoning plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle segment, Fisker Automotive Inc. focuses on the premium sector with its Karma sport sedan.

Formally unveiled this week at the North American International Auto Show here, the Karma represents the impact new powertrain configurations will have on vehicle design, says designer and CEO Henrik Fisker.

“These new (electric-powertrain) technologies will not only impact vehicle performance, but styling, as well,” he says, adding “green cars don’t have to be small and unattractive.”

Sitting on standard 22-in. wheels, with a ground-hugging silhouette and flowing lines, the Karma is striking in appearance and looks nothing like other premium sedans in the segment. Length, width and height measure 195.9 ins. (498 cm), 78.1 ins. (198 cm) and 51.6 ins. (131 cm), respectively.

Initial projections for the PHEV, which will begin production in fourth-quarter 2009, include an annual output of 15,000 vehicles at about $80,000 apiece. The first 100 vehicles will feature a Signature Edition Package, similar to the silver car on display at the show, and carry a price of $100,000.

The Karma will be sold worldwide, Fisker says, with a regional dealer network currently being established under the guidance of Vic Doolan, a former senior executive at BMW AG, Volvo Car Corp. and Ford Motor Co.’s Premier Automotive Group.

Quantum Fuel Systems Technologies Worldwide Inc., which partnered with Fisker Coachbuild LLC to form Fisker Automotive, designed the lightweight chassis for the new rear-wheel-drive car.

Quantum also developed the lithium-ion battery pack residing in the center of the Karma, as well as the Q-Drive PHEV system. Combined with the electric motors, the powertrain allows for a 50-mile (80-km) range on pure electric power, the auto maker says.

“We believe we have a 2-year head start on the competition (with this powertrain),” Fisker says, noting Quantum began the development work for Q-Drive as part of a top-secret electric-vehicle program for the U.S. Army’s Delta Force special operations unit.

As the Karma is a series hybrid, similar to GM’s Chevrolet Volt, the electric motors are the sole source of propulsion. A 2.0L 4-cyl. gasoline engine sits up front and powers a generator to recharge the battery when it’s depleted.

For plug-in operation, the Li-ion battery can be recharged in about eight hours through a 110-volt home outlet, with a 220-volt source dropping that figure to approximately three hours.

Additional “green” charging solutions include an optional solar panel roof, as well as a solar carport.

Fisker says the auto maker currently is in negotiations to source a gasoline engine from an existing manufacturer and promises additional details of the Karma’s technology closer to its on-sale date.

Inside will be room for four people and a “surprising amount of luggage,” Fisker says, with the expected level of equipment for a premium car. Option packages will be limited to a few high-end features.

All vehicles will include paddle shifters, which will control the mostly-electric powertrain in two modes: a default “stealth” mode that will allow the car to run nearly silent as an electric vehicle, and a “sport” mode, which will combine the battery and the gasoline engine for maximum performance.

Fisker likens the sound of the Karma in sport mode to a cross between a Formula 1 racecar and a fighter jet, noting the vehicle will accelerate to 60 mph (97 km/h) in 5.8 seconds and has a top speed of 125 mph (200 km/h).

Helping Fisker bring the Karma to market are multi-million-dollar infusions of venture capital from Palo Alto Investors, as well as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which recently welcomed former Vice President Al Gore as a partner.

Depending on how the rollout of its first model proceeds, Fisker envisions introducing other models based on the Karma’s chassis and powertrain.

Among the derivatives being considered are a coupe, convertible and a possible crossover-type vehicle, with cumulative sales approaching 100,000 units annually.

A $35,000 model also is envisioned, but Fisker admits that would be realized only through significant scaling of existing operations and a reduction in the cost of Li-ion battery systems.

msutton@wardsauto.com