Karma chameleons? Lutz company snaps up Fiskers

VL Automotive is buying Fisker Karmas, which it plans to rebuild with V-8 engines and altered bodies.

DETROIT -- A year-old vehicle conversion company backed by retired General Motors product chief Bob Lutz is soliciting Fisker dealers to take unsold cars off their hands.

VL Automotive, launched last year by Lutz and Detroit manufacturing engineer Gilbert Villarreal, wants to transform Fisker Karma plug-in hybrids into traditional sports cars. It plans to retrofit Karmas by removing their hybrid powertrains and rebuilding the cars with Chevrolet Corvette V-8 engines and altered bodies.

But first the company needs four-door Karmas to work with -- a challenge considering that Fisker Automotive halted factory production in 2012.

Villarreal says his company has bought 25 Karmas. VL has been buying Fisker dealership inventories -- most of which amount to just a few cars -- and paying the retailers commissions for the sales, says Villarreal, who met with Fisker dealers this month during the Detroit auto show.

One dealer who visited VL's booth during the auto show agreed to sell the company nine cars, Villarreal says.

He declines to identify the visitor, reveal how much VL is offering for unsold vehicles or disclose how much in commission he is paying the dealers. VL expects to retail each rebuilt Karma -- renamed the Destino -- for around $195,000, depending on options.

The rebuilt cars will receive GM's supercharged LS9 V-8 engine, which makes 638 hp, combined with a six-speed automatic transmission. VL is awaiting regulatory approval to sell the rebuilt cars in the United States, and Villarreal says the company has potential customers overseas who have said they want to buy a Destino.

"We estimate there are 300 new Karmas still sitting unsold in dealer lots. And about 1,800 cars were sold," Villarreal says. "We're finding a huge interest among owners in having their cars converted to our V-8 engine. We think we'll end up converting about 1,000 of those."

Fisker dealers have few options for their unsold cars. Fisker Automotive signed up 45 retailers around the country and began supplying them with inventories of the $97,000 Karma sports car before the startup automaker shut down.

This month, a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge in Wilmington, Del., set Feb. 12 as a date for a closed-door auction in New York for what remains of the Fisker venture.

Villarreal says VL also has been buying up all the components it can get from Fisker Automotive for future cars. But that effort has stopped as Fisker prepares to be auctioned.

Mary Pacifico-Valley, owner of Rickenbaugh Fisker in Denver, says she has seven Karmas and is awaiting the results of the February bankruptcy auction before deciding whether to sell them.

"I've turned down opportunities to sell the cars," she says. "Customers have offered to buy them at discounts, and I worried that the dealership might be held liable in case there was a problem.

"I think we're just going to wait a while longer and see what happens."

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com

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