Fisker Automotive is set to receive a $528.7 million federal loan to bring two plug-in hybrid electric car models to the market.

The loan, announced by the U.S. Department of Energy on Tuesday, would enable the Irvine, Calif.-based company to complete the engineering of its sports car, the Karma.

The money also would fund the company's Project Nina, which would produce cheaper plug-in hybrids. The company said the cheaper cars would start at about $39,900 after tax incentives (there is a federal tax credit of $7,500).

The loan is coming from the $25 billion Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program, which was funded last fall for retooling or building new factories for energy-efficient cars. The DOE has given out $8 billion overall to Ford Motor, Nissan North America and Tesla Motors for building auto parts factories and car assembly plants in the United States.

Project Nina, which the company said is named after one of Christopher Columbus's ships and symbolizes the car industry's move to a new market, is getting the largest chunk of the loan. Fisker hasn't previously discussed this project, though one of its investors, Ray Lane from Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, hinted at it during AlwaysOn's GoingGreen conference just south of San Francisco last week. 

The DOE is funding the project with $359.36 million because the company plans to assemble the cars in the United States. Fisker said between 75,000 and 100,000 of the cars would be made each per starting in late 2012.

The remaining $169.3 million of the loan would enable Fisker to work with suppliers on securing parts for the Karma and to design manufacturing equipment, the DOE said.

The engineering work would be done at Fisker's office in Pontiac, Mich. The car assembly would be done by Valmet Automotive in Finland. To keep the loan, Fisker has promised to spend more than 65 percent of the expenses for buying auto parts would go to U.S. suppliers.

The company said last year that the starting price for Karma would be  $87,900 (before incentives). The company previously said it would start producing the Karma in late 2009 but won't deliver them to customers until mid 2010.

Fisker, like Tesla, is a startup automaker that will be competing against major auto companies. Both startups are selling cars in North America and Europe. Tesla is ahead with the mass production of its first model, the Roadster, in early 2008.

The two companies were embroiled in a legal dispute last year. Tesla accused Fisker of stealing its design and technology because Fisker's founder and CEO Henrik Fisker had worked for Tesla before forming his own company.

An arbitrator ruled against Tesla last fall (see Cash-Strapped Tesla Raises $40M, Loses Lawsuit).

Unlike Fisker, Tesla designs and makes all-electric cars. The San Carlos, Calif.-based company also is selling cars through its own showrooms. Fisker plans to sell its vehicles through existing dealerships.

Photo of the Fisker Karma via the company.