Fisker Automotive Inc. said Monday it has opened an engineering center in Michigan to be closer to auto parts suppliers as it readies for the launch of its first-ever model.

Fisker, based in Irvine, Calif., already has staffed the new, 34,000-square-foot development center that can accommodate up to 200 engineers and designers, said Sylvia Navarro, Fisker's spokeswoman.

The one-year old electric carmaker is gearing up to deliver its first car, the $80,000 plug-in hybrid electric Karma, starting in the forth quarter of 2009. Henrik Fisker, who founded the company and serves as its CEO, boasts a hefty experience in designing cars, including the BMW Z8 and Aston Martin DB9.

Fisker cleared a legal hurdle recently when it won a lawsuit against Tesla Motors. Tesla accused Fisker and Bernhard Koehler, now the company's COO, of stealing trade secrets when they were working for Tesla under contract in 2007 and hadn't yet started Fisker Automotive (see Cash-Strapped Tesla Raises $40M, Loses Lawsuit).

The hard part, however, is probably just beginning. Although several entrepreneurs have tried to build new car companies over the last few decades, almost none have succeeded. The complexity of cars, the testing and approval process, and the gargantuan funding requirements have snuffed them.

Tesla began delivering its luxury all-electric sports car, the $109,000 Roadster, earlier this year. The San Carols, Calif.-based company had planned to introduce its second electric car, the Model S, in 2010, but it had to scrap that idea after having trouble raising money quickly enough to build a $250 million factory and new headquarters in San Jose, Calif.

Tesla just raised $40 million in debt financing while pinning its hope on getting approval for a $200 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy. Tesla now plans to launch the $60,000 Model S in mid-2011 instead (see Musk: Tesla Hit by Market ‘Freefall' and Tesla Puts Musk at Helm, Expects Layoffs and Model S Delay).

Fisker decided to open the engineering center in Pontiac, Mich., to be closer to its suppliers. Being close to the power center of the American automotive industry also will allow Fisker to hire talents away from the troubled Big Three.

Fisker has contracted with Valmet Automotive in Finland to make the Karma, which the company says has a 50-mile electric range and a total range of 350 miles. It can zoom fr om zero to 60 miles per hour in six seconds. The company expects to produce about 15,000 cars by 2011.

In September, Fisker said it had raised $65 million for developing the Karma, which the car company introduced at the North American International Auto Show in January (see Fisker Raises Fistfuls of Cash). Its investors include Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Qatar Investment Authority.

Although hard times have fallen on the auto industry, carmakers still plan to introduce a host of plug-in hybrid and all-electric cars. General Motors said it's still committed to launching the Chevy Volt in November 2010. Nissan Motor plans to rollout all-electric cars by 2010, while Toyota is scheduled to release plug-in hybrid vehicles around the same time. Unlike Fisker, these carmakers are targeting the mass market. GM hopes to sell the Volt at under $30,000.

Among startups, Fisker and Tesla are arguably the two most visible and best-funded outfits. Others include Miles Automotive, Phoenix Motorcars and Zenn Motors. 

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