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Kleiner Perkins plunks money into sporty hybrid

Tesla made the electric car fancy. Now Fisker wants to do the same for the plug-in hybrid.

Fisker Automotive formally unveiled its upscale hybrid car today and said it has received an infusion of cash from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Ooooh. Ahhhh. CNET Networks

The investment is believed to be the first direct investment by Kleiner Perkins into an alternative car company. (Rumors swirled that the company invested in Phoenix Motorcars, but it was never confirmed, and Phoenix subsequently had delays). Fisker did not officially release the amount of the investment but Kleiner partner Ray Lane told the Wall Street Journal that the investment exceeds $10 million.

The company is founded by noted automotive designer Henrik Fisker. He came up with the BMW Z8 and the Aston Martin DB9, among other cars that most of us can't afford. Fisker's Karma (the name of the car) will cost around $80,000 and go from 0 to 60 in six seconds. It has a top speed of 125 miles an hour. The picture comes from the Detroit auto show taking place this week.

The Karma operates like the Chevy Volt. The car runs on lithium-ion batteries, which get recharged by a small gas motor on the car. The battery can also be recharged from a plug in the wall. Because the Karma can go fifty miles on a charge, most people won't even use gas on their daily commute: the average commute in the good ol' USA is 40 miles a day. An integrated solar panel in the roof helps charge it up while driving.

Fisker, which talked about the car last October at a conference in Silicon Valley, wants to start producing cars in the fourth quarter of 2009. If it hits its goal, it could become the first company to sell factory-built plug-in hybrids. Toyota and GM have said they will come out with plug-in hybrids by 2010. Fisker wants to ultimately sell 15,000 of the cars a year. That could be a stretch, but the high-end car market is growing all the time. The company will also do two-door versions and SUVs.

Expect to see the hybrid vs. electric debate heat up quite a bit this year. On the hybrid and plug-in hybrid side sit Toyota, GM, Fisker, and a few others. On the all-electric side sit Tesla, Miles, Phoenix, etc. Then there are companies like Nissan Venture Vehicles that will do both. Plug-in hybrids don't get the same gas mileage as full electric cars, but they can go a few hundred miles before conking out--electric cars tap out at 120 to 225 miles. Plug-ins also run on smaller batteries, which lowers the price. Experts such as James Woolsey, former CIA director and now energy guru at consulting firm McKinsey, lauds plug-ins, as do others. But ultimately, the customer will decide.

The hybrid drive system in the Karma comes from Quantum Technologies, which has worked in the automotive industry for years on various non-fossil fuel technologies. Quantum is also an investor.