Published December 14, 2011
I’ll try to keep this brief, because that’s how my drive in the Fisker Karma was.
Covered in mud, on the way back to FoxNews.com HQ from a day of off-roading in the 2012 Jeep Wrangler, I decided to pop into Fisker of Bergen, in the New York City suburb of Paramus, N.J., to see if I could noodle an old-fashioned, around-the-block test drive of the pricey plug-in hybrid luxury sedan -- a proper press car having yet to become available.
The staff was more than happy to oblige, and well-versed in the ins and outs of this revolutionary new vehicle. Keep in mind that, in light of all of the talk about battery-powered cars these days, this is the first luxury car that offers pure electric drive. Fisker has clearly done its homework and made its dealers do theirs.
After a brief chat, where I learned that the outlet has already sold 25 of the $96,850 cars -- which now cost $102,950 -- and holds deposits on 50 more, we headed into the garage. There, a pair of Karmas sat among a collection of Jaguars that the dealership (aka: Bergen Jaguar) also sells.
Improbably wide, impossibly low and sitting on a wheelbase nearly as long as an F-150s, the Karma is easily the most dramatic-looking sedan in the world. Parked next to a bright red carbon fiber-winged Jaguar XKR-S the Fiskers still stood out like Lady Gaga at a senior sewing bee.
Inside, the Karma appears to be just as much of a fugitive concept car as it does when seen from afar. Upholstered in either artificial leather, humanely-produced real leather, or a fabric Fisker calls EcoSuede, which is the automotive equivalent of decorating with tapestries, the ornately detailed cabin is from the harlequin school of design, especially when done up in a tri-tone color scheme. The smattering of wood trim on hand is either reclaimed, from naturally fallen trees or dredged from the depths of Lake Michigan, but not from freshly cut timber.
The driving position and seats are both excellent, at least up front. Rear head and legroom is at a premium, as is trunk space. Measuring 6.9 cubic feet, it is just large enough for two (very compact) golf bags. By contrast, a 2-door, 2-seat Ferrari 458 Italia can hold 8.1 cu ft worth of stuff in its nose.
Digital gauges and a large touch screen infotainment center provide the requisite bells and whistles, while a window at the front of the very wide and high center console offers passengers a peek at what makes the Karma go. Namely, the 22 kilowatt-hour battery pack that runs down the center of the car and behind the rear seats.
A 2.0-liter gasoline engine sits under the Karma’s epic, clamshell hood, waiting to be summoned into action to generate additional electricity when needed. Unlike the conceptually similar Chevrolet Volt, there is no mechanical connection between the internal combustion engine (ICE) and the wheels, so it is technically not a motor, but simply a generator. Fisker says that the standard solar panel that covers the entire roof can turn out enough juice each year to drive the car 200 miles.
The Karma operates in three modes: Stealth, Sport and Extended Range. The first is pure electric and provides the driver with 260 hp of output over an EPA rated distance of 32 miles. Fisker insists this figure is closer to 50 miles, an argument that is supported by a number of independent tests. Sport engages the gasoline engine and increases power to 403 hp until the battery is depleted, at which point the car enters Extended Range mode, reverting to the lower power figure as the gasoline engine provides the electricity at a rate of 20 mpg combined until you plug the car back in. A full recharge takes six hours on a 220-volt fast charger or 14 hours on a standard 110 household outlet.
Starting a charged Karma elicits no noise other than a pedestrian alert system that sounds like a chord played through a distorted Hammond B-3 organ. It’s very prog-rock and exactly what a geezer like me has always expected the soundtrack for an electric car to be.
Press the Drive button on the center console, hit the accelerator and you’re off with no fuss, despite Karma’s hefty 5,300-pound weight. Fisker says the electric motors have a maximum output of 959 lb-ft of torque, which would put a heavy duty diesel pickup to shame, but it’s not clear how much of that is on tap when it is not in Sport.
The car is quick enough, if not as blistering as its non-electric competition. Nevertheless, the power delivery is immediate and strong. The shiftless and silent nature of electric drive makes economy cars seem refined, and is well-suited for duty in the Karma.
Put the pedal to the floor and a clearly artificial whine accompanies the acceleration in yet another classic from the electric car cannon. Otherwise, it’s just a hint of wind rush and barely any roar from the tires, which is surprising given the enormous 22-inch wheels wrapped in high-performance rubber, instead of the low-rolling resistance shoes typically found on eco-cars.
After a short blast down the highway we turned onto a country lane, where the Karma’s heavily-weighted electro-hydraulic steering gives it the sort of purposeful feel you expect from a car of this ilk. On narrow roads the enormity of the vehicle is readily apparent, exaggerated by the tall front fenders framing your view. Please watch the curb.
Braking is taken care of by of a set of high-performance Brembos, their first use on a hybrid car. As is always the case with first time hybrids, there’s an odd feeling in the pedal as the Karma transitions from regenerative to mechanical braking. Pull the right paddle behind the steering wheel marked “Hill’ and the level of regeneration provided by the motor/generators increases to the point that the car will slow dramatically by simply lifting off the accelerator.
If you’d rather speed up, the left paddle engages Sport mode. Pull it and the four-cylinder engine comes to life with a slight shudder, then revs up and down in a pretty linear fashion with the electric motor. The increase in power is noticeable, but admittedly having only enough time to give it a couple of runs, it didn’t quite feel like the advertised 55 percent boost. Fisker pegs the 0-60 mph time at 6.3 seconds. A similarly priced Porsche Panamera Hybrid does the same in 5.7 seconds.
Although not too harsh, the General Motors-sourced four-cylinder definitely comes up short on refinement relative to the rest of the Karma. It’s interesting to note that Fisker’s next car, the much cheaper $47,500 Nina, will be using generators supplied by BMW. That said, the car that I drove was literally the first to arrive at the dealership, and the staff says that subsequent models have been much quieter thanks to subsequent updates.
More disappointing was that when I switched back to Stealth mode the ICE stayed on, even though the battery meter still indicated that there was 42 miles of range left. I’m sure there are a number of quirks to the Karma’s operation that I’m not fully aware of, but as my drive ended shortly afterwards, finding out what they are will have to wait for another day.
As it stands, the Karma is a nicely-sorted effort that definitely makes a good first impression. Certainly a strong enough one to satisfy the high net worth, but green types that, in New Jersey, have been trading in exotics like Maseratis and Aston Martins to buy it. Whether or not they’ll be back in a couple of months to swap it for a Jaguar is yet to be seen.
(OK, so this review didn’t turn out nearly as brief as I planned. Hopefully I can say the same about my next drive in the Karma.)
2012 Fisker Karma
Base Price: $102,950
Type: 4-passenger, rear-wheel-drive 4-door sedan
Powertrain: Dual electric traction motors plus 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine
Power: 260/403 hp, 959 lb-ft torque
Battery-Powered Range: 32 miles per charge
Extended Range MPG: 20 mpg combined