First Drive: 2012 Fisker Karma
Whew - Hollywood Can Finally Park its Priuses
In his Danish-tinged English, Henrik Fisker was thinking big as he cut into his steak "America needs a true premium car to compete with Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Cadillac hasn't done it. And that car must be environmentally responsible, too -- and it should come from California." His glance around the dinner table was greeted with approving nods.
His knife continued its cutting.
Though wary of that knife, I had to ask anyway "So explain to me why that's you and not Tesla?" (Fisker and Tesla have already tussled in court). Then I slightly cringed.
Henrik Fisker, however, hasn't gotten to where he is by taking the bait from the likes of me. "The difference is that our car has no range anxiety. It can travel 50 miles as an electric vehicle, and another 250 miles using gasoline. And then...you just fill-up again." Touché.
However, if you do go choose to go forever, your Karma will be relying on the maximum 235-hp output of its engine-spun generator. Which, even if it pads the battery's state-of-charge a bit during cruising (the engine-generator follows your power needs, not your right foot) probably won't deliver much sizzle given the car's estimated 4100-lb curb weight. On the other hand, those first fifty miles offer some interesting possibilities.
In what's called Stealth mode, you can skulk around as a genuine, cross-your-heart EV, sourcing all your energy from the big, 20kW-hr Lithium-ion nanophosphate battery supplied by Watertown, Mass's A123 Systems (the Volt, remember, has 16 kW-hrs, the Leaf, 24). Requiring six hours to charge (with 240 volts) it sits like a great monolith down the center of the car, bracketed by the engine/generator up front and the drive motors in back. Offering some 241 hp of electrical power, you can stealthily whine to 60 mph in a stated - and stately -- 7.9 seconds...which is 4-banger Camry territory.
From an environmental standpoint, we might call this the 'good Karma.' The 'bad Karma' emerges when you stand on the gas or flip the steering wheel paddle to Sport mode, whereupon the Fisker gets genuinely frisky (though still capable of an estimated 67 combined mpg following the SAE J2841 PHEV protocol). With the engine awake, and you've suddenly got two gushing tributaries of electrical power to surf down the road on.
At least for a while. Facing the full flood of electrons, the dual electric motors (coupled to act like one) shovel a nice 403 hp and a naughty 981 lb-ft of torque to the single-speed gear reduction. Technically, that's more torque than a Bugatti Veryon -- technically. At 5.9 seconds to 60 mph, the Sport-mode time is some 3.2 seconds slower than the mighty Bug's, but it's a swift and acoustically-interesting rush, nonetheless.
When battery propelled, the car sounds eerily like a taxiing jet -- absolutely fascinating. Unfortunately, when the Ecotec engine chimes in -- its exhaust hoarsely huffing from orifices just aft of the front wheels -- you look around wondering where the Pontiac Solstice GXP is. When I mentioned this to the engineers they rolled their eyes and replied that a new exhaust is on the way. In a delightful irony, the Karma's EV operation can be too quiet for unsuspecting pedestrians, so it emits an artificial but cool, future-world sound from both the car's nose, and what appears to be dual exhausts at the rear. Go figure.
The brake pedal gives a nice, solid opposition to the ball of your foot, while squeezing the paddle on the right-side of the steering wheel lets you select between three intensities of regenerative braking. The most extreme of what Fisker calls Hill Decent Mode, gives a considerable brake-like tug when you lift off (it's said that early EV drivers are really taking to this single-pedal driving). And here's an odd one: when the battery is full, excess regenerated electricity can spin the generator (now behaving as a motor) which revolves the crankshaft for engine braking. Hmm.
Most of this, I pretty much expected. What completely flat-footed me was the car's handling. With a low center of gravity, a 47/53 front/rear weight distribution, gigantic Fisker-designed 22-inch wheels (offering big cavities in which to optimize the suspension) and load-leveling dampers at the rear, the Karma is a sweetheart to hustle. It's duck soup to step the tail out braking into a corner, and then hold it to the exit by playfully angling that potentiometer-thingy under your right foot. All the while there's minimal roll and miniscule nose-dive under hard braking. Yet I couldn't quite decide if I liked the steering feel itself; it seemed slightly imprecise on-center, and its ramp-up of effort, a little too shallow. There's a difference between steering and handling.
Quite frankly, the electric car's scotch-taped-glasses image has waited a century for a guy like Henrik Fisker to come along. His Karma is a jaw-slackening design manifesto from its fangy grille to its turbulent tail, with those giant wheels (amazingly, even bigger than the show car's) punctuating it like the paws of a big jungle cat. Either prowling or at rest, the sun itself can provide a potential 200 miles of range per year via artistically integrated solar cells into the sweeping roof.
Of course the interior's thick with artistry as well, the centerpiece being the beautifully rendered (though sunlight-vulnerable) graphics on the 10.2-inch multi-function 'Command Center' touch screen; I particularly liked the display's size and haptic character. Tap it and the surface slightly depresses and reports a click, keeping your eyes more on the road. Like the Panamera, the Karma is a four-seater, but unlike the bustle-back Porsche, the slinkier, four-door coupe-like Fisker's rear seat and trunk room are compact-scale. But gosh, the car's so gorgeous it just might be worth it. And depending on trim level, the Karma's eco-attentive interior can be accented with recovered wood (from either the bottom of Lake Michigan, or lumber felled by California's celebrated storms and fires). Likewise, you can choose hides from pampered cattle (before they're KILLED), while fewer of them will get whacked because hide waste is minimized by proudly including minor blemishes. And speaking of minor blemishes...the prototype Karma I drove had some noticeable squeaks and groans (although in fairness, without engine noise, electric vehicles are almost bare-naked, acoustically).
And this ought to be a lesson to any of you wise guys who think you can build your own car. Even with 400 employees, a platoon of superb engineers, a billion dollars in investment (including 529 mil from the Department of Energy, and the financially prescient Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers) -- this ain't easy. And as of my drive, production of the $96,850 Karma (the going up to $109,850) was a mere six weeks away (evidently, the early depositors are getting fidgety).
Which brings us back to Henrik Fisker's dinner table declaration that the Karma is an American car. Maybe it was too much coffee, but the rarely-seen attack-dog journalist emerged again: "So tell me where it will be built?"
He pulled his iPhone from his pocket. "You tell me -- is this an American product?" It is. But manufactured in China, I agreed. While Fisker's next car will emerge from a shuttered, ex-GM factory in Delaware, the Karma will be built by Finland's experienced Valmet Automotive, who manufacture the Cayman and Boxster. Right -- these guys build Porsches.
|2012 Fisker Karma|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front engine/generator, rear motors, RWD, 4-pass, 4-door, sedan|
|ENGINE||2.0L/260-hp/258-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|MOTORS||twin elect motors, 403-hp/981-lb-ft total|
|BATTERY||20 kW-hr Li ion|
|CURB WEIGHT||4100 lb (est)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||196.7 x 78.1 x 52.4 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.9 sec (BEV), 5.9 sec (BEV & gen), MT est|
|EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON||67 combined mpg (est)|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||50 kW-hrs/100 miles (est)|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.29 lb/mile (est)|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Summer|