Many predicted the Fisker Karma extended-range electric car would never come, but the 2012 Karma is here. California-based Fisker Automotive says it has built more than 2,000 of the exotic four-door, four-seat sedan that it's selling through 46 dealerships in North America.
The controversial 2012 Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid is an unknown quantity that has its faults, but in principle it might be a more viable approach than the "affordable" plug-ins now proliferating.
The Karma's launch came more than a year behind schedule, and the delays led the Department of Energy to freeze payments from a $529 million loan granted Fisker to develop a more affordable car, the Nina. (Tesla Motors likewise sold an expensive roadster as a stepping stone to building a family car, the Model S.) Buying a car from an all-new company — especially one whose teething pains have been widely publicized — raises many legitimate concerns. (As I completed this report, a friend informed me that he'd seen his first Karma in Chicago … being loaded onto a flatbed on Michigan Avenue. It's hardly a broad survey, but it's not encouraging, either.) Having acknowledged these issues, I'm going to dedicate this review to the Karma itself, which I drove in California a few weeks ago.
Though its price starts at $102,000 before incentives, the Karma is most like the $39,145 Chevrolet Volt in principle: It operates as a fully electric car for up to 50 miles, according to Fisker, and then a gas-powered 175-kilowatt generator takes over to keep the car going for up to 250 miles, Fisker says. Also like the Volt, the Karma's 20-kilowatt-hour battery pack runs through the car, creating a tall center console between the front and rear seats. The main differences are that the Karma's gas engine and generator are in front and its two electric drive motors are in the rear, connected via electric cables only. This makes it a pure series hybrid.
Exterior & Styling
Long and wide, the Karma is a gorgeous car with a long wheelbase and enormous, 22-inch wheels, standard. It provoked mouth-breathing among observers, even when driving in and around Beverly Hills, where exotic cars are a pestilence. The Karma was designed by co-founder Henrik Fisker, who's also responsible for the BMW Z8 and Aston Martin DB9. The Finnish-built Karma is blemished only by wide and occasionally inconsistent gaps between panels.
The most distinctive feature is a curved solar panel that covers the entire roof. As in the Nissan Leaf, its job is to trickle-charge the battery pack. (Technically, both panels charge their car's 12-volt batteries, but that power would otherwise come from the high-voltage system.) The Karma's roof is large enough to produce up to 120 watts, which is claimed to be good for 0.5 kilowatt-hours of energy per day if the car spends all day in direct sunlight. This is a drop in the bucket, and certainly not enough to justify the panel's cost, but it can also power the ventilation system to keep the interior cool, saving battery charge when parked — and it gives the car undeniable visual intrigue and green cred. Sometimes appearance matters most.
Driving a Series Hybrid
The Karma is pretty quick off the line. Credit the 959 pounds-feet of torque from the two 201.5-horsepower motors, which deliver up to 403 horsepower total. However, the car's 5,300-pound curb weight is substantial (think extended-cab, long-bed pickup truck); it's felt when accelerating and turning. That's a familiar characteristic of electric cars, but it's exaggerated here. The Karma exhibits little body roll. Wide Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar summer tires keep the portly car under control and provide a surprisingly comfortable ride given the giant wheel size, but they can't possibly do much for efficiency, as lower-rolling-resistance tires would.
Most electric cars have front-wheel drive, and though their heavy battery packs can help improve their front/rear weight distribution, they don't come close to the Karma's 47/53 percent, which gives it more of a conventional sports-car feel. Fisker also forewent electric-assist power steering for an electrohydraulic system that's less efficient but provides the steering feedback they believe this type of car demands.
The Karma has two drive modes representing two rates of acceleration, Stealth and Sport. In Stealth, a charged battery pack propels the car silently with modest acceleration (a claimed zero to 60 mph time of 7.9 seconds). Tugging on a steering-wheel paddle labeled Sport turns on the gas engine even if battery power is available, providing more electricity for quicker sprints or hill climbing. In this mode, the Karma hits 60 mph in 6.3 seconds, according to Fisker. Sport also preserves range so you can drive all-electric in urban low-emission zones, which are proliferating in Europe, where the Karma is also being marketed. Even if the battery's charge level is relatively low, Sport mode will bring it back up to 50 percent. (Technically, this is a dirty, inefficient thing to do versus plugging it in, so the "charge-sustaining" operation that's triggered when the battery is depleted in Stealth mode simply keeps the car going, as the Volt's does.)
Sport mode definitely makes the Karma quicker, but it's not a rocket, either. Just like the concept car that started this journey in 2008, the real deal has a turbocharged, direct-injection 2.0-liter four-cylinder from General Motors that previously slummed it in the Chevrolet Cobalt SS and the HHR SS. It drives the electric generator with 260 horsepower.
The gas engine starts reasonably smoothly. You definitely hear it, but it doesn't have the intoxicating sound of the eight-, 10- or 12-cylinder power plants that typically power cars as exotic-looking as the Karma. As in the Volt and other hybrids, the alternative — silence — exaggerates the sound's impact, and it doesn't help that the engine's exhaust outlets are in front of the front doors rather than out back.
Note, however, that the engine drives the generator faster in Sport mode than it does when a depleted battery triggers the charge-sustaining function, which should be quieter. (I wasn't able to deplete the charge during my short test.)
The generator's main job is to keep the car going, so you arrive with an empty battery. As a result, the engine revs up as you accelerate. Technically, it's a load-following system whereby the car accelerates first and then the engine revs up, but the Karma's engine follows the acceleration more closely than the Volt's does, for a more natural — if sometimes more noticeable — sound.
The Karma makes its best sound when the engine's off, in the form of a signal piped out of speakers in the front and rear at speeds below 20 mph. Unlike the swirly, ethereal pedestrian warning emitted by the Nissan Leaf, the Karma's is a cool spacecraft sound that its engineers say was inspired by the light cycles from the "Tron" movies. Can I get this on my car?
Pick Your Braking Level
More than other electrics, the Karma lets you select the amount of battery regeneration — and thus the deceleration rate — you get when you lift off the accelerator. Pulling the paddle marked "Hill" switches from the normal mode to "1" and then "2," adding successively more regeneration and what amounts to engine braking, though in this case it's the electric motors, not the gas engine, that slow the car by doubling as generators that recharge the lithium-ion battery pack.
The mode is named for the downhill application, where it keeps you from riding the brake pedal, but it also allows you to control the car primarily with the accelerator, which I like to do in EVs. I always get my best range this way. And if nothing else, it's smoother than using the brake pedal. Though the Karma's blended regenerative brakes feel pretty linear for what they are, I've yet to experience regenerative brakes of any type that feel as normal as the conventional type. The less I use them, the better.
I discovered one mechanical quirk in the Karma: a vibration or shudder in the power when creeping forward at a snail's pace, such as when you're preparing to turn right at a red light. This results from the lack of a regular transmission and a mere 4.10-to-1 gear ratio in the differential. It allows the car to hit a claimed top speed of 125 mph in Sport mode — far higher than the average EV — but as a result the drive motors turn so minutely at crawl speeds that you feel individual pulses as their rotors move from one phase to the next. You have to be a little nerdy to know what I'm talking about, but you don't have to be to feel it — and object to it.
The car's vehicle integration director, Billy Tally, said his team is working on a software upgrade that would time the two motors to smooth out each other's pulses. Any existing car will be eligible for the upgrade.
Real Range, Mileage & Charging
Fisker isn't alone in marketing its "up to" range estimations. The Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus Electric and Mitsubishi i are claimed to go up to 100 miles per charge. This is based on a best-case test cycle that doesn't reflect any recognizable reality. Cars.com has found that our Leaf's range is closer to the EPA estimate of 73 miles. The EPA rates the Chevrolet Volt's electric range at 35 miles, which is reasonable, though cold weather easily drops our Volt's range to as low as 25 miles.
The EPA says the Karma's up-to 50-mile range is actually about 32 miles. Once the gas-powered generator takes over, the combined city/highway mileage is rated 20 mpg — nothing to get excited about, depending on what you're comparing it with. At this level, the calculated range once gas takes over is 180 miles.
Despite its modest range, the Karma is heavy enough — and its battery large enough — that a 120-volt power source takes about 14 hours to recharge a depleted battery. The Volt does it in about eight hours. A Level 2, 240-volt charging setup is more attractive, topping off the Karma's pack in about six hours. The company says the average price with installation for an optional Fisker-branded "wall charger" is $2,200, and incentives might apply.
In the Cabin
The most expensive Karma trim level, called EcoChic ($116,000), paradoxically has no leather inside. It's described as completely animal-free. Regardless, the imitation suede is lush, though some of the other materials drew mixed reviews. The middle trim level, dubbed EcoSport ($110,000), has real leather, and the EcoStandard ($102,000) starts the line with imitation leather. The front seats are comfortable and equipped with power adjustments — something you don't find standard on most EVs. Heated seats limit the need for power-hungry cabin heat and are more common in EVs. They're standard in the Karma, front and rear.
By the numbers, headroom is limited, but at 6 feet tall, I was comfortable. There's plenty of front legroom — 42.6 inches. It's a good thing, too, because there's only 31.4 inches in the backseat, where passengers will appreciate whatever space the front occupant is willing to give up. The Karma is exceptionally wide, so passengers are less squeezed than they are in the Volt, but the greater issue is the way it feels. The high center consoles in both cars make some folks claustrophobic. I don't mind them at all.
The interior controls also leave something to be desired. All but the basics — like window switches and drive modes — fall to a touch-screen, whose nifty haptic feedback pulses aren't a good enough trick to overcome the shortfall of having so many layers and clunky functionality on features as simple as climate control. Fisker says the philosophy behind this touch-screen-centric design is "less is more." In this case, a little more would be more.
Also, the menus in my test car were a light gray that looked unfathomably bland, even if they did complement the EcoChic color palette.
Space is at more of a premium in terms of cargo: The trunk has a mere 6.9 cubic feet — less than a subcompact car and far less than arguable four-door competitors like the Porsche Panamera S Hybrid (11.8 cubic feet), Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid (16.4) and BMW ActiveHybrid 750 (16.3). (See them compared.) Likewise, it's more constricted than the pricier Bentley Continental Flying Spur's 16.7 cubic feet, Aston Martin Rapide's 11.2 and the Maserati Quattroporte's 15.9 cubic feet. (See them compared.) Only sporty two-seaters like the Audi R8 have less room — 3.5 cubic feet.
Are the latter comparisons fair ones? I say absolutely. It's easy to compare the Karma to the Panamera, S400 and ActiveHybrid because they have four doors, five seats and a hybrid badge, but these cars look like thousands of other sedans.
It's the Design, Dummy
It's reasonable to call out the Karma's limitations, but you can't dwell on the power under the hood and ignore the power of design. This ain't no Volt or Leaf. The Karma's stunning styling more fairly compares to the best from Bentley, Ferrari, Lamborghini, etc. Its design is more than enough to sell it. These other cars get to 60 mph more than twice as quickly and have higher top speeds, but in Los Angeles, where you're lucky just to reach the speed limit, which car makes more sense? A stylish, two-seat sports car with 12 cylinders, or a comfortable, stylish Karma that makes the most of stop-and-go driving?
Can the Karma's 20 combined mpg after the battery's depleted be fairly compared to the Panamera hybrid's 25 mpg, the S400's 21 mpg or ActiveHybrid 7's dead-even 20 mpg? How about the Lamborghini Gallardo's 16 mpg, the Flying Spur's 14 mpg or the 15 mpg you get in the Rapide and Quattroporte?
The Karma has received government safety approval but, typical of low-volume models, has no crash-test results from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
It has eight airbags: the front pair, knee and seat-mounted side-impact airbags for the front occupants, and side curtains along the front and rear. As is required of all 2012 models, it includes antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. See all the standard safety features here.
Karma in the Market
The Karma's warranty is 50 months or 50,000 miles, bumper to bumper, but it has no separate drivetrain warranty. (Update: On March 26, 2012, Fisker issued a recall to replace potentially defective battery packs from supplier A123 Systems. With this campaign came a warranty extension to 60 months or 60,000 miles for all 2012 models.) Other EVs have shorter overall coverage but longer drivetrain warranties. Fisker says the battery pack's life expectancy is 10 years and 100,000 miles. Like the discontinued Tesla Roadster, the Karma is not meant to be an affordable green alternative, but rather a first step toward more accessible models. Its range and mileage probably matter less than you'd imagine.
Moneyed buyers have garages, own additional cars, are less concerned about fuel prices and are just as likely to see the Karma's plug-in nature as a positive, not a limitation. There's status in greenness, no matter how substantial that greenness is. Buyers go green to convince themselves, or others, that they're doing the right thing.
One of the chief complaints about the more affordable plug-in cars like the Volt is their price. For what they are, in terms of size and capability, they are indeed comparatively expensive. For its type, the Karma might be underpriced. It's the market that will ultimately make that decision, and in this car's case, its track record will be far more important than the price of gas.
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