This is the Fisker Karma, a $100,000 electric sedan with a backup gasoline engine and the claim on a $529 million government loan meant to build the future of eco-friendly transportation. It may need some spiritual balance to get there.
The brainchild of designer Henrik Fisker, the Karma arrives after years of delays — and a maelstrom of politics and publicity, especially over the U.S. Department of Energy loan meant to fund the next car from Fisker. The company hosted several dozen journalists in Beverly Hills this week, days after laying off a few dozen workers when the Energy department halted the loan over Fisker's missed sales targets.
At least in front of reporters, Henrik Fisker is nothing but determined about the Karma and the future of the company with his name on it. Admitting the company missed the milestones for the rest of the Energy loan, Fisker says the company has 1,500 Karmas built, and delivering 50-some a day to waiting customers. Despite early defects that forced Fisker to issue a recall, along with a personal apology, Fisker still boasts that no other company that took the federal loans — Ford, Nissan and Tesla — has produced an all-new model as Fisker has.
And he sees the Karma tapping an unmet need for eco-conscious luxury with an unspoken one: the desire for an American car that can command the road the way the cruisers of the '50s and '60s did, and haven't since. "You should feel like you're driving the best car in the class, with the best design," he says.
Getting those two conflicting desires in the Karma required an unprecedented amount of engineering from a start-up automaker. There's a 2-liter, turbocharged gas engine, a generator, two electric motors and several hundred pounds of batteries, all in a chassis designed from scratch -- along with speakers in the fenders that make the car sound like it borrowed an impulse drive from the starship Enterprise.
Similar to the Chevy Volt and other hybrids, the Karma can be driven on electricity only drawn from its batteries (which take about eight hours to charge on a regular house plug.) Unlike even the Volt, the Karma only rides on electricity; when its batteries deplete, it automatically kicks on its gas engine to turn the generator and recharge the batteries. That gives the Karma a 300-mile range, about three times greater than the Nissan Leaf or similar electric cars.
Fisker contends pure electric vehicles demand too many compromises, especially in range, to be big sellers; hybrids "are the past." And the Karma contains dozens of touches to bolster its eco-lux cred, from the solar panel on the roof to a certificate guaranteeing that the wood in its dash was not cut but reclaimed from the depths of Lake Michigan.
But how does it work as a car?
"I don't think Americans really want a smaller car," Fisker says, and the Karma lives and dies by that edict; it's wider than a Ford Super Duty pickup. The Karma's most successful in its exterior design; it looks like a luxury car with no lines derived from other brands. Stuck in California traffic, the Karma turned more heads than a volleyball game on a nude beach.
Inside, Fisker the designer made a cabin with only the legally required number of buttons; every function in the dash must be handled through a 10-inch touchscreen with vibrating "haptic" feedback. The dash itself comes wrapped in suede, nubby fabric and a few bits drawn from the GM parts bin.
Yet that exterior space doesn't translate into interior room, thanks to the massive tunnel for the A123 lithium batteries that could leave rear passengers thinking they're in the bathtubs from a Cialis commercial. That pack also compresses the trunk to a mere 6.9 cubic feet of space — about one cubic foot less than a Smart ForTwo.
"There's a misconception that small equal fuel economy," Fisker says, adding that "the Karma can be driven more fuel efficiently than the Prius." That's no guarantee that it will be, or that every driver will get even Prius-level efficiency. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rates the Karma as having 32 miles of electric-only range, a 52 mpg-e overall rating and only 20 mpg when its engine runs; Fisker claims careful drivers could get well over 100 mpg and 40 electric-only miles on a full charge. My 62-mile test drive though the hills and clogged streets of Los Angeles averaged about 30 mpg.
It's not just government bureaucrats and publicity going against Fisker; from Bricklin to DeLorean, there's no case of a successful American automaker starting from scratch since the beginning of the 20th Century. The Karma has to convince thousands of buyers that despite its shortcomings, it's here from the future -- and not an evolutionary dead end.
2012 Fisker Karma specifications
|Class||Four-door range-extended electric luxury sedan|
|Configuration||Electric drive with gas engine for battery charging|
|Motors||Two 150kw motors, driving the rear wheels|
|Engine||2.0 liter, 260hp turbocharged 4-cylinder engine|
|Battery||20kWh pack; 8-hour recharge from 110v|
|Total power||403 hp|
|Total torque||959 lb-ft @ 0 RPM|
|Top speed||125 mph|
|Zero to 60||6.3 seconds|
|Mileage||32 miles electric-only; 20 mpg range-extended; 52 mpg-e combined|
|Base price (incl destination charges)||$102,000|
|Remarkable features||Electric, but not electrifying|