January 2013 will mark the fifth year since the Fisker Karma concept – an evocative body encasing a relatively eco-sensible plug-in hybrid drivetrain – was unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Following a 47-month blur of engineering and development by Fisker Automotive, which had been founded September 2007 in Anaheim, Calif., the production Karma launched December 2011. The company says first year sales are approaching 2,000, including from a growing network in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.
Fisker’s past couple of years have seen praise juxtaposed with controversy. The start-up was essentially born into a politicized crucible, having to handle various issues from minor to perceptibly larger. We touch on some of these in a sidebar, but for now, let’s talk about Fisker’s car.
As is true for many vehicles, the Karma is not without room for improvement, but it is surprisingly good, as evidenced also by a growing list of awards.
No Holds Barred Design Exercise
If there’s any aspect that even critics cannot easily fault, it’s that the Karma is a smashingly good looking design.
Henrik Fisker and (now) Chief Executive Officer of Europe and Middle East, Bernhard “Barny” Koehler started the product design firm Fisker Coachbuild in 2005 but the ambitious partners wanted more and founded their own auto company.
The first model for Henrik’s namesake brand was drawn to be no less convincing than efforts made when he’d been a board member and design director for Aston Martin and when he worked also for DesignworksUSA – the Southern California-based BMW subsidiary where Koehler finished a 22-year career as director of operations.
Whether the Karma outdoes conventional luxury sport competitors in every respect is questionable. Included among nitpicks, we’ve heard where examples have had poorly fitted body panels, but ours had no such issues. And given what it promises, it would be a mistake to too easily dismiss the car, as it does excel in meaningful ways.
The Karma is the result of Fisker’s desire to enter the green car market with a niche product among niche products – his car would exude head-turning style, deliver respectable performance, albeit this would be “responsible luxury.”
Driving one for a week, we had opportunity to bask in an experience that’s part of why some pay for this echelon of car. In a culture where you are often perceived by what you drive, showing up in a Karma is the next best thing to being some kind of star.
We fielded questions at most places we stopped. One time an impromptu Fisker Q&A session arose when the Karma drew a small assembly of joggers, walkers, as well as a couple of single-speed bicyclists who we watched exclaim among themselves, stop and come back. On another occasion a young woman in an Audi admitted she had followed the Karma as it circled around a parking lot. She said as an auto enthusiast, she couldn’t identify this elusively exotic looking car, so had to stop to find out. She asked questions, showed iPhone photos of two other hopped-up Audi turbos, then shot pictures of the Karma.
The Karma looks like it could be packing a big V12 and exudes captivating sensuality. It lets you cavalierly explain enviro-sensibility in a newly qualified meaning of the term, and if you’re open to it, it can smooth the way to meeting new people.
What fun if you’re even remotely sociable – or daunting if you’re shy. Nor can the Karma’s panache be bad for public perceptions, given electrified cars and hybrids have too often been viewed as the province of the self righteous and nerds.
Does the Karma do an 11-second quarter mile or rip to 200 mph? Not hardly, but that does not matter much to many an everyday eyewitness to its curb appeal. That it looks like it could is more than half the game.
The Only Series Hybrid Production Car
What actually propels the Karma is the for-now only series hybrid automotive powertrain that lets it function a lot like the extended-range Chevrolet Volt.
Henrik Fisker said he was inspired by a military design and adopted it for his EVer – Electric Vehicle with Extended Range.
The 5,300-pound car relies on two equal-power traction motors in back adding up to 403 horsepower and 959 pound-feet of torque. Full power is delivered when the engine is running to augment a liquid thermally managed 20.1-kwh A123 Systems nanophosphate lithium iron phosphate battery pack.
The engine is a turbocharged 2.0-liter GM Ecotec inline-four cylinder rated for 260 crankshaft horsepower. The rear-wheel-drive car uses a single-speed transmission, and the engine never mechanically turns the wheels. Instead it serves as a generator routing power through the electric motors just as a diesel does in a locomotive.
The transmission is engaged via a center-mounted shift selector comprised of red-backlit P,N,R,D buttons organized in a sort of pyramid shape. Two forward drive modes – gas-assisted Sport and all-electric Stealth – are triggered by a left-side paddle behind the steering wheel that can be actuated on the fly. A “ding” sound and change of dash color scheme – white for Stealth and orange for Sport – indicate which mode the car is in. All-electric drive depends of course on the battery having juice remaining.
The battery pack uses roughly 85 percent of its capacity before switching to charge sustaining mode using the generator to maintain the battery – not recharge it – and to power the electric motors.
On the right side to match the drive mode paddle is another paddle for Hill Mode that controls one of two levels of amplified regenerative braking. This is useful when decelerating or on a steep descent. It can be used like a downshift for simulated engine braking, and feeds more electrons into the pack than the standard regenerative setting which is otherwise always active.
The heavy car has power-limiting traction control which contributes to its economy but relegates straight-line burnouts to an impossibility. Acceleration in Sport mode is around 5.9 seconds, and top speed is a governed 125 mph. In Stealth mode, naught to 60 is around 7.9 seconds, and top speed is 95 mph.
Inside, the swank styling continues, with elegant and uncluttered details offered for each of the Karma’s three sub-models – EcoStandard, EcoSport and EcoChic. Our test car was the middle version. It utilized leather on seats, dash top and steering wheel that’s tanned using an environmentally sensitive process, swatches of wood reclaimed from Lake Michigan or California storms, brushed metalwork, textiles, and LED lighting. This is essentially a production version close in execution to the original show car.
On the other hand, the EPA declares this 16.4-foot long, 78.1-inch wide e-GT to be a subcompact due to limited interior room. The trunk offers 6.9 cubic feet, and you may wonder why there’s not more usable space in such a large vehicle.
The battery dominates the middle section front to back, making it a four-seater. Really, it’s more of a two-seater, as the beautifully upholstered back seats are better suited for children or small adults.
In the center stack, many controls are handled by a 10.2-inch touch-screen. It’s not as amazing as the 17-incher in the Tesla Model S, nor does it surf the ‘Net. It handles climate, radio, navigation, back-up camera, other functions, and while we’ve heard of others having difficulties, ours never shut off, or malfunctioned.
Overall quality for our car was good. Stitching and fit lines were straight and finish was a cut above cars of this class. We’ve heard others report early production models lacking here and there, so if you get one, look extra closely before accepting from the dealer.
Chassis, Suspension and Brakes
The Karma’s truck-like mass would have been even heavier had Fisker not designed a very rigid space frame made of 5,000- and 6,000-series aluminum alloys.
Its backbone is comprised of s super-structural tunnel running down the centerline. In addition to housing the battery it acts like a torque tube tying front to rear. Holding it all together is 259 feet (79 meters) of precision CMT MIG welds and 1,058 self-piercing rivets.
Fisker says it has industry leading strength with more than 33,000 Newton-meters per degree (Nm/deg) of static torsional rigidity – measuring, for example, the amount the frame resists twisting forces when entering a ramp at an angle.
Static bending rigidity is said to measure more than 23,000 N/mm and this, for example, could be the amount the frame resists flexing forces as the car enters a ramp straight on.
The result is a chassis that “provides the utmost in occupant safety and exceeds global crash protection standards.” Regarding U.S. standards, the Karma has been crash tested to comply with DOT/NHTSA/FMVSS standards and “meets or exceeds all.” To explain why the car was not independently rated by the EPA with a star rating, Fisker says that the Karma “is outside the price window.” This is not uncommon for $100,000-plus cars and the EPA does not actually crash test cars it rates. This job falls to NHTSA and the Insurance Institute if Highway Safety. Each year they pick cars to test, and their budget often precludes destroying supercars and the like just to rate them.
But for your money, the innovation continues. Frontal impact protection is primarily absorbed by a multi-cell tempered aluminum crush box. If needed, it can be easily replaced, says the company. In the doors are “Dual Phase 600-Series steel-reinforced components” and robust B- pillars add to “substantial” side impact protection.
The center-mounted battery should be of little concern either, says Fisker, being furthest from impact zones.
Controlling the chassis is a suspension designed with input from engineers who helped dial in Ford’s GT supercar. The 124.4-inch wheelbase car utilizes control arms and coil springs front and rear. Weight distribution is 47-percent front, 53-percent-rear.
Front brakes use six-piston caliper Brembo monobloc calipers clamping 14.6-inch by 1.3-inch ventilated front rotors and out back are matching four-piston Brembos pinching 14.4-inch x 1.1-inch ventilated rotors. This arrangement has been known to haul the car to an ABS-chirping stop in just 110 feet from 60 mph thanks also to its sticky GoodyearEagle F1 Supercar tires – 255/35WR-22 front; 285/35WR-22 rear.
With the wireless key communicating from placement somewhere inside the car, the displays light when the EVer start button is pressed. At speeds below 25 mph concealed front and rear external speakers emanate a space-shippy sound meant to alert the unwary and unseeing.
Turning is predictable through its electro-hydraulically assisted steering, and its bulk is well concealed with nearly flat cornering pivoting around the 600-pound battery, centralized and low. Its weight and well-sorted suspension help soak bumps large and small with controlled damping.
While no track racer, tests have shown the Karma’s lateral acceleration averages 0.92g, and it offers a traction-controlled invitation to push the curves. This is one car that eschews low rolling resistance tires for the incremental economy gains they promise in exchange for purpose-made sport rubber. These soft sticky tires never squeal, even when applying a heavy foot in slower, sharper turns that can kick the tail out in mild power oversteer. Dive it in off the accelerator, or merely neutral, and at the limit you will more likely experience understeer.
Acceleration is better in Sport, but not earth-shatteringly so. Stealth mode is more rewarding if you prize the near-silent EV effect, but use it hard and you’ll have the gas back on soon enough when electric range is prematurely exhausted. Some have said the gas engine’s noise is anything but music, but it’s muted pretty well, and not obnoxious to our ears.
Reaching highway speed is no problem and passing power is plentiful, but this is not a car that would run with an 85-kwh Tesla S to 100 mph. It has more than enough usable energy, but remember, this is a “responsible” luxury sports sedan.
With battery capacity less than one-quarter the kilowatts supplying the biggest Tesla EV, and intended to be ostensibly green, the Karma’s hooligan potential is dialed back. With 959 pound feet of torque – nearly 50-percent more than a Dodge Cummins diesel and nearly 60-percent more than a 568 pound-foot Porsche Panamera Turbo – even with only one tall final drive gear, the Karma could be much more of a pavement ripper, but is setup to be only fun enough.
A Wise Purchase?
Beauty is a subjective thing. Emotion-laced motivation can transcend Spartan objectivity. This is proven daily by people who pay for premium jewelry, clothing, houses, art – and luxury cars. If you want to treat yourself to a green luxury car, Fisker has one that could work.
If you are accustomed to high-end, perhaps have a few other cars already, want a frugal vehicle with no range anxiety that emits little or nothing, and prefer something fancier than a Chevy Volt, a Karma could be the ticket.
If driven sedately, and your commute is, say, under 35 suburban miles, you may only need to stop at a gas station every few months. If you have charging where you parking, or en route, all the better.
The Karma is eligible for $7,500 in federal subsidies and state incentives may be available. You will probably want a 240-volt level two charger at home, as house current can take over 10 hours through its 3.3-kw onboard charger.
Potential competitors could be a 60-kwh or 85-kwh Tesla Model S, pending extended-range Cadillac ELR, and pending all-electric Infiniti LE. None of these will be exactly like the Karma which presents its own unique value proposition.
Fisker’s Karma is well-designed, one of the best looking cars on the road, and its existence is remarkable considering obstacles that have had to be overcome. We hope the company makes it past current financial concerns, because if the Karma is any indicator, Fisker undoubtedly has much more yet to contribute.
MSRP: Fisker Karma EcoSport: $111,000 (incl. $1,000 destination and handling). Price as tested: $111,000; Exterior color: Eclipse (black with subtle navy blue metal flake), Interior: Black Sand Moonstone. U.S./Canadian parts content: 50 percent.
Safety: Eight airbags; ABS w/panic brake assist; Electronic Stability Control; lower anchors and tethers for children (LATCH); automatic battery disconnect; signature Fisker Hybrid HZ external sound.
Comfort and convenience: Premium leather and suede from 100-percent sustainable facility; Fisker Command Center 10.2-inch multifunction haptic touch screen; voice activated hands-free navigation w/ rear camera; premium audio with 295 watts, 8 speakers and subwoofer; AM/FM/MP3/USB and AUX Inputs; Sirius Radio ready; Bkluetooth handsfree phone connectivity; Streering wheel mounted audio and phone controls; Bi-Xenon headlamps w/ LED interior lighting; 6-way power adjustable seats with lumbar adj. and memory; dual zone climate control a/c with heated F/R seats; auto-dim rearview mirror w/ Homelink.
A Niche Among Niches
Without question there are many more economically sensible and environmentally sustainable cars than the $103,000-$116,000 Karma, but that is not the point, and its actual raison d’être has been known to elude some green car proponents.
The Karma was meant to provide alternatives to elite, fuel-hungry luxury cars. There is a market for such vehicles. People buy them anyway, so why not make an economical alternative?
The Karma, along with a two-door Sunset convertible and Surf “shooting brake” or hatchback/wagon, were designed together in a spate of creativity. They were intended to lead off with more frugal models to follow, and to show from its inception Fisker Automotive could to go head to head with cars such as Porsche’s Panamera.
Among Porsches, Maseratis, Aston Martins, Bentleys, and others that can cost upwards of a quarter million dollars, Fisker is to these as a Toyota Prius is to sporty 6- and 8-cylinder cars. However, it’s just as cool looking and delivers sufficiently close handling and acceleration. Next to its gas-swilling competitors, the Karma is actually inexpensive. It thus represents a very unique trade-off.
Fear, uncertainty and loathing
The degree of caustic reaction in some quarters to Fisker as it develops as a full-fledged automaker is not without irony considering Fisker has been made to jump through hoops Henry Ford couldn’t have conjured in a nightmare. These include over 70,000 pages of regulations all so Fisker might fulfill its ostensibly noble goal: to manufacture environmentally responsible cars that in time would include models at average affordable prices. Fisker says it will be a job provider in an era when off-shoring is eroding this nation’s manufacturing base.
But critics have decried such things as $528.7 million in low-interest federal loans offered September 2009 – that were frozen for missed deadlines – and allegedly under political pressure – in early 2012. This was not before $193 million had been spent upon which Fisker is paying interest and plans are to pay back first principle in the first quarter of 2013.
Fisker has also been rebuked for introducing a six-figure product – anything but a peoples’ car – built in Finland by boutique automaker Valmet. Further, the Karma’s EPA-rated 20 mpg in gas mode, 54 MPGe, 33 miles electric range, 250 miles total range don’t particularly shine compared to other plug-in cars.
Subsequent tests by Germany’s TÜV however said the Karma achieved 112 MPGe, emits a paltry 51 grams of CO2 per kilometer, and is good for 51.6 miles e-range. Unfortunately EPA numbers are what must be displayed on U.S. window stickers.
As for foreign manufacture, Fisker says this expedient was chosen in July 2008 – in full sight of and well before September 2009 when the government approved its loans – and only after Fisker was unable to rent U.S. assembly space prior to purchasing its 3.2-million square foot Delaware assembly plant May 2010 from General Motors.
Fisker Automotive has great ideas, represents new hope, but automakers require lots of cash. By May 2012 Fisker reported in excess of $100 million in gross revenues, however Fisker is still reliant on venture capital having raised $1.2 billion so far.
Its ongoing need for fundraising recently prompted its new CEO Tony Posawatz to travel to Europe to solicit investors where strong potential market is perceived.
More teething pains and drama could be chronicled – including concerns with its battery maker, A123 Systems. However Fisker appears poised to come out on top through this just as it has for every issue thrown at it to date, but we’ll save further elaboration for another time.
The bottom line is we have seen some commentators focus on negative aspects of the Fisker story while seemingly omitting other potentially redeeming or mitigating facts in the company’s favor. If this means Fisker’s story has not been properly told, this is a disservice, and we will be looking to delve deeper in a followup analysis.
For now, this brief overview is just to add some balance. Based on facts collected thus far, we can say with confidence that despite all its foibles – some its fault, others not – Fisker has shown it is attempting to do a good thing, and at the very least, it deserves to be represented fairly.