New Car Reviews

Driven: 2012 Fisker Karma ES

Something magical happened in January of 2007 when the public first laid eyes on the Chevrolet Volt concept at the Detroit auto show. High-resolution images of its aggressive, futuristic styling were instantly broadcast, simulcast, and multicast to television screens all around the world, and it became a household name long before we even knew if it would ever make it to market. Even though the technology powering the concept didn’t yet exist, the Volt’s appearance-combined with the sci-fi dream of a mass-market electric car finally becoming a reality-was so mesmerizing that the car immediately became a beacon of hope for the American auto industry.

If, in 2008, the Fisker Karma concept car had been unveiled by an established automaker, the earth might have momentarily stopped rotating. And yet, not a single interplanetary anomaly occurred. Actually, no one batted an eye-certainly not the big car companies. It’ll never happen, they said. No way, no how. Not with those proportions. Surely not as a range-extended electric vehicle-and definitely not for the $80,000 price that Fisker then thought possible. And so everybody ignored Henrik Fisker and his little Karma project and went back to business as usual.

Despite General Motors’ bankruptcy, the Volt actually made it to series production a few short years later. It was such an achievement, in fact, that we named it our 2011 Automobile of the Year. Now, get ready for EV surprise, round two.

The Fisker Karma is a big deal. We’re venturing into uncharted territory, but if Fisker succeeds, it proves the point that Tesla has been scrambling to make with its yet-to-appear Model S-that the automobile is now a commodity and start-up companies can build them, too. (Well, as long as the Department of Energy is handing out $529 million loans, that is.)

The Karma’s curvaceous skin is draped over an extruded aluminum spaceframe with a wheelbase as lengthy as that of a Mercedes-Benz S-class-but the Fisker is nearly ten inches shorter, 4.4 inches wider, and 5.6 delicious inches lower in height. The resulting low, wide stance makes even the Maserati Quattroporte look demure-and the standard twenty-two-inch wheels certainly don’t hurt that impression. Nor do the massive Brembo brakes lurking behind the two-tone spokes.

A pair of motors drives the Karma’s rear wheels through a fixed-ratio limited-slip differential. Straddling the rear axle, the two motors are rated at a combined 402 hp and 981 lb-ft of torque. The motors are the Karma’s sole means of propulsion, but the power used to turn them can come from either of two sources.

Like the Chevy Volt, the Karma is primarily an EV, powered by a 600-pound lithium-ion battery pack mounted longitudinally along the center of the car. It also serves as a structural member and results in a high center console running the length of the cabin. The pack contains a maximum of 20 kWh of energy, which it can deliver to the rear wheels in bursts as high as 241 hp. The capacity is sufficient for fifty miles of all-electric travel, says Fisker.

Once the battery pack reaches a 10 percent state of charge, the Karma switches automatically to its secondary power source: a direct-injected, turbocharged four-cylinder under the hood. The GM-supplied 2.0-liter engine was previously used in the Pontiac Solstice GXP and the Saturn Sky Red Line. As in those cars, it’s rated at 260 hp-but this engine will never turn a wheel. Instead, it’s connected directly to a 235-hp generator. The gasoline engine exhales through the front fenders the spent gases from combusting 9.5 gallons of premium unleaded stored onboard-enough for an additional 250 miles of range.

Combined, that’s a total range of 300 miles-but the pocket-protector crew might have noticed something strange: neither the battery pack nor the gas engine can produce enough juice to fully power the electric motors. To get the full 402 hp that the two motors are capable of delivering, the Karma’s driver needs to switch from Stealth (EV) mode to Sport mode by tapping the left steering-wheel paddle. Then, the Karma’s power-management system uses both the battery and the generator to send the full monty to the motors.

Rude, crude, rough, and lewd, the turbo engine buzzes with all the refinement of a drunken Texan-and that’s at light load. Under full throttle, the engine’s racket is even more considerable, but the noise is overlaid with a bewitching whistle from the turbo-and if you pull your foot off the accelerator quickly enough, an intoxicating whoosh from the blow-off valve. As cool as the turbo noises are, they only partially mask the engine-there are four-cylinders that would sound better with a connecting rod poking through their crankcases. When pressed on its choice of gas engines, Fisker admitted that few powerplants met the company’s specifications (2.0 liters or less, 260 hp or more). An obvious choice would have been the high-output version of Volkswagen’s superbly refined turbo 2.0-liter — but VW wasn’t interested in doing business with Fisker.

Still, in the Karma, the internal-combustion engine is the backup plan, not the primary propulsion method. In EV mode, the Karma is so quiet that Fisker has installed two one-watt sound generators to alert pedestrians of its presence. After fifty miles of silence, some unpleasant noises are forgivable. Besides, listening to a coarse four-cylinder is far less unpleasant than walking home when your battery runs out of juice.

Our drive of preproduction cars was limited to a closed course, where we discovered that the Karma is a track monster. Having the big masses (engine, batteries, motors) positioned low and mostly inside the wheelbase helps the Karma turn into a sports car when pushed hard. It’s blessed with instantaneous turn-in, virtually no body roll, no brake dive, and obscene cornering grip. It has spot-on chassis balance, supercar-quality initial brake bite, and more than ample suspension compliance. Add to that excellent weight distribution (47/53 percent front/rear); a low (18.9-inch) center of gravity; quick, communicative steering; and a tight turning radius. When it comes to dynamics, the Karma kicks ass and takes names.

In Sport mode, the Karma can achieve 60 mph in 5.9 seconds and continue to 125 mph. Without the gas engine’s assistance, the mile-per-minute marker comes at 7.9 seconds, and 95 mph is the limit. Straight-line acceleration isn’t exactly breathtaking, but like all EVs, the Fisker is quickest at low speeds, where you need it most. If you expected more acceleration from 402 hp, it’s because you’re forgetting the other side of the equation: weight.

Despite being constructed of mostly lightweight materials, the Karma is an uncommonly heavy car. Fisker Automotive refused to disclose its weight, but we wouldn’t be surprised to find that the Karma weighs well over 5000 pounds. The two powertrains and the huge battery are ample explanation for the heft-yet no matterwhat the scales say, the Karma flings itself around a racetrack with more composure than the class leader in the handling department, the Jaguar XJ. So who cares what it weighs?

The Karma’s intimate cockpit helps further the impression of sportiness. Each passenger is seated in his own cocoon, with a door on one side and the high center divider on the other. The dashboard, tailored in diamond-stitched Ultrasuede, is a model of simplicity, with all secondary functions controlled via a 10.2-inch haptic-feedback touch screen developed in-house. Simply put, the interior looks like the future-a very elegant future where every surface is pleasing to the eyes and fingers alike. All four seats are comfortable, although the rears suffer from a slight lack of headroom and the short rear door openings require a little extra bodily origami to get through. The trunk will hold, at best, two small roll-aboard suitcases.

With a base price of $96,850, the Karma doesn’t cost more than its gas-only competitors. Fully loaded (but without the optional top-spec, animal-free interior) at $105,000, it’s far less expensive than a Maserati Quattroporte and half the price of an Aston Martin Rapide, neither of which pack any additional exterior punch or interior voluptuousness. The Karma is the first electric vehicle that doesn’t cost three times what you’d expect it to-and Fisker swears it won’t lose money on it. Clearly the small company is benefiting tremendously from not having the baggage of decades of legacy costs and inefficient management. Either that or something magical is happening.

We’d guess there’s a little of both. And we’re not talking sleight of hand, we’re talking about the kind of magic that Apple manufactures: the magic that happens when you watch science fiction turn into reality right in front of you. A BlackBerry is a great piece of science; an iPhone is magic in the palm of your hand.

The Chevy Volt, for all its well-deserved accolades and awards, is a great piece of science. But let’s be honest: the show car that captured the imagination of millions failed to materialize. Yes, the powertrain made it, but only after it was wrapped in a rather plain-Jane package. We named it Automobile of the Year because of what’s under the hood. Without that, the Volt would be just another car.

Like Apple’s coolest products, which have turned people who don’t care about computers into cultish gadget geeks, the Karma is cutting-edge technology wrapped in a jaw-dropping package and offered at a competitive price. It may fall short on engine refinement or trunk space or whatever, but when the overall package is this compelling, those things just don’t matter. Magic has a way of transcending flaws-again, just look at the iPhone.

Auto executives often lament that young people just don’t get excited about cars these days. It seems these gentlemen have been paying too much attention to their BlackBerrys and not enough to their kids’ iThings. Making small steps at advancing existing technology is great, but it’s not magic, and it takes magic to capture the imagination of a new generation. By bringing science fiction to life and putting it in a real car that’s also beautiful, Fisker is creating a kind of Apple for the American car industry. An industry that, judging by the Fisker Karma’s delectable curves, has never looked so good.

2012 Fisker Karma ES

BASE PRICE $96,850

MOTORS: Two liquid-cooled AC
BATTERIES: Lithium-ion, 20 kWh, 241 hp max output
RANGE EXTENDER: 2.0-liter turbo I-4, 260 hp; 235-hp generator
TOTAL TORQUE: 981 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: Single-speed
DRIVE: Rear-wheel

STEERING : Electrohydraulically assisted
SUSPENSION, FRONT: Control arms, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR: Control arms, coil springs
BRAKES: Vented discs, ABS
TIRES: Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar
TIRE SIZE F, R: 255/35WR-22, 285/35WR-22

L x W x H: 196.7 x 78.1 x 52.4 in
WHEELBASE: 124.4 in
WEIGHT: 5300 lb (est.)
WEIGHT: DIST. F/R 47/53%
CHARGING: 6 hours @ 240V, 15A; 14 hours @ 120V, 15A
RANGE: 50/250 miles (electric/gas)
0-60 MPH: 5.9/7.9 sec (hybrid/battery only)
TOP SPEED: 125/95 mph (hybrid/battery only)