The Karma of Fisker

Noise, Vibration & Harshness

There’s a lot to like about the plug-in Fisker Karma. There’s also a lot to think about. High on one’s list of thoughts: it can’t be easy being Fisker Automotive.

On the plus side, the very first machine that Danish designer Henrik Fisker deemed fit to name after his bold, preening self borders on outrageous, in all the right ways. The Karma is as long, low, and supersexy as you can go in a sedan that actually (if barely) seats four people. It’s got big swoopy fenders and an oversupply of achy-breaky curves. In the looks department, this low-slung, four-door pimp-roller puts even the très louche and not much cheaper ($111,000 before rebate versus $88,000) BMW 650i Gran Coupe and the tres douche Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG ($97,000) on the trailer. People looked at me so much when I finally got around to driving a Karma in New York City on my rounds last week, I could scarcely believe it. That part of its appeal has nothing to do with how it drives.

And the thing is, it drives well. One might forget, but the enthusiast press initially received the Karma favorably. A lot seems to have changed since, but the Fisker is just like they said back when: not just a pretty face. A strutting peacock bad boy of a series hybrid, the Karma is a heavyweight at 5300 pounds, yet it manages to step lively (0 to 60 mph in 6.1 seconds) with a four-cylinder gasoline engine to augment and charge the batteries that spin the 403 hp of twin electric motors powering the rear wheels.

The Karma makes the most of its road-hugging weight to ride and handle surprisingly nicely, especially when one allows for the impossibly limited suspension travel ordained by its skintight jeans. Steering feel is very good and, even more unexpectedly, the interior materials and finish in our black test car seem generally appropriate for an expensive machine, much better than one might anticipate in a low-volume car.

Simultaneously credible as a driver’s car, a showy green machine, and as an exclusive luxury device with a high — but not absurdly high — price, the Fisker is an impressive achievement.

At least that’s the way it was looking. But then Fisker’s karma seemed to catch up with it. Or something did, because things started going wrong. Then they kept going.
The EPA adjudges that Fisker owners can expect a not-so-green 20 mpg if the batteries are uncharged, about 6 mpg less than what had been expected. Running on pure electric power, the EPA concluded, one might see 33 miles. Together, it is a combo your Uncle Sam reckons is good for 54 mpg, not bad at all but a lot lower than the 80-something some had been predicted.

Fisker launched late but successfully in 2011 and had only just received Top Gear’s Luxury Car of the Year honors (in a possible act of atonement for the TV show’s mean-spirited Tesla takedown) when the press turned decidedly sour. A Karma bricked on Consumer Reports in March 2012, losing power shortly after they’d bought it and before they could even begin instrumented testing. The table was set.

In May, a parked Fisker’s lithium-ion batteries were implicated in a Texas garage fire, sending the media into a panic from which they’ve not recovered.

Often unfairly, the business and enthusiast press love to circle a struggling or wounded venture, prodding while almost savoring its demise. The fangs are fully bared when failure represents the rapid descent of an audacious schemer with a giant ego; this despite the fact that we all know that one must have an impossible will if he is to believe he can start his own car company, lo these last hundred and twenty years or so. And when there’s some electricity or other new technology involved, the sadists and gloating skeptics are thick on the ground.

Add an endless chorus of disenchantment from politicians who hate in principle the idea of government support for the part of the car industry interested in electrification (as opposed to glorious subsidies for everything petroleum-related), and Fisker was always going to be in the crosshairs. Ditto Tesla. The government shouldn’t pick winners, the critics cry. But, of course, it already did, a long time ago.

Shown first in 2008, the Fisker Karma was audacious in so many ways. With a hybrid drivetrain and a stout luxury price tag, it was launched in the eye of a recession, a real upscale Toyota Prius alternative. It might have flown on its own sometime, but not then. However, with Barack Obama’s election and a stimulus program enacted, the government was getting into the car business. For that occasion, Fisker in all its green finery was right on schedule. It just turned out that building cars and developing new ones was more difficult and more expensive than the company had figured, and the environment was going to be a lot more hostile than it’d banked on.

Most recently, the bankruptcy of battery-supplier A123 Systems in October—after steaming through $249 million in government loans — hasn’t been a helpful image, especially since Fisker, itself the recipient of $529 million from the U.S. government and $21.5 million from Delaware, has long since had its government credit halted for failing to meet production targets. That’s sent the already-reeling enterprise back to the capital markets from whom it had managed, in happier times, to extract a not-inconsiderable $850 million.

Fisker has built more than 2000 Karmas, which is good compared with some start-ups but not as many as it wanted. And now it needs further private investment in substantial amounts to build the cheaper, much-higher-volume Atlantic model that is central to the company’s success. And that’s not going well.

The 2012 presidential campaign put on ice, probably forever, any hope Fisker had of getting more government money. Then, because misery loves company, Hurricane Sandy destroyed 338 Karmas awaiting shipment in a New Jersey storage lot. Insurance will cover losses, except that salt water caused at least one of the damaged cars’ electronics to start sizzling. The ensuing fiery destruction of sixteen Fiskers didn’t sound great and it made a worse optic, even if a few Priuses also went up in smoke for the same Sandy-related reason.

So, the part of me that believes what I read was consciously surprised when we didn’t die a gruesome death the night we ventured out of the city in our Fisker and up to deepest darkest Westchester for dinner. It started to snow as we sat in our friends’ comfortable home, and when we left there were a few inches on the roads. Defying everything I’d been encouraged to fear about Fiskers and electric cars, we traveled home twenty-one miles without incident and in superior comfort. The wipers worked, the seat warmers warmed, the defroster defrosted. Amazing.