IT’LL NEVER HAPPEN – THE SHOW CAR
If, in the cold Detroit winter of 2008, the Fisker Karma concept car had been shown by an established automaker, it would have been hailed as the second coming of luxury sedans. Its proportions alone gave other auto executives and engineers varicose veins -- but at the car’s estimated $80,000 base price, it would have been the Karma’s salespeople who would have been truly overwhelmed. In terms of visual bang for the buck, the Karma would have had no competition on Planet Earth.
But the Karma was not supposed to be just a beautiful luxury sedan. Included in that competitive price, and hidden under the four-seater’s skin, was something straight out of Science Fiction: an electric powertrain with a range-extending internal combustion engine. That car, with that powertrain, at that price? The Karma’s good looks might have wooed them speechless, but both seasoned journalists and inexperienced bloggers still managed to scratch out on their notepads: “It’ll never happen.”
Three years later, it’s about to.
THE LUXURY CAR, REDEFINED
The base price has risen slightly (to $96,850, including destination), and if you parked the production-spec 2012 Karma next to the show car, you might notice a couple of subtle differences. But in the Karma’s journey from Sci-Fi concept to On-A-Lot-Near-You production car, nothing of substance has changed. At the end of April, the first Karmas will be delivered to paying customers, and the luxury car market will have been changed forever.
Are we perhaps overstating the significance of the Karma? Possibly -- but that risk won’t stop us from calling this Fisker the most important car of the year. And for multiple reasons.
REASON ONE: THE TUCKER FACTOR and THE ONLY THREE
For the entire existence of Automobile Magazine, there have been three American car companies. Call them the Big Three or the Detroit Three, but a more accurate name is the Only Three. A little Silicon Valley company called Tesla popped up a few years ago and, for the first time, showed the Only Three that they were no longer the Standard of the World. The world had moved on, and while the Only Three fought against fuel economy standards and struggled to make their first attempts at fuel-saving technologies (remember the Saturn Vue hybrid, which got an oversize alternator and a hybrid badge?) Tesla started selling an all-electric sports car.
A few years later, there’s Fisker. Henrik Fisker might not have an American passport, but Fisker Automotive is an American company, with its home in Southern California. And it, like Tesla, is making waves big enough to grab the attention of the world. Tesla and Fisker are doing something that the Only Three haven’t done for years -- innovate from the ground up. The spirit of true innovation is what made the world pay attention to the American car companies in the first place.
Over the past several decades, and especially until recently, the Only Three have struggled to make real innovations -- they’ve barely been able to product world-class cars, not to mention a profit. But while they sit around and wonder why young people aren’t excited about cars, they’re showing a complete lack of understanding of youth. What excites young people is magic. Magic -- as defined by science fiction becoming reality. The truth is that young people are very much excited by cars, just not the same old cars that the Only Three have been putting out.
Put a Tesla Roadster or a Fisker Karma in front of a sixteen-year-old and you’ll see excitement you could measure on a multimeter. Why? These cars are rolling science fiction, in the same way that fin-tailed Cadillacs were rolling Sci-Fi to their parents and grandparents.
REASON TWO: THE PRICE and PACKAGE
We bestowed our highest honor, Automobile of the Year, upon the Chevrolet Volt, the world’s first real production range-extended electric vehicle. We did so not because of the car itself, but because of the technology it contains. The Volt isn’t perfect, nor have we ever said it was. It marks a landmark shift in the automotive world, and it’s a clear sign that someone is home, with the lights on, doing their homework at General Motors. Bravo.
On the other hand, the Volt is saddled with two big problems. First, GM developed a brilliant powertrain and wrapped it in a completely undesirable package. The Volt was supposed to pretty, like the original concept. The production Volt is anything but.
Its second problem is one that it shares with every other electric vehicle on the market (that includes pure EVs and range-extended EVs.) That problem: the sticker and the car don’t match. The Chevy Volt is an $18,000 hatchback with a $41,000 sticker. The Nissan Leaf is a $15,000 econo-hatchback with a $33,000 MSRP. Even the lovable Tesla Roadster is, essentially, a $110,000 sports car based on a $45,000 Lotus.
The Fisker Karma is saddled with none of these problems. It’s a $97,000 car with a $97,000 window sticker. The technology is merely a bonus -- the Karma would be desirable if it had a conventional V-8 under the hood. In terms of style and elegance, it’s easily the equal of the new Jaguar XJ -- another of the Automobile of the Year finalists. Combining the best -- and seemingly contradictory -- attributes of two AOY finalists is a clear recipe for automotive greatness. Now let’s examine the ingredients in detail.
The Karma is constructed using an extruded aluminum space frame with mostly -- the trunklid is composite -- aluminum body panels, aluminum control arms and subframes. Its 124.4-inch wheelbase is within a quarter inch of the long-wheelbase Mercedes S-class, but the Karma is almost ten inches shorter. More importantly, it’s 4.4 inches wider and 5.6 inches shorter, giving a low, wide stance that trounces even the Maserati Quattroporte’s.
Filling the enormous wheel wells are standard twenty-two inch wheels -- an industry first. 235/25-WR22 front and 285/35-WR22 Goodyear Eagle F1 tires are wrapped around the cast aluminum wheels (which are 8.5 inches wide in front, 9.5 in rear). Despite the small tire-to-fender gap, Fisker promises that the suspension has 3.1 inches of usable jounce travel in front, 3.5 inches in the rear. Sachs Nivomat self-leveling rear shocks keep that travel available, and also eliminate the need for level compensation on the bixenon headlights. (All other exterior lighting is provided by LED.)
Filling the enormous wheels are, of course, enormous brakes. Up front, 14.6-inch floating rotors are straddled by six-piston Brembo monoblock calipers. Peering out from the two-tone spokes of the rear wheels are 14.4” rotors and four-piston Brembo calipers. (The smallest wheel that will fit on the Karma is a 21-incher.)
Speed-sensitive steering assistance is provided by an electrohydraulic system that runs on the car’s 12-volt system. This low-voltage system powers the on-board accessories, lighting, and infotainment system, and stores power in a conventional lead-acid battery. The roof of the Karma has solar panels that feed the system with up to 120 watts of power on sunny days. While this electricity never powers the wheels directly, it can reduce the amount of low-voltage power pulled from the high-voltage system, and could, in theory, add up to 200 miles of additional range per year. Cool, yes, but it’s mostly there to make a statement, we suspect.
ELECTRIC VEHICLE MODE (STEALTH MODE)
The Karma’s primary power source, as an electric vehicle, is a 360-volt, 20-kWh lithium-ion battery pack that runs down the center of the car. The pack itself weighs 600 lb, and is kept cool by the air conditioning system (one-fifth of the system’s 10-kW capacity is dedicated to battery cooling). An on-board 3.3-kW charger can charge the pack in approximately six hours using household 220V, 15-amp service. The battery’s maximum output is 160 kW.
Powering the rear wheels are twin 150-kW electric motors, which are double-isolated from the chassis. The motors are positioned to the front and rear of a clutch-type limited-slip differential at a fixed 4.10:1 ratio, and together produce peak torque of 981 lb-ft. Because of the fixed gear ratio, that’s not directly comparable to a gasoline engine’s rating: at full throttle, the peak torque available at the rear wheels of a V-8 Porsche Panamera S is 7780 lb-ft in first gear; the Karma’s peak is about half that, or 4022 lb-ft.
In all-electric mode, the battery’s 160 kW is enough to propel the Karma to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds and on to a top speed of 95 mph, according to Fisker. And provided you’re not trying repeated hole-shots, the 20-kWh battery is good for about 50 miles of driving.
HYBRID MODE (SPORT MODE)
Astute readers and tech geeks will notice that the electric motors’ capability is far higher than the power the battery pack can provide. That’s where the gas engine comes in.
Mounted longitudinally under the hood, behind the front axle line, is a turbocharged, direct-injected 2.0-liter four-cylinder -- the same General Motors EcoTEC engine that vibrated our teeth out in the now-gone Pontiac Solstice GXP and Saturn Sky Red Line. The engine exhales through ports at the base of the front fenders, and is rated at 260 hp (194 kW), just as it was in the GM sports cars. There is no transmission attached to the four-banger; it used only to turn a 170-kW generator.
When Sport Mode is engaged (by pulling a paddle behind the 9-o’clock position on the steering wheel), the Karma’s powertrain control unit runs the gas engine to generate electricity for the motors. Additionally (and this is a functional difference compared to the Chevolet Volt), the engine is also run to charge the lithium-ion battery to a minimum of 50 percent state-of-charge (SOC.) If the battery’s SOC is over approximately 80 percent, as it was when we drove the Karma, the engine will switch off when the Karma comes to a stop.
At full throttle in sport mode, the combined power output of the gas engine/generator and the battery are enough to fully power the two electric motors. That’s a total of 300kW (or 403 hp) of motive force -- enough, says Fisker, to sling the Karma to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds and on to a top speed of 125 mph.
Once the battery’s estimated 50-mile range is exhausted, the Karma switches over to gas power. Fisker says the Karma’s 9.5-gallon fuel tank is good for another 250 miles of cruising. That estimate calculates to about 26 mpg -- reasonable considering the inefficiencies in using gasoline to produce electricity rather than power the rear wheels directly. Obviously, that range will decrease dramatically if Sport Mode is engaged and the engine is used to charge the battery as well as propel the Karma.
With all that tech talk, it’s easy to forget that Fisker is run by a designer. (CEO Henrik Fisker made his name by designing knock-out cars like the BMW Z8 and Aston Martin V8 Vantage.) A quick look-see around the interior, however, confirms who’s in charge. The Karma’s cabin looks like a concept car’s -- except that, in this case, the production car’s interior is even more futuristic and more beautiful than the concept’s.
There are no physical gauges and practically no buttons. On the center console, there are P/R/N/D selector buttons and window switches. On the dash, there’s a big starter button, and three buttons nestled in a small piece of wood trim -- one to lock the doors, one to open the glovebox, and one to engage the hazard lights. That’s it. The virtual instrument panel consists only of three LCD panels, staggered at different depths. The center stack contains a large, 10.2-inch touchscreen interface with haptic feedback -- another industry first. There are a few GM-sourced controls (the turn signals, power mirror controls, and steering-wheel buttons are the most obvious), but they’ll sneak in below the radar for most customers, as they’re beautifully integrated into the whole design.
The touch screen controls most secondary and tertiary functions like navigation, climate control, and entertainment. The software is exclusive to Fisker, and contains (as you’d expect) gorgeous renderings of the car where necessary. At 720x480, the screen’s resolution won’t impress anyone with an iPad -- or even a 7-series BMW (its similarly sized screen is 1280x480). And despite the usability drawbacks inherent to touchscreen devices, consistency in button location was clearly a goal. Commonly used buttons and displays (like radio volume and time) are placed in a frame on the top, left side, and bottom of the screen that remains static no matter what mode the system is in. Smart.
Two drawbacks we found in our very limited time with the system: like many systems, the Karma’s iPod/USB integration doesn’t feature the album/artist/song hierarchy that Apple brilliantly engineered. Secondly, the navigation map appears in a stylized box on-screen and cannot be expanded to the full size of the screen -- or even close, for that matter.
Software can always be updated, however -- the hard points of the Karma leave nothing to desire. Every material, including and especially the understated diamond-stitched Ultrasuede trim, would be at home in a Bentley or Rolls-Royce. Jewelry is limited to a small piece of wood trim atop the center console. You don’t need jewelry when everything else is so beautiful.
The seats -- four buckets -- are supremely comfortable and supportive. You sit low in the Karma -- or at least it feels that way, since the tall center console divides each seat into its own cocoon. In the rear, headroom is a bit right and the big rear haunches mean that shoulder room is less than you’d expect in a car this size. Legroom is more than adequate for a six-footer, though a short and significantly angled lower seat cushion might become bothersome on a long trip. The rear door openings are narrow, necessitating a bit of gymnastics to get in and out, but all of these are small sacrifices to styling on a car that will likely only occasionally carry four passengers. And hey, the back seat is far more habitable than the equally gorgeous but far more expensive Aston Martin Rapide.
Up front, there are no sacrifices to room. The view out front and to the side is great -- with a commanding view of the highly sculpted, low hood. A rear view camera comes with the navigation system on all but the entry trim level, and given the size and shape of the rear window, it’s a worthwhile investment. In traffic, very large side mirrors, however, make the best of the view behind.
Unfortunately, our brief drive in the Karma was limited to the race track. This was unfortunate only because we wanted to see how the sedan coped with bumps, other cars, and heavy traffic situations. As it turns out, the Karma is quite a monster on track.
The pre-production car we drove didn’t have functioning stability control, so there were no nannies to intervene when we pushed this EV to the limit. The Karma’s wide, low stance is a perfect recipe for flat handling, and it delivered that in spades. When we got back from the track, we noticed that the Fisker had occasionally picked up an inside rear wheel during cornering shots -- shots that looked otherwise completely anti-climactic due to the absence of body roll. Brake dive, too, is notably absent -- thank the Karma’s low center of gravity (at 18.9 inches high, according to Fisker, it’s about the same as a Ford GT) and the weight distribution which, at 53% front, 47% rear, is what Ferrari considers ideal.
Though Fisker is still working on the final calibration of the electrohydraulic steering, at-the-limit steering feel is limited to a bit of kickback. Still, the rack is suitably quick -- and incidentally, the Karma has an impressively tight turning radius. Cornering grip is, for lack of another word, tremendous. The Karma settles into mild understeer at the limit, as you’d expect, but responds to tail-out tricks like power oversteer, mid-corner lifts, and brutal turn-in. Despite the enormous wheels (and 35-series tires), midcorner bumps are soaked up without drama.
The Brembo brakes have tremendous initial bite, and didn’t show the faintest signs of stress after a few hard laps. Of course, like all electric vehicles that blend regenerative braking into the pedal, there’s a loss of linearity and brake feel. The Karma is no exception, and our limited time with the car revealed the need for some additional fine tuning -- which, we’re assured, will be completed before customer deliveries begin.
Like all electric vehicles, the Karma is quickest at low speeds. Even in pure EV mode (which, if you’ll remember, can only supply only just over half of the motor’s capacity), the Karma squirts off the line with authority. The difference between Stealth (EV) and Sport (Hybrid) mode isn’t as pronounced as you’d think, especially as there’s a lag between sudden accelerator application and the gas engine reaching its full power output.
At full tilt in Sport mode, there’s a spaceship-like scream coming from both powertrains. The dominant sound is the turbo whistle, which builds to a crescendo as the four-cylinder reaches its maximum speed. It’s an otherworldly sound when mated to the whine of the electric motors in back and the angry growl of a four-cylinder at full-tilt -- and if you let off the accelerator quickly, you’re treated to the intoxicating sound of the blow-off valve as the turbo’s frenetic scream retreats into the background.
THE VIBROMONSTER UNDER THE HOOD
If the Karma is notably Jaguar XJ-esque in its shocking on-track prowess, there’s one big difference between it and the V-8-powered sedan: powertrain refinement. The GM-sourced four-cylinder was rude, crude, rough and loud even in the sporty Solstice/Sky twins, and sadly, its soundtrack is especially out of place in a luxury car.
Fisker’s requirements for an internal combustion engine (260 horsepower from 2.0 liters of displacement or less) were met by very few engines in the world. Unquestionably, the best of them is Volkswagen’s 2.0T. Unfortunately, it seems Volkswagen wasn’t willing to sell Fisker its smooth, refined direct-injection mill. That’s a shame.
The prototype that we drove hadn’t yet received the latest updates to control the NVH, so we’re hoping the production cars are somewhat quieter and more refined. Then again, when running in pure EV mode, the Karma is near-silent. Near silent for the first 50 miles a day (as long as you’re not looking for the full 403 hp) goes a long way towards making up for a gritty soundtrack thereafter.
In fact, the story alone of how this small company beat the odds -- and the Big, err… Only Three -- in bringing this Sci-Fi-powered concept car to market makes up for a multitude of sins. That the Karma commits so few of them in the first place -- and especially because it avoids the typical sin of EV pricing -- is just a bonus. If left with a $100,000 budget and the choice to buy a four-seat luxury car, the Karma is your chance at buying the future instead of living in the past. And that’s a really significant story indeed.