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Driven: 2012 Fisker Karma

German vehicles exude precision and solidity. Japanese automakers own technology and quality. Italy's finest radiate passion and emotion. If cars derive traits from the country -- not just the company -- that births them, what is an American car?

Henrik Fisker, the man behind America's youngest automaker, has an answer. Conjuring icons like the 1963 Buick Riviera and the 1961 Lincoln Continental, the Danish-born designer believes the calling card of a quintessentially American car is unmistakable, unforgettable road presence. His $103,000 Fisker Karma has it in spades, and yet the car is nothing like those hulking relics from another era. The sensuous curves, the imposing stance, and the suggestive proportions of the Karma are more expressive than anything built by Detroit's Big Three, past or present.

Just as revolutionary under the hood
Fisker's entree into automobile production isn't just a styling masterpiece. The Karma also boasts a forward-thinking powertrain, turning the wheels with electrons while still delivering the freedom of a gas tank. Similar to the Chevrolet Volt, the Karma offers a limited range--between 30 and 50 miles--using electricity stored in a large, lithium-ion battery that is charged by plugging the car into a wall. Once the battery is depleted, a four-cylinder engine fires up, spinning a generator to provide another 250 miles worth of electricity. The not-so-subtle difference between the Volt and the Karma is power output. While Chevrolet's plug-in makes just 149 hp at the front wheels, the Karma's two electric motors can send 403 hp and 959 lb-ft of torque to the ground through the rear wheels.

Despite those massive numbers, the Karma's potential to be a tire-smoking, stoplight-dragging four-door is dampened by its massive, 5400-pound weight. Fisker claims a 6.3-second sprint to 60 mph, but slurring away from a stop in the Karma doesn't feel quite that quick and that maximum performance is only available in sport mode, when both the battery and the gas engine are feeding power to the motors. In pure electric mode or when the battery charge is depleted, acceleration is even less lively. The Karma is by no means a slow car, but straight-line performance doesn't compare to that of eight- and twelve-cylinder rivals.

For a refined luxury car, though, the Karma's powertrain makes a lot of sense. Under electric power, the car silently slinks along Malibu streets and wafts gracefully in Los Angeles traffic. You won't miss the four-cylinder firing up, but Fisker engineers have made strides in muffling the engine since senior editor Jason Cammisa drove a preproduction Karma last year. That didn't stop a handful of auto journalists from kvetching throughout our drive. "It's not right that you can hear the gas engine in an electric car," one person postured. Our take: we'd rather hear the distant din of a four-cylinder engine than the rumble of a tow truck when electric range expires. Besides, the Karma's General Motors-sourced engine is quieter and more isolated than any other four-cylinder hybrid powertrain. Less forgivable are the shudders that emanate through the car during low-speed creeping. Whether you're lightly braking, gently accelerating, or completely off both pedals, the Karma refuses to inch forward smoothly. We suspect that's the result of asking the electric motors to move such a heavy car while rotating at such a low speed.

The shift paddles behind the steering wheel play a new role in a car with a single-speed transmission. Here they provide access to a bevy of driving modes, which proves to be far less intuitive that switching gears. The right paddle increases the amount of regenerative braking when you lift off the accelerator. The left is only relevant when the battery is charged, switching between stealth (pure electric) and sport (full power) mode. On our drive, we aimed to milk the battery for the most electric range in stealth mode and called up maximum regenerative braking for downhills. However, we did simultaneously dip into the battery charge and the fuel tank with sport mode for a handful of flat-out acceleration runs. Over a 115-mile route with about 35 miles of electric driving, our Karma's onboard computer calculated an average of 35 mpg. That's fantastic for a car this large and heavy, but that number was also falling with every passing mile. The EPA rates the Karma at a woeful 20 mpg when the gas engine is running, a reminder that this car's raison d'etre is as much about indulgent luxury as it is about mindful environmentalism.

A new handling adage: complicate and add heaviness

While mashing the accelerator pedal isn't all that rewarding, the chassis more than makes up for it. The Karma lives up to the handling promises made by the beefy haunches pulled tight around the 22-inch wheels. The heavy battery pack actually improves body control by locating so much mass low to the ground and in between the wheels. As a result, the Fisker remains virtually flat in corners. The steering is superb -- arguably better than that of a new Porsche 911. That sentiment likely says more about the Porsche than the Fisker, but it's worth noting that the Southern California startup stuck with a more traditional hydraulic pump that allows for excellent feedback from the front tires while many automakers are switching to pure electric setups. Despite the low-profile tires and the non-adjustable suspension, the Karma also rides comfortably over California's pavement.

An animal-free -- and plastic-free -- interior

Our test car, a top-of-the-line EcoChic model, featured an animal-free interior, but it wasn't the lack of leather that caught us by surprise. Instead, we were impressed by the scarcity of plastic in the cabin. With a fabric-and-suede-lined dashboard, center console, and door panels, the Karma coddles its four passengers in the ultimate padded cell. As plush as it is, the design isn't nearly as convincing as the exterior; some of the color schemes and patterns don't look authentically high-end. Our tester's navy blue and gray cockpit was strangely nautical, and the out-of-place glass accents and gimmicky lighting detract from the car's luxury pretentions. The touch screen isn't as crisp or responsive as what you get in an Audi, and toward the end of our drive, the information screen stopped showing the energy-flow animation. That wasn't nearly as disturbing, however, as when the energy actually stopped flowing to the car's speedometer. While driving at 70 mph, our Karma's digital instrument cluster disappeared and every warning light on the dash illuminated. The car drove normally, the cluster quickly reset, and the incident didn't happen again, but none of that makes it any less disconcerting to see your electrically powered car rebooting systems in traffic.

Not what you expect from a startup

Despite our gripes about the interior, the Fisker Karma is an incredibly impressive car. The build quality, the styling, and the technology amount to something you'd expect from a huge, established automaker, not a five-year-old startup. Still, Fisker's place in the market isn't guaranteed. The company will need money, sales volume, and its second, more affordable car to be mentioned in the same breath as BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi. That's a tall order in today's economy, but the fact that the company has come this far this quickly should have the rest of the American auto industry paying attention.

2012 Fisker Karma
Base price: $103,000
Price as tested: $116,000

Type: Range-extended electric vehicle
Total output: 403 hp, 959 lb-ft
Range extender: 2.0L turbo I-4
Range: 50/250 miles (electric/gas)
Transmission: Single-speed
Drive: Rear-wheel

Steering: Electro-hydraulically 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: 5400 lb
Weight distribution: 47/53%