Inside Karma Automotive: How the Company Is Fusing Coachbuilding with High Tech
With three new models—one now on sale, two that might be—and plans to expand beyond simply building cars, Karma is reinventing itself at a rapid pace.
Whether you believe in it or not, the concept of karma—which is central or important to many world religions—is at once simple and incredibly complex. In a way, it's just the law of cause and effect operating on a moral level; in another, it's the sum of every action undertaken by everyone who ever lived and the network of those interactions. Neither of those is an apt description of a car company, of course, but both ideas can be used to frame what Karma Automotive is doing today, and why.
Born out of the ashes of the design-forward but business-backward Fisker Automotive and named after Fisker's primary product, the Karma, Karma Automotive's previous life is ever-present in the company's collective consciousness. In its way, it's both atoning for that past and also trying to evolve beyond it while retaining the good from its history as the foundation. "We came from Fisker, but we are not Fisker," Karma Automotive CEO Liang "Lance" Zhou said. "We are better than Fisker. That is the first thing we want to tell our public. It's our link with innovation, our link with California spirit and lifestyle, our link with technology. This is also our spirit. We will continue to follow this DNA. But that doesn't mean we need to follow Fisker products."
Breaking the Cycle
In fact, the first task at Karma was undoing a lot of what Fisker had done to the original car. Karma Automotive chief technology officer Bob Kruse, a 40-year veteran of the auto industry, primarily with General Motors, has a number of firsts under his belt: He worked on the industry's first touchscreen and some of the industry's first navigation systems, antilock brake systems, and airbag systems, among others. But at Karma, where he's been for a little more than two years, job one was fixing past mistakes in order to launch the non-GT Revero, referred to internally as "1.0." "Basically we took the Fisker and fixed everything that was wrong with it, put a new infotainment system in it, fixed all of the drivability issues with it," Kruse said. "There were lots of issues in the 2012 that we discovered and fixed."
"We want reasons for customers to go for us, as we're a Chinese-owned newcomer with a [Fisker] track record that was problematic in many cases. We have to offer something really different," Karma's director of exterior design, Andreas Thurner, said. "In the beginning, the [previous] company [Fisker] had big, big goals. Some things worked out better, and some things not so good, but the goals are still very interesting, to have this combination of something that has timeless proportions like a Greek statue, that's not aging, that's always just perfect."
So Karma isn't merely the sum of its past lives—or at least it's working very hard not to be. To that end, the automotive portion of the company is just that, a portion, and it's not even the primary money maker. "If you only rely on building and selling cars, you cannot make this company successful," Zhou said. "We have a different profit center. We are more agile. We provide more customization to generate the price increase, sales, and profit."
That customization will happen at the Karma Innovation and Customization Center (KICC), located in Moreno Valley, California. It's where Karma's cars are built, and
it's where Karma hopes to develop a robust business of bespoke customization, both for its own cars and for those of its ostensible competitors. "Our customization is not only for our car," Zhou said. "We can open it up to, for example, Tesla to do custom design in our studio."
Karma also has a software and intellectual-property division, which aims to develop and license both hardware components and software controls for autonomous driving, hybrid drive systems, charging systems, and more. Responding to Volkswagen's recent announcement of similar plans to launch a software business, Zhou smiled and laughed before growing serious. "I am very upset with Volkswagen, as we are also going to have a software division," he said. "I should have announced it sooner. But it doesn't matter. We can still win. We are more agile, smaller. They can build a software company, but it will take 10 years. We will take three years."
By the time those three years are up, Karma will have already launched the heavily updated, re-engineered, and redesigned Karma Revero GT (which goes on sale immediately after this mid-April unveiling, with deliveries beginning in the fourth quarter of 2019), as well as a Revero GTS performance variant, due in early 2020. Then there's a new car, code-named "3.0," due to arrive in early 2021. That car is previewed by the Karma Vision Concept, illustrated above in computer renderings; it was in the final stages of construction ahead of its launch at the Shanghai show alongside the Karma Revero GT when we visited the company. The Karma Pininfarina GT, which was designed by Pininfarina using the second-gen Karma chassis, was also set to be revealed at Shanghai and is on the docket for potential production depending on customer feedback. It is likewise shown here in computer renderings, as it too was still being completed.
The reinvented Revero GT offers plenty to get excited about. It will launch in a Luxury spec that promises a 4.5-second zero-to-60 time, a new 28-kWh battery pack using new nickel-manganese-cobalt lithium-ion battery cells, an EPA-certified electric range of 61 miles (Kruse says "best case" EV range is closer to 80 miles), plus 280 miles of extended range thanks to a new 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine-generator sourced from BMW and as seen in the i8, rated to produce a continuous 170 kW to supply electricity to the Revero GT's battery and/or electric motors. Karma says the Performance version of the updated Revero will trim the zero-to-60 time to just 3.9 seconds, with a total output of 536 hp and 550 lb-ft of torque.
You might think using BMW's three-cylinder engine would be a simple plug-and-play solution, but Kruse explained why it isn't. "Our use profile is different, so we had to do a whole recalibration and recertification of the engine for OBD requirements. We have our own engine-management controls, and on top of that we have our supervisory controls that sit above the ECM to decide when to call for generator, how to distribute torque, how to do the regen blending."
Weight is always a concern with vehicles that carry batteries on board. The new car weighs approximately 5,050 pounds (production curb weight hasn't been finalized), compared with the previous Revero's 5,407 pounds. "The engine was part of [the weight savings]; the battery was part of it," Kruse said. "The whole rear drive unit is more compact and more efficient." On top of the weight savings, all updated Reveros will benefit from improved steering, ride quality, and torque delivery.
"We are competing with Aston Martin, McLaren, Ferrari. ... I know right now we cannot fight, but we continue to put our car in competition with these brands. "
"Right now in 1.0 I have a common torque path right and left; now [with the Revero GT] I have a gearbox that's split, so I'm bringing on torque vectoring because I can control the left side independently from the right side," Kruse said. "It's true torque vectoring—positive and negative torque—because we have two motors in the rear and each motor is directly coupled to one wheel. So it's easy to spin the outside wheel faster in a curve, or whatever the accelerometer says we want to do."
The Revero GT isn't just new under the skin. "We made sure to analyze what we are advocates of [in the original design] and what we must not lose," Thurner said. "Of course there were aspects that we felt we must develop, must change, as well. The hips went further out, and they almost curve up, so the whole cabin sits in between. Now you see the spoiler coming up, emphasizing that."
Interior and exterior designer Samuel Lim noted some of the new Revero GT's other highlights. "Inside, basically everything that the driver directly sees is all new," Lim said. "The steering wheel is all new. The center console is all new. Even the complete headliner and sun visors are new. The seats are all new, with a push for comfort, but they're also very sculptural."
Next Level Space
Karma Automotive's parent company, Wanxiang Group Corporation, is China's largest automotive parts supplier by revenue. With its planned breakneck pace of product launches and Karma's explicit desire to avoid any sort of mass production, the California-based, Chinese-backed startup sits in a distinct space in the market compared to, say, Tesla Motors. That decision is part of the strategy. "We don't want to go to mass production," Zhou said. "That would be a big risk for us. Others are trying, but I don't know how big a chance they have to survive. I don't think startups will have a good chance compared to big OEMs.
"We plan to produce the car here [in California]," he continued. "The maximum we will build is 12,000 or 13,000 per year. We will go to this level of production, but not on our own. We can work together with a company that is very good at production. We don't have to be. We build the brand, we develop the highest technology, develop the car, we design the car, we test the car, then we make it a turn-key production. Like printing a car."
Trying to be exclusive—even while building a brand, without necessarily building the cars—is an interesting take on entering the car business, but it's rooted in both the business model (cars aren't the only profit area) and the company's Southern California-centric ethos.
"If we win in California, we win everywhere," Zhou said. "This is really the best place to combine innovation, high technology, and lifestyle." Thurner expanded on that idea: "In the design team we talk about what inspires us in this [Southern California] area, and it's not only the landscape, the light, which is very beautiful, but also the rich heritage with aviation, space industries, high tech. The people who wanted to [take] the next step were here. It's not just a California brand; we're here, and here is much different from even the Bay Area."
Central to the idea of exclusivity and the marriage of cutting-edge and traditional is Zhou's concept of "new luxury." "People our age and above, they understand what classic luxury is," Zhou said. "But the younger generation, they find classic luxury to be beautiful but not enough. What is new luxury? I want to be bespoke. I want to show my status. I want to show my lifestyle is different. What can help me show that? New technology, high technology, a link with the future. Of course, based in traditional luxury. This is new luxury."
Building Better Karma
As in almost every other aspect of Karma's business, vehicle production isn't what you'd expect. The KICC facility, where new Karmas are built, isn't your typical assembly line. Instead of the cars moving along with workers staying at their stations repeating the same task over and over, the cars are stationary and the workers move along, performing diverse tasks. Why? For Zhou, it's simple: "When the cars move, the people are technicians. When the people move, they are craftsmen."
Even with the KICC facility ready to produce up to 1,000 cars annually, and the ability to produce an order of magnitude more through partners, Karma is realistic about the road to success. "We are competing with Aston Martin, McLaren, Ferrari, etc.," Zhou said. "I know right now we cannot fight with these big brands, but we continue to put our car in competition with these brands. Right now we are nothing, but we will be the big challenger. Maybe in the future we will replace one of these brands."
Karma's Fisker history places a unique burden on it as a startup carmaker, in that it has a heritage to both respect and evolve. That's where the Vision Concept comes in, simultaneously honoring its roots while trying to break new ground.
"On the Vision car we're testing to see what we can do if we push it really, really hard," Thurner said. "It should look like you just sneaked into a building somewhere, and this thing looks like it's more ready to fly than to drive. Even our production cars should appear like show cars on the street. So when we do a show car, it has to have even more to it."
In addition to the Revero GT, the Pininfarina GT, and the Vision Concept—and on top of its software, design and customization, and engineering services—Karma also plans to launch a car-sharing service and is even planning for an initial public offering (IPO) in September 2021. Zhou acknowledged the tight timeline. "That may be a little bit aggressive, but we are going to try," he said.
Final karmic judgment of the cars themselves will come with the public's reaction to them at the Shanghai auto show. Karma's fully aware of that and has embraced the challenge. Thurner summed up the corporate ethos neatly in explaining the philosophy for the updated Revero: "You can choose to do like what we did with the GT, a refinement of what was there because they loved it so much in the first place. You can either decide to do that forever, polish and refine, stay in your swim lane, and be that—or you can take the chance and see how far you can develop yourself, how far you can change. Be a really new, fresh company. Keeping the best of the legacy that we agree on with design identity, what we embrace, but with the rest, start over. We don't know the answer. I think the world will give us an answer."
Karma Revero GT Specifications
|PRICE||$135,000 (base) (est)|
|POWERTRAIN||2 electric motors plus 1.5L DOHC turbocharged 12-valve I-3, 536 hp, 550 lb-ft; 28.0-kWh NMC Li-Ion battery pack|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 4-passenger, RWD sedan|
||71 mpg-e (est)|
|L x W x H||199.4 x 85.1 x 52.4 in|
|WEIGHT||5,050 lb (est)|
|0-60 MPH||Luxury: 4.5 sec; Performance: 3.9 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||125 mph|