Maybe it was the power breakfast I shared with Fisker Automotive's three main men that changed my mind. Maybe it was the story of their three-year campaign to raise a billion dollars to build their Karma extended-range electric luxury sedan, half of it a U.S. government subsidy and half from venture capitalists impressed both by Fisker's ability to tame hard-nosed legislators and with their store of 3,000 back orders. Perhaps I simply sniffed the balmy Los Angeles air and remembered that the American Dream survives on the West Coast, and one of its better effects is to encourage well-heeled car lovers to try something new. Whatever, my day-long meeting with the Karma – and the men who built it – moved the project in my mental filing cabinet from “brave but probably foolhardy” to “great idea whose time has arrived.”
Certainly Fisker Automotive's change of status occurred well before I finally slid behind the wheel of the classy-looking four-door sports coupe, whose twin-electric drive motors put 403hp through the rear wheels, and drove it on a wide handling course.
It's the car's unique shape that first makes the point. And then the sight of its many beautiful mechanical components, many cast in aluminum to underscore their creators' faith in the car's long life. The Karma, according to ex-Aston design chief Henrik Fisker, whose name is on the nose, is the best reaction he and his 400-strong team can devise to suggestions that the future will be full of economy cars – and economy cars are boring.
The Karma is efficient, but can also sprint from 0-60mph in under six seconds, with its rear-mounted electric motors drawing power from an engine-driven generator in the nose. It can crack eight seconds on battery power alone. What's more, an ultra-low center of gravity and a sophisticated chassis give the car agility that belies its size and mass, which (though Fisker is coy about revealing a figure) must be two tons.
Exact figures for the Karma's fuel consumption are also hard to pin down, mostly because they are still to be certified, but after extensive testing, Fisker engineers are confident the car can exceed 80mpg and achieve a gasoline-electric range of 300 miles. Compared with the big German gasoline-powered sedans that abound in its hometown, the efficiency improvement is staggering. Among the L.A. glitterati – who nowadays drive to and from their biz-jets in Toyota Priuses – Fisker people expect it to be a powerful selling point.
The Karma's curb appeal starts with its radical proportions. The body is just 16ft long, yet hardly higher than a Porsche. The extra-long wheelbase (a mighty 124.4 inches) means the body overhangs are extremely short, and mass is concentrated toward the center. The mighty 22-inch wheels (Karma is the only production car to have them as standard) wear “sensible” 35-series tires because engineers were unwilling to sacrifice the ride quality that sells cars like these. They give the low-riding Karma an extraordinary presence and demand the extravagant front wing shapes that both dominate the car's profile and give the driver an amazing view over the hood. For me, the Karma has a kind of modern-day E-type appeal, a long and sensuous shape whose smallish cabin looks almost too “slammed” to accommodate actual people – although you put away such thoughts in the Karma when you're snug inside. Much attention has been given to keeping greenhouse surfaces and glass flush; the drag factor is an impressive 0.31.
The chassis is an extruded aluminum tubular spaceframe with a big central spine to house and protect the mid-mounted lithium ion battery pack. The car's outer panels are also aluminum, apart from a composite trunk lid. The suspension is a custom all-independent system of double wishbones and coil springs, with an anti-roll bar at each end and Sachs Nivomat self-leveling dampers at the rear.
The power steering is electro-hydraulic, not pure electric (an important concession to “feel” in a car that concentrates so hard on efficiency) and the brakes are Brembo's finest: vast rotors with six-pot Fisker-badged calipers in front and with four-pot calipers behind. The car has a clever brake-by-wire system that blends friction and regenerative retardation cleverly to outshine recent, somewhat unpredictable Japanese hybrids. Regeneration, engineers say, contributes six to eight miles to the car's electric range of 40-50 miles.
The 2.0-liter turbo gasoline engine, which never directly drives the car, starts life as GM's ubiquitous Ecotec 16-valve four, but its impressive 260hp rating suggests special Fisker enhancements. It is mounted north-south, driving a 175kW generator mounted where a gearbox would normally be, and exhausting through a discreet side-pipe behind each front wheel to keep exhaust heat away from the battery. One of the compact drive motors sits ahead of the single-ratio, clutch-style limited-slip diff and the other behind. Together, the engines put 403hp under the driver's right foot – with a remarkable 981lb-ft available from rest. There's a panel on the roof to feed solar power to the battery; Fisker reckons its contribution is around 200 miles a year.
The first thing you notice when you slide into the Karma is that this is no catch-all German limo meant for taking people to the airport. It's snug and luxurious all right, but the materials chosen for all three trim levels (ours was the mid-range EcoSport) are chosen for their environmental friendliness. Even the wood on the fascia had spent 300 years underwater in Lake Michigan, left there by America's early loggers.
The Karma isn't a spacious car; its extreme lowness puts paid to that. But it's very comfortable. Cabin access is easy enough, but when you settle into the well-shaped driver's seat and satisfyingly high center console it feels distinctly “tailored,” and so does the rear seat. But Fisker wants this to be a daily driver for owners, and the comfort of the supportive seats and cleverly simplified interior controls make that likely.
Ahead of the driver are three separate LCD screens: a speedo on the left, a center information gauge and a power meter on the right that instantly shows how much energy the driver is either consuming or reclaiming. Nearby gauges give both electric and combined range countdowns. Supporting functions like audio, phone and air conditioning are all handled through Fisker's own-design touch-screen mounted above the center console, a far simpler and better solution than an array of plastic buttons.
A couple of switches behind the steering wheel that look like classic gearshift paddles are labeled Stealth (for electric-only power) and Sport (for engine-assisted performance). Press the Start button behind the wheel, select a mode and a somewhat unearthly synthesized noise (Fisker people call it “Tron”) is emitted from separate speakers at the front and rear of the car. It sounds like a cross between a vacuum cleaner and a gas turbine and warns bystanders that the car is active. Select D from a little PRNDL pyramid on the console, free the electric handbrake and the car moves just like a normal auto.
As you roll, the car's wide track and low center of gravity are instantly obvious, as is its long wheelbase. There isn't much noise (if you start in Stealth, as we did) and if the surface is smooth, there's very little bump noise. The Karma's rolling comfort is acceptable without being exactly plush – that's the 22-inch wheels – but the car feels really taut, and you can easily tune into its sharp but relatively light steering (variable ratio, 2.7 turns lock to lock). The accelerator response is urgent off the mark, but always intuitive and easy to modulate. Just like any good car, really.
Go quicker and the car produces truly electric performance. No engine-off Karma will ever have trouble with the cut and thrust of city traffic. It'll do 95mph, too. As with other electric cars, there's a dependable linearity to its acceleration that becomes addictive. Select Sport and the engine starts without drama or vibration, although you hear it distantly most of the time. The four-cylinder note doesn't have the quality of a V12, and it varies with demand rather than speed, which is something owners will need to get used to. The car gets faster still, whereupon the built-in stability (including an extreme reluctance to nosedive) takes over.
The car turns easily but seems to be extremely hard to provoke. The stability provided by the low center of gravity, the mass centralization, the impressive grip of the big Goodyears and the 53 percent front/47 percent rear weight bias (find that in a Ferrari 599) all combine to make a car that responds sweetly and sensitively to inputs, but refuses to amplify them.
Too soon, driving was over. This was a shakedown, not a test. But it's very clear that the Karma has class, road ability and eye appeal in spades. The company aims to find 15,000 owners a year when production starts in earnest, and suddenly this seems an attainable target, given that the price (less than $100,000) seems competitive. It's a big ask for buyers who'd otherwise buy a BMW, but gradually we're becoming used to new-tech cars. The Toyota Prius was new once, and look what happened to that.