2012 Fisker Karma Review

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John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
February 18, 2012

The 2012 Fisker Karma is a curious and unique beast, a stylish, luxurious, and pricey sedan with 32 miles of electric range, low gasoline efficiency, and a tiny interior and trunk

Starting a car company is really, really hard. Starting a car company to build the world's first plug-in hybrid luxury sport sedan is even harder. And managing to pull it off by launching a car with truly jaw-dropping style, a car that causes people to stop in their tracks--and to make it run 30 miles or more on electric power from a wall socket to boot--has got to be absurdly hard.

But that's what Henrik Fisker has done, and the launch of the 2012 Fisker Karma four-door luxury sport sedan late in 2011 was a notable event. The car had a number of delays and technical stumbles, but now it's out there, it's being delivered to customers who put down deposits as long as three years ago, and the company's several dozen U.S. dealers now have cars in stock to show. Fisker hopes to sell as many as 15,000 Karmas a year, globally, once the production lines in Finland are running at full speed.

Unveiled in January 2008 at the Detroit Auto Show, the Karma is the first offering from Fisker Automotive. Its slinky, low-slung styling is the first thing you notice, along with the solar roof covered entirely in photovoltaic cells. But underneath is an extended-range electric powertrain along the same lines as the one in the Chevrolet Volt.

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The 2012 Karma has a 20-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack that sends electricity to a pair of 150-kilowatt (200-horsepower) electric motors mounted fore and aft of the rear axle. According to the EPA, the Karma can deliver 32 miles of electric range, after which a 260-hp, 2.0-liter direct-injected and turbocharged four-cylinder engine switches on. Crucially, that engine does not provide torque to the wheels. Its purpose is to turn a generator that produces electric power to send to the drive motors. Rated by the EPA  at 20 miles per gallon when the engine is on, the gasoline-powered generator can provide up to 200 more miles--and the same again once the gas tank is filled up.

There are two driving modes: "Stealth," the battery electric option, and "Sport," the mode in which the engine switches on for better performance and additional power. Drivers can switch between them, assuming there's energy left in the pack, and the car defaults to Sport once the pack is depleted until it's plugged in to charge again.

The 2012 Karma offers an unusual option, an interior known as "EcoChic" that contains no animal products and uses only reclaimed wood and recycled fibers. On the dash surfaces and seat upholstery are various simulated suede and brocade-like cloth fabrics, creating a look that's likely to be memorable whether or not you like the style.

Base pricing for the Karma starts at $106,000, with only a few options: the EcoChic interior, an upgraded stereo, winter tires and wheels, and a 240-Volt Level 2 home recharging station. Many buyers will qualify for the $7,500 Federal tax credit for purchase of an electric car. Fisker has shown two additional body styles on the Karma platform: a "shooting brake" wagon called the Surf, and a two-door retractable hardtop called the Karma S or Sunset. No word yet, though, on whether or when those models will go into production.

10

2012 Fisker Karma

Styling

The 2012 Fisker Karma is low, sleek, and striking, making it one of the sexier cars on the road, though its interior is relatively more conventional.

The 2012 Fisker Karma is nothing short of stunning, possibly the lowest, sleekest, sexiest four-door sedan to be seen on the road. It stops other drivers, pedestrians, and even traffic cops dead in their tracks. On one test drive, we even got an approving nod from a New York City construction worker--a member of the toughest critic corps around. Designer and company founder Henrik Fisker has styled Aston Martins and BMWs, among other cars, so he knows how to do sexy sport luxury. This is one of the few sedans in the world that really does leave people staring in its wake.

The front end, with two elongated grille openings side by side, is the design's most polarizing feature. Some like it, some dislike it. The swept-back headlights in front and the angled rear lamps just add to the feline nature of the Fisker Karma. But the focal point of the car are the giant 22-inch alloy wheels and low-profile tires, with Brembo brakes clearly visible behind the wheel spokes. The lines of the body are draped tautly over the huge wheels to produce bulging front fenders and rear haunches into which the roofline flows. And the standard solar roof, covered in photovoltaic cells, tips off all onlookers that this car has green credentials on top of its sexy shape. The door glasses are frameless, and the handle openings contain rubber-covered electric switches inside, more like a concept car than a production vehicle.

The one off-note of the design is the clearly visible grey foam crash-absorbing material directly behind the vertical bars of the low grilles. It's completely visible in certain lights, spoiling the "twin nostril" effect at the front by visibly blocking all but a small portion of what look like air intakes.

Inside, the Karma is less remarkable, with a conventional instrument cluster, a 10.2-inch touch-screen monitor in the console, and a high, wide center tunnel that contains the lithium-ion battery pack. Unusual design touches inside include the glass panel on top of the tunnel that shows the battery inside and a small, pyramidal control on the tunnel whose facets are touch-sensitive switches to select Drive, Reverse, and Park.

The Karma has virtually no controls on the dashboard, with the climate control, audio system, device connectivity, and navigation all controlled through the console touch-screen. Its only individual controls are the Start button, the hazard-warning light button, and switches for central locking and the electric glove-box release. An electric parking brake and a trunk release button are located to the lower left as well. Similarly, on the tunnel are the pyramidal drive selector, four electric-window switches, and little else.

While there's an EcoStandard interior option--with black-dyed simulated leather--the bulk of 2012 Karmas will come with what's called the EcoSport interior, which has full leather over most surfaces. There are some bold color combinations and patterns on offer, but it will be relatively familiar to luxury car buyers. The other option is the EcoChic interior, which uses no animal products. It sources its small amount of wood trim from either reclaimed sunken logs or trees killed in forest fires, and includes images of fossilized magnolia leaves on the underside of the glass panels.

It also uses fabrics rather than leather on all non-plastic surfaces, producing the effect of an upholstered living room you might find in Architectural Digest. The combination of an artificial suede, a velvety material, and a grey-blue-black material that comes perilously close to brocade is unique in the auto market. It won't find many buyers--Fisker estimates only 5 percent of Karma buyers will order the EcoChic interior--but it's definitely distinctive.

6

2012 Fisker Karma

Performance

One of only two range-extended electric cars on sale today, the 2012 Fisker Karma is neither a lithe, tight sports sedan nor a particularly efficient or long-range electric car.

Driving the 2012 Fisker Karma is like no other car on the road today. It's a heavy, heavy four-seat car, at 5300 pounds, and while the weight is carried low in the chassis, the Karma feels massive behind the heavily weighted wheel despite its sparse interior space.

Under all circumstances, the Fisker's rear wheels are powered by a pair of 150-kilowatt (200-horsepower) electric motors, one ahead of and one behind the differential. Each one generates a prodigious 479 pound-feet of torque, giving the Karma close to 1000 pound-feet altogether.

In "Stealth" mode, the Karma draws energy to feed those motors from the 22-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack housed in the center tunnel. According to the EPA, that pack gives 32 miles of electric range. Acceleration from 0 to 60 mph in Stealth mode is about 8 seconds. The company has limited the power available in Stealth mode to maximize electric range, meaning that the Karma gathers speed fairly quickly but deliberately, with none of the jet-like thrust found in lighter, sportier electric cars.

Drivers can select "Sport" mode at any time using a paddle behind the steering wheel, and once the pack is depleted, the car automatically switches into that mode. It switches on the 260-hp direct-injected, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine under the hood, but the engine does not power the wheels mechanically. Instead, it turns a generator that sends up to 175 kW of electricity directly to the drive motors to power the car. That power is "buffered through the battery," meaning that the pack can temporarily send a small amount of its remaining energy to the drive motors as well, under the highest power demand.

In Sport mode, the 2012 Karma is notably faster, and somehow feels lighter and lither. The 0-to-60-mph acceleration improves to 6.3 seconds, and there's definitely more power on tap. Top speed is limited to 125 mph.

Separate from the power mode, drivers can also use the other steering-wheel paddle to choose one of two "Hill" modes that increase the regenerative braking a little--or a lot. "Hill 2," which maximizes regen, noticeably slows the car on liftoff, giving "one-pedal driving" with almost no use of the brake pedal if the driver so desires. Fisker says drivers who are used to manual transmissions, and Europeans in general, prefer the one-pedal driving, while North Americans more accustomed to automatic transmissions prefer Normal mode.

The Fisker Karma has been programmed to simulate the idle creep of a conventional automatic transmission, but it comes with regular "cogging," or a jerky, slipping feel as very low power is temporarily applied to the powerful drive motors. Compensating for cogging is a tough challenge that requires a great deal of sophistication in the powertrain control software. Fisker's not quite there yet.

The Karma's great weight--the U.S. government classifies it as a "subcompact" based on interior volume, but it has the footprint of a much larger car and weighs fully 5300 pounds--means that it holds the road well, with minimal roll under cornering. The suspension has fairly short travel, however, and severe potholes can deliver teeth-jarring thuds. The downside of the weight is that the Karma just isn't that much fun to fling around in windy roads. It's safe, predictable, and offers prodigious grip, but drivers will feel the physics of momentum as the mass of the car is asked to change direction--and the steering is surprisingly heavy as well, adding up to a car that's easy to position but feels every bit of its weight.

And that heft of almost 3 tons also means the Karma just isn't that efficient. Late in 2011, the EPA rated the 2012 Fisker Karma at a mere 20 miles per gallon in range-extending mode, which is the lowest efficiency by far of any plug-in vehicle. Fisker points out that European testing, which uses different drive cycles, rated the Karma at more than 50 miles per gallon with the engine on. That may be, but our experience with the Chevy Volt (the only other car on the market with a similar powertrain) indicates that the EPA got that car's gas mileage about right--so we'd expect them to be more or less on target with the Fisker too. If we get a chance to test a Karma for more than an afternoon, we look forward to checking the gas mileage in range-extending mode ourselves.

The 2012 Fisker Karma remains the world's only extended-range electric luxury sport sedan, and there may well be buyers globally for that. And Fisker is to be congratulated for getting a new car, with a groundbreaking powertrain, from a new company, into production in the first place.

But the Karma is not as tight or lithe through the curves as its German competitors of the same size, and it's the least efficient plug-in car on the market today. The compromise between its two personalities means that it doesn't excel at either role: It's neither the best sport sedan nor the most efficient electric car.

6

2012 Fisker Karma

Comfort & Quality

The 2012 Fisker Karma is small inside, has a tiny trunk, and the early examples we drove had several quality issues that shouldn't be found in a $106,000 luxury sport sedan.

Sexy as it is, the sleekness of the 2012 Fisker Karma has some serious downsides. It has remarkably little space inside for a vehicle that looks so imposingly large. The U.S. government classifies the Karma as a "subcompact" based on its interior volume, and the accommodations can best be described as cozy. Trunk space is also tiny, at only 6.9 cubic feet; it'll handle a couple of golf bags, but don't expect luggage for four to fit.

The Karma is wide, with the battery-pack tunnel between passengers giving sufficient space that front-seat riders don't touch. The front seats are well bolstered, comfortable and adjustable in all dimensions, and a standard six-foot man fits comfortably--though a portlier colleague found the front seat tight. The steering wheel both tilts and telescopes, but we found it didn't extend quite far enough out from the dash to provide an optimal driving position.

From the inside, some drivers could hear the pedestrian-alert noise emitted by the Karma whenever it was moving on battery power alone--they said it resembled nothing so much as the noise of a propeller plane overhead--while others could barely discern it. Such artificially generated noises are usually inaudible inside other electric cars, so it was surprising to hear it in the Fisker.

Engine noise ranged from barely audible to a quite noticeable howl under maximum acceleration. Because the engine isn't mechanically connected to the drivetrain, however, there was essentially no vibration even at maximum engine speed--Fisker has isolated the engine well. In electric mode, there was minimal whine from the twin electric traction motors (no doubt helped by their rear-axle location) but under certain circumstances, the power electronics emitted their own whine.

Interior materials conveyed an atmosphere of luxury, let down only by standard black plastic switchgear. The audio buttons and cruise controls on the steering wheel were okay, but the power mirror adjuster on the driver's door was definitely downmarket and felt out of place in a car with a six-figure price tag--especially in contrast to the elegant metal surrounds on different parts of the dash and console.

And the lack of individual knobs and switches for even simple functions like audio volume means that the driver spends a great deal of time looking at and touching the low-mounted display screen. The graphics are good, though we found the screen somewhat dim on its standard setting, but we hope Karma owners spend time memorizing frequently used touch points--to reduce distraction while driving.

We drove two different Karma test cars from among the first 1,000 built, and each one had a few quality issues. On one, the instrument cluster simply blanked out, requiring the car to "go to sleep" for a few minutes before it was restarted. That problem was subsequently fixed in a software upgrade, but another problem reared its head among newer Karmas tested by colleagues: The simple act of plugging an iPhone into the USB port crashed the display monitor on the console. Fisker says there's a software update coming for that one, too, and that minor early teething troubles like this are standard for brand-new vehicles.

On our second Karma test car, the panel fit was not only sub-par for the luxury sector, it was nowhere near as good as what you'll find on any mass-produced Toyota or Chevrolet. Wide gaps yawned between the trunklid and the fenders, the rubber seal bulged in the gap between the rear door and fender, and the arch of the hood edge didn't quite match that of the front fender it abutted. We confirmed these issues on several other Karmas at a test drive event, meaning they weren't unique to our specific vehicle.

Whether these issues will prove problematic for the early adopters and wealthy plug-in car fans who will buy Fiskers, we found them troubling in a car with a base price of $106,000 before options.

8

2012 Fisker Karma

Safety

While the 2012 Fisker Karma hasn't been rated for crash safety by either the NHTSA or IIHS, it carries the usual complement of safety gear--and has good outward visibility.

The 2012 Fisker Karma hasn't yet been rated by either the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The company said it crash-tested about three dozen cars during the process of certifying it for sale in North America and Europe, and the Karma comes with eight airbags for the four passengers: dual-stage front bags, seat-side and knee bags in front, and side-curtain bags covering the front and rear window opening. 

The Karma also contains the usual collection of electronic safety systems. Those include traction control, electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes, a panic-braking assist function, and a tire-pressure monitoring system. Any crash event also automatically shuts down the Karma's entire high-voltage system, as well as unlocking the doors and turning on interior lights.

Despite its low, sleek lines, the Fisker Karma has better outward visibility than we anticipated. The windshield pillars are relatively slim, the door mirrors are well located, and the curving haunches over the wheels make the front end easy to position. The view in the rear-view mirror though the rear window is a bit of a tunnel, but overall, the Karma has better visibility than many less sexy sport sedans.

8

2012 Fisker Karma

Features

Recycled chic is the theme to the Karma's interior, but its features aren't anything unusual in the $100,000 luxury-car class.

The 2012 Fisker Karma is the first vehicle from a brand-new car company, and that's an accomplishment in and of itself. Given its six-figure base price, it has less electronic gadgetry than competing vehicles--though it offers several standard features that no competitor can match at any price, including its range-extended electric powertrain and the solar roof covered in photovoltaic cells.

The Karma offers only a single powertrain, and all models are fitted with 22-inch alloy wheels with specially developed Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar low-profile tires. Bi-xenon headlamps and LED exterior lighting are standard, and all interior lighting is by LEDs as well.

The 10.2-inch "Command Center" touch-screen display on the center console includes not only the display for the navigation system and the rear-view camera, but also controls for the sound system, climate control, and infotainment functions like the Bluetooth mobile-device connectivity and devices connected through the USB port. The standard audio is a 100-Watt six-speaker system, with a premium eight-speaker, 295-Watt system including a subwoofer offered as an option. The front seats are six-way power adjustable, and dual-zone automatic climate control is standard with heated front and rear seats (to reduce power demands and maximize electric range during cold weather).

The Fisker Karma can be ordered in eight different exterior colors, all of them using "Diamond Dust" metallic paint features up to 55 percent recycled glass flakes mixed into the color pigment, along with an invisible reflective layer that prevents transmission of the infrared rays that heat the car's interior in direct sunlight.

The main options are in the interior trim, which comes in three levels. The EcoStandard interior features simulated leather, dyed black, although Fisker believes the bulks of its buyers will opt for the EcoSport interior that upgrades the upholstery to real leather. The company uses much more of each hide--a full 85 percent--than other makers, leaving any scars and marks from the animal as part of the hide--less wasteful, but also a touch of authenticity. The low-volume EcoChic interior contains no animal products, and replaces the leather with simulated suede and various cloth fabrics, including a velvet-like surface and a woven, textured fabric that approaches the feel of brocade. The fibers for all of those EcoChic materials are, Fisker says, entirely recycled from post-industrial sources. There are seven interior color combinations.

While Fisker offers what is probably the largest-diameter wheel of any production sedan in the world, the company recognizes that some of its buyers may live in snowy climates. It offers an optional package of 21-inch wheels with winter tires, complete with snow chains for maximum traction--perhaps reflecting founder Henrik Fisker's Danish background.

A 110-Volt charging cord comes standard with the Karma, and Fisker dealers will coordinate with third-party installers for a 240-Volt Level 2 charging station for those owners who want one for overnight charging. A completely empty battery pack will take 6 to 14 hours to recharge, depending on charging voltage, through the onboard 3.3-kilowatt charger.

9

2012 Fisker Karma

Fuel Economy

The 2012 Fisker Karma gets points for being the first luxury sports sedan that plugs in to run on electricity, but it's the least efficient plug-in on the market today.

The 2012 Fisker Karma poses a puzzle for plug-in proponents. On the one hand, it's the first luxury sport sedan that plugs in to recharge a lithium-ion battery pack that gives it 30 or more miles of all-electric range. As such, it extends electric cars into a new segment of the market: those wealthy individuals who want a sexy, striking, sporty sedan that also comes with green credentials.

Those buyers may be more numerous in Europe than in North America. It's widely accepted that over the next decade, many European cities will limit access to their central cores to zero-emission vehicles. So captains of industry who want to drive into central London may have to have a vehicle that can switch to battery power to get them in and out of the restricted zone. No U.S. city is expected to impose such limits, and so the Karma must appeal to early adopters and technically savvy engineering types who are electric-drive fans.

But, on the other hand, the 2012 Karma is the least efficient plug-in vehicle among almost a dozen that will be offered this year for sale or lease. The EPA rates its electric range at 32 miles, and its fuel efficiency in range-extending mode--with the gasoline generator on--at a dismal 20 miles per gallon. That's about the same the gas mileage delivered by the hybrid version of the Cadillac Escalade full-size sport-utility vehicle! At that level of consumption, it also means that the 9-gallon fuel tank provides only 180 miles of additional range on top of the 32 miles from the battery pack.

The combined MPGe number, based on an EPA-standard blend of gasoline and electric duty, is 52 MPGe. That's lower than the Volt (94 MPGe), the Prius Plug-In (95 MPGe), and any battery electric vehicle on the market.

Fisker says the Karma uses 18 of the 20.1 kWh in its lithium-ion battery pack, meaning it gets 1.8 miles per kWh. The 2012 Chevrolet Volt, the only other range-extended electric vehicle on the market, is rated at 37 miles of range using 10.4 kWh of its 16-kWh pack--3.5 miles per kWh, or exactly double the Karma's efficiency.

So the Karma poses a puzzle for our green rating. In the end, its ability to run on grid electricity outweighs its low gasoline efficiency, at least this early in the life of plug-in vehicles. We'll leave it to Fisker to tell us how buyers actually end up using their Karmas--for long drives on gasoline, or short journeys with regular recharging in between--and hope that the company can improve the efficiency of future models, including the less-expensive mid-size "Project Nina" line of vehicles it says it is developing.

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