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.