Fisker Karma, A $96,000 Subcompact?

By John O'Dell October 25, 2011

Karma subcompact.jpg

Nobody likes to always be the butt of jokes, but sometimes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just makes itself too easy a target. The latest? The agency, which determines size classifications for cars in order to apply CO2 reduction goals (that would be fuel economy standards to those of us not in the EPA), has determined that the 2012 Fisker Karma (above) range-extended plug-in hybrid, despite a length of 16.5-feet, width that exceeds 6 feet and sumo-like weight exceeding 2.5 tons, is -- wait for it -- a subcompact.

The rationale? Despite its outside dimensions and powerful 403-horsepower electric powerplant, the $96,000 Fisker -- an exotic luxury sedan with four seats in the tradition of most four-place exotic sports sedans (it helps to be a compact person if you want to get into one of those back seats) -- doesn’t measure up in total interior space. Seems the EPA determines size categories based on interior volume, not overall measurements, and the Fisker comes in at under the cutoff of 100 cubic-feet that divides subcompacts from compacts.

A spokesman for Fisker Automotive said the designation -- which appears on the new EPA fuel economy label Fisker is using even though it is not required to do so until its starts selling a 2013 model -- won’t affect sales because buyers who are willing to plunk down $96,000 and up for one of the cars know what they are getting and don’t really care what the feds want to call it.

But, boy, are we going to have fun in future model comparisons! We won’t be able to compare it to a Volt because Chevrolet’s range-extended plug-in hybrid is in a different class -- $56,000 cheaper and a whole size larger with an EPA “compact car” classification. Among the other 2012 cars the EPA classifies as subcompacts are the Audi TT, Aston Martin Rapide, Bentley Continental Supersports Convertible, Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Sonic, Mini Cooper Clubman and Volkswagen Beetle. Hmm, let’s see – how’s this for a headline? “ Subcompact Smackdown: the 403-horsepower Fisker Karma, 621 hp Bentley Supersports and Chevrolet’s 138-pony Sonic!”

The auto industry uses a different measuring stick -- overall length -- to define classes, and so do we at So I didn’t discover the subcompact rating silliness until writing the other day about the Karma’s unexpectedly low EPA fuel efficiency rating of 52 miles per gallon-equivalent. The label the company sent me to review compares the Karma to subcompacts -- and says the fuel economy rating in the class ranges from a low of 19 mpg (the Aston Martin, the Bentley and the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG) to a high of 112 mpg-equivalent (the all-electric 2012 Mitsubishi “i” EV). Fisker Automotive co-founder and Chairman Henrik Fisker has said -- and still maintains -- that his company’s car will deliver 50 miles on a single charge of its batteries, 56 percent more than the EPA says. The EPA test cycle used to determine the official rating is a “worst case” scenario, a Fisker spokesman said.

It does deliver some pretty worst cases. The figure is arrived at by combining the car’s 32 mpg-equivalent rating when running on battery power alone and the 20 mpg that it is rated when the battery’s charge is depleted and the on-board 4-cylinder gasoline engine/generator is pumping out the electrons needed to keep the all-electric drive system running. But that’s only good for the first 52 miles, in which the Karma, per the EPA, would burn one gallon of gas. At 72 miles, presuming the battery isn’t recharged, the car would have gone through two gallons, reducing its fuel efficiency to just 36 mpg-equivalent. Efficiency would decline further to 30.6 mpg at 92 miles, and down and down until, at its EPA-rated range of 230 miles on one battery charge and one tank of gas, the Karma would have swilled 9.9 gallons for the combined equivalent of 23.2 mpg, or about what a base 6-cylinder 2012 Ford Mustang delivers.

One Fisker insider, obviously miffed at both the mileage rating and the “subcompact” designation, said of the EPA’s unlikely lumping of cars like the Fisker, Chevy Sonic and Bentley Supersport that “it gives you a good idea of how much faith you should put in these fuel economy ratings.”

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bc1960 says: 6:58 PM, 10.25.11

This has been so for decades. Over the years, many of the oversized luxury cars with cramped interiors have qualified as subcompacts or compacts. And I don't see this as necessarily silly--why should a car that seats two people and has a smaller trunk than an Accent qualify as "large" just because it's long, heavy, and has a big engine? It's being evaluated as transportation, regardless of look and feel.

ralphhightower says: 3:36 PM, 10.27.11

So, the EPA would rate the Corvette in the same class as a SmartTwo?

caroftheweek says: 3:01 PM, 11.10.11

+1 bc1960

How is it surprising, let alone silly, that the EPA categorizes cars based on their utility, as determined by passenger volume? The vast majority of car buyers are going to compare interior space, not the size of the shadow cast at high noon. From a regulatory perspective, the car should be treated as an appliance that conveys me from A to B. Everything else is embellishment that should be subjectively compelling enough to get me to pay more for it at the dealer, not at registration.

Affluent buyers can afford the extravagant styling and performance of the Karma without regard for interior volume. If the buyer does want more space, there could be a far less sexy but still quite graceful 7-passenger Tesla Model S in their future. Meanwhile, buyers of the gorgeous Rapide can apparently afford more than twice the Karma without muttering a complaint about its subcompact interior, and pay a gas guzzler tax to boot.

I think it's hazardous to fault the EPA for being simplistic. I don't want my government wasting its time and my tax dollars hand-wringing over the next hot market segment, slicing and dicing the categories umpteen different ways to your liking, just so it can treat them all differently. This added complexity is akin to asking for more government, which I'm fairly certain is not your intent.


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