Back in 2007, we cautiously admired the choice by Henrik Fisker and longtime business partner Bernhard Koehler to completely change their business model. Instead of rebuilding BMW and Mercedes convertibles through Fisker Coachbuild, the partners instead dove headfirst into the eyebrow-raising Fisker Automotive, a company that would be dedicated to building electric cars of its own design.
After the usual ups and downs of an automotive startup, Fisker showed up at the 2008 Detroit Auto Show with its eye-popping Karma sedan concept. Now, three years later, we're in Southern California to drive the first pre-production examples of what will be the 2012 Fisker Karma EVer (i.e. electric vehicle extended range).
Eco, Eco, Eco...
The Fisker Karma grabbed the "Eco" label early and ran with it. It's a big reason why the company was able to attract a substantial amount of private investment, not to mention a cool $529 million from the Department of Energy. Much of the latter was earmarked to fund Fisker's purchase of GM's former Delaware plant that built the Kappa-architecture roadsters and will, by the end of 2011, be building units of the lower-priced Fisker Nina.
Every single supplier and associate Fisker Automotive deals with is, in one way or many, a green-obsessed company. These include the free-range sustainable Scottish leathers used in the EcoSport to the wood trims sourced from existing sunken and fallen Michigan timber to the optional metal-flake metallic paints that get their sparkle from recycled material.
More importantly, Fisker is touting the Karma as the first pure-electric luxury car. It's powered by twin 150-kW electric motors and a lithium-ion battery pack. As with the Chevrolet Volt, there's a GM-built four-cylinder engine onboard to keep the Karma on the road even after the initial battery charge is done. Fisker is promising a 50-mile EV range and a 300-mile range extended capability.
Green Track Time
After a little track time with the Karma, we can report that owners who have the gumption to push their car toward a sportier drive will be rather pleased. The double-wishbone suspension with its forged aluminum arms and self-leveling rear dampers puts the Karma near the top of the sporty premium four-door class in terms of handling characteristics. Some credit also goes to the exceedingly long 124.4-inch wheelbase, wide front and rear tracks and 22-inch Fisker "Circuit Blade" wheels wrapped in Goodyear Eagle F1 performance tires.
During our initial laps, we left the powertrain in the default "Stealth" or full-EV mode, which cuts the 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder gasoline engine out of the equation completely. Power is limited, but Fisker says it can still go from zero to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds despite its nearly 2-ton curb weight (a final number isn't available yet). Top speed in Stealth mode is an energy-conserving 95 mph.
For this phase of the drive, our only gripe was that the Karma didn't feel as solid all around as its German and Japanese competitors. A Maserati Quattroporte came to mind in this difficult-to-quantify part of the argument. Wind noise and road noise, however, are very well contained overall. Some smaller wheels might help out in the ride quality department, too, but according to Fisker's engineers, a change in that direction would bring the center member of the steering mechanism a little too close to the ground. A set of 21-inch all-season tires is as small as they're willing to go.
And Then Comes Sport
It is when we arrive in Sport mode via a single pull of the left steering-wheel paddle that some good things happen. And a couple not-so-good things.
The first thing we notice is the sound of the 2.0-liter turbocharged GM Ecotec inline four-cylinder engine. The 255-horsepower, direct-injected power plant is mounted longitudinally in a front-midship position and is reasonably quiet. At least initially.
Then we dip into the throttle a little more to experience the Karma's "Sport" mode, the one that Fisker says will deliver a 0-60-mph time of 5.9 seconds and a top speed of 125 mph. Suddenly, it sounds as if the Ecotec engine is sitting in the passenger-side footwell. They're not exactly the kind of noises we expect from a $100,000 luxury sedan.
It shouldn't have come as much of a surprise, as the exhaust exits for the Ecotec engine are positioned just behind the front wheels. "We are aware of this concern," says Koehler, "and we have on order an all-new muffler to help deal with this." Fisker adds, "We envision customers spending over 80 percent of the time on average in Stealth mode around town." If the sport noise remains, though, they'd better hope people stay in Stealth for 99 percent of the time. This is not a question of a poor extended-range engine choice, but of incorporating it better.
Numbers Are There
Cracking the magic "400" at 403 hp from the two 201.5-hp JEE electric motors was of major image importance to the 2012 Fisker Karma's credibility. It all hits the road differently than internally combusted horses, as the momentum is right there under your foot immediately. Fisker also likes to point out that the Karma has 981 pound-feet of torque, a number bested only by the Bugatti Veyron.
Thankfully, the Karma also features vented Brembo brake discs — 14.6 inches in diameter up front with six-piston calipers and 14.4-inch discs in back with four-piston calipers. They stop things as if hitting a wall of wet cement, so we were able to late-brake with almost no fading by the final hotter lap. No carbon ceramics will be offered, partly since, as Fisker tells us, "they cost nearly one-sixth the price of the total car." And, as a parting bit of goodness, the tail end lets go predictably and smoothly whenever such constructive letting-go serves the line through the curve. We're now eager to get this thing fully track tested with full numbers.
The Fisker School of Design
So the Karma doesn't always sound refined. Thankfully, it always looks refined. It's more attractive than the 2008 showcar and buyers will feel suitably unique compared to the other four-door executive grand tourer sedans out there. We expect plenty of buyers to pony up the $95,900 base price for that alone.
All the exterior panels on the Karma are made of either aluminum — including the hood and outer door panels — or molded resin composite as on all four fender panels. The supersize 124.4-inch wheelbase (almost 10 inches longer than on a Porsche Panamera) is the exterior's most notable dimension and the 22-inch wheels bookend the look quite nicely. No antennas or little fins are visible since satellite and GPS receptors are concealed beneath the composite rear deck lid. The 52.4-inch height definitely helps the car's impression as a capable performer, and we never once banged our head while getting in or out of the front or back.
Interior finish and materials quality are exceptional for this class and there is no cabin more ecologically conceived as this. The steering wheel is a tad overdone, though the thickness of the wheel itself is just right.
Central to the cabin's controls is the standard 10.2-inch interface created with Visteon called the Fisker Command Center. All audio and climate controls are housed in the system, as are all general system tools and diagnostics. The touchscreen functionality appears fairly straightforward, although our interaction with it was limited.
But Will It Catch On?
Surprisingly enough, the 2012 Fisker Karma is in an admirable state of readiness just 37 months out from its concept debut. There are key NVH issues to deal with, but everything else is market-ready. "Most of our other-brand shoppers," says Fisker, "are coming from Mercedes. They really enjoy the feeling in Stealth mode around town especially."
There is clearly a niche of wealthy early adopters out there who want this car, given the 3,000-plus pre-orders for the Karma. We can see people cross-shopping the Fisker with a $95,000 Porsche Panamera S Hybrid, or the base Panamera at $74,400 and 4S at $94,700.
Then again Henrik Fisker says, "Many of these customers will have these other cars already in their garage and simply wish to add something unique and at the leading edge of green innovation." He could be right, but if Fisker doesn't muzzle that exhaust note, those customers will surely wonder if being that far ahead of the curve is worth it.