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Review – Fisker Karma

Hooniverse February 28, 2012 Featured, Fisker Reviews, Reviews, Road Test Reviews 40 Comments

A Cooler Shade of Green

[Editor’s Note – Thomas Bey is a freelance automotive journalist, and a friend. He had the chance to come out to California, and drive the Fisker Karma. I tagged along to get the photos, and this review is the result of our time behind the wheel

It wasn’t the elephant in the room. It wasn’t even mumbled among us when our hosts were out of earshot. Whatever controversy Fisker Automotive and its Karma plug-in hybrid have generated, politics took the day off.

This time, the Fisker Karma was the hot ticket, not the hot-button issue. Fisker flew, fed and bunked us in southern California not to debate, but to drive. And we were more than ready to evaluate the car on its merits.

Did years of pre-production photos do the car justice? Is the $100,000 hybrid well-executed in its build and performance? Would we make any waves in me-centric Los Angeles traffic? After a presentation from CEO Executive Chairman and co-founder Henrik Fisker, we were let loose to find out.

It takes a walkaround to catch and fully appreciate the Karma’s design features, some of which are subtle. Our test car’s Silver Wind finish (featuring finely-ground glass in the paint to catch and play off the light) flattered the lines well. It’s a shame they’ve been overshadowed by scrutinization of the car’s nose.

Think of it this way: Henrik Fisker previously designed for Aston Martin and BMW. Now imagine a unique interpretation of the two iconic grilles in one. In any case, the whole package looks even better in person, when its sports-car swagger starts to lure you.

Around back, the Karma’s trunk reminded us of sports cars past and how strategic packing was mandatory. Fisker says two golf bags will fit in the 10.6 cubic-foot space, though.

We were also reminded of the Karma’s sports-car essence with each climb in and out–especially using the rear doors. The experience didn’t force contortion like a Lotus Exige, but smoothness took a little practice.

Once in, you learn why the EPA calls this a subcompact. The Karma’s prominent front-to-rear center console claims its share of interior space. That’s less an intrusion for front-seat occupants than those behind them. Against the comparably-sized and priced Porsche Panamera S Hybrid, the Karma’s second-row passenger room is closer to that of a Chevy Volt. In its defense and unlike the Panamera, the Karma doesn’t have an unholy hind end for the sake of headroom. And it does at least include a USB port and 12-volt outlet with bright-finish hinged covers where the center seat back would be otherwise.

It’s better to be in the Karma’s front seats anyway. Our car’s uplevel EcoChic trim package in Glacier Tri-Tone color scheme included accents of wood reclaimed from California wildfires (base EcoStandard and midlevel EcoSport cars also feature reclaimed wood, the remains of a factory torn down 100-odd years ago and unceremoniously dumped in Lake Michigan). And in lieu of leather, the trim was “100% Recycled EcoSuede.” Faux cow. De-calf, you might say. Nice stuff. It was comfortable on the seats, made the stylish and thick multifunction steering wheel grippy and prevented reflections on the windshield.

Whatever the trim level, lighter interior shades should be considered. The Karma’s menu doesn’t include a sunroof–not a conventional one, anyway. The entire roof space houses active solar panels. Giving up a little open air and direct light overhead is a small price to pay for this level of cool tech.

Cruising past LA clubs where generations of bands like The Doors, Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana famously performed, the Karma made us instant rock stars in the multi-gen mashup of traffic. Kids to grandparents, gearheads to greenies, surgically-enhanced locals to wide-eyed tourists; they all took notice (and often, pictures). One soccer mom in the next lane kept stopping her SUV prematurely to gawk as we glided by. It got to the point we left our windows open to catch all the unsolicited positive comments and field questions.

As lanes and speeds increased with a freeway jaunt, we kept the windows down and continued conversation easily thanks to very little wind buffeting. Windows up, the Karma isolated wind and tire noise quite well. Those are often issues found in other cars without a constant running engine and exhaust note, but not here.

Depending on mode and how you drive, the Karma’s 260-horsepower, 2.0-liter direct-injected turbo four-cylinder engine does kick in occasionally. There’s no hiccup in the segue since it’s connected to a 175 kW generator to juice the batteries. Aggressive stints with the engine running creates the sound of a raspy tenor holding a single upper-range note. At least it’s infrequent.

Speaking of aggressive stints, the rear-drive Karma took them well on famously sinewy Mulholland Highway. Despite the 5,300-lb curb weight, it moves lighter than its mass would suggest. Front/rear weight distribution of 47/53 percent doesn’t hurt, and neither does the equivalent of 403 horsepower. What’s most impressive is the two motors’ combined torque of 959 pound-feet, on tap from 0 rpm.

Hard launches were smooth and linear, leading us to believe Fisker’s claims of 0-60 mph in 6.3-seconds and top speed of 125 mph. The Brembo brakes felt firm and fade-free under spirited use, while the variable-ratio steering responded well but could offer a tad more feedback. Corner within sane limits and the Karma stays flat, with little understeer. Ride quality surprised us, absorbing rough stuff without drama but never feeling mushy.

Tempting as it may be to throw the Karma into curves early and often, if your eco-consciousness and the touchscreen’s dynamically-colored leaf don’t dissuade you, the prospect of tire-shopping should. Goodyear made these 22-inchers just for Fisker; 255/35s in front and 285/35s on back. Translation: replacements won’t be cheap. At least geography could buy some time. Fisker used a 21-inch wheel and tire combo for its winter testing, and have made the package available for snowbelt clients.

Our performance driving fantasy camp soon came to a mental and literal halt when we reached the dreaded 405 freeway. On a Friday afternoon. Given plenty of time and little forward motion, we had ample time to contemplate the Karma’s comfort and usefulness as a daily driver.

Overall, the Karma’s cockpit ergonomics are decent. The 10.2-inch infotainment/nav touchscreen is fairly easy to use from the passenger seat, when you’re not so concerned with keeping eyes on the road. For the driver, there’s a learning curve; some things will have to wait for a stoplight–or in our case, a traffic jam. Compared to your smartphone display, the Karma’s screen feels a generation behind in color contrast, input sensitivity and menu layout. It was subject to washout from glare and while wearing sunglasses, though the same can be said for a number of cars’ displays. The electronic gauge cluster is easily read and thankfully doesn’t pander with unnecessary gimmicks.

Most everything you touch befits the car and feels at home here. A couple exceptions are the sun visors and mirror controls. Also, steering column stalks are standard GM issue. At least they’re dead simple to use, so you don’t have to look at them; the beefy steering wheel also diverts eyes and attention away from them. And instead of the paddle shifters conventional cars use (not needed here, given the single-ratio transmission), the Karma has them in place to swap driving modes between Hill, Sport, and Stealth; the latter for pure EV use.

Do it right, and Fisker assures us 300-mile range is achievable in the Karma. Employing Stealth mode can return up to 54 mpg-e, easily topping the Panamera S Hybrid’s 30 highway mpg and with lower CO2 emissions (169 g/mi) than the Porsche (355 g/mi).

Looking strictly at numbers, the Panamera S Hybrid’s $95,000 base price, 5.7-second 0-60 time and 167-mph top speed might make it more compelling than a Fisker. The Karma starts at $102,000 (before $7,500 federal tax credits), takes 6.3 seconds to hit 60 from a standstill and maxes out at 125 mph.

Yet in the real world–or as real as it gets in LA–we didn’t miss the extra scoot, and nobody stops to stare at a Panamera. The Karma is far easier on the eyes and still delivers a credible driving experience. For fans of understatements, let’s say it’s taken a lot to make the Fisker Karma happen. For premium luxury car buyers, let’s say the Fisker Karma easily deserves consideration.

Exterior Images: Copyright 2012 Hooniverse/Jeff Glucker
Interior Images courtesy of Fisker 

Disclosure: Fisker wanted Thomas to drive the Karma, so they flew him away from the cold confines of Wisconsin, and out to a deluxe hotel in Beverly Hills. Mr. Bey was given good food and free booze. Your faithful editor only stuck around for a cocktail, and skipped out on the dinner that followed the drive.

  • I guess if you want to compare rear 3/4 shots, the Fisker does absolutely take the cake:

    <img src="http://www.blogcdn.com/www.autoblog.com/media/2011/05/lead13-2012-porsche-panamera-s-hybrid.jpg&quot; width=550>

    Though, if I was a 1%er looking for a sporty car with decent fuel economy that I could haul my family around in, I would take the Porsche.

    • JayP2112

      There were 3 Karmas at the the last Cars and Coffee. Those are beautiful cars.
      Not many people knew what they were- but the kids did somehow.

      • Any Panameras?

        • JayP2112

          Maybe in the spectator parking… I see Panameras at Lowes now. Not uncommon to see one in traffic around here.

    • pj134

      I'd save my pennies and go with the Aston Martin. I mean, look at it.

      <img src="http://www.globalmotors.net/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/aston-martin-rapide-51.jpg&quot; width=500>

      • facelvega

        I actually prefer the lines on the Karma. Certainly not as much car as the Aston, though.

        • pj134

          I love the design, just wish it wasn't so… tiny.

  • Joe_Btfsplk

    Obama says that I can run my F150 on algae. I'm gonna pour in a bucket of that and give'er a whirl. I gotta love me some cutting edge technology.

    • I know Alff started it yesterday with a just-barely-on-topic bawdy comment, but may we all please agree to stop the political jibes? These rapidly become tedious, as is amply demonstrated on sites such as TTAC.

      • Joe_Btfsplk

        Terribly sorry, old chap. I will henceforth endeavor to summon up my best Political Correctness for the hallowed and noble pages of HOONIVERSE. Enjoy your Fisker.

        • Fiskers are commonplace. I prefer a twin-electric-motor hybrid with a certain exclusivity.

          <img src="http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7164/6792684287_22b11e008d.jpg&quot; width="400">

        • pj134

          I don't think he asked for political correctness, I think he just asked that we avoid politics entirely. Political correctness would dictate that we all respond "Everyone and everything is exceptional in its own way! Go everything!" to all posts. You can still make your tangentially related comment, he's just requesting the "Obama" or "Bush" (sorry, I don't have a current example as I don't follow politics) or whoever is currently drawing either sides ire be left out of it.

          They say that I can run my F150 on algae. I'm gonna pour in a bucket of that and give'er a whirl. I gotta love me some cutting edge technology.

          Fixed that for you.

        • facelvega

          Don't start down the troll lane, man. Old and/or weird cars are something that latte-sipping lefty snobs and flag-waving rednecks can agree on– if we start on about politics, we'll never get to the cars. And I say this as a gun-owning redneck who also teaches at an art school in Brooklyn.

          • pj134

            I gotta ask as I've noticed a lot of them, what's up with the whole NY trying to be a redneck thing? Not trying to be mean spirited, just curious.

            • I was born there in NYC, live on the other side of the nation in serious redneck country, have redneck credentials out the yingyang, but consider myself a damn Yankee, and am proud of the fact that I speak in complete sentences. I guess If I can do that, a New Yorker can consider himself a redneck. What the hell, whatever floats your boat.

            • facelvega

              Yeah, basically the opposite of CptSevere here, from the boonies but ended up in the city. I think the phenomenon you're thinking of is the bearded hipster, which seems to be more about nostalgia than geography. On the plus side, the beard-wearing, urban agriculture-loving hipsters tend to favor old cars and trucks, which keeps street parking interesting.

              • pj134

                No, definitely not the wannabe lumber jacks, nor the long islanders. There is a subset of New Yorker's I've met that are an accent and a drawl away from being Texans.

    • Froggmann_

      Scary thing is my Bronco has run on worse. So I say bring it on! Hell that thing would probably run on warmed demon spit if I could get enough of it.

      • Devin

        The work being done with algae is actually pretty promising. There was some being done around where my parents live, and if the research is successful it could genuinely be the future. It only uses land that can't be used for crops, it could potentially be cheaper than drilling for oil, and the fuel that has been produced sounds like it can replace gasoline effectively without engine modification. I don't know all the details, and the project could eventually fall through or the end product might not be as good as promised, but what I've read looks pretty good.

        • facelvega

          Algae! Tell me another one. Soon you'll be saying we can drive our cars with the rot-juice from old swamps and dinosaurs.

    • Scandinavian Flick

      <img src="http://i.imgur.com/6AjoH.jpg&quot; width="500"/>

  • Alcology

    man, gotta make that green to be green

  • wunno sev

    What is really heartening about this to me is that an independent, relatively small carmaker can put out something that is a) reasonably affordable (on the scale of these cars anyway), b) reasonably usable (at least for one or two small people), and c) stunning even in pictures.

    Fisker and Tesla are proving that small auto startups can make great cars that don't have to be consigned to weekend drivers. Whether the two companies have been making money or whether their cars are desirable may be a different story, depending on your point of view, but they've proven that it's possible to make boutique cars that aren't merely showpieces or novelties. They're capable of competing with the best that the big companies have to offer.

  • salguod

    Saw one last week on the outer belt here in Columbus. Stupid money and ridiculously impractical, but man was it beautiful.

    • Adamskiy

      I've seen the same gleaming white one near the very-expensive private school next to my work…I think some kid might be getting his ride to school in it. Pictures really don't do this car justice, and until you see it in person you don't realize how low-slung it is — its roofline falls directly in between that of a Ferrari 458 and BMW E92 sedan, making it very low for a four-door sedan.

      But yes, absolutely gorgeous, and now they're making a shooting brake / wagon version, over which I'm having a groinal crisis:

      <img src="http://i.imgur.com/EWyZA.jpg&quot; />

      • Adamskiy

        Same gleaming-white one twice* near…

  • Froggmann_

    God Damn I love that car. It looks spectacular, sounds like it runs great and does hybrid the RIGHT way. If I had a little over 100K to blow, one of these would be out in the parking lot right now.

  • Deartháir

    I love everything about this car except the grille. It makes me hate it. Hate hate hate STAB STAB STAB WHY DID YOU WRECK THIS CAR WITH THAT GRILLE ARRGH &$&*# mustswitchtodecaf…

    <img src="http://www.autorivals.net/fun/2010karmavscatfish/joker.jpg"&gt;

    • FЯeeMan

      Yup.

      The son & I took a look at one at the Vegas Fisker/Porsche/Jaguar dealership. very nice looking car, until you get to the front view. The front looks like something I would have doodled in 3rd grade. I just don't get it.

      Its memory, however, was outweighed by the XK120 they had inside in the most exquisite shade of light green that my camera phone absolutely refused to render properly. I have about 25 shots, none of them are right on the color.

    • scroggzilla
    • tonyola

      I agree. The front end completely destroys the Fisker's looks.

    • Scandinavian Flick

      Originally, I really didn't like it… It has been growing on me, and I am currently to the point where it doesn't sway me in either direction. I can certainly understand and relate to hating it though…

      Reading this in the article, it completely makes sense to me where it came from now:
      "Think of it this way: Henrik Fisker previously designed for Aston Martin and BMW. Now imagine a unique interpretation of the two iconic grilles in one."

      • Yeah, but…If the guy's that good, he should have been able to come up with an iconic grille design of his own, right? I mean, if you flipped burgers at both Wendy's and Burger King, couldn't you come up with your very own personal special burger at home? Without it being, I dunno, shaped like a stop sign or something.

  • Guest

    te

  • BlackIce_GTS

    I have the ungrounded-in-reality feeling (which is not uncommon) that given the internal combustion engine's role as a generator, there could be some better configuration than a piston engine. Even if this is the same sort of powertrain used in trains, and they have piston engines. It's just not weird enough.
    Wait, why isn't it a Diesel? Bio?

    • craigsu

      I'm sure it would be easy to switch to a more eco-friendly generator fuel, but it does beg the question, doesn't it? I really like this concept and I didn't think much about this methodology until the James May review of the Karma recently on TG. It really does seem like the best way to go about this hybrid business.

    • dr zero

      Didn't the Jag concept use a micro gas turbine to power its generator?

  • Buickboy92

    Damn sexy car! I want one! 🙂

  • The car is very fastidious to look at and it's technological side is really ultra modern. So, it does at least include a USB port. Now I want to purchase this car for the USB port. I think that by this car it is possible to get a high satisfaction.





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