Review: Fisker Karma

Curvy as a chanteuse and as bright-eyed as a Hollywood musical, the Fisker Karma is a blue-sky vision of a green future, a 5,600-pound sedan born from the unlikely marriage of low-slung looks and guilt-free consumption.

But in the four years since it debuted as a concept car in 2008, the Karma has also grown to represent what can go south in this modern era of high-stakes automotive startups. Oft-delayed and priced at $102,000, 20 percent more expensive than originally anticipated, the Karma was recently slapped with lower-than-expected fuel-efficiency numbers by the EPA, triggering the withdrawal of $529 million in funding from the Department of Energy.

“We are not dependent on the Department of Energy…. We are here to [launch and] make money on the Karma,” designer and company founder Henrik Fisker told journalists at the car’s press intro in Beverly Hills, California. “The reality is we’re selling cars every day, we’re self-sufficient, and we don’t really need that money,” he added.

Political and financial hijinks aside, the Fisker Karma proved itself an alluring creature during a two-hour drive up the coast and across the looping canyon roads of Malibu, California. Exuding a panther-like road presence, the Karma’s crouched silhouette attracted the not-so-subtle interest of typically jaded Angelenos, drawing plenty of slow-downs, camera phones, and “What is it?” questions.

Remarkably, the Karma looks virtually identical to the concept car which was unveiled back in 2008. It’s an impressive but not entirely surprising achievement considering the company president also penned the Aston Martin V8 Vantage and BMW Z8. Karma rides on massive 22-inch wheels, encapsulates a compact cabin amidst a luxuriant overall length that’s less than half a foot shy of a Chevy Tahoe, and has less cargo space than a Porsche Cayman.

Climb inside and you’re hit with an even stronger sense of its intended audience: unlike anything short of a Bentley or Rolls-Royce, this cabin lives up to the plus-sized promises of its sinewy sheet metal. The materials on our $130,000 Eco Chic tester are the most environmentally friendly of the Karma lineup, but they’re also buttery soft and imaginatively finished, with whimsically tinted inlays, unusually stitch forms, and contours that seem to have emerged from a schoolboy’s doodles. Though minor details like the steering wheel-mounted buttons appear sourced from lesser domestic cars, singular focal points such as the intricately etched leaf vein patterns on the glass-topped transmission tunnel more than make up for the parts bin lapses.

Using a combination of twin 201-horsepower electric motors juiced by lithium ion batteries and a GM-sourced turbocharged 2.0 liter, 4-cylinder Ecotec engine working in conjunction with a 170 kW generator, this low-lying sedan can be operated in electric only “Stealth” mode (for a total of 32 miles according to the EPA, though Fisker claims it’s just over 50), or “Sport” mode for a blend of EV and internal combustion. Stealth is good for 0-60 mph in 7.9 seconds and a top speed of 95 mph, while Sport yields a 5.9 second sprint and a 125 mph terminal velocity. Fisker reckons a combined total range of 300 miles (with 50 of those coming from electricity, which is incrementally aided by a rooftop solar panel.) In Stealth mode, the Karma gets an EPA-rated 52 MPGe; using the gas motor, that figure drops to the 20-something range.

Driving the Karma unfurls complex, mixed emotions; for all its slick, Speed Racer-meets-muscle car looks, a few rough spots remind you this is a beta version of future propulsion. In all-electric Stealth mode, Karma accelerates as silently as you’d expect, though there’s a subtle shudder produced at low speeds as the electric motor’s stator and rotor surfaces pass over each other, a quality inherent to the technology. As tempting as it is to milk Stealth mode for all its decibel-free deliciousness (save the artificially produced, pedestrian-repelling “Tron” sound, which was authored for Fisker by Hollywood sound designers), Sport is the likelier setting, with its longer range and fossil fuel-burning accelerative assistance. And that’s also where things get a bit less sexy, with the turbocharged four-banger firing up with a noticeable hum and occasionally disarming valve clatter. The latter, incidentally, is due to the engine’s state of tune; it was designed to start at 200 rpm in its GM application, but that was figure was boosted to 1,100 rpm here, which results in a few moments of valvetrain oil starvation during cold startups before the gooey stuff gets to the metal bits.

Acceleration becomes somewhat wheezy as the Karma climbs steep hills, with the engine working noticeably harder to get these 2.75 tons of car up to speed. This Fisker can certainly scoot along respectably, with sticky road holding and good body control, thanks partly to the battery’s low center of gravity. But there are also a few unpolished edges to the drivetrain’s power delivery that don’t live up to the car’s overall sense of aesthetic polish and finessed styling — small flies in the hundred thousand dollar ointment, but flies, no less.

With 80 global dealerships set up and 2,000 cars already built, Fisker’s dream of forming a cutting edge car company from the ground up is an absolute reality, all of this despite governmental tussles and operatic criticism from the likes of Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.

As with all things in the brave new world of eco-transpo, the Fisker Karma — in spite of its gorgeous design and novel execution — comes attached with a few pesky asterisks, the least of which is the possibility that it could go the way of the DeLorean, in that casual, Darwinian sort of manner. It would be a shame, really, a fate nobody outside of the most hardened ecological skeptics would wish upon this four-wheeled creation. After all, who doesn’t crave automotive utopia, even it’s tempered with a few imperfections and a prohibitive price tag?

Photos by Basem Wasef/get-gadget

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