Review – Fisker Karma

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.

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