2012 Fisker Karma

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2012 Fisker Karma review

By James Tate of MSN Autos
Rating: 7.8

Bottom Line:

Great looks, a solid drive and copious tree-hugger points help the Karma overcome a few teething quirks and make it the best luxury electric vehicle on the road. Still, it’s not hard for it to rule the roost when it’s the only one perching there.
Pros:
  • Beautifully modern exterior design
  • Hill mode a useful feature
  • Competent, uncomplicated handling
Cons:
  • Annoying safety-regulated sound effect
  • Minor build-quality issues
  • Cramped rear seating area and trunk

Not familiar with Fisker, the fledgling electric automaker? Don't feel bad — the California-based upstart is just getting its feet wet in the market with its first vehicle, the Karma sedan.

The svelte car boasts a very powerful electric powertrain, gorgeous looks, and enough environmental consciousness to make Mother Earth blush. The Fisker Karma has the intention of shaking up the luxury car market and boasts the specs to do the job.

But is it good enough to really pull it off?

Model lineup
In a nutshell, the Karma is a large luxury car with an efficient electric motor setup powering the rear wheels. Despite its chiseled sports-car physique, it's actually a 4-door supersedan that seats four.

The Karma is available in three trims, dubbed EcoStandard, EcoSport and EcoChic. None of them are drastically different from one another, with the higher-end Sport and Chic variants essentially just opening up additional paint and upholstery options.

The base Karma comes fairly well equipped. Along with all the typical convenience and entertainment goodies within, all Karmas share the same electric drivetrain, solar-panel roof and enormous 22-inch wheels wrapped in custom Goodyear rubber (sized 255/35 front and 285/35 rear).

Under the hood
Unsurprisingly, it's under the hood where the Karma's most interesting aspects are found. While there is a traditional gasoline engine here, a turbocharged 2-liter 4-cylinder unit sourced from General Motors, it has no direct connection to the wheels. Instead, it powers a 175-kilowatt generator, which then provides an extra 250 miles to the Karma's battery-only, emission-free 50-mile range. The Karma gets its actual motion from a pair of electric motors mounted in the rear, good for 150-kilowatts each. These motors are powered by a central 20-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery system, as well as by the aforementioned gas engine. The end result is an electric equivalent of 403 horsepower, and a whopping 959 lb-ft of torque, available immediately (from "zero" rpm) and constantly. In the normal, battery-only Stealth mode, Fisker claims a zero-to-60-mph time of less than eight seconds. Sport mode slashes this to 6.3 seconds.

The Karma restores its charge in multiple ways. A standard electrical outlet will do the job overnight, or you can opt for the Level 2 charging system, a high-power setup that cuts full charging time to just 5.5 hours. Additionally, power is restored on the fly as the Karma is driven, with a regenerative brake system that uses the electric motors for the first 0.25 G of deceleration, at which point the traditional brakes take over. Finally, there's the standard solar-panel roof, which Fisker states is good for around 200 "free miles" per year. According to government standards, the Karma is rated at 54 mpge, although Fisker maintains that a theoretical 100 mpge is possible — depending on how you do the math.

Inner space
With the exception of a few minor issues, the Karma's interior does a good job reflecting the car's price bracket. It's interesting, reasonably plush and fairly intuitive, and the 4-seat layout provides a sense of sportiness as well. However, good luck fitting anything other than scrawny kids in the back seats; calling the rear seating area "cramped" would be a compliment. This also applies to the trunk.

The interior is eye-catching, very much a concept car turned production model, but it can feel a bit over the top at times. The steering wheel, for instance, could stand to be a bit more traditional. The available blue interior color scheme doesn't work quite right either, at least not for a premium vehicle. It comes off more like the upholstery found on your average United Airlines flight. While fit and finish is mostly quite nice, there are a few minor grievances here as well. The GM-sourced switchgear feels, well, GM-sourced. And, at least with the color scheme of our test car, interior reflections wash out the 10.2-inch, haptic feedback display screen that serves as an interface for most of the car's controls.

One of the cooler elements of the cabin, at least at first thought, is the selection of environmentally friendly wood accenting. Buyers can choose from Certified Fallen/Rescued Wood (walnut from a burnt forest) or Certified/Deep Sunken Wood (centuries-old white oak pulled from Lake Michigan). The downside? There's about two rulers' worth of it in the entire interior. Cool concept, and it's nice to know that no trees were felled for your car, but it's hardly worth the hype. Similarly, there's an "animal free" option that does away with any leather (albeit at a premium).

On the road
Perhaps what's most impressive about the Karma is that it actually feels good to drive. The personality of the electric powerplant does take a bit of getting used to, but the mountain of torque makes quick work of that. The electric motors do a great job pushing the portly, 5,300-pound vehicle around, but it can feel a bit sluggish off the line (likely thanks to the lack of any gearing from a transmission).

Once out on some curving roads, the Karma surprised us with remarkably solid, fuss-free handling. As opposed to the never-ending drive-mode settings frequently seen on today's premium vehicles (cough, cough, BMW), the Karma keeps things refreshingly simple. The suspension is what it is; it works well, and that's that. No dozen "performance levels" or damping variations to choose from, no secret button combinations to press for this or that. It's simply a well-sorted ride — one that even managed to avoid our constant gripe of a disconnected steering feel. Likewise, the large Brembo brakes are good, with the hybrid regeneration system only becoming noticeable during extremely spirited driving requiring fast footwork.

To be fair, there is some choice with the drive mode, technically Stealth and Sport. Needless to say, we found ourselves enjoying the increased power of the Sport mode, although the efficiency of the powertrain takes a dramatic hit. Another feature we found ourselves quite impressed with was the Hill mode, which creates brake drag in order to quickly regenerate power, which is ideal for slowing a descent, but be warned that the deceleration is fairly significant — make sure you're not being tailgated first.

Right for you?
If you're shopping for a new flagship luxury car, you ought to consider the Karma. While it may exhibit some quirks typical of an all-new vehicle from an all-new manufacturer, it's got a lot going for it as well. Jaw-dropping concept car looks alone make this quite a desirable ride, as do its competent road demeanor and well-featured, stylish cabin. That said, with nothing to directly compare it against, it's hard to know how to rate the Karma, other than that we were impressed on multiple levels. If you've got the spare change and want the best current example of the next generation of vehicles, then look no further. Otherwise, wait a few years and most major manufacturers will have a similar alternative on offer.

With a starting price of $102,000 (not to mention the $7,500 government EV credit), the Fisker Karma has its sights set squarely on the likes of BMW's 750i ActiveHybrid and the Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid, not to mention Porsche's Panamera Hybrid or Audi's diesel A8. Needless to say, Tesla's upcoming Model S electric sedan will be obvious competition to the Karma as well. Fisker states that the majority of its buyers (400 vehicles have been delivered so far, and 1,500 produced) have been younger entrepreneurs coming from a Mercedes-Benz.

Now that the public is aware of its impact on the environment, the era of the electric vehicle is dawning, and high-end examples such as the Karma will be leading the eco-friendly charge. Expect to see it as 2012's vehicle of choice for both well-intentioned, opinionated celebrities and regular drivers simply looking to stand out in a crowd.

(As part of a sponsored press event, the automaker provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitatethis report.)

Kirk Bell has served as the associate publisher for Consumer Guide Automotive and editor of Scale Auto Enthusiast magazine. A Midwest native, Bell brings 18 years of automotive journalism experience to MSN, andcurrently contributes to JDPower.com and Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com.

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BB02 - 7/11/2014 7:52:41 AM