The Fisker Karma is a new plug-in hybrid luxury sedan launched as a 2013 model. The Karma is the first, and perhaps the last, car from the company started by Henrik Fisker who made his name in automotive design. One look at the Karma, inside or out, shows how stylish a car can be when the designer is in charge, not an accountant. In retrospect, perhaps an accountant should have been in charge.
Things have not gone well for Fisker. After accepting a loan of $192 million ordered by the Obama administration to support clean air technologies, Fisker now appears headed for bankruptcy. Henrik Fisker has left the company, the company has laid off 75 percent of its workforce, and the U.S. Energy Department has seized the company's emergency funds. All of this follows a series of recalls and service actions to fix teething problems on the Karma. We asked the company whether shoppers should be concerned about buying a Karma and where they might get one serviced. Fisker did not respond except to provide an April 5 statement saying it was considering strategic alternatives. We recommend taking a good look at your dealer before proceeding with a Karma purchase. A lot of dealers, particularly in the premium segments, are more interested in repeat customers than any one sale, and a solid multi-franchise dealer will likely support his or her customers with service and trade-in no matter what happens to the manufacturer.
Fisker calls the Karma an extended-range electric vehicle; you can also call it a plug-in hybrid. It has a large battery pack and two electric motors that drive the car, and carries a gasoline-engine generator to supply the battery pack as it is depleted. It always starts out on battery only and the driver can use the gasoline generator, either to save battery power for later use in certain conditions or restricted zones, or to maximize performance.
Karma is propelled by a pair of longitudinally mounted electric motors in back, supplied by a lithium-ion battery. The battery is recharged by plugging in to a 120- or 240-volt AC power supply, and by a 175-kW generator driven by a 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine in front. It is rear-wheel drive, with a single-speed (plus reverse) transmission.
Plugging it in is a simple process and many public charging stations require nothing more than waving a card in front to power you up. How much energy you use, in what forms, and how efficiency is perfected will depend on your driving style, geography, power supplier and so on. During our weeklong test drive in Southern California, a charge usually lasted 47 miles, and that charge used about $3 in electricity. Rather than a high-mileage green car, the Karma is a greener car for drivers who demand more in terms of performance, luxury or driving enjoyment.
Karma is quite nice to drive with excellent steering and brakes, effortless deceptive propulsion, a fine blend of smooth ride and good handling, and a view over the hood that rivals Corvette and 911. Disclaimers such as "for an electric car" or "for a 5300-pound four-door" are not necessary here.
The Karma cabin is cozy and bisected by a tall, full-length console. Front seat space is fine for six-plus footers but the rear seats are best for kids or clients of lesser stature. In many respects the cabin reminds us of a big luxury coupe, such as the Mercedes CL, but with the addition of rear doors. Materials are unusual in texture and appearance, avant-guard luxury we'll call it, and soft-touch is the name of the game. Trunk space is definitely sports-car size, not four-door sedan size, a common compromise in hybrid and electric cars.
Karma comes with a typical assortment of premium sedan gear, but more advanced features such as forward collision warning and mitigation and adaptive cruise control are not on the menu. The options list is short. Buyers essentially choose colors, cabin finishes and get on with the driving.
Although none have the style and exclusivity of the Karma and all have a more capacious cabin and trunk, green alternates include the BMW 7 Series hybrid, Lexus LS600h hybrid, Mercedes-Benz S400 hybrid, or the Audi A8 TDI diesel or Mercedes-Benz S350 diesel.
Fisker Karma is offered in two trim levels: EcoSport ($110,000) and EcoChic ($115,000). Only the cabin materials and finishes vary between the two; all the running gear, exterior cosmetics and features are the same.
The EcoSport cabin is leather and suede, said to be from a 100-percent sustaining facility. The upholstery is offered in two monochrome palettes and two three-color arrangements ($2,400).
EcoChic interiors use EcoSuede upholstery, an environmentally friendly 100-percent post-industrial textile. This comes in two different three-color schemes.
Every Karma comes with dual-zone climate control, 6-way power front seats with driver memory, power tilt/telescoping steering column, reclaimed wood and acrylic trim, 22-inch alloy wheels, heated seats front and rear, bi-Xenon headlamps, LED exterior lighting, pushbutton on/off, HZ sound generator, HomeLink, power windows/locks/mirrors, cruise control, and a 10.2-inch haptic multifunction touch-screen that controls most of the car's features beyond lights and wipers: mirror-fold, traction control, vehicle settings, voice-recognition navigation, Bluetooth, climate, and rear-view camera. A 295-watt, 6-channel, 8-speaker AM/FM/MP3/XM-ready audio system has auxiliary and USB inputs front and rear. The only option is special paint (two Premium, four Diamond Dust, $3200).