It’s 8 p.m. on a Sunday but instead of watching the tail end of Sunday Night Football, I’m out in the Mojave Desert, far from a solid 4G data connection and the hazy pollution of 21st-century Los Angeles. Summer has been over for several weeks so it’s plenty dark out already; a long-haul truck blows past as I gingerly pull up to the highway in a pre-production 2012 Fisker Karma (fittingly, it’s stealthy black). Out in these parts, big rigs and rented minivans wearing out-of-state plates are the usual sights. Then, I get on the gas.
Let’s rewind a couple days. Fledgling start-up Fisker Automotive had just delivered one of its Karmas for us to poke, prod, and otherwise flog within an inch of its plug-in hybrid life for a week in the searing desert heat. As it was a pre-production unit, we were willing to look past the A-pillar interior trim piece that came off, and the haunted radio that increased the volume on its own. This car had a much bigger story to tell, and we were about to find out what it was.
For Some, Looking Good and Driving Straight is Good Enough
The road test team was first on the scene and immediately decided the Karma’s 255/35-22 front and 285/35-22 rear Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar tires would look and feel better scrubbed in, with much less tread pattern showing. The Karma is at its quickest in Sport mode, when the electric motors are being nourished by pre-hoarded battery energy and supplemented with the 235-horsepower generator, which in turn is spun by its turbocharged 2.0-liter, 260-horsepower engine. Tug the left paddle behind the steering wheel for Sport mode, and if the battery hasn’t been totally depleted, the engine and generator will attempt to maintain 60 percent of the battery’s usable charge.
Set to Sport, the two motors tidily tucked in a cradle between the rear wheels combine for 403 horsepower and sent the Fisker from 0-60 mph in 6.0 seconds during our test runs, a trifling 0.1 second off the factory estimation of 5.9 seconds. And this is from a generously proportioned, 5408-pound luxury car.
But there’s more to a car like the Karma than a single acceleration number, and I was experiencing a bit of deja vu as we tested it. Last year, we conducted a meticulous investigation of the Chevy Volt’s powertrain. Of particular interest was how the Volt would respond in real world driving, in both all-electric and extended-range modes. We ultimately learned that, despite its fairly innocuous appearance, the Volt’s Voltec bits and integration are more intricate (and technically stimulating) than 99 percent of the vehicles on sale today. Despite its engaging engineering, critics cried foul about the Volt’s weight, price, and/or preconceived political implication. Those concerns aren’t entirely baseless, and similar din around the Karma has amped up as of late.
Deja vu moment behind me, the slinky Fisker was sent out again for more acceleration runs, but the 20-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery from A123 Systems had been sapped to its most minimal state of charge. As in any other hybrid or electric vehicle, the traction battery is never allowed to fully discharge; there’s a buffer built in to ensure internal voltage levels don’t drop excessively. This state is generically known as charge-sustaining mode, where the Karma will be relying almost exclusively on the GM-sourced, turbocharged and direct-injected 2.0-liter Ecotec four-cylinder to invoke the 235-horsepower generator’s wrath and get the car moving. It’ll charge the battery too, conditions permitting. At this point, you’re not getting the car’s full 403 horsepower, but a much lower output from the motors (the exact post-conversion figure is debatable), raising the 0-60 mph time from 6.0 seconds in charge-depleting Sport (when the battery has adequate juice) to 7.1 seconds in charge-sustaining Sport. That’s going from Toyota Avalon territory to running side-by-side with a Kia Borrego V-8. If gunning it from light to light is on your daily to-do list, plug in as frequently as you can.
If you don’t think you’re getting your money’s worth (all $96,850-$109,850 of it) with a dual-personality Karma, wait – there’s more! In default Stealth mode, the car is supposed to depend completely on the 241-horsepower battery for propulsion. “Supposed to,” because there’s the whole minimum-state-of-charge thing again, so assuming there is sufficient electron activity in the battery, Fisker says its car will mosey from 0-60 mph in 7.9 seconds without ever drawing from the 9.5-gallon gasoline reserve (the engine mandates premium gas only).
Unfortunately, the engine would randomly turn over in charge-depleting Stealth mode in its pre-production guise, a side effect of diagnostic software that shouldn’t occur in full production cars. That meant we couldn’t trap our own 0-60 mph time in Stealth or accurately determine the electric range. When it’s in the charge-sustaining operational period in Stealth, the engine is required to work anyway.
For Others, Negotiating Turns Is Critical
There’s no doubt the Karma is a complex car, but there was nothing complicated about how its binders hauled it down to a stop with a quickness. The Karma passed our 60-0 mph braking test in a scant 110 feet, compliments of the immense footprint and six-piston front/four-piston rear calipers slamming on 14.6-inch front and 14.4-inch back rotors.
The mammoth 22-inch “Circuit Blade” rims might have presented an atypical chassis tuning challenge, but the unequal-length control arms front and multilink rear suspension affixed to the bespoke aluminum space frame are excellent starting points. Chris Theodore, friend of Motor Trend and a veteran development engineer with a well-stocked resume, poked and prodded at the Karma’s underbelly and declared “no expense was spared in the chassis design.” Aluminum is used liberally, and large-diameter Sachs Nivomat rear dampers automatically level the ride height based on load without the need for an air pump. The big 20 kW-hr battery sits near to the ground to keep the center of mass low, helping limit roll and pitch. Tuning a car’s suspension for both ride quality and inspired handling is no small task, yet for a first-time carmaker, Fisker has done a pretty remarkable job.
The steering is buoyed by a traditional hydraulic pump that isn’t run off the 2.0-liter engine. The pump is electrically assisted, since the four-cylinder isn’t expected to be active all the time, helping deliver a wholesome, natural feel. Loading off center is on the light side, but steering action is otherwise on the same playing field as a sporty luxury sedan: direct and smooth. The brakes perform commendably in casual and frenzied situations alike, showing it’s very possible to incorporate regenerative properties without compromising pedal travel and feel.
In charge-depleting Sport mode (the ideal go-fast setting), the 5408-pound Karma made its way around the figure eight in 25.6 seconds, on par with the even heavier (166 pounds more) but much more powerful (197 horsepower advantage plus AWD) Bentley Continental GT Speed and even a few rip-and-roar Evos and STIs we’ve tested over the years. But use up the battery and the Karma can’t leap out of the corners as enthusiastically, bringing the figure-eight time to 26.7 seconds and landing it in the company of the Mazda MX-5 and Honda Accord V-6.
For Those Who Want to Know How Green It Is: EPA Edition
Most of the vehicular offerings priced $100,000 and above are either very luxurious, fast, exotic, rare, or some combination thereof. As you’d imagine, fuel economy and emissions are way down the priority list. But then along came the Tesla Roadster, which brought (affluent) electric car junkies out of the woodwork. Tesla proved there’s a circle of consumers and investors willing to support the aspirations of green startups — even if the early barriers to entry have proven to be rich guy high.
Asking how eco-friendly the Karma is only yields a slew of additional questions. Where do you live? What is your driving style like? How often will the battery be charged? Is it going to be your primary car? Do you believe in plug-in vehicles? Fisker claims a 50-mile all-electric and 250-mile extended driving range, which sounded fine and dandy considering the car’s heft. By now, you’ve likely learned the EPA has weighed in on the fuel economy matter with its own ratings: 32 miles of pure electric driving’ 52 combined mpg-e (67 mpg-e was the original estimate)’ 20 combined mpg in hydrocarbon-devouring, extended-range mode. The last figure especially has brought out the Fisker critics, and justifiably so: 20 mpg would have been the norm in the 1950s, but today’s Toyota Prius effortlessly does 50 mpg, while compact cars and hybrid family sedans advertise 40 mpg.
Yet in the vicious light of the real world, could we have predicted any better? A straight-four is one of the simpler engine designs to deal with from a packaging standpoint, even more so since the Ecotec is mounted fore to aft, leaving lots of room for the intercooler hardware and space-demanding double A-arm suspension. The entire Bosal exhaust is installed below and behind the engine, with the outlet tips exiting behind the front wheels. The turbocharger assembly itself is also easily accessible if you drape yourself over the passenger side fender, useful if it happens to need replacing.
The regrettably short-lived Pontiac Solstice GXP/Saturn Sky Red Line were arguably the most prominent recipients of the 2.0-liter turbo engine, and those were rated 19/28 mpg city/highway with the five-speed manual (2009 model year, 1 less highway mpg with the five-speed automatic). In EPA terms, that’s around 22 mpg combined (the Chevy Cobalt SS, another beneficiary, combined for 25 mpg). Increase the rolling drag, add close to 2400 pounds, throw in two novel back seats, and you have the Karma’s skeleton template. All of a sudden, converting gas to electric propulsion and the abundant associated conversion losses (going from chemical to mechanical to electrical states is taxing) doesn’t seem as bad. On the other hand, there’s nothing sexy about flaunting 20 mpg for a car that’s been incessantly billed as environmentally friendly.
For Those Who Want to Know How Green It Is: In Real Life
Using myself as an example, the Karma has potential. Can I plug into the grid at home and at work? Yes I can; check. Economical driving style? Check. Disdain for visiting gas stations? I’ll avoid ’em if I can. I’m also living in one of the cleaner states in the United States when it comes to electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Here in Los Angeles, I can put down anywhere from 80-90 miles in a single work day, and the ability to plug in at work helps make for a more complete alternative transportation experience. For five days a week, the Karma never has to touch a drop of gas, if you want to believe the claimed 50-mile electric range. Independent testing from the certification professionals at TUV extracted 51.6 miles from the battery, using a test cycle of “a steady speed of 50 km/h [31 mph] until the fuel consuming engine of the HEV starts up.” If the EPA numbers are more your vibe, I’d be going through about 1-1.5 gallons of gas per day to move 80-90 miles, based on the range-extending 20 mpg. Fuel stops would come every 6-10 days.
I have my own fuel economy figure to counter the 20 mpg the media has been fixated on: 24 mpg. That would be the observed fuel economy with the battery at its minimal state of charge, meaning it was recorded without ever plugging in during charge-sustaining mode. This is the powertrain’s absolute worst-case scenario, though worst case is not out of the realm of possibility if a future Karma operator is inattentive, on a road trip, or swamped with other priorities that don’t include hooking a car up to the electrical grid. The 24 mpg was achieved with predominantly highway miles and a quick spat with city streets, theoretically giving me 228 extended-range miles from the 9.5-gallon gas tank.
On the single full charge squeezed into a tight schedule, we witnessed 21.213 kilowatt-hours zap the battery from “empty” to replenished, courtesy of a public ChargePoint station. Based on past Leaf and Volt charge times, an estimate on how much energy the battery was actually calling for (around 17.2 kW-hrs), and factoring in charging losses, the 21.213-kW-hr quantity is within expectations. The advertised 6-hour recharge time on Level 2 power was more or less on the mark too – we needed 6 hours and 11 minutes. A trickle charger (110-120V) supposedly takes as long as 14 hours for a full charge and high-amp, high-voltage Level 3 charging isn’t in Fisker’s plans for now.
I paid 12.8 cents per kW-hr on my most recent electricity bill, so the 21.213-kW-hr charge would have hypothetically cost me $2.72. I don’t know about you, but paying less than $3 to travel 32-50 miles sounds mighty appealing, with premium gas topping $4 a gallon in Los Angeles. Secondly, the 21.213 kW-hrs is accountable for an estimated 15.3 pounds of CO2 in California, using the EIA’s most readily available data. On a carbon-equivalent basis, that’s nearly four-fifths of a gallon of gasoline (one gallon produces 19.4 pounds of CO2). That’s pretty clean in today’s auto industry. (This viewpoint may change by the time 2016 rolls around). And last but not least, a recent Detroit Free Press article found gas pump handles are one of the most heavily germ-infested surfaces shared by the general public. Stay clean, America.
But as California is in the 10th-percentile when it comes to clean electricity generation, the Karma won’t be nearly as carbon-friendly in other states. In Texas, the 21.213 kW-hrs would equate to a 30.4-pound CO2 discharge. In gasoline terms, 30.4 pounds is a smidge over 1.5 gallons. Because CO2 emission rates for electrical utilities can swing wildly from state to state, your actual carbon tracks will vary just as wildly. But if you live in Connecticut, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, or Vermont, and are on the fence because of ecological worries, you pretty much have the green light.
Bottom line: Play to the car’s strengths, and the Karma could be your swankiest, cleanest, and most cost-effective way from a cost-per-mile perspective to pull up to the valet. Even if it’s bearing a bright scarlet 20-mpg rating from the EPA.
Mind Swirling Over Powertrain Details? At Least the Interior is Nice
In my opinion, there are more expensive cars out there with interiors that are nowhere near as nicely trimmed and appointed. Our Karma EcoSport tester featured more than ample amounts of leather, all hand-wrapped and purportedly originating from a 100-percent-sustainable processing plant. There’s a choice of certified Sunken Wood or Fallen Wood, sourced from trees that have already fell from their majestic grace. It all looks fantastic.
It can get cramped inside. The center console sits high and has some of the shallowest cupholders I’ve ever seen. Some light folding of your body may be required during ingress and egress, partly because of the door openings’ shape. The back seat may need an age limit placard thrown in down the line, as even short passengers may find the lack of room disconcerting. Outward visibility is just OK due to the slender rear window and monstrous fenders, but I was surprised there wasn’t more tire noise seeping into the cabin considering the rubber size.
The Fisker Command Center is the fancy name for the 10.2-inch touch-screen display that contains the navigation, sound system, Bluetooth, and climate control. It’s equipped with haptic feedback, and while stylishly designed, it is S-L-O-W. Maybe it’s a result of the pre-production build, but the display was processing our touch commands at speeds that’d make early 1990s PCs look like supercomputers. The graphical user interface takes some time to decipher and comprehend, as its fashionable demeanor seems to take precedence over functionality.
At idle and when skulking around at low speeds, the Karma emits what I’d describe as the noise something hovering would make. That’s what Hollywood movies and video games have embedded in my mind, at least. However you describe it, it doesn’t sound of this world, adding to the sedan’s mystique. Back in reality, speakers in the rear fascia are responsible for the “Fisker Hybrid HZ external sound,” acting as a pedestrian awareness feature/attention grabber. “HZ” denotes hertz, the measure of frequency regularly (but not exclusively) used in the study of sound.
Most importantly, as you come off the brakes and the motors start to turn the wheels as the back end shudders, the Karma hums like a gas turbine firing up, albeit at a much lower tone. Intoxicating.
A fully blended regenerative braking system can be a pain to calibrate, but what if the driver could manually change the regen rate? On the right side of the steering wheel, a paddle designated Hill puts the Karma in either Hill 1 or Hill 2, a real prospect that is hopefully the start of widespread regen-adjustable features. Hill 1 sets regen up to a rate of 30 kW and Hill 2 powers it at 40 kW.
In an attempt to harness the power of the sun, the Karma sports 80 monocrystalline cells covering the roof to appropriate photons and get them to generate electric power that can run the climate control and charge the battery. Fisker claims up to 200 miles of driving can be provided by the sun in a year, but we presume that’s under the most optimistic conditions where the sunlight is hitting the photovoltaic cells at the right angle, the sky is never cloudy, and the car is always outside. Using the sun to keep the cabin comfortable is right enough by me.
As I drove back to L.A. from Mojave, I was reminded there is no singular perfect solution to all the environmental concerns out there. Not by a long shot. As of this writing, Fisker continues to take a media pounding over everything: the Karma’s 20-mpg extended-range EPA rating, the $529 million it received in Department of Energy low-interest loans, the company’s job creation impact in the U.S. It’s a P.R. nightmare, but if they pull through, we can look forward to the Surf and the still-unseen Nina midsize car CEO Henrik Fisker and his minions keep hinting at. No one ever said building your own car company was easy — especially one with a green mission.
|2012 Fisker Karma Pre-Production|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$104,850*|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front engine, RWD, 4-pass, 4-door sedan|
|ENGINE||2.0L/260-hp/258-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4 plus 2 x 201-hp/490-lb-ft AC electric motors|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||5408 lb (47/53%)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||196.7 x 78.1 x 52.4 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.0 sec, 7.1 sec**, 7.9 sec (est)***|
|QUARTER MILE||14.7 sec @ 95.8 mph, 15.7 sec @ 87.8 mph**|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||110 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.92 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||25.6 sec @ 0.73 g (avg), 26.7 sec @ 0.65 g (avg)**|
|EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON||52 mpg-e (electric combined); 20 (range extended mode combined)|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||65 kW-hrs/100 miles (electric combined); 169 kW-hrs/100 miles (range extended mode combined)|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.00 lb/mile (electric combined); 0.97 lb/mile (range extended mode)|
|*Before federal and state tax credits, **Range extended mode, ***Pure electric|
Battery Burdens: All Electricity is Not Created Equal
When it all boils down to electrical energy, one kilowatt-hour is one kilowatt-hour. But there’s one common factor that distinguishes a kW-hr in Iowa from a kW-hr in North Carolina: carbon dioxide. It takes fuel and a whole lot of hard work to generate the millions of megawatt-hours of electricity we usually take for granted. Whether the energy is produced from coal, natural gas, or humongous hydroelectric dams, CO2 is inevitably released along the way.
While pure electric cars are incapable of expelling CO2, the carbon responsibility of the electricity fed into the batteries can be estimated. Below, we’ve estimated how much CO2 a Karma would be accountable for when charging its 20-kW-hr battery from “empty” to full per individual state, using our 21.213-kW-hr figure as the standard energy allowance. Electric vehicles are going to be cleaner in some states than others due to major variations in generation source and transmission/distribution loss. Next, we included a gallon-equivalent, which is the amount of gas you’d need to burn to create similar CO2 (a gallon of gas puts out 19.4 pounds). And finally, we have the average cost of a full 21.213-kW-hr charge. The driver may have good intentions, but just how green — environmentally and economically — would they really be?
|Fisker Karma Battery Charging|
|State*||CO2 (lb)||Gallon-equivalent of gas||Average charge cost|
|Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration – State Electricity Profiles, 2009 Edition|
|*Bolded states contain Fisker retailers|