This article was published online today, and should be in Saturday's Wall Street Journal print edition:
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This car might be your worst nightmare. A plug-in hybrid electric luxury sedan that costs more than $100,000, from a California company—Orange County, but still—which has borrowed $169 million from taxpayers as part of the Department of Energy's advanced-vehicle-technology loan program; a car built not in the heartland but the socialist paradise of Finland; a car that, with the arithmetic all in, averages 52 mpg-e (that's the EPA's metric for plug-in hybrid EVs), which means that for all its fancy-dancy lithium-iron-phosphate star drive, it gets about the same fuel economy as a conventional Prius hybrid.
Me? I love it, but then, everybody knows I'm in the bag for Finland.
Meet the world's most interesting car. Every square centimeter of the Fisker Karma riots with clarity and design intent and vested individuality and scorn for convention the likes of which we haven't seen since the Tucker Torpedo. Which is to say, the Karma is radically different from any other car. "Different" might strike you as an empty accolade, but believe me, in the global car business, the forces of homogenization (fuel economy and crash standards, aerodynamics, limited supplier base, material costs) are almost irresistible. That's particularly so in the premium luxury segment. Yes, the BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and Lexus full-size sedans and four-door coupes are great, but they are for the most part interchangeably great. A car so far outside the mainstream as the Karma is nothing less than a Nietzschean act of will. And cojones.
Those belong to Henrik Fisker, ex-Ford and -BMW designer (Aston Martin DB9, BMW Z8), who with former BMW executive Bernard Koehler started Fisker Automotive in Anaheim, Calif., in 2007. Their thesis was simple enough: Money is easily bored and there are sufficient numbers of carbon-conscious high-end consumers to support a luxury-EV company. Fisker also is in the process of retooling a former GM plant in Delaware to build the Nina, a small, mass-market PHEV; that program, and a $329 million tranche of additional DoE loan money, is on hold while the feds review the paperwork. However, Mr. Fisker said this week that Karma production does not depend on the pending DoE loans and that Karma sales will be self-sustaining. The first Karmas were delivered late last year through Fisker's network of 46 U.S. dealers (there are a further four dozen or so world-wide). The company says it has built about 1,500 units and orders are outpacing production.
Fisker has about $850 million in venture capital in play—some Silicon Valley, some sovereign wealth—so one thing you have to admire is Fisker's ability to sell arch-capitalists on a car that looks like it's wearing a Guy Fawkes mask.
Anonymous notwithstanding, the Karma is an eyeful, a lurid showpiece of a car, fast-backed and hip-high, a shank of turbulence pinched from the air. Nearly as long (196.8 inches) as a 7-series BMW and nearly as low (52.4 inches) as a Porsche 911, the four-seat coupe-like Karma hunkers down on heroic 22-inch wheels and tires, the biggest for any production luxury car, says Fisker. Getting these massive rims to ride and corner comfortably—which they do quite well, thank you—must have been miserable for the chassis guys, particularly since the Karma does not use an adaptive magnetic suspension system, just straight SLA independent with coilovers. It helps that the aluminum space frame is so stout, 34,000 Nm/degree of torsional stiffness.
I'm not saying the Karma is a perfect design. The whole thing is pretty overdrawn, for my tastes. The diamond motif is painful. The intersection of the curving shoulder line and the rising front fender line creates a visual slackness at base of the windshield, making the car look like it's sagging a bit. Maybe it is. At 5,300 pounds, the Karma is the heaviest four-seater this side of a Cessna.
But interesting. I could start anywhere—maybe the gearshift, comprising a symmetrically reflecting dihedral group of acrylic switches in a pentagonal projection in the center console. You don't see that every day. The EcoSport package uses veneer from rare hardwoods, salvaged from the bottom of Lake Michigan where they sank while being floated down from the logging camps a century ago. The leather is Bridge of Weir Low Carbon Leather, sourced from ranchers who observed the Five Freedoms of animal welfare. The Lucite panels (100% recycled, of course) in the doors and console have magnolia leaves embedded in them. That's right: decoupage.
Scoff if you like, but the Karma's many textures, literal and figurative, provide something the luxury car market sorely lacks: cars with a defining narrative. We tell stories about our cars—our Porsches, our Maseratis—because they tell stories about us. The Karma needs a bumper sticker: "Ask me about my solar-panel roof."
For me the Karma's aura of otherness begins with the sound. To alert pedestrians to its presence, the Karma emits a ghostly electronic thrum from loudspeakers concealed in the front and rear bumpers—the "Tron" sound, the engineers call it. The rear loudspeakers are located, with some wit, behind chrome alloy diamonds where one would expect to find exhaust pipes. The turbocharged 2.0-liter, 260-horsepower four-cylinder engine/generator under the hood actually exhausts through small ports behind the front wheels.
The Karma sound is a polytonal ambient wash—an electric-car power chord—but musically, the notes are an F7 with a suspended 4th, rising to an F7#sus4 as the car accelerates. Why is this interesting? Because car horns—the pedestrian warning systems of the previous regime—have historically been in the key of F and F#. The Karma alert sound is deliberately designed to be a kind of droll technological joke.
Speaking of drollery, one of the car's backers, Ray Lane—formerly of Oracle, now a managing partner with the mega-VC outfit Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, in charge of green tech—told me on the phone some months ago the Karma would have performance comparable to the best GT sedans out there. Alas, not even close. In the all-electric Stealth mode—with a full charge, a range of between 32 miles (says the EPA) and 50 miles (Fisker)—the Karma accelerates to 60 in 7.9 seconds on its leisurely way to a 95-mph top speed. That's perfectly adequate in daily driving—during my 70-mile test drive through the hills of Malibu, the car never felt at a disadvantage in traffic—but it ain't bottled lightning either.
Pull the left-hand paddle behind the Karma's steering wheel and the car goes into Sport mode, bringing the output of the battery (20 kWh/180 kW max discharge) and the generator (175kW) online to energize the two 201-hp electric motors in the rear. In Sport, the car hits 60 in 6.3 seconds, which isn't really that awful, a mere half-second slower than the Porsche Panamera S Hybrid.
As for handling, the car is competently agile, with nice crisp turn-in and significant lateral grip—those 22-inchers again. But if you drive the car hard it begins to feel a bit ponderous. The culprit here is the unaccommodated mass of the battery pack. This is how you can really tell the Karma is from a small company and not a major OEM: Mass optimization (getting the weight out) is the most complex and most expensive aspect of the entire car-design process.
Nonetheless, the Karma is a fascinating and compelling automobile, an arty dreadnought of a car that gets an honest 52 mpg-e (or better, says Fisker, but that's another story) and, for most drivers on most days, uses zero gas.
Maybe the Karma won't save the planet, but the world is definitely a more interesting place for it.