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February 28, 2012

News & Features

Auto review: Fisker Karma is ready for its close up

New York Times News Service

FISKER_KARMA__604.jpg

The production Karma looks almost exactly like the concept released in 2008. (Fisker)

Los Angeles movie critics are always a bit suspicious when they aren't allowed to preview a film until it's already in theaters. Does the studio know that it has made a stinker, and fears that bad reviews will warn the public away?

I felt similar trepidation when an invitation finally arrived to drive the Fisker Karma. After all, this luxurious plug-in hybrid — like the Chevrolet Volt, it is electrically driven, with a gasoline engine that extends the range of its battery pack — has been on sale since summer, with cars delivered to customers in December.

What took Fisker Automotive so long to show off its pretty baby?

The road to market proved bumpy, with the Karma arriving two years later than promised with a base price ($103,000) some $20,000 over the original estimate. Along the way, Fisker got a $169 million startup loan from the federal government for the car, which is assembled in Finland.

Another disappointment was the rather dismal fuel-economy rating of 20 mpg, on premium fuel, when the internal-combustion engine is engaged.

But none of that seemed relevant when I was finally able to drive the Karma, unsupervised, on a recent bright afternoon.

Admittedly, I was at the wheel only long enough for initial impressions — not the usual weeklong test drive — but I was able to do whatever I wished. Alas, I had no chance to flaunt Hollywood's latest environmental status symbol by pulling up to the red carpet at the Oscars.

At first sight, the Karma seems a concept car come to life — and, in fact, it is. Little of the design has changed since it was unveiled at the 2008 Detroit auto show. This includes its low-set body, its voluptuous curves and even its huge 22-inch wheels and tires. Those caused a bit of consternation for designers of the distinctive, intricate double-wishbone suspension, but any problems they encountered seem to have been solved.

As a former designer of BMWs and Aston Martins, Henrik Fisker objects to bold design studies that are watered down for production. "I also believe hybrids don't have to be boring," Fisker said in an earlier interview. "Or ugly."

Like the similarly sized Aston Martin Rapide and Porsche Panamera, the Karma is a fastback sedan masquerading as a coupe. It's a handsome disguise, though, with its handlebar-mustache grille it comes off as one-fourth of a barbershop quartet. My drive was delayed over and over as passersby volunteered praise for its rakish style.

The interior is appealing as well, but low-key. The minimalist treatment is largely free of the usual array of buttons, switches and dials; those functions are mostly consigned to a 10.5-inch touch-screen that looks like a complex Etch A Sketch.

Paddles on either side of the steering wheel engage two driving modes: thrifty Stealth or rowdy Sport, which provides an assist from the gas-driven generator. Two "hill" settings increase the degree of regenerative braking when you ease off the accelerator. The gearshift is a small cone-shaped device on the center console.

The driving position is comfortable, but the seats are snug even for adults of average size and weight. The low roofline results in blind spots.

My $116,000 test car had the EcoChic package that includes textile — not leather — upholstery and salvaged wood trim. Though the Karma is made for the slim, the car could stand a diet; at 5,600 pounds, it weighs nearly as much as the mammoth Rolls-Royce Phantom. Despite its aluminum components, the Karma carries the weight of batteries, electric motors and a gas generator.

Although Fisker says the Karma's performance was benchmarked against comparable grand-touring sedans, it is not an electrifying performer. In all-electric Stealth mode, it accelerates to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds, on par with a Honda Odyssey minivan, and the top speed in that mode is 95 mph.

For a jolt of performance there is Sport mode, when the output of the 600-pound, 22-kilowatt-hour battery pack is supplemented by a 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine from General Motors. In Sport, the car reaches 60 mph in about 6 seconds, right up there with a Volkswagen Golf GTI.

Running on either battery or gasoline power, the Karma is driven electrically by a pair of motor-generators between the rear tires; they deliver a little over 400 horsepower to the single-speed limited-slip rear differential. Torque is stated to be nearly 1,000 pound-feet — a rather stunning figure — all of it available as soon as the car starts moving.

When I started my brief drive, the electric range was shown to be 48 miles (the EPA rates actual electric range at 32 miles), with 286 miles for the potential combined electric-gasoline range.

In three hours behind the wheel, I never fully depleted the battery. And while I covered 34 miles, the meters showed I'd used up 40 miles of range.

The EPA estimates the gasoline-equivalent mileage when running on electricity is 52 mpge. But like the Volt, if your daily drive is less than 40 miles or so, and you don't engage the gas engine's assist before recharging, you may use no fossil fuel at all. It takes about six hours on a 220-volt charger to replenish the depleted battery pack.

The gas engine never drives the wheels. When it is running, it acts solely as a generator to maintain the battery pack's state of charge. While the engine could theoretically recharge the batteries, it was not designed to do so, Fisker says, as that would increase the car's emissions.

As it is, the Karma carries an unimpressive "ultra low" emissions rating, not the partial zero-emissions rating of many conventional cars.

Although engaging the gas engine is easy enough, I seldom felt the need. Though not necessarily nimble or light on its feet, the Karma has very responsive steering and solid grip. The turning radius is rather large, but the car carves a smart line through sinuous twists and turns. The Karma is eerily quiet, even when the gas engine kicks in. At low speeds, the car emits a low-frequency sci-fi noise as a pedestrian warning.

We ran some errands around town, parallel-parked at a strip mall, loaded sacks of groceries and drove down a dirt road to a farm stand.

We picked up and left off passengers, toured neighborhoods at low speeds; sped onto freeways and endured stop-and-go traffic. We detoured through the mountains and along curving country roads. The Karma performed competently, and it looked good all the while.

So a starlet is born. My date with the Fisker was an entertaining sneak preview that left me eager for a full-length performance. Let's hold the curtain call till then.

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