Saturday Drive: 2012 Fisker Karma
Start off your weekend of motoring with a quick take on what's grabbed our attention recently.
A company buying the assets of Fisker Automotive hopes to relaunch sales of the Karma sports car. (David Undercoffler / Los Angeles Times)
At cruising speed the cabin is fairly quiet. Road and wind noise are minimal and there's the faint whine from the electric motors that you might know from your golf cart. If you have the Karma in Sport mode, the engine also runs quietly.
Push hard on the gas, especially uphill, and the engine gets more intrusive, throwing off a strained groan that can't be mitigated by upshifting, since the car's transmission has only one speed. Despite the excellent engineering that went into this car, there's just no hiding the noise from the 2.0-liter engine when the driver is pushing the car. The disconnect between that noise and the car's overall poise and aesthetic is a bit jarring. Imagine if Halle Barry opened her mouth and sounded like Ben Stein.
At idle and low, pedestrian-hitting speeds, the Karma emits two distinct sounds. The first is that ever-present electric-car whine. The second is an odd mechanical buzzing not unlike a Pod Racer tiny Anakin Skywalker drove in Star Wars. This is to warn those around you that the car is approaching and happens up to 25 miles an hour.
But if my experience was any indication, people will likely notice you're coming along before they hear Anakin. That this car has immense road presence, both literal and figurative, is no accident, according to company co-founder and CEO Henrik Fisker.
Before starting the company in 2007, Fisker was the man behind the Aston Martin DB9 and V8 Vantage and BMW's Z8, so it's safe to say he knows his way around a sketch pad.
Fisker (the man) said the Karma's design was his top priority, with a commitment to the environmental aspect of motoring a close second. Central to Fisker's design of the Karma was that he wanted the car to be the best designed car in its class, to own the road.
In my brief day with the car, plenty of road ownership occurred. This, in a town where six-figure cars just litter the roads. It's an epidemic really.
The Karma's 196.7-inch length is just over an inch longer than Porsche's Panamera, though it's slightly narrower and lower than the Porsche.
Consider it the thinking man's Panamera. The Karma absolutely wallops the big Porsche in the looks department, and some of the many looks we received while driving this car through Hollywood, Malibu and the freeways were from drivers in Panameras who clearly saw their vehicle's cache as the coupe-like sedan de jour gravely threatened.
The Karma cuts a dramatic figure with a small greenhouse (the glass portion of the car) flanked by rising fenders over the massive 22-inch front and rear wheels. Despite the tidy proportions, seating space inside isn't compromised, though rear visibility is. Trunk space is downright small.
Inside, the Karma favors minimalism, with physical buttons only where regulated by law (turn-signal stalks, power mirror switches, hazard lights, door locks). The center console is dominated by a 10.2-inch touchscreen that controls nearly everything else on the car.
The screen features haptic feedback (it will buzz slightly when and where you touch the screen) and learning your way through the car's functions takes more than a little time because the system favors digital aesthetics over rote input. The system was also slow to respond to commands (something Fisker says its addressing) and the screen put off a lot of glare in the L.A. sun.
Using a screen like this serves an economical function for Fisker though. Designing and manufacturing the switchgear one might expect in a traditional car costs several piles of money (that's the scientific term). When done on the scale of major automakers that can use similar components throughout their vehicle lineup, the cost is reduced.
When you're Fisker, that potential cost can be a dealbreaker. Using a screen requires minimal engineering and manufacturing. Fisker can also update the system (which it says it plans to do) throughout the lifespan of the Karma without major retooling or cost.
If the name Fisker rings a bell, it's because you've likely heard it in the news recently. Early last week, the U.S. Department of Energy put on hold $336 million in loans because Fisker had missed deadlines for bringing the Karma to market. That remaining money had been earmarked by Fisker to be used to produce the company's second electric vehicle, the smaller Nina.
To date, the company has received $193 million in federal loans, most of which was used to develop the Karma. Fisker initially claimed it could sell some 7,000 Karmas in 2011 alone. Call it an excess of optimism or hubris, but the company now says (as of this week) that it has produced 1,500 Karmas and 20-25 more are made each day. Several hundred are in customers' hands. Fisker (the man) insists that by the end of the year his company will be cash-flow positive based on Karma sales alone.
Where those cars are made has also raised a bit of consternation in some circles. Fisker has contracted a company called Valmet to build the Karma in Uusikaupunki, Finland. Porsche owners may know Uusikaupunki because that's where Porsche's Boxster and Cayman are made. It's also what a Nobel physicist said three times fast before she was turned into Snooki.
Regardless of where one's political persuasions fall, to drive the Fisker Karma is to drive a real vehicle made by a real automaker. Starting a new car company today is akin to starting an NFL football franchise one player at a time. In this case, it would seem Fisker has started off with a young Joe Namath: talented, good-looking and eager for attention.