Stuck in mid-afternoon traffic on historic Laurel Canyon Boulevard outside of Los Angeles - an otherwise entertaining winding road - may not seem like the best way to experience a $100,000 performance luxury plug-in hybrid, but as it turns out it provided a great chance to gauge public reaction to such a car.
"Roll down your window," a driver stuck next to us in a Mercedes C63 AMG called out. Feeling obliged, I rolled it down. "That is one awesome car," he shouted. "What is it?" The car in question is the 2012 Fisker Karma: a low-slung, extremely sexy, substantially-proportioned 4-seat sedan that looks like it just stepped off the concept car stage.
With 22-inch wheels and a gigantic, swooping hood slung between an incredibly long 124.4-inch wheelbase, the Karma is very distinct from anything else on the road. To top off this uniqueness, Fisker added a futuristic plug-in hybrid drivetrain that can go as much as 50 miles on a full charge after which it switches to hybrid mode, burning gasoline for an additional 250 mile range - a tidbit which prompted our friend in the Mercedes to respond, "That's amazing! Where can I buy one?"
Indeed, with more than 200 dealers spread around the U.S., buying one is easier than you might think. Fisker sees the Karma's major competition as the Porsche Panamera S Hybrid, which, after adding comparable equipment, comes somewhat close in price to the Karma. With three trims, EcoStandard, EcoChic, and EcoSport, the Karma ranges in price form $103,000 to $110,000. Of course, the Panamera doesn't have the ability to plug-in to the wall or drive 50 miles on electricity alone; score one for the futuristic drivetrain. However, the Panamera is the product of a stable and storied company, something many luxury car buyers worry about when thinking of future service needs.
We eventually made our way out of the gridlock on Laurel Canyon and were able to test the car in both "Stealth" mode (all-electric) and "Sport" mode (hybrid). Unlike other hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius, the Karma's engine is never connected to its wheels. It's simply there to act as a generator and provide electricity to the batteries. The Karma is always powered by two monstrous electric motors on the rear axle that can produce a mind-numbing 403 horsepower and 981 lb-ft of torque.
That amazing torque makes for some great fun, but it also causes the car to shudder slightly at low speeds (around 1 mph, like when approaching a stop light) when the motors are first engaging and disengaging. Out on the open road it's another story. Despite the Karma's hefty 5,300-lb. curb weight (the huge batteries, two electric motors and regular gas engine on board don't help), it corners well and always feels composed, even in high-speed turns - a testament to the engineering of the car's suspension.
Power was instantaneous and often breathtaking, providing more than enough entertainment for the performance-minded. It's not particularly nimble, mind you, and all that weight eventually catches up with it, ort of like riding a rhinoceros. The raw power is palpable and enticing, but it takes will power and effort to handle. After a few hours of yanking on the wheel my wrists were sore. The weight seemed to have no effect on braking capability. With huge Brembo disc brakes both front and rear, the car often stopped surprisingly fast.
Minor issues we noticed included a glaring lack of storage space (the trunk can handle no more than two golf bags and the interior cargo space is very limited) and passenger space (the huge battery pack running down the middle of the car means very little shoulder room). And while all the pieces are in place to make the infotainment system passably modern (smartphone connectivity, navigation, etc.), it has a non-intuitive interface. Everything takes too many clicks to get where you want, and the screen is very hard to see in the daylight. Rear visibility is also poor, but no worse than in a Lamborghini; and the back-up camera helps mitigate this fault.
While the exterior design of the Karma is almost universally seen as sexy and ultra-distinctive, the EcoChic interior trim we tested felt a bit hacked together. We've sat in the leather-trimmed EcoSport interior before and were impressed with its high-quality afeel, however the EcoChic trim, full of reclaimed wood and environmentally-friendly simulated leather fabrics, occasionally felt as if someone had raided the scrap bin at the fabric store. But we admit the quirkiness started to grow on us after a morning of getting close and personal with photography.
The 2012 Fisker Karma does have a few faults here and there, but, when taken as a whole, it is perhaps the sexiest plug-in car available and is an incredibly solid freshman effort from a company we hope can successfully navigate the startup minefield and eventually produce a whole lineup of more affordable cars with the Karma's DNA.