Car Review

2012 Fisker Karma: New Car Review

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author photo by Nick Chambers April 2012

Pros: Oozes with unique style, electric drive means less money spent on fuel, extremely powerful, great brakes, excellent handling

Cons: Expensive, relatively low fuel economy when burning gas, lacking in shoulder & hip room, small cargo capacity, heavy steering

The 2012 Fisker Karma may just be the most unique 4-passenger sedan for sale today. Take one part futuristic electric car technology, mix it with a range-extending gas burning engine, wrap it in a style that makes it look like one of those sexy concept cars that never gets built and it's no wonder this car receives double takes wherever it goes and has garnered lots of media attention.

Joining the ever growing group of hybrid luxury performance sedans, the plug-in hybrid Karma brings something different to the table: 50 miles of all-electric range delivered by batteries that have been charged from a wall outlet. Beyond that electric range, the Karma can fire up its on-board gas engine and generate electricity to power its dual, rear-mounted electric motors for another 250 miles before needing to either be recharged or filled with more gas.

For 2012 the Karma comes in three trim options ranging in price from $102,000 to $116,000: EcoStandard, EcoSport and EcoChic. The only differences between the three options are the interior materials, color choices and a few equipment options. The car also qualifies for a $7,500 federal tax credit and may qualify for additional state or local credits, depending in where you live.

Comfort & Utility

The quality of materials used in the Karma is top notch. While the front and the rear seats are plush, supportive and comfortable, they're somewhat narrow due to being wedged next to the battery pack that runs down the entire length of the center of the car.

Although many other electric cars have positioned the battery underneath the vehicle leaving plenty of room for cabin occupants, in the Karma hip, elbow and shoulder room are limited. Unfortunately the battery location was unavoidable due to the extremely low ride height, inclusion of a gas engine up front and placement of the large electric motors in the rear.

On the EcoStandard trim a high quality simulated leather material is complemented by oak wood accents crafted from logs that sunk long ago to the bottom of Lake Michigan. The EcoSport trim adds sustainably sourced and humanely treated certified "Bridge of Weir" low carbon leather interior surface materials as well as an option for wood reclaimed from the fallen trees of California storms. The EcoChic trim offers a plethora of options for the uber-environmentally conscious with a fully vegan interior, simulated EcoSuede made from 100% recycled materials, and wood from trees that succumbed to California wildfires.

Another issue related to battery placement is the glaring lack of storage and cargo space. The center console is hardly deep enough to accommodate anything larger than a half size box of tissues, the glove box is small, and the only other storage spaces are the front and rear door side pockets. At 6.9 cubic feet, the trunk is just barely big enough to carry two golf bags.

Technology

The Fisker Karma comes standard with a monstrous 10.2-inch touchscreen infotainment system. Although the screen is large, our test model's screen tended to wash out in bright light - an issue Fisker says they are working to fix.

Selecting options for your Karma is a simple affair. The EcoStandard trim comes with a 6-speaker, 100 watt audio system with USB and Bluetooth, dual zone automatic climate control, six-way power front seats, xenon headlamps, steering wheel mounted controls and keyless ignition with push-button start. The upgraded EcoSport and EcoChic trims add an 8-speaker, 295-watt audio system, voice activated navigation and a back up camera. All trims also come with a solar roof that can charge the 21-volt accessory battery to reduce the demand on the traction battery.

Although all the pieces are there to make the Karma a technological tour de force, interaction with the touchscreen was at times clunky, slow and non-intuitive, significantly detracting from the overall experience.

Performance & Fuel Economy

Fisker says the Karma wasn't built to be an ultra-fast accelerating car, but to be able to handle very well. With gigantic Brembo brakes, precise tuning, and excellent suspension the car delivers handling in droves, but because of its hefty 5,300 pound curb weight, 0-60 mph acceleration comes in at 6.3 seconds in Sport Mode. Although this is fast, it's slower than other luxury sports sedans.

With all that weight sitting low and in the middle, the Karma behaves quite nicely in the corners for a car with its heft, however the weight made the steering feel heavy. At the end of a few hours of performance driving our wrists and arms were tired.

The Karma's large dual rear-drive electric motors provide the only source of power to the wheels, delivering 403 horsepower and an amazing 981 lb-ft of torque. This is more than enough power to keep even the most performance hungry drivers happy. Where it falls a bit short in straight-line acceleration, the Karma more than makes up in the corners where its superb engineering shines.

As the first vehicle sold in North America to be a true series hybrid, the Karma's gas engine never powers the wheels directly, only turning on to run a generator that supplies electricity to the electric motors by burning fuel when needed. The Karma can travel up to 50 miles on electricity alone before the gas engine turns on. After that the EPA says it will deliver about 20 mpg in combined city/highway driving, but in our experience that number was quite a bit higher, closer to 25 mpg.

For most people 50 miles will be more than enough range for daily needs, but having the range extending generator on board adds the peace of mind to know you can go further without having to stop and recharge. Unlike the only other plug-in hybrid currently on sale here, the Chevy Volt, the Karma can be switched between all-electric "Stealth" mode and range-extending "Sport" mode with the push of a button.

Safety

The fact that Fisker is a small startup company hasn't stopped it from including a full suite of modern safety features. The 2012 Karma is equipped with 8 airbags, anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, panic brake assist, and traction control. Thanks to that safety tech and its gigantic four-wheel Brembo disc brakes, the car stops very quickly and handles road surprises exceedingly well.

Driving Impressions

On the Karma there is no "flappy paddle" gearbox, launch control or any of the other multitude of buttons meant to make even the most inexperienced driver feel like a pro. Due to the electric drivetrain there isn't even any shifting, the car works all of its magic through a single speed transmission (electric motors have massive amounts of torque from 0 rpm, and can spin up to tens of thousands of RPM without batting an eye). Instead drivers can connect with their Karma by choosing between the all-electric "Stealth" mode or the hybrid "Sport" mode by tapping the paddle shifters that would change gears on other cars.

The other option controlled by the paddle shifters involves changing between three levels of regenerative braking (regen): coasting, moderate, and aggressive. Fisker calls these modes "Standard", "Hill 1" and "Hill 2" - the idea being that you can engage ever more aggressive regen when traveling downhill to maximize the energy captured from slowing down that would normally be lost as heat when applying the brakes. In reality, we found ourselves using the hill modes everywhere but the hills. In the city Hill 2 was extremely useful in traffic; we almost never had to use the brake pedal. In fact, once we became accustomed to the aggressive regen in Hill 2, we grew fond of the ability to drive with just one pedal.

At 6.3 seconds from 0-60 mph, acceleration was exhilarating enough, as was overtaking at speed. The car also showed its performance pedigree on winding roads, with its race-tuned, short long arm (SLA) four-wheel independent suspension and monstrous 22-inch diameter by 8.5-inch width wheels (9.5-inch in the rear) gripping the road like the hands of a monkey. Steering was precise and balanced, although heavy at times. In short, it is a car that inspires confidence behind the wheel, but can be challenging at times. It's massive and planted, reasonably fast and sure-footed, but it takes some effort and willpower to control it.

Forward visibility was good, but rearward vision suffered significantly; a problem only partially dealt with by the inclusion of a back up camera on the EcoSport and EcoChic models. Comfort over short distances was good enough, but long treks could pose a fatigue problem given the massive battery tunnel that limits hip, shoulder, elbow and knee room.

Other Cars to Consider

Porsche Panamera S Hybrid - Lighter and more nimble, the Panamera S Hybrid is perhaps the closest competition to the Karma. But it will score you fewer longing stares on the road, and its fuel economy, although a decent 22 city/30 highway mpg, can't even come close to competing with 50 miles of all-electric range.

BMW ActiveHybrid 7 - The fastest accelerating of the bunch, the ActiveHybrid 7 is a masterful execution of engineering, although fuel economy is also the lowest at 17 city/24 highway mpg.

Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid - Although it's the slowest in this group, the S400 hybrid is intended more as a statesmanlike business class performance luxury hybrid with understated looks.

Infiniti M Hybrid - Although roughly $30-40,000 less expensive than a comparably-equipped Karma, the Infiniti M Hybrid is a worthy performance hybrid competitor. With 0-60 mph acceleration of around 5 seconds, it is almost as quick as the $100,000 ActiveHybrid 7, yet returns 27 city/32 highway mpg.

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Although the Karma's EcoChic trim offers more environmentally conscious options, the EcoSport trim is the way to go. The opulent leather surfaces on that trim come from sustainably raised animals and are truly a joy to both look at and touch. Unfortunately the EcoChic interior sometimes left us feeling like the designers had raided the scrap bin at JoAnn fabrics.

The EcoStandard trim doesn't come with navigation or the upgraded audio system and its exterior/interior color choices are limited. At this price range we find it hard to imagine many people opting for the EcoStandard's limitations.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
2012 Fisker Karma: New Car Review - Autotrader