Fisker is a company driven by design. I can't tell you how often I heard that line from the company's namesake, its PR people and engineers during my brief trip to Los Angeles to drive the production version of the 2012 Fisker Karma. And it's something that bears repeating.
So is "production version," because the Karma we drove this time last year was – at best – a prototype.
Fisker's people are willing to admit that the initial launch event was an effort to assuage fears – from customers, investors and the Department of Energy – that the Karma isn't vaporware. They wanted to get butts in seats to prove they'd built a functional vehicle. And our man Matt Davis' initial impressions bore out the Karma's pre-production status.
The racket from the General Motors-sourced turbocharged 2.0-liter Ecotec four-cylinder incessantly droned through the cabin when even mildly pushed, and the interior materials, while plush, came across as a mishmash of textures and fitment, neither of which would be acceptable in a luxury sedan costing upwards of $100,000 that was meant to replace the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7 Series parked in the garages of eco-concious one-percenters.
I'm here to report a cliché: What a difference a year makes.
Putting aside for a moment Fisker's recent round of bad-news-turned-worse in the form of missed milestones, DOE loan renegotiations and the layoff of some 60 workers in Delaware, I'm here to see if Fisker is making something the world's elite aren't just ready to buy, but want to. And that question has already been partially answered.
Fisker has produced over 1,500 Karmas, although it's not willing to cite an exact number of deliveries. According to our sources, around 300 are already in customer hands, and the reps we spoke with claimed 51 more keys were handed over the day of our arrival. So the people have spoken. At least with their wallets. And if they're looking to stand out from the pack – a particularly difficult feat in the exotic-clogged LA basin – nothing in the world comes close right now.
You've seen endless images of the Karma since its 2008 reveal, but nothing compares to seeing it on the road. It has presence that would make Bertone, Zagato and the entire Pininfarina design house crumple their sketches, throw their hands in the air and walk away from their articulated desks in defeat.
It's wide. It's long. And if the seemingly endless hood and mountainesque fenders aren't enough to make you weak in the knees, the back end and rear haunches make an Aston Martin DB9 look like a pre-pubescent boy in comparison. Also, 22-inch wheels. Standard.
But it's not just the overall shape of the Karma that demands you kick down your boss' door and demand a raise (or, more accurately, call your broker for a withdraw), it's the details.
Mosey out back and you'll notice the diamond shaped exhaust outlets, complete with chromed tips. Except they're not pipes. The duo of polished plates are a pair of milled aluminum caps with "Hybrid HZ" etched into the metal. To find the functional exhausts, you've got to move to the front fenders where behind the wheels and just below a matching set of vents are a single set of pipes on each side, neatly tucked in underneath the sheetmetal. Again, details. And it's even more intriguing on the inside.
Place your hand underneath the polished door handles and small rubberized buttons pop open the doors (à la Cadillac CTS Coupe and Chevrolet Corvette). The driver's door swings slightly upwards and thanks to the massive 22-inch hoops providing a bit more ride height, getting in doesn't require the Cirque du Soleil contortions you'd expect.
The power-adjustable seats are a magnificent balance of sport and luxury, and I can attest to their long range comfort after being stuck in LA traffic for the better part of three hours. This is, after all, an exotic for the daily driver set and both the front and rear seats are stuffed and tailored accordingly.
Our Eco Chic tester was mercilessly devoid of excessive chrome, leather and wood, and instead coated in a combination of Alcantra on the seats and headliner and a handsome woven fabric spanning the vertical portion of the dash and center console. The synthetic suede covering the space between the end of the dash and the steering wheel looked and felt more kit car chic than ultra-luxury, a sensation that continued upon noticing the switch gear on the semi-pentagram steering wheel and mirror controls appears to have been pulled from a Chrysler Tier 1 supplier. Sure, Fisker has to source them from somewhere, but something from Audi would've been a better fit.
To boost the Karma's eco cred a bit further, the automaker claims that all wood (in our case, a single piece above the infotainment screen and some bits in the back) is sourced from sustainable outlets, specifically felled trees and wood that's been found underwater. No matter, it looks good wherever it came from.
We poked around the navigation, audio and infotainment system while doing the start-stop dance in traffic and – as Fisker is reluctant to admit – it still needs some work. The Command Center utilizes a 10.2-inch resistive screen with haptic feedback to provide a bit of tactility while navigating the quadrant of menus. While the design is certainly attractive, its functionality leaves a lot to be desired. Volume controls are grayed-out in the lower right corner and, along with the rest of the soft buttons, you're constantly questioning exactly what you're trying to accomplish and how the system will respond. Moving from one function to the next requires glancing down and the redundant controls on the steering wheel feel more like an afterthought than an integrated piece of the puzzle.
Conversely, the instrument panel ahead of the driver – the bit that really matters – is easily the most attractive and inspired fully digital IP ever fitted to a production car.
To the left is a digital speedometer with a central drive indicator, while the middle is taken up by a duo of bar graphs – one indicating battery range and the other providing your range of fuel – and on the right are two "traditional" gauges for fuel and battery levels, with "generate" and "accelerate" graphs rounding out the top. Above it all is a compass and outside temp indicator, along with a place for driving mode (Stealth, Sport or Hill) and a modern clock with hands that makes even a mechanical watch nerd like myself want to go digital. Dieter Rams would be proud.
The entire aesthetic is relatively down-to-earth until you see the milled aluminum "open" buttons for the doors (silly), the volcano-like growth that handles drive selection on the massive center console (even sillier) and the leaf-encrusted space in the center console that not only comes across as pompously posh, but takes away valuable storage space.
The structure that spans the length of the passenger compartment houses the 20kW battery and this gets us back to Fisker being a company driven by design.
When Henrik Fisker unveiled the Karma concept in Detroit four years ago, he said to his engineering team, "Make it work." He wouldn't allow them to change any exterior element, which meant comprises had to be made, and the interior appears to have bore the brunt of that edict.
While both front seat passengers have ample leg and shoulder room, the unfortunate duo confined to the back won't want to spend more than the 20 minutes it takes to make dinner at Wolfgang Puck's Cut. We've seen small rear confines before, but the Karma takes the crown from not just the current reigning champ – the Aston Martin Rapide – but a few coupes on the market. The same goes for trunk space, which comes in at a paltry 6.9 cubic feet, which is enough to fit a pair of golf bags, but hardly enough for a brace of Louis Vuitton-wielding weekenders. And that's mainly due to the two, 120kW motors mounted beneath and driving the rear wheels.
Much has been made about the Karma's drivetrain, particularly in comparison to the similarly powered Chevrolet Volt. As we found out early on, the Volt does send a small amount of power from the engine to the front wheels in certain circumstances. The Karma doesn't. It's a pure serial hybrid, meaning the turbocharged engine mounted up front is strictly a generator meant to charge the battery pack when the juice runs out.
Plugging it in and running just on power pulled from the grid will net you somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 miles before the battery is depleted and the engine kicks on to refill it. Fisker claims that a standard 110-volt outlet will fully charge the battery pack in around 12 hours, with a 220-volt cord cutting the time in half.
During our 60+ mile drive on the freeway, around town and on some of So Cal's glorious backroads, we didn't run out of electricity until our final slog through bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Driving in this fully electric mode is named "Stealth" and the only sound emanating from the Karma is from a pair of speakers mounted up front and in back – imagine a Romulan Warbird at idle and that's what you'd hear when the Karma rolls by.
Nail the throttle and each rear-mounted motor delivers 120 kW (around 200 hp) to the rear wheels and an impressive 479 pound-feet of torque – a piece. That's enough to accelerate the massive, 5,300-pound sedan to 60 miles per hour in around eight seconds. Flick the left paddle and you're in Sport mode, which fires up the turbo'd four-cylinder, blending battery power to deliver more oomph and a claimed run to 60 in 6.3 seconds. If you leave it in Stealth, you can top out at 100 mph, with Sport giving an additional 25 mph of top speed. And that infernal racket Mr. Davis experienced during his first run with the Karma? Gone. It's as quiet and refined as anything in the $100k+ segment, maybe even more so.
As you'd expect of a torque-rich sedan exceeding two and a half tons with two passengers on board, acceleration is brisk, but pales in comparison to its sporty shape.
Depress the right paddle and you engage Hill Mode 1, which provides a bit more regenerative braking, while Hill Mode 2 (another pull of the paddle), elicits even more, and provides enough deceleration to mimic a tap of trail-braking while entering a corner.
Interestingly, even if you press the brakes, they don't engage until you command more than .25 G of deceleration. Up until that mark, it's all regen. And after a light bit of flogging through a few miles of scenic twists and bends, the brakes seemed nonplussed, although I suspect a more hardcore backroad attack would bring the fade quickly given the Karma's tonnage.
Fisker's engineers did a masterful job of dialing the suspension and steering resistance to at least mimic something on the heavy side of sporty. Turn-in isn't exactly crisp and feedback from the front tires doesn't quite match the effort, but for something that's designed to replace an S-Class, it's perfectly suited to the job.
But the real job? That's getting the perception conscious glitterati to take a chance and trade in their Bimmers and Benzes (and the Toyota Prius they use to sate their conscience) for what's arguably the most breathtaking sedan of this new millennium.
Henrik Fisker told me he wants to redefine the American car, bringing back the style and road presence that once made it the envy of the world. But being driven by design brings compromises, and while the Karma is the embodiment of both his vision and the engineering challenges they pose, it is real. It does work. It drives well. And if the world's high-rollers are ready for it, they couldn't just do worse, they'd have a hard time doing better.