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Fisker Karma

19/07/2013 06:44 |  Comments: 

It is disheartening having to start the review of the first product of a brand by saying “By the time you are reading this, the car may no longer be around...”

But the sad fact is, by the time you are reading this, the entire brand may in fact no longer be around. Developed and engineered in the United States with significant federal support, and manufactured in Finland, the Fisker Karma seems to be saying a premature farewell to the automotive universe, after just 2500 copies. After their battery supplier went bankrupt last year, Fisker was forced to suspend production for a while. Then, 338 out of the 2500 finished vehicles were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.

It is difficult to say whether the 1600 or so customers who had their Karma delivered should feel blessed because they are the proud owners of a rare automobile now, or cursed, since the future and thereby the servicing and parts supply of their vehicle seems to be in jeopardy.

One thing however, we cannot tell for sure is the future of Fisker. We can and will tell you about our experiences with its aptly named product, the Karma, however.

I was fortunate enough to be contacted by a European friend who took great liking to this exotic looking and lean running car and asked me to locate one for him. It didn't take long before I found one in New Jersey, with only 2500 miles on its odo and a price tag way below the original MSRP.

Since I live in Florida, a cool thousand miles from NJ, I was thrilled to drive the car all the way down south. A brisk 2-hour flight and another 20 minutes of cab ride took me right to the dealership. We took care of the formalities and within another 20 minutes I was behind the wheel and ready to drive off.

The dealer, though, missed just one thing: he didn't recharge the battery pack of the Karma, meaning I couldn't verify the claimed 80 km electric range of the car right away.

The Karma looked big but felt even bigger from the driver's seat. I couldn't even guess where the car's corners were and that scared me a bit. That's the trade-off for those gorgeous curves, not just with the Karma but with any exotic drive, really. Thank heavens, that after a few city miles I hit the highway where I got the chance to get accustomed to the car.

The first impression was the deaf silence at 120 kph. There was absolutely no powertrain noise coming from the electric motor or from the IC engine. The only source of aural input was the 22' tires working the less than perfect NJ asphalt.

It would be difficult to say anything about driving dynamics since strict regulations don't allow for high speed driving on US roads. I can tell you, however, that within legal limits acceleration is breathtaking, and the reason for that is the monumental torque of the electric motor which pushes that heavy vehicle (the Karma weights almost 2.5 tons) forward without hesitation and absolutely no noise. Under everyday conditions braking is just as convincing, and it is practically impossible to tell when the mechanical brakes take over from the regenerative system. Driving the Karma is no different from driving any large petrol (or diesel) engined saloon, except for even better NVH and even better torque.

As for aesthetics, I personally find the Karma unique and appealing. It should come as no surprise though, as Mr. Fisker has been personally responsible for designing the majority of the Aston Martin line-up. I think it is as beautiful as the Aston Martin Rapide, or even more so, and it is more spacious, more economical and more affordable to boot. Space is relative though, as the rear seats are no match for a Lexus LS or a Mercedes S-class, but there is plenty of room up front. The centrally located battery packs do take up a lot of space, but that is more than compensated for by the significant width of the vehicle. I am 180 cm (about 6 ft) tall and quite a bit overweight but I could find an ideal seating position which kept me comfortable and fatigue-free during the 1500 km drive.

The interior is clean and modern, placing the Karma right among the chosen few of premium vehicles. There are virtually no knobs or switches as everything is controlled from a large touch screen. I am somewhat IT-challenged, having failed to comprehend the menu system of the Audi A6 even after many months of usage, but it took me no more than a few minutes to find my way around the Karma. The only thing I disliked was the graphic display of the satnav, you can get better quality in far cheaper cars today.

As mentioned earlier, I took delivery of the car with a completely depleted battery pack. That forced me to run the petrol engine all through the trip giving me an average consumption figure of 10.6 l/100km over the 1500 km, which is acceptable, given the size and weight of the car. Driving an MB S320 CDI at around the same speed gave me no better result.

Now, when I say I was driving on the IC engine it actually means the car was running on electric power and the petrol engine was continually driving a generator recharging the batteries. The 2.0 turbo engine is derived from the Opel GT (a short-lived creature as well), but the funny thing is that the Opel GT, although smaller and lighter than the Karma, was nowhere as thrifty as the Fisker. Although economy is good, the tank is undersized, meaning you need to take frequent refuelling stops. Also, each visit to the pump took longer than usual as the unique car attracted a lot of attention.

As soon as I got home I hooked the car up to the wall outlet. Well, charging the Karma off the US-standard 110V network takes ages – 10-12 hours at best, but usually even longer. Luckily this time halves if you plug it in to 230V, and could be reduced even further with the optional rapid charger.

Since I had neither of them, I had to wait until the following day to give the electric driveline a try. Starting off with a charge state of 90-95% I started driving on the highway, with the A/C on. After about 50 kilometres at around 110-120 kph, the electric range was reduced to zero. That was way below the advertised 80 km – but the good thing was the drivetrain shifted from electric to range extended mode seamlessly.

There was a bunch of other things I found interesting or strange, such as the exhaust pipes located under the front bumper, or the external loudspeakers which emit a low hum so that pedestrians can hear the car approaching. There are two windows on the central tunnel which means you can actually see the batteries from the interior; the packs are even lit up for better visibility and a cooler impression. While wood panelling is scarce within the car, even the little wood that has been used comes from trees that died a natural death: falling in a windstorm or being covered in a flood. Likewise, leather seats use hides coming from factories using renewable energy sources, and metallic colours are in fact achieved by mixing not metallic flakes but fine shredded glass to the paint.

I find it difficult to give you an unbiased assessment of the Fisker Karma because I was blown away by the design and for me this is the most important feature of a car (followed by everyday comfort and Nürburgring lap times). The car costs USD 110-120,000 as new, depending on specifications. You simply cannot find another exotic four-seater for that price. The impression the Karma makes is so overwhelming you could easily believe it costs you two or three times that much (and indeed, with only so many copies made, each Karma has cost Fisker a whopping USD 660,000 to manufacture). Add to that the highly favourable running costs, courtesy of the unique drivetrain, and the interior space and comfort making it an ideal everyday user car. Finally, lightly used specimens are on sale for highly reduced asking price – say, the price of a well-equipped Audi A6 – all of which makes me inclined to say that if you are out for something out of the ordinary, there is just no better buy than a Karma.

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