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2013 Fisker Karma First Drive

Flawed but beautiful, the Fisker Karma has the motto "form over function" tattooed on its lower back.

2013 Fisker Karma Front 34

What It Is
A electric-hybrid luxury car for the jet-set class.
Best Thing
Otherworldly driving dynamics, styling ripped from Freud's psyche.
Worst Thing
About as practical as Lady Gaga's meat suit.
Snap Judgment
Owning a Fisker Karma is like dating a supermodel. She's gorgeous. She's seductive. She's temperamental. But eventually, she'll drive you crazy.


In 1927, Ettore Bugatti fitted his Type 41 Royale, the largest and most luxurious car the world had ever seen, with a whopping set of 24-inch cast aluminum "Roue Royale" wheels. It was rather befitting of a machine he intended to sell to royalty, and only the royalty he preferred, all the better to take advantage of its 7,000-lb weight and length of over 21 feet, buried underneath a sarcophagus of chrome and whalebone trim.

A little less than a century later, the Fisker Karma bestrides the world, Colossus-like, with 22-inch "Circuit Blade" wheels. It needs them, too. The Karma tips the scales at a Royale-like 5,600 pounds. Its wheelbase is longer than a Rolls-Royce Phantom. Anything smaller would make its svelte body look like it was perched on roller skates.

It is one of the most extravagant vehicles that modern royalty can buy. Leonardo DiCaprio drives one. So does Ashton Kutcher, Fisker proudly boasts, while Justin Bieber has one in chrome (because nouveau riche teenage pop star royalty is what passes for royalty these days). It is a proof-of-concept that heretofore nerdy electric cars can be just like bedroom-poster supercars: expensive, ridiculously lavish…and just a little phallic. At $102,000, it is the sort of indulgence appreciated only by the well-heeled from Carmel, California—where I first drove the Karma, during the Pebble Beach Concours D'Elegance—who see the weekend festivities not as a spectacle but as a flea market.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Suffice to say, there's a real car underneath all that sensuous bodywork. It's under there somewhere, a heavy drivetrain, dirty bits of electrode grease around the lithium-ion batteries that make the magic happen. Underneath that wrapper, it's relatively plebian stuff—a similar extended-range drivetrain in the decidedly less sexy Chevrolet Volt, with an Ecotec engine serving as a generator to boot. On the tech level it's nowhere near the level of, say, a full-on electric vehicle like the also unsexy Nissan Leaf.

Fisker is a company that doesn't seem to care about that. Because when it's electric technology that looks like this, precious little else matters. See what happens when you let the designers run the company? Beautiful things happen—and damn the torpedoes, as we shall see, or the impracticalities: looking this good can be utterly intoxicating, inside and out.

Walkaround

How do you describe the Mona Lisa to a blind man? Rachmaninoff's Third to Helen Keller? The Fisker Karma carries a shape so seductive, so menacingly elegant, that it's hard to put into a mere 2,000 or so words. Why bother? It's a shape you must experience yourself. Whether you're blinded by the chrome on the Biebermobile, or you walk past one of Fisker's 45 dealerships across the country, or whether you simply steal one from Brentwood, it's a shape like no other in the automotive realm. Photos, like the one above, don't do it justice. It's the sort of daring, impossible, too-good-to-be-true-did-they-really-build-it-like-that-because-god-bless-‘em shape that reminds auto writers why we got into cars in the first place.

Lead designers Henrik Fisker and Alexander Klatt sought to imbue the Fisker Karma with "timelessness," which it certainly carries. Even looking at it, it's easy to see how simple the shape is: one wave-like form across the body that kinks upwards at both ends, and an itty-bitty glass area that celebrates form over function with a vengeance. Notice the design theme? Diamonds on the lower front bumper mimic the cutouts on the rear, chrome panels that hide the acoustic sound generators to remind pedestrians of their looming mortality; when the Karma is tooling around at low speeds, they emit an eerie mechanical siren that sounds like a cross between the old-school Apple startup sound, a digeridoo, and a Tron light cycle with a Screamin' Eagle pipe inexplicably fitted to the back. Along the hood and side, simple character lines reinforce an image of sinewy strength.

There's no changing the front end, Henrik mandated. That is a Fisker trademark—a cross-section of the F-22 Raptor's wings and air intakes, something that's more noticeable on Fisker's bizarre venture into coachbuilt BMW 6-Serieses and Mercedes-Benz SLs that have since fallen into obscurity. Now softened, the grille looks like the twirled and waxed mustache on Snidely Whiplash's lip. It may be the only unconventionally ungainly part of the design, but at least it—like the rest of the car—has the distinction of looking like nothing else with wheels.

Sitting Down

There's a reason why fad diets, the Lap Band, and wheatgrass are so popular in Southern California, even if the last tastes like lawn trimmings. If modern royalty is to be ensconced in the public eye, they can find no better motivation to stay in shape than seeking to fit inside the Karma's snug, supple interior, a cockpit that requires the dexterity of anyone with a celebrity yoga instructor on speed dial.

The phrase "fits like a glove" comes to mind. Mind you, it's a snug, supple glove, finished in acres of two-tone leather. Or, a cruelty-free suede/textile combination, if you wish, that Fisker calls "EcoChic," wrapped in EcoSuede with certified recycled and rescued wood recovered from the 2007 California forest fire, made from recyclable post-consumer pine fiber, lined with EcoLucent transparent laminate inlays with authentic embedded Magnolia tree leaves. This was all from the press release. Bear with us, please. The seats (hewn from soy-based bio fiber) are voluptuous and spongy, beautifully sculpted front and back and moderately supportive. Everything in the interior could double as a body pillow lifted from the Ritz. The door pull leather is stitched and textured like John Wayne's boots. Get a Karma with a two-tone brown leather interior and it'll look like being inside a Snicker's bar; get one in blue suede with silver textile trim, like the one I drove, and it'll be like sitting inside Shaq's 22-wide Nikes.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

There are some more niggles. Despite the buttery-soft materials, the Karma's fit and finish still needs work. Panel gaps are uneven inside and out, and the switchgear still feels cheap, which is understandable given the company's small size (and purchasing power), but less easy to swallow considering its rarefied competition. Mail-slot visibility is an automotive cliché, but the rear window is about as tall as a bottle of Coke is wide. A strange electronic whining noise joined us for much of the journey, which is precisely the sound that drives people to become serial killers.

The touchscreen is classy-looking, but climate controls are fussy and it's slow to respond overall, something Fisker says it's planning to fix. Below the touchscreen there's a glass case of sorts, engraved with the aforementioned Magnolia tree leaves. It encases what appears to be a hewn metal brick--representing the battery pack--and a green LED bar that shoots upwards when the car's in drive and down when it's put in reverse. That's it. That's all it's there for. Could you imagine Mercedes-Benz putting a big transparent plate on the center console for no particular reason? Only a design-driven company like Fisker could get away with such hubris. Storage space? You want practicality, buy a Highlander Hybrid. Now shut up and put your diamond-studded Vertu in the cupholders.

Driving

It's funny to judge a car solely on the shoes it wears. But the 22-inch wheels are the most immediate thing about the Karma, and for better or worse, they define the entire driving experience.

For one, you'll always feel their presence. The Goodyear Eagle F1 tires—the same tires fitted to many of the world's finest and fastest supercars—grumble and groan over any road surface, their whompwhompwhomps underscoring the cabin audio like the engine drone of a private jet at 33,000 feet. They also cascade over any road surface; the nearly 3-ton curb weight dampens out potholes and off-camber crests, but every little bump will be noticeable as if the road is comprised of Braille. The suspension does double duty quelling body roll, which is virtually nonexistent thanks to a low center of gravity, but struggles at damping the smaller bumps. Those killer wheels reside in huge, seductive, almost pornographic humps that stretch in front of the windshield, always reminding you of what's beneath. There is no escaping them. They are not just road conveyances, patches of vulcanized material preventing your butt from falling to the ground. They are intrinsically part of what it's like to pilot a Karma, whether through twisty roads like what I drove, Whole Foods parking lots, or down the 101 Freeway (where a certain Fisker driver had a certain run-in with the law recently, if the tabloids are to be believed).

The aptly-named "Stealth Mode" allows the Karma to run on batteries only, as silent and deadly as the shark from Jaws, or a Los Angeles-class fast-attack nuclear submarine. Flick the paddles for Sport or Hill mode; after all, with a single-ratio transmission/differential combination, there are no instantaneous gearchanges to anticipate. Sport mode kicks the gasoline engine into action, driving the electric motor directly for a combined 403 horsepower. Fisker says the Karma will hit 60 mph in 5.9 seconds. Don't let this seemingly slow figure--a Toyota Camry with a V-6 will beat it--fool you. The Karma builds so much effortless torque, its weighty chassis so stable, that actually going 60 mph causes a cognitive dissonance: your eyes tell you you're speeding past things, but you just don't feel it. It's the closest example of acceleration to a magic carpet as we get. The steering feels excellent, and has a sporty weight to it that requires deservingly less effort than its wheels might suggest. Braking, too, is of the on-off switch variety, instead of a dimmer, and requires some finesse to avoid head-butting the dashboard.

Fisker believes that the well-heeled won't want to wait in front of a dingy Texaco amongst the riff-raff, fraying cable in hand, while they wait for their precious charge levels to scoot them the next 10 miles to La Jolla. Hence, its de-emphasis on its six-hour charging time with a 220-volt wall charger. But you can, if you want to. And that means a range of 32 miles on electric-only power, according to the EPA, though my brief time with the Karma didn't allow me to test this. With a full tank of gas, the Ecotec engine can power the Karma for a total of 300 miles. All in all, the Karma is rated by the EPA (which also cruelly rates the Karma as a subcompact, based on interior volume) for 54 MPGe. Compare that with the Volt, which packs similar technology with one ton less weight a lot less styling. It can reach 38 miles on just electricity, with a total range of 380 miles and an MPGe rating of 98.

It also costs about 3 times less, but c'mon, that's beside the point.

Summary

As the vanguard of automotive journalism, we would be remiss to neglect Fisker's woes, which can be best summarized in the following, possibly apocryphal story: Evidently, a colleague ran into Henrik Fisker himself at Pebble Beach later that weekend. Conversation ensued, drinks occurred, convivial chitchat merited and dropped, and naturally the subject of Fisker's recent woes came to light. "Well, we've only had three fires so far," Fisker opined.

"Three?" said my colleague, astonished. "I've only heard of two."

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

"Oh, is it two then? Then yes, two fires."

It may not be true, and we're willing to rescind this anecdote. Still, the Karma has been implicated in two fires, one of which destroyed a garage, and an Acura NSX, an exotic car that had never been known to ignite during its lifespan. After my drive, Fisker announced a widespread recall of every one of its Karmas. That means the 1,400 already delivered to customers, plus another 1,000 still on the factory floor. Between two recalls (one last December, 240 cars for a coolant leak), three CEOs and a thorough condemnation from the white knights at Consumer Reports, the saga of Fisker could fill the timeslot voided by One Life To Live. We at Automotive.com would like to point out that the Karma I drove did not burst into flames during my test. Nor are we to blame for the recall itself, noting that modern cars have lost their tendency for spontaneous combustion ever since the Mercury Bobcat went out of production.

Reliability aside, what merits does that leave the car? Precious little. In a rarified world of hyper-luxury cars populated by the BMW 7 Series, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the Maserati Quattroporte, a slightly used Aston Martin Rapide, and the Porsche Panamera, the Karma plays in a dangerous field. A niche product from a tiny company plagued with problems, with plenty of uncertainty cast on its ability to sort out repairs shall they come, and disappointing gas mileage considering the technology, the Karma banks off its flamboyant styling and bespoke craftsmanship to drive sales.

We hope it can, because we won't tire of seeing it on the road. But a word of warning: remember that Bugatti Royale mentioned earlier? Poor Ettore intended to sell it to kings and queens alike, across the world. In the end, he only built six examples. He didn't sell to a single member of royalty. The most beautiful cars in the world can't outrun their own hubris.

Basic Specs

Dual 150kW electric motors with 2.0-liter, 260 horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder range extender, single-ratio transmission, rear-wheel drive, 403-hp, $102,000, 54 MPGe

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