It's been three years since former Aston Martin designer Henrik Fisker displayed his Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid concept car, and with full production looming in 2012 CAR has now tried a pre-production Karma at Fontana Raceway near Fisker's headquarters in Irvine, California. Read on for CAR's first drive review of the new Fisker Karma.
Why has it taken three years to get the Fisker Karma into production?
Because it's not easy setting up a car company from scratch. Henrik Fisker has been busy setting up his business and securing over £600m in investment to support the engineering development of the Karma and its plug-in hybrid powertrain. It's a multinational project – Qatar is one of the major investors, many of Fisker's key R&D staff come from Germany, and the Karma is being assembled by Valmet in Finland. In 2013 Fisker hopes to start producing his second-generation 'N1' series of more affordable hybrids at a former GM plant in Delware, USA (we'll see the first N1 at the 2011 Frankfurt motor show) but for now it's the Karma's turn in the spotlight. Or rather, the sunlight of southern California.
Fisker Karma: the lowdown
The badge on the bootlid reads EVer - Electric Vehicle with extended range. In the engine bay is a 2.0-litre direct-injection and turbocharged four-cylinder petrol unit supplied by GM, tuned to deliver 257bhp and trained to run within its maximum efficiency window whenever possible. The combustion engine feeds a generator which creates electricity for the two drive motors, good for 105kW each. Whenever possible, the car is powered by its 20kWh lithium-ion battery pack, which fills the entire spine of the aluminium backbone chassis. While the battery pack can be plugged-in for an eight-hour overnight charge cycle, the GM engine sips from a 36-litre fuel tank. 'Since most customers will commute between charge points, they only need to stop at a filling station twice or three times a year,' claims Henrik Fisker. A full recharge at home will cost around £1.75 in electricity.
The Karma hits 0-60mph in a claimed 4.6 seconds, with a top speed of 125mph. The driver may trigger a 90-second overboost mode to hit 143mph, which presumably does to the range what a pin does to a balloon. Although the numbers have yet to be certified, the fuel consumption is claimed to vary between 118mpg and 81mpg depending on whether you're feather- or lead-footed.
Drivers using eco-friendly 'Stealth mode' should allow an extra two seconds for 0-60, and maximum speed is reduced to 95mph. In an ideal environment, the Karma is good for a zero-emissions range of 50 miles. The total combined range is 300 miles which should be sufficient for most day trips.
Driving the Fisker Karma
Unleashing all 959lb ft from standstill makes the ESP switch to overload to stop the explosive twist action from scalping the 22in built-to-order Goodyears. And although the ESP calibration is still a work in progress, the green S-class-size four-seater coupe is an absolute hoot to drive. Full-throttle orders are not executed quite as fast as, say, an M division prodcut, but with all that oomph on tap and with approximately 2300 kilos of momentum to play with, the Karma is unexpectedly chuckable and slideable.
Dynamically, the Karma is a gem. Boasting unequal-length double-wishbone suspension front and rear with self-levelling dampers in the back, the Karma stays flat and composed. Isolated subframes and made-to-measure tyres with taller sidewalls ensure a better than expected ride even on the rough surfaces around the periphery of the track complex.
The steering is hydraulic rack-and-pinion with electric power assistance. At 2.7 turns from lock to lock, it is quick and attentive, turning in with buttery progression, maintaining a straight line with reassuring meatiness, applying opposite lock with speedy precision. On the damp track, we went through enough power oversteer motions to turn Henrik´s hair from fox red to wolf grey. But how can you resist when a chassis is this creamy, offering such a scaleable and transparent transition from stick to unstuck?
The other area where the Karma excels concerns the brakes. We take our hats off to the way braking, regenerating and ABS interaction are modulated without delay or detectable thresholds.
Sounds excellent so far. Any drawbacks?
A touch too much dive from the suspension under hard braking. There's also a lack of refinement in the cooperation between the two drivetrains, only two regenerative braking stages to choose from, and the considerable weight and size of the EV-related componentry in these first-generation Karmas.
In Stealth, the engine does not come on unless the batteries are low on juice. When they are fully charged and you are driving down a hill in regen mode, the surplus energy has nowhere to go so it turns the idle engine, albeit at very low rpm. Strange beasts, these EVs.
Fisker has produced a fine sports saloon for eco-minded enthusiasts. Although there are some rough edges to the hybrid powertrain which need to be improved upon, as a first effort the fledgling Fisker Automotive has turned their showcar into a credible alternative fuel luxury car. We look forward to our next encounter with the production Karma.