Karma: Hefty but nimble and swift
LOS ANGELES -- The Fisker Karma is not your everyday plug-in hybrid.
It can run on battery power at up to 80 mph until it depletes to about a 15 percent charge after about 50 miles. Then a gasoline engine, connected to an electric generator, kicks in and sends power to the wheels through a single-speed transmission.
But a Karma driver can decide when to run in electric-only "stealth" mode. Most plug-in hybrids start in battery mode until the pack needs a charge. With the Karma, if one's morning slog ends with urban clog, the driver can travel the open freeways in gasoline-electric mode, then switch to electric-only mode for heavily congested areas. In the meantime, the gasoline engine makes sure the battery pack maintains its current state of charge.
That aside, is the Karma fun to drive? For $103,000, including shipping, it is going up against the Porsche Panamera, Maserati Quattroporte, Lexus LS 600h and other elite performance sedans.
In stealth mode, the car is eerily quiet, although at parking lot speeds the Karma subtly emanates a Jetsons-like tenor whir to alert pedestrians that it is approaching. For all the Karma's heft -- the battery pack and two propulsion units mean it tips the scales at more than 5,300 pounds -- the car still reaches 60 mph in less than eight seconds in battery mode.
Switching to "sport" mode, which increases the General Motors 2.0-liter turbocharged Ecotec engine's rpms, gives brutal acceleration but reduces fuel economy.
As for braking, there are two forms: typical Brembo friction brakes and regenerative braking that recharges the batteries. The regeneration is activated using a paddle on the steering wheel where a shift paddle typically would be.
The regenerative braking system has two degrees of immediacy. The standard regenerative setup coasts the Karma to a halt in stop-and-go traffic. The secondary position recharges the battery and keeps the car from gaining too much speed while descending a steep grade. On flat roads, though, this secondary position setting feels restrictive and sharp.
A car this heavy should be porcine when cornering, but it is pretty nimble -- the old "quick for a fat man" swipe handed to NFL linemen. That's because the battery pack is mounted low and through the car's center tunnel, keeping the center of gravity close to the ground and giving it the coveted "moment of inertia" that makes for good handling.
Standard features include the solar-paneled roof that aids in battery recharging, as well as 22-inch wheels with Goodyear tires designed for the Karma.
The car can recharge overnight using a 110-volt household current, or in six hours with a 220-volt line.
As for drawbacks, most involve fuel economy. Once the battery pack runs out of juice, the engine suffers the equivalent of 20 mpg keeping the generator motivating the car. But because most people don't drive more than 50 miles in a day, that range-extending (read: "gas-sucking") mode won't come into play much.
In addition, the instrument panel layout feels slightly askew. The speedometer is offset and too small to get an at-a-glance reading of one's velocity. The telematics screen washes out in sunlight. And the back seat is far too cramped for a car with a 124-inch wheelbase.
Is the Karma worth 100 grand? It makes a great luxury toy for a wealthy person who frets about climate change. And it's a technology platform base for what will power the Project Nina mid-sized sedan, which, word has it, will sticker for around half as much.
But with a Tesla Model S pure-electric starting at $59,350, including shipping, for a 160-mile range, it's a tough argument to pay another 40 large for a hybrid car that gets 20 mpg after driving 50 miles.
You can reach Mark Rechtin at email@example.com. -- Follow Mark on