High-priced hybrid may be a tough sell
$103,000 sticker may not stop early adopters -- but then what?
LOS ANGELES -- What price green? In the case of the Fisker Karma, it's six figures -- and that could be a problem down the road.
The question is once early adopters buy in, how many people are in the market for a hybrid vehicle priced at $103,000, including shipping, that gets 20 mpg after driving 50 miles?
The sports sedan, built for Fisker Automotive by Valmet Automotive in Finland, is now trickling into U.S. dealerships. The California-based carmaker, cofounded by former BMW and Aston Martin designer Henrik Fisker, won't give sales projections. But the company says it has about 2,500 orders worldwide that it hopes to fill by the end of the second quarter.
The basics: The Fisker Karma can go 80 mph in battery-only mode. After about 50 miles in battery mode, a GM Ecotec gasoline engine kicks in to keep the battery pack propelling the car at up to 125 mph.
A key difference between the Karma and other hybrids is that the driver can decide when to run in electric-only "stealth" mode. Most plug-in hybrids remain in battery mode until the pack is depleted. If the Karma is running in gasoline-aided "sport" mode, the engine holds the battery's state of charge constant.
Fisker says the electric motors can generate 959 pounds-feet of torque. Zero-to-60 starts take six to eight seconds, depending on the driving mode. Passing speed is formidable.
As for braking, there are two forms: typical Brembo "friction" brakes, and regenerative braking that also recharges the batteries. Regenerative braking, which uses the electric motors' kinetic energy to slow the car, is activated using a "hill" paddle on the steering wheel. It offers two degrees of stopping power. In "Hill 2" mode, the Karma decelerated even on a very steep decline.
Notable features: Eight airbags are standard, as well as a solar-paneled roof that aids in battery recharging and 22-inch wheels with specially designed Goodyear tires. The car can recharge overnight from a 110-volt plug, or in six hours with a 220 line. The interior woods are reclaimed from California forest fires and sunken hardwoods raised from the bottom of Lake Michigan. The vehicle has a 50-month, 50,000-mile warranty.
What Fisker says: "The Karma reacts to how we commute and drive today," says CEO Henrik Fisker. "We didn't set out to make a track-day car, but a car that emphasized enjoyment of driving."
Compromises and shortcomings: Once the battery pack runs out of juice, the Ecotec engine kicks in to keep the battery pack propelling the car's electric motors. But the vehicle only gets only 20 mpg in that mode. The drivetrain shuddered when slowly moving away from stops, as well as in slow city traffic. The backseat was claustrophobic for a car with a 124-inch wheelbase. The telematics screen readily washed out in sunlight. The trunk is barely large enough to hold two golf bags.
The test car -- a saleable model, not a prototype -- had a loose panel in the A-pillar interior fitting. For a car created by a designer, the riot of interior colors, fabrics and patterns looked amateurish.
The skinny: A Mercedes-Benz AMG C63 driver pulled alongside and pronounced the Karma: "Bad-ass." Maybe -- but it will take a lot of salesmanship to sell the thousands of Karmas needed to keep Fisker in clover.
You can reach Mark Rechtin at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Follow Mark on