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PP10

PROTOTYPE VEHICL.E

1401 'lUP8EAR.COM I MARCH 2011

· Fls"., Karma

MARCH 2011 1 1OPOEAJI.coM 1141

TANDING IN THE FARLY MORNING California sunshine talking to Henrik FWcer, you'd think thls was just anomer informal chat about his latest project. We've had plenty of those over me years, rust when he was head of BMW Designworks and designer of the Z8, then design chief at Aston Martin and later as me head offord's Advance Design Studio. He is his normal open, friendly self, and there is no trace of stress or anxiety. This is odd, as surely mere must be a few concerns on chis, me first day anyone outside of the company has driven his billion-dollar baby, the extended-range electric Fisker Karma.

"No. I'm JUSt excited to know what you think about

the CH," he says with a smile. That might seem like overconfidence from anyone else, but maybe not Henrik. He's got a fabulous track record himself, and has assembled what he calls the dream team of designers, engineers

and executives who have been responsible for producing winners such as the Rolls-Royce Phantom, Foro GT and BMW 5-Series. So maybe he has the right to be so sure.

But even he would have to admit that it's been quite

a wild ride to end up where he is today, standing on the verge ofJaunching his global empire, just 37 months after first showing the concepr Karma to the world at the 2008 NAIAS in Detroit. In those three years since he wowed the world with his new car, Henrik and his parmer, Barny Koehler, raised a billion dollars, set up a global dealer necwork and got 3,000 people to put down deposits for

a car that had never moved a wheel under its own power. All this, despite me implosion of the global car industry.

One entirely forgivable reason fur people giving them their cash was me way the car looked. Drawing on all his years of designing and overseeing gorgeous cars for other companies, Henrik created a fuDulously desirable four-door saloon that had irs own unique personality. The second reason was that this hugely indulgent-looking car was a hybrid. So some could justify it on rational rather than emotional grounds. And the final, shocking must-haveone-now for buyers was that it was going to cost under $90k.

It didn't all go to plan over the following three years,

the production date slipping from 20e9 to 2610 to the current March 2011. The price has inflated from $80k to a starting bid of $95,900 (£63500). And the car has put on some weight, rising from the originally predicted 2.086kg to an expected figure somewhere around the 2,495kg mark. But thars about it. Eve~g else remains pretty much as promised, which is nothing short of remarkable, not JUSt for a SClIt~Up car company, bur any car company.

So, in something of a first, instead of a badly watereddown version of the dramatic concept car, the production Karma looks as radically sexy and desirable on its standard 22-inch Circuit Blade wheels as the one that we first saw in the Cobo Hall back in 2008. Maybe more so as the sun sparkles and Hickers off the Karmas Diamond Dust paint Out here on the infield of this deserted racetrack. This bodes well fur the certain appearance of the openropped and equally gorgeous Fisker Sunset next year

- and possibly a shooting brake version it fa Ferrari FF not long after that.

Looking around - and under - the cars (meso are early production validation models Hown in from the factory

in Finland where they are made alongside Porsche Boxsters and Caymans), it's immediately clear why the team looks $0 confident. The exterior fit and finish is excellent - all narrow gaps, perfectly matched lines and super-lustrous ::-

paint. Not a ripple or piece of loose trim in sight. The underside of me car looks equally tidy, the entire surface from me rear of me frone wheel arches back to the back of the car being completely Hat and smooth. This all helps the Karma achieve a Cd of 0.31, which isn't stellar but definitely in the ballpark.

To give you some sense of me Karma's scale, it's the same length as a Mercedes-Benz CLS with the wheelbase of

an S-Class. Yet it's only the height of a Porsche 911 and

is 5cm wider than a Panamera. So it's low, wide - very wide - with a long wheelbase for its overall size. If those numbers add up to a GT ramer than a four-door luxury saloon, that's no mistake, Because that's JUSt how the aluminium space-framed and bodied Karma looks

when you get up close to it. It's like the solar-roofed concept for the next: Aston Marcin Rapide or Maserari Quanroporre that you can buy today.

Inside, the luxury feel-good sensation COntinues. It's

easy enough to swing yourself into the driving seat and get comfortable in the electrically adjustable seats, the initial view ahead looking distinctly conventional. The smallish steering wheel has a couple of multi-function switches plus a couple of paddles. Instead of operating a gearbox

- the Karma has JUSt the one gear, so there's no need for

a changer - the left: one shifts the drivetrain from Stealth or all-electric mode, to Sporr mode, which allows the generator to chime in, mo. The right one acts as an electric version of an engine brake, allowing you to slow the car and charge me batteries using brake regeneration rather than me huge 370mm Brembo disc brakes.

There are constant reminders to use it, thanks to a central power meter, which shows how much energy you are using or generating. Plus there are some swooshy orange dials that show battery and fuel life, and that's about it. Largely because almost every other bit of information and control is resident in the central 9.85in central touchscreen. Arranged like a good website, with clear tabs that lead to clear pages of content, there's no secondary iDrive or COMAND-style controller. You JUSt push the function you want and adjust it. Easy.

There is a bit of theatre in using the gearbox controller, though. When you press any of the buttons on the SMr Trrk-styled black rhomboid, a bolt of green light shoots forward on top of the battery under a clear Perspex window towards the: screen. There are three levels of trim - EcoSrandard, which is mix of leather and ulrrasuede; EcoSporr which is a full World ofl.eather experience; and EcoChic, which doesn't feature any peeled animal at all.

As smart as the inside of the Karma is, me car also has me numbers [0 back up its visual promise. The two rear wheels are driven by a pair of 201.5 bhp (rhe Karma's tOP rorque is aVeyron-humbling 9811b ft:) electric motors via that single-ratio gearbox fined with a limited-slip diff.

These electric motors get their juice from the 20kW lithium-ion battery which is charged one of four ways: by me solar panels on the roof; by plugging the car into the mains (it rakes about six hours to fill it up); by brake regeneration; and, if you want to travel more than the 50 miles, the battery will rake you in full electric mode, by the 175kW generator. This generator is powered nor

by some small apology for an engine, like you find in most other hybrids, but a 260bhp turbocharged two-litre Ecorec GM unit which fills the: engine bay completely. Unlike the ::-

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Chevy Vo1t:IVauxhall Ampera, this motor never drives the car, only ever powers the generator. -===="!!!!!!!!!!!~~~~~ Which makes the Karma's performance figures all the more remarkable. In Srealth mode, top speed is 95mph, 0--60mph takes 7.9secs and range is 50 miles. In Sport setting, those numbers jump to 125mph (or 143mph for a bum of90 seconds), 5.9secs and 300 miles. And it gets better. You can have all that plus lOOmpg and 83g1km CO~ emissions, which is Gg/km less than a Prius.

However, none of that would matter if the Karma handled poorly or had a dash that lit up like mission control every rime you pressed the on burton. So. having paused to listen ro the swirling, omni-directional, Tronlike hum the car emits out of from and rear speakers up to 15mph, I took it for a load of laps at ever-increasing speeds.

Starring out in Stealth mode, the Karma silently whips

up to 60mph before I have to brake for the first right-hand corner. The car has a calm, long-legged feel. All its actions I are nicely damped, the ride smooth and controlled on the self-levelling suspension. Pushing on the brake pedal, it has the same kind 0 F feel as early ceramic brakes: there's not much initial bite, as the regen equipment tries to siphon back the energy into the battery, but JUSt a little more pressure starts slowing things down properly.

Turn-in on the 22in wheels shod with specially made Goodyear Eagle Fl ryres is excellent. The steering at low speed feels direct and linear - no slop or over-assistance the suspension, quiet and compliant. It might be wider

than a Panamera, but it's just as easy to place exactly on the track, And there's enough power available ro make the car feel lighter and quicker than I'd expected. However, flicking the lett paddle inro Sporr mode. waking up the petrol engine, and upping the speed reveals a couple of things that might need refining.

Even though [he Karma is surprisingly happy to play at the very limit - and beyond - of its huge ryres' adhesion, the variable assist dectro-hydraulic steering weights up hugely as the road speed rises. I also noticed it gerring seriously heavy at walking pace on a second car, SO there's definitely something to look at there.

The second thing is the sound the four-cylinder engine makes when it wakes up. Never the most sonorous lump, it rakes you straight back to the 20th century with a rude bump when it shatters [he submarine-level silence you get used to in Stealth mode. The engint:m said they are in the process of tuning this, so hopefully they can improve it.

They really need to, because other than this and the sl i gh tly weird steering assistance, there's unbelievably little else that. if you are in the market for a luxury four-door saloon, should reasonably stop you from buying one. The boots a bit small and the twO rear seats are a little less than spacious, but so what? Cars [hat look this good don't come along [hat often, The faCt that its a hybrid is JUSt an added bonus.

Now I know why Henrik is so relaxed. He should be.

Irs [he competition who should be nervous, fa