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Saturday Drive: 2012 Fisker Karma

Start off your weekend of motoring with a quick take on what's grabbed our attention recently.

February 18, 2012|By David Undercoffler
  • The Karma starts at $95,000 and goes to $108,900 before tax incentives. The model we tested and you see here is the EcoChic, which sits at the high end of that pricing spectrum.
The Karma starts at $95,000 and goes to $108,900 before tax incentives.… (David Undercoffler / Los…)

The car: Fisker Karma

The power: 403 total horsepower coming from two 201.5-horsepower (150 kW) AC motors, mounted just above the rear wheels.

Torque is in the neighborhood of monstrous, with 981 pound-feet available at 0 RPM. That figure sounds like enough to collapse a lung from the driver's seat, but consider this car weighs 5,300 pounds, or about as much as a Chevy Tahoe SUV.

The photos: Fisker Karma

The speed: 0-60 miles per hour in 5.9 seconds in Sport mode using the gas engine to power the generator, battery and electric motors, or 7.5 seconds in purely electric mode.

The bragging rights: The world's first luxury electric vehicle with extended range.

The price: The Karma starts at $95,000 and goes to $108,900 before tax incentives. The model we tested and you see here is the EcoChic, which sits at the high end of that pricing spectrum.

The details: Powering the two electric motors, which power the rear wheels, is a 180 kW, lithium-ion, rechargable battery. It runs the length of the car's interior, slotted between the left and right seats, covered by a large center console and armrests. On electric power alone, the battery gives the Karma a range of 30-50 miles. Power is transferred to the rear wheels via a single-speed transmission.

Also charging that battery is a generator powered by a 260-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged, direct-injected, four-cylinder engine (an Ecotec unit made by GM). Ignore that horsepower figure though; it's provided only to indicate the engine's strength and has no immediate effect on the power of the Karma. The gas engine/generator combination gives you another 250 miles of range, for a total range of 280-300 miles.

To be clear: the gas engine is not powering the wheels. Ever. Nope, not even then. It runs to power a generator, which sends power through the battery, which then powers the electric motors. In theory, the Karma could run on no gasoline whatsoever.

The car runs in one of two modes, Sport and Stealth, which the driver selects using what amounts to a paddle shifter on the left side of the steering wheel. Stealth is electric-only mode, with power coming only from the battery. Toggle into Sport mode, and the engine fires up to join the party.

The drive: For starters, this is more of a first look at the driving dynamics than the nuances of charging it and its range. For that, look for our full review in a few months. Or call Leo, if he's in town. He's an owner and an investor.

The initial takeaway is that this is a big, dramatic, heavy car. Squeezing a battery roughly the size and shape of a real-life Gumby down the center of the interior helps mitigate the effects of its mass, but it's still there. Especially when that battery weighs 605 pounds.

Though 403 total horsepower may sound like a lot, you're never overwhelmed by the Karma's output because the car needs all of it to keep it moving. The car doesn't squirt off the line like you might expect an electric car to.

Similarly, when you're in traffic or on twisty roads, the car doesn't so much dart as it does move with purpose. Think of a linebacker in a three-piece suit. But it handles its mass very well and stays firmly planted through hard cornering.

The suspension is well-tuned to the car's weight. Body roll is controlled and the ride is sporty, but comfortable. The electro-hydraulic steering is nicely weighted and relays some feedback from the road but it could be more direct. The brakes are plenty firm, yet Fisker has done a nice job of modulating how touchy they can be. Some regenerative brake systems on more mainstream, mass-produced cars get a bit too eager.

Drivers who really want to recharge the car's batteries have a pair of Hill modes that progressively increase the amount of energy captured. Hill 1 provides moderate resistance as you descend, while Hill 2 dramatically slows down the car.

Fisker says to think of these settings as alternatives to braking during spirited driving. Rather than using the brakes to slow a car just before and also during a turn (known as trail braking), drivers can switch the car into Hill 1 or 2 (actuated by a paddle shifter on the right side of the steering wheel) and slow the car this way.

Though it sounds like a gimmick, the level of resistance Hill 2 puts on the car is severe enough that it does act as a useful braking technique as you carve up the canyons.

Constant throughout a variety of driving conditions are an interesting mix of sounds made by this Fisker. It's not noisy by any means, but there's always something to listen to.

At cruising speed the cabin is fairly quiet. Road and wind noise are minimal and there's the faint whine from the electric motors that you might know from your golf cart. If you have the Karma in Sport mode, the engine also runs quietly.

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