Porsche’s $116,000 Rival Fisker Pushes Battery Power to Limits

March 22 (Bloomberg) -- Bloomberg auto columnist Jason Harper reviews Fisker Automotive Inc.'s Karma luxury sports sedan. The hybrid vehicle can run in all-electric mode or in tandem with a small gasoline engine and has a price tag that starts at $103,000. (Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. Source: Bloomberg)

Henrik Fisker gets nostalgic as he reminisces about the cars of the 1950s. He loves oversized, over-the-top designs with soaring fins and lush interiors.

“Those were American cars that ruled the road,” he says at an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles.

While the 48-year-old Dane previously designed cars for Aston Martin and BMW, it takes a Grand Canyon-sized leap to start a car company. He co-founded Fisker Automotive Inc. in 2007.

He showed the Fisker Karma concept a year later. It’s meant to be unpredictable, surprising, fast and sexy with an environmental twist. The hybrid can run in all-electric mode or in tandem with a small gasoline engine. It’s now on sale, stuffed with eco-conscious technology.

It’s easy to get swept up in Fisker’s vision. I just wish I liked the car better.

As a luxury sports sedan, the Karma (starting at $103,000) swims with slick sharks. Competitors include the Porsche Panamera S Hybrid ($96,000), the BMW (BMW) ActiveHybrid 750i ($97,900), the $130,800 Maserati Quattroporte and even the $210,000-plus Aston Martin Rapide.

The Karma looks exotic. Its generous proportions hover somewhere between the voluptuousness of a 1960s Italian exotic like a Maserati and the over-ripeness of a 1970s Corvette.

Low and long, it has oversized, flared fenders and rides on fat 22-inch wheels. The only exterior misfire is the ridiculous grill, which is shaped like a French waiter’s pencil mustache, straight out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Karma Compromise

Fisker argues the Karma’s major selling point is its blend of sportiness and green credentials. I’m not convinced. Luxury consumers don’t like compromises, and the Karma is full of them.

The car works similarly to the Chevy Volt. It can run on all-electric power from a lithium-ion battery pack in what Fisker calls “stealth mode.” Most drivers will get more than 30 miles of range this way. Plug the car into a 220-volt outlet every night for a six-hour recharge, and you’ll use little or no gasoline on short commutes.

It has a 2.0-liter, turbocharged gasoline engine, which turns on when the batteries are depleted, or when the driver wants more oomph. Simply turn it to sport mode.

The 260-horsepower engine powers a generator, which in turn recharges the batteries on the go. While this eliminates range limitations, it also hurts the Karma’s official Environmental Protection Agency numbers. The EPA gave it a 52 miles-per-gallon equivalence in all-electric mode and only 20 mpg when running fully on gas.

Reliability Issue

This new technology comes with its own set of issues. These may include reliability. Consumer Reports said its Karma, which it bought, broke down. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that four out of five shipped to one dealership had software glitches almost immediately.

I experienced nothing like that. But the meshing of systems is often noisy and harsh, with unaccounted-for noises and vibrations. This happens almost entirely when the gas engine is on, and in a luxury ride it’s unacceptable.

In slow traffic, the car has a tendency to shudder as you creep along. Mash the accelerator and the gasoline engine announces itself rudely. And no, that’s not the sexy whine of an inline six-cylinder nor the roar of a V-8. That’s the same cheap sound you’ll hear in small economy cars. (The engine is sourced from General Motors. (GM))

Heavy Motors

Nor is the car especially fast. Combined power from the motors is a claimed 403 horsepower and 959 pound-feet of torque. That should translate into sonic speeds, except the heavy batteries and additional equipment weigh the car down. At some 5,300 pounds, it’s heavier than some SUVs.

The company says it will do 0-to-60 miles per hour in 6.3 seconds using sport mode and 7.9 in all-electric. BMW’s hybrid 7 Series makes it in 4.7.

Yet I much preferred the car in all-electric mode. The lack of noise makes it feel quicker off the line and you get the genuine sense that you’re driving something special -- an exotic electric car.

The Karma corners flatly and neatly, with virtually no body roll. Snap around curves and accelerate cleanly into short straight-aways, and stealth mode is rewarding.

The sci-fi sensation is enhanced by two exterior speakers that emit an odd whirring noise at low speeds to alert pedestrians.

Idiosyncratic Interior

Interior options are idiosyncratic. Buyers can opt for an “EcoSport” leather interior that raises the sticker price to $109,000 or the $116,000 “EcoChic” option which eschews animal products in favor of recycled or reclaimed materials.

When I drove one of the latter, it sported an upholstered dash that made me feel I was motoring around town in a tweed suit. Odd, but in a conversation-starting way.

The batteries are stored in a long tunnel that runs through the center of the car, intruding into the cabin. This means only four people can fit inside. Elbow, trunk and storage space are at a premium. I was hard pressed to find a place for my cell phone. The EPA rates it as subcompact because of the scant volume. Yet another compromise.

That’s a shame, because I really do want to love this audacious car. Given another generation or two, it could develop into a sports sedan that spanks the big boys.

I hope it has the luxury of time. I’m just not sure enough buyers will ultimately step out of their Porsches and Bimmers long enough to give it that chance.

The 2012 Fisker Karma At a Glance

Engines: 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder and two electric motors, for a combined 403 hp and 959 lb-ft of torque.

Transmission: Single gear.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds (sport mode) or 7.9 seconds (all-electric).

Range: More than 30 miles on all-electric; an additional 250 miles in extended-range mode.

Price as tested: $116,000.

Best features: Eye-catching exterior, stealth-mode driving.

Worst features: Cramped, shudders and unpleasant engine noise.

Target buyer: The Silicon Valley wunderkind who wants to show his eco side.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com or follow on Twitter @JasonHarperSpin.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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Photographer: Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg

The Fisker Karma luxury plug-in hybrid. Fisker argues the Karma’s major selling point is its blend of sportiness and green credentials.

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Photographer: Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg

The Fisker Karma luxury plug-in hybrid. Fisker argues the Karma’s major selling point is its blend of sportiness and green credentials. Close

The Fisker Karma luxury plug-in hybrid. Fisker argues the Karma’s major selling point is its blend of sportiness and green credentials.

Photographer: Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg

The front of a Fisker Karma luxury plug-in hybrid. The only exterior misfire is the ridiculous grill, which is shaped like a French waiter’s pencil mustache. Close

The front of a Fisker Karma luxury plug-in hybrid. The only exterior misfire is the ridiculous grill, which is shaped... Read More

Photographer: Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg

The solar panel rooftoop of a Fisker Karma luxury plug-in hybrid vehicle. Competitors include the Porsche Panamera S Hybrid ($96,000), the BMW ActiveHybrid 750i ($97,900), the $130,800 Maserati Quattroporte and even the $210,000-plus Aston Martin Rapide. Close

The solar panel rooftoop of a Fisker Karma luxury plug-in hybrid vehicle. Competitors include the Porsche Panamera S... Read More

Photographer: Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg

The rear view of a Fisker Karma luxury plug-in hybrid. The car is now on sale, stuffed with eco-conscious technology. Close

The rear view of a Fisker Karma luxury plug-in hybrid. The car is now on sale, stuffed with eco-conscious technology.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Henrik Fisker, chief executive officer of Fisker Automotive Inc. He loves oversized, over-the-top designs with soaring fins and lush interiors. Close

Henrik Fisker, chief executive officer of Fisker Automotive Inc. He loves oversized, over-the-top designs with... Read More

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