2011 Fisker Karma

2011 Fisker Karma

The Fisker Karma looks cool, but beauty is only skin-deep.

In a 2009 interview with PluginCars.com, founder Henrik Fisker said, “There’s no rule written anywhere that a green car has to be ugly—or small, or uncomfortable. We have so much power, we don’t need to make the car small.” But you would have expected that the unquestionable beauty of the design would be backed up with efficiency, reliability and safety. By many accounts, Fisker has come up short on these basics.

Where do we start with the problems? How about the efficiency window sticker? The label shows 20 miles per gallon as the car’s efficiency when operating on gasoline. Yes, that’s what the EPA put on the Karma's window sticker—although you wouldn't know from reading Fisker's press release about the EPA rating, which only talks about the sedan's all-electric mileage equivalent. The major reason for the 20-mpg gas rating has to do with weight—the Karma tips the scales at approximately 5,300 pounds.

Some of the Karma’s other EPA numbers aren’t exactly overwhelming: 52 miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) when driven by the dual electric motors. The battery range is officially 32 miles—not the 50 Fisker has been touting.

The company explains away these meh numbers, by encouraging consumers to look at its sleek design and high horsepower. “This is a luxury sports sedan, not a LEAF or Prius,” Mr. Fisker told us. “It’s filled with advanced technology.” It also does zero to 60 in 6.3 seconds.

Fair enough. But the recent history of the Fisker Karma makes the acceleration numbers seem like a distraction from the promise of a cool green plug-in car being ready for prime-time. Are we supposed to be impressed by the Karma’s roster of celebrity owners? The list includes teeny-bopper Justin Bieber; former Secretary of State Colin Powell; actor Leonardo DiCaprio; and Ray Lane, a Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers partner (along with another Fisker owner, Al Gore). Kleiner Perkins is a multi-million-dollar investor in Fisker, and Lane said in summer 2011 that the company “has the potential to be the same value as [FarmVille creator] Zynga.” Now that Zynga’s stock price fell by about 70 percent from December 2011 to summer 2012, that sounds about right.

More Bad Karma

We won’t dwell on the feel from behind the wheel. We appreciate that Karma is very quick off the line, handles with little body roll, and provides a combination of comfort, luxury appointments, and sports-car feel commensurate with a six-figure vehicle. But that’s only when it works. It’s hard to focus on these accomplishments when the company has racked up so many complaints and problems.

Production delays have been rampant. By December 2011, Fisker Automotive claimed that 225 Karmas had shipped to its US dealerships and that an additional 1,200 units were "in the pipeline." Maybe it's a good thing that more had not been shipped. A123 Systems, makers of the lithium-ion battery packs used in the 2012 Fisker Karma, announced on Dec. 23 that the packs had a "potential safety issue" related to the cooling system. A recall ensued.

In February 2012, Fisker Automotive halted development of future electric cars, and laid off at least 66 employees in the US. Twenty-six of Fisker's Delaware employees and 40 contractors in California were laid off in an attempt to conserve cash as the automaker seeks to renegotiate the terms of its Department of Energy (DOE) loans. Company executives insisted that design, engineering, development and testing of its second vehicle—a mid-size plug-in hybrid referred to as Project Nina—is nearly complete and that production would begin in mid-2013.

Henrik Fisker and the Fisker Karma

“We want,” said Henrik Fisker, “to emphasize the fact that an environmental car can look sexy.” Statements like this ring hallow, considering the company's many technical and business shortcomings.

Things went from bad to worse in March 2012. That’s when Consumer Reports posted this message on its blog: “Our Fisker Karma cost us $107,850. It is super sleek, high-tech—and now it’s broken." CR said the Karma was the first car in its 80-year history that became undrivable before it had finished the consumer organization’s check-in process. "We have owned our car for just a few days; it has less than 200 miles on its odometer. While doing speedometer calibration runs on our test track, the dashboard flashed a message and sounded a 'bing' showing a major fault,” the post read. “At that point, the transmission went into Neutral and wouldn’t engage any gear through its electronic shifter except Park and Neutral." Fisker fixed the problem, but the damage to confidence was done.

Fisker reported that the Karma was not responsible for a couple of fire incidents in 2012—but once again, the bad news undermined perception of the vehicle.

In mid-August 2012, Fisker hired Tony Posawatz as the company’s chief executive offer. Posawatz previously led development of the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid, an electrified vehicle with its own history of controversy. But he left GM with his head held high. By summer 2012, the Volt turned around its fortunes with better sales. Perhaps new leadership is required to put the Karma back on track, but it appears that Mr. Posawatz will have his hands full to get the job done. His predecessor as Fisker CEO, Tom LaSorda, a former top executive at Chrysler and General Motors, only lasted six months in the position.

Fisker Karma specifications

Availability: Discntd.
Base MSRP: $96000
Est. tax credit: $7500
Technology: Plug-in Hybrid
Body type: Sedan
Seats: 4
EPA Range: 32 miles electric + gasoline
Battery size: 22 kWh
Charging rate: 3.4 kW

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