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First Drive: 2012 Fisker Karma [Review]

Design. Performance. Eco-friendliness. Fisker thinks you can have it all with its Karma. We investigate.

Henrik Fisker is nothing if not ambitious. How else can we describe the man who has created from scratch the first new grand-scale automaker in as long as we can remember?

The brand that carries his name is not intended to be a low-volume player like Koenigsegg or even Tesla. Well before the company's debut product, its Karma extended-range EV, was ready to arrive in the hands of buyer number one Leonardo DiCaprio, Fisker's empire was already looking like a major automaker. More than 400 engineers call the company's Anaheim, California, office their workplace, and nearly 50 dealers across the U.S. have hoisted Fisker signs above their showrooms. A smaller and much less expensive "everyman's" car built in Delaware is planned, and Fisker promises it will ooze design-driven style from every corner just like the Karma does.

Less than four years after a thinly-disguised concept Karma was unwrapped, Fisker has already delivered a few hundred production models of the car we traveled to Los Angeles to put through its paces. In this perpetually down market, where carmakers are shedding brands faster than we can count, it's hard not to root for the little guy, so it was with high expectations that we settled into the luxurious and sustainability-focused Karma's sinuously curvy body.

Karma chameleon
Primarily designed and developed in California, the Karma is built under contract by noted coachbuilder Valmet in Finland. Despite its land-of-the-free, home-of-the-brave roots, it has a distinctly European flair to its heavily design-focused appearance. That's no coincidence, since Denmark-born Henrik Fisker is a designer by trade whose résumé includes the BMW Z8 and Aston Martin DB9.

A low-slung body with prominent fender haunches gives the Karma a reptilian look vaguely reminiscent of the Aston Martin Rapide, but one that is still highly original. Those proportions force a few ergonomic compromises, like mediocre visibility, a small trunk and a curb-kissing low front overhang, but this might be the most attention-attracting car on the market. We experienced more than mere double glances on the streets of Beverly Hills, where taxicab yellow Bugatti Veyrons blend into the background.

Our Karma tester was especially noticeable thanks to its optional Diamond Dust paint, which uses reclaimed glass flakes in place of the metal typically seen in metallic paint. A standard roof-mounted solar panel not only looks futuristic but captures energy from the sun to slightly increase battery capacity. Karmas ride on 22-inch alloy wheels wrapped in Goodyear F1 Supercar tires.

Inside, the big Karma is technically classified as a subcompact, but four adults have reasonable room to stretch out. Karmas come standard with enough Bridge of Weir leather to make a Bentley quiver, but our testers were optioned up with an available animal-free EcoChic trim that covers nearly every surface in a grippy suede-like material that should make even the most hardened vegan happy. Small glass panels in the doors and on the center console contain pressed leaves that further the bespoke look, while a few slivers of reclaimed wood (from California forest fires or, intriguingly, the bottom of Lake Michigan) add a touch of traditional luxury style.

The Karma's dashboard is vaguely reminiscent of the elegantly simple look found in the Jaguar XF, but instead of a gear knob, there are four center console buttons for park, reverse, neutral and drive. Those are about the only switches you'll find, since everything else is, unfortunately, clustered in a large touch-screen display. The menus are elegant but cumbersome to sort through and we couldn't convince the navigation system to direct us to our destination (although finding a list of nearby doctors was curiously easy).

Enthusiasts might be surprised to discover a few bits of General Motors switchgear, like turn signal stalks and steering wheel-mounted audio controls, but that's because the Detroit automaker is a Fisker supplier.

Underhood plumbing
The Karma's long hood opens backwards, where it reveals a familiar 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbocharged gasoline engine. This GM-sourced unit, which is closely related to the engine used in the Buick Regal Turbo and a few other models, puts out 260 horsepower in its role as a power supply unit for a 175 kW electric generator.

A rechargeable lithium-ion battery nestles longitudinally between the outboard passengers as in the Chevrolet Volt, which makes the Karma a strictly four-seat affair.

Unlike the Volt, the Karma's gas engine can never directly power the wheels. That job is handled by a pair of 201.5-horsepower electric traction motors, which send motivation to the road via a so-called Rear Differential Module limited slip unit. There is no conventional transmission for the single-ratio differential, which means that power is linear regardless of vehicle speed. That's big news considering the electric motors combine to produce 959 lb-ft. of torque.

Notably, the Karma can be driven in either a full EV mode with reduced power - called stealth mode - or more like a normal hybrid in sport mode where the gas engine kicks on when needed to keep the generator going. What looks like a paddle shifter switches between the modes. Diverging again form the Volt, which will automatically deplete its battery, the Karma lets drivers choose when they can make the best use of zero-emissions driving. Stealth mode provides more than adequate power, but the Karma's full performance potential is realized when sport is engaged since the generator is providing enough electricity to fully power the electric motors. A pair of hill modes increase engine braking, which also boosts battery recharging.

In EV mode, the Karma is good for up to 50 miles of battery-powered driving. Selecting Sport uses fuel at a mid-20 mpg rate. But driving habits mean that fuel consumption could be all over the place depending on how owners use their Karmas.

In theory, the Karma's power should be enough to rip it apart under hard acceleration, but the reality is that this 5,300 lbs. sedan has been toned down to provide a more "civilized" level of performance. Acceleration in stealth mode is smooth but hardly neck-snapping. With sport engaged, the gas engine wakes up to deliver grunt that feels more like a strong V8 than a supercar.

Loping around town in traffic, we noticed a moderate driveline shudder just after the brake pedal is released, but the experience is otherwise almost otherworldly in its refinement. This is a car from an upstart automaker? Highway cruising is an effortless affair because the Karma tracks straight and lets in virtually no road noise. Only the occasional drone of the gas engine intrudes when sport mode is engaged.

Karma rides on a unique chassis that felt reassuringly robust during some canyon corner carving. Its steering is nicely weighted, if a little too eager to return to center, and it provides plenty of feel. Ride quality is phenomenal, defying the odds against its gigantic wheels and conventional shock absorbers.

Leftlane's bottom line
The Fisker Karma doesn't reinvent eco-friendly motoring for the masses, but it does provide a relatively low-guilt but high-visibility way for those with the necessary coin to significantly reduce their consumption while driving an automobile that truly feels bespoke.

We hope its gorgeous design and overwhelmingly refined powertrain can make the transition into a high-volume model in the near future so far more motorists can experience what is shaping up to be a very special American automaker.

2012 Fisker Karma base price, $102,000. (A $7,500 federal tax credit is available to qualifying buyers).

Words by Andrew Ganz. First four photos by Alex Bernstein (see his Flickr here). Others by Andrew Ganz.