Fisker Auto's bad Karma

@FortuneMagazine February 10, 2012: 12:13 PM ET
Leonardo DiCaprio and his Fisker Karma

It's going to take a lot more than an endorsement from Leo to get Fisker out of its rut.

FORTUNE -- The Fisker Karma is rolling onto the world automotive stage as car writers in the U.S. and Europe examine the car in person for the first time and take their initial laps behind the wheel. They could certainly be excused for seeing the car and its creator through rose-colored glasses. Both have been the recipient of more advance publicity than a Donald Trump presidential endorsement.

Henrik Fisker is the celebrity car designer who wants to do well by doing good. His creation, the Karma, a $103,000 plug-in hybrid, has been collecting "Car of the Year" awards by the trunkload. As the first four-door ultra-luxury gas-electric car, it has been celebrated by environmentalists, blessed by the federal government with a guaranteed loan, and endorsed by celebrities. Leo DiCaprio ignited a swirl of publicity when he took delivery of the first production model.

But those who haven't been blinded by the glare of publicity are beginning to wonder whether the Karma will be a hit like DiCaprio's Titanic -- or a flop like his Body of Lies. More perceptive reviewers find the car overweight, inefficient, and capable of only mediocre performance that falls well short of its original eco-friendly goals.

Fisker is a 48-year-old Dane who made his reputation designing BMWs and Aston Martins. He founded Fisker Automotive in 2007 and showed the concept for the Karma four months later at the Detroit auto show. Production began haltingly nearly a year ago at a contract manufacturer in Finland, and deliveries to dealers have just begun. Not inclined to understatement, Fisker calls the Karma the fulfillment of "a lifelong dream of designing and creating a range of beautiful cars that make environmental sense without compromise."

Like the Chevy Volt, the Karma is designed to travel 30 to 45 miles on an electric charge before a gasoline engine kicks in. Unlike the $40,000 Volt, the extroverted Karma is unabashedly aimed at one-percenters. Its lines are voluptuous and proportions unique. Fisker says the design was inspired by "the elegant lines of windswept sand dunes and the muscular grace of a cheetah." He showed his green side by fitting out the interior in politically correct materials: The seating foam is made from soy-based bio fiber, the carpet backing composed of recycled post-consumer materials, and the trim sourced from "fallen, sunken and rescued wood," including some that has spent the last 300 years resting at the bottom of Lake Michigan.

Inspired design is no substitute for manufacturing experience, however, and Fisker has encountered the usual problems that come from starting up an enterprise as complex as a car manufacturer: production delays, prices hikes, and canceled orders. In December, Fisker recalled all 239 cars built between July 1 and November because of a possible problem with the battery's cooling system. Early in February, it suspended production and laid off 26 workers while it renegotiated terms of its $529 million loan from the Department of Energy. Some have begun to compare Fisker to Solyndra, the failed solar panel maker funded by the government to create green jobs.

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When experts look beyond the Karma's drop-dead styling and scrutinize the car's functionality, they find it wanting. After complaining about "errant rattles here and there," an admittedly portly reviewer from Road & Track described climbing into the driver's seat as something of a "circus act" and declined to even make a try at getting into the rear seats.

More substantive complaints focus on the car's heft and fuel consumption. The Karma is only five inches shorter than a Ford Flex people-mover and only a few hundred pounds lighter than a Chevy Suburban -- not exactly the dimensions you look for in a sport sedan. The turning radius only looks impressive compared to a Kenworth hauling logs. Engineers at Consumer Reports figured that Fisker's claims for a 50-mile all-electric range are probably optimistic (the EPA rates the Karma at 32 miles). They also discovered that its acceleration "lacks the urgency you'd expect from a car of this price and presence," and its handling is "not at the level one would expect from a sporty high-end sedan." Consumer Reports concluded: "Whether [the Karma] is as green or as sporty as it ought to be remains to be seen."

The most scathing remarks to date came in the March issue of the usually authoritative Car and Driver. (Full disclosure: I am an occasional contributor). It complained that while the Karma is a "heartthrob" to look at, it is essentially a $100,000 irrelevance and "not a rational choice."

To Car and Driver, the Karma comes off as a blivet -- 10 pounds of material stuffed into a five-pound bag. The problem is trying to cram all those batteries, two electric motors, and a roof-mounted solar panel into that voluptuous body. The result is poor packaging and excessive weight. As the magazine discovered, the Karma's back seat is smaller than a tiny Honda Fit's and its trunk is less than half the size of an equally tiny Kia Rio's. The Karma's two and a half tons of avoirdupois impose a severe penalty in fuel economy -- under both electric and gasoline power. Test drivers were only able to squeeze 24 to 28 miles out of the battery, while the gas-only mileage ranged from 20 mpg to 28 mpg -- unlikely many awards from environmental groups. The magazine concludes that the Mercedes-Benz S-class is cheaper than the Karma, the Lexus LS600 better built, and the Porsche Panamera faster, nearly as economical, and $20,000 less expensive.

The Karma may yet turn out to be an important milestone on the way to the all-electric car because it demonstrates that environmental sensitivity is not incompatible with luxury and style. Or it could wind up as an automotive oddity like the Tucker Torpedo or the DeLorean DMC-12 -- too ambitious by a half. To top of page

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