All Articles
All Articles

Test Drive: 2012 Fisker Karma


Test Drive: 2012 Fisker Karma

The new plug-in hybrid integrates recycled materials with high design and performance to reach a class of its own

by Evan Orensten
on 05 March 2012

Those looking to spend $100,000 on a car have many options—excellent performance, coddling comfort, strong styling and luxury hybrids. The Fisker Karma EVer appeals to those who seek all of those, but are willing to meet somewhere in the middle. It isn't the fastest or best performing in that price range, the most luxurious, or the hybrid with the best mileage. It is, however, a hugely impressive and attractive car from a new and interesting manufacturer that delivers enough of each of those components to make it a unique and obvious choice for many potential buyers. This new company seeks to increase the use of recycled materials and to decrease impact, wherever possible. Partners and suppliers are selected for their responsible business practices, and even its dealers need to get on the program—showrooms must be renovated, not built from scratch.

Building a car is an incredibly complex process that takes some of the world's best design and engineering talent years, leveraging well-established systems and manufacturing techniques, years to create. Starting a new automobile company from scratch outside of the very small-scale, niche market is something that is very rarely endeavored given the complexity and enormous cost involved.


Southern California-based Fisker was created in 2007 by two auto industry vets and longtime associates—Henrik Fisker (who led design of the Z8 at BMW, was president and CEO of BMW's DesignworksUSA, creative director at Ford's London design center, chief of design at Aston Martin, and director of Ford's Global Advanced Design Studio) and Bernhard Koehler (who similarly held senior positions at BMW as well as its DesignworksUSA division, Ford's London design center, and was director of operations and business at Ford's Global Advanced Design Studio). In 2008 they debuted the Fisker Karma concept, the world's first luxury plug-in hybrid car, inspired by technology created for the U.S. military.

Four years later, delivery of the production Karma has begun, and its first customers—European royals and Hollywood celebrities among them—can be spotted driving one of the most attention-getting cars on the road today. I had the opportunity to test the Karma in Los Angeles, meet many of the company's executives, and experience the car firsthand.


The Fisker Karma EVer (Electric Vehicle with extended range) is a $100,000, four-door, four-seat, luxury plug-in hybrid with a very strong presence. It can travel up to 50 miles on a full charge of its 180 kW, 20 KWh lithium-iron phosphate battery pack, meaning that most people commuting to work will never need the turbocharged 2.0 liter, four cylinder, 260-hp gas-powered engine (sourced from GM). If needed, the engine powers the generator, which in turn powers the two rear-mounted electric motors that drive the rear wheels, and the car can travel around 250 additional miles. This "series hybrid" design is unique to the Karma.

The motors generate around 400hp and 981 lb-ft of torque (the Ferrari 458 Italia, by comparison, generates around 400 lb-ft, and the Tesla Roadster Sport around 225 lb-ft). Electric engines are able to access all of that torque on demand, and that means the Karma is perky (though not fast), despite its 5,500-lb heft (as much as many large SUVs). The batteries, solar panel roof, engine, motors and generator create a heavy payload, one that some people believe impedes its performance and desirability. While true, those buyers are not the ones entranced by the Karma's styling, 22" Batmobile-like Circuit Blade wheels and Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar tires.


The inside of the car makes as much of a statement. Available in three interior trim packages, the base EcoStandard, the EcoSport and the EcoLux (which is what I drove). Each features only reclaimed wood from fallen trees from forest fires, and even from the bottom of Lake Michigan, where 300-year-old wood is retrieved from yesteryear's lumber mill scrap. Though limited in its use, the wood takes center stage in the cabin. The simple and natural finish—you won't find any glossy lacquer here—is unique, subtle and luxurious.

The EcoStandard features artificial leather, and the EcoSport Low Carbon Leather—Farm Animal Welfare-certified hides which are organically tanned with ecologically harvested bark extract by seventh-generation Scottish leather firm Bridge of Weir. The perfection you'd find in a Bentley's leather trim is traded for the natural beauty of the cow's hide. Around 85% of the hide is used (substantially more than usual), imperfections and all. Interior colorways are fresh and innovative, too. The firm's plant supplies its own steam-generated power and processes its waste water.

The EcoLux features a totally animal-free automobile interior along with an "EcoSuede" made entirely of recycled materials. All packages include soy-based foam in the seats and carpet made with recycled materials. Though the rear seats provide enough room for adults, they aren't very comfortable to sit in for long periods of time.

All packages share the same electronics, and here too Fisker has innovated with a 10" haptic touch screen to control all aspects of the car's entertainment and operational systems. In fact the Karma has only four buttons—one for the locks, one for the glove box, one for the hazard lights and one for power. The dash's lack of switches and buttons is not just a nod to electronics—Fisker intentionally sought to eliminate the loop involved in manufacturing, shipping, maintaining and ultimately disposing of landfill-destined plastic and wire components. The "Command Center" system, designed with Visteon, is user-friendly and well executed, though may take some getting used to by those who are less comfortable or familiar with digital interfaces. My phone paired quickly and easily, and the Bluetooth system supports audio. Key functions are easily accessed without painful menu layers, and it serves as a display when the car is in reverse. The car's sound system is acceptable but far from industry-leading. The car features low-voltage LED lighting wherever possible, further reducing demand on the car's electrical system.

Some of the power for the car's systems is created by its "retro-geometric"-patterned 120-watt solar roof panel (the largest and most powerful in any automobile), which both extends battery range and makes a clear design statement. Parked in the sun? The Karma leverages that electric power to ventilate the car's interior. Fisker estimates that around 200 miles of zero-emissions driving are created from the car's roof, making it "the only car with a sunroof for the 21st century."


The Karma performed as well in LA traffic as the twisting canyon roads of Malibu, providing a respectfully sticky ride that doesn't disappoint, especially for a a sedan of its size. Those big wheels feature Brembo monobloc caliper brakes, which easily bring the car to a quick standstill, and the regenerative braking system takes that energy and directs it to help power a generator where it can be reused.

The Karma fully charges in about 14 hours with a standard 100v plug, or around 6 hours with a 220v plug.

Designed and engineered in Anaheim, CA, the Karma is built by Valmet, the respectable Finnish producer, who until last year produced the Porsche Cayman and Boxter. Fisker has purchased an old GM plant in New Hampshire which it intends to renovate and use to build its next model, the Nina.

The Karma introduces to the sometimes predictable luxury auto market a truly innovative new option from a refreshingly young company, and certainly fulfills a need for the more thoughtful consumer with six figures to spend on an equally conscious car.

Photos by Evan Orensten

The CH25 is a showcase of creators and innovators from a broad range of disciplines who are currently working to drive the world forward.

Pauline van Dongen

The Dutch designer blazing the wearable technology path

Read More
I’m fascinated by concepts of change, movement, energy and perception; since they are closely related to the way we experience the world

Eelke Plasmeijer

The locally driven restaurant that’s upending Balinese food culture

Read More
We really try to keep things simple and let the produce do the talking

George Arriola and Monohm

An heirloom electronic for the post-smartphone era

Read More
We agonized during the design process as all hyper-obsessed craftspeople should

Joshua Harker

Pushing the boundaries of sculpture with intricate 3D printing

Read More
My intent was to explore and depict the architecture of the imagination, to interpret and share forms evident in the mind’s eye

Meredith Perry

How searching the Internet helped a 22-year-old invent wireless electricity

Read More
It’s not about where the information is, it’s about how you use the tools

Leopoldine Huyghues Despointes

The young filmmaker and non-profit founder who just wants people to follow their dreams

Read More
I feel confident and ready to accomplish so much more, the movement is on

Roxie Darling

From un-shampoo to transgender identity, the NYC colorist boldly defining the next chapter of hair

Read More
Hair color is as much a science as it is a craft

Tal Danino

The bioengineer who’s programming DNA to fight cancer

Read More
[Manipulating genes] is very new, people are just learning how to program these organisms

Vanessa Newman

Redesigning pregnancy for the post-gender generation with Butchbaby & Co.

Read More
I want my customers to feel comfortable and unchanged, in that becoming pregnant didn't take away from or compromise their identity

Marcus Weller

Using technology to turn motorcycle helmet design on its head

Read More
I was taken aback both by the number of people that doubted it, and by the equally large number of people that got behind it

Douglas Riboud + Justin Guilbert

How a mission to create great coconut water led to a whole new way of doing business

Read More
We’ve made a conscious decision to be as transparent and honest as we can, and let people decide for themselves

Jonathan Sparks

Reinventing electronic music by inventing multi-disciplinary instruments

Read More
Recorded music is becoming so cheap, so the value of music is now in live performance

Melissa Kushner

Addressing the needs of orphans and vulnerable children in Malawi through microenterprise

Read More
Poverty is complicated, there is an increasing temptation and pressure in the development space to oversimplify things

Sarah Kunst

The entrepreneur single-handedly changing the landscape for women in tech

Read More
People who live on a planet that is half women but can never seem to find any when they need one, I have solved your problem

Sabine Seymour

A future where smart clothes are as ubiquitous as zippers

Read More
In the future you will not buy a piece of 'functional' clothing without SoftSpot

Alex Kalman

The tiny museum in Manhattan that’s redefining museums

Read More
The mission is to put this small simple and powerful tool into the hands of as many people as possible

Lulu Mickelson

A civic leader bringing change to NYC through design

Read More
Human-centered design is one of the many tools that we can use to better engage the public

Kathleen Supové

The NYC performance artist who’s radically reinventing the piano recital

Read More
I like pieces that are virtuosic, that show off the piano and what it can do, and are awe-inspiring

Tarren Wolfe

The next-generation appliance making kitchens greener—literally

Read More
Our goal is to provide food for everyone in the world, and the best place to start is in our very own community

LaToya Ruby Frazier

Documenting the slow, troubling change in Braddock, Pennsylvania

Read More
I am not a journalist, I am a conceptual documentary artist using my visual expression for building narratives that are unseen and unheard

Kegan Schouwenburg

Revolutionizing orthotics through 3D-printed insoles

Read More
What orthotics do is they effectively change the geometry of what your alignment is like

Dan Barasch + James Ramsey

A quest to make the future brighter—underground

Read More
We both share a passion for groundbreaking technology and a shared love of New York

Corinne Joachim Sanon

The chocolatier bringing social change to Haiti and bean-to-bar chocolate to the world

Read More
Seeing the poverty surrounding me and the lack of jobs and opportunity bothered me

Matt Kenyon

Fusing art and technology to disrupt concepts of corporate America

Read More
I want the work to live in the world and circulate, so it can generate more dialogue

Cynthia Breazeal

How an emotional, empathetic robot named Jibo stands to revolutionize communication

Read More
The thing that's so provocative about social robots is that it's fundamentally a community technology
Loading More...