Bored with hybrid cars? Let the Fisker Karma sweep you off your feet

Electric cars and hybrids a bit dull for you? Time to think again. Ryan Borroff gets an exclusive first drive of the four-door sports car that is shaking things up: the Fisker Karma.

The Fisker Karma isn't your average electric car. But it shouldn't be, considering it was created by Henrik Fisker, who also designed the Aston Martin V8 Vantage and the BMW Z8. Courtesy of Fisker Automotive
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The world's press raised a cynical eyebrow when Fisker Automotive's Karma concept was revealed at the Detroit Auto Show in 2008.

It wasn't that the car lacked innovation - in fact, just the opposite - or that it wasn't a beautiful design - it's penned by Henrik Fisker, the same man that authored the Aston Martin Vantage and BMW Z8 sports cars.

No, it was met with cynicism because few people believed it was possible to produce a luxurious and technologically advanced hybrid electric sports car with supermodel good-looks and sports car performance for the sub-US$100,000 (Dh367,000) sticker price that the company had set as its targevt.

Worse, Fisker and business partner Bernhard Koehler had launched Fisker Automotive out of the ashes of Fisker Coachbuild, a company that built custom Fisker Tramanto and Latigo models from the underpinnings of Mercedes-Benz SL and BMW 6 Series cars. It didn't look good.

Add this to the fact that, in recent decades, no one - and certainly not a car designer - has successfully started their own volume production car company building their own cars under a new automotive brand that carries their family name.

But all of that matters not right now. Because, three years after the concept, I'm here in Milan, behind the wheel of one of the first production models - number three, I believe.

That this car is third off the production line - and not a prototype - is significant because it demonstrates that the cars are being sold. Fisker Automotive says 3,000 orders have been taken already and that its target is to build 300 cars per week by year-end.

Against great odds, Fisker Automotive has succeeded in building one of the most intriguing and groundbreaking cars of recent times. Launching a car company from scratch is even more difficult in that it is expensive; fantastically expensive. But since the demise of Fisker Coachbuild, Fisker and Koehler managed to raise more than US$1 billion in investment for Fisker Automotive, half from the US government and the rest from investors that include the Qatar Investment Authority. The Karma is now in production at Valmet Automotive in Finland; the same facility that builds Porsche's Boxster and Cayman models.

The world's most bankable movie star and eco-activist, Leonardo DiCaprio, has one. He bought the first production Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid sports car ever built. What's more, he paid his own, hard-earned money for it; DiCaprio's car is no celebrity freebie.

Fisker calls the Karma "the world's first luxury plug-in hybrid". It is certainly that. Eyebrows are still being raised. Particularly in Munich and Stuttgart.

"The Karma looks like a four-door supercar," explains Fisker, the chief executive of Fisker Automotive. "But when you think about how a lot of these types of car are used today - cars like the Porsche Panamera or the Mercedes CLS - they're used as a daily commuter by many people. That's the group of people we are targeting with this car.

"A lot of people today are wondering whether they really need a powerful V8 engine, when they are sitting in traffic," says Fisker. "We've found that we're using the gasoline engine even less than we thought we would in this car.

"We believe that 95 per cent of the time the car will be driven in electric mode only and the gasoline engine will only be used as an emergency range extender."

The car certainly looks the part. With its long bonnet, short rear deck, unusually wide stance and low roofline, as well as athletic shoulders and pronounced wheel arches, the overall effect is a car that is long, lithe, low, muscular, yet very elegant. These are ideal traits for a sports car and Fisker has worked hard to disguise the car's unusually long length, which - at almost five metres - is dictated by the lithium-ion battery pack spine that runs the length of the car.

Then there are those massive 22-inch Fisker Circuit Blade alloy wheels upon which the car sits. No car has ever gone into production with 22-inch wheels. They are even larger than the wheels on the original Karma concept car. Another first then.

Inside, the Karma knocks other luxury brands sideways. Leather, wood and Alcantara suede combine with the most advanced touch-screen in-car control system I've seen. The interior has almost no switches at all. Instead, all of the main functions - including the audio, climate control and navigation system - are accessed by the touch-screen display. Though it takes a little bit of getting used to, the effect of eliminating so many switches is to maximise the elegant nature of the interior while also reminding Karma owners that they are driving a very modern motor car.

The Karma is very comfortable, the driving position is good and the car feels special. The combination of new materials, up-to-the-minute tech, futuristic controls and highly individual and contemporary styling adds up to a cabin that is utterly unique.

So is it all style over substance? Not a bit. On the road, around the streets of Milan, the car is excellent. You have the option to drive the car in electric-only stealth mode or combustion engine-boosted sport mode. In stealth mode, the car can travel using only battery power for up to 80km. This is where the Karma is at its best, accelerating in stealth mode is smooth - as there are no gears - and exhilarating.

Driving in near silence, the only noise is a sound effect broadcast through rear bumper speakers to warn pedestrians of the car's arrival. The speakers, which mimic chrome exhaust pipes, emit a sound that Fisker Automotive calls "Tron". It's a strange, synthesised noise, like an imagined alien spacecraft, but it's agreeable and enhances the driving experience. Combine the lack of engine noise with little road and wind noise and driving the Karma is about as stress-free as driving can get. It's almost soothing.

For a car that is so long, so wide and heavy (those batteries), the Karma handles surprisingly well. Though the car doesn't exactly feel agile, it certainly doesn't feel like a 2.5-tonne car either. Fisker's engineers have worked hard to keep the weight down by using an aluminium space-frame chassis and aluminium or composite body panels. You could say the Karma carries its weight well and feels very stable on the road.

By switching into sport mode - via a paddle behind the steering wheel - the Karma's turbocharged, 2.0L four-cylinder petrol engine kicks in to generate electricity for the batteries that power the car's two drive motors. This mode offers quicker acceleration and up to 400 additional kilometres of vehicle range.

In stealth mode, the Karma can accelerate from zero to 96kph in 7.9 seconds, a figure that drops to just 5.9 seconds in the less satisfying sport mode. The car has a top speed of 200kph and 2.4L/100km (combined) with CO2 emissions of 83g/km are possible. But if you use the car for commuting under electric power only, then emissions are effectively zero, with just the price of electricity to pay. Charge time is five-and-a-half hours.

However, there is a compromise. You need to adapt the manner in which you drive to get the best out of the Karma. This is because, in sport mode and under heavy acceleration, the petrol engine, which cuts in to boost the batteries, makes quite a disagreeable noise; it sounds like a loud leaf blower or lawnmower engine. The noise shatters the otherwise peaceful experience of driving the car, leaving you reconsidering whether you need to drive fast at all.

"Because you switch from total silence to the sound of the engine, you notice it more," explains Fisker. "Then it's almost like you don't want it on because driving in silence is so great. But once you're out on the freeway at 80mph the engine sound is stable in the background. Cruising at the same [continuous] speed, it's just like any other car .

"And you know, 100 years ago, when people put a gasoline engine on a horse carriage, people thought that was pretty peculiar too. I don't think they stood around and clapped. But people got used to it."

We need to get used to the whole concept of electric and hybrid cars, because fossil fuels won't be around forever. And the Karma represents a huge leap forward in making the environmentally friendly car exciting. It's beautiful in its appearance but also in the way it's built. Going green just became desirable - it's what the planet's been waiting for.