Imagine for a moment how difficult it must always have been to start a car company from scratch, gathering together the talent, money and facilities to bring a truly competitive product to market at a truly competitive price. And that’s before you’ve found a single customer prepared to spend that money on your product in preference to any number of rival propositions which have carefully been building their brands for decades.
Now imagine how hard it must be to find the money and customers in today’s climate. And make your car compliant with the many bewildering and bewilderingly different homologation rules which you must pass before you can sell it around the world.
Then, finally, imagine doing all of that using a technology in a way that has never been offered to the public before. Now you have some idea of the size of the task Fisker Automotive has taken on.
Yet so far, it appears on course. Not only have its staff designed, engineered and developed the car, they have found someone to build it for them (Valmet in Finland, which until earlier this year, made Porsche Boxsters and Caymans).
They have 300 employees and, impressively, $1.1 billion in the bank from a variety of sources ranging from venture capitalists to the US government. Most important and perhaps most surprising of all, they have customers: 3000 of them to be precise, enough to account for every car they’ll make for the next year.
There are many reasons why Fisker appears to be achieving the apparently impossible. First is the persuasive charms of Henrik Fisker, the Danish car designer whose show this is. Having cars like the BMW Z8 and Aston Martin V8 Vantage to his name will have done his credibility no harm, but you don’t score a half-billion dollar loan from Capitol Hill just by having a cool portfolio.
His greatest weapon is the product itself, the Karma. It might look cut from a similar cloth to that expanding constituency of cars that look like coupés yet have four doors, but this is no Porsche Panamera, Aston Rapide or Mercedes CLS wannabe. It’s a car unlike any other on sale.
For most owners on most journeys, the Karma will be fed entirely by electricity. A vast lithium-ion battery pack located along the spine of the car fuels two 201bhp electric motors located at the rear which power the back wheels.
Only when the battery power is depleted or an extra surge of power is required does a 2-litre, four-cylinder turbo engine with 260bhp spark up, acting as a generator to provide either further shove, more range or both. This ‘range extender’ principle has been seen before and will shortly come to market in the Vauxhall Ampera hatchback. But at £87,000 and with over 400bhp on offer, the Karma is looking to provide a completely different kind of experience to a completely different kind of customer.
At first I thought the concept flawed. I was introduced to the Fisker at a concrete test track outside Milan. I liked its shape and appreciated the simple, clean and clearly conceived interior.
But when I drove it the car felt lumbering through slow corners. True, it seemed brisk in all-electric mode, but if you wanted to enjoy its maximum performance that meant calling upon the petrol motor which, frankly, is awful. It’s loud, coarse, blaring, and while good at improving the car’s acceleration a tad, is far better at shattering your peace and quiet. Who’s going to spend £87,000 on that?
But then I took it away from the track and imagined I were an owner on my way to work. I swept silently along some country lanes until I reached the motorway where I engaged the petrol engine, discovered it’s acceptably quiet at a constant cruise and motored into Milan. Once there I reverted to all-electric – or ‘stealth’ mode as Fisker painfully insists on calling it – and set a course into the heart of the city.
Now we were on to something. It might not seem like much to brag about, but it’s actually quite important: the Karma is the world’s best car in which to be stuck in heavy traffic. Its ability to ooze forward a few yards puts Rolls-Royces to shame. Moreover there is something so soothing about its silent running, the absence of any slack in its powertrain because it doesn’t need a gearbox, its satin ride and gorgeous interior that I got as close as I’m ever likely to get to being glad I was in a jam. And when a gap appeared the fact the Karma can summon up more torque than a Bugatti Veyron and do so with the car at a standstill meant no one else stood a chance of bagging it.
Fisker says it does 67mpg, which I’m sure is possible, but not without also consuming a significant amount of electrical energy gathered by plugging the car into the mains. So you can’t just look at the numbers and say it’s half as thirsty or twice as clean as a conventional rival – it just doesn’t work that way, and the sooner someone works out a representative cycle that will allow a fair comparison between the two technologies, the sooner we’ll have a clearer picture of just how clean the Fisker and those that will undoubtedly follow it actually are.
But to me it seems obvious that you can’t move 2.5 tonnes of metal from one place to the other while consuming the same energy as if it weighed one tonne, like a small hatchback which really will return 67mpg, without consuming any other kind of fuel.
But nor do I doubt that generating most of the car’s energy in a power station and transferring it to the wheels via an advanced system of batteries and motors is more efficient than pouring petrol into an internal combustion engine.
Besides, it’s not just what this car can do that appeals, but the way it does it so silently and without apparent effort that really struck me. Fisker has huge plans and has already bought an ex-GM factory at a knockdown price where the next car, codenamed Nina, will be built. And it is that car, a more affordable, mass-market and family-friendly offering, that is the main event. The Karma is merely the warm-up act. And as such acts go, it’s pretty impressive.
You’re not going to want one if you’re a keen driver because it’s too heavy, and its appeal in Britain will be massively compromised by Fisker’s decision to make it only with left-hand drive. However, if you live out of town but work in, if you hate but cannot avoid the traffic, if you want to look cool while wearing your environmental credentials in public, there really is nothing like it. I have a strong feeling that Fisker’s Herculean efforts to get this car to market are about to be amply rewarded.
ENGINE: twin electric motors with 2-litre, four-cylinder petrol generator
TOP SPEED: 125mph (limited)
POWER: 402bhp at n/a rpm
FUEL/CO2: 67mpg approx, 87g/km