Tuesday 21 February 2012

I don't like the Fisker Karma.

It’s been universally accepted that the hybrid-propelled Fisker Karma is a cool car. It has won plaudits from the worldwide motoring press and is sure to become a must-have among well-heeled ecopaths on leafy boulevards all over.

It’s therefore high time that this journal goes on the record to outline just exactly why I don’t like it. Because what the world really needs to hear is the opinion of somebody unlikely to ever drive a Karma, let alone get within order-signing distance of one.

 Let’s get the first thing straight; it looks great. But saying this is almost damning in itself; it’s the work of Henrik Fisker himself, and therefore anything less than stylistic perfection should be inexcusable. Alas, it’s not his best work. Fisker and his good friend Mr Callum created the Aston Martin DB9 which pretty much sired the reincarnation of Aston as we know them today. The basic shape of the DB9 was later expanded to produce the Rapide, a four-door machine in the same mould as the Karma and still the proportions work perfectly. The Fisker Karma, while a striking and appealing looking conveyance, doesn’t hang together anywhere near as successfully as the Aston does.

It must have been hard for Mr Fisker; his first disadvantage was that he had no established brand identity with which to clothe the car. He had to create his own; one that would become recognised and wouldn’t cause claims of plagiarism to be thrown around in his general direction. Well, he’s safe there; the broad moustache that expands across its face like the self-assured grin of a French Waiter is pretty unique in its class or any other. 

But there is awkwardness, too. The rear lights, while nice enough on their own, make no attempt to work with the bodywork, being instead imposed upon it. Those broad, supercar shoulders force the passenger doors into a pretty tortured shape and the vast wheelarches are only barely accommodated by a body seemingly stretched to the limit, as if it were a spandex shirt struggling to cover a mesomorph hiding underneath.

It’s a big, heavy car. It’s five metres long, but most importantly it weighs two and a half tonnes. With the limitations of current electric technology (I make no apologies for the pun whatsoever) that figure was almost inevitable, but it does force the question of whether a slinky, svelte body is really a sensible way to clad such a complex and bulky powertrain.

The Fisker Karma turns electrical energy generated by an internal combustion engine into motive force, using electric motors in place of the traditional mechanical transmission of a regular car. The idea is perfectly sound; diesel-electric locomotives have been doing this for dozens of years. In the case of the railways the massive torque afforded by electric traction motors helped make short work of heavy trains, far more so than was allowed by the direct mechanical transmission of engine power. Torque is great, but, like horsepower, there’s a limit to how much of it you really need. In a passenger car torque is no use without horsepower to back it up, unless you’re in the habit of rescuing marooned oil-tankers or towing beached whales off shorelines. On the other hand, if you want an expensive, slinky, environmentally aware car with scarcely adequate accomodation, with which to tow an enormous caravan, maybe the Karma is right for you after all.

Scarcely adequate accommodation? ‘Tis true. Look at the car in plan view and you can see how much real estate that flowing, sinuous bodywork covers, and then compare it to how little of that is devoted to interior space. The truth is, if the Karma was ever proposed as a means of transport for a group of people, it fails dismally.

And it’s along this track that my real complaint about the Karma runs. I'll play Devils Advocate first:- If Mr Fisker was solely aiming to create a stylish technological showcase that would capture the worlds imagination and further our interest in environmentally responsible transportation, then he has succeeded.

On the other hand, if he was aiming to create a mode of transport to save the world, one that marked a genuine advancement not just in terms of technology, but in how we look at the car itself, if he was trying to create an ecologically sound vehicle in which a group of people can go about their daily business as they do today, but while enjoying a greater sense of emotional wellbeing, well, things are a little less clear cut.

Peer through the slender side-glass to view upon a lavish world of luxury and, er, cramped-ness. Much song and dance is made of the fact that there are no animal-derived products involved in its upholstery; terrific news if you’re a vegan, less so if you happen to like leather seats. Also; base-model Ford Fiestas have had meat-free interiors for years and have never thought to crow about it.

The same eco-mentalism goes for the slivers of wood trim adorning the dashboard. The particulars mention that only timber from completely forest-friendly sources is allowed; be it from the bottom of a lake or salvaged from woodland fires. All lovely, but they could always have entertained the notion of, perhaps, not putting slices of polished tree in their state-of-the-art new machine at all. I’m sure there’d be a cost saving, too.

While we’re discussing matters of ecology, I remain to be convinced that there is any valid argument for a set of 20 inch wheels clad in 285 rubber on a car that claims to be pro-environment. There is a reason that the solar racers that used to criss-cross the deserts were fitted with tyres that would be at home on a shopping bike; low rolling resistance. It could be that the black circles gracing the Karma are made from a fantastical anti-matter material that doesn’t even touch the tarmac and there isn’t any measurable resistance at all; It’s unlikely, though. My suspicion is that the Karma has enormous wheels and tyres because it looks good.

So, if they insist on installing such vast wheels, why not keep the massive diameter but employ a narrower width? Why do they need to be as wide as steamrollers? 0-60 in over six seconds and a top whack of 125 tell you that the Karma is not a true performance car, so why dress it up in the regimental uniform of one?

Having smaller wheelarches would make packaging rather easier, too. Those rear passenger doors could be made into something considerably more practical; a door that can be used to allow people to get in and then, later, out, for example.

But lessening the impact of those ridiculous wheels and arches would make that low, rakish nose look rather out of place, wouldn’t it? Well then, make it higher and less rakish. Bring up the bonnet line a little, leave the glasshouse as it is but raise it too and hey presto, you’ve ended up with something that could pretty much be used as an actual car.

The whole saga puts me in mind of what would happen if you asked the man who designed the F-104 to divert his pen to create cargo plane instead. A Hercules doesn’t look like a Starfighter for good reason; it does a different job to do. The Fisker Karma might be full of technological wonderment, and sure, it has to look pretty to appeal to people for whom style is job #1. But it shouldn’t be forced to look like a supercar.

Why not make it look like a well styled, elegant saloon car? Why not an SUV? I’d prefer the former; imagine something along the lines of a Maserati Quattroporte; deliciously resolved but not so over-styled as to make it useless, but concede that an SUV would be easier to market. In fact, an SUV would even be able to make use of all that surplus torque, and be a far better candidate for a two and a half tonne kerbweight. Dammit; Henrik might even get away with 20” wheels if he wants them. Maybe even bigger!

That would be great to see; families queuing up on Americas highways not in smog-belching Navigators, Escalades and G-Classes, but in silent, clean-breathing Fisker SUVs, enjoying the delivery of smooth, endless torque while basking in the self-satisfied glow of “doing the right thing”. Yes, it would be a very expensive SUV, but I’ll venture that such a car would be relevant to more people than the Karma is.

My overall problem with the Karma is just that. In its adopted form it’s sadly irrelevant. Its position in the marketplace puts it squarely against the Quattroporte, Panamera and Rapide. It’s an interesting diversion, but far from shifting the world on its ethical pro-ecology axis, all it can possibly succeed in doing is persuading a few very wealthy individuals into a car which is congestion charge exempt.

Hardly saving the world, is it?

(Photos stolen from: Jalopnik.com, Roadandtrack.com, Barrettmotorcars.com, Wired.com)