Fisker Karma EV Goes on Tour -- But Still Nobody's Driving It

Last Updated Apr 16, 2010 3:42 PM EDT

The Fisker Karma, so near and yet so far. The plug-in hybrid car, with alleged zero to 60 time of six seconds and a top speed of 125 mph, is scheduled to hit showrooms by the end of the year and to reach its first customers in the first quarter of 2011. But I have to say "alleged" because, as close as the Karma is to launch, very few people have driven it. I've sat in one, if that counts.

The lack of access is interesting in light of Fisker's intention, announced Thursday, to take the Karma on a national "retail tour" beginning April 27. Will the car's prospective dealers finally get a chance to drive the car? No, says spokesman Russell Datz. "It's a chance to touch and feel the car," he said. "A lot of our depositors have never seen the car in the flesh." The immobile car they'll be reaching out to touch is the same one recently seen on the show car circuit.

In many ways, the Karma (like the Tesla Roadster) is a journalist's dream. It's spectacularly sexy, and it has a great back story. The company's CEO, Danish-born Henrik Fisker, is not only the car's designer (after a rapid rise at BMW, Aston Martin and other high-profile brands) but also the company's CEO, a snappy dresser with an internationalist flair and a raconteur's gifts. Two of his cars, the BMW Z8 and the Aston DB9, were featured in James Bond movies. But Henrik Fisker is far more accessible than the car itself.

Popular Science surveys the "future of the car" in its May issue, and concludes:

Greener than a Prius and hotter than a Maserati, the Fisker Karma promises to change the way the world thinks about electric cars. The only problem is that nobody outside the company has driven one yet. Will Henrik Fisker tempt buyers into the electric age, or is he already a relic of the past?
Fisker has certainly shown off the car and its sleek Ferrari-like lines, but as a static display, not a driving car. The company has no obligation to hand the keys to journalists, obviously, but its reticence has reinforced the impression that the car may not yet be ready for the road (and thus not likely to get to customers on time).

Datz denies that. He, for one, has driven the Karma, and he describes it as "impressive." And he says that Fisker is carefully planning its press introduction for sometime around the end of the year. "It is very important that our first driving impression is a home run," he said. "We want the first drive to be in the finished car."

The company's powertrain manufacturer, Quantum Technologies, also says the car is on track for launch. "We haven't seen any show-stoppers," says David Mazaika, Quantum's chief operating officer.

Henrik Fisker has demonstrated prodigious skill as a fundraiser. The company said early this year that it raised $115.3 million in equity funding (including $23 million from its battery supplier, Boston-based A123 Systems). That presumably gets Fisker close to meeting the matching provisions of its provisional $528.7 million Department of Energy loan. Fisker is still talking to the DOE about that, Datz said.

Fisker switched battery suppliers from EnerDel to A123 in January, and that $23 million investment undoubtedly was a factor. But that means Fisker has had only a few months to integrate a new battery pack into its sophisticated architecture. It's quite likely that the car still needs finishing work.

Fisker is planning a second model, the more affordable Nina, which it will build in the former GM assembly plant in Delaware it bought for that purpose. It says the company "expects to create up to 5,000 direct and indirect U.S. jobs in the coming years."

I'm not an investor in Fisker, but if I were so inclined, before I put money down I'd want to drive the car. But perhaps just the sight of the Karma is enough to loosen purse strings. Some 1,600 people have put down $5,000 deposits (including Al Gore), and none of them have driven the car, either. Fisker has said it wants to be producing 15,000 cars annually by 2011. Last month, I visited its Valmet production facility in Finland -- which also produces Porsches and the Think City EV. They were expecting the car at Valmet, and it will run down the same very clean assembly line that I saw (very quietly) hand-building Porsche Boxsters and Caymans.

At the heart of the Karma is Quantum's Q Drive, first developed for possible military applications. As in the Chevrolet Volt, a small gas engine acts as a generator to give the car virtually unlimited electric range. The car can travel 50 miles on a battery charge, and Fisker claims 100 mpg overall.

According to Mazaika, Q Drive is still undergoing a validation program and undergoing "some pretty strong durability testing," but the company expects to meet Fisker's performance targets. In testing at El Toro airbase in Orange County, California and other locations, he said, "We are meeting the requirements that Fisker has given us." Mazaika said that as many as 100 people have driven the Karma, including some dealers.

The Karma tour is to go to 42 cities in 26 states (and three Canadian provinces). Marti Eulberg, the company's vice president of global sales and marketing, says the tour will give retailers "the opportunity to introduce the beautifully styled and environmentally friendly Karma to their customers and potential prospects." They can kick the tires, but not go for a spin.

Journalists, including me, have driven pre-production versions of the Chevrolet Volt, which is on a similar timetable to the Karma. We've also been behind the wheel in the headed-for-market-this-year Nissan Leaf battery car, albeit in "mule" versions that do not resemble the finished car. In fact, Nissan sent the Leaf on tour earlier this year as a static display, so there is some precedent here.

Journalists are tired of looking at the Karma. The skepticism can only be cleared away with a good blast on the open road.