Long, wide and low-slung, the car looks exotic, unplaceable. “It’s the length of a Mercedes CLS, the width of a BMW 7-series, and the height of a Porsche 911,” says the corporate spokesman at the wheel. The front end is so long that it must hold at least a V8, but in fact there is no discernible engine noise, only the quiet whine of electric motors. Instead, a pair of external speakers emits—for effect—a sound somewhere between a Formula One car and a starship.
The car is a racy four-door, with two more roomy seats behind us and trunk enough for two sets of golf clubs. Above us stretches a solar panel, built into the roof. And the whole thing is controlled by a cutting-edge touchscreen in the dash. As we wheel into a fancy shopping center, I feel like James Bond arriving at MI6.
Or at least, that’s what I imagine it’s like to ride in the Fisker Karma. It’s the long-awaited plug-in hybrid supercar that is supposed to usher in a new era of upscale, luxurious green transportation—and hopefully at the same time revive the American automotive industry. Backed by a $529-million U.S. government loan, plus another $300-odd million in venture capital, Fisker Automotive aims to do what Tucker and DeLorean could not: create a new, big, successful American carmaker. “This car is more sexy and exciting than any other car you’ve seen,” boasts designer Henrik Fisker. Maybe it is. But I haven’t driven one.
I’d tried for weeks to snag a rare Karma test drive, but no dice. So right now the flack and I are sitting in his black Audi wagon, with a purple baby seat in the rear. No head-snapping torque, no starship noises, no revolution on wheels. “We’re just not ready to show it yet,” he says as we pull into the mall to pick up lunch.Almost no one outside the company has ever driven the Karma. The lone exception is the Crown Prince of Denmark (well, his chauffeur), who arrived at December’s Copenhagen global-warming summit in one. Apart from car shows and a handful of low-speed public appearances, the seven working prototypes have been off-limits to outsiders. Even now, seven months before working cars are supposed to arrive in Fisker’s 45 dealerships, the company has yet to allow a journalist to ride in a Karma. Even the Fisker sound, meant to alert pedestrians, is under wraps. “We’re not releasing that yet,” the spokesman tells me. “We don’t want to give away the secret sauce.”
Perhaps Fisker’s secrecy is strategic. After all, 1,600 paying customers have preordered the $88,000 Karma without even a test drive. His reputation is what does it. Fisker created the BMW Z8 roadster featured in the 1999 Bond film The World Is Not Enough and then, at Aston Martin, updated the beloved Vantage V8. He’s a god of car design. But the secrecy has also fueled skepticism about the company. The Karma’s delivery date has slipped from the fourth quarter of 2009 to September 2010 to “later this year.” Customers placing new orders, meanwhile, supposedly won’t receive a Karma before next spring.
This is supposed to be the year of the electric car, the beginning of the New Age of the automobile. A handful of electric vehicles (EVs) and next-generation hybrids are set to reach the market over the next 12 months.
The theme among most of these cars is practicality. Last month, customers began to reserve the eco-chic Nissan Leaf, a roomy, airy runabout, said to be priced like a Honda Civic, that looks to be this decade’s answer to the Prius. This fall is the scheduled debut of the much-anticipated Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid that General Motors hopes will save its bacon. And the fourth quarter will see the first shipments of the all-electric Coda, a functional $30,000-something sedan manufactured in China and sold here by a Santa Monica–based start-up.
But some green-car buyers don’t want to give up sex appeal. Tesla Motors, the Silicon Valley start-up that is perhaps Fisker’s closest competitor, has sold about 1,000 of its ultra-sporty, electric Roadster (0 to 60 in 3.9 seconds) at $109,000. Audi, Mercedes and BMW all have EVs or hybrids in the works, and Porsche recently unveiled its 918 Spyder plug-in hybrid concept.
The federal government believes in Fisker. Last September, the Department of Energy awarded Fisker Automotive a $529-million loan to finish the Karma and begin work on its next car, the more affordable four-door code-named Nina. Fisker hopes to sell 15,000 Karmas, and then a whopping 100,000 Ninas. Last June, Henrik Fisker made the cover of Forbes, which dubbed his company “The Next Detroit.”
But this isn’t just a product release. It’s the company’s first ever, incorporating technology that no one, including the giants of automotive engineering, has perfected yet. Which is why Fisker’s secrecy is worrisome. Some are leery of Quantum Fuel Systems Technologies Worldwide, a little-known company that created the powertrain with Fisker. And Fisker is on its third battery supplier in three years. A mishap in a Fisker—or any other EV—could cripple the whole segment, pushing buyers and investors away. “There are 750 gas-car fires every day,” an EV engineer told me. But with battery-powered cars like the Karma, “one single failure will be headline news.”
The company has a highly respected founder, attractive prototypes and a half-billion-dollar government loan. But is Fisker’s sleek, expensive vision of an electric vehicle a forecast of the future, or the kind of rarefied concept that litters the past?
“Anybody can draw a f- -king box,” says a car-company executive who has observed Fisker closely. “What matters is what’s inside, the powertrain that makes the thing go. And nobody has seen that yet.”
Fisker’s offices in Irvine, California, seem very quiet for a company trying to put vehicles on the road in less than a year. I count only about a dozen employees, and about the same number of cars in the parking lot (a spokesman says 28 employees work there, with another 30 on the way from Fisker’s just-closed Michigan office). Upstairs, there are vast expanses of empty, carpeted office space. But when I meet the 46-year-old Fisker, his unlined face and deep intonation betray no feelings of doubt whatsoever. And then I see why. It’s the car.
The Karma concept prototype sits in the lobby. It’s beautiful, like a long-limbed woman lying on her side. I linger for a moment before being ushered past a fingerprint-identifying security system to a back room filled with clay models, prototypes and disembodied chassis. In one corner sits a newer, shorter version of the Karma, the Sunset hardtop convertible, which Fisker announced last year. I get to sit inside it for a luxurious few minutes. The other six Karmas are off at various car shows or test labs, but I spot a prototype of yet another new model, a follow-up version of the Karma, hidden beneath a tarp. It looks to be some sort of crossover or quasi-SUV, but my queries go nowhere and the tarp stays on. “Whenever we reveal something, other car companies copy us,” Fisker says later. “Why should we give them a head start?”single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.