Quantum built a single prototype for the Army, on a $1-million contract. “They loved it so much, they wouldn’t give the vehicle back to us,” says Quantum CEO Alan Niedzwiecki. But the Aggressor never went into production. Its propulsion system married an electric motor to a sizable battery pack, plus a backup hybrid engine that powered an electric generator to extend the range (the powertrain of the Chevy Volt is similar). Later christened Q-Drive, the system delivered a whiplash-inducing 1,700 pound-feet of torque yet got 80 miles per gallon. Someone had to want it.
In 2007, Niedzwiecki met Fisker, just past 40 and already, after his stints at BMW and Aston Martin, an automotive legend. Fisker and his partner Bernhard Koehler had formed Fisker Coachbuild, a boutique shop that designed and re-skinned high-end luxury cars, but that business was drying up and they were looking for something new.
At Quantum’s Orange County offices, Niedzwiecki showed Koehler and Fisker a video of the Aggressor ripping donuts—with no engine noise. They were impressed. “It could go in quietly, blow everything up, and then use hydrogen to get out,” Koehler recalls.
But soon he started thinking about hybrids—and the threat they posed. He found it astounding that Leonardo di Caprio was driving a Prius. (“Here’s a guy who could drive any car he wanted to!”) He still winces at a snub by Prince Albert II of Monaco, who refused to be photographed with one of Fisker’s six-figure, ultra-limited-edition luxury machines. From now on, the prince announced, he would be photographed only with “green” cars. Fisker worried that gas prices and global warming were about to consign his work to history.
“I started thinking, what are my children going to be driving in 10 or 20 years?” Fisker says. “Some little three-wheeler commuter cars that are all the same color, they all have 20 horsepower, they all have a speed limiter of 40 miles an hour, and they all have a number? I don’t want to do that. I still want to drive a cool car that’s full of power and having fun. I don’t want to have a number that’s trying to be a car.”
The Fisker Karma debuted at the Detroit Auto Show in January 2008, and although it was just a shell with no motor and fake buttons on the dash, it made big news. One of the industry’s most storied figures was aiming to be the next major American car company. And the Karma did not fit anybody’s idea of an electric car. It wasn’t small or meek. “I’m not interested in saying, here’s a car that’s smaller and slower and doesn’t go as far, and it’s green,” Fisker says. “On the road, they won’t mistake it for anything else. People will wonder what sort of supercar is going by.”
In building the prototype, the company had spent its initial $5 million in funding and needed more. Fisker found its angel in Ray Lane, a former COO of Oracle and now a managing partner at the Silicon Valley venture-capital powerhouse Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Lane was looking for an electric-vehicle investment, and Fisker made him a believer. “I looked at all the projects out there,” Lane says, including Tesla, Coda and Aptera Motors, a California-based company that hopes to sell an aerodynamic three-wheeler to the U.S. market. For all their differences, those electric vehicles have to be small and lightweight in order to have a useful range. The Fisker design, with its range-extending engine, was both useful and possessed over-the-top sex appeal. “I tried to find where the compromise was in owning an EV called Fisker,” Lane says. “There wasn’t one. I haven’t met a human being yet who didn’t want to own one.”
The company is tight-lipped about specifics, but it’s possible to piece together a pretty good picture of what will be inside the production-model Karma. From its appearances at auto shows, we know it’s big: 196.7 inches end-to-end, and a strapping 5,800 pounds, a bit more than a Rolls-Royce Ghost. In part this is because of its dual drive system, with the twin electric motors in the rear and the auxiliary gas engine up front. A heavy-duty lithium-ion battery array, crammed into the large hump running down the center of the passenger compartment, packs enough juice to move the metal 50 miles under normal driving conditions—which is about as far as most Americans drive in a typical day. After that, the two-liter GM Ecotec engine kicks in, not to power the wheels, as in a conventional hybrid, but to generate electricity that feeds the twin electric motors in the rear. So unlike an all-electric car, which has limited range, the Karma can drive essentially forever, with occasional stops at a gas station (it averages about 300 miles between fill-ups).
Although they add weight, the dual drive systems help balance the car’s front and rear. The small gas tank means the rear end can be shorter and sportier, a proportion Fisker favors. And the direct connection between electric motor and rear differential means it can accelerate from 0 to its top electric speed of 95 mph (125 under gas power) as if in one gear. “You’ll feel the instant power, the smooth power,” Fisker raves.
A paddle to the left of the steering wheel lets the driver shift from all-electric “Stealth” mode (a vestige of its military origins) to gas-hybrid “Sport” mode, which affords the car’s full power for hills. In Stealth mode, the Karma could be allowed to drive in sections of certain European cities, like Munich, that have imposed low-emission zones. This is a key factor, Koehler says, in making the Karma export-friendly. “We expect to export 60 percent of our vehicles,” he says. “We don’t just design for the American market.”
Another paddle on the right side of the wheel lets the driver operate the three-level regenerative braking system, with one setting for normal city driving, a second level for hilly areas, and a third—which can recharge the battery in as few as 10 miles—for long descents.
Fisker’s business model depends largely on outsourcing parts, even the seats. “You can go and engineer a new seat, and it will cost you $20 million,” Koehler says. “We didn’t do that.” The air-conditioning system comes straight from GM, along with roughly 200 other miscellaneous parts that Fisker purchases at cost under a special agreement. Valmet Automotive, a contract manufacturer that also makes the Porsche Cayman, will assemble the Karma in Finland.
Yet nothing about the car feels mass-produced. It’s an indulgence. It offers silent electronic door latches and a solar-panel roof that helps run the AC fans and fill the battery (adding 200 charge-free miles per year). The most expensive trim level is called Eco-Chic, with natural-fabric seats, ultrasuede on the dash, and wood trim recovered from California forest fires—not a single square inch of leather. “It’s for the vegans,” Koehler says, and it will set you back roughly an extra $7,500 above base price.
The Karma is exciting—just standing in front of the prototype fires up something primal. But it’s also not for everyone. I’m 5'11", and when I sink into the driver’s seat, it’s like drowning in a sea of hood. For me, raised on a steady diet of Volkswagens and Hondas, it’s too low, too long, too wide. It’s an open question, then, whether it will attract 15,000 buyers with a spare $87,900 (less a $7,500 federal tax credit) and whether that will, in turn, lead to mass-market success. “High-priced electric vehicles have a limited market,” says former GM chairman Robert Stempel. “To make EVs practical, we need affordable vehicles.”
“I don’t know who made a rule saying you can only appeal to a mass market if you are boring,” Fisker counters. His next model, in fact, is a four-door, roughly $47,000 jazzed-up family sedan, to be made at a GM plant in Delaware that Fisker is buying for a mere $18 million and will retool with the Department of Energy loan. Fisker spent more than $250,000 on lobbying in 2008 and 2009, money that turned out to be well spent, even if Vice President Joe Biden did say more than he should have at the signing ceremony. Biden revealed that Fisker hoped to sell 100,000 per year, and that crossovers and coupes were next; 100,000 is about the number of BMW 3-Series, a popular model from an established brand, sold last year in the U.S.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.