Lacking the raft of engineers and infrastructure of the big automakers, Fisker plotted an unconventional path to get his first model to market fast. He outsourced many of the major systems instead of engineering a lot of the car in-house, and would have the Karma built in Finland on a contract basis by a firm called Valmet. The engine, for instance, came from GM and the hybrid system from an Orange County company, Quantum Technologies.
Since Karma deliveries began in 2011, the price has zoomed to $103,000 to $116,000, further limiting potential customers. Plus, the car had its share of start-up issues. It has been recalled three times. Last August, Fisker reported the potential for a cooling fan to short, causing a fire. And earlier in the year, Fisker said it had to replace batteries in 2012 models because of a manufacturing error in the battery by A123.
A fire in Sugar Land, Texas, was blamed, at least initially, on the Fisker parked in a garage. And Fisker received more bad press when more than a dozen of its cars caught fire in a storage yard in New Jersey after being submerged during Superstorm Sandy. All told, Fisker lost 338 new cars in storage to the storm, limiting some of the color and trim choices available at its 36 dealers, says Fisker spokesman Roger Ormisher.
It didn't help matters that the Karma was rated at only 54 miles per gallon, despite its ability to run on electric power alone for up to 50 miles. (After that, the car's gas engine kicks in for a 300-mile range on a tankful of gas.) A plug-in Chevrolet Volt sedan, which retails for less than half that of a Karma, is rated at 94 mpg equivalent (mpg-e) and Ford Motor reported Friday that it expects its new plug-in Fusion Energi sedan will garner a 100 mpg-e rating.
Plus, the Karma, which sacrifices some interior to its batteries, was rated as a subcompact by the government even though on the outside it's as large as a full-size car.
Some reviews haven't been kind. Consumer Reports magazine, which plunked down $107,850 to buy a Karma for testing in September, hasn't fully reviewed the car yet but reported in a blog posting that the car is "full of flaws" and that its engine has an "unrefined roar." It blasted the sedan as cramped, with poor visibility and a poor instrument layout.
Others think Fisker is getting a bad rap. "I would never count these guys out," says Ron Cogan, publisher of the Green Car Journal.
Sure, there are glitches, but major automakers often face some of the same setbacks in creating a new model. Ford, for instance, just recalled 89,153 of its 2013 Fusion and Escape models because their prized 1.6-liter turbocharged EcoBoost engines could have potentially caused a fire without a software patch.
"They are not perfect machines, but they are as close to perfect as you can make them," Cogan says of Fisker. "They are facing issues like any other car company. Much of it has been politicized (and) that draws even more attention."
The Karma is a "high-end car aimed at a high-end market." Its ability to attract star power with "unmistakable" styling is proof that Fisker at least nailed the looks, Cogan says.
To market its cars, Fisker harnessed the potential of Hollywood. Fisker announced in July that DiCaprio was not only a Fisker owner but an equity investor, and that Fisker was participating in the actor's charitable foundation. DiCaprio, one of the first celebrity owners of a Toyota Prius, has long been one of the marquee names when it comes to showing up at high-profile events in eco-friendly cars.
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