Why Fisker Karma Gets 20 MPG on Gas: 5,300 Reasons

By · October 20, 2011

Fisker Surf

The Fisker Surf: a station wagon variant of the Karma targeted for production in the summer of 2012. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The ultra-cool, ultra-green Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid is now on sale, and when operating on gas gets…20 miles per gallon? Yes, that’s what the EPA will put on the Karma's window sticker—although you wouldn't know from reading Fisker's press release about the EPA rating, which only talks about the sedan's all-electric mileage equivalent. The major reason for the 20 mpg has to do with weight—the Karma tips the scales at approximately 5,300 pounds.

Some of the Karma’s other EPA numbers aren’t exactly overwhelming: 52 miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) when driven by the dual electric motors. The battery range is officially 32 miles—not the 50 Fisker has been touting. The company announced a combined and unofficial 67 MPGe figure in 2009.

Looking for Trouble

The conservative media has its knives out, looking for a follow-up story to Solyndra. As you recall, that's the can't fail solar company that failed and left taxpayers holding the bag. Fisker got $529 million in federal loan money, hence the comparisons. The big difference is that Fisker could be said to be under-performing, but it isn't going bankrupt. Instead, the company is actually launching a car.

The Karma may well have better range than the EPA suggests. Henrik Fisker, the company’s CEO and namesake, opined, “We firmly believe that most owners will get up to 50 miles of driving range on a single charge, and will use our electric-only mode most of the time they drive the car.”

Fisker’s spokesman, Roger Ormisher, sees it the same way. He says that more than half of Americans travel less than 32 miles a day, so they’re going to be driving mostly on battery power. And he thinks that customers are mileage figures in keeping with other upscale hybrids. The 2012 Mercedes S400 Hybrid, for instance, gets 21 mpg combined. “This is a luxury sports sedan, not a LEAF or Prius,” he said. “It’s filled with advanced technology.” It also does zero to 60 in 6.3 seconds.

Ormisher also cites a figure of 188 grams of carbon dioxide per mile. Since Europe cares more about greenhouse emissions than the U.S., such figures are usually given in grams per kilometer. Ormisher said the Karma doesn't have European climate certification yet.

Slimming Down

The obvious solution to get better numbers than these is to slim the Karma down. Ormisher says that the car already uses a lot of weight-saving aluminum, so the best way to drop the pounds rests with the heavy battery pack. He didn’t have a weight figure for the battery, but it’s quite likely that tech improvements can indeed make it smaller and lighter. That’s a longer-term play, however.

As it happens, the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) is launching a “Reinventing Fire” campaign aimed at greening transportation, with a key point aimed at “light-weighting” cars. Greg Rucks, an RMI consultant, told me that building cars with carbon fiber composites offers “a dramatic leap in light-weighting without compromising safety.” This the "hypercar" approach that RMI’s Amory Lovins has been promoting for decades (with little commercial results).

Carbon fiber is expensive, much more so than aluminum, but BMW is betting heavily on the material for the i3 “Megacity” electric car it’s debuting in 2013. The company is buying the material from partner SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers in Moses Lake, Washington, and shipping it to Germany for the i3. BMW is so bullish on carbon fiber it’s also reportedly interested in taking over SGL, which is a German company. VW, which has shown a very light carbon fiber-based diesel hybrid, already owns an eight percent stake in SGL.

Customer Cars in November

Fisker’s last hurdle is getting the Karma certified by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), and Ormisher thinks that will happen within a week. In the meantime, the car can be sold everywhere but California.

Some 39 of the first cars, of 200 or 300 built at the factory in Finland, have arrived at the port of Newark. All the early vehicles are going to patient dealers for use as demonstrators, but Fisker has also delivered a few cars to celebrities, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell, actor Leonardo DiCaprio and Ray Lane, a Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers partner (along with another Fisker customer, Al Gore, who hasn’t received his car yet). Kleiner Perkins is a multi-million-dollar investor in Fisker, and Lane said last summer that the company “has the potential to be the same value as [FarmVille creator] Zynga.”

If it’s too heavy and performance is compromised, the Karma may not be able to get through the door to big profits. Few people have actually driven the Karma, but I’m guessing it won’t be a letdown on the road, and there’s a consumer base ready to be blinded by its aggressive good looks and supercar acceleration. No one complains about the fuel economy of Ferraris (but nobody expects them to be green, either).

Fisker has 1,300 depositors, and they’ve waited through several delays. Those folks will start seeing deliveries in November. That’s when the rubber really hits the road, and the heavyweight Karma is finally off the show floor and on the market.

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