Executive Electrics: Fisker Karma vs Tesla Model S

words - Jeremy Bass
Although most established auto brands are targeting their electric development at mass market models, these US start-ups are aiming at the top-end of town...

Tesla and Fisker are the biggest start-ups the US auto industry has seen since WWII. Although both have electro-mobility at the heart of their selling propositions, they take different routes to the same end -- Tesla uses pure battery power; Fisker uses electric drive motors but adds a petrol engine driving an onboard generator to extend range.

So are we comparing apples with oranges here? In short, yes. These two have lots in common beyond putting power to ground electrically and being mentioned in the same breath -- the latter probably more often than they’d like.

Both have been met with influential acclaim and both ride high on celebrity endorsement. Fisker has benefited from well-publicised buy-in by, among others, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. Believe it or not Tesla has also drawn in, among others, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon.

Both companies are cagey about sales figures, too.

Tesla had expressed expectations of delivering between 2700 to 3225 cars by the end of 2012 -- well short of earlier estimates around the 5000 mark. (In the absence of official numbers, the best estimates, gained using crowd sourced data from the plugged-in Tesla Motors Club, suggest around 3000 units delivered in 2012).

Fisker has delivered under 2000 cars. And had a troubled 2012, suspending production mid year... Add millions of dollars worth of cars destroyed in a hurricane and its battery producer going broke and the future has its, errr... challenges. Currently it's seeking suitors and with them cash to recommence production.

Tesla has been more stable, thanks in part to ownership approaches from Toyota and Daimler... Thus both companies have served to remind just how hard it is to get a new automotive brand going, and how much adrenalin and patience and, above all, cash, it takes just to avert stillbirth.

But they remain at the electric forefront. Respectively their latest Karma and Model S saloons are very squarely aimed at the same executive marketplace - and as such are a considerable step up in terms of the refinement and performance expected by customers.

Though a direct comparison was impossible, motoring.com.au was able to secure back-to-back drives of these two cars of the future recently. What we found has implications for all of us.

Fisker Karma

What we liked
>> Build quality
>> Drive quality
>> Gorgeous exterior lines
Not so much
>> At massive cost in practicality
>> Dubious environmental benefit to PHEV powertrain
>> Central controls are gimmicky, counterintuitive

The Karma is the first progeny of the company Henrik Fisker co-founded in 2007. A large sedan, it ranges in price from a base US$102,000 to $116,000 for the top-shelf Eco Chic we have here. Drive gear is identical across the lineup.

The car is propelled by twin electric motors mounted fore and aft of the rear axle, good for a combined 300kW and 1300Nm. Housed in that long snout is the range-extender package -- a 175kW generator driven by a modified GM Ecotec 2.0-litre petrol four, turbocharged and intercooled.

The engine supplies power to a 20kWh, 336-volt lithium-nanophosphate battery pack running up the centre of the chassis, virtually from axle to axle. Charge is supplemented by a full-length 120W solar panel on the roof.

Our turn in the Karma took the form of a drive through the streets of downtown Los Angeles.

On the tarmac before us, it’s an imposing specimen. This is a big car - 250mm shorter than an S Class Benz and 169mm lower, but just 5mm shorter in the wheelbase and 110mm broader.

Despite this, opening the door reveals an interior the US EPA rates as subcompact. Thanks to a complex regime of calculations, this helps boost the Karma’s official calculated engine-on fuel consumption figure from 20 to an adjusted 24mpg (9.8L/100km).

Nevertheless, the cockpit is supremely comfortable with surprisingly good all-round vision for a car of these proportions.

The Eco Chic spec forsakes leather for planet-friendly fabrics. For the seats that means a convincing high quality faux suede microfibre made entirely of recycled materials. Our car was trimmed with timber famously rescued from Californian wildfires.

Ergonomics are generally decent, although the fiddly touchscreen Command Center sits short of the industries best for simple, intuitive access to infotainment and HVAC systems (Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning).

In place of the normal shift is a four-button pyramid on the console. Hit Drive and it sends coloured lightning up through the opaquish leaf-motif surface of the little storage area ahead of it and the centre stack, accompanied by a soft soundtrack of soothing, new-agey whirrs and beeps.

The Karma offers two main drive modes via steering paddles. Sport gives access to full power, while Hill mode uses engine braking downhill to boost the power of the brake regeneration systems. A third Stealth mode switches the engine off and optimises the powertrain’s EV efficiency, for example curtailing acceleration. It’ll make the 0-100km/h dash in around 8.0 seconds; paddle it to Sport and this drops to around 6.5 seconds.

In Sport modes, the engine revs in direct response to the go pedal, charging the power pack according to the extra demand placed on it. That’s obviously going to take its toll in fuel consumption, but when we did it, it barely changed the trip computer’s calculated range figure. Real-world road testing, however, suggests the engine is surprisingly thirsty -- about 20mpg, or 12L/100km. Strangely, the mill is at its loudest -- which is still far from loud -- at low speed.

The brakes take a bit of getting used to, with the pedal dropping alarmingly floorwards early on, but adjusting itself to something more normal soon after. We had little time on hills at all, so could barely put Hill mode to the test, but we found it useful in washing off velocity even on the flat.

The Karma is clearly more about sex appeal and driving dynamics than saving the planet. The great thing about putting so much of its 2.4 tonnes down low in the tub is the sense of solidity it imparts.

The ride is refined and supple, and while the streets of LA are no place to put the chassis to the test, we snuck in a little brisk cornering here and there, enough to suggest prodigious grip and effective use of its breadth, its low silhouette and low centre of gravity. Road noise is minimal, even on quite rough surfaces.

Notwithstanding a turning circle bigger than Texas, the steering is outstanding. Beautifully weighted and nice and direct at 12 o'clock, it’s sharp and linear on turn-in with plenty of feel and no kickback. It feels more euro than US - thanks in part to input from the suspension design people Ford turned to for its reprised GT.

Aft of the B-pillar, we’ve got problems, however. Rear accommodation is woeful. In contrast to the big, comfy chairs up front, the rear-ones are narrow and upright - with much of the available hip space going to that great big full-length console parked over the battery pack. This six-footer’s head was touching the roof lining, and with a person of similar size up front, legroom was, well, subcompact.

The boot is a tiny 201 litres - that puts it on the unfavourable side between MINI’s standard hatch (162 litres) and two-seat Coupe (278 litres). And bear in mind the MINI hatch’s seats fold down -- the Karma’s don’t.

The Karma takes designer fetishism to new levels. Fisker likes to say that, under the watchful eye of its founder, the original design saw only two changes in the 47 months from concept to showroom. Which perhaps goes to show that while committees can start with a horse and end up with a camel, rugged individualism isn’t necessarily the answer. It’s as if the back half of the car is only there to stop it from being a bicycle.

The Karma would make more sense, both practically and in terms of identity, if someone had persuaded Henrik to make a coupe of it.

Tesla Model S

What we liked
>> Astonishing performance, handling to match
>> Massive interior with brilliant cockpit
>> Not perfect on range, but better than everyone else
Not so much
>> Better than everyone else, but not perfect on range
>> Some have doubts about build quality
>> Not a lot else

The Model S covers a wider market ambit than the Karma, starting (and finishing) some distance below. The large five-door hatch (about the size of an Audi A7) starts at $US59,900 with the base 40kWh battery pack. The US federal tax incentive cuts this by $7500 to $52,400. A midrange 60kWh version starts at $69,900 ($62,400).

For our drive, it’s useful that Tesla served up two variants of its top-shelf 85kWh Model S. They still come in a way below the base Fisker: the stock version starts at ($79,900/$72,400), and the top Performance model at ($94,900/$87,400). They share the same battery pack, but the Performance channels its 400 volts to the motor via a bigger inverter. It also gets air suspension standard -- it’s a $1500 option on lesser variants.

Tesla has already cottoned on to option bundling, too. Our test cars came with the $3750 Tech package -- a high-def upgrade to the standard reversing camera, LED foglights, a powered tailgate, a turn-by-turn navigation upgrade (with seven years of free map updates) and a Homelink programmable garage door remote.

What strikes immediately about the Model S is the clarity of its clean-sheet design, making the most of every facet of its electric powertrain.

With the compact electric motor wrapped around the rear axle, there’s no evidence of drive gear compromising the design. From the large, deep “frunk” (front trunk) under-bonnet cargo space to the enormous rear cargo area, all the space other makers reserve for bulky conventional drivetrains goes to luggage. And with no transmission tunnel and the battery flattened out across the full length and breadth of the floorpan, they’ve done away with the ubiquitous front console in favour of a 'walk-through' cockpit.

Rear-seat space is Statesman-like, plus there’s a rear-facing third row 'dickie' seat that folds up out of the boot floor when you’ve a couple of spare kids to carry around. Build quality doesn’t exude the class and attention to detail of the Fisker, but nor in our admittedly cursory once-over could we find many obvious faults.

The cockpit is a masterstroke of digital zeitgeist, with all eyes going towards the monster 17-inch screen sitting in portrait mode in place of the centre stack. A little scroll-and-select wheel on the steering boss lets you duplicate the navigation, trip computing or other functions you’re using at any given time on the instrument pod. It’s quick, intuitive and a fine example of the advantages of digital over analogue tech -- benefits guaranteed to trickle down into the mass market cockpit of the not too distant future.

Ergonomics are excellent, notwithstanding the stalk-mounted cruise borrowed from Mercedes-Benz.

The satellite navigation system makes the best use of Google maps I’ve ever seen, gliding across the landscape, expanding and contracting in response to finger commands without a glitch or a freeze-up.

Even sitting low, all round vision is good. But even with the standard rear camera, being relatively large, it could do with parking beepers.

It didn’t take long to work out why every Model S we’d seen on Californian highways was travelling at well beyond the speed limit. With highway patrols thin on the ground, a couple were doing 200km/h if they were moving at all.

Even without the Performance spec, this is a fast car. Not even the eerie near-silence can disguise how fast. Making use of the biggest power pack in the business and the instant full torque, pickup is massive both from standstill and rolling. And wherever it plateaus, it’s well beyond even US freeway speed limits. Particularly the Performance just keeps pouring on the power.

The silence isn’t restricted to the powertrain -- it’s everywhere. A drag coefficient of 0.24 puts the Model S ahead of the Prius and the outgoing E Class and rivals the slipperiest cars on the road.

Downstairs, despite the big wheels and commensurately low-profile rubber (21-inch with Continentals on the Performance, 19s with Goodyears for the standard variant), there’s admirably little bump, thump and roar from the road, even in the wet.

While it doesn’t have the 4.5 second 0-60mph (102km/h) snap of the Performance, I suspect many a buyer will happily keep the $15K premium and live with the standard variant’s 5.7 second sprint. And because the air suspension option is only $1500 it is money well spent, with seemingly none of the sacrifice in road feel that such systems impose elsewhere.

The Model S offers several switchable drive settings, with the broadest margin of difference this driver has ever experienced between Normal, Sport and Comfort. Sport tightens up the underside (on air suspended models), adds weight to the steering and sharpens it up. Here, the S makes full use of that ultra-low centre of gravity ( the 'concrete slab' of a battery pack and motors are way down below knee height) and 48:52 weight distribution.

This is the least top-heavy car on the market today, and it feels it.

Like Fisker, Tesla used input from the Ford GT team in tuning its chassis. Helped by purpose-built electronics developed in-house, both incarnations are as nimble as they are fast, belying their 2.7-tonne mass. Staying virtually neutral on turn-in, the Model S sits flat though even vigorous cornering and channels the weight into prodigious grip, even on the wet on badly cambered bends we struck.

And it has the stopping power to match the go. Take your foot off the pedal and there are times when the brake regen systems work with sufficient vigour for the inbuilt accelerometer to turn the brake lights on. Before long we were really only calling on the Brembos to bring the thing to a full halt.

A supplementary “creep” mode curtails the oomph to make life easier in LA’s famous traffic jams.

Switch the Model S to Comfort mode and suddenly it’s an old Caddie driver’s dream. Marshmallow suspension and feather-light steering ready even the old and infirm to negotiate car parks with little more than the touch of a finger.

The dynamic range readout works on projections drawn from current driving patterns and those exhibited over the preceding 30 miles (60km). Next to it sits another readout giving the number of miles you’ll get if you drive in the optimal manner.

It’s easy to feel why Tesla is pitching the Performance not against other alt-power cars but explicitly against mainstream muscle like the M5 and the E63.

Electric dream or high-voltage nightmare
Quick-spin drives like these deny us the chance for any worthwhile reporting on either car’s range. So instead, we’ll mention how both cars have attracted controversy over the issue. Mainstream media road tests have found both come up short of manufacturer claims and even EPA ratings.

But on range, you’d think it’s a safe bet the Fisker’s going to win convincingly. It’s the big trump card plug-ins have over all-electrics, isn’t it?

Not here. The EPA estimates Fisker’s total range with a full tank of petrol to be 230 miles (370km). This is calculated simply by adding the all-electric range of 32 miles (about 50km) to the IC-charged range extension of 200 miles (320km). When the engine’s firing, which is bound to be most of the time, it’s among the thirstiest 2.0-litre fours on the market -- and it’s drinking from a 35-litre tank.

Tesla, meanwhile, is fond of saying the 85 is good for 300 miles or more (up to 500km) and the 60kWh pack 370km. The EPA gives it 265 miles (427km) and 208 miles (330km) respectively. Media road testing has found even that on the optimistic side. The base 40kWh pack hasn’t yet been rated, but informed calculations estimate it to be 140-145 miles (225-230km).

What’s beyond question is that Tesla’s 85 power pack, the biggest on the market, takes the company further than any other EV maker in staunching range anxiety. That’s helped by California's growing 'Supercharger' fast-charge network -- the nearest a public EV charge infrastructure has gone to emulating the convenience and speed of a petrol pump.

Is there a clear winner here? We’d say yes, but it depends where your values lie. The Fisker is a beautiful looking, beautifully built car that drives beautifully. But is that enough in a $100,000-plus luxury four-door? If they want volume sales in future models, Henrik’s going to have to strike a deal with the committee.

Tesla’s 85kWh Model S is remarkable in so many ways. It’s supercar swift, it’s agile and it’s SUV spacious. It also has the best range of any EV, supported by a charging infrastructure that gives the technology an inkling of viability for consumers.

All that and, while it’s expensive, it’s far from ludicrous -- and industry studies show considerable industry optimism about extending range and reining in price. Tesla spearheads the industry in that respect.

As an exercise in innovation and an expression of design integrity befitting its era, the Model S might just be peerless, and not just in the automotive sector. It’s that good.


Price: from $102,000 plus ORCs, minus federal/state tax incentives
Engine: PHEV -- dual electric drive motors, 20kWh lithium-ion battery, 2.0-litre petrol engine driving 175kW generator
Output: each motor 150kW/650Nm (total 300kW/1300Nm)
Transmission/Final drive: single ratio, LSD/4:1
Wheels/Tyres: Front 22-inch alloy with 255/35WR22; Rear 22-inch alloy with 285/35WR22
Fuel: premium ULP


Price: from $79,900 (Performance $94,900)
Engine: dual electric motors; 85kWh lithium-ion battery
Output: each motor 270kW/440Nm (Performance 310kW/600Nm) (total 540kW/880Nm standard, Performance 610kW/1200Nm)
Transmission/Final drive: single speed fixed gear, 9.73:1
Wheels/Tyres: 19-inch alloy with 245/45R19 (Performance 21-inch alloy with 245/35R21)
Fuel/CO2: BEV/zero

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Published : Saturday, 23 February 2013
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