Stepping Out With Style and Batteries

February 26, 2012 12:00 am

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LOS ANGELES -- MOVIE critics are always a bit suspicious when they aren't allowed to preview a film until it's already in theaters. Does the studio know that it has made a stinker, and fears that bad reviews will warn the public away?

I felt similar trepidation when an invitation finally arrived to drive the Fisker Karma. After all, this luxurious plug-in hybrid -- like the Chevrolet Volt, it is electrically driven, with a gasoline engine that extends the range of its battery pack -- has been on sale since summer, with cars delivered to customers in December. What took Fisker Automotive so long to show off its pretty baby?

The road to market proved bumpy, with the Karma arriving two years later than promised with a base price ($103,000) some $20,000 over the original estimate. Along the way, Fisker got a $169 million start-up loan from the federal government for the car, which is assembled in Finland.

Another disappointment was the rather dismal fuel-economy rating of 20 m.p.g., on premium fuel, when the internal-combustion engine is engaged.

But none of that seemed relevant when I was finally able to drive the Karma, unsupervised, on a recent bright afternoon here.

Admittedly, I was at the wheel only long enough for initial impressions -- not the usual weeklong test drive -- but I was able to do whatever I wished. Alas, I had no chance to flaunt Hollywood's latest environmental status symbol by pulling up to the red carpet at the Oscars.

At first sight, the Karma seems a concept car come to life -- and, in fact, it is. Little of the design has changed since it was unveiled at the 2008 Detroit auto show. This includes its low-set body, its voluptuous curves and even its huge 22-inch wheels and tires. Those caused a bit of consternation for designers of the distinctive, intricate double-wishbone suspension, but any problems they encountered seem to have been solved.

As a former designer of BMWs and Aston Martins, Henrik Fisker objects to bold design studies that are watered down for production. "I also believe hybrids don't have to be boring," Mr. Fisker said in an earlier interview. "Or ugly."

Like the similarly sized Aston Martin Rapide and Porsche Panamera, the Karma is a fastback sedan masquerading as a coupe. It's a handsome disguise, though with its handlebar-mustache grille it comes off as one-fourth of a barbershop quartet. My drive was delayed over and over as passers-by volunteered praise for its rakish style.

First Published 2012-02-25 23:08:49

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