NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Over the next several days and weeks, you will be reading many reviewsof the hottest car in the world right now: the all-new $97,000 FiskerKarma extended-range plug-in electric luxury car. Why should you lendparticular weight to this particular review? The reason is that it is written by someone who has driven more than 1,600 miles in the Fisker Karma's closest architectural comparison, the Chevrolet Volt.
What do Leonardo Di Caprio, Ray Lane, Colin Powell, Prince Albert ofMonaco and Al Gore have in common? Just like me, they got to drivethe Fisker Karma this week.
Aside from the price -- $97,000 for the Fisker vs. little over$40,000 for the Volt, there are many things that differ between thecars. I will start with some of the less interesting metrics, and endwith the most interesting differentiator: the drivetrain.
: The Fisker is a larger, heavier car than the Volt. Whilethe Volt has large wheels, the Fisker's 22-inch wheels are positivelyenormous, making the wheelhouses bulge in a way extremely visible fromthe driver's seat in all directions.
: The pictures speak for themselves, but the Fiskeris like nothing else on the market. The closest description is thatit's like a Maserati Quattroporte on steroids, but not even that does it justice. From the side, the Fisker is simply stunning. I onlyfind fault with the oddly shaped fog lights, which destroy theotherwise flawless esthetics while looking at the car from the front,as well as some oddities from behind.
: The Fisker is a strict four-seater, just like the Volt.The expensive materials used, as well as much of the switchgear, mostclosely resemble the largest Jaguar, the XJ. Certainly the comfortfor the two sitting in the front is close to flawless.
In the back, however, the space is tiny. While knee room is acceptable, there isno room for toes under the driver's seat, and headroom is severelyconstrained. Only very small people will be comfortable there, andthis is not nearly as good as the Volt, where you will be comfortableeven if you're 5 feet 11 inches tall, and almost okay if you're 6 feet.
: This is a total joke. It's tiny, mostly as a result ofthe two large electric motors sitting near the rear wheels. Addinginsult to injury, the rear seat doesn't fold. The Volt's luggagespace is slightly smaller than the Toyota Prius', but the Fisker is inturn a lot smaller than the Volt. Only a couple of very small bagswill fit. Some people will find this to be a fatal flaw adverselyimpacting a purchasing decision.
: Aside from being perhaps the most beautiful sedan in the market, where it competes in overall styling with the Mercedes CLS,the drivetrain is where it gets really interesting with the Fisker.There is only one car on the market today which utilizes anarchitecture that comes even close to the Fisker's, so it is thereforeimportant that it is compared to the Chevrolet Volt, even though theVolt costs less than half of the Fisker.
Basic physical layout
: The Fisker has a gasoline engine up front,which functions as a generator to feed the battery, which, in turn, islocated in the same place as it is in the Volt, i.e., in the center ofthe car, causing the Fisker to be a strict four-seater. Here is wherethe similarities with the Volt largely stop, however.
The Fisker has two large traction motors, each at 150 kW, located nearthe rear wheels that they drive. This compares to the Volt's single111 kW motor, augmented by the 55 kW generator-motor. It is also thecase that the Fisker has no mechanical connection at all between thegasoline engine and the rear wheels.
Unlike the Volt, which undercertain conditions -- typically while cruising at a fairly steadyhighway speed -- can introduce a modest percentage of parallelism intothe actual propulsion, the Fisker does not do that at all. The Fiskeris a strict serial hybrid, which is also how the Volt works in most normal driving conditions.
The Fisker architecture is simpler, but it loses in terms ofhigh-speed efficiency as a result. It also introduces an element ofmanual engagement of the generator, which the Volt only has in theform of the so-called "Mountain Mode," in which you can order the Voltto build up the battery charge from 25% to 45% in anticipation ofdriving at high speed (over 50 MPH) up a mountain pass.
Except for that "Mountain Mode," the Volt is fully automatic: Thegenerator engages when it's supposed to, and never when it's not. Thereason for this is not only simplicity, but also that it doesn'tmatter from a performance perspective. The Volt drives just as fastwhether the generator is on or off, with the "Mountain Mode" exceptiononly applying if you have engaged it several minutes in advance of theclimb. It doesn't do you any good if you haven't engaged it startingsome time before the climb.
In contrast, the Fisker enables you to manually engage the gasolineengine at any time, with the paddle shifter on the left side on thesteering wheel. In addition, of course, the gasoline engine willautomatically turn on when the battery hits 15%, which compares to theVolt's 25%. The discrepancy between 15% and 25% could be ascribed toany number of things, including the differing natures of the batterychemistries.
When you're driving in all-electric mode, which Fisker claims issimilar to the Volt at 25 to 50 miles, it can go 95 mph and accelerate0 to 60 in approximately eight seconds. Those numbers are broadly similar tothe Volt's, at 100 mph and similar acceleration.
When you engage the gasoline engine, the Fisker speeds to 60 inapproximately six seconds and tops at 125 mph.
The question that theintelligent reader must now ask is: Since there is no mechanicalconnection between the gasoline engine and the wheels, why is there any performance impact from having it on? It is an excellentquestion, and I have been unable to find any fully satisfactory answerhere. Nobody at Fisker with whom I spoke could explain this mystery.
My own sense is that it is a made-up, a.k.a. artificial, limitationimposed by Fisker. It would appear to be a simple software setting,after all. In other words, the software currently blocks fullperformance when operating without the generator being turned on.
What about heavy regen? In the Volt, this is activated by pulling thetraditional automatic gearbox lookalike switchgear, which forces yourhand to move all the time, and it makes a coarse sound. Clearly thisis one of the very few misses with the Volt.
In contrast, the Fiskerdoes this with a paddle shifter behind the right side of the steeringwheel. The Fisker approach for this is infinitely better, for theobvious reasons. As for the regen itself, it appears the "heavy" modein the Volt is a lot heavier, which is what I prefer anyway. Itshould be something the driver could define in software.
What about the battery and the gas tank? The Fisker has a 20 Kilowatt-hourbattery, compared to the Volt's 16 Kilowatt-hour battery. The gas tank is almost thesame size, with both cars very close to 9.3 gallons. The Volt weighsalmost 3,800 pounds whereas the Fisker is rumored to be closer to 5,300 pounds.
In my testing, the Volt will go 35 to 50 miles on electricity and thenanother 340 miles while supported by the generator. The Fisker isclaimed at slightly less on the gasoline side, 250 miles. This wouldhardly be surprising, considering the lack of parallelism at evenhighway speeds, and the much higher weight. Either way, I haven'tseen the EPA certifying the Fisker yet anyway.
Somehow, it tends tobe the case that the EPA's numbers are less optimistic than themanufacturer's claims up until that time. Witness the Nissan LEAF,which Nissan claimed at 100 miles but the EPA subsequently certifiedat 73 miles. With the first Fisker deliveries taking place right now, onewould think the EPA would already have issued its formal ratings.
The Volt charges 65% of the 16 Kilowatt hour battery capacity in four hours.Fisker told me that they charge 85% of its 20 Kilowatt hour capacity in littleover five hours. In other words, largely comparable. And unlike theTesla, both Volt and Fisker use the standards-based charger, so youcan charge at any and every public charging station, most of whom tendto be free at least thus far!
What's it like to drive the Fisker vs. the Volt? The best way todescribe it is that the Volt is like a Chevrolet Camaro, whereas theFisker is like a Corvette -- but with the interior of a Jaguar XJ.
Obviously both cars are four-doors and have four seats. The Fisker'swheels/tires/brakes are just so much more aggressive, and the interioris so much more luxurious -- but as with the Corvette, the interiorspace and overall utility is also less. The Fisker's 981 pounds ofinstantly available torque is also so dramatically in a class byitself that it looks like a typo.
When the Volt engages the gasoline generator, it is so quiet that youwill only notice it driving at slow speeds. On the freeway, you havea really hard time telling, if it weren't for the fact that theinstrument panel indicates accordingly. There is no exhaust noise.In contrast, the Fisker has a sound that will be familiar to theMaserati Quattroporte -- entirely differentthan the Volt.
How will the Tesla S compare to the Fisker? Obviously, the Tesla S isan all-electric car with a price of $77,000 for the version with thelargest battery. Tesla claims 300 miles for this version. When doyou need 300 miles? Most likely, when you're going on a long trip ona freeway where you will be driving at 70 mph or even faster. Call meskeptic, but I believe a 300-mile range at 70 mph when I see it. At35 to 40 mph, sure. But 70? Prove it.
As it turns out, the center console on the Fisker has two places thatare transparent to what's inside it, and you see the raw battery,which by the way weighs some 640 lbs, or more than the Volt's 440 lbs.
If you're in the market for a $100,000 car -- or for that matter a carat any price -- the Fisker Karma is the thing to have for the next couple ofyears. It easily eclipses the Maserati Quattroporte and mostother high-end cars for attention value and engineering uniqueness.There's just nothing else like it on the road, and won't be for atleast another year. The overall value is more in line with whatpeople look for in the range of $150,000 to $250,000, rather than$100,000. I know that sounds harsh for people who can't afford a$20,000 car, but that's reality at that corner of the market.
The final thought in the analysis of the Fisker, though, from thepoint of view of someone who is mostly interested in the technology,is how competitive the Chevrolet Volt is, given its much lower price.
The Volt gives much of the same driving experience, with a bigger backseat, much more luggage space, and conveniences such as the OnStar appon the iPhone and Android. One also gets the feeling that with theFisker, a customer taking delivery in 2011 is a little bit of a guineapig for a very small company producing a product that needs to havethe durability of many decades on the road. In contrast, the Voltappears to have been very much "fully baked" with tremendousdurability testing before it hit the customer deliveries.
: For the relative bargain of $100,000, the Fisker gets a 9 out of 10.
Spectacular styling, inside and out.
Outstanding technology and performance.
Small back seat an tiny luggage space.
Unproven company and reliability.
The Chevrolet Volt gives you competitive technology for less than half the price.
This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.
Anton Wahlman was a sell-side equity research analyst covering the communications technology industries from 1996 to 2008: UBS 1996-2002, Needham & Company 2002-2006, and ThinkEquity 2006-2008.