Categorized | Reviews

Panamara 4S v. Fisker Karma: Schoolyard Fight

Posted on 09 April 2012 by Adam Kaslikowski

And now for something completely different. Two things that are completely different actually. If you’ve got $100,000 worth of luxury car money burning a hole in your Costanza-sized wallet you’ve got a lot of options to choose from. Add in the necessity for 4 doors and the desire for some uniqueness, however, and your options quickly narrow. As the last week has shown me, you could do a lot worse than picking either the Porsche Panamera 4S or the Fisker Karma even though these two cars are worlds apart in terms of design, engineering, and purpose. One has been meticulously crafted by experienced German engineers while the other is a Hail Mary from a small start-up in California. Where one was likely focus group tested, the other was the sole brainchild of the company’s founder.
The electric Fisker Karma and the Porsche Panamera are also more alike than you might think. Both have 4 doors, 4 bucket seats, look like nothing else on the road, have sumptuous interiors, and pack around 400hp. But where one is an eco-friendly earth-savingmobile, the other is a German reincarnation of the classic muscle car sedan that seems to actively take pleasure in turning hydrocarbons into noise. Beautiful beautiful noise. So which is better for the money? Keep reading to find out…

These two cars take wildly divergent paths to try and satisfy your 4 door luxury car needs. Really, they exemplify the age-old schoolyard struggle of bullies vs geeks – the Porsche subscribes to the might makes right philosophy while Fisker is attempting to quietly outsmart the rest of the auto industry. The Panamera originally seemed like a big departure for Porsche, but given the company’s previous stabs at diversification (944, 959, 914, 928, etc.) it’s not too surprising. What was surprising was what their stylist came up with…

A lot has been said about the Panamera’s unique looks. I for one was convinced the first time I actually saw one in person (front and center at a valet stand of course). The early photographs never did this car justice. This Porsche has presence. Others, however, remained unconvinced with the rounded tail and elongated hood. I don’t for a second think the Panamera is going to age well, but I’m sure you’ve heard a chorus of voices moaning that it wasn’t born well either. That aside, I think the front clip is prettier than anything put on a 7 series in more than a decade, and no one is going to mistake the Panamera for anything else

What hasn’t been, and can’t be besmirched is the way this car drives. This 4S goes, corners, and stops like a car half its 4,101 lb weight. It’s magical. Some athletic large cars shrink around you as you start to explore their limits, but the Panamera doesn’t. No, you’re always aware of how big it is and how far each of its 4 corners stretches away from you, but with 400hp it just doesn’t matter. This beast will still crack off 0-60 in 5 seconds and you feel it. Don’t bother braking for corners either as your speed doesn’t matter to the faultless 4 wheel drive. Chuck this 2+ ton monster into a bend and feel the V8’s 369 lb-ft of torque force the laws of physics to bend to Zuffenhausen’s best.

What limits this car does have are well beyond access on public roads. Push too hard and at too abrupt an angle and you’re punished with nagging understear. Most of the time, though, the traction control just sorts out your misjudgment and shoves you forward with benign confidence. The steering feel isn’t in the same league as Porsche’s masterpiece GT3 (obviously), but it is nicely heavy and communicative where the Karma’s is numb and silent. I was most impressed with the brakes – you and the chassis know the car is heavy, yet all six pistons clamp down on the 14” brake rotors and proceed to turn all that splendid inertia you were carrying into several hundred BTU’s of heat. The essence of the Panamera is about brute force, from the way it shoves you back into the heavily bolstered seat to the way it bullies the road underneath it.

It’s not all whips and chains though, the Porsche has a soft side as well. The interior is the place to be when you want to feel leather so soft and creamy that it feels like you’re sitting on Christina Hendricks. When you’re done brutalizing the tarmac, you simply deactivate the Sport+  button to slip it back into Normal mode for a relaxing and soft ride home. Going from Normal to Sport to Sport+ initially left me wondering why they bothered with the softer settings at all. Each mode is progressively better and + is in no way savage with its shifts or other outputs. Sport+ seemed like the only setting I would ever want – that is until I had drained my adrenal gland and was worn out from throwing this beast into corners. THEN I threw the selector back into normal and was treated to a veritable cloud-ride on wheels. This is the mode you want after a hard day or misspent night. It’s perfect for cosseting you home in comfort and confidence. Sport, however, still remains a useless intermediary.

So the Porsche Panamera 4S is a Teutonic pony car that goes like hell, corners like it owns the earth, and has seats that feel like heaven. It’s pulled off the trick of being 2 cars at once: a comfortable sedan and a sports car. How can the Fisker Karma possibly stack up against all that?

The Karma fights back by picking up all its considerable toys and leaving to play a different game – away from the German Bully. Henrik Fisker knew he couldn’t go axle-to-axle with the major luxury OEM’s right out of the box; he knew he’d have to play to different rules to stand out. So instead of following the paths of others, he decided to stake his claim in the increasingly important realm of ecological sustainability. Recycled dash plastic, post-consumer carpet backing, biodegradable door components – these are just some of the eco advancements making their way into the greenest of mass market cars. To that, Henrik Fisker says “hogwash,” or whatever the Danish equivalent to hogwash is…

You see, he’s built his company from the basement up to be the most sustainable car manufacturer in the world – bar none. This is the Karma’s raison-d’état; to prove that big, comfortable 4 seater cars can both carry an air of luxury and be made in an environmentally friendly manner. The Karma is a far cry from the Prius, Volt, or Insight. Not only is the Fisker more ecologically friendly than those cars, it also gets better mileage with 100mpg achievable in real-world driving.

So if the Karma is friendlier to the environment than a baby panda, it must be pretty boring to drive right? Actually, the Karma has a bit of soul. First off is its nearly 1,000ft-lbs of torque. This helps propel the Fisker from 0-60 in 6.3 seconds while in Sport mode. Even though the horsepower figure surpasses the Porsche’s, it has to haul around batteries, a combustion engine, AND two electric motors – that all adds up to 5,300 lbs of car. A shrinking violet the Karma is not, but then you can see that simply by looking at the exterior.

If the Panamera has presence, the Karma has attitude; it demands attention. Like the Porsche, nothing on the road looks like the Fisker. Fortunately for the Karma, there is no disagreement that this thing is gorgeous. Like the eyes of the Mona Lisa, the headlights catch your gaze and follow you regardless of what angle you view the front of the car. The profile is dominated by those enormous wheels, but it nicely balances out the length and width of the Karma. The rear has been bedazzled with silver jewelry and even the roof features what can only be described as a Neiman Marcus designer solar panel. Standard 22” wheels (a first for a production sedan) pushed out to car’s corners, the rear doors melding with the hips perfectly, the wide mouthed “hipster mustache” grill, this car is unique in the best possible way. That should come as no surprise as Henrik Fisker was also behind the design of the BMW Z8 and designed for Aston Martin.

Underneath all that luxurious skin lies the state of the art in extended hybrid power trains. A turbocharged 4 cylinder Chevy EcoTech engine good for 240 hp charges the battery packs that run along the center of the car. The battery in turn supplies electrons to the rear mounted electric motors that are good for 403 hp combined sent to the rear wheels. The gasoline engine never drives the wheels directly, even at highway speeds. This is mostly the same powertrain layout as the Chevy Volt, just multiplied by a banker’s salary.

Having a gasoline engine up front and an electric motor out back leaves precious little room to carry cargo. The trunk of the Karma is good for a secondary – and even smaller – glove box and that’s about it. The space is almost unusable as a traditional “trunk.” I suspect the majority of Karma owners will end up using the rear seats as their parcel shelf and golf bag area instead. This isn’t a huge loss as those rear seats are only good for humans on short journeys or short children.

It’s a shame that two of the four seats will only be used for storage as the cabin is a very nice place to inhabit. Four bucket seats covered in either eco faux-leather or suede, or “closed-loop” processed leather that uses up to 80% of the animal’s hide as opposed to the usual 8% used in a Rolls Royce. Remember, it’s all about sustainability in this car. What little wood that’s used in the cabin is all sourced from either naturally fallen trees or ancient logs recovered from the bottom of Lake Michigan. Even the interior door handles are offered with a glass window into which a thin cut of a leaf has been pressed and illuminated at night.

The Karma can be had in 3 trim levels. EcoStandard with 2 color choices (black or white), faux leather, a 6 speaker stereo system, and white oak trim and can be yours for $103,000. The $110,000 EcoSport line offers a full host of exterior colors, navigation, leather interior, and 8 speaker sound system, and 2 additional wood trims. Finally, the $116,000 EcoChic trim comes with the addition of more interior colors, another wood trim, and a faux suede interior. All of the trim levels come with the same exterior panels and identical engine outputs.

The Karma isn’t particularly spirited to drive; it does not for a moment feel like a sports car. What it feels like is a rather cramped luxury car that will get you to your corner office and back in relative comfort. For the more enthusiast-minded eco-warriors out there, the twin electric motors do have their own charms. With all the 959ft-lbs of torque available from a flex of your big toe, shooting out of slow corners becomes an exercise in grins and expletives. Once out of that corner, though, the Karma settles back to feeling like a low-slung Lexus.

It’s certainly a heavy car, and those 5,300 lbs of girth generally translates into a really solid and composed driving demeanor. Surprisingly, all that weight means nothing to the monstrous brakes that come standard. 6 piston Brembos clamp down on 14” rotors to bring the Fisker from 60-0 less space than it takes some sub-compacts. These brakes feel powerful enough to bring a train under heel.

The turning radius isn’t anything to write home, or here about for that matter, but that’s expected given that the car is 16 feet long with those 22” wheels pushed to the corners of this land yacht. The wide 66” track certainly helps with stability though. The overall experience of driving the Fisker Karma isn’t that far removed from your run-of-the-mill E class or 5 Series. It’s comfortable, spirited, well bolted together and chock full of technology. In fact, the tech is the only thing that makes this drive any different from any other luxury car.

On the road, the Karma is about serenity. Just as the way the car is built eases your mind that you are doing your bit to save the polar bears, so too do the driving dynamics relax and cosset you. All of your inputs into the car are greeted with muted feedback – the steering seems disconnected, the brakes certainly stop but don’t feel, and there is no transmission thus no gear change sensation. These are all good news if you want a relaxing boulevard cruiser, crushing disappointment if you wanted an electric sports car without the word Tesla on the hood. Where the Porsche rewards you and welcomes the driver to become part of the machine, the Fisker merely wants to get you where you’re going in peace and quiet.

Since the 4 cylinder isn’t mated directly to the wheels, you often find yourself in the situation where the engine revs up or down without the outside world either speeding up or slowing down. It is unnerving at first, but you quickly learn to filter out the engine noise as an extraneous signal. One sound I couldn’t manage to filter out was the electronic buzz generated outside the car designed to alert pedestrians to your electrified presence. This whine has an undeniable talent to worm its way inside the cabin irrespective of road speed. It is a maddening sound and I find it hard to believe that Fisker’s sound engineers couldn’t have found another tone that your ears would have an easier time ignoring.

The other immediately glaring fault with the Karma was the bugginess of the infotainment system. It lurches around like a drunken uncle, struggles to register inputs, and generally behaves badly. The company has been festooned with bad press of late regarding customer complaints and very public breakdowns. Why I witnessed none of these things first-hand, it was immediately clear just from the touch screen controls that the Karma might have been rushed through to production. Fisker has admitted that it needs some work, and they’ve already released several patches for the infotainment that I’m told have improved it, but that was before I drove it. If it was worse than this, I shudder to think what it was like on launch.

All in all, the Karma is a different kind of $100,000 car. What it all boils down to is that the car makes you feel special. It’s a really nice mix of “I have taste,” and “I care about the planet.” Driving the car, you get the overwhelming sensation that everyone on the road is staring at you. It’s a really nice feeling. Compared to the Panamera it’s quirky even.

So which would I exchange for my $100K? The Panamera is basically a German reimagining of a Hemi Cuda with 2 extra doors – it’s all brute force and attitude. It is a fire-breathing monster with leather and AC. While the backseats are larger than the Karma’s, this is most definitely a driver’s car first and foremost. If you happen to be a capital “D” driver who has a partner and 2 kids, it will make you smile every time you grab the keys. The Fisker takes a more cerebral route and encourages drivers to consider all the social and ecological good you are doing by driving the Karma. It is certainly more boring to drive, but the point here is not adrenalin but rather dopamine – a peaceful feeling washes over you as you climb into the least harmful place on the planet. The Fisker is all brains and technology with a small amount of usability thrown in.

It is the classic school yard battle between bully and geek – and that is the easiest litmus test to determine which car would appeal to you. If you place your driving pleasure above rising ocean levels then the Panamera will scoot you and yours to nirvana in a puff of tire smoke. If you scroll through pictures of celibate pandas on your iPad 3 and cry at night, run down to the dealership and pick up a Karma to sleep soundly again. They might be completely different, but there’s room for both geeks and bullies in our world and on our roads.

– Adam Kaslikowski

Special thanks to Fisker Salt Lake City and Strong Porsche

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