We get a rare pre-production test of Karma’s new Plug-in hybrid
By: Brian Makse
July 31, 2019
THE PROS & CONS
What’s Good: Has the dynamic performance of a true sports sedan with the efficiency of an electric.
What’s Bad: Small trunk capacity.
IRVINE, CA – Karma Automotive is a very young car company that is working hard to become a player in premium, electrified automobiles. They’ve come a long way since buying the assets of Fisker Automotive, which attempted to establish itself as a luxury hybrid automobile brand. Karma’s strategy is to produce premium, low-volume electrified automobiles, and offering their customers five star levels of service.
Fisker’s only product was the Karma four-door hybrid sedan, which later became the Karma Revero. The upcoming 2020 Karma Revero GT is based on the previous Revero, but is nearly all-new. The 2020 Revero GT retains the previous model’s glass and some of the hard points, but beyond that, this GT is essentially a new car. It’s been thoroughly re-engineered with resources that Fisker never had, such as modernizing the crash structures.
Walking into Karma’s headquarters in Irvine, California felt more like walking into a tech company than anything resembling an automotive manufacturer.
In one the most interesting visits to a carmaker I’ve ever experienced, I met with Karma Automotive’s Chief Technical Officer, Bob Kruse and had a very candid conversation. It was the kind of conversation you never have with car execs anymore. From engineers to designers to senior management, increasingly they’re tight-lipped, fully rehearsed, perfectly media trained, and always strictly adhere to the pre-scripted talking points. But not here at Karma.
Kruse is the kind of seasoned automotive executive that a young company like Karma needs. He’s experienced, enthusiastic, and disarmingly frank. At the tail end of his career at General Motors, he worked on a number of my all-time favourite vehicles.
Detailing his background, Kruse told me, “The last thing I did for GM was their electrification strategy and the Volt. Before that I was leading vehicle integration with 5,000 engineers for GM. I took over the performance division from Mark Reuss (current President, General Motors) and the second generation Cadillac CTS-V that was done on my watch. We did the Chevrolet HHR SS. If you know John Heinricy (accomplished racing driver and GM Performance engineer), John worked for me at that point in time.”
Having joined Karma early in 2017, Kruse’s objective was to transform the Revero into a fully resolved, premium, electrified sedan. This 2020 Revero GT is hundreds of pounds lighter than its predecessor, is significantly safer, possesses significantly more usable range, performs better, is endowed with a gorgeous cabin, and is fitted with the latest in automotive high tech.
To deliver such a sedan is an ambitious goal for any company and to get there, Kruse benchmarked one of the greatest sports sedans to grace the road. With a twinkle in his eye, Kruse told me, “One of the things I did is I set the Porsche Panamera as the dynamic target for the vehicle. To which my organization scoffed and they said, ‘You can’t do that.’ I said, ‘The heck, I can’t. That’s what this is going to all be about.”
The bonnet of the Revero GT reveals the onboard gasoline generator. It’s the same turbocharged, three-cylinder engine that powers the BMW i8. The battery pack fits under a centralized backbone that runs the length of the car. In back, there are new electric motors driving the rear wheels.
Before we headed out for a drive, Kruse gave me a run through of some key improvements. “The generator on the back end of the engine is all new. The inverter is a Karma-designed inverter. It’s our intellectual property,” Kruse told me. “The battery is all new. We bumped it from 19 kilowatt-hours to 28 kilowatt-hours. Our EV-only range goes from 50 miles up to 80. We’re much more efficient. Our onboard generator goes from 250 to 280 miles of range, so 360 miles total range.”
The improvements didn’t end there. “We have new motors, much more compact. Our gearbox is essentially two gearboxes as one, one for the left side, one for the right side. They’re direct coupled,” Kruse said. “We will enable torque vectoring, and that’s why we did it. And so we get 536 horsepower of electric machine in the back that has the benefit of torque-on-demand or maximum torque at zero rpm. It’s a very pleasant connection between your right foot and the smile on your face.”
Benchmarking the Panamera’s dynamics is a lofty goal, but Kruse is confident in the Revero GT’s dynamics. “The steering system is all new,” he continued. “We’ve redone the brakes. It’s same basic brakes we’ve done. The blending of the brakes is a little bit better. We’ve dialed up the level of regen, so you have more one-footed driving, which is a characteristic of an EV vehicle. New tires, retuned the suspension, it has a much better balance between ride and handling. Both the ride and the handling are improved.”
Kruse let me loose in a top-spec, pre-production model which, in the car business, never happens. We went for a brief familiarization drive on some of my favourite Orange County, California roads and Kruse introduced me to their newly developed launch control system. When encouraged to launch a quick car, I don’t need to be asked twice.
With the GT in Sport drive mode, you simply plant your left foot on the brake, put the throttle to the floor with your right, watch for the cue on the dash and then release your foot from the brake.
The Karma launches hard with some subtle, satisfying wheelspin, and with three gentleman on board, I repeatedly hit sixty miles an hour in a tick over five seconds. On my own later in the day, I could hit sixty in well under five seconds. Karma officially quotes zero to sixty in 4.5 seconds and Kruse said their system has been validated against the industry-standard VBOX performance meter.
The car I drove was nearly production ready and a couple of young engineers had worked all night to ensure the electronics suite was going to impress. Major systems worked flawlessly and Kruse was most excited to demonstrate the Revero GT’s new sound system, which was developed in house.
More than most drivers perhaps, I enjoy music while I’m motoring and have experienced the best audio systems. To my ears, Karma’s is top notch. Clear, crisp, and has enough power to further damage my racecar-rattled eardrums. Where most carmakers ring up Samsung for a solution – yes, your favourite, branded sound systems are supplied by that Samsung – Karma’s knocked this one out to the park. They should be proud.
After my afternoon in the Revero GT, I came away impressed with its dynamics. The electric power steering is direct, and as a visually dominant driver, I could point the Karma with racecar-like precision. Unlike every other hybrid vehicle I’ve driven, the GT’s brakes are simply brilliant and on par with the best conventional brakes. Feel, modulation, and control are exceptional for any car, not just an electric.
The long wheelbase and low centre of gravity keeps the ride composed, despite using conventional dampers, not the adaptive type found in cars at this price point. Handling is more on par with a sports car than a sports sedan, offering plenty of confidence to the driver. Body and wheel control is excellent, though I mentioned to Kruse and his team that I’d like a small change in the rear damping rates, but that’s my racer perfectionism being a little nit-picky and I can’t imagine any customers complaining. And regarding that Panamera benchmark, I think they exceeded it.
The interior finishes are perfectly opulent and everything – from the Bridge of Weir leather to the carpets to the switchgear to the touchscreen – is befitting a luxury sports sedan. Plus, the simplicity of the Karma’s interior design trumps that of the button-laden Panamera.
Since this particular car was an early pre-production unit, some of the ADAS was offline that day, but the GT will have a full suite of driver assistance systems including forward collision warning and adaptive cruise, among others. As well, Karma can diagnose vehicles remotely and send the latest software updates over the air. Naturally, the company offers a customer app and, if you’re an Alexa user, you can request status updates and send simple instructions, like cabin temperature preparation.
Perhaps the coolest (and nerdiest) feature is that the CHMSL (the rear centre high mounted stop lamp) LEDs act as a battery charge level indicator. You just know customers will drag friends to their garages to check it out.
With its 130 kilometre battery range, quick charging ability, and onboard gasoline generator, the Revero GT is an excellent solution. For me, the majority of my daily driving would be done solely on battery power and the Karma can be easily topped up overnight. The smooth, BMW-sourced generator eliminates any range anxiety, which is still very real for long trips with an electric. That it performs like an authentic sports sedan and that it’s beautifully finished will make this new Karma irresistible. I’m looking forward to a more extensive test when production cars hit the road later this year.
The interview in this story was edited and condensed for clarity
BODY STYLE: full-size, four-door luxury sedan. CONFIGURATION : Dual electric motors, rear wheel drive, onboard gasoline-powered generator ENGINE: Dual electric motors (536 hp) with a single speed transmission. CARGO CAPACITY: 182 litres. FUEL ECONOMY: TBD at press time PRICE: Revero GT, $149,000 base price (estimated). WEB SITE:karmaautomotive.com