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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Fisker’s Ocean EV Is Just Not Ready Yet

Right now, as the embargo lifts, you're going to see a plethora of reviews complete with star ratings or marks out of 10 drop for the Fisker Ocean. This won't be one of them. Why? In my opinion, this EV, one many have been waiting for thanks to its heady mix of keen pricing, long range and catchy design, just isn't ready to be scored.

Too much is yet to be added or refined or even finished. But that doesn't mean there isn't a lot to say about how the Ocean is put together or drives—quite the opposite. And it's a bewildering mix of bad and good. Let's get to it.

Fisker has an interesting history, shall we say. It was more than 10 years ago when affable Henrik Fisker, previously of BMW, Ford and Aston Martin (where he was design director), last presented a car bearing his name. The Karma, a range-extender sports GT, was ahead of its time in many respects, but it was dogged by problems, including a calamitous Consumer Reports test and, well, fires.

Production was suspended in 2012 due to the bankruptcy of its battery supplier, and, in 2014, Fisker Automotive's assets were purchased by a Chinese conglomerate with Henrik retaining the Fisker trademarks and brand. He bided his time, waited for the world to catch up with his electric automotive vision, then in 2016 announced the formation of Fisker Inc. Three years later he revealed this car, the Ocean, to be the company's first offering. The mid-size crossover SUV design was an instant hit.

The big difference this time, though, was that Magna would be making the Ocean, in a stroke solving production issues as this is the company that makes components and even cars for car companies, including General Motors, Ford and Stellantis, as well as BMW, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Toyota and Tesla. Notably, Magna made the I-Pace for Jaguar. The Ocean's battery comes from CATL, China's formidable battery giant. Indeed, in an exclusive deal the Ocean's “Hyper Range” power pack is the first to use CATL's next-gen efficiency tech, while other auto manufacturers will have to wait a year or so to get their hands on it. The result? The top spec Ocean has a claimed range of 440 miles (on WLTP) or 360 miles if you're using the more conservative EPA standard.

The entry-level Ocean Sport's claimed range is 273 miles (or 250 miles on EPA), but that comes in at just £35,970 or $37,499. The flagship Extreme version, which I drove on a Fisker-run media event, comes complete with a drop-top-lite California Mode, solar roof and huge rotating cabin touchscreen costs £60,880, or $68,999. A $50,000 ‘Ultra’ iteration sits between these two. Fisker sells direct to consumers, with no third-party dealerships, and thanks to Magna has no production facilities to maintain—so the theory is that those savings result in a cheaper EV for punters.

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And that's the magic formula: a sharp design from Fisker, married with CATL and Magna's production know-how, and a D2C business model all equals a cool, high-spec EV that is priced for the masses. On paper it seems almost indecently attractive, but how does this work out in reality?

Design

Many are trying to nail the form factor of mid-size SUVs, which is understandable considering such vehicles now make more than 20 percent of the market in the US alone. When it comes to EVs in this category, the Ocean is going up against some stiff competition, including the coming EU-only Ford Explorer, as well as the Audi Q4 e-tron, and the Polestar 3—but Fisker's starting price is less than both the Audi and Polestar, and will likely beat the Ford, too. Indeed, the Ocean starts at less than half the price of the Polestar 3, and it's big-battery model, which has the same range as the 3, costs a full £30,000 less.

I'd argue the Fisker's exterior looks better than all these alternatives. This is hardly surprising when you factor in Henrik's considerable design experience—this is the man responsible for the BMW Z8 and Aston Martin V8 Vantage, after all. You'd expect this electric SUV to look good, and it does. It somehow manages to look sporty but not too male… friendly, almost. Sleek but also a bit rugged. It's a definite success from a design view, conveying all its attributes at a glance. The Magna build quality looks good, too, with pop-out door handles, sharp lighting and flush panels. Even the ‘Slipstream’ wheel design for the launch edition is winning.

Then you have the Ocean's not-so-secret weapon: California Mode. The brilliantly simple idea from Fisker is that at the touch of a button on the Ultra and Extreme models every single panel of glass bar the windscreen, including the rear windscreen and huge sunroof, open all at once. The effect is that it practically converts the Ocean into a convertible, and I suspect many will buy the EV for this feature alone.

When you get inside the Ocean, however, that's when things start to stray from “superb”.

Interior

The clean interior looks strikingly tidy, and in no way cheap. Eco materials are everywhere, with Fisker claiming there are more than 50 kg of bio-based and recycled materials in each Ocean. The space in the rear is very generous, the Alcantara seats are plush and hold the body well in corners, the dash is sweeping and minimal. An optional central panel in the rear (loftily called “Limo Mode”) allows passengers to control some functions. Those rear seats even recline.

The screens in the front are a mixed success, though. The instrument panel behind the steering wheel is perhaps the first sign of costs being cut. It's small, to the point where it is nearly hard to quickly see the info you need to see, plus the rectangular shape means its edges extend out to where you can't see it with the steering wheel in front. It also features unnecessary animations that far too subtly indicate power usage or regen and are simply not needed. Clarity, not fancy moving images, is required here.

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The optional 17.1-inch ‘Revolve’ rotating center touchscreen will be a boon when waiting while recharging as it swivels from portrait to landscape view, so you can watch 16:9 widescreen films while you wait. In portrait mode it is so large it means that, unlike in many other EVs, you have space to always have your main apps open all the time: Open up the satnav, and there's the music and climate info still on screen down the bottom, for example. Adjusting the air? Maps and audio move to the top and bottom but are still controllable.

Of course, this boon will only work with the in-house user interface (UI), which is, well, OK. But just about OK. It's a bit laggy. And it looks like a UI that has not been made by a motor company, which means some functionality is over-complicated, or wordy, and requires delving into too many menus. This would be fine if CarPlay or Android Auto was available, but they aren't right now, and no formal decision has been taken yet, Henrik says, if these services are coming or not.

The fan control screen is an interesting example, though, of fresh thinking. You'll see a representation of the dash with vents and little fan symbols: simply use your finger to pull those fan symbols, and in one movement you determine not only the strength of the fan but also the direction of airflow. It's simple, intuitive and clever, and others will no doubt copy it. In the coming months Fisker will likely be working on attempting to bring the rest of the Ocean's unfinished UI up to this level.

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There are other wonderful touches, though, such as the fold-out “taco tray” that Henrik himself insisted on adding. Again, these details will sell the Ocean. It's immensely handy to have such features, especially in an EV where you might be spending considerable time as it charges. Hyundai knows this, too, and also made a USP of having “laptop resting space” in its Ioniq 6.

Lastly, the Fisker Ocean’s SolarSky roof option means you can harvest the sun’s rays to generate free power for the vehicle’s battery. Fisker says that when fully exposed to the sun, this can produce up to 1,500 extra miles per year, perhaps more in “ideal conditions”. The UI team are sensibly thinking of adding a live data point to the central screen showing how much power the solar roof is producing at any given moment. This is another feature that will sell the Ocean.

Driving

How the Ocean drives is perhaps the main reason why WIRED has decided not to score this EV yet. It is plenty quick in a straight line, with 0-60 mph hit in in 3.7 seconds and a peak of 564 hp in Boost mode. But how it handles the corners is not great. The softness that normally accompanies urban drive settings (the Ocean has “Earth”, “Fun”, and “Hyper” drive modes) is still there when you slip into the sportier ones, and that's disconcerting in the bends, to say the least. As a result the car doesn't feel particularly planted or connected to the road, either.

David King, senior VP of engineering at Fisker, tells me that a software fix for this is coming “in the next few months” where the ride will be adjusted and stiffened as modes change. If this happens as King states then the ride issues of the Ocean could potentially be solved or at least drastically improved. We'll see.

Another issue in driving the Ocean bothered me: A squeaky acceleration pedal. Or rather a creaky one. Dabbing the power deal in an EV should bring about a silent forward motion. You should not hear a slight but definite creaking noise as springs and metal move. I thought this was just an initial audio annoyance that would go as the car went a few miles, but no. So I hopped into another Ocean on the brand-hosted media drive, and there it was again—and it was there all day. It's the kind of noise that not only makes one wonder about build quality (such a squeak would never be allowed in a German car, for example), but also once you hear it you cannot un-hear it. These were early-build cars, however.

After a few hours of slightly spongy handling and subtly squeaking pedals, I confess I was starting to fall out of love with the Ocean, having fallen for the design before even stepping into the car. Then I tried California Mode. Dropping all the glass on a sunny day brings all the unalloyed joy one gets from a convertible car but with the added bonus that you can switch back into covered mode at any speed, at any time. Fisker, knowing this is a killer feature, has even been sensible enough to pimp the stereo system, too, provided by ELS Studio. It is not only stupidly loud but also phenomenal in sound production. Quite literally, I could not wipe the smile from my face. California Mode is glorious, and goes a long way to mitigating the EV's failings.

Just Not There Yet

But there are failings. Not only in the handling and the driving, but also in other areas. There is no HUD, doubtless a cost-saving exercise. The laggy screen is frustrating. My left door speaker started to make a farting noise towards the end of the drive. On the day, California Mode in the first Ocean I was in wouldn't work. The ultra-wideband key that will allow you to unlock the car with a compatible phone, or send a "key" to other phones, on more than one occasion wasn't recognised. And a number of UI and driver assistance systems were either unfinished, being updated or yet to be added when I drove the car.

Still there is much to like. The battery performance is exceptional. A charge from 10 to 80 percent will take you just shy of 35 minutes, supposedly, and on my 205-mile, five and half hour drive I saw the battery drop from full with an estimated 440-mile range to 44 percent and 192 miles left of driving, and this was with a mixture of freeway, urban, and sporty country-road use.

With so much to like about the Ocean, and so much still to be fixed or turned on or uploaded to the vehicle, I can't in good conscience score this EV yet. If I did so now it would score badly, but I suspect in three to six months it might do much better. So, WIRED will return to Ocean then, and hopefully Fisker will have an electric SUV that drives as good as it looks.

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