* Car dies at Consumer Reports test track
* Model had less than 200 miles on it
* Leonardo DiCaprio and Justin Bieber own Karmas
By Ben Klayman
DETROIT, March 8 A $100,000-plus Fisker
Automotive luxury car died during Consumer Reports speed testing
for reasons that are still unknown, leaving the struggling
electric car startup with another blow to its image.
"It is a little disconcerting that you pay that amount of
money for a car and it lasts basically 180 miles before going
wrong," David Champion, senior director for the magazine's
automotive test center, told Reuters.
Fisker has benefited from the publicity generated when actor
Leonardo DiCaprio was handed the first Karma last summer and pop
idol Justin Bieber received one as a gift this month.
The breakdown of the Consumer Reports car is more bad news
for a company that already recalled some Karmas. Fisker also has
changed its chief executive and halted production at its U.S.
plant over the past month as it seeks to renegotiate the terms
of a $529 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Fisker officials could not immediately be reached to
comment, although Champion said since the magazine buys the cars
it tests anonymously the company may not know.
Fisker has found itself under the microscope as its woes
have mounted. In January, it halted Karma sales for four days to
fix a software malfunction that at times triggered warning
lights while temporarily freezing navigation systems.
In December, it recalled 239 Karmas due to a possible defect
in batteries made by supplier A123 Systems that could
cause a coolant fluid leak and electrical short circuit. The
previous month, A123 reduced its full-year revenue outlook after
Fisker unexpectedly cut orders.
The magazine bought the car new from a Connecticut dealer
last Friday. On Wednesday, Consumer Reports engineers were just
starting to calibrate the Karma's speed by driving 65 miles per
hour down the magazine's test track in East Haddam, Connecticut,
Champion said. "During the gentle run down the track, a light on
the dashboard came on," he said.
The speed test was completed despite the light on the
control panel, but after it was parked, officials were unable to
get the car restarted.
Champion, who called the Karma "gorgeous looking," said
problems with new technologies are not surprising.
Federal safety officials opened an investigation last
November into the safety of the battery pack in General Motors
Co's Chevrolet Volt plug-in electric car after they
uncovered fire risks. The National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration closed its probe in January without finding any
defects and expressing satisfaction with GM's remedies to better
protect the lithium-ion battery pack.
Nevertheless, weak demand for the Volt led GM to announce
plans to suspend production of the plug-in electric car for five
weeks this spring.
Consumer Reports has tested the Volt, which scored highly on
the magazine's reliability surveys, as well as Nissan Motor Co's
all-electric Leaf, Champion said.
The magazine was testing the Karma because it was deemed a
more mainstream vehicle, he said. It has not tested any cars
made by Tesla Motors Inc.
"The fact that it broke is not going to affect our testing,"
Champion said of the Fisker Karma. "It is going to delay
possibly getting our testing done if it keeps on breaking. It's
just an unfortunate delay in our evaluation."
The issue also will not affect Consumer Reports' reliability
rating for the car because those scores are based on feedback
from owners who subscribe to the magazine, Champion said.
"It can't be helpful, but it's one of those things,"
Champion said of the Karma's problems. "Cars break down, but you
don't expect them to break down in the fist couple of days."
(Reporting By Ben Klayman; Editing by Gary Hill)