Second Fisker Karma Fire Casts Fresh Doubt On Plug-In Hybrid

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Given the hurricane of bad publicity for the Chevrolet Volt last year over a battery-pack fire (in a crash-testing vehicle, a week after it was wrecked), any fire at all in a plug-in car is one too many.

So the occurrence of a second fire among only 1,000 Fisker Karma range-extended electric luxury sedans, first reported by Jalopnik on Friday evening, is doubly troubling.

It follows a May blaze in a Fisker in Sugar Land, Texas (near Houston Dallas) that destroyed the car and damaged its garage and the house it was attached to.

The owner of a 2012 Fisker Karma had parked it outside a grocery store in tony Woodside, California, where some of Silicon Valley's wealthiest residents live.

When the owner emerged with his groceries, smoke was pouring from the car. He called Fisker, which told him to call 911, which he did.

By the time the blaze was extinguished by fire crews, much of the car in front of the windshield had been destroyed.

Video shot by bystander Aaron Wood--you can view it here or watch it above--shows the front of the car with flames coming from around the left front wheel area, followed by a firefighter spraying the burning electric car with water.

The exhaust pipes of the Karma's 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine exit through small grilles mounted under both front fenders, just ahead of the doors--not at the rear as in most other production cars.

In the case of the Fisker fire in Texas, Robert Baker, who is the Fort Bend, Texas, determined that the blaze started in the car, which was at fault.

Fisker subsequently traded accusations with independent analyst Jon Bereisa, who told Automotive News reporter Mark Rechtin that he had been "alarmed" by the Karma's tight component packaging in the engine compartment.

2012 Fisker Karma EcoSport

2012 Fisker Karma EcoSport

Enlarge Photo

Bereisa, a noted member of the EV1 electric-car development team and now CEO of consultant Auto Lectrification, said the arrangement of the under-hood components left very little room for airflow and heat shielding around the engine's exhaust system.

And, he suggested, it was possible that fluid leaking on or near the exhaust--whether coolant, gasoline, or even brake fluid--might be ignited by the heat.

Little further has been heard about the causes of the first fire, though Fisker sent a "SWAT team" of its own analysts, in the words of owner Jeremy Guttierez. His attorney sent a statement on the incident to AutoWeek magazine, which published it in full.

In December, 239 Fisker Karmas were recalled to fix misaligned hose clamps in the battery cooling system. The recall notice issued by the NHTSA noted possible consequences of a leak: "If coolant enters the battery compartment, an electrical short could occur--possibly resulting in a fire."

As for the Woodside fire, Fisker Automotive released a statement on Saturday, saying that "safety remains our primary concern" and that damage appeared to be "confined to the driver's side front corner" of the car, away from the lithium-ion battery pack.

2012 Fisker Karma during road test, Los Angeles, Feb 2012

2012 Fisker Karma during road test, Los Angeles, Feb 2012

Enlarge Photo

A123 Systems, maker of the lithium-ion cells used in the Karma's battery pack, had to recall cells built at a Michigan plant in March, requiring battery packs in hundreds of Karmas to be replaced.

(On Wednesday, A123 announced a financial rescue plan backed by a Chinese Investor, which would own 80 percent of the company.)

The new fire is likely to cast fresh doubt on Fisker Automotive, whose undeniably sexy plug-in four-door is rated at a mere 20 mpg by the EPA in range-extending mode, making it the lowest-efficiency electric vehicle sold in the U.S. today.

In early 2011, the U.S. Department of Energy suspended further cash from but $529 million in low-interest loans granted to Fisker after the company failed to meet repeated deadlines. In April, it hired a restructuring advisor to monitor its Fisker investment.

The company said it was investigating the Woodside incident and would have no comment on any causes until its investigation was complete.

It also said that it did not "believe that there is any link between" the two Karma fires in Woodside and Sugar Land but that it "can’t be certain until our investigations are complete."

We've copied Fisker's full statement on the second page of this article.

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Comments (14)
  1. This Kar-b-que is not a good sign for the Karma. Word gets around too fast in the EV community and potential buyers will be looking for swift analysis and recall by Fisker to fix this situation. Since the car relies on the engine for more than just generation, it is definitely working harder than other EREV engines out there like the Volt. The DoE put a stop to the Fisker loan guarantee just in time.

  2. I think the fire in Texas and this new one in California are related to the same engine packaging issue. The tight space in the engine compartment isn't allowing enough room to properly cool the exaust system. Obviously both cars were running their gas motors before they parked. The one problem I have is some people see this as an electric car problem when it is clearly an ICE problem. You'll never hear about exaust system issues in a Leaf or Model S. Fisker needs to get to the bottom of this fast, they can't afford to let this happen again they've been very lucky that no injuries have resulted from the fires. They also need to get on it because the public is starting to see this a nails in Fisker Automotive's coffin.

  3. Typo, see this as nails. Sorry

  4. Curious to hear how you know "Obviously both cars were running their gas motors before they parked." Well, obviously AT SOME POINT before, the gas motor had been run, but I assume you mean (relatively) IMMEDIATELY before the cars were parked. Were you there? How do you know?

  5. After following the news of the Texas fire and the pictures of this latest fire it does appear that the fires originated in the engine compartment. If the ICE hadn't been run prior to being parked the engine compartment would have been fairly cool and a fire would be less likely to happen. Yes perhaps saying "obviously" was a bit strong, "It's likely that" would have been better.

  6. From the photos, that engine bay is so crammed. Imagine trying to service the gas motor. It would be a nightmare.

  7. I hate to seem alarmist, but if I owned one of these things, I don't think I would park it in my garage. It is really unfortunate and probably something very small.

  8. If I had one of these cars, I would remove that gas motor and replace it with batteries.

  9. That is with more batteries in addition to the batteries already in the car.

  10. If I own one of theso Karm, I would have traded it in for a Tesla S...

  11. Moral of the story; if you care about your car, CALL 911!!

  12. I agree with CDspeed on the ICE related fires. Couple months ago, GM recalled the Cruze for potential fires started with the oil leaked onto exhaust during an oil change. I believe, the engine on the Karma is sourced from GM (similar design) and repackaged into an even tighter space... I am not sure if there are any correlations...
    But with each fire in Fisker, the reputation will be damaged.
    Personally, I think you are better of spending the money buying a Tesla S sedan and a Volt for about the same price of a Karma

  13. Though they may be great at sculpting an eye catching exterior, they are freshmen at true functional car engineering and testing. Also, imagine the range you could get if you spent those dollars on a larger battery pack instead of an ICE and all its baggage.

  14. That would be called Tesla S. :)

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