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
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
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.