* 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 (Reuters) - 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.”