March 8, 2012 at 4:42 PM ET
DETROIT -- Remember when heartthrob Justin Bieber received a Fisker Karma luxury hybrid for his 18th birthday earlier this month on the Ellen DeGeneres Show? Well, he may be driving a lemon.
A $100,000-plus Fisker sports car died during Consumer Reports speed testing this week 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, on Thursday.
In a statement, Fisker said it was assessing the source of the problem that caused its Karma plug-in hybrid to fail. Fisker dispatched two engineers Wednesday night to examine the car.
Fisker has benefited from the publicity generated when actor Leonardo DiCaprio was handed the first Karma last summer and Bieber received his as a gift earlier this month.
But the breakdown of the Consumer Reports car is more bad news for a company that has found itself under the microscope as its woes have mounted.
Over the last month, Fisker changed its chief executive and halted work at its U.S. plant as it renegotiates the terms of a $529 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Fisker has already recalled some Karmas and 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.
"It's important to note that with more than 400 Fisker Karma sedans already on the road in the U.S., we also have many satisfied customers who are enjoying daily commutes in their cars," Fisker said in a statement.
'Light on the dashboard'
Consumer Reports, which buys the cars its tests anonymously, purchased the car 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, referring to the battery light.
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. A spokesman for A123 Systems, which makes the Karma batteries, could not be reached.
Champion, who called the Karma "gorgeous looking," said problems with new technologies are not surprising.
In December, Fisker recalled 239 Karmas due to a possible defect in batteries made by A123 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.
Fisker builds the Karma in Finland and plans to build a second model, the Nina sedan, at its Wilmington, Delaware plant, a former General Motors Co factory.
No effect on reliability rating
Consumer Reports 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."
Consumer Reports has tested GM's Volt plug-in electric car, which scored highly on its reliability surveys, as well as Nissan Motor Co's all-electric Leaf, Champion said.
Last November, federal safety officials opened an investigation into the safety of the Volt's battery pack 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.
The Karma's issue 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 first couple of days."
Reuters contributed to this report.