Famous for Catching Fire: Fisker Karma

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Despite its sleek lines and gorgeous interior, the Fisker Karma has had its share of fire-related problems that simply won't go away.

Poor Fisker, as if they haven't had a difficult enough year. Fisker has suffered through all manner of problems during the company's brief history, and adding to these problems, 2012 saw a number of Karmas catching fire. As with all of the cars in this series, it was a very small percentage of the total which actually burned, and most of these were under highly unusual circumstances. But headlines about fires are never a good thing.

Fisker Automotive was founded by Henrik Fisker, the Danish designer who also founded Fisker Coachbuild and designed the Aston Martin DB9 and V8 Vantage. Just looking at those cars, you can see that Fisker has some pretty solid design credentials. Fisker decided to take his considerable talent and use it to make a car company of his own. The first car to come from this company was the Karma, a stylish four-door plug-in hybrid. This $100,000+ car was intended for those who like something green (or at least the green image that comes with these cars) but didn't want any of the cheaper mainstream offerings.

These customers often include celebrities and business types who like the good press that comes with an electric car but are unwilling to make sacrifices in comfort. The problem with so many hybrids and electric cars is that the technology is still fairly expensive. So mainstream models tend to have cut-rate interiors and/or driving dynamics as a means of keeping costs down. Anyone who has driven any form of Prius knows what we're talking about. But the Karma doesn't make these sacrifices, and in fact offers us quite an enjoyable car. The Karma is one of those electric cars which has an annoyingly self-congratulatory name.

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But Fisker does want to sell these to celebrities, and an electric car that congratulates the driver just for owning it is really quite perfect for Hollywood. Fisker's problems with the Karma began well before even the first car had been sold. Fisker Coachbuild had designed the body for the pure EV sedan, the Tesla Model S. Tesla, a company which always responds to everything with reason and moderation (sarcasm), thanked Fisker by suing it in 2008. Its claim was basically just that the Karma was a better-looking design than the Model S, and that Fisker must have intentionally given them a less attractive design in order to gain an edge in the market.

Unsurprisingly, this was one of several Tesla lawsuits which didn't go anywhere. Fisker ran into further problems once it started actually selling the car, getting the dubious honor of being the only car Consumer Reports has ever tested to die completely before real testing could even begin. There were then further cases of "bricking", where the battery would go flat and become unable to take a charge. The problem was discovered to have been an issue with the welding done at A123 Systems, and millions were spent correcting it. Barely had Fisker gotten clear of this when a Karma parked in a garage in Texas caught fire.

The cause of the fire is still unknown, the car wasn't plugged in and the battery was intact, but the Karma was in fact the origin of the fire. Two months after this, faulty wiring in a cooling fan caused another Karma to burn in California. But all of this pales in comparison to events surrounding Hurricane Sandy. Sixteen Karmas and one Toyota Prius plug-in caught fire separately while parked in the port terminal in Newark after being completely submerged under saltwater as a result of the storm. These were a small fraction of the 330 total Karmas parked in the port, to say nothing of the more than 2,000 Prius plug-ins, but it was still only plug-in vehicles which caught fire.

Of course, most people try to avoid submerging any kind of car in 13 feet of saltwater, so what happened after that is really not of much concern. Karmas catching fire are just one more problem for a company that has considerably more problems than they deserve. The Karma is really a nice car, and it even looks great too. It's not going to sell in huge numbers, but nobody was expecting it to. Nothing wrong with a small company making a niche vehicle, and hopefully Fisker can get past its current troubles.

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