The Karma, the first model from Fisker Automotive, the VC-funded extended-range electric vehicle maker, is a sinuously styled fetish item. Moneyed folks such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Gore, Colin Powell, and Ray Lane are all reported to own one of the sleek coupes.

These celebrities might also want to make sure they have an AAA towing services plan.

According to Autoblog, the testing group at Consumer Reports bought the $116,000 hybrid EV anonymously, only to have it break down "during calibration tests, just a few days into CR's ownership period. After the dashboard flashed a warning, the driver stopped to see what was wrong, and then couldn't get the PHEV into gear again. Self-repairs (i.e., let's leave it alone for an hour and see what happens) didn't work and the manual was no help, so the nearby dealer sent out a flatbed truck to haul the Karma away. As CR writes: We buy about 80 cars a year and this is the first time in memory that we have had a car that is undriveable before it has finished our check-in process."

The Karma has already had two recalls, one for a software issue and one for a battery problem. A careful reading of the owner's group blog Fiskerbuzz shows a wide range of mostly minor software-related problems with sensors, dashboards, and audio. In all fairness, the blog also shows a wide range of satisfied owners willing to work through the quirks of a handmade, boutique sports car.

The company has had its share of challenges of late, including:

  • Co-Founder Henrik Fisker was moved to the role of Executive Chairman of the firm, while Tom LaSorda was appointed as CEO and Vice Chairman of the Board last month. LaSorda was formerly CEO, President and Vice Chairman of the Chrysler Group and has also held executive positions at General Motors. Ray Lane, former Chairman of the Board, will take a "lead director role," according to a press release from the firm.
  • The company has stopped work at its Delaware Project Nina plant and laid off 66 workers, and is renegotiating its $529 million Department of Energy loan amidst news that it has been blocked from accessing the money since May.
  • Fisker has struggled to deliver on its Karma, with only 225 vehicles sent to dealers and another 1,200 in the pipeline, CEO Henrik Fisker said in December. At the same time, its DOE loan was made conditional on the company delivering a cheaper mass-market model built in the United States, and not produced by Finnish contract manufacturer Valmet, as today’s Karma models are.


Fisker’s Project Nina plant is also backed by $21 million in Delaware state loans. Fisker bought the site in late 2009, started hiring workers in July and had hired about 100 people as of late 2011. The recent layoffs included about 26 Delaware employees and about 40 at its headquarters. Making cars is expensive, and Fisker must prove it can control those costs as it moves from contract manufacturing collectors' items to building mass-market cars on its own. In that sense, its rival is Tesla Motors and that company's Model S sedan -- but it’s also fighting against auto giants like Nissan, GM and all the rest. Having its first U.S. factory put on hold can’t be reassuring to would-be investors in its hoped-for IPO.

Fisker has raised about $850 million in private capital from investors including Kleiner Perkins and A123. That includes $260 million in 2011, most recently with a $150 million round launched in November.


Jeff St. John contributed to this article.