Second Fisker Karma fire turns up heat on EV builder

A second $102,000 Fisker Karma electric vehicle caught fire on Friday in California, as the owner was shopping in a grocery store. Unlike the first fire of a Karma, which burned an entire garage, firefighters were able to stop the blaze and preserve the car to analyze the cause -- and raise fresh questions about Fisker's engineering.

There's lots of armchair analysis that because the Karma uses a General Motors-sourced 2-liter turbo engine to charge its batteries, with the exhausts exiting just ahead of the doors, there's simply too much heat under the hood. Like the Chevrolet Volt, the Karma's engine comes on independent of whether the vehicle's moving, which could create problems with air flow and cooling. Neither Fisker nor the owners of the previous Karma have said why that vehicle burned.

Fisker released a statement this weekend saying it was investigating the fire, which did not involve the Karma's battery pack. That pack was recalled earlier this year after some 600 vehicles were built with defective battery packs. That recall followed a long-delayed launch, glitches with its software and an embarrassing incident where Consumer Reports had to have their Fisker Karma towed away after it died during initial testing.

And if the pressure on Fisker wasn't enough, the upcoming presidential election will only increase the attention paid to the firm's fortunes. Fisker exists at all mainly because it won a $529 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy; while Fisker has drawn $193 million of the loan before the Energy department shut off access, it has been able to raise more than $1 billion in private capital from investors who saw it as one of the EV companies that would survive. With battery supplier A123 Systems -- also a benefactor of Obama administration grants -- getting a lifeline from a Chinese company, Fisker risks getting drawn more deeply into the political debate.