EAST HADDAM, Conn. -- The $108,000 Fisker Karma had barely clocked 200 miles when it died suddenly on Consumer Reports' giant test track here in early March.
The magazine's review of the car won't be published until September, but when a test engineer blogged about the breakdown, word sped around the Internet. A few days later Fisker CEO Tom LaSorda called David Champion, Consumer Reports' technical director, to find out what happened.
"He told me they would do whatever it takes to fix the car," says Champion, a 57-year-old Brit who has run the magazine's influential vehicle tests for 15 years.
That kind of dialogue with car executives wasn't always the case at Consumer Reports. But it has become routine under Champion -- only the third person to head the Consumers Union testing program since it was launched in 1936.
Champion points to a grassy patch where Bob Lutz landed his helicopter on a visit to the remote 327-acre test site three hours north of New York City. Other industry leaders and their entourages have made the long trek by car. They include Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche, Ford CEO Alan Mulally and Toyota product development boss Takeshi Uchiyamada, as well as several National Highway Traffic Safety Administration administrators.
The big bosses come to tour the test facility on the Connecticut River -- where about 80 cars, a $600,000 stash of tires and dozens of child safety seats are tested annually -- and to meet the man the man who runs it.
What they find is a fast-driving, white-haired engineer with a wry sense of humor and unique experience, given his current job and his auto industry background. Champion started out working for a British supplier with a reputation of making unreliable parts. He later tested vehicles for Land Rover, where he says quality was an afterthought, and then was an engineer at Nissan, where he says quality was an obsession.
"No one comes here to convince me," Champion says. "They know that's a waste of time. We still keep at arm's length in terms of bias and being able say what we think about a car."
He says they come because Consumer Reports, which has 8 million readers, including Web subscribers, often will point out weaknesses and performance problems in vehicles that other automotive publications don't.
The facility is surrounded by barbed wire fences and includes a 1.2-mile road course, a grueling rock and hill circuit, two skid pads, and a 1.5-mile ride evaluation course. Several buildings house state-of-the art test equipment, as well as a massive service bay and electric-car charging stations.
"There are no men in white coats testing toasters here," said Champion, fresh off the track after demonstrating how the Porsche Panamera effortlessly took the punishment of high speed and twisty turns.