Started in 2009 in an abandoned Santa Monica airport hanger in Southern California, Coda Automotive plans to build affordable electric vehicles by combining Chinese parts with American engineering. Earlier this year, the first production Coda EV rolled from the factory in Benicia, Calif., the result of over $300 million in private capital and supply deals with Chinese automaker Hafei Automotive, among others.
The question before us on a recent drive: Is it for real?
Starting with the Hafei's gasoline-powered 4-door Saibao model sold in China -- itself based on an older Mitsubishi sedan -- the 140-strong engineering team at Coda built an all-electric powertrain and upgraded the Hafei chassis to meet U.S. safety standards. The result: a 134-hp EV that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates can travel 88 miles on a single charge, and up to 125 miles in city-only driving.
The Coda comes with a 33-kWh lithium-iron-phosphate battery pack -- larger than what's in the Nissan Leaf or Chevrolet Volt. With a 240-volt charger, recharge time is about 6 hours. With your common 110-volt home outlet, charging to full power will take at least twice as long.
On the outside, the Coda is not much to look at. The exterior styling is similar to that of an entry-level Japanese or Korean car from six years ago -- which it is. Its square three-box design blends into L.A. traffic to the point of anonymity; no one will be able tell the Coda is an electric vehicle. And that's how the company sees its target customers wanting it, choosing the Coda because of the car's technology and performance.
In our all-day 76-mile drive of the Coda in Los Angeles, which took us from Santa Monica, to downtown, and through the mountain roads just north of the city before returning, the EV had plenty of juice left. Even though we had the air conditioning on all day — admittedly a broken unit where no cold air came out about 50 percent of the time -- driving normally, the Coda still had 13 percent of its battery charge left, with 12 miles remaining in its range.
On the road, the Coda's front strut independent and rear multi-link suspension configuration makes use of Kumho 17-inch tires and offers a comfortable ride. The electronically assisted rack-and-pinion steering provides good feel at center, but lacks feedback and progressive weighting when it's directing the front tires through the turns. The car's battery pack is located under the seats and center floor for better weight distribution and lower center of gravity; you don't feel the car sloshing its weight around curves. At low speeds, there is a noticeable clicking sound from the single-speed transmission as it engages and disengages. Otherwise, at cruising speeds the wind and tire noises were both kept in check.
The Coda offers all the required safety features -- dual-stage front and passenger, side and curtain airbags -- although the upgraded chassis hasn't been crash-tested by U.S. officials. As with all electrics, the anti-lock brakes pair with a regenerative braking system to recover energy. In the Coda, that regen force changes based on speed: it's lighter when you let off the accelerator when cruising at highway speeds, but becomes more aggressive, and even stopping the car, if you are braking towards a red light.
Even with the savings of Chinese parts, the Coda lists for $37,250; in California, federal and state incentives can drop the price to $27,250. Coda offers a 10-year/100,000-mile warranty on the battery, and a 5-year/60,000 warranty on the powertrain.
The new Coda is definitely a commendable first-try. Its real world usable EV range and technology are impressive, and stack well against the established brand names. However, being just good enough won't attract customers; it has to be better than the EV competition -- a growing list that includes the Honda Fit, Ford Focus, Toyota RAV4 -- all recognizable names with longer track records for quality and reliability. Coda will need to move fast to roll out improvements; customers will only spend so much rooting for the underdog.