Unknown Automaker Could Build The First Electric Sedan
SANTA MONICA, California — The first electric sedan you’re likely to see in showrooms could come from a company you’ve never heard of and cost more than you’re willing to pay.
Coda Automotive unveiled the Coda on Wednesday and promised to begin selling it by this time next year. The four-door, five-passenger mid-size car features pedestrian styling, a range of 90 to 120 miles and a whopping $45,000 price tag. It will be available only in California to start, but the company plans to roll it out nationally by 2012.
“What we are intent on doing is bringing an affordable mainstream electric car to the American public,” said Kevin Czinger, company president and CEO. “We truly believe that this is the start of the revolution that will bring EV tech to the U.S.”
Coda Automotive is the latest startup from entrepreneur Miles Rubin, who founded Miles EV in 2005. That company has has a solid reputation for high-quality electric runabouts, but Rubin always wanted to build a full-size family car. Coda has raised $40 million in funding so far and joins an increasingly crowded field of automakers promising to deliver cars with cords as early as next year.
Most of those companies — General Motors and Tesla come to mind — have made big promises and unveiled slick prototypes to build buzz for their cars. But Miles has spent 30 months developing the car without saying a word, refusing to even say what it might be called until it had a production-ready vehicle to show off.
“They’ve been under the radar with this,” said Ron Cogan, editor of Green Car Journal and greencar.com. “But they really want to commercialize EVs and make a difference.”
How much of a difference remains to be seen. Cogan and other EV advocates say Miles faces an uphill fight selling a nondescript mid-size sedan for $45,000. Even with the $7,500 federal tax credit for EVs, you’re looking at $37,500.
“People spending that much are luxury buyers,” Cogan said. “You have to really want an EV to spend that much.”
That said, the Coda has a lot to offer.
The car sports a 33.8 kilowatt-hour lithium iron phosphate battery that Coda says provides a “real world” range of 90 to 120 miles. Plug it into a 220 volt, 30-amp socket like the one that powers your dryer and it will recharge in six hours. You can plug it into a standard 110 volt socket, but you’re looking at 24 to 30 hours before you’re good to go.
“It’s not meant to be the primary mode of charging,” Broc TenHouten, vice president of engineering, says of the 110 system.
Coda Automotive is assembling the batteries through a joint venture with Lishen, a Chinese firm that supplies batteries to Apple, Samsung, Motorola and others. They’re made in China; Coda is seeking a federal grant to build a factory in the United States.
Propulsion comes from a 100-kilowatt (134 horsepower) motor and a single-speed gear reduction transmission. The Coda isn’t quick. Zero to 60 takes “less than 11 seconds,” TenHouten says, and top speed is electronically limited to 80 mph to maximize efficiency. But with 221 foot-pounds of torque, the car was snappy off the line during our brief stint riding shotgun.
The Coda was designed with help from Porsche Engineering and it will be built in China by Hafei Automotive. It is based on the Saibao, Hafei’s mid-size sedan, but the chassis was re-engineered by Miles and Porsche to suit the electric drivetrain and meet U.S. safety regulations.
Porsche Design handled the front- and rear-end styling to tweak aerodynamics, but the rest of the exterior sheet metal came straight from the Saibao. The car, while not a looker, is handsome enough and looks a bit like a Hyundai or a Kia.
Mechanical components come from major suppliers like Continental, Delphi, Borg-Warner and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Aside from the big battery and all the electronics, nothing under the skin looks any different from what you’d see under a Honda Civic.
Miles already has 20 engineering prototypes on the road and is subjecting them to federal crash testing. TenHouten says at least 50 more crash tests are planned in the coming months and the company is confident it can achieve a five-star safety rating. The car will feature six air bags and electronic stability control, he said.
Chinese automakers have a spotty reputation for quality compared to the Japanese, Europeans and Americans. Czinger says he has engineers at the plant monitoring every aspect of construction. He’s confident enough in the car to provide a three-year/36,000-mile warranty. The battery is covered for 8 years/80,000 miles.
The car Coda unveiled today was an engineering mule, an early prototype used for testing and development. As such, it was worn around the edges and had subtle flaws. For example, the trunk lid wasn’t flush with the rear quarter panel, the window trim was loose and one of the interior pieces was quite obviously crooked. Coda says the interior will be redesigned before production to freshen up the appearance. Standard equipment will include navi and satellite radio and power windows and locks. The seats are manually operated to save weight, and the mule’s sunroof will be ditched for the same reason.
Despite being a mule that had been worked hard, the car felt solid during our time in the passenger seat. The doors sounded solid, not tinny, when slammed shut. The AC blew strong and cold. The seats were surprisingly comfortable and the interior well-appointed. Granted, we spent no more than 10 minutes in the car, but nothing about it felt cheap.
Aaron Bragman, an auto industry analyst with I.H.S. Global Insight, doesn’t think customers should have any reason to doubt the quality of a car built in China.
“The Chinese can make things to Western specs if the right people are running the show,” he said. “All the world’s automakers build cars there. It’s just the Chinese homegrown vehicles that have been substandard by Western standards, and that is rapidly changing.”
Whether anyone will spend $45,000 for it is another matter entirely. GM plans to offer the Chevrolet Volt range-extended EV for $40,000 or less. Nissan is working on an EV that could come in at around $30,000.
Czinger says the battery is the big-ticket item driving the cost, and the company simply can’t build the Coda for any less. He expects that to change as EVs catch on, battery technology advances and production ramps up.
“Over the next five years, you’re going to see these costs come down tremendously,” he said. “Our intent is to bring that (cost) down to the low 30s and then into the 20s.”
The company plans to take orders through its website and will establish a small network of dealers in major cities. It also is working with an unnamed company to provide 24-hour roadside assistance and plans to outsource service and repairs to a third-party that will provide “500-plus” service locations throughout California.
Despite the price, Czinger is confident he’ll sell every one of the 2,700 cars the company plans to build next year.
“Our market research has shown we’ll have sufficient demand to sell our our initial run,” he says. “We really believe this technology is ready for prime time.”
UPDATE 10:30 a.m. Eastern June 4 to answer questions raised by a commenter:
Coda Automotive says the battery is warrantied for eight years but believes the battery has a service life longer than that, though it didn’t offer a specific figure. Nor did it say what a replacement might cost.
As for the operating cost, Coda didn’t say. But Nissan has said its forthcoming EV will cost 4 cents per mile to operate if you figure gas is four bucks a gallon, electricity is 14 cents a kilowatt hour and you drive 15,000 miles a year. Compare that to the 13 cents a mile you’ll pay in a car that gets 30 mpg. Nissan says its EV will cost about 90 cents to charge if you plug it in off-peak. Figure about the same for the Coda.