On Sale Date: December 2011
Price: $38,295 (after the $7500 federal EV tax credit)
Powertrain: Permanent magnet AC, 134 hp, 221 lb-ft; single-speed transmission, FWD
EPA Range: Rated at 110 miles; up to 150 miles (claimed)
What's New: Coda Automotive is a 3-year-old, privately funded Los Angeles–based startup that originated from Miles EV, which builds low-speed electric vehicles for university and government use. Flush with $300 million in private funding from U.S. and European corporations, Coda employs 160 people in L.A. and 35 in China. You wouldn't know it from the uninspired bodywork sourced from Chinese manufacturer Hafei, but the Coda sedan contains some compelling tech.
Though chassis components are sourced from a late 1990s Mitsubishi Lancer, Coda's key selling point is a 728-cell lithium iron phosphate battery sandwiched between the axles and directly below the floorboard. The power pack is a joint venture with Lishen Power Battery, which also supplies companies like Samsung, Motorola and Apple. Coda claims that after its first 100,000 miles, the battery degrades only 7 percent. "You'd have to drive hundreds of thousands of miles to end up with the Leaf's range," boasts Phil Gow, Coda's VP of battery systems.
Storing 36 kWh—50 percent more than the Nissan Leaf—the Coda's 333-volt setup offers greater power (134 hp) and more torque (221 lb-ft) than its Japanese competitor. A full charge on a 220-volt, 30-amp system requires 6 hours; if you only have 2 hours of charge time, you'll glean 40 or 50 miles of range.
The Coda weighs in at 3670 lbs, with 55 percent distributed over the front wheels, which are driven by a single-speed, Borg-Warner-sourced transmission. Top speed is limited to 85 mph, and the five-passenger sedan carries a spacious 14.1-cubic-foot trunk thanks to the underfloor battery setup.
Tech Tidbit: While Nissan uses a passively cooled battery pack in the Leaf, Coda uses an active, closed-loop, air-cooled system that incorporates an A/C unit, evaporator and heat exchanger for thermal management in its sedan. The system was tested in extreme conditions including Death Valley, and Coda says it showed that the car can operate without being plugged in at temperatures as low as -20 Celsius.
Driving Character: Our preproduction Coda sedan tester came with numerous caveats. Its hard plastic interior is a temporary stand-in for softer touch materials, sound insulation is still being refined, its suspension has yet to be completely sorted out, and the motor controller (the digital throttle management) is still being tweaked. At least we knew what we were getting with the lackluster exterior. This car's bland looks remind us of that by Subaru.
But once you're past the Coda's incomprehensibly dreary exterior, it's actually a decent drive, preproduction warts and all. Off-the-line acceleration is soft, yielding to a rather nice pick up of gusto at around 35 mph. Half-shaft resonances are audible during acceleration (which engineers say will be squelched when the final version hits the market in December 2011), but the motor's thrust enabled us to jockey for position during L.A. rush hour. An analog dial interprets battery draw and regeneration levels, and after a brief pause following throttle lift, our tester exhibited mild "engine" braking effect as energy was diverted back to the batteries. We expect that to be recalibrated for the production version, which will incorporate a nav system–based "GreenScreen" that shows efficiency and battery-use data. There was also a bit of motor shudder on uphill stretches of roads in hilly Bel Air; again, the production version should be more refined.
A jaunt through sinewy Mulholland Drive revealed surprisingly soft damping and considerable body roll—which should be taken with a grain of salt, since both the strut calibration and the parts suppliers are still up in the air. Coda engineers face a challenge in achieving a balance between ride quality and handling, considering the small sedan's 3670-pound mass. But at least handling was predictable.
On a positive note, the cabin stayed cool despite exterior temperatures in excess of 90 degrees, and the motor's copious midrange thrust allowed for an entertaining drive once we escaped the crawl of Santa Monica Boulevard traffic. Also encouraging were our colleague's experiences with range during longer distance testing: one tester reported driving 104 miles after starting with a 90 percent charge, and he still had 22 percent remaining.
Favorite Detail: Despite its milquetoast exterior, Coda offers a compelling antidote to the pervasive range anxiety issue, offering up to 150 miles from a single charge.
Driver's Grievance: Even with the $7500 tax credit and further local refunds available, we just can't wrap our heads around driving a nearly $40,000 electric vehicle that looks like a 10-year-old Chinese econobox clone.
Bottom Line: Coda's sedan offers a mixed bag of EV tradeoffs: While its range is impressive and its ride isn't bad, the sticker price is liable to shock you even while its exterior styling puts you to sleep. Coda's head of marketing describes its incognito skin as "nonquirky," and we suspect he'll earn every last dollar of his salary when it comes time to push this product to the public.
As much as Coda upsells its eco-chic retail outlets and packages itself as a conquest option for hybrid drivers, there's no denying the L.A.–based company's in-house tech developments can, and likely will, be licensed to mainstream manufacturers. Coda could do well by funneling cash from deep-pocketed automakers, but it could do even better for itself once it adopts sexier sheet metal, which some estimate might happen in about a year and a half. Until then, let's consider Coda a technology company that built an electric car. We look forward to seeing it evolve into an electric car company that also happens to boast some sweet technology.