The word floated around the room and landed gently on our notepad during the morning press conference. Initially, it seemed like a perfect fit. But the more we learned about the new all-electric 2012 Coda sedan, the more we realized that "simple" was nothing but a misunderstood first impression.
Strictly discussing physical appearances, the Coda four-door is easily the least interesting vehicle we have set our eyes on in years – "unassuming" is an understatement. Yet an in-depth look reveals the plain-Jane façade is deceiving. Hidden beneath the ho-hum sheetmetal, under the hard plastic dash and below the thin-pile carpet is an ingenious all-electric propulsion system. Not just forward thinking, it shows genuine promise and innovation.
We recently spent several hours with Coda, visiting its first retail store, learning about the technology inside that uninspiring bodywork and taking an hour-long test drive in the Los Angeles Basin. Our visit answered a lot of questions. Who is behind Coda? What is the Chinese connection? How does the Coda sedan drive? Most importantly, how does newcomer Coda expect to compete against other EVs in the segment?
Based in Southern California, CODA Automotive is a privately held American company that was established in 2009 (the name was apparently chosen because Coda automotive says its technology represents the end of combustion vehicles – a "coda" is the concluding passage of a musical movement or composition). Operating out of its Santa Monica headquarters, the company designs, manufactures and sells battery systems that are purpose-built for transportation and utility. Its first vehicle, the pure-EV Coda sedan, is a five-place, four-door sedan with a promised 150-mile range.
However, let's back up a bit. A historical search of AutoblogGreen reveals the Miles Javlon XS500, an EV introduced in late 2006 by Miles Electric Vehicles (founded by entrepreneur Miles Rubin), looks strikingly similar to the Coda – because it is. That early sedan was made in China on a Hafei-sourced platform using a modified 90s-era Mitsubishi Lancer chassis. Three years later, after clearing multiple development and safety hurdles, Miles announced that its finished product was being re-released under the new Coda Automotive brand. Within two years, the new company had secured more than $300 million in private funding from both U.S. and European corporations. Today, the well-funded operation has just over 150 employees in California and a few dozen in China. It is moving ahead rapidly.
Despite being flush with cash, the company deliberately decided to retain the old XS500 platform to save capital and instead focus on the EV technology. While the business decision has delivered one far too ordinary looking vehicle, the technology beneath is impressive.
Let's start with the batteries. Arranged nearly flat beneath the sedan's floor pan, completely within the wheelbase, are 728 lithium ion phosphate (LiFePO) cells. Coda says this type of cell promises a very long life, and its engineers have provided data that says the cells will still retain 93 percent of their original capacity after 100,000 miles. They are physically arranged in 104 groups of seven, all along the same plane. Combined, the batteries deliver 36 kilowatt-hours worth of energy, with a nominal 333 volts. Sophisticated direct-current converters are located at the rear of the Coda sedan, beneath the trunk, with the plug-in spot located high on the left rear quarter panel just like it is on most small Japanese cars. With a 6.6 kilowatt 240-volt charger, the batteries recover fully in about six hours. The back-up charger, a 1.3 kilowatt 110-volt unit, does the same task in about 12 hours.
The batteries are kept at their optimal operating temperature via a closed-loop system of ducts that are fed cool or warm air from the vehicle's own HVAC system – deliberately oversized for double-duty. The closed-loop thermal management system is not only unique, it provides advantages. First, running the air through an evaporator and heat exchanger dehumidifies it, which reduces the opportunity for corrosion. Second, the closed-loop means the system only has to dehumidify the air once. This allows the system to significantly reduce its workload and energy consumption on longer trips. Coda has reportedly tested the sedan in California's torturous Death Valley without overheating the system.
The electric motor is a 100 kilowatt (134 horsepower) unit, with a single-speed gear reduction, developing 221 pound-feet of torque (electric motors develop their torque immediately). The powerplant is packaged up front, where one would expect the combustion engine to be found in a traditional compact sedan, driving the front wheels.
Thankfully, nobody at Coda is suffering from delusions of grandeur when it comes to the seemingly 1990's sedan riding atop its ingenious technology. About the same overall size as a first-generation Nissan Altima, the Coda has a 102.4-inch wheelbase that allows ample room inside for four passengers. Thanks to having all the batteries flush under the floor, there is even generous room for luggage without having to fold the rear seats down.
The cockpit is rather traditional, with a primary instrument cluster directly in front of the driver. Lacking coolant, engine speed or oil pressure to monitor, the analog display is limited to three large dials and a slew of blackened idiot lights. The leftmost gauge is a battery charge indicator, the center is an 80 mph speedometer (the EV tops out at 85 mph) and the far right gauge is the battery draw/regeneration dial. Just to the right, the center console houses the audio and climate controls on the vertical surfaces, and the transmission shifter and an old-school lever-actuated parking brake on the horizontal surface between the seats.
The round transmission shifter looks like it was pulled from a late-model Jaguar, but it doesn't sink down when the vehicle is shut off. Its "P-R-N-D" shift pattern is not only familiar and self-explanatory, but it is also about the most interesting thing to look at with the exception of the outsourced audio and navigation head unit. The balance of the interior is rather boring, lacking any secondary controls on the steering wheel or anything else of interest. Our test model was a pre-production prototype, and a crude one at that. We were promised that the materials and textures would nearly all be different in production, so complaining about panel gaps, rattles or fit and finish on our four-door would likely have been futile.
Coda's objective was to deliver an EV that not only looked like a standard combustion-engine vehicle, but drove like one too. The sedan is started with a familiar twist of the key, inserted into a slot on the steering column. Energized, a bright green "READY" appears on the dashboard. Release the parking brake, spin the aforementioned shift dial to Drive and the four-door is ready to scoot.
Initial acceleration off the line was slightly less than we've come to expect from a max-torque-at-zero-rpm EV, but things picked up quickly once under way (the Coda engineer riding in the back seat said the software is still being tuned to mimic a combustion engine's response, not an EV response). There is ample torque to enjoy shooting through traffic and only a mild sense of regenerative braking when the accelerator is lifted. It is quicker than a Nissan Leaf, but much slower than any that Tesla is offering.
Our Coda sedan was shod with a set of 205/45R17 Kumho Ecsta AST tires (classified as high-performance all-season rubber). Despite the soft damping and excessive body roll (changes are promised for production units), the four-door stuck pretty well considering its 3,670-pound curb weight. Credit the low center of gravity and grippy tires rather than trick suspension tuning. The brakes are discs up front and drums in the rear, but they still effectively brought the EV to a quick panic stop one intersection.
Coda is boasting that its new EV will deliver a real-world range of up to 150 miles, but we never even came close to that. When we left the parking garage, our Coda was already down to a battery charge of just 40 percent. Loaded with three passengers in stop-and-go traffic with the air conditioning at full blast (and heading up the steep Mulholland grade), we were asking a lot from the batteries. After half-an-hour of full-throttle zipping around and our energy level down in the teens, it was time to head back to the garage. It goes without saying that we will have to wait for an extended test to properly wring out the EV.
The Nissan Leaf is the obvious competitor to the new Coda sedan. Compared to its Japanese adversary, the Coda delivers better range, better acceleration, more power, quicker charging time and a full-size trunk. The Coda will also offer a full suite of electronics, including iPod, MP3 and USB connectivity, Satellite Radio pre-wiring and DVD capabilities. Leather upholstery is even on the options list.
Chinese cars are often mocked for their lackluster crash test performance, but Coda promises to change that perception. The sedan's predecessor, the XS500, did well in simulated IIHS testing a few years back and today's model is fitted with all of the obligatory electronic nannies including ABS, stability control, traction control and six airbags. There is even a standard telematics system that allows passengers to call for help if problems arise - including a roadside battery charge.
Initially, Coda will offer its EV for sale through "Experience Centers," each modeled after the first one that recently opened in the Westfield Century City Shopping Center. Unlike most retail automotive establishments these days, where the salesmen are left dusting the cars in the showroom, the unique retail stores are positioned for thousands of walk-by customers each day. With illuminated chassis cut-aways and lots of technology on display, the company is hoping to generate interest and sell EVs at the same time.
Even if the Coda sedan delivers on all of its promises, and all indications are that it does, the performance comes at a price. The sticker price is currently a steep $44,900 – well above a Nissan Leaf at $35,200 before a myriad amount of rebates bring it down to $27,700. While federal EV tax credits will offset a nice chunk of the Coda's MSRP too, it is still a lot to swallow for what amounts to an unproven Chinese vehicle. Unlike most automakers that entice consumers with plush cabins and dazzling infotainment systems, Coda's challenge is to convince buyers that eye candy is only skin-deep and what really matters is buried deeply out of view.
That won't be simple either.