Friday, February 26, 2010

Coda -- The opening

Coda recently brought a bunch of employees and a car to the San Francisco Electric Vehicle Association, and there we learned yet-more-still-further-even details about the nearly ready production model. Armed with the basics through the useful website and related blog, we were happy to find out that the bland look will be spruced up, that it will be J1772 compliant, and that it is anticipated to score at the top of the crash safety tests. But, we were disappointed that it will be a 4-seater, and that adjustable regen will not be available the first year. Best of all, though, we caught a ride and found that even the old streets of San Francisco were happily smoothed by the well-sorted suspension, and it gave confidence that the car will be a solid performer that may well beat out the Leaf in the inevitable head-to-head comparison (especially since they both seem likely to sell for about the same low-$30K post-credit price).

To reiterate the known data: Chinese-body car and 333 volt, 34KWH, 728-cell lithium ferris-phosphate battery pack made in China by Coda’s joint-venture partner Lichen, with American-made 100KW motor, transmission, controller, charger, BMS, and other electric bits. 3600 lbs., 11 second 0-60, 80mph top speed, 90-120 mile range, and an 8-year, 100,000 mile battery warrantee. And, kind of a bland expression on its face.

Phil Gow, Coda’s battery guru, led an excellent presentation, with help from marketing director Kara Saltness and “VP of Branded Experiences” Whitney Klint (aren’t cattle the ones who get branded experiences?). We were impressed that rather than just some car off the assembly line, the Coda has over 300 modifications to its chassis to best make the electric conversion; further, the battery cells are purpose-designed for Coda, and seem to be carefully managed. With the batteries primarily underneath the car, some of the electronic pieces in the back where the space tire used to be, and a well-thought-out circuit-breaker safety system and full diagnostics, all the electrics seem well-matched and give confidence in its engineering.

The look of the car is apparently being improved through a new grill piece, and this small change may well give the car the improved look that is could use. Inside, the nice-sized screen can play DVDs (including the owner instructions) – but presumably not while one is driving. Otherwise, the exterior and interior are perfectly good, with little to especially commend or especially slag on. For those of us who believe that the change from ICE to electric is plenty of change in and of itself, and that changing the look and feel of the car into something unusual may be too much (see, e.g., Aptera and Tango, and to a lesser extent the Leaf and iMiev), the Coda projects a comfortingly sensible and stabile image.

The test ride demonstrated that the suspension was well-suited to a heavy-ish car, with bumps smoothed but the handling still reasonably crisp. Interestingly, the batteries beneath the floor caused the floor-pan to be raised a little, resulting in the knees being a bit higher than they would be otherwise; but the difference is not really noticeable unless pointed out, and it does not seem to be an issue. The center rear seat area, which in this pre-production example still had a seatbelt, will instead have a fairly pointless cup-rest console: allegedly, the gross vehicle weight of adding a fifth passenger was too much for the tiring rating. This was a disappointingly poor excuse for a key car-buying factor that will put the Coda at a disadvantage to the five-seat Leaf.

However, in other regards it stands up well to the Leaf. First, at 34KWH versus 24KWH, the Coda’s presumed 90-120 mile range is a lot more credible than the Leaf’s claimed 100 mile range on the optimistic LA-4 urban driving cycle. Second, the Coda’s performance will likely be just as spry as the Leaf, which weighs less (probably around 3200 lbs.) but has less power (80KW). Third, while Nissan can be expected to ensure their car has quality fit-and-finish, the Coda is similarly competent is this department. Both have good car-driver interface and instrumentation, and the Coda certainly seems to have been designed with robust heating and cooling capacity. While the Leaf can accept 440 volt fast-charging which the Coda cannot, there will be few such chargers available in the next several years.

Nissan will sell its Leaf through select Nissan dealerships: meanwhile, Coda will be selling its car in California in late 2010 (a projected 2000 cars) and thereafter in markets across the country (a projected 20,000 cars), through an unconventional sales and marketing deployment system. We can assume that the early adopters are willing to go to Coda for the cars, but we wonder whether this system might be off-putting to the broader second wave of potential buyers. In any event, Coda is taking their solid product to market in real numbers before anyone else, and this might give them the free press – hey, that’s us! – that they’ll need to get critical momentum for penetration and acceptance. But to get more press, next time we want to be able to take the wheel: hear that, Coda?

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