Coda (Electric Sedan)

Would you pay $45,000 for a small, Chinese-made electric car with a 100-mile-or-so driving range, even if it were eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit? That’s the question Coda Automotive will find out the answer to next year when it launches its four-door, five-passenger sedan in California.

Many eco-friendly small cars, like the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius, use aerodynamic styling to visually communicate and augment their frugal powertrains, but the Coda isn’t one of them. It has the sleeper looks of a people’s car, not a swoopy, zero-emissions vehicle.

Underneath the Coda’s anonymous sheet metal is a different story. Coda CEO Kevin Czinger is quick to point out the sedan’s cutting-edge, 333-volt lithium-ion batteries and the performance they’ll provide in tandem with the EV sedan’s 100 kW (134 hp) electric motor.

“This is a vehicle that provides sufficient utility to satisfy more than 90% of most drivers’ needs,” Czinger said. “It has zero to 60 acceleration of less than 11 seconds, which we believe is good performance for a five-passenger sedan. With the [$300 to $500] optional fast charger, you’ll be able to recharge the batteries up to 80% [capacity] in 10 to 15 minutes.”

Without the fast charger, the Coda EV will require five hours to charge using a special 220-volt plug installed in your home, or up to 30 hours if trickle-charged using a standard 110-volt plug.

Compared to the upcoming Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle, which is expected to have a similar price, a 40-mile electric-only range and a 600-mile total range (the batteries can be recharged while driving by an onboard, gasoline-powered generator), the Coda EV sedan could be a tough sell, even to consumers who care only about what doesn’t come out of their car’s tailpipe – not their wallets.

With no domestic lithium-ion battery producers ready to scale automotive-grade batteries, Czinger headed to China — 14 times — and hammered out a joint-venture partnership with China’s state-owned lithium-ion battery company, Tianjin Lishen, which supplies companies such as Apple and Motorola. A team of Coda engineers, led by senior vice president of China operations Mark Atkeson, was installed at Lishen to do much of the R&D. Because Coda developed the battery-pack design, the company owns the intellectual property. For its part, Lishen gets to develop the infrastructure it will need to mass-produce electric cars once they become popular in China. Even with Lishen’s experience, the process was daunting; the battery pack for the Coda sedan has 728 cells, while computers and phones have just a few. “You have to move for the first time to a complex system that is going to serve an automotive duty cycle,” says Czinger. “There is a huge gap between those two things.” Bridging that gap took cooperation — and supervision.

Coda is producing the batteries in China in association with Lishen Power Battery. The partners have the potential to make 20,000 units a year. Based on that volume, according to Czinger, the company would have enough capacity to one day consider selling their batteries to other car companies. That lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) battery, which features 728 cells, is durable enough to offer with an 8-year, 100,000-mile warranty.

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