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America's Newest Electric Car Could Be From China

Published: 21 Jun 2009 17:28:16 PST

Will the unassuming, near-silent Coda make some noise when it hits U.S. streets next year?


Coda Automotive aims to be the David in an automotive world full of Goliaths. This week the Santa Monica, Calif., developer of electric vehicles showed off the latest iteration of its highway-speed electric vehicle, a nondescript four-door sedan that Coda Chief Executive Kevin Czinger says has overcome the technological hurdles and high costs that have dogged established auto giants' attempts to electrify for more than a century.

Details on the performance of the car's Chinese lithium-ion batteries are scarce, though battery performance will be the first of many challenges Czinger will have to resolve if he wants to begin selling the Coda sedan by June 2010, as planned.

The car is the vision of Miles Rubin, a former CEO of Ralph Lauren Polo jeans who in 2005 founded Miles Electric Vehicles to produce low-speed electrically powered fleet vehicles for university campuses and municipalities. He later began development of a commuter-friendly car with an 80 mile-per-hour top speed and 100 mile range (see "Clean Machine"). The low-speed business has been a modest success; last year Rubin spun-off the faster car as Coda Automotive, with Czinger, a former Goldman Sachs ( GS - news - people ) and Bertelsmann AG executive, running operations.

But development of a highway-speed electric car brings technical challenges of a much greater magnitude. Coda's energy-dense lithium ion battery technology, developed by China's Lishen, a maker of batteries for Apple ( AAPL - news - people )computers and Black and Decker ( BDK - news - people ) tools, must withstand 100,000 miles-worth of recharge cycles and eliminate the risk of spontaneous combustion, which has infamously claimed the lives of a few laptop computers over the years. Such hurdles have forced auto majors to rely on less-efficient NiMH batteries in hybrids such as Toyota's ( TM - news - people ) Prius.

Czinger says his battery's unique iron-phosphate chemistry, as well as battery-management technology from an unnamed German supplier, have solved the problems. Czinger also has had to beef up the safety of the Chinese Haifei sedan that forms the foundation of the Coda. Using that ready chassis has shortened development and allowed Coda to leverage an existing production line. Czinger has added 95 upgrades, including structural reinforcements and the installation of advanced air bags to meet American crash standards. Environmentally concerned consumers will have to be convinced that the car will be worth its $45,000 price tag, which could come down to $32,500 in California following federal and state clean-car incentives.

If Czinger reaches his projected 2010 introduction date he will have achieved a small victory. He developed the Coda and its electric-drive train with the input of 16 core engineers, mostly automotive veterans, and $30 million in venture capital thus far. But Preston Tucker and John DeLorean famously brought niche cars to market too, only to see their companies go under soon thereafter. And conventional gasoline engines powered those cars.

Today, of the big carmakers only Nissan ( NSANY - news - people ) has promised to sell a fully electric car by next year. Toyota, the electric leader with its Prius, is dabbling timidly in plug-in electric hybrids that it plans to sell only to fleet users. One high-profile electric start-up, Tesla, has been dogged by battery-pack setbacks, rising costs and management infighting, and has yet to sell a car.

One thing is for sure: The unassuming Coda accelerated aggressively, and nearly silently, between traffic lights on a short spin around Manhattan. Yet with its attractive, if plain, styling, it's unlikely anyone noticed the car.

That's fine with Czinger. If he has his way, Coda will capture the attention of automotive giants come next summer.


 

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