Coda Opens First EV Experience Center

By John O'Dell September 8, 2011

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Coda Holdings, which doesn’t bill itself as a car maker but rather as the developer of “advanced Lithium-ion power battery systems for its all-electric CODA sedan,” believes that upscale shopping malls with their throngs of consumers can provide some of the best exposure a nascent EV maker can hope for. To test that theory, Coda this week has opened its inaugural “experience center” in the tony Westfield Shopping Mall in Los Angeles’ Century City. The outdoor mall, where the likes of actress Jessica Alba can be seen picking up groceries at the gourmet market or outfits and accessories at any of a score of high-end retailers, now sports a pre-production Coda sedan and its electric charging station in a central location just above the underground garage’s valet parking station.

We watched a few hundred shoppers pass by on a hot weekday afternoon and noted that only about one in 10 even gave the display a glance. If the car doesn’t grab, the adjacent Coda center’s wood-paneled exterior makes the “store” pop out. The quotation marks are there because it’s not really accurate to call the place a store. You can’t purchase a Coda there, although you could pick up a logo’d cap or T-shirt along with brochures. Instead, as Coda Holdings CEO Phil Murtaugh explained it, the center is a place the curious can come to ask questions, get a detailed explanation of Coda’s battery and powertrain system with the help of a full-sized cutaway model that sits on the “showroom” floor, or schedule a test drive in one of several Coda sedans permanently stationed in the mall’s parking garage. For those who are really serious about it, you can configure a car and get referred to the nearest Coda dealer, as soon as there are some.

Coda Automotive is the car-making unit of Coda Holdings, which also supplies electric-drive systems to other automakers (China’s Great Wall was the first to be announced) and builds stationary power storage systems built around its lithium iron-phosphate batteries. Coda has delayed introduction of the car several times now but intends to have retail models ready later this year. At the experience center grand opening Wednesday the company had only early pre-production models available for test drives and for display in the mall. Based on a several-years-old Mitsubishi design, the plain-vanilla Chinese-built 5-seat Coda sedan doesn’t turn heads, but it doesn’t offend, either. Despite its estimated $44,000 price tag (before incentives), this isn’t a luxury car. It’s interior is a bit sparse but quite serviceable, and Coda executives attending the opening assured us that the hard plastic dash and other trim bits in the pre-production cars would be rendered in textured, soft-touch materials in the production model.

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10 Test Drives
All that, of course, will be explained to prospective customers in great detail by the center’s staff of Coda-trained information specialists. They should be busy, at least until the excitement of a new thing in the mall wears off. Coda’s new head of marketing and sales, former Mercedes-Benz and Chrysler sales executive Thomas Hausch, told AutoObserver that in the four days the center had been undergoing its “soft opening” (doors open, center staffed, but no advertising to let people know it was there) it had pulled in “150 to 300 seriously interested” visitors a day. It was closed to the public for Wednesday’s media introduction, which was followed by a private showing for prospective Coda dealers, so we didn’t get a chance to verify his tally.

Hausch said all those visitors had resulted in 10 firm test-drive appointments which, believe it or not, is a pretty good ratio for a store in that kind of retail environment – especially for a company that still doesn’t have a car to actually sell. Hausch also told us that Coda is talking to “eight or nine” dealer prospects for the Southern California area. The Coda will initially be sold only in select regions of California where it can keep customers and service centers close together while ironing out the wrinkles that accompany any new automaker’s first effort. The company also still intends to permit customers who want to do so to reserve and perhaps even purchase a car on-line, and its reservation site opened this week. Like Nissan with its Leaf EV, Coda is asking for a refundable $99 deposit to reserve the right to purchase a car once they become available.

Meantime, interested Californians should keep an eye out at their local upscale malls: Hausch and Murtaugh both said that Coda plans to open several more experience centers in coming weeks and months. The Century City location was picked in part because it is close to Coda’s new corporate headquarters in West Los Angeles, and also because it is highly trafficked. According to Hausch it has more than 10 million visitors a year, many who fit Coda’s target demographic of annual income in excess of $125,000, several cars in the garage and interests in technology and environmentalism. The concept of mall stores for new cars has been tried before in the U.S. with no success by General Motors’ failed Saturn brand, and by failed Korean carmaker Daewoo. Hausch said, though, that those were old-line carmakers selling traditional cars to traditional buyers. The electric vehicle market opens up new frontiers, he said, and the mall “experience center” is one Coda intends to pioneer.

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