Coda Test Drive Shows Strong Heart In Plain Wrap

By John O'Dell September 9, 2011

Coda Test Drive beach.jpg

The Coda sedan isn’t a car whose exterior will generate much comment. It looks a lot like a 3-year old Corolla, or any other of the all-purpose Japanese family cars of the past decade. In fact, it’s based on a Chinese-licensed Mitsubishi design, and inside is about the same – uninspiring, but inoffensive. Punch the accelerator, though, and your interest in this soon-to-be entry in the battery-electric vehicle (BEV) segment is bound to soar. AutoObserver got the opportunity to drive an early pre-production Coda EV (the company calls it a pre-pre-production model) on a roughly three-hour jaunt along Southern California’s Malibu coast, through a section of the Santa Monica Mountains and down onto the always-crowded San Diego Freeway and into West Los Angeles.

The route provide plenty of curves and hills, too much mid-day city traffic and several opportunities to test Coda’s claim that the car is the quickest in its admittedly tiny class (the only other highway-capable 5-seat BEV on sale today is the Nissan Leaf). It also covered 105 miles and gave us a chance to see if the Coda really could deliver on the company’s claim of a 90- to 150-mile range on a single charge. Range and power, of course, are likely to be the features that attract most early BEV buyers. Style and interior appointments won’t figure as heavily into the equation until the segment starts attracting “the average” consumer who cares less about kilowatt-hours (kWh) and voltage and more about getting there in comfort.

Getting there is the big thing and on that front the Coda keeps its maker honest. We covered approximately 105 miles in two cars, the drivers switching vehicles midway. Both Codas used 90 percent of their battery charge, according to the cars’ simple-but-effective instrumentation. That left about 11 miles until the battery state-of-charge gauge would have bottomed out. Phil Gow, Coda’s top battery guy, told us that when the needle hits “0” the battery pack still will deliver almost 20 miles of travel. The last little bit will be in “limp home” mode, however, which keeps speed to a crawl and is just enough to move off the road and out of danger.

Long Ranger
We didn’t get to that point, but one of the two test cars was delivered with 6.1 miles on the trip meter and only 90 percent of its charge remaining (the technicians used juice doing some auxiliary testing), and the state of charge gauge hit “0” about 5 miles before the end of the trip. Because we were in city traffic at the time, there was no noticeable difference in performance, but Gow said that had we been able to floor it -- climbing a freeway on-ramp, for instance --  we would have noticed acceleration falling off after we reached 30 miles an hour. The car’s trip meter showed 104.7 miles when we parked it in the garage. The other Coda was delivered with a full charge and was down to 10 percent on the state-of-charge indicator with 105 miles on its odometer when the drive ended.

Do the math and you can see that in our particular driving scenario we probably could have pushed the Codas past the 120-mile mark. Our loop spent lots of time at 50-70 mph, multiple stops and traffic jams, a few dozen hills to climb and air conditioning on most of the time (it was in the 90s outside) and all of it with two people in each car. By comparison, a Nissan Leaf in the same conditions would be good for only about 60-70 miles. Coda estimates that the EPA will rate the car’s range at 110 miles on a full charge, versus 73 miles for the Nissan. The Coda uses a 6.6 kilowatt on-board charger (same as the upcoming Ford Focus EV) that enables it to take juice from a 240-volt “Level 2” EV charging station at twice the rate of the Nissan Leaf or upcoming Mitsubishi i. That means the Coda’s 36-kWh battery can be recharged from empty in about 6 hours and in a pinch it can take on enough juice for 10 miles of travel in just 20 minutes.

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Bigger Is Better
The Coda’s secret weapon isn’t much of a secret, it simply packs a much larger battery than the Leaf. The Nissan’s lithium-ion pack is rated at 24 kWh. The Coda’s is rated at 36 kWh, and Gow told us that Coda fudges a bit and that the real pack size is closer to 39 kWh. Coda also uses a lithium-iron-phosphate battery chemistry that is less energy-dense than the lithium-manganate chemistry used by Nissan. But the Coda chemistry provides more useable energy, higher peak power, longer battery life, greater thermal stability and cheaper production cost. At 3,670 pounds the Coda is over 300 pounds heavier than the Leaf, but it feels quicker. The Leaf has been tested at 10.0 seconds for 0-60 mph acceleration. There are no official numbers for the Coda yet, but insiders say it will be in the 9- to 10-second range. Top speed is electronically limited at 85 mph.

That extra weight comes from a 1,000-pound battery package that is mounted in a flat tray under the passenger cabin and between the axles, giving the Coda a road-hugging feel through curves and corners. A suspension and steering system designed by Coda (with help from Porsche Design’s engineering team) helps keep the shiny side up while the low center of gravity anchored by that big battery pack reduces sway and bounciness. The steering was a bit light but not annoyingly so. Common on EVs is the single-speed gear-reduction transmission, controlled on the Coda with a large, comfortable-to-grip knob that lets the driver select from the lighted PRND indicators ranged in an arc an on the center console.

Basic Transport
Initially, the Coda will come in only one body style – a compact five-seat, four-door sedan. It felt a little narrow with two adult males in the front seats, but wasn’t crowded. There’s adequate legroom in front and back, and because the battery is in that flat underbody tray, it doesn’t interfere with the 14 cubic feet of trunk space. When the 60/40 split rear seats are folded flat the cargo area expands to roughly 24 cubic feet. Seats come standard in grey cloth but black leather is available. Exterior colors are limited to black, white, silver, blue and red – all with chrome door handles and trim strips front and rear.

Instrumentation on the pre-production model was simple – an analog speedometer flanked by the state-of-charge gauge on the left and the power consumption and regenerative braking indicators in a dual-gauge on the right. The navigation and audio systems share a multi-purpose information display screen in the center stack, where the climate control dials also can be found. Coda vehicle technician Mark Franco told us that the production models also will provide some power use and battery information in graphic format on the multi-purpose info screen. Overhead there are two round map lights and a laughably tiny flip-open holder for sunglasses. Interior storage overall could be a problem for some: The glove box is small and the armrest-lidded storage box in the center console too small to be of much use except as a catchall for loose coins, cell-phone chargers and other small items. There are no bottle holders molded into the storage trays at the bottom of the front door panels. A pair of cup holders in the center console will hold fairly large plastic cups, however.

Will It Sell?
With an estimated starting price of $44,900 before any federal, state and local incentives (the price could get as low at $31,000 in some parts of the country) the Coda could be a tough sell once the initial audience of early adopters and fleet buyers looking to fulfill green car mandates is sated. Coda plans to launch sales in California and then gradually spread across the country as dealers sign on, production capacity increases and the company’s supply, service and warranty system is ironed out.

CEO Phil Murtaugh, former head of GM’s quite successful China division, said the Coda sedan will appeal to people in the upper-middle income ranges ($125,000-plus). They expect buyers who are interested in new technologies, have room in their garages and lifestyles for a car that won’t serve all needs because of its size and range limitations, and want to help the environment or national energy security by driving a car that doesn't burn petroleum and has no tailpipe emissions. It appears that insofar as an EV powertrain goes, Coda has done a commendable job, but the company will have to overcome its initial effort’s plain-vanilla looks. New sheet-metal, or even new body styles may be required before the Coda can begin to compete on car lots across the nation.

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LEAVE A COMMENT

throwback says: 1:19 PM, 10.12.11

"The Coda sedan isn’t a car whose exterior will generate much comment."

On the contrary, I'm sure there will be plenty of comment on the looks.

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