The Breakdown

Explaining Southern California's economy

CODA Automotive makes the case for the Very Simple Electric Car

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Let me draw a picture for you of the electric car market, circa autumn 2012. At the high end, you have Tesla Motors, selling or not selling, depending on your patience with the startup's delivery schedule, an all-electric Roadster, priced over $100,000; and an all-electric sedan, the Model 2, priced anywhere from about $50,000 to upwards of $100,000, depending on how you spec it out.

Then there's Nissan's Leaf, which can be be had for less than $30,000, once you get finished with various credits. The Ford Focus EV is in the same ballpark, around $30,000 once the tax credits kick in.

The Mitsubishi MiEV, even farther down the ladder, is yours for just over $20,000. But it's bare-bones.

You can lease, but not buy, the Honda Fit EV for around $400 per month. 

Pretty much everything else is some type of hybrid or plug-in hybrid, so you don't get pure, zero-emissions, all-electric motoring.

And then there's CODA, the Southern California-based startup which is currently selling...exactly one car. It will set you back a scooch less than $30,000, once a $7,500 credit kicks in. And a scooch more if you figure in a $2,500 rebate that Californians are eligible for. That gives you a base price of just over $27,000.

It's a simple, straightforward vehicle that delivers roughly 125 miles per charge, according the manufacturer (the EPA says about 90) and features a battery that was engineered to last longer, at the expense of the some range (it carries a 10-year/100,000-mile warranty). If you've ever driven a Nissan Sentra or Toyota Corolla, you've driven something like the CODA. A four-door with a nice little trunk. Not a hatchback like the Leaf or the Fit EV. The closest competing car would be the Ford Focus EV.

I took one for a day-long spin last week and ran it through a variety of driving conditions, including a backwards drag race of sorts in the L.A. River. (Not something you would want to try at home.)

It's a perfectly nice car that for many drivers provides exactly the right combination of range, features, and versatility. The big plusses of course are that you never have to buy gas again (although you do need to deal with recharging times that, even with fast charging, stretch into the hours) and that by buying a CODA, you're supporting a SoCal startup that, unlike Tesla, hasn't taken any money from the Department of Energy (CODA actually gave up trying).

There's obviously nothing wrong with taking DOE money. But CODA, by not taking any and subsisting on venture funding, is acting like a true startup.

It also builds pretty much everything except the systems that manage the battery in China. The car itself. The battery pack. If it didn't, you'd be looking at something that costs tens of thousands more.

The investment you might make in a CODA is an investment in Southern California ingenuity and innovation. As well as a company that, under CEO Phil Murtaugh (formerly of GM and Chrsyler) since 2011, is accelerating its rollout. There's an "Experience Center" in the Westfield mall in Century City, right around the corner from the Apple Store (test drive rides are stashed in the parking garage). There's also a 30-dealer network coming online nationally, as well as financing partnerships. 

Each EV I've driven over the past few years has it owns personality. The Tesla Roadster offers peel-your-eyelids-back acceleration and go-cart performance. But it doesn't in any way stress everyday driving. The Nissan Leaf is sturdily constructed but a bit sluggish. The Fit EV is peppy but also a hatch and therefore not a true mass-market compact.

Compromises.

If you live in L.A., CODA could have a car in the mix that's worth some attention. It's the first Chinese-made vehicles to pass U.S. safety tests, so you can call yourself an early adopter there. And if all manner of doo-dads and in-vehicle EV technologies turn you off...well, you start the CODA with a key (no push-button). You can plug in an iPhone or Android, thereby accessing apps to help you find charging stations, of which there are many in L.A. I told representatives of the company that they should build a version with hand-crank windows and figure out a way to use the cranking to recharge the battery.

The ride is a bit stiff — it's no Buick or Lincoln — but the handling is reasonable. This is not a car that makes you uncomfortable, on either broad freeway or twisty canyon road.

Compromises, yes. That's par for the EV course. But a sedan, and therefore the design with the widest possible appeal.

So... Basic, utilitarian, but with decent pickup and a trunk that's big enough to a family of four to take a short trip. That's the CODA. It's worth a look.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter. And ask Matt questions at Quora.

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