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Test Driving the Coda EV

May 6, 2012

Mark D Larsen

As a mere EV aficionado, I am an outsider to the emerging industry. In most cases, I can only try my best to stay abreast of current developments by browsing the web and following the tweets of key players. Once in a blue moon, however, an opportunity comes along to get “up close and personal” with actual insiders.

The moon turned blue earlier this month when EVS26 came to Los Angeles for its 2012 convention. Of course, without a company to sponsor me, I could not afford the registration fees to attend the sessions and presentations, but the organizers had thoughtfully arranged for a “public day” before the official meetings began so that, for a $10 token fee, anyone interested could wander the exhibit hall, test drive the EVs on display, and attend the sole workshop open to the public. I couldn’t pass that up, even if it meant a full day’s drive to get there and paying for a motel room for a few nights.

Anxious to take full advantage of this peek at the industry, I arrived at the convention center early, before the workers had even set up the public registration table. Curiously, there were others already in line ahead of me at the entrace to the Ride-N-Drive parking lot.

The Big EV'ent
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Ride ‘em!
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The very first space in the lot was occupied by Coda Automotive, a startup that imports its gliders from China and installs their batteries and drivetrains in a refurbished factory in Benicia, CA. I had been following the progress of the Coda electric sedan ever since it was first announced as an up-and-coming, highway capable model from Miles Electric Vehicles, a company that had been making low-speed neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs) for several years. For reasons I totally ignore, the company split to produce the Coda.

The launch of the promised vehicle was delayed repeatedly, followed by a period of playing musical chairs in the executive board room, and then last fall they announced that the first Codas would be delivered by the end of 2011. I predicted that would be too soon, as I couldn’t imagine they could retool the Benicia facilities in such a short amount of time, but I sincerely hoped Coda would prove me wrong. Alas... there are times when I loathe being right, because it wasn’t until March 16, 2012, that the first reservation holders finally received their vehicles. Coda has since been offering test drives at tours and events such as this, and I was curious to get a chance behind the wheel.

Like the Nissan Leaf and Ford Focus EV, the Coda has seating room for five, but is a sedan with a trunk rather than a hatchback. Like the Leaf and the Mitsubishi “i,” its battery pack is underneath the floor, keeping the weight low for better handling. The original plan was to equip the Coda with a 36 kWh battery, but last fall they announced a smaller 31 kWh option to keep the price more competitive. The graph below illustrates how its price (in red) stacks up with the other pure EVs currently available.

The Price is Right?

As that comparison suggests, it seems that Coda considers its main competitor to be the Nissan Leaf. However, it lacks many of the amenities and luxuries that the Leaf SL has to offer, with one exception: a slightly longer range per full charge, thanks to its larger battery pack. The following graph compares the official EPA ranges of these same EVs, and you can see that the Coda (again in red) now tops the list.

Range Arrangement

Like those other competitors, Coda claims that the EPA ratings are actually too low and that owners can routinely expect to achieve an average of 125 miles per charge. If true, that will indeed prove its one major advantage, since potential customers who have never driven an EV on a daily basis tend to perseverate obsessively about “range anxiety” in an electric car.

The Nose Knows?
(click to watch the MP4 spoof)
Its prime major disadvantage, at least according to the reviews published to date, is its exterior styling. The Chinese gliders are apparently purloined from an outdated Mitsubishi Lancer body that strikes most auto journalists as too “plain vanilla,” a throwback to the sedans of the 1990s. I actually don’t mind that body style, and appreciate that the Coda’s looks are more functional than egotistical, but with one glaring exception: its front nose. I would much rather see a faux grill there than the two odd, out-of-character vent lines that extend from its logo badge in the center toward the headlights on both sides. Perhaps I am simply a product of an older generation, but that pencil-line moustache invokes a sinister image from days gone by, as I attempt to show in the video spoof to the right. Yes, yes, I know: most readers will probably not even know who that notorious villain is, but I can’t help making that association whenever I look at a Coda head on.

I would venture to say that the Coda’s interior is also “plain vanilla,” but again: I don’t mind spartan functionality. As you can see in the photo below on the left, the Coda’s dashboard is certainly simple, its main components consisting of three analog gauges to indicate battery charge, speed, and power usage. I am probably too conditioned to my Leaf by now, but having to still read a needle to know a vehicle’s speed really does seem antiquated to me. At least the odometer uses digital numbers. I couldn’t see any “red” zone at the bottom of the “fuel” gauge on the left, but I assume that a warning light, and perhaps a buzzer or voice alert, will let drivers know when the battery charge is getting dangerously low.

To me, the oddest readout was the gauge on the right. Its needle shows when the Code is drawing power out of the battery (the red zone on the left) and putting it back in with regenerative braking (the green zone on the right). All other EVs that I have driven indicate the energy usage in the opposite directions: to the right when using more energy; to the left when using less or even recapturing it. This makes more sense to me, because the direction of the needle would then parallel that of the speedometer: more power to accelerate (left-to-right); less power to slow down (right-to-left). The only explanation I can venture to guess for Coda's choice was to instead imitate the “fuel” gauge on the opposite side: more power used, less charge remaining; less power used, more charge remaining. Still, I would suggest that Coda flip the power gauge horizontally to the opposite direction. Those gauges in EVs are intended to supplant tachometers in ICEs, which also traditionally move from left-to-right the more power used.

Needling Issues
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In fact, that is the direction displayed on the Coda’s video screen, as you can see above on the right for the slider labeled “Motor.” Why two gauges showing the same data would move in opposite directions is beyond me. The other three sliders also provide battery information: how much power the climate control and other auxiliaries are using, as well as the current battery temperature. It is worth mentioning at this point that, unlike the Leaf, but like the Ford Focus EV, the Coda’s battery pack has a liquid cooled thermal management system. It also has a 6.6 kWh charger, something that most owners wish Nissan had put in their Leafs from the beginning. On the other hand, unlike the Leaf and Mitsubishi “i,” the Coda does not offer the option of a CHAdeMO quick charge port to fill the battery to 80% in less than 30 minutes. Of course, SAE is trying to undermine CHAdeMO by proposing an all-in-one alternative that EV advocates are calling a FrankenPlug. One can therefore understand Coda’s reluctance to embrace the Japanese standard —which is exactly what SAE wants.

Another feature that the Coda has, and that some Leaf owners desire, is the readout at the top left of the video screen that gives the percentage of battery charge remaining, in this case 81%. Personally, the actual numbers aren’t that important to me: I find a quick glance at a CGI display just as informative, whether it be a stack of blue bars in the Leaf, a draining battery cylinder in the Ford Focus EV, or a layer of green “elecrons” under the chassis in the Coda’s graphic above. Like the Leaf and Focus EV, the Coda also estimates the remaining miles of range, but in this case reports both “average” and “maximum” predictions, as also shown on the screen.

I was discouraged, however, to learn that the Coda does not provide an “eco,” “low,” or “braking” mode to help attain said maximum range, and can only assume that it is up to the driver to use hypermiling techniques. This was evident when I used the shifter to engage the motor. It only has four positions: Park, Reverse, Neutral, and Drive. That shifter functions like a dial, spinning clockwise to engage and counter-clockwise to disengage. I appreciate its simplicity but have to admit a concern that it might be easily bumped by an errant hand, purse, iPod, sunglass case, curious child, etc., while driving, and thus shifted out-of-gear inadvertently. I didn’t try to feign such an accident on my test drive, lest I damage something, but I hope that Coda has integrated some sort of safety lock on that mechanism so that it will only spin to its different positions when the car is at a standstill.

As I expected, my test drive was short, perhaps one mile at most around a few blocks in downtown L.A., hardly enough to familiarize myself with all the vehicle’s features, functions, and capabilities. I suppose that my overall observation would be that the Coda has some shortcomings. For example, the whine from its electric motor, while not an objectionable sound, was more noticeable than in its competitors. The steering was predictably responsive when handling corners, but stiffer than I have grown accustomed to in my Leaf. The suspension gave an adequate feel of the road, but seemed somewhat hard, probably because the battery pack gives the Coda a curb weight of 3,670 pounds, about 500 pounds higher than its Lancer glider was originally designed for.

I found that acceleration was not as linear and smooth as one might assume would be the case with an EV. I was also surprised to discover that the regenerative braking was also tuned differently. I repeatedly tried letting off the accelerator to observe the effect, and every time the regeneration would delay about 3 seconds before kicking in rather suddenly. I asked the Coda representative about it, and the response was that they didn’t want drivers to feel an abrupt deceleration every time they let up on the pedal (such as in typical stop-and-go city traffic), but only if slowing down was a prolonged, desired maneuver to stop the vehicle (like at the end of a freeway exit ramp). I am no software engineer, but it seems to me that they could accomplish this by programming the regenerative braking to engage with increasing variability rather instead of suddenly grabbing the motor after several seconds of coasting.

My conclusion is that the Coda is a decent electric vehicle, but needs further refining to truly compete with EVs from the major auto manufacturers. If it were the only EV on the market, I could live with its quirks. However, it is now facing some stiff competition —which will only get stiffer in the coming years. Perhaps the recent agreement they signed with Great Wall Motors in China to jointly produce a more attractive, more sophisticated, yet even more affordable Coda by the “fourth quarter 2014” will keep them in the game. Otherwise, I suspect that some minor auto maker —Suzuki? Daihatsu? Subaru? Kia? Hyundai?— will end up purchasing the startup company to absorb its technology into an EV of its own.