Coda Redux: GreenTech Aims Chinese Battery Sedan at U.S. Market
One of the more interesting recent electric car sagas concerns the under-the-radar GreenTech Automotive, which is building China-sourced electric cars in, of all places, Mississippi. If it sounds improbable, that’s because it is. Making a go of it in a relatively weak EV market with an unknown car that can't travel the interstate is a tough proposition any way you look at it
GreenTech, which announced a new electric car this week, has been making headlines, but probably not the ones it wants. The company is a factor in Virginia’s gubernatorial election, because one candidate, former national Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe, is a founder of GreenTech and remains its single largest shareholder (with 25 percent of the company, according to GreenTech). Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli II has been hurling charges at McAuliffe for his handling of GreenTech. Meanwhile, McAuliffe left the company’s management last December, saying he wanted to campaign full time.
Tax Breaks from Mississippi
GreenTech got a nice package of incentives from then-Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a staunch Republican, and the opposites-attract business story got some leverage for a time. Bill Clinton, a McAuliffe friend, came to the factory ground-breaking last year.
The company is currently building the tiny two-seat neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV) MyCar, mostly for export to Europe, though the company is being cagey about how many have come out of its temporary facilities in Horn Lake, Mississippi. The permanent factory is in Tunica, Mississippi, and will be open for business in 2014, said spokeswoman Marianne McInerney, GreenTech’s executive vice president for sales and marketing.
100 Miles of Range, but Not on the Highway
And that brings us to the present. On Earth Day, GreenTech said it will partner with JAC Motors on an all-electric sedan, with a range of more than 100 miles and a target price of $25,000 (before the federal income tax credit). The unnamed car, on JAC’s Rejoice platform, could presumably ratchet the company up into the world of highway-capable automobiles for the American market. But there are a few speed bumps ahead.
The specter of the Coda electric sedan, based on another Chinese small car, looms large. Coda couldn’t get any traction with a witheringly expensive battery car that looked like a 1988 Toyota Corolla. And that despite the fact that Coda was crash tested and road-legal. In an interview, GreenTech Chairman and CEO Charles Wang said that the as-yet unnamed sedan would be sold initially as a NEV, as it awaits an anticipated two-year U.S. certification process.
Asked about Coda, Wang said he will avoid its pitfalls by building a much better car. He said he visited many Chinese auto plants looking for a partner, including Coda’s Harbin HF Automobile Industry Group, and thinks he’s found the company that makes the highest-quality vehicles.
“Their platform works very well with our technology,” Wang said. “We expect to deliver a high-quality consumer product at a competitive price.” He said the company expects to build 7,000 cars this year, including the first iterations of the new sedan. Leaving the JAC car's quality aside for a moment, Wang's plan to produce 30,000 of the electric version in the next three years is hugely ambitious. They popped corks at Tesla when they sold 4,750 cars.
McInerney said GreenTech has had “a very positive response to the sedan as a NEV.” The U.S. market for cars that can’t go on the highway and are restricted to 35 mph and below is, of course, tiny. But McInerney said it has traction in Europe where low-speed vehicles fit “into the fabric of their transportation needs.”
Aimed at Europe
Since the $25,000 price would also buy a highway-capable Smart Electric Drive bristling with technology, GreenTech has some ‘splainin’ to do. The European market for cheap EVs is real enough as a way of getting around congestion pricing and center cities barred to all but zero-emission vehicles, but drivers there have plenty of other choices.
China has dozens of automakers building EVs, and JAC isn’t one of the better-known ones. It was launched in 1964 as Hefei Jianghuai Automobile Factory, and produced 445,000 cars in 2012. It’s currently the 10th largest automaker in China, according to GreenTech. And, yes, the company (now called Anhui Jianghuai Automobile Company) has an electric car of its own, the Tong Yue, launched in 2011 with a 15-kilowatt-hour battery pack and 81 miles of range.
The Electric Taxi
According to China Car Times, the company sold 60 Tong Yues to a corporate buyer on the first day. The newspaper reported, “It’s not entirely clear when this model will be available for regular citizens to purchase, but taxi ranks across China seem to be snapping at JAC’s heels to buy these compact sedans for taxi rank use.”
The Tong Yue is a smaller subcompact compared to the Rejoice car, which looks like, well, a Coda. Where this is all going is unclear. Past experience would suggest it's going nowhere fast. But keeping an eye on GreenTech should prove entertaining for EV watchers.
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