In my review of the Coda electric sedan in The New York Times , I applauded the car for its ability to reliably deliver 100 miles of range on a charge, but criticized the EV for its shortcomings. It was a tricky balance to strike, because the concept that inspired the company—to offer an affordable EV with decent range—is laudable. There are talented dedicated people working at Coda, and I want every company trying to further the mission of electric cars to succeed. But at the end of the day, the car’s lack of style, amenities and ride quality, call into question why a potential EV buyer would go with Coda rather than other more capable electric cars on sale.
Coda’s CEO Phil Murtaugh acknowledged the car’s problems when he told me, “We did not start with a Mercedes Benz S Class. We will probably never reach that level of precision on this vehicle.” He’s a sarcastic guy.
In the New York Times article, I mostly focused on problems that average non-EV drivers would readily understand, like the high-pitched whine from the motor that Bob Ostertag—a guy ready to plunk money down to drive off with a Coda—described as the sound a dentist drill makes. Bob heard the sound when he borrowed a Coda from U.C. Davis, where he teaches. When he complained to Coda about the sound, they said it was fixed in the production version. However, despite his best efforts over about six weeks, the Coda dealership in Silicon Valley has not been able to give him a test drive in a production model. Months after Coda officially went on sale, there are no Coda models to test drive or buy, according to Bob.
Murtaugh also acknowledged the problem. “You’re welcome to call dealers and they will tell you they are not happy with availability,” he said. When asked about how many Codas have been sold so far, Murtaugh declined to answer. “We purposely don’t publish sales results,” he said.
Coda’s logistical problems got worse in late August 2012, when the company recalled 78 units. (The low recall figure suggests the California-based start-up has not yet sold 100 vehicles, after about five months on the market.) The recall itself is due to faulty side airbags, which according to the NHTSA, might not inflate during a collision. "Certain 2012 model year CODA vehicles may have this condition. There are no known injuries related to this recent discovery," Coda reported in a statement addressing the issue. "CODA Automotive holds itself to the highest safety standards and continually strives to offer the most reliable product for its consumers." Those 78 owners are invited to contact their local dealer or the automaker directly.
The problem should be fairly straightforward to fix. A bigger challenge is increasing consumer confidence in the relatively unknown brand while, at the same time, boosting sales and improving build quality.
Maybe this is inside baseball, but it illustrates how the noble idea of small company making and selling affordable EVs can come into conflict with the harsh realities of actually making and selling those vehicles.
Hopefully, Coda will find its share of customers willing to overlook the shortcomings of its first model year, while it improves the vehicle or perhaps brings another one to market. Murtaugh would not say if Coda has plans for future cars. But he did say that, “Coda is more than a car company.” Coda sells its own branded vehicles, as well as electric propulsion systems and energy storage systems for residential, commercial and large-scale utilities.
If Coda can derive revenue from those other lines of business, maybe it will buy time to improve its sedan, reduce its purchase price, or ideally do both at the same time. “We just took our first step,” said Murtaugh. “The Coda sedan is on sale.” That’s a major accomplishment. No doubt about it. But based on everything I experienced during a week with the car, and heard during multiple interviews with executives and engineers, the hard work is just beginning for Coda.