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USA: Can This Upstart Car Company Upend The Electric Vehicle Market?

It’s become a ritual for startup electric car companies: The ritual exchange of keys, as the very first customer takes possession. For Coda Automotive, it happened March 16 in Los Angeles, and the new owners are an eco-conscious advertising executive named Carmen and one of the company’s investors, Daniel Weiss. In northern California, Randy, a Redwood City pilot with a technology jones, drove off in a Coda. Three cars. It’s a start.

In June of 2009, I became the first journalist allowed to drive Coda’s all-electric sedan. Writing for the New York Times, I said, “With the single-speed transmission placed in drive and the accelerator pressed, not much happened immediately. The pedal had a lot of travel. But when it did engage, the electric motor’s low-speed torque advantage moved the car off the line with some alacrity.”

A lot has happened since then, including the somewhat mysterious departure of the high-powered executive, Kevin Czinger, who gave me that test ride at his home in Greenwich, Conn. The company — launched with a strong Goldman Sachs connection — has changed leadership, announced delays and price reductions, forged partnerships with rental companies and, finally, actually begun making cars and even selling a few of them.

In November, Coda said it had started production of its $37,250 battery car, pointing out that consumers in California (the only place the car is currently sold) could get on board for $10,000 less, taking advantage of a $7,500 federal tax credit and a $2,500 state subsidy. The 31-kilowatt-hour lithium battery pack is warranted for 10 years or 100,000.

And now Coda’s are coming off the assembly line (right), hitting the road and in the marketplace. I’m told the company has “hundreds” of reservation holders, and its first priority is going through the list, but after that it better get serious about marketing to the general public. The all-California strategy includes dealers in Silicon Valley, in Los Angeles and Irvine, and in San Diego. At the Century City Mall in Los Angeles, Coda has what it calls an Experience Center — a sort of informational showroom that is designed to educate consumers and set them up for test rides at the dealerships.

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