Coda Cranks Up Battery-Car Sales After ‘Soft’ Start

Coda Automotive Inc., the electric carmaker whose investors include billionaire Philip Falcone, is boosting production of its namesake sedan and building a 30-dealer network to compete in the rechargeable vehicle market.

The Coda sedan by next year will compete in states including Oregon and Florida with Nissan Motor Co.’s Leaf, Ford Motor Co.’s Focus EV and Mitsubishi Motors Corp.’s i-MiEV hatchbacks, Chief Executive Officer Phil Murtaugh said in an interview this week. The Los Angeles-based company, which relies on China for battery cells and some assembly, has delivered 100 cars in California since March, he said.

“March through July was a soft launch -- new car, new company, new manufacturing process, new everything,” Murtaugh said in an interview at Coda’s headquarters. “Now as we get into real production ramp-up we need to add some dealers.”

Closely held Coda, which also counts former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson as an investor, is positioning its vehicle as a “real world” car with better range, battery-pack life and acceleration than its competitors. Coda’s goal is to win at least 15 percent of non-luxury electric vehicles sales, Murtaugh said, declining to provide a specific volume target. That would exclude cars such as Tesla Motors Inc.’s $57,400 Model S. The Coda costs $37,250 before a $7,500 U.S. tax credit.

The nascent U.S. market for battery-only cars has shrunk this year to about 5,000 units sold through August, compared with about 6,300 in the same period of 2011, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

‘Excessive Euphoria’

“Two years ago, there was excessive euphoria about the potential for electric vehicles,” said Murtaugh, 58, who previously led the former General Motors Corp.’s Chinese unit. “Now it’s swung the other way to excessive pessimism. The reality is there’s going to be steady, gradual growth.”

The company has 1,000 orders for its sedan, and has a goal to add as many as 20 more stores after the initial 30-dealer network is set up, Murtaugh said.

The compact Coda averages 88 miles (142 kilometers) per charge and can travel as far as 125 miles, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

Nissan’s Leaf hatchback, the best-selling all-electric car in the U.S., has a $35,200 base price and averages 73 miles per charge. Ford’s Focus EV has a $39,200 base price and averages 76 miles per charge. The prices exclude destination charges.

Coda has raised $320 million in private funds and is seeking additional investment, Murtaugh said without elaborating. He declined to say when or if the company may sell shares to the public to fund its expansion.

China Plans

Coda has said it will also produce vehicles with China’s Great Wall Motor Co. to be sold under the U.S. company’s name starting in 2014.

The first model from the agreement with Baoding, China-based Great Wall is due by 2014’s second quarter.

The Coda sedan’s chassis is built in Harbin, China, through a partnership with Hafei Motor Co., with final assembly in Benicia, California. Lithium-iron-phosphate cells for its 1,000-pound (454-kilogram) battery pack are from LIO Energy Systems, a joint venture of Coda and China’s Tianjin Lishen Battery.

Coda also has contracts with “a few global automakers” to buy so-called zero-emission vehicle credits generated from sales of its vehicles in California and other states that follow California’s emissions rules, Murtaugh said. He declined to identify the companies or say how much such sales may be worth.

Large automakers need the credits to comply with the state’s air-pollution rules and avoid fines and other penalties. Tesla disclosed selling such credits in a filing related to its initial public offering in 2010.

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