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.


I recently wrote about tiny EV maker Wheego (which, like Coda, starts with a Chinese-made base car), and its refreshing strategy of building vehicles only when the orders roll in. The company has made 36 cars and sold 32 of them. That’s called keeping the dealers lean and hungry. I do think EV makers are better off with cautious production strategies, because the market is still under construction in these early days.


Wheego has only seven employees, though, and Coda has 225; it that recently moved from funky Santa Monica into expanded 100,000-square-foot quarters in Los Angeles. Its task will be keeping the burn rate low as it ramps up. The Coda’s selling points include its claimed 125 miles of range (under ideal conditions) and faster recharging from its onboard 6.6-kilowatt charger. The battery pack also has active thermal management, which will be most helpful in colder climates outside California.


Marketing is key here — the company has a barely visible profile, so its prime task should be emulating Tesla Motors and getting some good press. Coda outlined a web-based strategy to me sometime ago, but it needs more than a site with nice flash animation to capture attention. Without a ton of money for advertising, it needs to, I don't know, get a celebrity to drive one, set a range record, have its CEO hang out with super models or score some TV and movie product placement. The company is in LA, after all!


A Coda person told me that the company is fired up, and ready to take on its mission. “It’s definitely a journey,” the employee said. “Making a vehicle is one of the hardest things you can do. Our job is to make a car that customers want and need.” Amen to that. Here's a closer look at the Coda on video:



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