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Coda first store is nice, but the brand still faces some hurdles to succeed in the EV world

October 4, 2011

I recently visited the first Coda electric vehicle store. It opened here in Los Angeles early in September. The store is a teaser—a way to introduce the company and its products to a target group of consumers and hopefully build demand ahead of the vehicle’s arrival.

The question is:  Can an unknown brand succeed in a segment that has yet to catch consumers’ fancy in large numbers, especially agains competitors such as Ford Motor Co. and others who have name recognition, a dealer network, and momentum?  I hope the answer is yes but fear it is no.

The good news for Coda is that it got more money.  It seems to be using that cash injection to hire people—the job websites are full of ads for various Coda positions. The bad news (maybe, I don’t know how good the guy was) is that Coda is still experiencing executive churn.

Sean Blankenship, Coda’s former VP of automotive marketing, recently left the company to “pursue other opportunities,” Larkin Hill, Coda’s director of corp comm told me.  Coda, founded in 2009, is alread on its third president—well, its second permanent president, to be fair.

Kevin Czinger, the first, left the company in 2010.  The second, interim, president, Mac Heller, left a few months later. (Though he is still Coda’s chairman, Hill emailed me to point out after reading this blog. Makes sense as I believe he has skin in the game i.e. he is an investor.)   Phil Murtaugh, the current president and CEO of Coda Holdings, is certainly exactly what Coda needs, a car guy who had impeccable China connections.  Hopefully he will stick around. But he faces formidable challenges, as I have written in previous blogs.

Also, Coda is produced in China at Hafei Motor, and based on an old Mitsubishi model.  While Coda Holdings has updated the look, it is still very bland. And, the body (and the battery)  is made in China. That may give some consumers pause.

More good news. I drove Coda’s pure electric sedan.  It definitely drives better than the version I drove last year. Much more pep.  The interior looked about the same, but this was not a production version car.  And the car I saw at the Alt Car Expo in Santa Monica recently did have a much nicer interior.

Coda doesn’t plan to begin delivery of its pure electric sedans until late this year. While you can’t buy a car at the store, you can put down a deposit on one.  The store aims to provide “a unique learning experience for consumers interested in the electrification movement,” Sean Blankenship, Coda’s former vice president of automotive marketing, told me a few months ago. Despite his departure, I think that still holds true.

There is a Coda EV parked on the sidewalk in front of the small store.

Inside, you can read about the company on a large computer screen immediately inside the door.

The left wall has a bar with computer terminals so visitors can read all about the Coda movement, and also Coda t-shirts and hats so people can be walking advertisements for Coda.  Coda wants its stores to appeal to consumers the way an Apple computer store does—that is, people come in just to play with the cool stuff and maybe buy a computer.  Amusingly, there is an Apple store next to the Coda store, and a guy came in and started asking questions about the Apple computer screen at the front of the Coda store. The Coda employee had to tell him this wasn’t the Apple store.

On the back wall are examples of the car color choices, and wheels, and another computer terminal so visitors can design their future Coda EV. On the right side of the store is a pretty cool thing—a Coda EV chassis with the batteries installed.  On the wall is a map of the Los Angeles area and circles illustrating how far you can drive on a single battery charge.  Coda claims a range of up to150 miles (241 km).

The Westfield shopping center where the store is located is in Century City, a high-class part of Los Angeles between Santa Monica and Beverly Hills.  It is not a traditional enclosed shopping mall. Rather, it is open air. So the Coda EV in front of the store is actually outside.  This works in Los Angeles, where it seldom rains and the temperature –in that part of Los Angeles, at least—seldom climbs above 80 degrees F (27 degrees C).

Plenty of people are going to walk past the Coda store, that’s for sure. Westfield Century City, the shopping center where the store is located, has 13 million visitors a year, said marketing director Karla Villatoro.  The average household income is $150,000, she said.  Westfield Century City shoppers tend to be very environmentally-conscious, Villatora said,  adding  “Coda is a really nice fit for this customer.”

In the parking garage underneath the shopping center, Coda has a handful of its electric vehicles for test drives. They are in their own little area with ample signage advertising the car. There are several charging stations in the area, so consumers see the entire package.

It all looks great. And I know that Coda is only trying to bag the early adopters with the store. It does plan to add traditional dealerships, though it won’t say when. I heard from a Coda exec at the Alt Car Expo that it was signing up dealers. I would like actually talk to some of those dealers confirm some had signed on the dotted line.

I also heard that the price will likely be coming down. That’s good because the Coda EV is pricey– $45,795 before state and federal tax credits.  And the Coda sedan is pretty bland looking. It is based on the Hafei Saibao, after all.  People who pay extra for an electric vehicle still want to stand out as special because they bought an electric vehicle, according to some studies.  Unless Coda buyers put a big EV sticker on the side of their car, which would be pretty ugly, it looks just like a regular car.

A bigger problem is that there still isn’t a big market for pure electric vehicles here in the U.S. and Coda will be competing against some worthy opponents such as the Ford Focus EV, due out in several states late this year.

Coda’s best bet, at least in the near term, may be fleets. It is larger than many of the EVs out there, and its conventional looks won’t hurt it in rental or taxi fleets. I ran into Coda’s vp of fleet sales at the fleets conference on the first day of the Alt Car Expo.  Coda clearly is also eyeing fleets for its early sales.

It’s those later sales I worry about. But hey, maybe Coda will be helped by the arrival of new competitors in the segment such as Ford and (maybe) BYD, who also offer conventional looking pure electric vehicles. That could grow the customer base for all of them.  I hope it does.

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