Small Carmaker May Blaze Plug-In Trail

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The big automakers are racing to bring to market the future of automobile travel, but Coda Automotive is beating them to the punch with its $45,000, five-passenger, four-door sedan. It has already lined up a Chinese partner to build the car and its battery design could become the standard for the industry.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

This week, a tiny company introduced what it says will be the first, affordable, plug-in electric car. Coda Automotive says it would begin sales next year of its four-door, five-passenger sedan.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren went along for a spin.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: I get my first glimpse of the Coda parked in front of a ritzy hotel, a few blocks from the White House. It looks like a generic, beige sedan, but when Coda's CEO Kevin Czinger pops what normally would be the gas cap, there's no place to put gasoline.

Mr. KEVIN CZINGER (Chief Executive Officer, Coda Automotive): It's on a non-liquid diet.

SHOGREN: So how do I fuel this car?

Mr. CZINGER: You open up the battery port right here. You simply put your cord in right here, and then you'll plug into the three-prong outlet and charge up, and then you'll get transportation for two cents a mile.

SHOGREN: That's his estimate for how much the electricity would cost, on average. When Czinger starts up the car and drives around town, it makes almost no noise, not even when he accelerates quickly. The Coda goes a hundred miles on one charge. It can hit speeds up to 80 miles per hour and goes zero to 60 in less than 11 seconds, but Czinger says what's really remarkable about the Coda is it will help cut greenhouse gas emissions and wean America from foreign oil.

Mr. CZINGER: We believe that will be the start of a revolution that will change the energy regime that we use and change the way that people transport themselves.

SHOGREN: Czinger calls the Coda the world's first, safe, affordable, mass-manufactured, all-electric car. But when it goes on sale in California next year, its sticker price is expected to be $45,000. That doesn't sound so cheap to me, but Czinger assures me that tax breaks and incentives will make it cheaper.

Mr. CZINGER: After the federal and state rebate and subsidies, it will cost, net to the consumer in California, $32,500.

SHOGREN: Czinger says the price is high because 45 percent of the cost of making the car goes to pay for its game-changing lithium ion battery. Czinger hopes within a few years, economies of scale and a lighter chassis will drive down the cost to less than $25,000. For now, Coda's batteries are made in China, but that could change. The company hopes to score some of the $2 billion in stimulus money the Obama administration is offering to jumpstart U.S. production of advanced batteries.

Coda is pairing up with Yardney Technical Products. That Connecticut company makes lithium ion batteries for Mars Rovers.

Yardney president Vince Yevoli says the two companies make a good fit.

Mr. VINCE YEVOLI (President, Yardney Technical Products): We want to leapfrog what the current industry is doing, which is the hybrid electric vehicle, and go straight into electric, and these guys have sort of the same vision as we do.

SHOGREN: Yardney and Coda hope to re-tool a former LEGO factory in Connecticut to build the batteries, but analysts say they have some steep competition from the likes of Toyota, Ford, Nissan and GM.

Mr. DAVID COLE (Chairman, Center for Automotive Research): The lithium technology is fabulous technology. Everybody is working on it.

SHOGREN: David Cole heads the Center for Automotive Research. He says it won't be easy for Coda to come out ahead of the pack.

Mr. COLE: It's a very dangerous industry for a rookie to play in. This is a very fast track with some horses that are really top notch.

SHOGREN: Cole says Coda has to convince consumers. Drivers have lots of anxiety about all-electric vehicles that can't go far without being recharged, and people need places to plug in the cars - at home and on the road.

Mr. COLE: Very, very few people are going to make a sacrifice of any significant amount just to drive an electric vehicle.

SHOGREN: Cole says plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt are a better bet. Those cars would switch to gasoline engines after their lithium ion batteries run out.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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