LOS ANGELES -- After years of anticipation, the first Chinese-built car is finally being offered for sale in the U.S.
But far from being the vanguard of an invasion of cheap Chinese cars that U.S. automakers once feared, the Coda sedan, as the model is being called, is a pricey niche model: a $44,900 all-electric sedan.
And it's not entirely Chinese. The battery is made in China by a joint venture of which Los Angeles-based Coda has a 40% stake. The body is made at a contract builder in China.
But the car was largely engineered in the U.S., and some of its electronics are American-made. Plus, the battery is attached to the body in Benicia, Calif.
Coda executives aren't shy about the car's origins. "This will be the first Chinese car in the U.S.," Coda CEO Philip Murtaugh declared as he opened Coda's sales center at a shopping mall in Los Angeles' tony Century City last week.
Rather than looking like a high-tech wonder, the Coda is a plain sedan that is priced almost $5,000 more than the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric and about $9,700 more than the all-electric Nissan Leaf. All-electric vehicles are eligible for federal tax credits up to $7,500, which reduce their cost a bit.
But Coda has a longer range than its two better-known competitors. Test drivers report going more than 100 miles between charges in the Coda, including climbing hills and cruising freeways at more than 70 miles per hour. Murtaugh says range will be the edge that allows the Coda to compete against better-known, lower-priced brands.
While lithium-ion batteries have become somewhat of an electric-car mainstay, Coda uses a different chemistry — lithium iron phosphate. Some 728 cells are built into the chassis.
Coda is the exception in a Chinese auto industry that explored coming to the U.S. but never made the move. Demand in China, one of the world's fastest-growing auto markets, has been so vibrant that there was no need. And Chinese automakers have had trouble reaching the quality levels demanded by U.S. consumers, analysts say.
Even now, "All Chinese automakers need improvements in vehicles and design," says Tim Dunne, director of global auto operations for J.D. Power and Associates, who was stationed in China for 14 years.
Chinese auto exports are increasing, but mostly to other emerging nations. Alysha Webb, a former Automotive News correspondent in China who now writes a Chinese car blog, says she's not sure American car buyers will be "comfortable" buying Chinese. "I think it is going to be a big issue."