THE driving distance for electric vehicles priced near the heart of the new-car market -- starting around $35,000, before federal tax credits and other incentives -- is defined by cars like the Nissan Leaf and Ford Focus Electric. Each of those models, when keeping pace with a typical mix of traffic conditions, will drive about 70 to 80 miles on a fully charged battery.
So the introduction of a similarly priced electric sedan that delivers a consistent 100-mile range represents something of an industry milestone.
Credit for that advance, confirmed by my week of driving to business meetings and family outings around the San Francisco Bay Area, goes to a Los Angeles-based electric-car start-up, Coda Automotive. The company put its first model, a sedan that carries an official range rating of 88 miles per charge from the Environmental Protection Agency, on sale last March.
As the first journalist to spend quality time with the company's single vehicle available for review, I set out on trips that I would never take in the leased Nissan Leaf I usually drive. One weekend I took my wife and two teenagers to Bolinas Beach, about 25 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. We made that drive, a 79-mile round trip from our home in Berkeley, in comfort, using the Coda's ample trunk to stow our gear.
The 134-horsepower motor proved sufficient for highway needs. The 870-pound battery pack, mounted under the floor, lowers the center of gravity to help maintain competent handling of the 3,670-pound sedan along twists and turns. When we got home, nearly 20 percent of the battery's charge remained.
Replenishing the lithium-iron-phosphate battery with the Coda's 6.6-kilowatt onboard charger restored about 20 miles of range each hour -- about twice the rate of my Leaf -- drawing from a 240-volt source. The next day, I traveled on business to a meeting in Silicon Valley, tallying an impressive 102.8 miles, with a few miles' charge left in reserve.
To achieve this feat while keeping costs under control, Coda focused its efforts on the systems that manage battery power, outsourcing the car's body (and battery cells) to China; other components come from American companies. The car is adapted to E.V. duty from a gas-powered model manufactured by ChangAn Hafei in Harbin, a provincial capital in the northeast corner of the country. Final assembly takes place in Benicia, Calif.
Coda says that its redesign of the body structure resulted in the first made-in-China passenger car to meet highway safety standards in the United States -- an achievement that may presage the arrival of conventional gas-powered Chinese cars in this country.
The company even brought its chief executive from China. Coda hired Philip Murtaugh in 2011, a former top executive at the Chinese operations of General Motors and Chrysler.
At the 2011 Los Angeles auto show, Mr. Murtaugh expressed concern over the reception for the car's styling in the American market. First produced nearly about a decade ago, it gives the impression of a knockoff copy of a Y2K Nissan Sentra or Honda Civic.
"The vehicle was chosen three years ago," he told me. "I came in nine months ago. We couldn't change it."
The Coda sedan lacks features that other E.V.'s offer, cutting out the cost of amenities in order to fit a bigger battery. There's no keyless entry, push-button start or switchable Sport and Eco driving modes. And no techno start-up sound or backup camera, not even a mobile app for your smartphone or simple conveniences like one-touch window lowering. In fact, the Coda, starting at $38,145, doesn't have cruise control.
The Coda's price falls between the Focus Electric at $39,995 and the Leaf at $36,050. Like those competing E.V.'s, the Coda qualifies for a federal tax credit of $7,500, as well as a California E.V. rebate of $2,500. That brings the final price, without options, to $28,145 in my home state.
As with all electric vehicles, the key to range is battery capacity. Coda's 31-kilowatt-hour battery surpasses the Leaf, which has 24-kilowatt-hour pack, and the Focus Electric's 23 kilowatt-hour pack. (Coda says it will offer a 36 kilowatt-hour battery this year.) Coda also uses an active thermal management system to preserve range in cold and hot weather; it uses air to do the work of regulating temperature, rather than liquid like the Focus Electric.
The lack of amenities did not discourage Randy Abraham, one of Coda's first customers. An airline test pilot who lives in Redwood City, Calif., Mr. Abraham has clocked 3,200 miles on his car since taking delivery in March.
"The big things work the way they're supposed to," he said. He's pleased with his purchase.
Bob Ostertag, a San Francisco-based writer and composer, also set a low bar.
"I'm all about global warming," he said. "I really don't care how the Coda drives or the styling. I want it to have long range, to charge in a decent amount of time."
The Coda provides sufficient range for Mr. Ostertag's 75-mile drive from San Francisco to Davis, Calif. But after driving a Coda borrowed from the university where he teaches, Mr. Ostertag decided to postpone buying one.
"When I took a preproduction model on the highway, there was a whine," he said. "I'm not going to spend $30,000 on a car that makes me feel like I'm going to get my teeth drilled."
Confirming their awareness of the noise and vibration problem, Coda engineers say they have a solution, though it has not been executed.
When I mentioned my rough measurement of the car's zero-to-60 acceleration at a glacial 19 seconds to the engineering team, it prompted an investigation to determine why my test car was so slow compared with the 9.5-second time the company advertises. It turns out that the car is programmed to conserve power when the battery runs low -- it was at 10 percent of capacity when I did my performance test.
Perhaps Coda will find a large base of customers willing to sacrifice ride quality and amenities in exchange for a dependable range of 100 miles. I'm not in that group; in the production version I drove, the high-pitched whine was just the beginning of the Coda cacophony.
When starting out, the electric motor groans in low deep spasms as speed builds. At higher speeds, wind noise and buzzing intrude. The ride is harsh, giving passengers intimate knowledge of every imperfection in the road.
Inside, positions and proportions are out of whack. The brake and accelerator pedals are too close together, and they are pushed too far to the right. The lack of convenient and adequate cup holders, together with an abundance of cigarette lighters, suggests that the designers have more consideration for heavy smokers than American big-gulpers.
Yes, the trunk is cavernous, but I would gladly give up three inches of trunk depth for more legroom in the back seat.
Instead of a conventional gearshift handle, the Coda uses an oversized dial to move through the gears. Looking like a RadioShack gadget from the 1970s, the dial spins loosely, as if not engaged with its purpose. It continues to spin instead of stopping when reaching the end of the gear selections. The functionality and graphics on the Alpine seven-inch color touch screen for navigation and audio are even more retro, though connecting my iPhone via Bluetooth was easy.
Bad decision-making is evident even in the car's name: Coda. Is that the brand? Is it the model name? Single names might work for celebrities like Bono, Prince and Rihanna, but not for cars.
If you had asked me several years ago to describe the kind of E.V.'s I thought we might be driving in 2012 I would have described the Coda I drove. Fortunately, Nissan and others lavished their electric cars with luxury appointments, innovative features and sophisticated powertrains.
The major automakers far exceeded the expectations of E.V. fans who would have accepted a lot less. And they raised the bar in the process. That makes it difficult to accept the shortcomings of the Coda at its current price, despite its ability to grant 100 miles on a single charge.
INSIDE TRACK: The E.V. from the generic aisle.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published June 30, 2012 1:00 PM