In Surprise Move, Coda’s Chief Executive Resigns

In a move that surprised many observers of the electric-car industry, Coda Automotive announced Friday that its chief executive, Kevin Czinger, had resigned. The move comes shortly before the public debut of Coda’s electric sedan. According to Coda, Mr. Czinger will be replaced by its board co-chairman, Steven Heller, on an interim basis, pending a search for a chief executive with “deep manufacturing, marketing and sales strengths.”

Mr. Czinger and Mr. Heller are both former Goldman Sachs executives, where Mr. Heller was head of worldwide mergers and acquisitions. That experience undoubtedly helped Coda raise money, especially in its early financing rounds — Henry M. Paulson Jr., the former Treasury secretary and Goldman Sachs chief executive, became an investor — but it may be less applicable to helping a little-known company introduce a new automobile in a crowded market.

Despite his lack of automotive experience, Mr. Czinger is widely seen as a dynamic, hard-working executive who was also the most prominent public face of the company. He was a driving force behind Coda’s joint venture battery company in China, its reworking of a Chinese auto platform as the basis of its E.V. and its search for federal financing to build a battery plant in the United States.

Mr. Czinger’s departure as the car is about to be introduced  raises questions about the stability of Coda; it follows by just a few days the resignation of the company’s senior vice president of global sales, Michael Jackson.

K. Forrest Beanum, public affairs vice president at Coda, said the transition had been in the works for a little while.” Kevin will remain as a senior consultant in our business operations, and will have a voice in the hiring of his permanent replacement,” Mr. Beanum said.

Mr. Czinger is still a “substantial” investor in Coda, the company said.

Mr. Beanum said that Coda was accepting deposits on the car, but he declined to say how many it had received. He said that the company would be delivering a “big number” of fleet cars to customers in the second quarter of 2011. Last month, Coda announced an agreement with Enterprise Rent-A-Car for the sale of 100 cars, and Mr. Beanum said that “similar deals with other big names” would be announced shortly.

Beyond fleet sales, Coda will also need to connect to retail buyers in California (its only market initially). Some skeptics voiced concern that the Coda sedan’s price, $44,900 ($37,400 after a federal tax credit), may be too high to draw customers from more established brand names like Nissan, which is selling the Leaf electric car for $32,780 before incentives. Mr. Czinger has said that the Coda, with a larger battery pack than the Leaf, offers a range advantage.

“This is a brand that nobody knows, so the attraction has to be price,” said James Bell, an executive market analyst at Kelley Blue Book. “I thought that there might be a nice play here if there was a major pricing advantage, but the package going for sale is probably overpriced based on brand recognition.”

Mr. Beanum defended the Coda’s pricing. “After federal and state tax incentives, the car is in the low $30,000s, which we believe is a competitive price given our superior battery pack and active thermal system,” he said, and praised Mr. Czinger’s “drive and vision, without which we would not have come this far.”

In another transition, Mark Jamieson, who until recently was Coda’s chief financial officer, will now become chief operating officer.