U.S. consumers already buy shoes, TVs, phones, clothes and a lot of other stuff from China. Now Coda Automotive is going to see if they will go for cars.

The company, formerly part of low-speed vehicle maker Miles Automotive, is aiming to deliver an all-electric, five-seater sedan to California consumers by 2010. Roughly, that's about the same time that General Motors will come out with the plug-in, mostly electric Volt and Nissan will come out with its $30,000 electric car. It showed off the car at the Miles company headquarters at the Santa Monica airport this morning.

The Coda car will cost $45,000 (before $7,500 in federal tax credits), more expensive than the GM or Nissan cars, but not outrageously more – GM's Volt is slated to come out at around $40,000. So how did a small company pull that off?

Coda's car is based around a gas-burning car already produced in China by state-owned Hafei. Engineers at the company will tweak and test it to bring it up to western driving and safety standards, but using an existing car, ideally, will help cut engineering and testing costs and time. Coda is also working with Tianjin Lishen Battery Joint Stock Co., a large lithium-ion battery manufacturer, for its batteries. Hafei makes 200,000 cars a year (see earlier interview with Coda execs).

Whether the company can pull this off, and how long it might take, is an open question. Japanese automakers were able to break into the U.S. market in a big way after several years because of the Arab oil embargo of 1973. Nissan (than Datsun) also scored with sports car drivers with its Z line. Korean manufacturers struggled for a number of years but finally broke through with low prices and long warranties. 

China's reputation for quality has never been particularly high in the west and "state-owned manufacturer" rarely warms the cockles of consumers' hearts. Whether it's true or not, it is a barrier Coda will have to overcome and one that U.S. automakers will emphasize. On the other hand, GM and Ford make cars in China and you don't hear them complain. Sometimes the foreign versions of U.S. cars are better: even Ford execs have said that the European versions of their cars can be better made.

Coda's car will come with a 333-volt lithium-ion battery and a driving range of 90 to 120 miles. A full charge on a 220-volt outlet will take six hours. Charging the battery for a 40-mile commute can be completed in two hours.