Once upon a time, affordable electric compact SUVs were very hard to come by. There were plenty of cheap electric hatchbacks and a whole mess of luxury sedans and SUVs, but you’d have to cough up $50,000 or more if you wanted one. Then came the Tesla Model Y followed by the Ford Mustang Mach-E, and now our cup runneth over with reasonably priced battery-powered crossovers.
The latest to emerge is the Volkswagen ID 4, an absolutely delightful compact electric SUV with a decent amount of range, some quirky designs, and a whole lot of potential. It’s also a milestone for the automaker as its first long-range electric vehicle available in North America, the first electric SUV, and the second EV powered by its MEB modular electric architecture. But more than that, the ID 4 is a relatively affordable EV with a lot of the SUV DNA that car buyers in the US really crave.
This was my second time driving the ID 4. The first time, I only had it for a couple of hours; this time, VW lent it to me for two days, and I drove it all over North New Jersey — on highways, residential streets, and even some rural roads. During that time, I got a lot of admiring stares from an interesting cross-section of passersby. Even the toll booth operator on the Garden State Parkway let out a whistle of approval after I handed him my $1.90.
“That looks sweeter than a Tesla,” he said with a raised eyebrow. This from a guy who literally watches thousands of cars pass by every day.
LET’S SEE SOME ID
Last year, when Volkswagen unveiled the ID 4 for the first time at an eerily empty, socially distanced event in Brooklyn, the company’s CEO for North America, Scott Keogh, warned me not to make the obvious comparisons to other EVs, like Tesla.
That’s because VW views its real competition as all of the popular gas-powered compact SUVs, like the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, and Toyota Rav4. The company has its eyes on a higher prize: not just the most popular electric vehicle in its segment, but the most popular vehicle on the road, period.
It’s too early to tell whether the ID 4 will live up to those lofty expectations, but I can report that it is simply a great car. It has plenty of range for daily driving and short trips (but probably not anything longer than that), the technology inside feels intuitive without being in your face, and the really surprising thing is the whimsicality of the ID 4 — like VW wants you to just have fun while driving it.
Of course, the ID 4’s origins aren’t so playful. The car wouldn’t be here today without Dieselgate, the massive emissions cheating scandal that nearly crippled VW five years ago. As part of its many settlements, VW agreed to dedicate billions of dollars toward electric vehicles. That’s we’re getting the ID 4 in the year 2021 and not two or three years from now when the EV market is a bit more mature. Consider it an apology for all that extra pollution created by its millions of diesel vehicles (11 million to be precise). And as far as apologies go, the ID 4 is a pretty great start.
So let’s talk about the car itself. There are three different trim levels: the Pro, the Pro S, and the First Edition, which is the one we have and obviously the first one available for sale. The First Edition ID 4 only comes with rear-wheel drive, while both the Pro and Pro S will have rear-wheel and all-wheel drive options.
You can choose from six exterior colors: “glacier white,” “mythos black,” “moonstone grey,” “scale silver,” “blue dusk,” and “king’s red.” I got the blue color, which I really like; it pops without being too ostentatious.
The cheapest model, the Pro with rear-wheel drive, will retail for $39,995, while the most expensive trim, the all-wheel drive Pro S, will sell for $48,175. But when you factor in the $7,500 federal tax credit, plus any state and local incentives, the base model ID 4 lands in that low- to mid-$30,000 range that’s generally considered the sweet spot for most car buyers. That’ll still be prohibitively expensive for a lot of people, especially when you consider those gas-powered variants like the Rav4 often go for less than $25,000.
The First Edition ID 4 is expected to get 250 miles of range on a single charge — but that hasn’t been certified yet by regulators. It’s possible that the Environmental Protection Agency will rate the ID 4 with less than 250 miles of range, which could drive away those customers who have dreams of road-tripping across the country in their electric vehicle. Either way, it’s not as much as the Tesla Model 3 or Model Y, but I think it will suit a lot of people’s needs. (A recent highway range test by Car & Driver only got 190 miles. Big yikes!)
VW says “every effort” has been made to optimize aerodynamics as a way to improve the vehicle’s range. You can see that with the swooping lines in the body of the vehicle, the large roof spoiler, and the door handles that are flush against the side. Again, not exactly revelatory (a lot of EVs have similar features), but it does show that VW is thinking seriously about ways it can improve the vehicle’s daily performance.
The ID 4 has an 82 kilowatt-hour battery pack, 77 kWh of which are usable. It’s located in the floor of the vehicle, helping create a low center of gravity. The electric motor is located in the rear of the vehicle, which is similar to the original Volkswagen Beetle. You can feel that when you’re on a winding road, and the ID 4 is really hugging the curves.
Initially, the ID 4’s battery pack, which is comprised of 288 pouch cells in 12 modules, will be produced by South Korea’s LG Chem. But once ID 4 production shifts to Chattanooga, Tennessee, the batteries will be supplied by SK Innovation, another South Korean company that recently opened a $2 billion factory nearby VW’s plant there.
There are four driving modes: Eco, Comfort, Sport, and a custom setting that allows drivers to pick and choose from the other modes to best suit their own style. Just like I live my life, I did most of my driving in Comfort. It’s got pretty good oomph for an EV, with 201 horsepower and 228 pound-feet of torque. It can sprint from 0 to 60 in a little over 7 seconds — that’s what VW claims; I didn’t test it myself. That’s nowhere near as fast as Tesla’s performance models, but it makes sense when you consider the curb weight is over two tons.
While driving, if you expected a low-grade motor whir common with EVs, and you’d be right. No noisy combustion under the hood means no noise radiating throughout the vehicle’s interior. As you accelerate, the motor definitely emits a higher-pitch sound, but it’s not distracting.
There is a fake sound that the vehicle makes at low speeds, as required by law to alert pedestrians and cyclists. It reminded me of that episode of The Simpsons where the cult leader who promised alien salvation to the people of Springfield is revealed to be a guy with a kazoo on a pedal-powered aircraft. Don’t ask me why my brain works this way.
Thanks to a narrow A-pillar and a stubby front end, I felt like I could see everything I was supposed to from the driver’s seat. So many SUVs on the market today have gargantuan front ends, creating dangerous front blind spots for drivers that could be fatal, especially for children. Compact SUVs don’t typically have this problem, but it felt like VW made the necessary design choices to ensure maximum visibility.
EVS, BUT MAKE IT FASHION
One of my favorite parts of the ID 4 is the front and rear lights. Normally, I’m not into illuminated vehicle badges, but there’s something appealing about the light bar stretching across the full width of the vehicle. It’s the ID 4’s way of saying, “Hey, I’m an electric car” without exactly clubbing you over the head with it.
There are actually a lot of cool lighting accents all over this vehicle. At nighttime, a hexagonal light emanates from both the driver and passenger doors and projects on the ground. Inside the vehicle, a light bar runs along the base of the windshield that serves as a communication device. If you’re using the navigation, and you’re about to turn right, a blue light will move left to right across the width of the windshield to signal that you’re about to make a turn. It also serves as a status bar when you’re charging the vehicle. I thought it seemed gimmicky at first, but seeing it in action, I found it to be a pretty helpful effect.
And the lights are all adjustable. You can choose from 30 different colors, so if you’re feeling kind of pink, go pink. Having more of a blue day? Go for it. Are the adjustable colors necessary at all? No. Are they really fun to play around with? Absolutely.
More evidence of VW’s quirky designs are the “play” and “pause” pedals. I remember seeing these a few years ago in VW’s ID Buzz electric microbus concept and thinking they seemed really stupid. But now I think I kind of get it. You can’t call it a gas pedal when the car runs on electrons, right? So why not play and pause?
There are two screens, a 5.3-inch instrument cluster behind the steering wheel and a 12-inch one in the center console. It’s nice to see a pair of screens that don’t completely dominate the interior. The UX is totally fine, but for those who prefer their smartphone’s interface, the ID 4 supports both wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The screens looked great; they were bright and vibrant, and the colors really popped.
I didn’t experience an excessive amount of lagginess with the center screen, but there were a few sticky spots, especially while swiping from menu to menu. Those expecting Tesla-level responsiveness will be disappointed. The ID 4 will get over-the-air software updates, so it’s nothing that VW can’t fix in the future. We can only hope that VW has cleared up its software quality-control issues that effectively delayed the delivery of the ID 3 hatchback in 2020.
There’s a home button on the left side of the screen for easy access, and the default software felt similar enough to CarPlay that I was fine using either. The screen is also slightly angled toward the driver, which was a nice touch. That said, the ID 4’s default navigation isn’t as clean-looking as Google Maps, as is usually the case with most cars today. There aren’t many physical buttons, but the ones they have had nice haptic feedback to them that felt satisfying to the touch.
The voice assistant, which is activated by saying “Hello, ID,” was much improved from the last time I drove the ID 4. It was effective at controlling the HVAC system and making other small changes, though I still found I had to repeat myself a lot. The lag time between using the wake words and issuing a command is also still too long, but I can see VW easily improving that in future iterations. Still, it isn’t as advanced as the new Volvos with native Android Auto. But I also don’t expect the German auto giant to be able to match Google’s history of developing artificial intelligence in just a couple of years.
There’s also gesture control which allows you to move between menus just by swiping your hand in front of the screen. The less said about this wonky feature, the better.
I found the driver’s seat to be very comfortable and the headroom to be expansive. The panoramic sunroof was similar to what’s found in most Teslas these days and was really a joy to sit under. The white leather in the First Edition was a nice touch, and the air vents are real air vents, with open and close knobs, so this might be the car for you if you find Tesla’s digital air vents off-putting.
Tapping through the settings gets you to the camera feature, where you can see a simulated 360-degree image of the car from the top down but not an actual camera image of the car from that angle. You also get the view from the rear-mounted camera, which is expansive. VW uses a good amount of the screen to show you these images, which really helps when reversing or navigating tight spaces.
The ID 4 uses a front radar, front camera, two rear radars, and eight ultrasound sensors to see the world around it. The driver-assist system isn’t advanced like Tesla’s Autopilot or GM’s Super Cruise, but it does have the standard features like adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, blind-spot detection, and pedestrian monitoring. Like most driver-assist systems, the controls aren’t very intuitive, and drivers are recommended to brush up on which buttons do what before attempting to activate it on a busy highway.
There’s no driver monitoring system, which is a bummer, but the ID 4 did show me a pop-up message on the instrument cluster reminding me to keep my hands on the steering wheel.
The ID 4 comes with an 11 kW onboard charger that allows the ID 4 to charge to full in seven and a half hours at a home or public Level 2 charger. As with most EVs, it’s not recommended to charge the ID 4 on a normal 120-volt outlet because the rate of charging is practically glacial. There’s really no point to it.
At a DC fast-charging station, with 125 kW charging, the ID 4 can go from 5 to 80 percent charged in about 38 minutes. The challenge, of course, is finding a charger that can actually provide that much power; a lot of public chargers only supply about half as many kilowatts, which will obviously make recharging the ID 4’s battery take longer than predicted.
One of the big selling points for the ID 4 is three years of free charging with VW’s Electrify America charging network. Like Tesla, VW has skin in the game when it comes to EV charging infrastructure, which will go a long way in luring shoppers away from the warm embrace of combustion engine familiarity.
Electrify America has approximately 500 charging stations in the US, with over 2,200 DC fast chargers — though the company expects to install or have under development approximately 800 stations with about 3,500 DC fast chargers by December 2021.
A fast, reliable network of charging stations will go a long way in selling the ID 4 to customers. The $40,000 price tag will help, too. But it’s still going to be tough for VW to siphon buyers away from low-priced alternatives like the Honda CR-V or Toyota Rav4, both of which are in the mid-$20,000 range.
IS THE ID 4 YOU?
Volkswagen is currently the second-largest automaker in the world, having just lost the top spot to Toyota. Its first long-range, mass-market EV in the US is something to take seriously. That said, the ID 4 is not for everyone. For some, it will be too expensive. For others, it will lack the devil-may-care attitude of a Tesla or the warm fuzziness of a familiar nameplate like the Mustang Mach-E.
For me, it felt right. It handled great, the tech was both low-key and competent, and the joy that went into the design of the ID 4 was very tangible and effective.
The ID 3 and 4 are just the first offerings of VW’s $66 billion electrification push. Forthcoming vehicles will be based on concept versions of a large SUV (ID Roomzz), a dune buggy (ID Buggy), and a revamped version of its iconic microbus (ID Buzz), for which VW has also promised a delivery variant. There will also be a coupe version of the ID 4, aptly named the ID 5. All are being built on Volkswagen’s MEB modular electric vehicle platform, which will also underpin a commercial electric vehicle from Ford.
The ID family of vehicles won’t be VW’s first foray into battery-powered drivetrains. VW subsidiary Porsche recently revealed its first all-electric sports car, the Taycan. The E-Tron, the first battery-electric SUV from Volkswagen Group-owned Audi, debuted in 2018. Together, these vehicles represent the tip of the spear in VW’s effort to dominate the emerging EV market.
They’re also crucial in helping VW turn the page on Dieselgate, in which VW was accused of installing illegal software in 11 million diesel cars that would help them pass government emissions tests conducted in a lab, then allow the vehicles to produce higher emissions outside of the lab. The company thought it could get away with the deception, but it got caught. Tens of billions of dollars in fines and settlements later, VW has a unique opportunity to start to make real amends.
Volkswagen is calling the ID 4 the “most important vehicle … since the launch of the Beetle,” and it’s apparent that the company put a lot of effort into making that true. It has a legacy in the US that it wants to maintain and a lot of baggage to overcome. Fortunately, the ID 4 is a really strong contender in a year that is going to be overloaded with electric crossovers. But if the price is any indicator, it’s going to be an uphill battle for VW’s battery-powered crossover to cross over into the mainstream.