Volkswagen, once a dabbler in electric vehicles, is now betting its future on the technology. And the new Volkswagen ID.4 — a five-passenger, fully electric crossover with a starting price of $33,995 (before federal or state incentives) — is its first global effort to make EVs a mainstream product and part of its larger goal to become carbon neutral by 2050.
The upshot: The VW ID.4 offers a balanced blend of technology, comfort and design for a more affordable price and seeks to capture some of the market left vacant by the lack of an affordable Tesla Model Y. The VW ID.4 offers solid technology without being so out of this world that your average crossover buyer will balk … with one exception. The lack of seamless charging makes finding and then connecting to a third-party charging station a clunky, even complex experience.
As Mark Gillies, senior manager of Product at VW said during our interview, “We want to be the company that builds electric cars for the millions, not just for the millionaires.”
While that may be true, there are a few niggling concerns, like a somewhat laggy infotainment system, that should improve with updates coming soon, and the previously mentioned miss of seamless charging. If Volkswagen can address those problems, the VW ID.4 could take a solid bite out of the booming crossover market. But will the masses flock to a fully electric future that delivers a near-to-gasoline driving experience and become the “car for the millions?”
The 2021 Volkswagen ID.4 crossover might be the first global, dedicated all-electric vehicle from the VW brand, but it’s not the first consumer-available electric vehicle from the VW Group as a whole. It launched the California-only Volkswagen e-Golf back in 2013 (discontinued last year), and the company’s luxury performance brand Porsche began sales of its all-electric Taycan in 2019.
When it launched, e-Golf represented more of a fringe case for the company. It was targeted specifically at the California market, where incentives for electric vehicles and charging infrastructure, as well as environmental regulations, are more robust. The ID.4, in contrast, represents one of the “most important Volkswagen debuts since the Beetle,” and it will be available across the country.
The tech that stands out
Rather than try to fit a gasoline-shaped peg into an electric-shaped hole, Volkswagen appears to have taken a page from Tesla’s book in its approach to the dash layout and cabin feel in the ID.4.
The interior design of the ID.4 feels like a glimpse of a self-driving future as you could visualize a day when both the steering column and even the infotainment system could simply be deleted. Even the center console, complete with modular cupholders, cubbies and NFC charging pad could eventually be modified to create more passenger space, making the interior of the ID.4. feel even more open and airy than it already does.
The ID.4 launches with three trims: the Pro, Pro S and 1st Edition. The Pro comes with a 10-inch touchscreen. The Pro S and 1st Edition trims come with a 12-inch infotainment touchscreen mounted at the center of the dashboard.
As you reach toward the center screen, the icons respond thanks to an in-cabin camera that tracks hand motion toward the system. There are very few hard-touch buttons inside the ID.4, and those that do exist are more like medical-grade haptic buttons used to control everything from climate and audio to the opening and closing of the shade on the optional panoramic fixed-glass roof and even driving modes and driver assistance features. They take a little getting used to, but once familiar they tend to work like slider buttons, allowing you to adjust volume or temperature with slight pressure changes and small slides from left to right.
Instead of buttons, Volkswagen has decided to leverage hands-free voice control in the new ID.4, but during our time with the vehicle, the system felt like it was still in beta.
Both driver and passenger use the touchscreen or specific voice commands to access many of the common features and infotainment of the ID.4. Say “Hello I.D.” and a light strip along the base of the windshield lights up based on which side of the vehicle the voice came from (passenger or driver), indicating that it’s ready to receive the command you say next.
Commands are rather limited at this time and must be initiated by either saying the key phrase (“Hello I.D.”) or pushing the voice control button located on the steering wheel. You can say basic things like navigation commands but you can also say things like “I’m cold,” or “Tell me a joke,” and the ID.4 system will respond by raising the temperature on that side of the car, or telling a seatbelt joke.
During the test drive, the response time from the system was very slow compared to other voice systems on the market, and it struggled to find connectivity to do things like change a Sirius XM channel, (repeatedly saying that it couldn’t find a specific channel number or name) even though my test drive didn’t stray beyond the bounds of Los Angeles and Long Beach. It also failed more often than naught, taking around 10 seconds or more to finally cancel out of the voice control systems when it either couldn’t understand the command or it couldn’t get connectivity.
The navigation system in the ID.4 was also a bit laggy and imprecise, which meant I reverted to using Google maps and the wireless Android Auto system (included along with Apple CarPlay throughout the ID.4 lineup) to get directions. One neat feature of the ID.4’s on-board navigation system, however, is that the light strip along the windshield illuminates on either side of the vehicle as you approach a turn to indicate which direction you should go.
The infotainment screen looks just like your phone or tablet screen: Swipe through the pages of apps or various windows to get to the page you want. Unfortunately, the combination of a laggy connection to the network (despite having three to five bars of 4G connectivity according to the infotainment system), and a laggy load time, the screens would occasionally freeze while swiping between pages, showing half of one page while still loading the next.
As a caveat: I was lucky enough to get three separate opportunities to spend extended time in different ID.4s in the Los Angeles press fleet and only experienced the lag/freeze with one of the vehicles. Volkswagen PR says that the software in the test vehicles is not the final version that customers will receive and it will be updated before getting to owners, which should solve for the strange stuttering and voice command issues that I experienced.
The ID.4 will also get Alexa capability later this year through their Car-Net service, which includes an app that can help you monitor your vehicle from afar. The app is simple enough to use: Owners log in and can see the location, charge level and status of their ID.4.
VW made a multitude of interesting design choices inside the ID.4 including the placement of the main instrument panel and the transmission selector. Rather than attaching these items to the dash or center console like you’d find in a typical vehicle, they’re attached directly to the steering column. When you move the steering wheel, the instrument panel and transmission rocker move with it. Volkswagen uses a 5.3-inch screen attached to the steering wheel to provide information about everything from speed and direction of travel to range, trip and basic navigation information. You use a rhombus-shaped rocker at the right side of the steering wheel to toggle through driving modes rather than a standard button or shift lever.
There’s a start/stop button located in a rather hidden spot on the right side of the column to start the ID.4, but it’s largely superfluous. When you unlock the vehicle and sit in the driver’s seat, the ID.4 powers on and is ready to drive. When you unlatch your seatbelt and climb out, the ID.4 powers down. That makes things a bit complicated if you have friends or family in the vehicle while you dash into a place to run an errand, but the ID.4 allows passengers to keep things like the AC and heat going for a short period of time by using controls that appear on the infotainment screen, even if the driver isn’t in the vehicle.
Converting drivers to EVs
Volkswagen says that its research has shown that roughly 30% of crossover owners would consider an electric crossover. There’s no denying that the ID.4 enters a crowded crossover market complete with extremely popular gasoline and hybrid competitors like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. Volkswagen says that, based on its research, consumers shouldn’t feel any range anxiety since most crossover owners drive around 60 miles per day and the battery system offers an EPA-estimated 250 miles of range. You can charge the ID.4 from 5% to 80% in 38 minutes at 125 kW.
A full charge at home is estimated to take around 7.5 hours but, if you’re out and about, Volkswagen is offering free, unlimited charging at DC fast chargers by Electrify America at no additional cost for the first three years of ID.4 ownership, which sounds great, but comes with some caveats. VW says that it expects most people to charge overnight on typical residential power, and it’s clear that the company doesn’t expect owners to use public chargers all that frequently because the process of locating an available charger is not seamless, at least not at the ID.4’s launch.
Electrify America is a subsidiary of VW, yet they operate completely separately from Volkswagen. The company operates 550 charging stations and more than 2,400 DC fast chargers across the country. You can search for “charging stations,” through the on-board nav but the system brings up all charging stations in the vicinity and doesn’t show which are online and available. In order to find specific online and available Electrify America chargers, owners have to pull out their phones and open the Electrify America app. You can then send the location of a specific charger to Android Auto or Apple CarPlay to navigate. Unfortunately, at this point, the Electrify America app does not show up in Android Auto.
This process is rather clunky and would require owners to pull over and park to safely complete before heading to the charging station — at least at this point in time. Volkswagen says that an over-the-air update coming later this year will further integrate Electrify America stations into the on-board nav in a more seamless way.
The good news is that the EPA-estimated fuel economy equivalent for the Pro S and 1st Edition models is 104 MPGe for city driving, while highway driving is rated at 89 MPGe, for a combined city/highway rating of 97 MPGe.
One of the striking features of the ID.4 is how it drives. Transmission modes on the ID.4 include a B or brake mode — a common and exceedingly convenient setting that allows for one-pedal driving on electric vehicles. Take your foot off the brake and the ID.4 slows slightly, regenerating electricity and sending it back into the battery. It’s a great feature in stop-and-go traffic and Volkswagen intentionally tuned the one-pedal driving to be less aggressive than those in other electric vehicles, with the aim of making the feel more familiar for first-time electric vehicle owners.
On the road, the ID.4 feels well planted and not nearly as large as it looks. It’s nimble but not exactly quick off the line (VW has not released 0-60 mph times) though it doesn’t leave you sweating to make a short merge. It’s certainly no tire smoker or rocket ship, however.
Since it’s a rather bulbous shape, there is some very minor wind noise at speed on the road, but the ride is comfortable and confident. At speeds below 20 miles an hour (and when you put it into reverse), it does make that characteristic electric car sound to alert pedestrians. It’s not noticeable inside the cabin when the windows are raised, but pass a neighbor who is working on a car in their garage, and you’ll be sure to arrive home to a text asking if that was you driving around in the car that sounds like a spaceship.
ADAS form and function
VW’s Travel Assist is the branded name for the company’s Level 2 autonomous driving system, which works at speeds that range from 0-95 mph. Travel Assist uses both the adaptive cruise control and the lane-keeping systems to follow the road and other vehicles ahead. When a motorcycle suddenly hops into your lane, the instrument screen shows an image of a motorcycle directly in front of the vehicle. If said motorcycle decides to randomly slam on the brakes, the ID.4 responds and brakes automatically. If traffic comes to a stop ahead, the ID.4 Travel Assist waits until traffic moves again. It approximates a human response to traffic motion very well — neither waiting inordinately long and leaving huge gaps (which causes rubber banding in traffic) nor accelerating aggressively.
The system makes long stints in heinous traffic bearable. I spent an hour commuting on the dreaded 405 freeway in Los Angeles during rush hour and only had to keep my hands lightly on the capacitive steering wheel to keep the system engaged.
The skateboard powertrain
The VW ID.4 is built on a new skateboard architecture called MEB, or modular electric drive matrix, with an AC permanent-magnet synchronous motor that makes 201 horsepower and 229 foot-pounds of torque mounted at the back of the vehicle, above the rear axle — much like the old Beetle. At launch, VW is only offering a rear-wheel-drive version, but an all-wheel-drive version will be available by the end of the year, offering 302 horsepower.
Volkswagen is purchasing batteries from Panasonic for the ID.4 and assembling the 82-kWh, 12-module, 288-pouch-cell battery packs themselves at plants in China and Germany. There are plans to begin production in the U.S. soon. Volkswagen also builds its own electric motors.
All in, the VW ID.4 makes electric vehicles more attainable for the crossover buying public who can’t afford the high price tags for the other luxury all-electric crossovers like a Jaguar I-Pace, Tesla Model Y, Polestar or Audi e-tron.
Yet it also competes well with popular gasoline-powered crossovers like the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4, especially when you add in the potential for as much as $7,500 in rebates. Where the VW ID.4 truly stands out is in its blending of advanced technology and affordability in a good-looking EV that won’t give you range anxiety. Will it be the “car for the millions?” We’ll have to wait and find out.