Volkswagen’s roots are in sensibly sized, economical, and thoughtfully engineered vehicles. Although it’s rather late to the market, the stylish ID.3 hatchback seems a natural extension of these tenets as applied to a modern EV. Here in the U.S., however, Volkswagen is holding back the ID.3, which means the larger, taller ID.4 crossover will be the German automaker’s all-electric flag-bearer when it hits showrooms in early 2021. We tooled around metro Detroit for a quick 45-minute jaunt in a pre-production ID.4, wondering whether this EV vanguard can deliver the jolt that VW needs to kick off its planned propulsion revolution.
Riding on VW’s new modular electric (MEB) platform—which underpins the ID.3 and upcoming ID. Buzz microbus—the ID.4 uses a conventional skateboard-style layout with a 82-kWh central battery integrated into the base of the chassis and a 201-hp (228 lb-ft) electric motor sitting on the rear axle. Range is an EPA-rated 250 miles, but that figure will naturally drop for the upcoming 302-hp, all-wheel-drive model. Suspension includes control arms up front and a multi-link setup in the rear, with springs and dampers all around. The front axle features disc brakes, but VW says it went with drums in the rear because they’re better suited to light and infrequent use—regenerative braking does the heavy lifting.
Our $44,000 1st Edition prototype test car—whose exterior VW prohibited us from photographing—looks sleek and well-proportioned. We picked it up at a VW dealership, where the ID.4 was parked next to a dated-looking 2020 Passat that only served to accentuate the EV’s smooth lines and attractive full-width LED front light signature. The crossover’s stance is more squat than that of a Tiguan, and it has the presence of a tall wagon rather than that of an SUV. In truth, its design is more cohesive than the odd-looking Tesla Model Y, but little distinguishes the ID.4 from most other crossovers, for better or for worse.
The 1st Edition comes standard with the ID.4’s Statement and Gradient packages ($4500 and $1500, respectively, on the standard $40,000 ID.4 Pro). By design, the ID.4’s interior is clean and largely unadorned, which means that the Statement bundle’s huge panoramic moonroof and 30-color ambient lighting are features you really notice and appreciate. Light and color help make this interior feel less like a futuristic medical pod, although the 1st Edition model’s Electric White steering wheel, column, and radio bezel are partly responsible for that Wall-E vibe. It looks cool on an auto show floor, but in real-world use that steering wheel would look sorrier than a smock in a fourth-grade art class.
Presumably to save precious space between the front two seats, VW chose a slightly awkward drive selector that’s mounted to the instrument cluster. Oftentimes it felt like we might accidentally shift into park when reaching for the wipers, but the ID.4’s cabin is otherwise straightforward and approachable. A large factor is the quality of the materials. There’s a decent amount of plastic, but aside from the flimsy side-mirror knob, the ID.4’s interior doesn’t feel cheap. The pockets for the front doors are even lined on the bottom with carpet to absorb the vibrations of loose change or half-empty water bottles. The Chevy Bolt feels considerably more low-rent, and the Hyundai Kona EV has a tighter back seat with less cargo space. VW has always been expert at interior packaging, and the ID.4 is no exception.
As for the driving experience, the ID.4 is a mixed bag. On the plus side of the ledger, the crossover’s ride is luxury-car competent over bumps, even with the optional 20-inch wheels. That compliance doesn’t do the ID.4 any favors in corners, however, where the vehicle tilts and leans like quarter-fed kiddie ride outside of Kroger. The single electric rear motor’s behavior is similarly situational; smooth, gradual inputs yielded a steady stream of usable torque that makes highway on-ramps a breeze, but more immediate demands for thrust left us underwhelmed. At one point we needed to quickly pass an 18-wheeler to clear out of the lane before it became closed off to construction. Despite full-on matting the throttle, the response from the ID.4 was more of an unhurried scoot than a forceful zoom. VW promises that the upcoming all-wheel-drive model, slated for introduction next year, will bring a lot more muscle with its additional electric motor.
Given that we drove a prototype model, it is not possible to fairly assess the full functionality of the ID.4’s infotainment system. The vehicle’s menu system, however, was reasonably well-organized and the graphics are crisp. With that said, if anyone sits down back-to-back with a loaded ID.4 and a Polestar 2—especially if the latter’s $45,000 variant comes to fruition soon—the Polestar’s slick Google-based system will make it look almost quaint, like a click-wheel iPod.
Much more impressive, at least following our brief test, is the “ID. Light” LED strip at the base of the windshield. After you program the navigation to a destination, the light strip fills up like a progress bar and blinks as you approach an upcoming turn. It works brilliantly, and the information is conveyed in such an unobtrusive way that a driver could easily carry on a conversation and stay on route without difficulty. In concert with acoustic signals, the ID. Light bar also provides information relating to the state of charge, incoming phone calls, and more. Of all the ID.4’s interior features, this one feels the most innovative and considered.
No doubt the ID.4. is a good value, especially given the $7500 federal tax credit and three free years of Electrify America charging. (The 1st Edition sold out within a day of reservations opening.) Tesla’s proprietary Supercharger network is much larger at present, but VW promises Electrify America will grow in the coming years to provide the infrastructure EV owners need. On top of that, we expect the ID.4’s current price will drop by roughly $5000 once production shifts from Germany to Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Volkswagen has for years struggled to stand out in the competitive U.S. market, often tweaking its European products in an attempt to nail the right formula. The ID.4 is a solid first foray, but although it’s more affordable, it currently possesses neither the raw performance of the Model Y nor the tech prowess of the Polestar 2. At the same time, it doesn’t provide a compelling reason for RAV4 or CR-V or even Tiguan buyers to give up traditional combustion engines. Determined ID.4 owners will likely be plenty satisfied, but convincing mainstream buyers and die-hard EV evangelists will be a much tougher sell.
2021 Volkswagen ID.4 1st Edition (Prototype)
Price: $43,995 (additional destination fee TBD)
Highs: Smooth ride, quality materials, impressive packaging.
Lows: Wallowy handling, occasionally sluggish powertrain.
Summary: A well-built, relatively affordable electric people-mover. To succeed in 2020, however, a compelling EV needs to be more EDM than elevator music.