5 hits and misses, up close with the electric car for the masses


It’s almost here. For Americans, the ID.4 is the first of a generation of electric cars that Volkswagen has said is “for millions, non millionaires.” And it’s the first Volkswagen EV that will be built in the U.S., starting next year. 

In December, we published a first drive of a handbuilt prototype of the ID.4, finding this electric crossover well designed and pleasant-driving—except for the interface, which seemed maybe a software update away from prime time. 

Over a few days with a later prototype of the ID.4, I got the chance to revisit some of these impressions and get some more significant drive time. 

The ID.4 is a formidable reboot for the brand—the most comprehensive in decades, and a key piece for spurring EV adoption.

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 - First drive, Portland OR

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 – First drive, Portland OR

VW isn’t targeting niche electric vehicles—Tesla, ehem—as much as it’s positioned the ID.4 versus the Toyota RAV4 and CR-V, as a serious option for all-electric family use, for households that can’t afford multiple vehicles for the same task. 

In two ways that matter—range and charging rate—the ID.4 meets muster for occasional road-trip use, and it easily charges overnight, in as little as 7.5 hours at 240V. 

The ID.4 is also brilliant with interior space and well-hushed from road and wind noise. It doesn’t pretend it’s a lot lighter than its 4,600 pounds, but it rides and handles with a verve that exceeds its leisurely (for an EV) dash to 60 mph in about 7.5 seconds. 

That said, it was an unexpectedly polarizing experience. There are very well-defined areas I’m thrilled about, and others I’m not. 

We’ll follow this up next week with some additional takeaways on what to expect regarding real-world range. In the meantime, these are the hits and misses. 

HITS

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 - First drive, Portland OR

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 – First drive, Portland OR

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 - First drive, Portland OR

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 – First drive, Portland OR

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 - First drive, Portland OR

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 – First drive, Portland OR

Ride quality and NVH are fantastic.
The ID.4 has no air suspension or adaptive dampers, but it rides perfectly for the mission—firm enough for backroads, but soft enough for potholes and patches. You hear the low-speed pedestrian alert and the motor whine on acceleration, but road and wind noise are well-hushed. 

The ID.4 has its 1,067-pound battery pack mounted under the passenger floor, likely helping isolate the cabin. But doors, windows, and trim all seemed super-tight. 

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 - First drive, Portland OR

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 – First drive, Portland OR

Simplified regen.
Volkswagen has kept regen out of its driving modes, and mostly succeeds in simplifying this interface. You simply get two settings accessible with the shift knob—’D’ and ‘B’, with the latter dialing up significantly more regen (up to 0.13g) when you lift off the accelerator. In either case, you use up to about 0.25g of deceleration when you tip into the brake pedal. 

I switched off between the two modes about equally when I wasn’t testing the adaptive cruise control, which regen helps make exceptionally smooth. While I see the case for both, I’m happy VW hasn’t given more than two settings.

Lifting gently in ‘D’ at 55 mph or less, you glide on with seemingly little resistance. If you’re a smooth driver, you should be able to do better with efficiency using ‘D’. But ‘B’ takes some of the two-pedal fatigue from stop-and-go driving, bringing it *almost* to a full stop. 

But I have one request for VW: Please let me turn off the idle creep.

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 - First drive, Portland OR

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 – First drive, Portland OR

The best back seat of the smaller EVs.
I’m a long-legged 6-foot-6, and I don’t fit well in the back seats of many compact EV models, as they tend to shove short rear-seat cushions a bit upward, limiting headroom and gaming legroom numbers. But I fit just fine in the back of the ID.4—with just enough headroom. This is one good for double dates—when we can all do that sort of thing again. A child seat was a cinch to get back there, and the shape of the roof helps.

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 - First drive, Portland OR

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 – First drive, Portland OR

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 - First drive, Portland OR

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 – First drive, Portland OR

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 - First drive, Portland OR

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 – First drive, Portland OR

Thoughtful cargo areas, bins, cubbies.
This is an EV that’s meant to be lived in. Bins are deep and easily cleaned. The double-layer cargo area is very useful for stashing valuables out of sight. And the wireless charging tray is down below, cleverly out of spill range. I might avoid the 1st Edition and its white surfaces, though. 

Volkswagen ID.Light in ID.4

Volkswagen ID.Light in ID.4

Seeing the (ID) Light.
I’ll admit, I dismissed VW’s ID Light system, using dynamic cabin lighting for driver alerts, as a gimmick when the automaker demonstrated it on auto-show floors. I lumped it into the same category as the ambient light system. After real-world use, I’m sold. It’s not distracting, but helpful. 

Example: I was driving with a programmed destination at night and had switched screens away from the map display to something else as I approached the end of a freeway ramp. ID Light gestured clearly to the left with shooting stars of blue light, across the top of the dash, clearly pointing left. Very useful. 

 

MISSES

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 - First drive, Portland OR

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 – First drive, Portland OR

Latency, wait and see.
The buggy infotainment system in my test car operated a bit like a tablet that was bogged down with software demanding too much of it. 

The screen looks great, the menus are mostly laid out smartly, and it feels intuitive. It essentially lets you slide left and right between several pages of widgets—with wireless Apple CarPlay (or Android Auto ) occupying one of those pages. But scrolling between those pages, or up and down within menus on those pages, the test system would often take two or three tries as I waited for a thinking pause after which it would either then scroll or need another swipe. In a system you use while taking your eyes momentarily off the road at 70 mph, this kind of latency is unacceptable. 

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 - First drive, Portland OR

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 – First drive, Portland OR

Over a few days with the ID.4, I found my workarounds. Apple CarPlay had shorter lags and was near flawless. Voice controls are the other alternative, but I couldn’t get Hello ID to respond to me a single time using a simple “Hello ID” prompt. Pressing the voice button is the other option, and I was striking out here, too, until I discovered that the audible tone I was speaking before—arriving several long seconds after pressing the voice button—was actually the tone I was supposed to start speaking after. No kidding. 

2021 Volkswagen ID.4

2021 Volkswagen ID.4

Touch insensitive.
Beyond the center screen menus, or the voice controls, your only option in the ID.4 is a set of touch-sensitive capacitive buttons and sliders that respond inconsistently to the touch. The worst-responding, I found, were the ones in the row directly below the screen (climate and sound). It’s unclear whether these issues were tied to the general latency of the system, but here, too, there was a workaround: The steering-wheel controls were seemingly exempt from the delays. Sliding from left to right and back on the right steering-wheel pad, for instance, quickly raised and lowered the volume.

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 - First drive, Portland OR

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 – First drive, Portland OR

Where’s the snow mode?
This seems like an oversight that would be easy to add via an over-the-air update. I had the ID.4 in the aftermath of a winter storm and realized it’s much needed. As VW notes, all-wheel-drive versions will have a torque-vectoring feature that brakes individual wheels, but this isn’t included in rear-wheel-drive versions (although I was told Sport mode will achieve some of these results). 

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 - First drive, Portland OR

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 – First drive, Portland OR

Grabby brakes.
The brakes in my test ID.4 were grabby and inconsistent in the last few feet of very gentle stops—something I haven’t seen in VW Group cousins like the E-Tron and Porsche Taycan, or in the e-Golf. We’ll take our prototype test car as an anomaly, and this was mostly in wet weather, but it’s a detail to revisit in future drives. 

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 - First drive, Portland OR

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 – First drive, Portland OR

Not yet compatible with Plug&Charge.
How can you have the mass-market launch vehicle from Volkswagen, the creator of Electrify America, not be compatible yet with the technology that lets people avoid fussing with apps, credit cards, and additional touch points? The one we used a few months ago with the Ford Mustang Mach-E? It’s coming later in the year, according to the automaker—just not yet. 

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 - First drive, Portland OR

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 – First drive, Portland OR

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 - First drive, Portland OR

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 – First drive, Portland OR

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 - First drive, Portland OR

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 – First drive, Portland OR

TAKEAWAYS

As I say over at The Car Connection: the 2021 Volkswagen ID.4 gives families the right formula for saying farewell to tailpipe emissions, but the cabin tech could use some smoothing over. 

I’m tempering this somewhat because, although early production is ramping up, I had a car that was officially designated as a prototype. That means it’s two software patches behind what VW hopes customers will see. The first of those includes some bug fixes other reviewers might not have seen. Over-the-air updates are on the way, with the first to be sent to customers later in the year, or as soon as summer.

VW appears to have done all the hard work—which is engineer a spacious, comfortable, pleasant-driving EV that charges quickly, has a good driving range, and can be produced at a modest profit. But the interface is the first thing people fiddle with when they take the test drive. I really hope this is better by the time it starts reaching more buyers. It has to be. 



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