Forty-five minutes behind the wheel isn't enough for a full-fledged car review, but that's how much time Volkswagen allowed me to spend testing out its new all-electric car, the ID.4. The company said it had only one review car available for the many interested writers in California.
Though I would have liked more time, 45 minutes was enough to form a first impression, and this is it: The ID.4 is the first true mainstream electric car to be offered for sale in the U.S. And it's well worth the consideration of mainstream car buyers.
The Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Bolt EV are fine little automobiles but too small to fit all the stuff Americans pack into the plastic boxes they bought at the Container Store. Tesla's cars are awesome fun to drive, but they're pricey, and the company's parts and service operations need improvement. The Porsche Taycan? In my mind it's the best EV you can buy right now — but the $103,000 to $185,000 price tag puts it a bit out of reach for the mainstream buyer.
The ID.4, ready for California customers in March, is a compact SUV, the fastest-growing segment in the automobile market right now. Range is 250 miles. The base price is $40,000 (officially $39,995). Volkswagen makes a compelling argument that, when you factor in federal and state incentives and fuel savings, the customer cost drops to near $30,000.
That's near the base price of compact SUVs like the Honda CR-V, the Toyota RAV4 and the Subaru Forester, all of which rely on pollution-spewing internal combustion engines. Though VW wouldn't mind luring some EV fans from Tesla, the company is aiming at these popular high-quality cars as the primary competition.
The stakes are high. In the wake of the Volkswagen diesel cheating scandal, in which the company used software to fake out emissions tests, new management has hitched the company's future to electric vehicles. If consumers in the compact SUV segment don't bite, it's hard to see how California will be able to ban new sales of gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035.
On to the car: To my eye it's handsome, inside and out. A close look at the body shows no panel gaps. (Knowledgeable buyers know if a company can't make the panels fit together nicely, other quality problems probably lurk underneath.)
The steering is precise, as you'd expect from Volkswagen, or almost any German-engineered automobile. (The ID.4 is manufactured in Germany, but VW plans to churn them out of its plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 2022.)
It's no speed demon, with its rear-axle, 150-kilowatt, 201-horsepower motor, but plenty fast for the vast majority of the target market.
But the off-the-line torque an electric car provides will thrill EV newcomers. An all-wheel-drive version with an added front-axle motor set for 2021 will lift horsepower to 302, a significant boost. Would-be buyers looking for an alternative to the Subaru Forester, which comes standard with all-wheel drive, will have to wait for this version if they plan winter trips to Mammoth or Tahoe.
Road handling is secure, though not at speeds that tempt attention from the police. My blast along Grizzly Peak Boulevard — the well-paved, tight-curved two-lane road strung through the high hills over Oakland and Berkeley — tested its limits. This is no Golf GTI. But neither are its competitors. I'm looking forward to the all-wheel-drive version.
But neither is the ride harsh. The mainstream has shown it won't trade harshness for rail-like road handling.
The seats are comfy. There's plenty of room, especially important in the back seat, where the electric drive allows plenty more leg space than a gasoline drivetrain would allow. Two adults or three children would fit quite comfortably.
The storage pouches on the back of the front seats are designed to secure a smartphone while keeping its screen visible, which both parents and kids will appreciate. There's a glass roof that stretches from the front seats back beyond the rear headrests, offering a beautiful view of the treetops and the sky. The instrument cluster isn't embedded in the dashboard but mounted closer to the driver so the screen isn't obstructed by the steering wheel.
The shifter is a hand-grip-sized toggle that twists into drive, neutral and reverse, plus a regenerative braking mode. The regen mode allows one-pedal driving most of the time and serves to add mileage to the battery.
My test car was a not-quite-production-ready early version, and I was told the infotainment system had yet to be fully loaded with with customer-ready software. VW has had software problems with its Europe-based ID.3 and must ensure those aren't repeated with the ID.4 launch.
All ID.4s come standard with adaptive cruise control and lane keeping.
My car had black seat belts. So what, you say, so do mine. Well, some EV makers are trying to make their cars shout "I'm an EV" with light blue or yellow belts, attractive in a cartoonish way. But those are bound to pick up dirt, spilled coffee and food from kids' hands, and look grungy over time.
Black seat belts: mainstream.