► VW's first bespoke EV is put under CAR's microscope
► Golf-sized hatchback with promising tech and long range
► Deliveries started in second half of 2020 after delays
“It’s a bit… appliancy,” said one colleague after punting the new electric Volkswagen ID.3 about for a bit. Precisely the kind of phrase that Volkswagen – which has just spent millions developing the bespoke new MEB electric vehicle platform the ID.3 sits on – won’t want to hear. Consequently, two questions immediately spring to mind: is he right, and does it matter?
Welcome to the future of VW. It’s the same, but also very different.
Best electric cars 2021
For reasons we don’t need to labour, Volkswagen's ID.3 is step-change for the company. VW is very publicly referring to it as a new ‘third chapter’ in the history of the brand, placing its significance on a par with the Beetle and Golf – the ID.3 being equivalent in size to the latter but no longer burdened with any kind of internal combustion.
Volkswagen's electric plan revealed
This isn’t just a single electric car, this is a whole new family of electric vehicles all marketed as part of the ID sub-brand, but it goes even further than that. The ID.3 underlines its environmental evangelicalism with a carbon-neutral production process at a factory that relies entirely on renewable sources of energy.
That’s a lot of boxes already ticked. But is it really time to burn those Golf badges? (Obviously don’t actually burn them – that would likely create toxic smoke or something).
So it’s like a Golf, but it's not a Golf?
Advertising slogans, and when they come back to haunt you, eh? But yes, the ID.3 is slightly wider, slightly taller but not quite as long as the latest version of VW’s sector-defining hatchback, and does basically the same job.
Testing one painted black, albeit a gussied-up 1st Edition with the funky silver roof graphics and light-up grille, it seems to glide past other road-users eyeballs without causing any friction. It might be another story with the signature turquoise hue, but from a VW design perspective that’s probably job done – the ID.3 fits in seamlessly.
And yet this is actually quite a different looking car. The details are sleeker, it has the – presumably very aero efficient – profile of a slightly squashed BMW i3, and there are neat touches that will catch the attention of innocent bystanders over time, such the little dance the LED lights perform when you unlock it.
Things get far more overtly futuristic when you climb inside, but in typical VW fashion this has been nicely judged and comes across more Apple than Star Trek, making it seem interesting rather than intimidating.
Is the interior really that much of a departure?
Obviously, the Golf 8 has already gone touchscreen heavy. But getting into the ID.3 and adjusting the steering column to then discover the compact digital panel that does service as the instrument cluster moves with it rather than being fixed to the dashboard, may find you immediately beginning to think this is sci-fi future of personal transport Hollywood has been promising us for years.
Other cars have done this moving cluster trick, of course. But not in such a minimalist fashion, and not with the gear selector attached to said cluster as a chunky nodule on the side. What’s more, like a Tesla, you never have to actually do anything to start the ID.3 – as soon as you sit in the driver’s seat the infotainment comes to life and the novel ID Light that spans the width of the lower windscreen illuminates itself in greeting.
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Seat belt on, all you have to do next is twist the gear protrusion (presumably trying to ignore the slightly poor fit of the plastic if you’ve actually bought the car) to engage drive, and off you jolly well go. There’s no handbrake of any description, just a button for Park that sorts everything out for you.
When you arrive at your destination – probably much more quickly than you were expecting – you hit this and get out. The ID.3 switches itself off when you exit the seat, and you walk away; if you’ve coughed-up for the full keyless package you won’t even have to lock it. Somehow it feels less like a car than a service, but I don’t mean that in a bad way.
Perhaps more importantly, the ID.3 is seriously spacious inside. The lengthy wheelbase, cab-forward windscreen and higher roofline makes for lots of leg and head room, while the 385-litre boot is five litres bigger than a Golf’s, despite having an electric motor attached to the rear axle under there somewhere.
The seating position is a little raised up, and so too is the floor – but since this is due to the battery pack beneath you don’t notice this too much in the corners, as the centre of gravity is that much lower than ‘normal’ for the same reasons.
So you like it?
Elsewhere the interior design is bold but minimal – big slabs of soft-touch colour on the door panels and dash, a central 10.0-inch screen that’s angled towards the driver and has inhaled most of the secondary controls. It hits all the right emotional buttons for me as a fresh yet functional piece of visual theatre, but upon pressing some of the few in-car buttons that remain you may find the depth of quality perception turns out to be an illusion, like stabbing a mirror with a finger only to discover it was stilled water.
There is lag here, aplenty. Whether this relates to the software problems that delayed its introduction or some other disruption between ambition and application, the (inevitably) touch-sensitive surfaces that do button duty in the ID.3 just don’t ever respond with conviction. You’ll find yourself accidentally turning things back off again because you pressed the ‘button’ twice, thinking it hadn’t registered the first time.
The central touchscreen takes only a modest amount of figuring out, fortunately. This has some clever shortcuts for ventilation options, and makes a substantial amount of customisation available to the driver. But the “Hello ID” voice control isn’t overly impressive thus far, being apparently immune to obvious things like post codes.
Some of the ergonomics are weird, too. The lighting panel is an uncomfortable stretch away, the controls on the steering wheel are verging on nasty, and there are no separate controls for the rear electric windows in the front. Instead, a switch behind allows the front controls to operate the rears. I’d gladly trade the Play and Pause symbols on the metal pedal surfaces for a little more tangible quality here. And that’s without starting on the hard plastics that are present in various places.
Electric tech is still expensive, I get it. But the 1st Edition is a £40k car, and parts of the interior struggle to make sense of this.
Fortunately, the ID.3 wins back point lost with the driving experience.
Is it good to drive, then?
Having said be gone to front and rear overhangs and attached a 201bhp electric motor to the rear axle, giving the car 50:50 weight distribution and freeing up the front wheels to concentrate on steering, Volkswagen has created an electric car that’s a lot more entertaining than you’d expect for something that’s essentially a family runabout.
Harsh critics will probably bemoan that it’s not deeply involving – the steering, while convincingly weighted, is a little numb, as if it’s been experimenting with Novocain. But in this spec with the 58kWh battery this is a fast, compact car that is happy to get stuck into a set of corners.
The 7.3sec 0-62mph time doesn’t really do the acceleration justice. It’s not ludicrously quick like a Tesla, but it deploys the 229lb ft instantly available with an insistent shove that for some reason puts me in mind of a speeding freight train forcing its way through a giant marshmallow. Traction is excellent, even in greasy conditions.
There’s no sudden impact of walloping thrust here, but a sort of relentless on-rushing that, in combination with a single speed transmission that never needs to pause to take breath, means you sometimes get the shock of your life when you glance down at the digital speedo and clock how fast you’re actually going. Thank goodness it’s electronically limited to 99mph.
It rides remarkably well, too, especially for something wearing 19-inch boots, only occasionally clattering into particularly bad surface intrusions. Weighing upwards of 1,700kg probably helps smooth things out, a heft you can feel in the lateral chop that emerges during harder cornering. Yet there is an underlying pliancy here, and despite the numbness, the steering is deft, with a lightness of touch that belies that Heffalump status (which to be fair, isn’t too bad for an EV).
The performance is, I think, where the appliance-like accusations spring from. Forgive me, physicists who might know better, but one electric motor is much like another – which means any vehicle of this type is fundamentally absent the opportunity for character that variations between internal combustion engines automatically achieve.
Add that to the lack of any kind of gearbox and the startlingly capable speed, and not only do you end up with a problem making one electric car’s driving experience stand out from another’s, you also end up with an experience that feels almost too efficient.
Personally, I think Volkswagen has delivered a really likeable package here, and at the moment electric propulsion is still enough of a novelty that for many the ID.3’s driving experience will feel totally revolutionary – and really, it does handle undulating British B-roads very well.
As such, that efficiency seems like modernity and progress to me, and if this is the next chapter of the automobile in general, I’m inclined to embrace it with open arms rather than complain.
How have we got this far without talking about the driving range?
Because we’re fast approaching the point at which it doesn’t matter. Given the pace of electric vehicle development, it will come as absolutely no surprise that the ID.3 knocks the spots off equivalent rivals when it comes to official driving range – and at its best is only five miles shy of matching the Tesla Model 3.
While only a single 201bhp motor output will be offered at first, buyers can choose between 58kWh and 77kWh battery packs, promising 260 miles or 340 mile per charge. Those are WLTP figures, which should be reasonably realistic.
And even if our 58kWh test car never thought it was likely to see more than about 190 miles in practice whenever it completed a top-up, once out on the road not even a seriously sustained amount of committed cross-country driving generated the slightest twitch of range anxiety. The miles fall steadily, not in terrifying chunks.
Besides, with up to 100kW charging capability, the ID.3 can potentially add 200 miles of range in 30 minutes. The kind of wallbox you’re likely to have at home will need somewhat longer than that, but if you’re thinking about owning an EV you’d better be thinking of routinely charging it overnight anyway.
There are no regular journeys that I do that I don’t think the ID.3 could cope with – and my daughter has grandparents at opposite ends of the country. The future is now, people.
Volkswagen ID.3 verdict
You’ve got to get over the cost of the 1st Edition and the quality of some of the interior components. But if you can do that and you’re not a negative nelly about the interior design or the way the steering doesn’t chatter like a Lotus, then the Volkswagen ID.3 is a car that will appeal to nearly everybody.
It is good to drive, ridiculously fast for something that isn’t supposed to be a performance car, so roomy inside and just brilliantly modern in a very satisfying, wholesome way. In other words, it is everything VW’s first purpose-built electric car needed to be. I’d buy one.