first impressions

In mid-2020, we blithely put in a reservation for an electric vehicle, thinking it would mainly be a goof – we had no room in our garage for it, we didn’t actually need more than one car, and we were in the midst of a global pandemic and were working from home anyway. And then we ended up moving, and to a place without transit, and there’s going to be a time when we need two reliable cars again. And so, last Wednesday, we scrambled to do a deal and take possession of the new ride. And thus was my wife’s 22 year old Jetta replaced with a brand new ID.4 AWD Pro S.

The dynamic of an electric car is very different. Set aside the mechanics of an electric motor – you make a normal start off the line from a stop sign and one second later you’re doing 40 in a 25 and still accelerating, and you have to get used to that – the dynamics of how the car functions will blow your mind. There’s no ignition, just an on-off switch, and even that is superfluous. The car unlocks when you walk up to it and starts itself when you sit in the drivers’ seat and put your foot on the brake – walk up, get in, go. There is no gear shift where I’ve rested my hand since 1993; a knob above where your right hand holds the wheel will switch you from neutral to drive to reverse, and instead of shifting into park, you stop and press a button which puts it in park and sets the parking brake all at once. The display shows your speed, your remaining charge, your nav directions if set, and your road surroundings – what’s the speed limit, what sides can you pass on, how close are you following. No odometer. No trip odometer. No tachometer. No oil pressure or engine temperature. Basically, what you are driving is a well-appointed electric golf cart that was 295 brake horsepower, which is within a rounding error of my late father’s 1969 Corvette Stingray.

There’s a lot to relearn in the dark when you leave the dealership in a car like this. Not just where the turn signals or the windshield wipers are, but what the haptic-touch buttons on the wheel do and where the controls are buried in the 12-inch touchscreen UI on the dashboard. The mechanical controls are the pedals, the wheel, the turn signal, the wipers, two buttons for four power windows and the seat controls. Everything else is either a haptic button or a touchscreen control. Muscle memory avails you nothing here; you’re meant to tell the car what to do with “Hello ID” and it can’t necessarily do it all. (The lack of tangible controls for climate control will be a pain in the ass sooner than later, especially when all you want is the fan blowing and not “get me to this set temperature on this side of the car”.) On the other hand, it does mean fewer mechanical switches to wear out and break. On the third hand, Volkswagen is not exactly famous for its robust and reliable electrical systems. On the fourth hand…it’s an electric car. Either they haven’t figured out the electronics and it’ll be towed back to the dealer in 500 miles or it’s going to be all right soon as you learn it.

There are nifty touches. All the modern bells and whistles, like a fairly aggressive lane assist that will make sure you don’t drift on curves (and will supposedly slow you gradually to a stop if it thinks you fell asleep or had a heart attack) or wireless phone charging and wireless CarPlay (which, combined with the interior club lighting and the fact that CarPlay continues until you climb out and thereby power the car off, increases the odds that you’ll inadvertently park with the Village People blasting and look like you’re stepping out of Heaven on the Charing Cross Road rather than a compact SUV). The glass roof doesn’t retract, but the shade does with a finger swipe and it’s a panoramic view the length of the whole vehicle. The bottom is almost completely flat, with no transmission or emissions elements to catch anything, and coupled with six and a half inches of ground clearance gives the real and imagined advantages of some height (not inconsiderable in a world where the luxury-station-wagon-with-a-lift-kit has become the default vehicle of Silly Con Valley, whether it’s a Tesla Y or a Mercedes G-class). 

Which leads to this: there’s a certain appeal to pushing what Volkswagen is sotto voce promoting as “the people’s EV.” Not the people’s car; you can’t be the people’s car at $40K even after federal tax breaks. But this is about the cheapest way into a compact electric crossover – I don’t know if the Bolt EUV is out (and if it is, whoever is in charge of promotions should be sacked forthwith), but even as loaded an ID.4 as this is will still save you $10K over an equivalent Tesla Y, with the added satisfaction of promoting electric driving without being a Muskmelon.

There’s one other issue: charging. There are plenty of places to charge in Silly Con Valley, some of them even gratis depending on day and time, but so far, level 2 charging is not as easy as “roll up, plug in, fill ‘er up” – instead, you have to specify how much charge you want and in what amount of time, and the app will balk and tell you that it takes longer, and you’ll have to keep tweaking back and forth until you can get what you want, and then you have to start all over again because it’s estimating a cost greater than what you have in the app wallet, and then once you have the money in the app wallet it quotes you a different rate than you thought, and and and. Plus you have to use the VW’s own app to release the charge cord when you’re ready to call it quits. It’s going to take some getting used to; the car, like the phone, is going to be something you charge overnight when it’s down to 25% rather than something you’re likely to top up at every stop. (I did use the Level 1 portable charger that came with the car to try topping up overnight and got it from 70% to 85%, which suggests that I could charge it from 20% to 95% in about five days. Mixed bag. Maybe if we drive to Tahoe and leave it plugged in outside the cabin the whole time, who knows?)

But here’s the thing: this feels like the car of the future. I got my Monte Carlo with its mechanical radio dial just as digital tuning became a thing and the world started moving to fuel injection. I got my Saturn with its cassette deck as CDs and sunroofs became cheaper. I got the VW Rabbit with its quirky I-5 engine just as navigation screens and hybrid drive trains began to proliferate. The Malibu was the first car of my life that didn’t feel like it was obsolete six months after it rolled off the lot. But this…this is a Great Leap Forward. With the soft teal glow inside (adjustable across the spectrum depending on mood!) and the automatic wireless pickup of BBC Sounds or Apple Music or SomaFM (we’re going to try this one without paying for a second satellite radio) and the destination outlined on Apple Maps on a dashboard display the size of an iPad and the full moon through the glass roof and the eerie electronic whine that’s legally required under 20mph to warn others of a vehicle, it feels for all the world like the dream of a 1979 My Weekly Reader come to life. Unlike the last time I moved into this address, this time I got a new VW within four months. 

Now we see what life in the future is like.

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