The Mobilist
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The Mobilist

VW’s New Electric SUV Misses a Key Feature That Buyers Will Want — Good Looks

The message for the industry is that people won’t buy EVs just because they exist

Photo: Jens Schlueter/Getty

Since Dieselgate in 2015, it’s been plain that Volkswagen would pivot sharply away from combustion and rebrand itself as the world’s premier electric car company. For the last year, it’s made that more or less official, claiming that it will overtake industry titan Tesla in 2025, and continue its ascent from there. Based on such talk, Wall Street has driven up VW’s shares by 54% this year.

On the ground, meanwhile, VW has begun to put its first EVs on the market. In the U.S., its initial product is the ID.4 crossover SUV, which I drove for a half hour when it was introduced in March. Over the last week, VW lent me another one for a more leisurely turn at the wheel. Here is my quick take: It’s solid, fast and quiet, with a tight turning radius. A stream of blue lights crosses the dash to tell you how to turn. There is a cool SOS button in case you’re in trouble.

But the ID.4 screams — nothing. And that’s a problem: The ID.4 does not shout out to be bought, but instead, “I am utilitarian.”

If you are an automaker, an EV investor, or a battery researcher, here is why this matters: Tens of billions of dollars are being sunk to establish a mobility challenge to combustion. Forecasts are that this spending spree will lead to EV sales overtaking gasoline propulsion in the next decade. In terms of whether these projections are valid, not necessarily, unless you’re thinking of places where people are forced to buy electric by combustion bans or other edicts. But in places like the U.S., which is unlikely to impose a national EV ownership mandate, electrics need not just exist, but be desirable. If you want people to switch from something to which they have been accustomed their entire lives, to something different, you really need to make an effort. Viral things — the iPhone is the current archetype — scream to be snapped up. The dowdy, undistinguished ID.4, has nice wheels but otherwise, conversely, pleads to be ignored.

It’s not just the ID.4’s looks. Operationally, the car is a mess. All the current EVs seem to have abandoned gauges and sliding controls, and replaced them with the cockpit feel of a computer screen. But the ID.4’s computer is not intuitive. I struggled to figure out how to navigate using the maps system, to adjust the air conditioning. I never found the back window defroster, if there is one. After a week, neither my wife nor I figured out how to change the radio station. One evening, my younger daughter told me the car’s lights were on. That was strange — the headlights on our own van are programmed to turn off automatically. Not apparently the ID.4’s.

Last evening, I decided to charge up the car a bit since I hadn’t experienced that, and because I wanted to leave some juice for the VW person who was picking up the car today. There is a downloadable app to find a charging station. My daughter downloaded it on her iPhone. Even so, we did not find a charging map.

We went out to the car and, after some fuss, find the charging map on the ID.4 computer screen. The map leads us to a Giant supermarket 2.7 miles away. We do not find a VW Electrify America station there, but there was an EVGo. Perhaps that’s what the map meant. Wonderfully, it was completely empty. I parked and set out to charge up.

There were two cables, one of which fit the car’s charging unit. I got out my credit card — but I discovered on the pump screen they are not accepted. Instead, either you download the EVGo app, allowing for payment, or you have a special EVGo card. At this stage, I decide to leave and go home with what I have, but the nozzle (I know it’s not in fact a nozzle) is now stuck. I yank and yank, but it won’t come out of the car. A red light goes on. My daughter reads from the pump (I also realize it’s not a pump): Do not try to remove the nozzle while the red light is on.

A phone number is displayed on the pump. I call it. An EVGo helpdesk person checks the manuals. She initially cannot get the nozzle removed either. Finally, she finds a sentence suggesting locking and unlocking the car. I did so, and it worked — I got the nozzle out.

At this stage, I had been at the charging station for 30 minutes. The exceedingly patient EVGo associate asks if I still want to charge, and said I could dictate my credit card number to her. “Why not,” I thought. We go through a couple of tries, including the nozzle getting stuck again, but finally the charging starts. Hallelujah.

For me, it’s an experiment — I don’t need anywhere near a full charge. So I charge for exactly 10 minutes, which gets the range from 77 miles of driving to 104, or 33% of the battery. The cost was $7.37. After 45 minutes in all, we are on our way.

When I was back, I watched some videos by Sandy Munro, the industry consultant, who had a similar experience with the ID.4 computer screen. He also called it non-intuitive. About the car, he said, “It’s not something I would ever buy.”

He concluded, “Tesla has no worries.” Which, if you are not Tesla, is what the problem is.

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